More than a trip to Disney World, more than the celebration of Christmas, for Vineyarders the annual four-day Agricultural Fair grounds us in the sacredness of family.
Since my beloved ex-husband Marty Nadler began luring me here to the Island from Los Angeles in the late 1970s, pretty much as our first date (and if I hadn’t loved it, there would have been no second), the Ag Fair in the third week of August loomed as a special treat, on the level of quahogging on the sandbars of Segenkontacket, or stopping for stuffed lobsters at the Kafe in Edgartown (owner Ralph swore he’d take the stuffing recipe to his grave).
So when we gave birth to our baby in 1984, right here on the Island — our little native, Charlie — we brought him to the Ag Fair on his 1-month, 1-week birthday, and we never stopped the annual pilgrimage.
His earliest memories are, I’d like to think as I carried him past, of the swirling jewel-colored clothes in the many booths, the jingle of bridles on the colossal Clydesdales, and the hilarious sight of piglets nursing from big mama in the barn.
Or what about the booth with the veggie tempura that always drove his own mama mad with desire?
I’m sorry to say none of this registered when he was little. Instead the young toddler grew his legs and his vocal cords, and by the time he was 5 or 6 was ready to skedaddle with piston-precision knees to the dusty open space of Kids Games.
“Mom, can I have five bucks?” my kiddo would scream before I lost him to the promised land of mini basketballs thrown at 5-foot-high hoops, the ever-popular darts pitched at balloons, the crazy hats game, the cola ring toss and Ping-Pong balls lobbed at cups — “Like beer pong!” he revealed to me 30 years later.
He might request, after three-quarters of an hour, another $5 to see him through. I dropped in on him periodically to show some tepid interest, but he and the several pals of his group around the fish toss (the fish were colorful plastic) cared little about a parent’s input. Their whole focus was on winning that teddy bear with the gold button eyes, or worse — no one seemingly ever lays grubby hands on the black-and-white stuffed panda, bigger than any actual panda in the Nepal wilderness.
And then there came a chance to reboot the whole baby thing at the Ag Fair. In 1991, our little family of three — the three Nadleteers, we called ourselves — moved lock, stock, and barrel to our home in East Chop. It was August again, and now Charlie would be cavorting at the Ag Fair with his neighborhood pals, Billy Munson and Rahmale Hopkins, all set to enter the second grade in a few weeks. But what was this? Rahmale was shuffling down the hill with his baby brother, an adorable toddler with wide-set sparkling brown eyes in a moon face, with a wry smile that exposed his lower three teeth.
“My mom said I gotta take care of Markus,” he said with a sigh at the bum luck imposed upon him. But I jumped at the chance to have a wee one in my arms again, and I dispatched Rahmale back up the hill for permission to take the cutie-pie with us. “Just ask your mom to send down a couple of clean diapers!” I called after him.
We loaded into our 1980 pink Buick convertible, top down. Once at the fair, the three future second graders scrounged in their pockets for the requisite five bucks, and sailed off to the games. I had no care in the world, and snuggled little Markus close to me. He weighed about 25 pounds, and was clad in a red fleece onesie from which he could fling his little brown thighs, the dimples on his knees a special feature.
But wait. Something had changed. While it all felt sublime on my end, I realized Markus and I must have presented a different paired face to the world. I was accustomed to drifting along the pathway of life with a baby, and eliciting smiles of empathic contentment from other mamas. Mamas of all ages. But that day fewer women flashed back those knowing nods of pure mutual mommy love.
They seemed to me sort of bewildered. As if they tried to work out what Markus meant to me. He must have been, to these strangers, a result of my nuptials with a man of color. But why should that matter? Surely I could have this delicious muppet with his darker dad, and we could still receive glows of comfort and joy from other ladies. Guess there was simply a lot to think about, and we’re still thinking.
Later I gathered the three older boys together for a fling around the Ferris wheel. I knew I’d be pushing it if I tried to also tack on a merry-go-round ride. Vineyard lads have their own homegrown merry-go-round called the Flying Horses. And if I tried to extend my own good time on the Ag Fair clock, they’d only clamor for another 5 bucks and a renewed charge at the Games.
We clunked home in the Buick, top still down, Markus pumping his tiny fists and yelping with the bigger boys from his borrowed baby seat as they tried to catch the attention of the goats in a nearby paddock. The next year would bring a renewed attack on the mini hoops, and maybe this time that giant stuffed panda would belong to one of the darling four boys in our pink Buick.
And P.S., as I write this reminiscence, it occurred to me to call up Charlie, now a totally grownup 35-year-old, and ask him if those stuffed animals ever meant anything at all to him. “Oh, of course!” he declared.
“And do you still enjoy playing those kids’ games?” I asked him.
“YES!” came the unequivocal response, and then he added, “But they can keep the prizes. It’s all about the competition.”
“Oh, you’re still competitive?” I asked in that snide Mommy voice.
“Gotta take this call!” he sang out.
Just goes to show how the Ag Fair helps to instill our boys and girls with good manners.