I drive by our town’s carnival and feel the tug. I smell the popcorn and hear the tinny music. I see families, teenagers, and the elderly making their annual pilgrimage. Memories take me back. And that’s when I realize this event has seen me through six major life stages…
The Small Child – At 5, I’m entranced by this world of sound and light. I sit on my father’s shoulders or hold hands with my mom. I have my first taste of cotton candy and sno-cones. I love the little rides with teacups and baby dinosaurs. I especially love the merry-go-round.
One time my father takes me on the Ferris wheel and I’m awed and terrified as that creaky seat sways at the tippy top. I see my little town from far, far up.
The Older Child – My parents are okay, but I’d rather hang with friends. I just turned 12. Changes are happening to my body. Big changes. I go on the scarier rides even though I secretly hate them.
I gaze longingly at the merry-go-round. I remember the feeling of going around while the music plays and the horses bob up and down. Of course, if I did that now, I’d never hear the end of it. I get in line with my friends for the Zipper, the ride where the cars dangle upside down. The screams can be heard from here. My palms sweat and heart pounds.
The Teenager – I slouch around, too hip for this kid stuff. But I guess I had to come. You never know, that cute guy in Algebra II might be here. I meet up with girlfriends and stand in a circle, making fun of everyone. Once in a while, I look over my shoulder to see who might, maybe, hopefully, be looking back.
After all these years, I notice this odd tent next to the food stalls. What are all these old people doing sitting at long picnic tables with white cards and thick magic markers? A man calls out numbers and someone yells, “Bingo!” Everyone gets excited. How sad.
Parents of Young Kids– Okay, I lost a little time in my twenties. I was too busy drinking wine with friends on weekends. And let’s face it, the carnival wasn’t exactly on my action list. But suddenly I’m in my thirties, married with two kids. My husband Randy and I navigate the grounds lugging strollers, diaper bags, bottles, and backpacks.
At least I get to ride on the merry-go-round again. And again. And again. In fact our two and five year olds want to go on each ride thousands of times and scarf endless ice cream and funnel cakes. They want to play every game. They cry when they don’t win the giant stuffed panda.
At one point, my five year old runs into the bingo tent. I go to retrieve him and come upon all these quiet old people, intent over white cards. A woman looks up and smiles.
Parents of High School kids – Now those boys avoid us like we have the plague. My husband and I walk the grounds, slightly befuddled. The rides aren’t the same without kids. We play a few games, but there’s no children wanting that giant stuffed panda. We see young families and feel that whiff of nostalgia.
We meet up with other older parents, happy to have human contact. We swap war stories. Besides eating, what is there to do, we ask each other? “At least we’re not in the bingo tent,” someone says. Everyone laughs.
The Bingo Tent – More years pass and we finally take our places at that long table. We hold those fat magic markers and buy tickets from the guy making the rounds. We notice some of the parents from early years, the ones who swore they’d never end up here. We give each other happy shrugs. What can you do? Here we are.
We play and it’s not so bad. Sometimes it’s downright exciting, especially after a dinner of hot dogs and French fries. We hear the music and smell the cotton candy. We listen to the happy shouts of children and see knots of teenagers standing outside.
A little child runs into the tent, followed by a tired-looking mother. We look at each other a moment. I smile as she scoops him up and hurries off.
I think of that time I sat way up high with my father on the Ferris wheel, our little town spread below. Not much changes and yet everything changes. Generations come and go. And it’s all seen here at the carnival.
The air-blower pops out another ball “G-17!” a fireman shouts.
An excited rustle goes through the crowd. “Bingo!”