The highlight of my summers growing up was going to the Prince William County Fair. For weeks we planned what we’d wear (one year’s fair outfit included red-and-blue dyed squaw boots from Memco that turned my feet beet red and indigo), what we’d do first, and what we’d enter in the exhibits. Mama entered her sewing, canning, and vegetables from our garden. In 1964, my eleventh summer, I decided to enter something, too.
I’ve always loved county fair—the crunch of straw underfoot, the rich warm smells of farm animals, the heightened excitement that makes everyone feel like a kid. So when my friend Donna invited me to go with her family to the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, I was thrilled. 2012 marks the fair’s 274th, the oldest in Virginia and possibly the United States. It’s not as big as the Prince William fair, but it had all the corndogs, cows, cotton candy, and carousel rides you could want.
We went nearly every day to visit the animals and check on that day’s judging events. In the summer of ’64, our dreams were pinned on winning ribbons.
First stop, the rabbit and poultry barn. Boys with buzzcuts gawked at mop-headed chickens. Ducklings lay in a fuzzy heap, fast asleep, though one black duck fixed me with a beady eye. In the adjacent cage, baby turkeys paced like junkies in rehab. (My mother had an expression for restless people: “He’s tracking like a turkey.”) Two roosters vying for the title of Foghorn Leghorn crowed continuously, exhausting the lop-eared rabbits that sprawled frog-legged on their cage floors, flat as flounders.
We visited my favorite place first, the rabbit and poultry barn. I itched to pet the cute Bantam hens and admired the Best in Show rosette on the cage door of a Flemish Giant buck the size of a coffee table. If only we could win one of those ribbons!
Next we toured the Arts and Crafts show in a building too large for what it promised. Dust motes seemed to shimmer with ghosts of industrious fair-goers in years past—bustling housewives who entered the best of their baking and farmers who weighed their vine-ripened watermelons with pride. Here, vegetables were represented by a few tomatoes and baked goods seemed limited to trendy cupcakes and cookies.
The Home Arts building bulged with towering seven-layer cakes, brilliant displays of roses and zinnias, watermelons that bowed the plank shelving, and rows of canned jellies and jams that glowed like rare gems. Calico aprons were pegged on a line. Racks were draped with pieced quilts and crocheted tablecloths, different as snowflakes.
I lingered by four card tables, each set for a themed dinner with a matching floral arrangement. The first three prize-winners displayed sleek modern vases spouting ornamental grasses and a few blooming stems. The fourth table wore an old-fashioned lace tablecloth with paper birthday plates and napkins and a plain glass vase with pink roses. The “pity” fourth place ribbon pricked me like a thorn.
Mama and I scanned the shelves. Her canned peaches had failed to place. The winner’s perfect scalloped halves cascaded inside the Mason jar like dahlia petals, but I bet my mother’s peaches tasted sweeter. Mama’s lima beans, grown from seed, arduously dusted and hoed, looked sad on their paper plate. She got second. If only the judge had sat down to a bowl of her succotash! Her pattypan squash took third place. We walked over to the sewing area. The green velvet dress she had stitched for me on her old Singer earned another third place. The prize-winning entries—complicated suits and evening gowns—were beyond my mother’s skills, but that green velvet dress made me feel like a Russian princess. Two white ribbons, one red. But no blue.
Outside, we strolled down the midway, eating corndogs and watching an acrobatic act. I remembered when the sideshow was the entertainment, that, and “hoochie-coochie” dancers. The four of us rode the Ferris wheel. The breeze felt heavenly as our gondola gently rocked. I remembered the two-seater cars with the bar across laps and how the operator would pause each car at the top to hear girls scream. We went around and around, then settled back to earth softly as a raindrop.
Mama warned me to stay close, that gypsies might kidnap me. If only they would! I’d live in a yellow and red wagon and ride rides and eat cotton candy every single day. My stepfather braved the Merry-mixer with me, turning a little greener on each spin.
We were late getting to the Home Arts building. The last category had been judged. And it was mine.
As we passed the Arts and Crafts building on our way out, I glimpsed my eleven-year-old self, standing nervously in front of the entry desk the first day of fair week. The man had looked at my drawing curiously.
“We don’t have a youth category for a picture like this,” he said. “I’ll have to put it in the adult category. What’s the title of it?”
“‘House on Haunted Hill,’” I said faintly, realizing my smeary pencil drawing on mimeograph paper stood no chance against grown-up artists.
“Should be called ‘Haunted House on a Hill,’” the man said, laughing at his own joke.
All that week I passed by my entry. It looked small and insignificant beside framed oil paintings and beautiful watercolors. Now, after the judging, I walked up to it again and stared incredulously at the blue ribbon hanging beside it. Mama proudly watched me collect my prize money, a check for one dollar and twenty-five cents. My first earnings as an artist.
Mama entered in the fair every year, sometimes taking second or third, but never first. When she died, I found her ribbons from 1964 pressed in her mother’s Bible. Mine was there, too, no longer first-place blue but a faded purple.
My mother’s ribbons are still as bright as hope.