By Donna Biddle
When I went grade school in Terre Haute, Indiana in the 1940s, schools had more leeway as to when you went to school and what could be a reason to let school out early. I particularly remember one late April day when our grade school, Fairbanks, closed at noon so we could go to the circus.
It had come to town, pitched its tents and had only one show that afternoon. Most of my classmates were going except those of us who couldn’t afford a ticket. I walked home slowly, trying to get myself ready. I didn’t want to show my mother my disappointment. I felt connected to the circus since I had been born on circus day. My mother told me I was born while the circus parade was going down Wabash Avenue.
No matter how hard I tried to be okay, I really wanted to go to the circus, but there wasn’t any money so I hadn’t even asked if we could go. I had told my mother I didn’t even like circuses and I was glad I didn’t have to go.
I came home and as I walked in the door I could tell my mother was excited, but I didn’t know why. She gave me my baloney sandwich and we sat at the kitchen table I stared down at my plate not wanting to look up for fear my mother would see my disappointment. As soon as I finished my lunch my mother took me by the hand and lead me to the attic stairs. I couldn’t imagine why we would go up there. It wasn’t really an attic, but a large room. We never used it because it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. It was scary to me because the family said a ghost named Sadie lived up there.
Climbing up the stairs was an adventure in acrobatics. We used the stairs as a pantry. There was flour, bread, can goods and you had to step over, around and through all this to get to the top. Half way up the stairs was a window with old curtains and a roll up blind. The dark green blind kept out most of the light. I held her hand tighter.
When we got to the top, mother turned on the light. On a table was lemonade and orange circus peanuts, the sort of hard marshmallow kind. “Donna, we’re at the circus”. I looked around and saw the old rocker turned over and covered with a grey blanket. “Be careful of that elephant”, my mother cautioned. “He’s pretty friendly, but you can never tell about wild animals.” On the clothes line was a clown we had cut off the back of a cereal box. It’s arms, legs and head were tied with strings so they moved. Mother sat me down on the old bed on the side wall and the circus began. The elephant bellowed, the clown danced, my mother’s cherished carnival prize monkey on a string did tricks, the shoe box circus wagons covered in cellophane and tissue paper were parked to the side. Squeaky, my cat, chased a string and fetched a paper wad as our tiger act.
We read Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With the Circus. We drank lemonade and ate circus peanuts and talked about the circus.
I often wonder if the kids who went to the circus that day remember their circus as vividly as I remember mine.
Donna Biddle is an occasional writer who knows she has a memoir or novel to be told and hopes to finally write it.