Monday, August 26, 2002


For months now we’ve been eating vegetables from our garden: homegrown greens and peas, zucchini and crookneck squash, amusingly shaped carrots and fragrant herbs. And now it’s tomato and pepper and lemon time. Over the weekend Sonja put up a few jars of flavorsome lemon-ginger marmalade. Paul, scientist to the core, has invented candied habanero peppers, which for sheer force of personality make cinnamon red-hots taste like marshmallows. (Paul enjoys making super-spicy food, but he doesn’t eat it himself.) And today Michele picked, blanched, peeled, seeded, chopped, and cooked dozens and dozens of tomatoes, then canned the resulting sauce.

All this is wonderful, just the kind of thing I was hoping for when we formed this family. Yet part of me is sad, too, because it also makes me homesick. I miss my sisters and mother. I miss the summer mornings when we woke early and I made crazy breakfasts — popovers like edible balloons, tender homemade doughnuts and fritters, even onion rings one memorable morning. I miss all singing together. I miss going to the fair.

Now, the Harford Fair is still a genuine working country fair. It’s held the third full week in August (and yes, I was thinking about it all last week), and it’s a festival of all the skills and pleasures of country life, from tractor pulls to tatting, but especially focused on the basic skills of the farm family: raising healthy animals, growing good crops, preserving and cooking those foods, maintaining a well-managed household.

I always loved wandering through Floral Hall and Vegetable Hall, looking at the exhibits. The quilts, weaving, and needlework are spectacular, some even museum-class work. There are displays of children’s schoolwork and 4-H Club projects, homemade jellies and pickles, breads, cookies, decorated cakes, handmade furniture, beautifully arranged garden flowers, and market baskets that aren’t just an economist’s metaphor but actual baskets brimming with crisp vegetables and ripe fruits. Farmers can win prizes for the best hay, steers, horses, pigs, corn, honey. Or they can compete in tractor pulls, sawing and felling competitions, axe-throwing contests, horse- and pony-pulls.

There are plenty of other things to see, too: rides and a midway, the library’s annual book sale (source of many of my books when I was growing up), the Good News Bus where children can see a free slideshow about God’s Plan of Salvation, political booths, church groups selling home-baked goodies, dealers selling woodstoves or tractors or chainsaws or antiques, exhibits of old farm machinery and tools, the local gun club, and dozens of food booths. From the Montrose Marching Band’s infamous milkshakes and funnel cakes to the whole ox roast, there are millions of calories available -- and all so seductively aromatic. But so are the trampled grass, the green pungency of the tomatoes on display, the clean animal scent of the barns.

If that was all, it would still be wonderful, but there’s more. The fair is on the ridge in Harford, and you can look across the valley as you approach from the Jackson side and see the brilliant fair spread out like the City of God amid the green fields. When I was a teenager, I always made sure I was on the Ferris wheel just at dusk to watch the moon rise over the mountain; beyond the hill was Jackson and home; beyond that was heaven.

Jackson is still there, but changed and lessened: the church sold for an antique shop, the people we loved scattered, my family among them, the house burned. My home is in California, and I fit in here better than I ever could in conservative rural Pennsylvania. But I lost something real when I left there. Continuity. I had a world, and I was homesick for it even when I lived there. I didn't fit. I couldn't live there and be my own complete self. I've found here beautiful landscapes and loving people, a solid church, a job I love, a family.

Here I have everything but the past.

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