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?”

They Gave Me Gifts: The Hyacinth of Easter 1978

I had a difficult time my first year of marriage.  At only 20, I had married my high school sweetheart and was swiftly moved away from my family home in Michigan, not knowing I would never again be closer than a long trip home. I didn’t know the years I would miss, the family gatherings that would be lost. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be a vital part of the growing up of my younger siblings, would never participate in the lives of my nieces and nephews, and that the golden, but aging years of my parents would always have to be ‘a phone call’ away.  I didn’t have that foresight then.  I was young and romantic; devoted. I had lofty dreams of life in the Rocky Mountains, a white picket-fenced cottage with roses around my door, and promises of children of my own with a boy I only thought I knew. It was a lonely year, the first of many.

On that first Easter following my marriage of 1977, my parents and younger siblings came to visit me and my new husband at Western Illinois University where he was doing his graduate work and I, well, was busy being a supportive wife.  I will never forget the excitement I felt at their arrival. Every little detail in place, my new china and silverware was stacked and ready with cloth napkins in blue calico fabric that I had sewn myself. I had made my mom’s potato salad for the first time, and everything was airy and clean to make that good “welcome to my home” first impression. My heart was bursting with joy and anticipation! To be physically embraced by my father and mother again, to giggle and share my pretty ‘grown-up’ things with my siblings, to show off my ‘first’ little apartment and make dinner for all of them, was the height of my new married life.

My mother brought me an Easter plant, a single purple hyacinth.  I was so charmed. An unexpected gift, beautiful in its simplicity and so like my mother; I just loved it.  I can still see that moment of them walking up the stairs of married-student housing where I lived a rather solitary life of ‘wifedom,’ my husband often gone at classes or studying late into the night with ‘friends.’ I spent most of my home hours alone. So, I became very self-sufficient.  I worked in town at a local dress store, had a favorite spot at the drugstore lunch counter, a fragrant hippie shop and organic food co-op that I frequented, but I really didn’t have any friends. After living a life of constant company in a big family where ‘togetherness’ was the norm, it was both a great learning experience and a sad existence for a young bride. I took from it what I could. But to have my family there after that long cold winter, the earth rich with the fragrance of awakening, the remnants of old snow still lacing the edges of the roads, and the voices and faces that mirrored mine; I was in a sort of surreal bliss.Easter past 1978 in Illinois with Bill

We drove around the community and shopped in the quaint town square with the old stately courthouse at its center. My parents reminiscing about the Midwestern farming towns they had lived in gave a sense of continuity to my daily life. We strolled through some of my favorite shops where my mom bought some stained glass sun catchers to put in her kitchen window. She had them for years, saying that whenever she saw the light coming through the cherry red glass, she thought of me. I found them last October in the boxes of ‘junk’ that were to be given away after my mother’s death, and brought them home to continue to catch the light of our love. We went to Mass, and together with the family talk and shared stories the meal was made perfect even in the cramped space of our small apartment.  The weekend was too brief.

Life would be too brief. It would take years and years of driving home through miles of cornfields, across wide prairies, through northern forests and hours of shorelines, through the cycles of many seasons, for me to learn, really learn what my parents meant to me. I have nothing but a heart full of gratefulness for what my parents were able to give us in those post-WWII years of large families and stay-at-home moms in which I was raised. We were, by today’s standards, the middle-class poor.  We had our share of charity boxes of clothes brought to our house, hand-me-down toys, and meals of mostly mashed potatoes and gravy. But for everything they could not afford to give us, and for all the innocent mistakes that young parents stumble through rather hit-or-miss, I was saturated in love in their house. We were never in ‘want’ or deprived of education and opportunities to develop our imaginations, and music was threaded and laced through every step of our lives like the laces on our shoes.

Through their love and high value of education and music, I developed an appreciation and understanding of the human experience. Both have been my refuge and stronghold through all kinds of challenging situations. But, above all, the unconditional love of my parents, has kept me alive in times of despair, motivated me to continue to reach for my dreams, and given me the ability to fully love others. They exhibited what I have learned to be a true love… attentive, unwavering, and never ending.

The beauty of these immeasurable gifts is that long after I left home, married and married again, went through college, bought and sold homes, earned a living, raised children, and watched those two beloved people lowered into the cold ground, their gifts have been alive and fruitful in my life.

At Easter, Christians humbly observe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and celebrate His return to walk with us throughout our lives, loving us, forgiving us, and embracing us with unconditional love. His love seems to reflect, in my eyes, the intentions of my earthly parents, their sacrifices and continual love.  Especially at Easter, with the green glow of budding trees creating a fresh lense on old hopes and dreams, I feel their reassuring embrace. I may be little goofy singing ‘Easter bonnet songs’ and over-stuffing woven baskets with familiar treats, but these are only extension of the rich life that I have led, due for the most part to my parents walking up the paths of my life with their gifts.

My little purple hyacinth eventually died despite my care, as did my marriage, and, in time, my parents. But, to this day I cannot look upon a hyacinth without seeing my mother’s soft round face, laughing and eager to see mine, coming up the walkway with that flower in her hands, with my dad’s big grin above her shoulders close behind.  The safety of their love was so strong and deeply rooted, that nothing could destroy it….not distance, not husbands, not mistakes, not the act of walking a down a broken road, not failure or any choice that I made.  It was there. They were there.  Even on this Easter weekend of baskets full of colorful foiled candy for my children and grandchildren and the aroma of those favorite family foods once again in the air…they are here in my heart as is my heavenly Father whose invisible hand is always holding mine, reminding me that I am never completely alone.

I never did make it to Colorado and have yet to get my cottage with a picket fence and flower garden around my door, but I will. I am still the romantic, but with a long journey of lessons on my side.  And, there will be a special place for hyacinth bulbs to bloom, glass sun-catchers in the window, a song to float easily from my lips, and a calm knowing that I am and always have been loved.