Forget about the "Blair Witch Project." Forget about Mike Wallace and a camera crew outside your front door. If you want to know what words really strike terror in your heart, take it from the Arvidsons of Des Moines, they are:
Martha Stewart is coming.
Martha Stewart, the High Priestess of All That Is Correct, the Duchess of Domesticity, the Guru of Gardens. Martha Stewart of the six-acre estate known as Turkey Hill Farm in Westport, Conn., visiting the considerably more modest abodes of the Arvidsons.
Where are those pesky servants when you need them? And how on earth do you vacuum a garden?
The first word of an impending Martha visit came in a cryptic message in mid-August, 10 days before the Iowa State Fair Dahlia Show, on my sister Kay's telephone answering machine. Could she please telephone Marni at Martha Stewart Television?
I would like to tell you that we took it in stride when Kay made that call the following day and found out that Martha Stewart had read a story I wrote for Delta Sky magazine on my family's years-long rivalry with the Family Romer for the top prizes at the State Fair dahlia competition. Stewart was coming to Des Moines anyway, to do a show on the State Fair, and she would like to include a segment on the Arvidson/Romer dahlia feud on that program.
I read recently that a candle company called "Illuminations" surveyed 423 people about what made them feel stressed out, and 51 percent answered that it was watching Stewart's television program, "Living." Believe me, the prospect of being on it instead of just watching it takes the concept of "stressed out" to a whole other plateau.
It mattered not that it would be Martha's television crew in our gardens, not Martha herself, because when the story finally airs sometime in September, it will be presented as if Martha was right there doing those interviews and that filming. About the only thing different about a "Virtual Martha" rather than a Real Martha visit is that she would not be tempted to run over anyone in our family if the filming went sour and she felt a tad testy.
"The first thing that came into my mind was all that I had to do to get the garden ready," my sister told me. "There was just an incredible amount to do, and I knew I couldn't possibly get it done. But I found out that no news travels faster than news about Martha Stewart, and soon I started getting calls from all sorts of people offering to help."
Several of Kay's friends came over on the weekend and trimmed and weeded until the garden and her back yard were picture-perfect. Another couple offered to bring vats of flowers to her yard to give it the "Full Martha."
"So I went from how to get the garden ready to, `Oh my God, I have to get the house ready. Nobody can see the bathroom the way it looks now.' I switched the cleaning lady from Friday to Monday, and then I knew that would be all right," Kay said. "But the news spread so fast that now this has become an event. With the film crew and some people coming over to watch, now I'm at, `What am I going to serve?' I haven't even had time to think about what I'm going to wear."
Meanwhile at my parents' house, the same scenario was playing out. My 80-year-old mother, Jan, whose extensive homemaking skills make her sort of a Midwestern version of Martha Stewart, acknowledged that Stewart ticked her off "because she thought of those things before I did." But she was determined that her house and yard would be perfect, too. So another team of house cleaners, yard mowers and garden helpers went to work there, spiffing things up until they fairly shined.
The neighbors were alerted, and they also mowed and spiffed, just in case the camera might pan their property. I hurriedly changed my travel plans to come to Des Moines a day earlier from my Washington-area home so I could observe first-hand what my pen had wrought.
Three days before Dahlia Day, Brook Altman, the producer and director of Martha Stewart Television, and her crew of six camera, sound and lighting technicians arrived at Kay's house around 6 p.m. They set up at the rear of the garden to capture my sister as she walked into her garden through a lovely curved trellis surrounded by giant sunflowers, clipboard in hand, to check out the rows of gorgeous dahlias. "Pretend we're not here. We're spying on you," Altman says.
"This is a time that I take a look at my flowers to see what will be open for Fair Day," Kay tells Virtual Martha. "I've been working with these flowers for the last two weeks to get them ready for Fair Day. Now it's time for nature to take over, and I sit back and see what happens."
After instructing the film crew on the art of pinching off buds and pruning lower shoots to send all the growing energy into the most promising flowers, Kay talks about the fair and our "friendly competition" with the Romers -- Jim and Judy of Algona, and their son, Jamie of Ames.
My father, Bob, and Jim Romer have been competing against each other for nearly 30 years; Kay and Jamie have been second-generation competitors for the last 10. We've won plenty of blue ribbons at the fair over the years, but for quite some time now, the huge ribbons that go to the grand champions have gone home with the Romers.
"My dad and I are backyard gardeners," my sister says, "with about 30 plants each . . . compared with the 500 dahlias the Romers have. Every year, the Romers show up at the fair with at least 150 or 200 blooms to our 20 or 30, and pretty consistently, they clean our clock."
"But we are still hard at it working to beat them," Kay tells Virtual Martha. "It just takes one flower to win."
And who does she want to beat this year, Altman asks.
"I want to beat every other flower that's there, no matter who brings it, even if it's my dad," Kay replies.
After about an hour, the crew moves a mile across town to my parents' home. There, Dad, 79, stands next to one of his flowers and recalls how he and his boss, H.B. Wallace (the son of the former vice president), started growing dahlias back in the 1960s and formed the Iowa Dahlia Society.
The camera follows him as he walks through the garden. The crew picks a lovely purple dahlia to zoom in on for a close-up. Then, just as quickly as they arrived, they're gone, and another chapter of family history has been written.
The next day, Real Martha showed up at the fair, judged a whistling contest, bought some antiques, tasted some pies and advised Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who cooks for relaxation, on how to keep the meringue from shrinking on his lemon meringue pie ("Don't put the meringue on hot filling, and extend the meringue over the edge of the pie plate," the Des Moines Register reported). She visited the swine barn and saw this year's largest boar, a 1,097 pounder. She even cleaned her teeth with a square of white paper after lunch while talking on a cell phone, according to the Register.
But apparently one day of fair was enough for her. Business responsibilities forced a change of plans, so Martha would not be attending the dahlia judging, Marni told us. But don't be discouraged, she said. The crew would still be there, interviewing the Romers, Kay and Dad, and following the judges as they decided who would take home the top honors this year. They were, and they did.
Hopefully, the film crew also captured a shot of the famous Butter Cow, which presides over all the fruit, vegetable and flower competition in the Agriculture Building, carved for the 40th straight year by Norma "Duffy" Lyon.
With any luck, the crew also got a shot of the Butter Cow Lady's special salute to the end of the century, a life-size replica of "The Last Supper" carved out of 2,000 pounds of butter. It would be a shame to do a show on the fair without them.
Oh, by the way, the Romers won everything again this year. The Arvidsons managed several red ribbons, and one blue. But when Martha Stewart "Living" airs, it will be our gardens, not theirs, that you see on TV. We have won the publicity war.