My sister took this picture in 1989; we still loved fairs and my mom still loved drawstring bags.
It was official: we were going to the Iowa State Fair. This was a big deal in 1975, especially in the Corn State where folks would remind each other all the time that we had the biggest state fair in the USA. The WHOLE USA, which made it the second most famous fact about Iowa, next to being the birthplace of Herbert Hoover.
My mom was fussing in the bathroom mirror while my toddler sister, Lucky, and I stood in the doorway. “Come on, we’re going to miss everything!” I whined, the baby adorably mimicking my words with great pride but little conviction. I was anxious because we were going in the early evening, which meant to my 9-year-old self that we had already missed almost everything.
The Iowa State Fair happens for 10 days in the middle of August, right before the start of school. Every year growing up, kids would come back to class with stories of their 4H calves, the new rollercoaster, all the crazy foods on a stick they tried. It sounded glorious, especially to a little girl who had never been.
My family was broke. At least that’s what I thought; in reality, it was even worse. My mom had bought our modest house in 1969 when she was working as an executive assistant at Look magazine, my grandfather cosigning the loan because it was still hard for a woman to get a mortgage. Six years later, things had deteriorated. Look folded in October of 1971, just before my mom got pregnant “out of wedlock” with my sister. Granted, the father was my dad and her ex-husband, but she didn’t invite him to stay and he didn’t offer, so it was the three of us, state aid, and my mom’s under-the-table cocktail waitress gig at the Wakonda Lounge. Child support wouldn’t be federally mandated until later that year, so my dad drifted out of sight and we kind of forgot about him, like all the other times.
It had taken us a few months to save up. I put my 25-cents weekly allowance in a jar in the kitchen and my mom added the pennies and nickels from her tips. A dedicated smoker of Raleigh cigarettes, she had saved up shoeboxes of B&W coupons and had redeemed some for items from the catalog that friends paid her cash for. Finally, we had $40 and two free nighttime admission coupons we got from the grocery store; my sister was still young enough to get in free. With all that money, we were going to tear up those fairgrounds – ride the rides, play midway games, and eat everything in sight – especially if it was on a stick.
Once Judy was dolled up and looking lovely, we piled into our ‘71 Pinto. With my sister tucked into her objectively unsafe car seat in the back, I rode shotgun, fiddling with the radio dial to avoid commercials so we could sing on the way. Next stop: the Iowa State Fair.
It was the golden hour, and the cows and grain elevators along the interstate to Des Moines were bathed in otherworldly light. My mom and I were crowing “Now that you’re go-o-one, all that’s left is a band of gold…” while my sister chirped similar noises. We were minutes away from the neighborhood near the fair where you paid someone $10 to park in their yard, and we had decided to go for it, to “live like sultans” in my mom’s words. Just we started to exit, there was a bad thump under the car, followed by the dreaded clank of metal scraping pavement.
We pulled over. In hindsight, I’m sure my mom knew about the Pinto’s exploding gas tank issue, which couldn’t have helped her state of mind. She walked to the back and knelt to look under the car, dirtying the knees of her white pedal pushers. The muffler was dragging. When she got back in, she slid into the driver’s seat and lit a cigarette while she stared out the windshield. Then she crushed the butt into the ashtray and laid her forehead on the steering wheel.
“Are you okay, Mommy?” I was worried; she wasn’t talking. Her shoulders began to shake, and a deep sob tore itself from her chest. She cried quietly with her head down while my hand fluttered over her back, her shoulder, her knee, trying to find a place to rest and give comfort. My sister, ever the mimic, also began to cry. I wanted to cry, too. Because my mom was crying, because my sister was crying, because something bad was happening.
Because we were going to miss the fair.
I held my breath as Judy pulled herself together slowly, wiping the mascara from her cheeks in the rearview mirror. She clicked open her cigarette case. Empty. “Hand me my purse, baby.” She needed the spare pack, so I reached into the back seat and pulled up the colorful straw and canvas bag by the drawstrings. My mom loved that purse; my grandmother had brought it to her from Mexico, and when she carried it she felt worldly, like a person who had bags from other countries. I handed it to her.
As she loosened the strings, she paused. She stared down at the festive flowers embroidered on the bag – red, yellow, purple, green – tracing one lightly with her finger. Then she sparked her lighter and burned the braided drawstring apart, pulling it out of the folded-over seam. She wrapped the cord loosely around one hand.
“What are you doing? Why did you burn your purse?” I was really worried now; my mom was so sad that she was setting her stuff on fire.
“I have an idea” she said, then opened the driver door as cars whizzed past in the now-dusky light. She went around the car; in the back window I saw her duck down and disappear. A few minutes later, she popped back up.
Her white pedal pushers were grimy with roadside sludge; the light blue peasant blouse that brought out her eyes was also filthy and had a little tear in the shoulder. Her hair looked crazy, and between crying and sweating, her makeup was gone. Her bag lolled open on the floor with no way to close it. She hopped back into the driver seat with a big grin. She had done it; she had saved the day by tying the muffler up with her purse strings.
“Let’s go,” she said, and winked at me. “We don’t want to miss everything.”
And we didn’t.