In Lisa Schumaier's world, mid-September always has meant--how would Martha Stewart put this? she jokes--that autumn and gobblers beckon; that, happily, she could begin thinking about her Halloween party and, simultaneously, what junk in her cramped basement she'd be passing off to her guests as prizes for the party's best and worst carved pumpkins.
Bamboo chopsticks? Gag eyeballs? During the 1995 event, she had to remind her husband, who was carving away determinedly on his pumpkin, about a vital purpose of their party: "Sweetie, we don't want to win. We're trying to get rid of this junk, remember?"
Now, as then, Schumaier lives in a little row house in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, on a street dotted with modest homes, in a neighborhood where neighbors actually know each other--where summer block parties are common, where Lisa Schumaier's pumpkin-carving event is an annual celebration, and where many of her neighbors, along with her closest friends, rose up to help her when she could no longer remember how to laugh.
It happened three years ago, in mid-September 1996, just two days before their fourth wedding anniversary, in fact. Lisa Schumaier kissed her husband goodbye on a morning like any other. Only, this day he went off to a carpentry job and, a few hours later, hanged himself.
"And then everything went black for a long while," says Lisa's mother, Dee.
That dark autumn, a time when Lisa could not bring herself so much as to drive a car and when "just to get dressed was a good thing," Halloween helped her take her first tentative steps back. Standing outside her parents' home on South Lee Street in Old Town, she passed out candy to the trick-or-treaters--the first time, aside from work, that she'd been out in public in weeks. "It was kids, candy, smiles. It was a start for me," she remembers.
Now, on a Saturday night three years later, she's gathered her friends again in her slender row house, the one with the arch of ivy above the porch festooned with holiday lights ("Not Christmas lights," she insists, "just party lights."). Some neighbors would prefer that she call her home a "town house," as that sounds '90s and upscale-Alexandria. But Schumaier, unflinching as always, cannot help describing things as they are. "It's a row house," she says. "They're all row houses around here. I like them, the way they make it necessary for people to see each other."
In her denim overalls and sandals, she still looks, at age 39, like a blond '70s child, a bit of Earth Mother clinging to her. A manager at a children's store on King Street, she spends her off hours as an artist whose works include sculptures woven in part with dryer lint and the hair of her bearded collie, Fern. "Martha Stewart I'm not," she says.
For her pumpkin-carving ritual, a large crowd has pressed into Schumaier's tiny basement, a cluttered and musty room that is to junk what the National Archives is to priceless manuscripts. Among the castoffs in the cellar: an incongruous bottle of toilet water, a broken fan and a Partridge Family board game.
"This competition," Schumaier explains, "is basically an excuse to get rid of a lot of my crap by calling the stuff a prize. And to vacuum. And to have my friends and their children over."
Much of this crowd she has known, amazingly, most of her life--old friends from T.C. Williams High School and Radford University who somehow have managed to stay close at a time when, increasingly, people have difficulty remembering acquaintances from the last year, the last move. "It's a close-knit place around here," says Jenni Adams, who works with Schumaier at the children's shop. "People come home from work and go outside to see how everybody is doing. . . . Lisa is always in the middle of it."
She has been throwing her pumpkin-carving parties since 1986, a carry-over from her own Old Town childhood, growing up in a family where Halloween was relished the way others await Christmas. The Schumaiers--Dee, Peter and their three daughters--would carve their elaborate pumpkins in secret, then unveil them to one another at the last minute, debating the je ne sais quoi qualities of each.
"It was just a day of complete fun," she gleefully remembers. "No expectations, no real presents, no problems--just fun, weird stuff, like now."
The weird stuff at this year's party begins with the prizes, which include a scarred bowling pin of unknown origin, a pop-up sponge and something called a Rat Bag, a repulsive rodent puppet with a sadistic vermin grin and a tiny abdominal pouch where, say, your loose change could be stored, as if you'd want to put anything in there.
Alit by candles in their hollowed cores, the finished pumpkins--from an earnest Felix the Cat to a stenciled Howling Wolf--are lined up on miniature bleachers in Schumaier's garden, where they soulfully stare out at the judges drinking beer under an ugly crystal chandelier hanging from a high tree limb.
At last, the judges are ready: The top award in the Most Disgusting category goes to the aptly named Vomit Projectile Pumpkin, a pulp- and seed-spewing gourd carved by Schumaier's mother, who is rewarded with an unopened bar of gift soap that her daughter feels fortunate to palm off.
The bowling pin and the Rat Bag are awarded next, also out of her hands for good. Soon all the prizes have been handed out, but there's still enough junk left for a millennium of parties. "That's the idea," Schumaier says. "We need an excuse for the next one."
The revelers linger, and a quiet Schumaier looks out through the pumpkins onto her street, her little slice of row house paradise. It is another Halloween week in a lifetime of Alexandria Halloweens that have brought her, by turns, candy, laughs, tears, renewal, friends. "I think people should understand that there're still communities like this left," she says. "You just have to want to step out your door and see."
CAPTION: Judges look over the entries in this year's pumpkin carving contest at Lisa Schumaier's house. The party has children and adults vying for gag prizes.
CAPTION: Lisa Schumaier watches some of the children, while friends and family members carve away for top honors at the pumpkin party.
CAPTION: Jenni Adams, who works with Lisa Schumaier, talks with Dom Frinzi as they carve pumpkins during the party at Schumaier's home in Alexandria.