When I was a kid, our sukkah was made of heavy flats of hardwood. (They took up a lot of real estate in our commodious Rhode Island basement during the off-season.) We drew holiday-themed pictures with Magic Markers directly on the wooden walls—even though this was a totally mom-sanctioned activity, tagging the side of a house, even a temporary one, still felt like an illicit thrill. Every year my dad disappeared into the wilds of Seekonk, Massachusetts, with a power saw and came back with s’chach for the roof. (From where, exactly? We don’t know. It was the arboreal equivalent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
The sukkah my own kids are growing up with is a lot more prefab. It was ordered on the internet. It has taut fabric walls and a boring rolled bamboo roof. (We’re actually on Prefab Sukkah 2.0, because this summer, my husband and a welder friend turned the original sukkah’s metal frame into an electric cheese art car for Burning Man. Just don’t ask.)
In part because our current sukkah is so bland and soulless, I want the kids to decorate it as quirkily and personally as possible. The popcorn chains of my childhood won’t play here in NYC, what with our vile pigeons and aggressive vermin. And given our family’s current underemployment situation, we wanted to decorate as cheaply as possible, this recession year in particular.
So I gave the kids $25 and let them loose in the dollar store. Since Sukkot coincides with Halloween, it turned out to be a good time to shop: the first thing the kids gravitated to was a giant glittery skull. Hey, why not? Call it a metaphor for the end of the growing season or the fragility of temporary shelter. We also picked up strips of purple sequined trim, loads of gold ribbon, and strands of gold and silver Mardi Gras beads. (If there were a drag-queen sukkah challenge on Project Runway, we would totally win.) Cheap! Festive! And because of the aforementioned Halloween tie-in, I agreed to bribe my young decorators with candy corn.
In the past I’ve simply had the girls draw pictures of booths and harvests and fruits and veggies, and we’ve painted gourds and hung them up, but this year I wanted to do some more involved work. I looked at the internet for some DIY ideas. And my naivete was crushed like a sheaf of wheat in a thresher. Have you looked at these crafty mommy blogger web sites? You need a Ph.D. in crafting to do these projects! I cannot sew. I do not own an X-acto knife. Who are these women?! Who are the tiny children who with the motor skills to do these terrifyingly ornate papier-mache sculptures? I imagine hyper-committed mothers grimly ironing the Hebrew alphabet in fusible beads while their children sneak into other people’s houses to watch television.
I am lazy. I picked the easiest projects I could find. We wrapped rolls of toilet paper in orange fabric and stuck a rolled up piece of brown construction paper in the hole: pumpkins! Le voila! We cut apples and pears in half and made fruit prints on paper. Josie made long chains of paper clips using colorful striped clips I got at Staples a decade ago. Maxine helped me roll up little balls of white tissue paper and glue them to a bare branch we liberated from a tree in our building’s garden (I considered this a tribute to my dad, olav hashalom) and presto—a minimalist Japanese-y pussy willow. At the dollar store, I’d gotten a roll of adding machine paper (99 cents!) on which the girls drew Sukkot messages in Magic Marker. (Maxine painstakingly wrote W-A-L-C-O-M-T-O-O-U-R-S-U-K, until she ran out of steam. She also wrote the entire thing backwards. Well, at least she didn’t write R-E-D-R-U-M.) We made tissue paper flowers and plunked them into an empty can of jumbo olives (my kids’ favorite snack food—they put an olive on each digit and chase each other around the house calling, “Ollie Fingers!” in creepy voices, then eat)—the label is awesome. I felt triumphant … until I looked for an image of the olive-can label for this column and saw that a way more accomplished crafty mommy blogger had gone that extra mile and steamed it off the can, applied glitter and turned it into a cigar-box purse. My own work suddenly looked very perky group-home day-program.
All us parents wind up remaking holidays in our own image. They won’t be exactly like the ones we grew up with—and we wind up missing our own childhood rituals and perhaps no-longer-with-us moms and dads—but we do the best we can with the tools we’ve got.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.