The fair was an annual occurrence.
Like most things in Delaware, a member of the du Pont family had founded it. The point was to sell flowers and raise money for charity, and for almost a century the event’s original name, The Flower Market, had stuck. This was despite an influx of midway attractions over the past 50 years twisting the atmosphere into that of a carnival. There were, of course, still roses and chrysanthemums to be bought along the perimeter, but for children, it was now just an excuse to take advantage of the lengthening May daylight and spin themselves dizzy on cheap rides.
In the shadow of Rockford Tower, a mother and daughter walked side by side. A tense distance was growing between them as they passed a row of concessions. It appeared that they would eventually split apart and go their own directions, had a baby stroller not suddenly blocked their path.
“Honey, let’s stop here for a second. Look at this.” The mother pointed to an antique comb for sale on a nearby craft table.
She waited, but got no response. She tried again.
“Honey, look at this, it’s just like the one you had when you were little.”
“That’s disgusting, it probably has lice.” The mother shot a panicked glance at the elderly man working behind the table, but he hadn’t heard.
“What is wrong with you?” She grabbed her daughter by the arm and spoke in a stage whisper. “Can’t you be civil for one afternoon?”
“Did you just say ‘civil?’ Are you, like, ninety years old or something? Who says that? And get off of me.”
“Do you want to leave?”
“Yes, actually.” The young girl pulled free.
“Well, you can’t. We’ve got to pick out a gift for your grandmother.”
“She’s not my grandmother. Why don’t you just call her your mother?”
“Are you really going to start this again? Right here, today?”
Their increasing volume caused the old man to take notice. They lowered their voices.
“You’re not my mom.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re actually not.”
“You’ve been in a horrible mood all day, ever since I picked you up. And I’ve had enough of it. We’re going to pick out a gift and get out of here, OK?”
“I just don’t understand why I can’t go to the party tonight.”
“Because you’re fifteen years old and it’s your grandmother’s birthday tonight, that’s why.”
“She’s not my grandmother.”
An exasperated sigh.
Once again, the vendor looked in their direction.
“Can I help you two ladies find anything?”
Mother and daughter quickly declined.
A moment later they were rushing into the open sunlight of the park, moving as far as they could from the crowd. Tinny music emanating from a merry-go-round offered more privacy.
“You are not going to that party tonight with that boy, there is no way. Especially the way you’re acting today.”
“I can do whatever I want.” “No, you can’t.”
“Dad would let me go in a second.” “No, he wouldn’t. And he’s not here. So, when he goes away for work, I’m the one in charge, and I make the rules. And I know for a fact he wouldn’t want you going out when you’re behaving like this.”
Somewhere in the distance a balloon popped. Ringing bells mixed with faraway laughter.
“I just don’t understand why you treat me like a child. And I’m not talking about this anymore. I’m going for a walk. Call me when you’re done.”
With that, the girl turned and left.
Back among the antique booths, the mother tried to browse the tables. Concentration was elusive. She questioned where her parenting went wrong. It always came back to the parents, she thought. It must’ve been her fault, somehow. It was basic psychology. Was there any way she could’ve showed more love? Or more discipline? Or balanced affection and admonishment better? Maybe it was just teenage hormones, a passing cliché. But what if her child was doing drugs? Or worse? Was there anything worse than drugs, really? Maybe there was? Her thoughts tumbled over themselves in an avalanche of anxiety.
It was different when she’d first married and only had a toddler to deal with. The sweet little girl who always wanted mommy in the middle of the night, who painted her own birthday cards and dreamed about fairy tales and had no concept of genetics, or relationships, or the complications facing seven billion people on earth. A child who knew only love. A child who didn’t know the truth. There was no way to reverse time, though. No way to go back. As much as people wished they could, there was no way to relive the past. A sudden cough from the old antiques dealer broke her thought pattern.
“Hello. Again. Can I help you find something?” “No, no. I don’t know. Maybe. I need a gift for my mother’s birthday.”
“Ah, yes, I can help you with that. How old is she, if you don’t mind my asking?” “She turns 81 today.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.” “And was that your daughter here earlier, too?” “Yeah.”
The old man motioned toward several tarnished watches dangling from the edge of the display.
“Does she like vintage watches?” “No, she hates them.”
“Oh, well that wouldn’t make for a good birthday present, then.” “No, no, I meant my daughter. She’s fifteen, she doesn’t really like antiques.” “I see. I meant your 81-year-old mother.”
“Yeah. I realized that.”
“How about this? Do you like this?” Moving a few things around the table, the old man uncovered a rhinestone brooch, sculpted like a sunflower. “It’s from the ‘50s or ‘60s, I’d say.” He handed it to her, the weight of the pin heavier than expected.
“This is nice. How much is it?” “I’ll give it to you for twenty dollars.”
Just then, the sound of her phone. The woman motioned goodbye, returning the brooch and reaching into her purse.
“It’s my daughter, I’ve got to go.” As she turned to leave, an odd impulse made her reconsider the jewelry. Going back into her purse, she retrieved a twenty-dollar bill, slid the money across the table, took the brooch, and left.
A few minutes later, mother and daughter were winding through the amusement park rides toward the parking lot, in silence. The scent of cooking sugar and confections filled the air.
“I decided to take your grandmother to dinner tonight, instead of buying her anything.” They continued behind a giant children’s slide, stepping over extension cords connected to a churning generator. “Oh, and also, you can go to that party tonight, as long as you’re back by eleven.” She spoke quickly now, not allowing time for a reply. “And I almost forgot, too, I bought you this.” She passed the brooch to her daughter. Their hands touched, briefly.
The two women continued upstream against the flow of arriving guests.
Finally, as they approached the edge of the field, they stopped for a moment, before quickly embracing.
Somewhere back inside the crowded festival, a merry-go-round repeated its tune for the hundredth time that day. The music, like mother and daughter, in perfectly dissonant harmonization.
A.E. Milford was born and raised in Northern Delaware. Now based in Los Angeles, Milford has written for various film projects and has had fiction published in The Schuylkill Valley Journal and Philadelphia Stories.