Coco and the county fair

If the Marshall County Fair back in the late 1970s had been an opera, my older sister Coco would’ve been the prima donna. A true Renaissance 4-H girl, she was a judge’s dream. Only in junior high, she already had talents with a camera, canvas, cloth, cooking, and Checkered Giants (rabbits.) I was in elementary school at the time, and while my younger siblings may have entered items in the fair too, my memories of their efforts are fuzzy; I was too busy trying to emulate Coco to pay much attention.

In four frames, Coco captured the different stages of my cartwheel for a photo series entry. She baked the best julekage and carrot cake I, to this day, have ever tasted. She showcased her sewing skills by altering a dress and transforming it into a skirt/top duo. And she nurtured an all-white male rabbit named Dandelion to winning heights.

My industrious doings, on the other hand, sang an off-key tune. While my dried bean and macaroni kitchen plaque was solidly average, I stitched a misplaced seam on my sewing project, turning my striped skirt with patch pockets into a bag. And for the baking competition, I whipped up some biscuits using baking soda instead of baking powder.

“What’s the difference anyway?” I asked Mom after admitting my mistake in the kitchen. “Does it really matter?”

“Bake them and see,” she said.

The dog wrinkled her nose at the hard orange biscuits that emerged from the oven. I started my projects over, mixing my dough again and later ripping out the stitches in my “bag” too.

If thoughts of the fair judges’ scrutiny rattled us, the promise of the payout kept us motivated. A blue ribbon equaled $3.00, a red ribbon $2.00, and a white $1.00. A grand champion ribbon meant even more money, but I imagined the sense of satisfaction was higher than the dollars earned by winning one.

Coco secured all blue ribbons, with the exception of her julekage and carrot cake; those were grand champion winners. I don’t remember what I won on my biscuits or skirt, but I know I earned a red ribbon on my dried bean and macaroni plaque. And those two dollars made me grin.

The county fair was bigger than ribbons, though. For several shifts a year, we 4-H members and some parents performed a sweaty service manning the food booth, and that was where Coco and I shared equal ground; we both feared making change.

We kids took the customers’ orders, the hot grill spitting grease at us as we scurried by. We plated hamburgers, potato salad, rolls, and pie. We filled cups with coffee and milk. And then came time for the money to change hands.

“$5.15, please,” I said to an older gentleman with a mustache.

He opened his wallet, extracted a twenty-dollar bill, and rummaged in his pocket. He slapped a dime and a nickel down on the counter along with the bill.

I furrowed my brow, plucking up the twenty and waggling it in the air. “This is enough. You don’t need the coins too.”

His eyes smiled even though his mustache stayed even. He nodded toward somebody’s mother who worked the cash register. “Bring it over there, give it to her, and see what happens.”

Wary, I brought the twenty and change to the till. The woman handed me back a ten and a five. A light dawned, and my mouth sagged open. Mr. Mustache had shown me new ways of the world—and making change. I shot a look over my shoulder at him. He winked.

In the evening, we collected our fair items with the judges’ notes affixed to them—and ribbons too, if we were lucky—and loaded them into the station wagon. Coco’s champion baked goods, along with other people’s, had posed for public viewing all day on flimsy plates atop white-papered tables. Flies buzzed in circles over the edible winners, but that didn’t stop us from tearing into the julekage on the ride home and washing down the soft wads of Norwegian Christmas bread with ice-cold strawberry Shastas.

Back at home, we bathed, sponging away the dust from the fair while keeping our memories. Coco displayed her ribbons on a cork board in our shared bedroom, and of course I copied her. As if that year wasn’t success enough, I could tell my big sister already had schemes brewing for the next year’s entries. And maybe I did too.

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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.