A tribute to my parents, the original sheep and wool “hipsters”

My parents were alternative before it was a thing.

They were the original hipsters – or at least the models for it. I was reminded of this when I returned to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

You know those times in life around which you mark your growth, your “coming of age”? The festival is that time for me.

There were other traditions – vacations to see the swimming of the Assateague ponies, holiday trips north to see family in Ohio.

All great memories – but none so constant as the festival. Always the first weekend in May, always a draw for tens of thousands.

What I hadn’t considered was what it meant to my parents. Why is it so hard to consider that our parents have a past? Are we so self-centered that we think their lives didn’t start until we were born?

Or maybe it’s just me.

As we wound our way through once bucolic, now quaintly borderline suburban D.C. countryside early Saturday morning, the memories from an 8-year-old perspective creep in, shadowy, thready, just barely there.

But for my mom and others in the car, there are moments, times that are significant milestones. We pass roads named after ancestors and families we know. The roots run deep, even 20 years after we fled the rapid expansion overtaking Howard County farmland.

I will always associate Maryland with progress; life is faster. I always drive differently when I return. I always struggle to connect my childish memories with current realities.

But even now, the festival remains constant.

Sure, there are differences. The barns are upgraded; one even has air conditioning. There’s a nice sign marking the entrance to the fairgrounds. There are more vendors and sheep producers.

But there are the memory-stirring sights, sounds and smells. The booths filled with vibrantly colored yarns – wool, mohair, cashmere. The symphony of “baas” from wool sheep trimmed to show quality, ready to make their bid to be the next winner. The peculiar smells of lanolin (the oil found in wool), hay, popcorn and smoke from the outdoor lamb barbecues mix together in that festival smell. The sheer number of people filling the grounds. The T-shirts and tote bags with designs from festivals past, badges of honor for hardcore festival-goers.

Friday evening, as we sat with another festival founder, the memories pressed in and I was reminded of how deep the friendships run. He remembers when I was born, because I was there, bundled into a baby carrier, when he and his wife signed the closing papers for their farm (which they still own). Mom remembers their daughter’s birthday; she was born the day my grandfather died.

Laughter punctuated the conversation as I showed them pictures from the 1982 festival. Many original founders, decades younger – including my dad (top picture). Many are still active festival committee members. I wasn’t born yet, but I was there.

My mom, center, was about three months pregnant.

Confronted with the intersection of the now and the before, my predispositions make more sense.

A former co-worker once told me I was “a closet Bohemian living in a Grover world.” Translation: My weird mixture of a political and religious background frequently contrasted with the buttoned-down atmosphere where I used to work.

Really, it should be obvious why.

I grew up on a farm just a stone’s throw from the festival. We ate vegetables from our massive garden. We drank milk from our own cow. We ate the lamb and pork we grew. We harvested our cherries and apples. My mom made everything from scratch – clothing and even mayonnaise – and she canned everything in sight. My dad inspired the large gardens that lined our house and yard.

We didn’t have a television for most of my childhood. My entertainment: hours spent in the barns, the pastures and the woods around the farm. When I couldn’t go outside, I read. A lot.

And every year, we made the quick trip down the winding roads, one right turn and one left, and we were at the festival. Early on, it was a theme park filled with the familiar. I played with other festival kids. I dabbled in the shepherd’s lead contest, dressing up in a wool creation sewed by Mom, leading an often petulant lamb (not unlike the one she’s wrestling with in the picture above).

As I grew, I took on more responsibilities, setting up countless tables and chairs for dinners and events, manning the T-shirt sales and running errands. I wore my festival committee T-shirts with pride.

Even after we moved to Ohio, the festival remained, drawing us back to Maryland every year. We’d make our way south, leaving the barely-there springtime for the full-bloom profusion of colors and scents of a warmer climate.

As I grew older and started college, the festival became a novelty. I no longer went regularly. When I did, I felt the distance. I didn’t know as many people; my childhood friends were following their own paths.

It’s been at least eight years since I last attended; the distance should have been immense, but it wasn’t. I don’t know why this year felt different, but I’m glad. As I strolled the grounds, my eyes seemed drawn to familiar faces and sights. Long-buried memories resurfaced.

I know, no matter how many years pass before my next visit, the festival will always be part of my life.

Because it’s my parents’ legacy, and it’s intrinsic to who I am.

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