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She Ran Away with the Circus

During my senior year of high school, I decided to interview my own maternal grandparents, the only happily married couple I knew at that time. Their passionate love story serves as the template for my own second-chance marriage.

Frederick was the pampered youngest child of a long-suffering "good, Irish-Catholic woman". His Da was a "wanderin' weaver". Which explains the gaps in the ages of Frederick's siblings. Ma Foley was an industrious and clever green grocer, with a walk-up apartment above the produce shop for herself and the boy. In fact, her store was so popular it is now a pocket park called Foley Square, near Wall St. 

When Fred was just fifteen, Ma died.  After watching the four day wake with Ma lying in state on her gleaming dining room table, he simply got up on the fifth day and ran as far away from their world as he could get on his savings. 

"Winter Park, Florida," the bus driver bellowed. Fred woke from his stupor and stumbled into a new world. Warm, humid air made the tall palm trees whisper of tropical delights.  The sunshine made him squint as the heat drove rivulets of perspiration through his shirt, threatening to stain his woolen top coat. He swiped his shirt sleeve over his top lip and looked for a diner or luncheonette.

Outside the Coconut Cafe, he sold his overcoat for $3.00 and was prepared to enjoy a good meal with a cool drink of lemonade.

"Ya want the Blue Plate Special, Bud or what?" snapped the orange-haired waitress.

"Um, begging your pardon, ma'am," stammered the lad, "Would that be the Beef Stew?"

"Nope. Today's Wednesday, kid. Meatloaf on Wednesdays, ya know."

Swallowing hard to suppress the remembrance of Ma's moist and savory meatloaf, Fred ordered the special. It was actually pretty darn good, he thought, wiping his mouth with the paper napkin.

As the waitress refilled his lemonade, he asked, "Do you know if there's any work for a guy like me in Winter Park?"

She shook her head no as she switched to pouring coffees at the other end of the counter.

"Hey, kid," the fellow two stools down hissed, "I got a job for ya."

Trying not to look too eager, Fred paused before answering, "Yeah, like what?"

Before supper that night Frederick ended up working for the World At Home Circus.  He did tell a small white lie about his age since he wouldn't be sixteen for another nine months. But, he figured silently, it was only three more days until he could go to confession and God knows he needed this job.

At first he was a Candy Butcher, hawking peanuts, popcorn and cotton candy through the wooden bleacher seats. He had a good strong voice and the Boss told him his accent wasn't too bad, "for a Mick."  By the time the circus reached Boston, he had been promoted to Hawker. Now he could stand outside the side show tents and call out the "wonderful delights to the eye and food for the imagination".  He learned to expound on the spot as he drew a crowd.

"Step right up and feast your eyes on the Tattooed Lady of Timbuktu, with four color dioramas on every part of her body you can see...and some you ain't supposed to see, if get what I mean!"

"Yes, ladies and gents, a genuine five-legged goat all the way from the Himalayan mountains of the Peruvian jungles!"

Fred had what he called poetic license to create a sing-song patter that was not exactly geographically accurate.

As the weather grew cooler, the circus moved further north, reaching their winter home in Saskatchewan, Canada.  Fred was pressed into duty, using his considerable gift of gab, to go ahead of the circus train and secure the necessary procurements of hay, water and housing for the animals and people comprised his new family.  "Pressing the flesh" took on a whole new meaning as Fred quickly learned to palm a five-spot into the handshake with the local sheriff of every whistle stop along the trail.

On the second night of their Saskatchewan gig, Fred was busy hawking the sword swallower and snake dancer when he spotted her. The girl he would marry. His one true love. The queen of his heart.

It made no difference to Fred that she was clinging to the arm of a tall, thin dandy with long, full sideburns. He could just tell, from that dapper pin-striped suit and the immaculate spat shoes, that this fellow was no match for a fine Irishman like Fred.

When the young couple joined the queue to see the sights, Fred stepped in for the cashier with his salesmen's smile and rapid-fire banter.

"Fine, evening, ain't it now, folks? Just about right for a walk-about and a look-see at the sights you ain't never seen in your life before and will never see again, I can tell ya that," he grinned at the girl.

She averted her eyes but not before he saw the flash of bright pink in her cheeks beneath those sparkling blue eyes.

And so he continued to yammer as he deftly collected the money for the tickets and smoothly returned the change to her date.

Once inside the tent, the girl, Sylvia, was distracted from the freak show. She was busy doing the math. And it just didn't add up!

"Psst, Ira," she whispered to her escort. "I think yer've been gyped!"

"Hmmm?" he answered, not looking away from the contortionist folding herself into a small metal box.

"I'm tellin ya, that man over there took yer for a fool and he give ya the wrong change, Ira."

Still, the young man only shrugged and mumbled, 'Mmhmmm, sure thing."

Not wishing to make a scene, Sylvia held all this in her mind and tried to enjoy the show. It was her one day off per fortnight and she wasn't about to waste it all on some scoundrel at the circus. If Ira wanted to lose his money, well, that's good enough for him, she thought.

But early the next morning, as Sylvia was headed to the market for dinner fixings, she decided to see if that rowdy circus had packed up yet and left town. And there he was...the dirty cheater himself.

Stomping right up in front of him she began, "I know what yer've done, yer scoundrel!"

Fred looked down at this wee girl with the big basket over her arm and laughed as she wagged her finger in his face.

"What? What I've done? Why I'm the very face of innocence and contrition, I am," he boasted.

"Yer a dirty thief, making swift change on me young man, that's what yer are!"

Sylvia went on to detail how Fred had cleverly collected a ten dollar bill and returned change for a fiver. Fred just smiled wider, basking in her thick Scottish brogue. And the more he grinned, the deeper she jabbed her accusing finger into his chest.

Looking down at her tiny frame, he knew it happened in a flash. He was smitten.

"My God you're beautiful when you're angry," he gushed.

His words were like the last warm breeze off the ocean as she sailed from the shores of her homeland, Scotland. Her face flushed deep crimson at the same time he lowered his face to kiss her on the lips. With his heart pounding in his ears, Fred heard himself apologize for cheating just moments before he asked the lass her name and if she was married to the bloke he'd hoodwinked.

By the time Sylvia had answered all of Fred's questions, she had completely forgotten that she was on the way to market. When Fred kissed her it was as if the whole world shrunk down to just the two of them. 

And she vowed right then and there to never leave the circus again.

For over sixty years, through two world wars and four children, Fred was her hero and Sylvia was his Queenie. They died within six months of each other as Sylvia made one more vow to her family: "I'll not go through one Christmas without my Frederick at me side."