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Rochelle Gardner poses with some of her creepy decorations outside of her Stafford home. Each year Gardner decorates her house in honor of her late son, Matthew Lucas.
Rochelle Gardner decorates her Stafford yard every year for Halloween with inflatables, lights and scary, ghoulish creatures.
FOR a dozen years, Rochelle Gardner had worked at bringing throngs of visitors to her Stafford County home at Halloween, Christmas and Easter.
Her severely handicapped son, Matthew, couldn't go out trick-or-treating at Halloween or caroling at Christmas.
So Gardner decorated her yard and home at 130 Cranes Corner Road to bring the world to him, using lights, music, dozens of homemade and blow-up figures to keep a steady stream of motorists coming at the holidays.
It was a joy the mother and son shared, he delighting in the lights and sights of so many visitors, she dressing in costumes to scare Halloween visitors and delight Santa fans at Christmas.
But when Matthew died in 2007, it hit Gardner hard, and the word slowly got out that her days of holiday decorating were over.
"That's when they started coming: the letters tucked in our mailbox," she said. "The ones from the kids, some in crayon, were the ones that really got to me, saying things like 'Please come back, Santa!' and 'I'll be good if you bring Christmas back!'"
Older regulars and those with handicapped children stressed how much they had appreciated years of being able to easily see big Halloween and Christmas displays--Gardner's setup around a circular drive made it accessible to all by car.
"Those notes and that support gave me the spirit to keep going," said the woman who loves the holidays like few others. "And we still do it in honor of Matthew."
Because of her unique caring for all who visit, the interesting displays she erects at the holidays and the hard work that goes into all the decorating, Gardner is singled out as this year's Fun and Fascinating Halloween House.
The same prize-winning honor applies to her Christmas display, which for years has been in this column's list of best-decorated homes.
I visited with Gardner earlier this week to find out what drives her to spend a week putting up Halloween decorations and two weeks to erect her Christmas displays, with a slightly smaller effort at Easter.
Sure, she gets support from husband Steven, but the career Army sergeant has a job that often makes it hard for him to be there for the long days of set-up.
In her orange Halloween shirt, with ghostly special music spilling out of the eight speakers in the yard, it was clear that Gardner has never lost the childlike joy for the holiday seasons.
She gave me a tour of the Halloween yard display that includes dozens of ghouls, ghosts, monsters, spiders, skeletons, rats, pirates, body bags, a graveyard and more.
Some are blow-ups she bought at yard sales or at auctions. Others are things she made: her hammock became the monster from the "Jeepers Creepers" movie; pieces of wood or boards became monsters in "Scream Acres" and a Frankenstein in her living room window.
If you visit when the lights and sounds are on from dusk to 10 p.m., keep your eyes peeled.
She'll hold still for a while, but eventually might pop out to scare you in costume as a witch, a vampire, a scarecrow or a goblin.
She tears up with laughter remembering a little boy who was being a bit cross with his mother on a visit, and reached out to grab a rat positioned under her pose as a witch.
"I reached out with both hands and screamed 'Rahhhh!' at him," she said, noting that he froze and quickly lost all his, um, attitude.
Another time she spotted a car full of teens, one a boy who kept identifying displays as either cool or fake.
When he got to Gardner in disguise as a goblin, he dubbed her a fake, only to be completely scared when she jumped and screamed.
"I don't scare the youngsters, and will take off my mask," said Gardner, noting that she'll steer them to the more benign displays and blow-ups.
Unfortunately, there's some downsides to the displays.
In recent years, vandalism has been a problem, with visitors stealing banners announcing the display, as well as taking things from her yard--including a baby Jesus--and damaging blow-ups.
Costs have also risen, her electric bill runs an extra $150 or so for Halloween and nearly $230 more for Christmas.
She welcomes donations to help with the electric bills, and to help cover the cost of costumes that at Christmas have Santa, Rudolph, elves and Frosty the Snowman on hand on Christmas Eve to give out candy canes.
Her own physical problems mean set-ups take a little longer, and she's sworn off going up on the roof to install lights.
But she still gets excited each night when people pull into her driveway to see the display she's built.
And the angelic statue honoring her son looks on from its spot on the circular driveway.
"At Christmas, it becomes part of the Nativity scene," she added. "He's still part of the celebration."
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415
The Gardners' highly decorated house is at 130 Cranes Corner Road. You reach the home by turning at the traffic light on U.S. 1 that has Cranes Corner Road on one side and Enon Road, State Route 627, the road to Stafford High School, on the other.