Mom told me she loved the fireworks when she was a little girl: she and her brothers and Grandma and Grandpa, of course they weren’t grandparents then, sat on a blanket and watched with ooo’s and aaahh’s for each new explosion. Fireworks were low on my list of priorities when I was a little girl. One year I found out why, and I longed to repeat that experience.
My great-aunt Anna was somehow related to Dad. She was nothing like anyone else in Dad’s family; Aunt Anna was tallish, and skinny, and she had dark hair. Those were all things that were different from the soft shapes and colors of Grandma and Dad’s brothers and his one sister, but that wasn’t the main difference. Aunt Anna was pinched looking, like my mouth felt after sucking lemons. I loved that feel, first all sour, then like my whole mouth felt cleaned out and waiting for something new. Aunt Anna had that look, like she got all puckered up with something sour, and she would do anything to keep something new from getting in. Her lips were all puckered in like Mom’s got when she was holding in a mad feeling. Aunt Anna’s clothes were always dark and straight and she wore those kinda shoes that I only saw on teachers. Come to think of it, she kinda looked like a teacher.
When I was a little girl, I loved grown-ups, ’cause I could almost always make them laugh or at least smile. I liked to climb right up on a grown-up’s lap and sing this one special song that ended with ‘pull down your pants and slide down the ice.’ I forget the rest, but that last part always made grown-ups’ face look a tinsy bit like a balloon blowing up, with their necks getting taller, their eyes getting big with eyebrows shooting straight up, and their mouths going in a big ‘O’ until a big giant laugh came out like a happy shout. For sure, I would get a big hug and some nice comment like “You’re such a firecracker.” I was the most wonderful kid in the whole, wide world, that’s for darned sure. When I got on Aunt Anna’s lap and sang that song, her face looked a whole lot more like one of those prunes Mom and Dad had for breakfast, except with all the color drained out: her neck went
up straight, right along with her whole back, and she pulled her face in so tight, I thought her lips would disappear. Mom sucked in her breath, grabbed me by the hand, and took me straight to the kitchen. I guessed she needed some help putting the silverware out for dinner. I was super-good at getting the fork on the left side, then the knife and spoon on the right, so I got that job a lot.
I lived about six miles from three different towns: one where our church and school and post office and the telephone switchboard was; one where the grain elevator was; and one where Mom did the grocery shopping. Dad worked in the city, which was a whole lot further away. I hardly ever went there, except when Mom went to the day-old bread place. Aunt Anna lived in the town where the grain elevator was. One year on the fourth of July, she asked Mom if I could go with her to the fireworks. Yippee, I got to go somewhere new, all by myself, no brothers or sisters along, and Aunt Anna only had one kid who was all grown-up and no grandkids at all. Maybe that’s why she looked so pinched up and stiff, not enough company.
When I watched fireworks from home, Mom and us kids sat on the front lawn and looked out toward town. Way, way in the distance, just above the treetops, if we kept an eye out, we saw flashes of color in the sky. It was a little like when Tinker Bell splashed her wand all over the Magic Kingdom, except in this case Tinker Bell was on another planet.
Most of the time, I couldn’t keep my eyes still on those treetops and Mom would end up saying, “Ahhh..Did you see that one?” and I’d look over really quick, but I missed it. After a while Dad lit some sparklers, now that was super fun: twirling and spinning the little metal sticks around in the air, making designs and writing my name. It was all over too quick.
When Aunt Anna took me to the fireworks, we sat in bleachers at the ball field, where the High Schoolers in her town played baseball. Music was playing, like Grandpa played on his tuba; music that just made me want to get up and march. There was a big American flag waving under a light. Aunt Asna said you can’t have a flag out at night without a light. Then all the lights went out and the fireworks started. I could never have dreamed up such a thing: giant lightning-striking bangs about scared my pants off, then a shower of red white and blue sparks coming right down on my head, and a smell like rotton eggs everywhere. I thought I was going to burn alive in all that fiery rain. I jumped down quick behind Aunt Anna and squeezed under the bleachers. Then I saw something even more spectacular than all that colored fire and lightning: Aunt Anna’s face looking all smooth and gentle, and a small smile, just like the Virgin Mary’s when she’s holding baby Jesus, and those fireworks lighting up behind her, just like a halo. Aunt Anna reached out her hand, and said, “Come on up here and sit on my lap. There’s nothing to be afraid of; I’ll keep you safe.”
That was the best 4th of July ever.
I never forgot that night with Aunt Anna and the fireworks and the way her face changed when she saw how scared I was. I loved it all. I will never forget that night when the sky scared the begeezers out of me and when firecrackers transformed Aunt Anna.
I still love going to the fireworks every year. This year, I’m going twice. We talk about firework memories I have, and the ones my kids and their kids have. Everyone has their favorite story. Mine is the first time my soon-to-be-son-in-law, Ryan joined us. G-Money and me settled down on a blanket with our traditional king-sized bags of M&Ms peanuts and plenty of Diet Coke; don’t ask me why. We had a front-row seat just like with Aunt Anna. Ryan kept asking, “Are you sure we’re not too close?” to which we reassured him with words like: Don’t worry, we do this every year, and an occasional, ‘don’t be such a chicken.’ The wind shifted and smoke and the smell of sulfur filled the air, and ash and little bits of paper from the fireworks rained down on us along with a few of live sparks. Ryan’s face looked a bit like a balloon blowing up, with his necks getting taller, his eyes getting big with eyebrows shooting straight up, and his mouth going in a big ‘O’ until a big giant laugh came out like a happy shout.