Let me, at the outset, define my particular type of county fair exhibitorship. My entries will not be found in any of the barns at the fairgrounds, nor in the building where pecan rolls, grape jelly, and the longest ear of corn can be viewed.
The items I paid $25 to put on display for all to see are tucked away under the grandstand. My counted cross-stitch pieces, including three houses surrounded by hearts, hearts surrounding a description of the Rainbow Bridge, a chain of Christmas stockings, Ruby’s birth record, and Lauren and William’s wedding announcement, are what I have been working on since last year’s fair and have been driving me bonkers in advance of this year’s July 31 deadline.
I share this confessional openly, assuming the average fair goer does not realize the psychological undertones involved in preparing items for public display – and to explore the reasons anyone would subject herself to such stress and scrutiny.
My condition, bordering on compulsion, is genetic. Taking things to the fair was a way of life for my mother during my childhood. I have no idea why she insisted on whipping up enough baked goods to feed an army in the three days before the fair each August. I know only that our medium-sized, kid-infested kitchen stood under a haze of flour and baking powder, while the single oven remained in constant service. As soon as Mother pulled the banana bread out, she shoved in the pineapple upside down cake and then punched down the dough for the cloverleaf rolls while simultaneously lining cake pans with wax paper for the upcoming spice cake. The culinary whirlwind abated only when my master-of-transport father packed the car and sped off toward town. Although my perfectionist mother was never entirely satisfied with any of her entries, every year she brought home a fistful of ribbons – many of them blue.
Following Mother’s example, we girls stitched up 4-H sewing projects for as long as we were eligible, with my brother doing some woodworking later on. Judging week was patterned after Mother’s baking frenzy. With up to five girls and just two machines, the living room and den became a swirl of thread and fabric scraps as we sewed right down to the last available moment.
My subsequent forty years at school precluded even the slightest consideration of exhibiting anything at the fair: my classroom activities and students provided enough projects, deadlines, and adrenaline rushes for a couple of lifetimes. No need to voluntarily subject myself to such madness right before the start of school.
During retirement, however, in the absence of papers to grade and lessons to plan, I began to spend my newfound time cross-stitching little pictures as gifts for family and friends.
And I watched more closely my sister, who for all those years carried on my mother’s fair display tradition. Despite a fulltime job, three fulltime children, and her own 4-H club, she managed to sew her way into exhibitorship – including garments for every possible category at the Homemaker’s Style Show. The month of July at her house has long been more than reminiscent of Mother’s kitchen back in the day.
My sister is always making birthday outfits and Christmas dresses for her granddaughters, Halloween costumes for the grandkids and grand dog, gifts for relatives and colleagues, accessories for her home – all of which she enters at the fair. Like Mother, she seldom experiences total satisfaction with anything she makes but continues to bring home lots of ribbons as well as the occasional best-in-show award.
In order to shed light on this shared need to involve ourselves in competition – a contest my sister believes is judged by three little old ladies armed with tape measures and magnifying glasses – let me describe how she and I spent last month.
I stitched for hours each day, driving myself to eyestrain and carpal tunnel shoulder. Across town, my sister juggled her work responsibilities with time at the sewing machine – and spent her lunchtime hand stitching at her desk. We fell asleep with needles in our hands and gritted our teeth while ripping out errant stitches. There were emergency trips to Hobby Lobby for another skein of embroidery floss and online orders for another quarter yard of fabric in another shade of green. We commiserated by phone, wondering aloud how we got ourselves into this mess again and admitting to each other that our initial creative excitement had worn off a couple of projects ago.
At our final show-and-tell session, we pointed out microscopic mistakes we hoped the judges would not notice. And in a moment revealing just how deeply and irreversibly we both are entrenched in this condition, we admitted that even as our fingers were flying to the finish, our minds were planning for next year.
So, dear fair goer, should you happen to browse this week’s needlework display, take a look at the dinosaur tail that had to be reattached after a rowdy night of trick-or-treating. Ignore the stocking snowflake missing one crystal and appreciate the difficulty of each lowercase “e” at the Rainbow Bridge.
And please realize I myself do not fully understand my competitive nature and/or my need for public attention. Suffice it to say that a hard-and-fast deadline does wonders for my project completion rate. After all, I really cannot help myself!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.