When I was a kid, the Prince William county fair was the highlight of the summer. We’d go several days during fair week to check the various exhibits. My mother would enter dresses she had sewed, paper plates of hulled lima beans, glistening peaches canned in Ball jars. I wanted to be a cake judge more than anything. The summer I was ten I entered a drawing of a haunted house. The kids’ art categories didn’t include haunted houses, apparently, so my little drawing was exhibited with adult oils and watercolors. Imagine my shock when I received a blue ribbon! The prize was a check for $1.25! Yet in all the years my mother entered, she never won first place, only second or third. I felt bad the year I won the blue ribbon and believed my mother’s peaches were just as pretty as the prize winner’s.
When I was eleven, we went to the Woodstock county fair in the Shenandoah Valley. This was a real county fair. My mother warned me to stay close or the gypsies would kidnap me. Secretly, I was hoping to be carried off in a yellow gypsy caravan. My stepfather rode the Merry-Mixer with me, a dizzying ride that made him green around the gills but he gamely got on a second and third time. After our third ride, he was probably hoping I’d get kidnaped by gypsies, too.
But in all my years of county fairs and firemen’s carnivals, I’ve never been to the Virginia State Fair. For the first time in about 150 years, the fair has moved from Richmond to The Meadows, the birthplace of the greatest racehorse ever, Secretariat (if you don’t believe me, watch the astonishing 1973 Belmont race). The new fairgrounds are sprawling and rural, with lots of clean restrooms and hand-washing stations. (These things are important to grownup fair-goers.) It rained the morning we went and threatened rain every second we were there, but the skies held back.
I was actually doing research for my new novel. And that meant trying all manner of deep-fried delights: Fried Oreos, Fried Twinkies, Elephant Ears, Fried Dough, Fried Chocolate Chip Cookies. I ordered Fried Oreos first–$5 for six thickly-breaded cookies plunged in a bathtub of grease. The cookies inside are mushy and boiling hot. I felt so awful after those, I couldn’t try the other fried things. Next I had the Guessing Man guess my age. This was always an easy prize–nobody’s ever guessed my age within ten years. BUT!!! he said I was 58! I’m fifty-seven! I nearly fainted. And then I wanted to smack him. My husband, who is 19 years older than me, had his age guessed and the man said he was 14 years younger. Frank said the man looks at the husband and figures the wife is around the same age. Either my husband is dragging me down or I need a neck lift, one. So far this research business wasn’t going so well.
We toured the exhibits next. I was disappointed at the lack of hogs–a great big huge hog filling its pen is always a favorite. But there was a sow with a dozen piglets. They were so cute! I watched a chicken hatch out of an egg. It took ten minutes, with lots of resting in between chipping. The baby ducks were almost as cute as the baby pigs. I like them better than chicks because they can swim right away. We went through the arts and crafts exhibits. The children’s art was very good. No haunted house drawings, though. The cakes looked delicious (I still want to be a cake judge) and the quilts were beautiful. I was delighted to see Covert Files, a descendent of Secretariat.
The last thing I did was ride the merry-go-round. I happen to be an expert on the history of merry-go-rounds (the subject of my first YA mystery). Today’s merry-go-rounds are poor substitutes for the grand carousels of the early twentieth century that sported hand-carved animals by the artisans in Gustav Dentzel’s workshop, real paintings on the boards, and a Wurlitzer organ in the center pumping out "Dixie." I rode a jerky white fiberglass horse and listened to "Can’t Touch This" at five zillion decibels. And, I’m sad to report, a woman riding by herself like me was talking on her cellphone!
The day wasn’t a total loss. I got to see a 1931 Model A touring car up close. It was smaller than I imagined and tinnier, compared to cars of today, but it had dash and flair and style that our cars lack. I daydreamed about zooming off in that car, the rumble seat filled with piglets and baby ducks.
I loaded up on hot kettle corn and cotton candy before leaving the gates, a year older than when I walked in. It was fun, but I missed the dusty, straw-covered fairgrounds, the mild threat of gypsies, the wobbly-legged feeling of riding the Merry-Mixer too many times, the anticipation that my mother might have finally won a blue ribbon, and, yes, dirty hands from petting great big hogs.
I hate Sundays. That’s the day reserved for grocery shopping, finishing up the laundry, and doing chores leftover from lazy Fridays and Saturdays. We don’t make big plans for Sundays, usually. But yesterday was so pretty and I couldn’t face the Giant or the laundry room or the vacuum cleaner. So we went to Montpelier. Since we moved to Fredericksburg thirteen years ago, we have often visited James and Dolley Madison’s home. We drove out of Spotsylvania County where it was still summer and 40 miles away, in Orange Country, we found fall.
It was cloudy with a bit of chill in the air. Yellow leaves pelted the ground and walking under the ancient black walnut trees was hazardous. The walnuts were like green baseballs. In the distance a haze blanketed the Blue Ridge, the reason Madison built his home in this particular spot. The house has undergone transformations. When we first came, years ago, we picnicked on the grounds. The tour was folksy. Inside the manor was a hodgepodge of Madison-era furnishings and DuPont items. The DuPonts bought the house in 1900 (I think), added wings and upper stories and painted the brick pink. Back in those days, before the tour became all formal, we could wander at will. My husband, a Madison and Constitution scholar, touched Madison’s desk that was standing in an upstairs hall. But in the last few years, the house underwent a major renovation. The DuPont wings were torn off and the house was restored to the way it was in Madison’s day. Some people think the renovation is wonderful. Others (like me, secretly) wish they had left it alone.
I preferred the Art Deco sitting room that Marion DuPont Scott (daughter of the DuPonts and wife of Randolph Scott) created from her parents’ music room. All the chrome and glass and zillions of photos of horses. Marion DuPont was a great horsewoman, the first woman to ride astride in a famous horse show, and breeder of steeplechase horses. As a lover of the 1920s, I could be quite comfortable sitting in the red club chair with a martini glass of–well, cranberry juice, while gazing at my reflection in the glass and chrome fireplace mantle. The room has been moved to the new visitor’s center.
But my husband and I mostly love the grounds, more than 2300 acres of rolling hills and forests and pastures. It is so quiet. We crave real, deep quiet and it’s so hard to find. On this trip we discovered the retired racehorse facility, a nonprofit nationwide organization that rescues thoroughbreds from the slaughterhouse. Most of these horses are injured, but they looked beautiful to me as they grazed in the pastures the organization rents from Montpelier. It costs a mere $5 to take care of a rescued racehorse. Every day, at some invisible (to people) signal, the horses take off, running up the mountain for the sheer pleasure of it. The older, more damaged horses trot or walk, but they follow, too. Thoroughbreds were bred and born to run. Even when they can’t run, they go up the hill anyway. (A few horses are in the photo, just so far away, you can’t see them).
On our way home we stopped at a little family restaurant–our favorite kind of discovery. We would rather eat hot roast beef sandwiches in an old building with pressed tin ceilings and worn vinyl stools than pheasant under glass in a leather banquette at the Ritz. Simple food, falling yellow leaves, walnuts underfoot, and the sight of horses living free at last. And when we got home, I was able to face the grocery store and the laundry and the vacuum cleaner. Sometimes we just need a little break and then we’re able to go on up the hill.
Posting to my blogs has been at the bottom of the list lately. Poor Ellsworth’s Journal hasn’t been updated since June! I’m sure all five followers have given up in disgust.
We often get overtaken by events–it’s called Life. My life mainly consists of cats and books. I have three cats–the remarkable Winchester (remarkable for his appetite, size, and attitude that he is the center of the universe), Persnickety, who is the calico in my user pic, and Xenia, our oldest cat. As for books, I’m working on a book about the Constitution for Lerner (due the end of this month), taking notes for my latest novel, and waiting for a revision letter from Tamson Weston, the Hyperion editor of the Iva Honeysuckle books.
The last few weeks the worlds of cats and books collided, big time. First, the book grew snarly. It’s not a long book–about 5000 words–but basically I’m writing about 55 men sitting in one room for four months, talking. Of course, what they had to say is vitally important, but it doesn’t make for fascinating action. And second, Xenia became sick. Very sick. Gravely sick.
She has had two strokes already–lost the sight in one eye from the last stroke. She has hyperthyroidism (so does Snick) and chronic renal failure (CRF). And she’s old. Almost 16. In people years she’s 84. Xenia stays in my office all day because she doesn’t get along with Winchester (okay, the understatement of the century–hating Winchester is keeping her alive). When Xenia fell ill, she stopped eating. Drank bowl after bowl of water and emptied her bladder often . . . well, any old place. She lay at my feet for hours with her eyes open, not sleeping, unresponsive. The vet ran tests but we ran into the Labor Day weekend and results were delayed.
Within 5 days, Xenia lost a pound, which is like us losing 15 pounds. She barely weighs 6 pounds, down from her normal 11. (She’s her normal plumpish self in the photo, taken a few years ago). Her tests showed she didn’t have an acute bout of CRF after all. Likely, the vet said, she has lymphoma targeting her digestive system. In other words, stomach cancer. I’ve had two previous cats die from that–not an easy way to go. But Xenia is taking, along with thyroid medication, antibiotic, and a nausea drug, expensive chicken-flavored liquid Prednisone, which I had to get at one of the few compounding pharmacies left in the D.C. area. Prednisone is truly a miracle drug. Xenia snapped out of her lethargy and developed the appetite of a lioness. She’s back to hating Winchester with every fiber of her little self.
So my day goes like this: get up, feed Winchester (always first in line), feed and pill Persnickety, give Xenia her first breakfast with her pill. Make bed, put away dishes, fix breakfast, wash dishes, sweep up cat litter, switch litter boxes (Xenia has a box of her own now so I can keep track of her "biologicals," as they say on "CSI: Miami.") Hit the computer for overnight e-mails. Go to Jazzercise or take my walk. Feed Xenia her second breakfast (she’s eating like a hobbit now–lots of mini-meals). Work. Feed all three cats lunch. Work. Feed Xenia her afternoon meal. Work. Think about our supper. Work until the absolute last second before I have to fix supper. Feed all three cats supper. Do dishes. Go back to work a few hours. Relax in my sitting room. Then switch cat boxes again, give Winchester and Snick evening treats. Give Xenia her last meal with Prednisone. Collapse into bed.
Not much time for blogging!
While the Prednisone is making Xenia feel better, it’s only a stop-gap measure. She has three progressively fatal diseases. One of them will overtake her soon. Meanwhile, I wait and watch her carefully. At some point I will notice that Xenia’s spirit has left her eyes and then we will go to the vet’s for the last time.
Someone once said that grief is the tax we pay for our attachment to smaller creatures. When Xenia’s time comes, I think I’ll be ready. But I won’t be. We never are.