Remembering when the country fair won out over kittens

As a carefree kid, I never paid much attention to the weather, but the sight of a single cloud just before the annual fair plunged my heart into the depths of despair.

What if it rains? Our car will get stuck in the lane and the fair will be over and done with before the ruts ever dry. My father doesn’t even grasp the urgency of the matter.

My mother was more understanding. When I shared my concerns that night at bedtime, she made a promise.

“If it rains and we can’t go to the fair tomorrow, you can keep both kittens from the latest barn litter, how’s that?”

Well, I wanted those kittens, it’s true, but I also wanted to go to the fair. None but the young at heart could have appreciated the fervency of my prayers that night, and none but the nimble footed could have hopped out of bed the next morning to see what the day brought forth.

Sunbeams and clear skies made me sing for joy. Forget about those kittens. It’s fair day.

Since there was a park adjoining the fairgrounds, Mom packed a lunch — potato salad, bologna, radishes, green onions, homemade buns and molasses cake.

By the time we rumbled over about 25 kilometres of washboard road in our 1936 Studebaker car, it was close to noon, so first on the agenda was a picnic.

I tried to sit still on the patchwork quilt spread out on the grass and do justice to my plate of food, but it was not easy. Just beyond the trees the ferris wheel was whirling and the music of the merry-go-round rose and fell on the summer breeze.

At last Dad pulled his wallet from the pocket of his striped bib overalls and counted out 35 cents. My fist bulging with nickels, I headed for the midway.

The giddy confusion of it all was overwhelming at times. My head reeled, my stomach churned, and I clutched my nickels in sweaty palms. So many enticing ways to spend my money — thrilling rides, mysterious sideshows, pink ice cream, caramel apples, cotton candy. What should I choose?

Right in the middle of my pleasant dilemma, I caught a familiar whiff — the show barns. Sitting on a salt block among the hay bales and harnesses, I counted my nickels and contemplated my next move. Decisions of such magnitude required full concentration and the slow, deliberate movement of the cattle chewing their cuds calmed my feverish excitement.

A few minutes’ rest and I ventured back into the merry madness of the midway.

When the afternoon sun began to beat hard upon my throbbing head, I retreated into the little whitewashed building with a dirt floor that housed the poultry exhibits. The place smelled of creosote disinfectant, but it was cool and quiet and I sat on a bag of chicken feed and gnawed at my candy apple without feeling too conspicuous.

Over in the corner, a big white rooster strutted back and forth, crowing arrogantly about winning first prize, pausing now and then to deliver a vicious peck at the purple ribbon pinned to his cage.

When no one was looking I slipped my apple core through the wire mesh, and he gobbled it up with such gusto I was convinced that show birds must be somewhat deprived of the simple joys of life.

Not so a little girl at the country fair.

It was not until we were on our way home that the fate of the two barn kittens began to weigh heavily upon my conscience. Had my day of pleasure jeopardized their future? If so, how could I ever again look straight into the big amber eyes of the mother cat?

The next morning I tagged along to the barn with Mom when she went to do the milking. Both kittens were groping blindly about in the manger, bits of hay clinging to their soft grey fur.

The mother cat lay dozing in a patch of warm sunshine, but she pricked up her ears at the sound of the milk ping, pinging into the pail. I picked up the kittens and as they began to mew, their mother came and rubbed against my legs.

I was burdened with guilt.

For days after, I kept checking to see if the kittens were still in the barn. They were, only now their eyes were open and they playfully tussled with each other, and with me. I had even secretly named them Dusty and Soot.

I could stand it no longer. As Mom stood at the kitchen stove one evening frying eggs, I had to ask.

“What … about … the … kittens?”

“What about them?”

“Well, you said, you said, if it rained and we couldn’t go to the fair, I could keep them, but I did go so….”

“Oh, Dad and I have been noticing more mice than usual lately, so I think we better keep the kittens, don’t you?”

It was the only time in my entire life that I have been grateful for mice.

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