To open our Sibling Discovery discussion about blue ribbons, Norma shared her poem:
I tossed the blue ribbons
Earned in my youth
When I was 50 something.
I acknowledged the lessons,
The brief glory they represented;
Then I danced in the empty space.
Norma Colman, December 9, 2012
Norma had visual ideas for a landscape to go along with this poem, but her November workload didn’t allow time to pursue more than the words this time. And neither Paul nor I produced anything more than memories and observations in response to this prompt. But Norma’s six short lines sparked a marvelous conversation.
* * *
“It’s totally not what I thought I would do,” Norma said of throwing away her blue ribbons. “I tossed the 4-H stuff and my dolls. Now I’m getting ready to go through the sentimental ornaments that haven’t been opened in 15 years (from college through divorce). I will give some to the kids. The rest I’m probably not going to keep. They served their purpose.”
We honed in on the title Norma chose for her poem.
“I don’t have objection to competition if everyone competing wants to compete,” she said. “But I don’t care to get blue ribbons any more. I like getting paychecks and I like to do well, but I don’t like to compete.”
In response, Paul talked about adult experiences showing woodcarvings—and not placing. “It brings that hollow feeling of showing pigs,” he recalled of his own 4-H experience. “I didn’t like it. Dad didn’t like it. It didn’t make me a better hog farmer.”
“Sure, but I did learn a lot from the fair and 4-H,” Norma pointed out. “Plus, open show was spending money. And that was Dad’s free ticket into the fair.”
* * *
We all agreed that Dad didn’t care deeply about his results at the county fair. But he alway s participated. And for not caring, he sure was proud when he got a blue ribbon on his timothy or tomatoes or whatever he rounded up to show.
That’s exactly where this prompt took me: to the stark difference between my preparations for showing 4-H projects and Dad’s efforts to enter things in open show.
For weeks, if not months, Mom prodded me to work on my 4-H projects. I made dozens of brownies, seeking just the right crumb. I sewed and ripped every side seam, getting the stitches straight and even. I painted one picture after another, looking for just the right perspective or shadow. Mom rode me until at last we dropped the final product at the fairgrounds. Then we would return a day later, sweating as much from anxiety as from summer heat, to see what ribbon the judges had hung on my work. God help me if it wasn’t blue.
In contrast, Dad waited until the day entries were due for judging. He would wander out to the garden or the edge of the field and select the best looking fruits of his labor. He tied timothy with a scrap of twine and presented tomatoes on a paper plate. Straight from the farm to the fairgrounds he went, carefree and ready for a corn dog.
My siblings couldn’t disagree. Mom wanted there to be rules, procedures, process. That worked for her. She got results that way.
Dad’s approach was to ask, “What can we do here?”
Our mom was crafty and productive and so good at so many things. Yet Dad was far more “creative.” Dad’s “let’s see what happens” tactics must have been hard for Mom. She had grown up in unique circumstances, dealing with adult things at a very young age. Even her religious upbringing was quite different—focusing more on damnation than grace.
* * *
Bringing things back around to our own blue ribbon moments, Paul understood the pressure I felt to get blue ribbons and As, but that was not his experience. “I’m still happy to get a blue,” he said, “but I was more of a B and a C kid.”
Norma chimed in: “I did get a lot of As. I happened to enter things I was good at.”
Norma and I no longer have much exposure to blue ribbons and county fairs. But not long ago, Paul served as a 4-H leader while his kids were coming up through the program.
“Virtually everyone got blue ribbons,” he said, “The ribbon now is for accomplishment, not competition. Very few kids get that kick in the gut. Also, now at the fair in general projects, you don’t just put it down and walk away. You have to present to the judges and explain what you’ve learned.”
I’m smiling now, as I write this, wondering how our dad would have presented his learnings about growing timothy …