Carnies and “Piss Off” Bonnets

See? Sun bonnets are the fabric version of saying, “Piss off!”


I live in a town called Independence. Actually I live in the town next to it…but you know how old small towns bleed together over the century, connected by spattered little strip malls and one-story office buildings? We’ve got that going on.

If my name were “Christmas Oneill,” I wouldn’t make a big deal about it come Christmas time. I’d try and be cool, and not draw attention to the fact. My town is not interested in being cool, and sucks every last drop of celebration out of the parched air come Independence Day. The population triples, there is a three day festival of booths selling overpriced bead jewelry and dead-eyed carnies slamming purely ornamental “safety” bars over our children’s laps. The traffic is clotted, the neon yard sale signs overtake every signpost in town, and in general everything is bright loud chaos.

I have a little easy-set pool in my backyard now. A thrift store miracle in the form of a $200 hammock. The kind made of sailcloth, with metal rivets and a 450lb weight limit; the kind that doesn’t fold itself into a puny little cocoon when you roll out of it. Found it for $30, brand new. I have a picnic table and a grill. I have green grass.

I have children.

Children who are old enough now to zero in on words like “parade,” “carnival,” and “fireworks.” Children who cannot see how superior their own backyard is to such profane amusements. Children who want local farming co-ops to throw candy at them while their mother sits behind them, slowing dissolving onto the burning sidewalk. Children who want elephant ears and cotton candy and pitiful stuffed snakes won for them at the balloon dart game that is already ripping at the seams but they name them “Shakey Snakey” anyway and carry them all day.

God I was pissy Friday. I knew the importance of my getting off my ass and exposing my kids to summer sun and streamers. I knew it was important to see my friends and celebrate as we usually do, as a tangled group of small children and over-educated, exhausted parents who keep wondering, “What if I’d just bought a dachshund?” So I went.

I wore a “leave me alone” hat.  I collect Oregon Traill stuff and I have an-honest-to-god farm-wife, “walked 2000 miles behind oxen” sun bonnet. Those women, man, they knew how to make a goddamn sun hat. Light breathable cotton. The stiff brim putting my whole face into it’s own little shady cave – enough shade to cover my baby’s face when I held him. A ruffle cascading at the nape to keep the neck from getting burned. And you have a natural instinct to avoid me when I wear it cuz I look like the kind of person who wears old stained sun bonnets in public.

I sat in my lawn chair in hot dark jeans and a billowing, wrinkled and rust spotted bonnet over my head. My arms were folded in front of me and my brim blocked out all my friends, whom I did not engage because I was hot and cranky and if I hadn’t been befriended by such high quality, challenge-loving, life-living people, I wouldn’t have to be sitting in this damn sun at 12 noon having emergency vehicles blaring their sirens THREE FEET from my face because for some goddamn reason they think I’d LIKE that.

Pioneer women often would collect buffalo chips to make fires to cook with.

See? She knows what I’m talking about. HARDSHIP.

Oh, but the tiny smile on my son’s face when he saw the big trucks. And my daughter’s freakish aptitude for candy-diving while making sure all the littler ones in the group got their fair share. And the later, at the carnival and fireworks. Sitting with my feet in the river watching over seven little ones I’d known since they were just fat little gourds swaddled in their parent’s arms. They caught tadpoles and built jetties and collected agates and made a boarding house for tiny clams. Lying on a blanket under the fireworks with my daughter in my lap, acutely aware that to every side of me sat a family I knew and cared for; all of us displaced by space or soul from our own families and coming together to build an extended one of our own.

All that sap and saccharin. It’s real though. And the flavor of it lasts so much longer than anything sour or bitter. It’ll linger on your tongue your whole life.

(Also I got to touch a real carnie. I have a thing for carnies.)


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