We missed the Evergreen State Fair this year. I don’t know how that happens. I am always so determined that we’re going to go, but sometimes August slips into September and our chance disappears along with it. There’s always the Puyallup, but it’s not the same thing. All my best memories are from the Fair in Monroe. And of all those memories, the most precious to me is the last time I went with my grandmother.
She announced one day that she wanted to go. In itself, that request doesn’t seem odd, but I’d actually never thought I’d hear it again from her. Though only 61, Grandma had been stopped cold by arthritis. ‘Old Arthur,’ as she called it, had cruelly plucked from her all her delights: trips to the mall, trips to Seattle, trips to the Fair. Arthritis had stolen her legs and hands, wrung the energy from her bones, and confined her to a chair near a window, from where she could watch life but no longer participate in it.
Grandpa perked up at her suggestion. “If you want to go to the Fair today, then that’s what we’ll do.” I watched him watching her, and saw determination in his eyes. “How many scones do you think you can eat?”
“At least two. And an ear of corn from the VFW booth,” she said.
We didn’t waste a minute. I helped Grandma brush her hair, Grandpa got her shoes and purse, and off we went.
Monroe, home to the Evergreen State Fair, was just a bit over spitting distance from my grandparents’ Snohomish farm. We were there in under twenty minutes, even counting Fair traffic. Grandma endured the slide from the car to her chair without a word. Nor did she utter a syllable’s worth of complaint as we traveled the gravel-covered parking lot.
As we walked toward the admissions gate, I saw her staring toward the right end of the fairgrounds, where the whizzing carnival rides were in full neon frenzy. “Shanny, what’s that long, skinny ride over there?”
I followed her gesture and saw the ride in question. “That’s the Zipper, Gram.”
She watched for a split second and said, “I think I’d like to ride the Zipper today.”
I made a sound not unlike a snort. “No, Grandma, you don’t want to go on the Zipper.”
I looked at Grandpa and he looked back. My expression said, What is she thinking? but his sent an entirely different message. What I saw in his eyes was, Isn’t she something?
True to her word, she ate a butter-slathered ear of corn and two scones. She also nibbled an elephant ear and shared a purple cow milkshake with Grandpa. We watched a man demonstrate the new-and-improved way to slice vegetables, watched a woman clean a spill with a must-have chamois, and watched loggers climb poles, chop wood and roll logs in a make-shift pond. We got our rings cleaned. We listened to the stock car races and even found a low-enough hole in the fence so Grandma could have a peek at the cars flying around the track.
Maybe it was that race that got her going again. “I think I’m ready for that ride now,” she said.
I decided not to fight her. We’d go on a ride, but the Zipper was out. “Grandma, if you feel well enough for a ride, let’s find one that won’t rattle you. The Zipper is too wild.” I scanned the jumble of machinery and saw one that looked innocuous enough. “Look over there,” I said.
Grandma looked. “You mean that big circle of swings?”
“Doesn’t that look fun?”
She kept looking. “Not really.”
“Sure it is. They’ll strap you in and then it lifts and spins around. I’ll bet we’ll be able to see everything from up there.”
She looked unconvinced. “Well, I’ll go on that, but then I want to go on the Zipper.”
I felt a little embarrassed as we wheeled Grandma up to one of the swings. I could see people nudging each other and whispering, as if we were forcing the woman to ride carnival rides against her will.
I fastened her safety belt and locked the metal bar. “I’ll be in the swing ahead of you.”
The ride started. We lifted and began to spin. Against the force, I twisted in my chair and looked back at Grandma. Legs dangling in the breeze, she sat straight against her seat with her hands folded neatly in her lap and a polite smile arranged on her face.
The peaceful, gentle ride didn’t last long. We got her back in her chair and wheeled past the onlookers. “That wasn’t so bad, was it, Grandma?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but now I’d really like to go on that Zipper.”
If she went on the Zipper — which wasn’t going to happen — it would mean I’d have to go with her. I took in another earful of Zipper-screaming and another eyeful of tumbling cages and decided I’d have to find a less frightening alternative.
I spied the Matterhorn. “How about that ride?”
Grandma sighed. “All right, Shannon. But then we’re going on the Zipper.”
We did go faster. We whipped along that track like a couple of medal-bound bobsledders, with Grandma yee-hawing right in my ear. After several minutes, we finally began to slow down. Grandma squealed her disappointment. “Don’t stop!” But the ride operator on the side of the track just laughed. As we rode past, he yelled back, “I’m putting it in reverse — just for you!” And off we went again, with Grandma yelling out her delight.
I felt dizzy as we climbed out of our car. That ought to do it, I thought. But Grandma had a different thought. “Clifford, tell Shannon I want to go on the Zipper.”
I begged Grandpa with my eyes to side with me. But I should have known he could never say no to her.
“Shanny, take your Grandma on the Zipper.”
I walked to that ride with all the joy one would feel walking to a guillotine. I felt ill as we climbed aboard one of the barely-secured cages and I heard the click of the lock. Grandma, however, looked like a sixteen-year old who had just gotten her driver’s license. “Let’s see how fast we can make this thing spin.”
I didn’t have time to argue. The ride (and my screaming) began. Up we went, and then around, and around, and around. “Lean into it,” Grandma ordered. “Help me spin us faster.”
Could she not hear my screaming?
I screamed myself hoarse. Grandma giggled through the entire ride. And when we finally, mercifully, slowed and stopped at the very tiptop of the ride — upside down — Grandma kept laughing. I kept screaming. Until eventually, she gave me a nudge in the side.
“Shannon, you’re embarrassing me.”
I stopped screaming and turned to look at her. Grandma’s hair, like my own, hung straight down from her head. Her eyes were teary from laughter; with a gnarled finger, she wiped one escaped tear from her cheek. I could just see the ground below through squares of the cage near her head. Near our feet, I saw the sky. And the whole thing was suddenly so absurd, I had to laugh. We hung there together like two teenage friends, stuck in a moment I’ve returned to a hundred times in my mind.
Grandma’s arthritis came back in the months that followed. It came with a vengeance, angry to have lost her for that short period. That trip to the Fair was our last together, but it was the trip that meant the most to me. Among the many things I learned from my grandmother, the lesson she gave me in that between-earth-and-sky moment was one I value most. Age, it turns out, is a relative thing. And unless you convince yourself otherwise, you’re never too old to fly.