One Perfect Day at the State Fair

“I wanted the music to play on forever. Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clowns to be constantly clever. Have I stayed too long at the fair?”

The Minnesota State Fair, courtesy of Minnesotafarmguide.jpg

The Minnesota State Fair, courtesy of Minnesotafarmguide.jpg

Every now and then a perfect day comes along in a person’s life. I’ve had a few of those, I’m happy to say, but one seems to stand out more than others. Perhaps it was due to the spirit of hopefulness, the time of the season, the natural and playful elements all aligned and in-harmony, or maybe it was because of our new beginning after but another of life’s struggles. We were at the fair, crafted in a fairy-tale kind of American spirit: lights, balloons, streamers, music, with carnival food wafting through the air, and we were in-love. I’m sure that was an essential part of the moment.

“My state fair is the best state fair…’ was the featured song on my internal soundtrack, as my husband and I strolled through the archway of the Minnesota State Fair one rainy day in 1989. The soft summer showers made for a light crowd, punctuated by black umbrellas and yellow slickers, people rushing to take cover in sudden downpours and relaxed in the intermittent rainbows when the rain would cease. The lack of patrons created an easy walk along the midway and into the barns, with no long lines for funnel cakes or in the way of the beeline to the bathroom. With a baby in the stroller and no particular agenda in mind, the light crowd and gentle rain set the scene for ease and immersion into the carnival scene. We couldn’t have been happier.

Married only two years, our little girl not yet independent and demanding; tension was low, neediness was light, everything seemed magical and care-free. We had just moved out to our small farm west of Minneapolis, so our interests in blue ribbon preserves, small farm animals, sheep and wool products, and farming equipment was genuine and passionate; it drove us with eagerness to each of the barns in wonderment and a sense of ownership. Both from different neighboring state, this was now OUR state, our fair, our farm life and family, and we felt like we belonged.

Not unlike others who have gone off to a state fair, I’m sure, who experienced the same kind of thrill and amusement with the unique aromas and offerings that only a state fair can offer, yet this time is was different. Love was still a fresh new second chance, our baby an unexpected blessing, and my dream of living in rural American on Laura Ingalls’ prairie was literally on our doorstep. We seemed to be in want for nothing and awash with gratitude.

I recall the simple joy of picking out our favorite flavors from the rows of carnival colored, salt-water taffy, watching our daughter play with the fuzzy baby chicks and her talking endlessly in her Minnie Mouse voice, as she was an early talker and was in full sentences before the age of two. We sat at checkered-clothed tables with mouthfuls of amazement at the rich taste of Minnesota sweet corn smothered in butter that dripped down our chins, and joined in our little girl’s thrill at watching the massive hoofs of the work horses clump by, the shining brass of the band, and pom-pom glitz of the cheer leaders marching by in parade. These were simple things, joys we’ve all experienced at times in our lives, but on THIS day the joy seemed complete, unfettered by money questions, a fussy baby, or the tension of a love grown cold.

There is something illuminating about a rainy day, particularly in the north. The greens were rich, the whites glowing, the shadows sentimental in an old-fashion, tin-type way. The freshness of the moist rich soil, even the smell of animals, cowhide, and the leather from saddled horses seemed to penetrate my senses creating romantic illusions of a simpler time. There was even a strolling barbershop quartet singing the old vaudeville songs, which made me a bit teary-eyed thinking of my father hundreds of miles away. “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie; meet me at the fair…” I probably would have called him, if we had cell phones then, but we didn’t nor did we think to take pictures.

Walking up to the carousel, alive with music box melodies and prettily painted horses, I could almost hear Gordon McCrae singing his “Soliloquy’ from the 1956s musical ‘Carousel’ ….”My little girl, pink and white as peaches and cream can be….” And on the ride, the only one we rode, holding on to my agreeable baby as she looked around in wonder, I was deliriously happy, the swirling colors and lights creating a dream-like state of mind that I just didn’t want to wake from. That perfect day seemed to make up for all the hard-hearted parts of life, the disappointments and bad decisions; I felt like I had made it to my perfect world, I guess; all was good and promising.

We stayed the whole day, from the morning’s parade until the closing hours. Not one baby fit, no grouchy husband, no physical discomfort or conflicts; we were in the prime of our lives on the precipice of everything we both seemed to want. The fair seemed to capture and encapsulate our happiness.

As the night waned into closed exhibits and the empty grease vats of vendors closing up shop, big electrical lights and carnival rides began to shut off their high volts of electricity that gave them life, leaving only a sizzling hum lingering in the air. Along the quiet walk from the park even the night birds joyfully peeped and sang in the shadowy branches of the trees that lined the walkway. A clown happened by with a full load of colorful balloons. We wanted to buy one as we were walking out of the fair grounds, and taking our dollar, the painted smile of that gentle stranger handed us the whole bundle, saying they would just be thrown away anyway. Could we have had a more romantic ending to a perfect state fair day? We felt charmed and full of family love, strolling arm-in-arm through the almost empty parking lot through puddles with our giggling child, with at least two dozen balloons attached to her stroller.

I had a dream that night, long after the baby was deep in slumber from her no-nap day, my husband snoring contently as balloons floated around our farm house in the shadows. I dreamt that my daughter was lifted out of the stroller holding on to that bundle of balloons, and like Curious George she left us on the ground scrambling, powerless to help her, and screaming in agony and fear as she floated further and further away over the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. She was laughing with pure joy, her little fingers waving and Minnie Mouse voice calling, ‘Bye bye, mama,’ as I was sobbing in pure grief. I woke up screaming before she ever came back, and I spent the rest of the night looking at her sound asleep in her crib, the moon light shining upon her through the tips of the Norwegian Pines that stood guard around our house like soldiers of love. The emotional dread of that dream stuck with me just as much as the simple beauty of that perfect day, never really scarring it, but perhaps reminding me that, in time, everything changes and floats away even in joyful bliss.

One perfect day doesn’t a marriage make. We’ve had our share of heartbreak and sorrow, disappointments and hateful arguments. We had to sell the farm after a company lay-off and ended up moving to Texas on my daughter’s fourth birthday. It was a struggle and loss that left me a little angry and jaded for many years, as I had to settle for life in an urban suburb with the daily grind of traffic, demanding people, with so little of nature and the beauty of the four seasons to enrich our lives.

Though we enjoyed our share of country fairs in smaller towns over the years with our kids, year after year I saw the advertisement for the Texas State Fair with ‘Big Tex,’ a 55-foot-tall statue and icon of Texas overseeing the fair. And year after year I suggested we go, pack up the kids, get a room, and take the long drive from San Antonio to Dallas to relive, perhaps, the thrill of our once perfect day at the Minnesota State Fair.

My husband never wanted to go, and I guess I never had enough desire to push the issue. I knew the weather, for one thing, would not be nearly as pleasant; we’d be sweltering in the heat. The kids, all seven-years apart, would all want to go in their own directions, and we’d spend more time worried about where they were than enjoying the simple things we had years ago. Maybe subconsciously we didn’t want to ruin what already was, a perfect day at a state fair. In 2012, when the 60-year-old ‘Big Tex’ caught on fire and quickly burned to a crisp, I was, strangely saddened. I remember feeling like we missed our chance to enjoy the Texas State Fair when our kids were little. We lost out on seeing that little piece of history, too, and at feeling ‘young’ and hopeful again.

Life is a lot like a fair, don’t you think? In the iconic movie, ‘Parenthood,’ at the end of the film, the grandmother offered some wise advice through metaphor, suggesting that life is like a merry-go-round or a roller coaster, and we have the choice to ride and enjoy either, to make our lives as daring or as predictable as we want. I found that life is a little of both, some years are as constant and monotonous as a circle, spinning around-and-around with the same laughing horses, colors, and songs. There is safety and security in those moments. At other times, we willingly or not ride the roller coaster, feeling the thrill of the drop and climb, the fear of the unknown, and the anxiety of danger on the edge that makes us, in a weird sadistic way, feel more alive.

Traditional fair foods like cheese curds and corndogs, and the homespun goodness of farm-ladies’ quilts on display, the sexiness of white-shirted, rugged cowboys at the rodeo arena, the wholesome sweetness of FFA girls with their little lambs, the masquerade of clowns, the fixed games with the carnies that cheat you out of money, crowded midways, bright lights and long shadows on the dark path to the port-a-potties; all of the carnival scene mimics life. Wild rides or not, it can be a perfect life or one that falls flat with disappointments and a painfully silent drive home.

I read in the news that the newly constructed ‘Big Tex’ will once again grace the 2015 Texas State Fair this

The Texas State Fair

The Texas State Fair

week, which just happens to fall on our wedding anniversary. Maybe we’ll go… just the two of us. We’ll get a bag of salt water taffy, visit the barns and peruse the shelves of preserves and blue ribbon pies, and maybe even take a ride on the old familiar merry-go-round. I think we’ve had enough of the roller-coaster for one life. We’ll wax nostalgic for our lost farm and our babies who have floated away to big cities and other loves, and their own perfect days.

We may even reflect on that soft, rainy day 26 years ago at the Minnesota State Fair as we stroll along the sticky path ways and hide our sensitive, aging eyes from the blinding sun, and how we’ll always remember it. For it was a perfect day in every way; a delightful, sweet memory of our beginning as we celebrate 28 years of marriage, gray at the temples, sagging in all the once pretty parts, and tired from life’s twists and turns, but remarkably, like those carnies’ games of chance, still together along the midway of this carnival called Life.  Maybe we’ll even buy a couple of balloons for old-time sake.

The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
The music has stopped and the children must go now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?”

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Have I Got a Dish for You!

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Epaig ‘Stratford’ pre-1950s

People have addictions. It might just be that you overload on bowls of pasta while Netflix-binging on ‘Will and Grace’ every Saturday night, or that you secretly smoke cigarettes in the pantry between the shelves of canned pickles and paper towels, or worse inclinations that require serious help; mine (well one of them anyways) is purchasing dishes.

Dishes do something to me. I get mentally and emotionally elevated, dreamy and romantic; I get downright high. My eyes become fixated on the color and pattern. My fingers almost erotically find pleasure in the smooth curve of the plate or comfortable fit of the handle. If I am anywhere near dishes in a store, I find myself so distracted by a set, or maybe even one piece, that I can’t look at anything else. I circle back around, walk up and down that same aisle, and stalk any other shoppers who move toward the object of my desire. All the while, I’m imagining a million ways I could dress my table with these delicate obsessions or how they can be perched behind some other trinket in a vignette in my dining room.

I should be over this. I’m almost sixty years old, for goodness sakes, and everyone around me is reminding me that I should be giving away all my crap, that I should be down-sizing not adding more to my stockpile of stuff. I get that, and feel that, for the most part, but not when it comes to dishes. If time is good to me, I’ll have many more Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving Day meals to host as the grandchildren are making their arrivals. I don’t use paper or plastic plates so they’ll have to eat off of something, right?! I really want to ‘entertain’ again, like in the old days, with interesting people enjoying deep conversation and hardy, belly-filled laughs and teary-eyed toasts  across the comfortable ambiance of my candlelit tablescape. I still have plans that involve dishes, so I’m justified, right?

Blue Danube China

Blue Danube China

The problem is I don’t have any more space to store all these lovely, mostly vintage china pieces. The Inn is full. I know the obvious solution. It’s time to get rid of some of the others, but that’s the thing. The ‘others’ hold the memories that have graced my table for years and whisper of Sunday dinners and homespun conversations with our kids, every time they are placed on the table. They mean too much to me and besides, I hope that at some point my daughter, or daughter-in-laws, maybe my grown granddaughters may want to inherit them. Maybe. It’s hard to say these days, but it doesn’t seem to matter where they will go after I’m gone. I like having them NOW. Apparently, I’m a dish-whore or hoarder; I’m not sure which is worse. But, let’s just say it sweetly, I’m a lover of beautiful things, primarily dishes, some of which I must possess.

A couple of month ago I was spending the day with my daughter in a beautiful, quaint Texas Hill Country town, a place where charm and historic homes just seem to command, ‘You must buy something while you’re here!” I had braced myself for this, did a lot of self-talk on the road, and asked my daughter to ‘stop me’ if I got too caught-up in any dishes, “I simply don’t have any more room, Sweetie, so remind me of that when the time comes.” Much like a recovering alcoholic who isn’t ready to sit in a bar, it didn’t work. All the promises I made to myself went right out the door and across the gingerbread porch of the antique store we were in, as soon as I saw the perky pattern and colors that could be used in just about any season, hidden inside.

At first I saw a few orphaned plates of blue and white that called to me, but I was strong and just gave them a knowing sigh as I moved on. I chuckled at all the ‘antique’ dishes on display that were from MY time, MY youth; stuff my mom got at the Montgomery Wards and Sears & Roebucks. Are we antiques already? That’s just plain weird.

Then I saw my daughter off in another section staring dropped-jaw into a large glass, upright display case. Walking towards her, she waved me off, told me not to come her way, ‘Mom…just don’t!’ Too late, I was there, opposite her on the other side of the glass completely captivated, mesmerized, in love; I was a goner (as us antiques used to say).

Simple, yet elegant, with a dancing line of gold, orange, green, even pink flowers around the edges, held in by a metallic gold rim (something that has never before appealed to me); Epaig ‘Stratford,’ made in Czechoslovakia; it was like I found my long, lost love of the dish world. Youthful, yet pre-1950s vintage; playful, yet serious; light enough for Spring, warm enough for Autumn; a whole serving set on sale for only $100. Let’s be real, I could go to Target for toilet paper and end up spending twice that much on a bunch of nothing; why look away from this?!

We just stood there, my daughter and I, silently staring for quite some time, both knowing what the other was thinking, “I don’t have room. Dad’s going to kill you if you bring home another dish. You already have enough dishes to serve a small village. Don’t do it, mom. No, I can’t…” I walked away….several times…but I was drunk on the beauty of them, injected with the poison of mealtime pleasure, aglow on the anticipation of spreading a beautiful table, and weak-in-the-knee by the thought of hand washing them; I could feel their fragile strength warm and sleek in my soapy hands.

I bought them.

It was tough, on that hot Texas day, getting three huge boxes of individually wrapped dishes into a small car with a trunk the size of a bread box, but of course we did it…with a little swearing and a lot of sweat. I got home to an empty house, and painstakingly rushed them into the house alone (having to take them out of the boxes in small loads, since I couldn’t carry the weight of the boxes), and hid them, yes hid them, in the closet under the stairs.

The dishes have been in-hiding since that summer day.

Tonight, while a roasting pork loin filled the kitchen with a warm aroma of home, I systematically (okay, I snuck in-and-out of the closet) retrieved enough of my secret stash for a four-place setting. When my husband sat down, he said, ‘Oh no, what is this?” My son’s girlfriend, who was not privy to my dish ordeal at all, immediately commented on how lovely they were. Thank God for womenfolk! So, I revealed that I had fallen off the wagon and bought a lovely set of dishes at a great price! I admit I strategically planned to bring them out when company was present. It worked.

Surprisingly, he liked them (though he didn’t know just how many were stuffed under the stairs). Just the same, the hardest hurdle, the great ‘reveal,’ was over and now commencing with the storage issue would just work its way out. It always does. This isn’t my first auction haul!

As the evening wanes in a peaceful glow of acceptance, all the hand-washed dishes are stack proudly on my counter waiting for me to give them a comfortable shelf to dwell on, and my hubby is joyfully discovering facts about the vintage pattern, for if anything, he too appreciates time-worn things. It’s kind of sweet of him. It’s moments like these that he reminds of my father, who used to turn into a little kid whenever my new recipe cards from ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ would come in the mail as I was preparing for wifedom in the 1970s. He and I would spend hours combing through the recipes in the warmth of the kitchen light. When it comes to my husband, space or no space, it seems antiques continue to be our comfortable common ground.

You see, dishes, like recipes and meals, bring people together. Everyone has a memory of someone special at the glance of a familiar dish pattern. We see our aproned grandmothers and aunts bending and busy in the kitchens we loved, our mothers giving us the honored tasked of ‘getting out the good dishes’ when the hungry smell of a holiday dinner was filling the crowded house. Dishes clink and slide, stack and hide in all of our memories, and I am very much connected with that scene, mine and theirs, from the heart of the home, the kitchen.

Contemporary fun!

Contemporary fun!

From leaf-laced, autumn patterns to Blue Delft old-world charm, country white plates for simplicity, Christmas Spode gems, and round oatmeal glazed bowls just right for soups and stew, to bunny-shaped Easter favorites that the kids still love to see; my cupboards are filled with much more than porcelain artifacts. My dishes help tell the story of our lives. There is historic sweetness in a set of pink flowered, silver-rimmed dishes from my mother-in-law’s days of collecting dishes at the movie theatre one movie and dish at a time; I can see her trim and proper, with a huddle of blond-haired kids straight out of the “Dick & Jane” children’s book series, anxiously walking down her small town Midwestern street headed for the cinema and another new plate! Like the visual pleasure I receive from my 1950s era ‘Currier & Ives’ Royal blue village dishes which beckon back to my days around the crowded table of my parent’s house and the cupped aroma of coffee on cold Michigan mornings at our wood-smoke cottage; 1970s stoneware comes with a song; Transferware can transport. They all speak of places I’ve lived and people I’ve loved; each has a story, evokes memories, and allows for the pure pleasure of creatively setting a lovely table.

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Have I justified my purchase with passion and purpose? Ha! I always say, if a thing doesn’t give you pleasure or serve a purpose, than it’s time to let it go.

All in all, it’s a harmless addiction, obsession, or hobby, whatever one wants to call it. It could be worse. I could collect unicorns, or gum wrappers, or expensive Italy leather shoes. In time, as time so cruelly will do, I’ll give them all away to someone else with kitchen memories and table dreams, while we finally empty our cupboards and down-size and succumb to the reality of Chinet disposable dishware. Ugh! Until that dreadful day, I’ll keep making memories, one delicious dish at a time…and, for sanity sakes, go on hiatus from browsing antique stores!