Friday, August 31, 2007

Home, The New York State Fair

Two days ago, on the little jet from Dulles International to Syracuse, where Mother was waiting to take us by car to Chaumont, I had to battle to keep from falling to sleep. We had been on the road nearly 24 hours. I wanted to look out the window.

I cherish that aerial re-introduction to the town where I grew up when I come home. It comforts me that I can still recognize the neighborhoods. Syracuse, New York from such a distance, even if it has drastically changed at ground level since I left, will always be nestled within the same boundaries from above.

I noticed, as the pilot circled around a second time before landing, that the State Fair is in full swing. It looks glorious from the air. Going there will be a delectable item on the agenda for this year’s brief trip home, our third in seven years. Loïc has never been to the fair.

We went to the New York State Fair every year when I was growing up. During the elementary years, it was the excitement of the games on the midway that I remember the most, the thrill and hope that came with trying for those big huge toys that barely anybody ever won. Deep inside, I always held on with the most profound devotion to the hope that I would one day be able to win one of the grand prizes.

Every once in a while we would see a triumphant young child on his father’s shoulders, clinging to a life-sized stuffed gorilla or crocodile and it would boost our determination. Since funds were limited, a kid had to calculate carefully the chance and the odds of winning with each game. The ones that relied on skill were the surest, but then again you had to play a few times to learn. The way they nonchalantly tossed the ball at a stack of flimsy pins, knocking them all, making it look so easy was a trick.

There was always a frightening thrill from the unknown and feeling of danger when we were old enough to be set loose along the Midway. I believe my mother transmitted it to me telepathically. She and whatever friend she came with would look after the smaller children and once I was old enough, I could tag along with the older kids. We were each given a sum of money, and were free to roam in groups for a set period of time. Boyish men in sleeveless shirts with tattoos, feathered hair, and combs in their back pockets would smile through pocked marked faces from their stations by the rides. Huge oil lubed machinery would pitch us in chaotic directions. Other kids from all throughout the region would also be lining up, identifiable by their haircuts, school colors, or the jeans they wore. The kids’ midway underworld was full of intrigue.


I believed that the generous bosomed country women at the stands selling maple candy had made it on pot bellied stoves themselves at home. The straight faces and dead seriousness in serving up sugary fried beignets, oozing sticky gooey treats, baked goods, and candy apples was my life’s first initiation the exotic lure of things foreign. I embraced it all with a curious fervor and let my imagination run free, from the cheese curds to the cotton candy.

These people lived solely to spin sugar and crochet or knit. If they did both at the same time, they would capture my attention for a good long while. As a kid I was enthralled by their staid reality. It was such a contrast to the fanciful delights swirling around them. It was hard to keep up with the other children because of my imaginary visits to their worlds. I lost my group more than once.

I always pretended not to be completely blown away with the joy of it as we fell with abandon on the plethora of offerings to eat. These ladies passed a forbidden sugary beignet across to you as if it was completely natural to live year round on them. It was almost beyond my comprehension how everyone was allowed to eat such an array of totally forbidden things. The common feigned nonchalance in these transactions was the best of play acting.
By divine parental design, at the State Fair, how I spent my allotted sum was open, we were free. Even now, as I anticipate the trip in to Syracuse for the Fair, this forbidden lure occupies a special savor that is altogether unique in my mind.

The Upstate New York twang echoing from loudspeakers at the State Fair was the complete opposite of the rounded soothing measured tones of my mother’s Tennessee drawl. But from the time I was a toddler, that metallic hard edged voice selling home in its natural habitat once a year became emblematic of a certain inner part of me. It was this place, my home, our being foreign ourselves as a Southern family, and all things local converging in a vortex of hard edged reality and fantasy that never changed through the years.

I grew up speaking without any drawl or twang in either direction. There is a strong accent, however, in the way I hear the voices of the people now, wherever I go, that was shaped by these early contrasts.

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Tana said...

I should probably know this, but what is your camera and lens set-up?

You are such a good photographer, and SUCH a good writer. This is a lovely post, full of heart and nostagia.

10:53 PM, August 31, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Dear Tana, I have been shooting with Canon SLRs since I was in high school. This is my first digital SLR, an EOS 350D. I shoot with the lens that came with it, an 18-55. Thank you for coming to visit!

11:29 PM, August 31, 2007  
Blogger Connie said...

lovely observations about your roots and memories and visit to the fair. your description has reminded me of all that great fair food...mmm!

3:31 PM, September 01, 2007  
Blogger Mercedes said...

I just took the train home to visit my mother, where the Maryland state fair is going full strength. She, too, has a southern accent that I have grown to love and cherish. Tomorrow, we'll go to the fair, the bunnies are still my favorite part.

3:30 AM, September 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am from upstate NY..just east of Troy ..(of French Canadian ancestors from Montreal)and remember the scenes you describe. Here in Ohio, far from my home, the county fair began today with a two-hour parade. I wasn't going to go but your photos and talk of the fair food ...well, I now must go now! Merci...

5:57 AM, September 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a delightful essay! Even without your wonderful photos, I would be able to conjure up all the sights, smells, and feelings of the state fair. And having grown up in Washington, DC, California, and Hawaii with a mother from Mississippi, I can relate to feeling slightly "foreign" in customs, language, and food. Maybe why I love France?? Thank you for your blog. -Rose

10:01 PM, September 03, 2007  
Anonymous ann said...

Both my parents are from Liverpool and when I was a kid the absolute *highlight* of my summer was our trip to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to go, en masse, to the State Fair! I haven't been in years and your essay has driven home to me just how much I must remedy this situation, if only to see the oxen pulls again! My favorite food memory was the Indian village tucked way off in a sad, lonely corner somewhere on the grounds. There was corn, I remember that for sure, but also all sorts of "authentic" Iroquois cuisine that I can't quite remember. Is it still there? that would be amazing... Thanks so much for the jog down memory lane. It was wonderful!

3:06 AM, September 06, 2007  
Blogger Mimi said...

I have always imagined the way a state fair must be anticipated all summer long. I have never been to one, but I imagine it must be the apex of summer. Everything after the fair must be a letdown.

Your photos are magical, as usual, with a text to match.

3:08 AM, September 08, 2007  

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