About an hour north of my own idyllic neighborhood lies a town time has forgotten. Main street still sports the same facades as were popular in 1950, the street signs faded to a burnished patina of long forgotten maintenance. Here, the clerk at the grocery store knows everyone's name, as well as their parents, siblings and any offspring they may have. She chats about local gossip while ringing up the food and sundries; she is the hub of all things social there. Every year, at the end of August, my small family makes the pilgrimage to our own Mecca, to visit this town and it's attractions for the night. Without fail, we all flock to the place where we all began, cousins and grandparents, sisters and brothers.
|Cousins at the County Fair|
My children have become accustomed to our yearly tradition, retracing small town roots. As we round a bend in the road, and the cow smell seeps it's way into the air vents of our vehicle, they chorus complaints of the stench, all the while giggling with anticipation, for our destination is just a few miles away. Once there, cousins will converge upon each other and the intricately choreographed dance of the County Fair will begin.
We're not considered locals...although perhaps we could claim it by a grandfather clause, but we act as if we are, wether from expectation or experience. Pulling into the fairgrounds, the dust thick in the air, wafting around us, we find a spot to make a quick exit, knowing how difficult the end of the night will be. Stepping from the car, the dust still lingering in the air, I take a deep breath, and know I have come to a place where my roots began.
My mother grew up in this small town. Her own father, one of the local school teachers in a time where children were bussed from small farming communities to town for school. She and her sisters couldn't wait to leave what could be considered a stifling atmosphere, to see the world from a different perspective. Now, so many years later, she too returns, along with her own children and grandchildren, basking in the joy of small town roots.
|Nigel touching the calves|
Although early afternoon is the best time to arrive, we know we must reserve a spot as soon as possible for the rodeo. The old blankets, used every year, for this one activity are pulled from the trunks and back seats. Worn denim on the back, with polyester blocks on front, ties with bright red yarn, it is our rodeo quilt, the one to save our spot on the aluminum bleachers. The grandstand hums with activity as we spread out the blankets, adding an extra few feet, because another family member is bound to show up and need a seat. The routine has been played out by many generations now, and we follow blindly, doing the same, year after year, but it never grows old.
I didn't grow up in a small town. I was more urban than rural. I didn't thin the beets for my summer job, nor did I walk to the five and dime store as my mother did. My youth consisted of trips to the mall for school clothes, close neighbor friends with whom I spent lazy summer days. I could walk to the library, a few blocks away, and never had to milk a cow for chores. My upbringing didn't consist of 4-H meetings, yet I still feel as though I belong in this small town. It is where many of my ancestors chose to settle, farm, raise families.
|The Rodeo Burger|
We continue our choreography of dance across the fairway. Each step I take, puffs of dust surround my shoes, coating them a light brown. In and out of aisles, between carnival rides, holding the hand of own daughter, we make our way to the spot I yearn for throughout the year. Fresh hamburgers, garden tomatoes, onions, pickles, the works. A rodeo burger. Wrapped in white paper, I handle the hamburgers with reverence as we walk to the galvanized steel tables where fresh-from-the-field tomatoes are sliced thick and juicy. A bucket of pickles and fresh onions, laid out in old Tupperware, hold spoons and forks for anyone to use. The sneeze guard is splattered with mustard and ketchup, and flies spin around our heads. It is heaven, as we observe the standard rituals of those that came before me.
I remember being a small child and loading my own hamburger with pickles, my grandfather watching me. Now my father watches my own children, helping them as their arms aren't quite long enough to reach their condiments. The cycle of roots is perpetuated again, as I will do the same in years to come.
|Weston and his ribbon|
The tempo increases as we breeze through the exhibit halls. Vendors, tout their wares, some homemade; the local funeral parlor offering a drawing for a free casket, the fire department and it's taffy. We make our way with the hordes of others, to get a glimpse of a blue ribbon painting, the rows and rows of bottled fruit and preserves, each with a paper placard noting the flavor, town, and name of the entrant. Best in show, a huge white ribbon sits pinned to a crocheted afghan, multicolored and perfect in every way. 4-H displays are scrutinized and fingered, cousins show off ribbons. I breath a sigh of contentment and feel at home here, wishing I had something to enter, a ribbon of my own. Then I remind myself of my own dreams, and realize a ribbon is a small price to pay for seeing both worlds.
|Poking the goat|
My own little ones lament their own lack of ribbons on pigs, bunnies, and little lambs. I try to explain that our dreams are different than what life here would bring us. It does little to console them, but they scamper off to poke the goat with straw and listen to the clucking sounds of the chickens. I watch from a short distance and grow nostalgic, my children are growing up away from the innocence of this place.
As evening approaches, and all the stalls have been visited, each child is given a ticket or two for the coveted carnival ride. Around and around on the merry-go-round, the joints creaking as it makes the turns. For some reason it is the best in the world, with it's chipped paint and tacky horses. Each child races along on their very own steed, swearing to beat the others to the finish line.
We hear the announcer in the distance, starting to warm up for the rodeo. Sticky hands, rosy cheeks, cotton candy rimmed mouths walk towards the voice, kicking up dust behind. I hold the hand of my husband, who fell into this tradition by nature of marriage, just like my own father did, and we smile, knowing we are making memories to last a lifetime.
The calves are roped, wrestled. The little ones have ridden their way to fame and fortune on the back of a wooly sheep. We have screamed until we have no voice as we watched the cowboy, with only a gloved hand, keep himself atop of a bucking bull. Noses are cold, from the cool summer night air, as we make our way, sleeping children on our shoulders, to our car. Making our getaway until next summer, we wait in the long line of cars, leaving behind the dusty fields. The taillights seem to leave a trail, away from my country roots, toward my urban dreams.