Friday, July 27, 2012

To the fair, to the fair

There’s a difference in the morning sky these days, a change from the bright crisp newness of early summer. There is a tang to the breeze that blows out of the northwest, rustling the poplars, bending the front yard birches, and shaking the sweet corn so the stalks tip and lean ever southward.  Summer is beginning to fade.
Michael in Contemplation
It has been a difficult year of deaths – a young man’s suicide; my friend, Michael; my beloved Bailey who left us just weeks before his fourteenth birthday – and illness – shingles and plantar fasciitis for Bruce, stomach issues for me, and the increasing challenges of advanced age for my mother. All are reminders that we, too, like summer, are waning. And yet, we persist with gardens planted and the bounty of beans and peas and beets and chard, blueberries and raspberries coming in just in time for this year’s Northern Maine Fair, which begins today in Presque Isle.
Beloved Bailey
We have a long history with fairs. As a child, the end of each summer was marked with wonderful fairs – Rochester and Deerfield in New Hampshire, Tunbridge in Vermont, Eastern States and Topsfield in Massachusetts.  Although like any child, the rides and sideshows drew my attention, I spent hours wandering through the exhibition halls in awe of the produce, baking, canning, needlework, and other exhibits, always dreaming of the day when I could submit something and take home the coveted blue ribbon. My mother always found such an ambition humorous because as she said, I couldn’t boil water without burning it and my one attempt at sewing something – a nightgown in eighth grade home ec – looked more like a tent big enough for Ali Baba and the forty thieves!  Of course, as a girl I had ridden in my share of horse shows at the various fairs, but that was something I just did; it couldn’t match the skill and knowledge of those who created beautiful quilts, fragrant loaves of bread, or jewel-like jars of jam and jelly.
Time and life changes people, and somewhere along the line I not only learned how to cook, but how to cook well. Because we had a lot of kids through our house, and because I only worked part-time to be there for those kids, feeding them all within a budget became my job, and I looked back not only to the days of my childhood when my mother and grandmother cooked from scratch almost everything we ate and canned bushels of fruits and vegetables each fall, but also to the stunning examples I had seen in the exhibits at the fairs.  Somehow over the years I learned how to sew, raise vegetables and herbs, design flower gardens, can and freeze our food, and bake breads, pies, cookies, doughnuts, and other sweets to feed our family throughout the year.  Any possible entries at the fair were usually eaten before I could get them there!
As the kids grew, going to the fair became an affordable and entertaining way to spend time together. When Kasey was just over a year, she was riding the roller coaster at the New Boston Fair in New Hampshire, and by the time she was ten, we had expanded out skills and lifestyle to include raising chickens, rabbits, and pigs. She joined 4-H, an amazing organization for kids, and began exhibiting everything from pottery to pigs!  Toting her and her exhibits back and forth to the fair was about all I could manage.
Kids grow up and leave home and patterns change.  Although Bruce and I continued to go to the Cumberland Fair each September, it was as visitors. We no longer were toting kids and livestock and handcrafts for exhibit.  I still looked wistfully at the exhibits and wondered how my work would measure up.  When we moved to Northern Maine, an area much closer to agriculture and self-sufficiency than metropolitan Portland had been, our first visit to the Northern Maine Fair rekindled my desire to see how my gardening, baking, canning, and handcrafts measured up against those I saw in the exhibition hall. And, it wasn’t long before I gave into the urge.
I began submitting four years ago, largely with the vegetables and herbs we grew, and surprise of surprise, we took some ribbons.  In fact, that first year, I took Best in Show in the canning division for my peach jam. I was hooked! That there was a small cash award for each ribbon – a concept I had never considered – made it even better. We used our winnings to treat Kasey’s family to an evening at the fair.  
The tradition has continued, become almost as predictable as the cooling nights, the change in the angle of sun that marks the end of summer. This year, with all the sorrow and struggles it brought and with unpredictable weather affecting the gardens, I feared that we would not be able to gather enough to bother with entering.  Bruce and I had resigned ourselves to budgeting our annual trip to the fair from our regular income.
Late last week we took inventory and were surprised at the possibilities. Yesterday, I loaded the car with basil, oregano, mint, horehound, comfrey, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, sage, rosemary, roses, black-eyed Susan’s, and delphiniums for the first round of entries.  Then returned home and began picking the produce: three kinds of beans, beets, beet greens, chard, garlic, lettuce, onions, peas, green tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, apples, and chokecherries, then poured through the pantry for dill pickles, sweet chunk pickles, sweet pickle relish, brandied peaches, jams, and jellies. Yesterday afternoon I baked a loaf I went to bed tired.
We loaded the car early, and by eight, I was on my way again, traveling the 22 miles to the fair. The flowers and herbs were judged yesterday, and I hoped with good results. Of all the herbs and flowers, only one did not at least place – the black-eyed Susans. We took firsts in comfrey and thyme, seconds in most of the other herbs. Our tea rose took a second, and the tall deep purply blue delphiniums took first place and Best in Show for cut flowers! This year’s trip to the fair seems guaranteed, and I was optimistic as I unpacked and labeled the vegetables, canned goods, and baking that will be judged later today. Somehow, the year didn’t seem quite so bad.
Making the choice to establish a self-sufficient life is not an easy one. To do so means hours of planning, careful decisions, and sometimes exhausting labor, much of which is often reflected in those exhibits and displays; the ribbons and small premiums are one testament to the fruits of that work. This year has been one of the most difficult in terms of the losses and struggles we have faced, but seeing our efforts lined up with those of others is a reminder of the ability to move on in spite of the trials. While the ribbons and the cash awards are nice, what is more valuable is that exhibiting at the fair provides us with the chance to take stock as we begin to fill the pantry and freezers with the fruits of our labors.  We are reminded of our resilience and that life goes on.

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