Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Excerpts for a New Book

Welcome to the Nevada County Fair

On a sweltering August day in 1981, I went to the Nevada County Fair for the first time. It was an act of faith; a friend insisted that I would like it, but I had my doubts: I have never been attracted to concessions, milling crowds, and mass confusion. Furthermore, cigarette smoke in public places has always been a trial for me – but I went, and I liked it.
The setting: tall pines and marigolds. The people: everyone greeting everyone else; it was like a reunion of thousands. The events: animal shows, music, displays, demonstrations; I did not want my children – who were school age at the time – to miss out on a single demonstration, even though they were drawn to the rides, instead (of course). The food: corn-on-the-cob, baked potatoes, barbecue, goodies, and . . . and . . . all affordable and sold by various non-profits.
In the succeeding years, my children became involved in the fair through 4H. In 1984, Gregory entered a goat, a sheep, a pig, and rabbits in the fair. He won Best of Show for his dairy goat as well as a Showmanship award for his goat and his sheep. His pig won a blue ribbon and sold at the auction for a nice sum. Ben and Elisa Jane also showed pigs and sold them at auction. I will never forget that fair – not just because of the animals but because Gregory, along with a cousin and a friend, put on a break dance show, which, because break dancing was new and different, attracted the largest audience of any performance at the fair. Their three performances were energetic, true to the music, obviously, rehearsed, and, yes, cute. The audiences were enthusiastically receptive.
The point of this narrative is to tell you that I still go to the Nevada County Fair; there is no place where I feel more welcome. I begin by going the morning before the fair opens when the competitors are bringing their animals, and there is a chorus of animal and people voices, when the air smells like hay and resin and dust with a hint of vanilla. When the atmosphere is charged with expectation and busy-ness. When my children are children again, and I am young - in memory.
I return to see the 4H goat show before the fair opens in the early morning – after coffee, wearing summer clothes and sandals, even though the morning is cold. I watch the competitors grooming their animals and raking pens. I say “good morning,” a lot. The sounds and scents take me back to the early mornings at the fair when my children camped overnight out behind the pens with other 4Hers, remind me of how the fairgrounds became for them a huge place to work, compete, and play; a dream of freedom and responsibility, a childhood paradox.
Before the shows begin, I find a place to sit in the sun on the grass out behind the food booths. There, I enjoy a plate of pancakes and a cup of coffee. I watch people, and I try not to become too nostalgic for past times. I anticipate the exhibits, the shows, the food, and greeting friends. The old feelings of excitement, anticipation, and happiness wax and wane. I remind myself that those days are not lost; they happened, after all; though they are past, they are as real as the present time and this reverie – watching my son, Greg, accept his Showmanship ribbon and shaking the hand of the judge; such a lovely memory, intense and sharp with love and pride. If my thoughts are quiet, my heart open, and the air is summer air, I have lost nothing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Excerpt for New Book

The Red Wagon

We sat around a campfire iterating our earliest memory, and I was prepared. Overalls with pockets: I love pockets, and I need them, just like I did when I was a child. I wore pants because they had pockets; no dresses for me unless they had pockets for my jacks and ball - and a nickel. As a teacher, I needed pockets. As a hiker and traveler, I need pockets for various items – and rocks.
Pockets and a red wagon, I say to the people gathered at the campfire.
A red wagon: Evening and chilly. There is traffic. I am holding my father's hand and pulling a red wagon – which has been just purchased from Sears, and has been assembled by my father right there in the store. I am very happy.
In 1967, I bought my first new car, a '67 Opel wagon. Red, of course. It accommodated me for 20 years, taking six kids camping the whole of one summer. (Stu said that we looked like a Mexican bus.) It made a rattling sound all its life, and once in awhile, I hear a similar sound and am reminded of the '67 Opel – with joy and a sense of loss.
In the early 90s, Stu and I bought a Toyota T-100 truck with a camper shell. I wanted a red truck, of course, but there were none available. I settled for a white truck, but Stu surprised me with a red one. It was a lot of trouble for him, but worth it as far as he was concerned. Stu and I used the camper from that time on; our last camping trip was to Sonoma State beach, three months before he died. He wanted to go, and we enjoyed our time together in the comfort, coziness, and intimacy of our “red wagon.”
In that camper, we traveled all over California and to parts of the west, including Moab, Utah once a year. It had a comfortable bed, room to sit, space for storage, and gadgetry. It was airy and bright, very pleasant.
Periodically, I dream of the red wagon. It is bright and beautiful – and useful. I feel safe even though the environment may be threatening: dark, cold, noisy. I can go anywhere, carrying all I need – and holding a loving hand.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Excerpts for a New Book

Memorial Park

In my travels with Stu, throughout the west, we always made it a point to visit city parks, and often these were Memorial Parks. Once, not so very long ago, we stopped at a park in a very small desert town. It was not defunct or depressed (as they so often are). The commercial buildings were dated and patched, but they were not vacant, and the advertising was new. The residences were small bungalows with weedy yards, but with bright flowers in pots or little plots. There were leaning fences, old model pickup trucks, and old people sitting on warped wooden porches – who either looked suspicious or friendly.
There was a plethora of children, wearing flip-flops and beach towels; evidently the city park pool had just opened. We “followed” the parade of children to the city park (sponsored by the Lions and the Rotary, of course) a plot of green grass, a grove of mulberry trees with purple fruit. It was a Memorial Park, of course, commemorating the fallen in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam. There were names, family names - inscribed for more than one war. We walked to the nearest shady picnic table, a distance from the pool, and lay out our lunch.
Memorial Parks have much in common besides the memorials: grass and trees and restrooms that smack of jail cells. Often shoeless children; old, bowed men; young mothers with young children; stray, playful dogs. Always, the transient or vagrant or lost, sitting in the shadows, hoping for anonymity. Teens, seeking camaraderie, and people, just passing through.
Some park people are friendly, especially children who are being babysat by the park. They are talkative, inquisitive, and will volunteer to tell you anything; they have no secrets. They have a toughness and energy that is envy-able. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they trust their surrogate mother, the park, as well as the park people.
People who are new to the park read the memorial plaques. Their children do not climb on the monuments, and they do not use them for clothing racks or tables.
Parks make me sleepy; I like resting in them. Stu always preferred the hardware stores in small towns to parks; he found them relaxing, and occasionally, he went to the hardware store while I rested in the park. I only remember a few times when he bought something, but I think he liked the ambience of old hardware stores in small, thriving towns. It was a treasure hunt that reminded him of his child-self, making his first discoveries of tools and gadgets. He liked the smell of oily, wooden floors, he said.
During the lovely years when Stu and I visited Memorial Parks alone, I always longed for my children or grandchildren – even while relishing our time together – because parks are primarily for children and their random play. (Adults may be too goal oriented for parks. They are often ready to go as soon as they arrive.)
“Why is this name Memorial Park?” asks my grandson.
“'Memorial' means to remember,” I say, and I mentally prepare to answer the inevitable questions to follow.”
(What, no questions?)
And I promise myself that I will remember the feeling of his small hand in mine – that I will never forget the picnic with my Stu beneath the mulberry trees in that quintessential Memorial Park – or its reason for being.