Riley Festival

Homecoming. That’s what I often think of in October. Many people associate that word with school sporting events, but I think about all the fall festivals and activities that only happen at this time of the year. Maybe this is due to growing up in Indiana, which is the most beautiful place in the world to be in autumn.

I have always found fall to be my favorite season, with all its accouterments: apple cider, bonfires, pumpkins, scarecrows, hayrides, barn dances, and most of all, those vibrant and dazzling leaves. It is interesting that all of these things are associated with the farm, the harvest, and rural living. This could be because of Indiana’s agricultural history, but I also think it is because ultimately, we are all from the country, living on the land.

This goes back to the concept of where you live as opposed to where you are from. I live in Bloomington but I am from Greenfield. You can change where you live but not where you’re from. And one thing that defines where I am from is the annual Riley Festival.

(So much so that I didn’t hear the term elephant ear until I was in college. I remember getting snippy with someone about this because I thought they were putting me on by trying to convince me the pastry was called something silly like an elephant ear. My attitude was: “It’s called a lion’s paw; everybody knows that—the Lion’s Club sells them every year.”)

What is the Riley Festival? A celebration of Greenfield culture, a homecoming, a birthday party for our very own poet. I remember getting excited as a kid; there was so much to look forward to—marching in the parade of flowers, watching the “grown up” parade, the entertainment, beauty queens, crowds and booths. It marks the official start of autumn; when I leave for work even now as an adult on a brisk October morning, I know exactly what Riley meant with “The Frost is on the Pumpkin;” I get it.

On the morning of the parade of flowers, Mom would go out and pick some marigolds from the yard and put a paper towel around them, then a baggie, then some foil. After all, they were going to be in a locker all morning, plus had to withstand handling by a grade-school kid.

I was always envious of the kids who would have these fancy store-bought flowers in all these exotic colors; I couldn’t understand why I had boring old marigolds that everybody had in their yard. “Exactly,” Mom would say, “These are flowers that grow in our area, that are currently in bloom. They go with the season.” I didn’t understand the value in that at the time but I do now; I get it.

I remember one year I really wanted to get into the Riley spirit; I was always into old costumes and playing dress up. I brought with me a sunbonnet that my grandmother gave me. I was putting it on before the parade of flowers when a couple of other girls started in on me, making fun of me for dressing like someone from Little House on the Prairie. I was so embarrassed from their ridicule that I took it off. Later on I was more ashamed of myself for taking it off. I wonder if those girls ever got it.

We would parade to the statue, clutching our flowers, some more careful than the others (I was one of the careful ones, because I got it.) We would walk up to the statue that was as tall as the courthouse and hand our flowers to a grown up who would have to get on a ladder to get the flowers all the way to the top because the statue was so tall.

It’s funny; I was there a few years ago at the statue for the parade of flowers, and I didn’t need a ladder. The base only came up to my shoulder, and the actual statue didn’t reach to the top of the courthouse. How can that be? Did the statue shrink, did it sink into the ground, did it melt from years of standing in the rain?

So there I was, on the other side of the statue, receiving the flowers instead of giving them. Before I was the child as a recipient of what the festival had to offer; now I can be the adult giving back, able to play a part in making the festival happen so that the next generation can continue to enjoy this tradition.

I’ve come full circle; I’m back where I started, yet in a different place. And that can only happen when you come back home, to where you’re from, to Greenfield.