Back in high school one of my favorite times was driving Mr. Diesel home from cross country practice with the windows down on warm days, blaring “Small Town”. Mr. Diesel was my decidedly unsexy by 16-year-old standards ’82 Oldsmobile Delta 88, and the John Mellencamp tape was pretty much worn out by my older sister, but in those moments, I felt completely at one with the universe. Driving down country roads, wind in my hair, livin’ the small town life, I knew that John Cougar Mellencamp (yeah, he’ll always be “Cougar” to me) and I were completely simpatico on small towns.
My small hometown, St. Charles, Minnesota, is everything that people dream of when they think of great small towns. Like many people, though, I felt the need to strike out on my own and make a life for myself. I moved 1,000 miles away to Montana for college, and for the most part, lived in Montana ever since. Six months ago, though, I moved back home to Minnesota with my husband and four kids. Life’s a whole new adventure back home again, taking in all that small town life has to offer.
By my best count, it’s been at least ten years since I last meandered the streets of downtown St. Charles, taking in good old Gladiolus Days, the annual hometown celebration. That’s nearly a third of my life with no parade, no street vendors, no garage sale mania, no Gladiolus Days Road Race. Living in Montana during those years, the timing never worked for us to come to Glad Days since school always starts there the week before the big bash. After a ten-year hiatus, it’s really fun to be back. Or perhaps I should say, I’m glad.
When I first told our kids about Gladiolus Days, they wrinkled their faces into a questioning glance and said, “What’s a ‘gladiolus’?” I do admit, if it’s not part of your common vocabulary, the word sounds more like a reference to some sort of disease than a flower, as in “I need to go to the doctor, my gladiolus is acting up again.” All kidding aside, I enjoyed telling my kids about Carl Fischer and how he made the town of St. Charles legendary for his work with the gladiolus. I told them how I remembered as a kid driving past his big field of flowers on the way to swimming lessons in the summertime, how everyone in town knew and respected his work, and how he remains famous for his glads still today.
When we rounded the corner onto Main Street on Saturday, my six-year-old spied buckets of flowers for sale on the corner of 14 and Main, and said, “Oooh, are those gladiolus, Mom?” So, yep, my little Montana natives now understand “gladiolus.” My hometown festivities began on Saturday morning when I headed to the road race. I met up with Alison, who was my cross country and track teammate and friend all through junior high and high school. I don’t know how many miles we logged together over the years, or how many workouts we gutted out together, but I do remember the many crazy ways we entertained ourselves over the miles.
We haven’t seen each other since high school graduation, though, so logging another 3 miles together during the race meant all the more. Getting to chat during a run with a friend of 20 years and catch up on some details of our lives, we discovered we both married mechanical engineers (good taste, obviously…). She’s a doctor; I’m a mom. And we still crack up at remembering the couple of times we made clandestine detours to the Oasis during practice. (Sorry Mr. Arnold, I think it was mostly in junior high.) Most importantly, courtesy of Gladiola Days, we both had a reason to get together on a Saturday morning and reconnect a friendship that’s endured through distance and time.
After the race, I hung around long enough to meet a friend’s new baby and watch my friends’ kids compete their little hearts out in the Marky Fun Run activities. Then I took my sweaty self and my family downtown to indulge in some street vendor fare. As we baked on the pavement enjoying pronto pups, pitas, and pop, I saw old neighbors walk by and had a chance to chat in line with our former veterinarian.
Saturday was fun for me, but Sunday was definitely the main event for my kids. Before the parade, we steeped them in parade etiquette. Wave to the people throwing candy, and you’ll get more candy. Say thank you. Don’t get too close to the tractors. When the motorcycles circle around, get off the road and give them room. And if you’re lucky (unlucky?), the dragon might blow smoke on you.
After brunch at Grandma’s, our two oldest kids hopped on their bikes, and our two little ones climbed in the stroller. We wove down the streets and made our way down to sit by my high school friends. With our four little kids all geared up to see fire trucks, horses, tractors, beauty queens, and grab gobs of candy, anticipation was high.
My six-year-old daughter waved for the full hour and a half of the parade. Her reward? Her gallon-size Ziploc filled way beyond capacity with all her loot, including a pair of sunglasses, a beach ball, and a paint stick, and endless candy.
My husband, Jarred, who’s never seen the Shriners on motorcycles before, thought the weaving formations, locking brakes, and tassels flying on fez hats were a fine bit of parade magnificence. He marveled that they are even allowed to do that in this age of extreme safety measures. In a role reversal, my five-year-old son, in contrast, was not impressed. After the Shriners whizzed past a few times, he said in the disgusted voice of a grumpy old man, “When are those stupid, loud motorcycles going to leave?!”
And like any good small town parade, we hung around and talked to friends until the kids were crying and begging to leave, feeling sweaty, hot, thirsty, and tired. We didn’t have as much time to catch up as I hoped, but our baby was fully coated in sugary stickiness and bits of grass and sported a dirty diaper, and the stroller was weighed down with all sorts of candy and brochures from politicians. I believe that fully covers a complete Gladiolus Days Parade experience.
By the time we made our way back to Grandma’s, my baby girl was dead to the world, and never even opened an eye as I changed her diaper and laid her down in the crib for a real nap.
A trip to the Oasis capped off the afternoon. Word spread at Grandma’s that Sunday was the last day for the Oasis, and in record time, the mention of ice cream gathered a crew of 15 nieces and nephews and parents meandering down the street toward the Oasis. While we waited fairly patiently in line, the cousins filled the mechanical ride-on pony a fair bit beyond the ordinary load, and a half dozen kids all enjoyed a 25-cent ride several times.
Finally, cones in hand, we licked up the last tastes of summer ice cream. And like a good mother, I helped rescue my three-year-old from drippy cone mess by making a quick licking pass all around his cone a few times. Unfortunately, in saving my son from getting ice cream drips, I neglected my own cone. A huge blob of my cherry dip cone wax and ice cream landed squarely on my sister’s toes and flip flop. Sometimes, my efforts at looking like a respectable adult are just completely futile. I’m still pretty much that same five-year-old that struggles to get through a dip cone before it completely covers my hand in white rivers of sticky, melted ice cream.
I’ll try to master the dip cone next summer.
Ice cream from the Oasis, the Gladiolus Days Road Race, and the big parade all added up to a great weekend in St. Charles. After living out of state for most of the last 14 years, there’s a comfortable familiarity in crossing paths on the streets of St. Charles with people I’ve known for a lifetime, having 30-year friendships in my mid-thirties, and holding a lifetime of memories at every corner of a town that is clearly a thriving community with so much to offer.
The appeal of my hometown didn’t escape my five-year-old son, who told me, “When I grow up, I’m going to live in St. Charles. It has a HUGE parade! And all kinds of garage sales!! And good ice cream!!” What more could you want? It’s good to be home again.