Seriously? The kids’ category? Why do I have to enter in the kids’ category?” I asked.
“Because you’re a kid,” Dad said.
“My cantaloupe’s huge, though! It’s bigger than all the adult entries.”
Dad shrugged, as did the man at the weigh-in counter.
“I’m sorry, girl. Those are the rules,” Dad said.
I was sorely tempted to just take my giant cantaloupe and go home. After all the work I’d put into growing it, this was an unjust—nay, intolerable—humiliation.
Giant pumpkins were my childhood. I spent count-less hours toiling alongside my brother and father in Missouri’s summer heat and humidity, because fairy godmothers aren’t real and if you want a coach-sized pumpkin, it takes work. For Dad, it was a labor of love, a way to relax after long days at work. Those 20’ x 20’ plots were oases to him.
Mostly, I guess, it was a chance for me to learn the value of work. I learned economics while doing pest control: One dollar per grocery bag of weeds, a cent per Japanese beetle, 25 cents for a cabbage moth, a full five dollars per elusive but deadly squash vine borer.
Dad gave his giant pumpkins extra-special care—extra water, lots of mulch, special fertilizer. He tracked which lineage each plant came from. He even pollinated each flower by hand, tying it off afterwards so no bees would muddy the gene pool.
When the end of the growing season rolled around, we invited the men of the neighborhood to our house to eat chili and haul the giant pumpkins up the hill and into trailers for transport to the Republic Pumpkin Daze festival. Some of the fruit topped 700 pounds. They won prizes, too—first place in 2002 and 2003, plus countless lesser honors.
We didn’t grow just pumpkins: Mom had her flowers, and we grew the classics, like tomatoes, zucchini, and green beans. The cantaloupes—most ambrosial of fruits—were my special domain. I’d tend them carefully, stroking their netted skin and waiting for the peak of ripeness, when I could smell their floral scent a foot away and the slightest joggle would free them from the vine. I coaxed them to impressive sizes, and I was mighty proud of them.
Early in the summer of 2008, Dad had a surprise for me—a small paper packet.
“They’re giant cantaloupe seeds,” he said.
“Giant cantaloupes?” I asked, picturing a perfectly round fruit the size of a beach ball.
“I nabbed them on a seed exchange. They’re for you.”
I took the packet, feeling the outline of four seeds inside. “Thank you!”
“I bet you could set a state record,” he said. “See the parent plants written there? Both yielded record-setters. Had to pay ten dollars apiece for these guys.”
A state record? Me? Yes!
I cared for those plants with the same consuming attention Dad gave his pumpkins. I mounded the earth carefully and poked each seed into place at exactly the recommended depth. I weeded. I watered. I coaxed. I could have cheered when the flowers appeared. Promising cantaloupes got flagged for special attention. When a turtle took a couple of nips out of my second-largest fruit, I covered it and the other big ones with plastic laundry baskets for protection. I didn’t let my family come anywhere near them: They were my cantaloupes, and I’d get the glory for growing them.
And they grew. They were the most enormous cantaloupes I’d seen in my life, misshapen and sprawling out like watermelons. I prayed for them to stay green until the festival rolled around.
Then, one day, I smelled it: ripe cantaloupe. The largest was already separating from the vine. And there were weeks to go until the festival. Horrors!
Of course, Dad knew exactly what to do, as dads ought. “Just stick it in the freezer, Helen.”
After a couple of weeks in cold storage, my biggest cantaloupe was slightly mushier for the wear, but still up for its outing to the Republic Pumpkin Daze. I could scarcely carry it by myself.
After registering it in the kids’ category (grrr!), we had my colossal cantaloupe officially weighed in. It was a whopping 35.75 pounds, just barely under the state record! We perched it on a display table alongside tumorous tubers and tomatoes. I showed it off to my dad’s pumpkin-growing friends and rivals and accepted their compliments with blatantly false modesty. Dad bought me a colossal cone of handmade Amish ice cream to help ease my woes about being treated like a kid.
When the time came to award prizes, however, I felt my heart sinking again.
The announcer’s voice called out: “In the kids’ category, First Prize for cantaloupe—Helen Wilbers, with 35.75 pounds.”
I accepted my blue ribbon with a painfully forced smile.
Then the adult winner went up. His cantaloupe was just a third as heavy as mine, and he got a wooden plaque for his efforts.
When the awards ceremony was over, however, the adult winner found me. He reached out to shake my hand.
“That’s a darn impressive cantaloupe you grew!” he said.
“Thanks!” I replied. “So’s yours.” This was a lie.
“Listen, I’d like you to have this,” he said, holding out his plaque. “You beat me, fair and square.”
“Wait, really?” My hand hovered an inch from the plaque.
“Really! You earned it.”
I took it. I thanked him profusely, of course. Still, at the time, I thought it was only right—I had beaten him, after all.
Now, years later, the plaque gathers dust in my closet. I’ve become a grown-up (you know, the kind of person I viewed with suspicion as a kid). Now I look back with gratitude on the kind man who gave me his plaque.
One day, when I have a little space of my own, I’ll spend too much money on a few cantaloupe seeds of good lineage, and enter a contest again.
But this time I’ll win as an adult. ❖