Sometimes I wake with a story in my head. Tomorrow our nation celebrates another birthday and the traditions of all the ways the Fourth of July is celebrated, sparked this one. Enjoy, and have a wonderful, safe holiday. Happy Birthday America!
I parked my car in the gravel turnout and crossed the road to my favorite stakeout point; a large boulder nestled in the pines that kept me hidden, but gave me the perfect vantage point. Below me stood the two-story house, gray clapboard siding wrapping the exterior and crisp white shutters framing the windows. A large porch curled around the front corner, edged in a white spindle railing. The front door used to be a barn red color, adorned with a homemade flag wreath for the month of July, but now the door glared in shiny ebony black, a formal brass doorknocker stealing the last warmth.
Someone in a straw hat rode a fancy lawnmower, cutting long wide stripes across the expanse of green carpet that stretched from where the road intersected the private lane, to the manicured rose bushes accenting the wrap-around porch.
Wished Gramps had one of those when we were growing up. It took two of us an hour to mow with his old lawnmowers, one of us starting at the house and the other at the road, meeting in the middle to finish. The large maple tree on the property line marked the official dividing line, and whoever reached it first, got to choose between mowing the smaller back lawn or sweeping the drive and walkways with the big push broom to clear away the stray grass clippings. Both dreaded chores under the hot sun, but that's how the Harper grandchildren made a living starting at age eight, until they were old enough to work regular jobs.
Six of us were hauled down Harper Lane every Saturday morning in time to hear the roosters crow out back by the barns. Grandma had breakfast waiting, which we were allotted a total of thirty minutes to swallow before our name was retrieved from the mason jar for our chosen "job." Sweeping the porches and helping Grandma feed the chickens and harvest the eggs were the coveted chores, but saved for the younger cousins. Once you turned eleven, your name was thrown in the mason jar.
Grandpa would gather us into the formal dining room, place the job chart on the table, and the infamous jar. The early rays of sun streaming through the dining room windows made the bumpy lettering sparkle, our names written on scraps of paper looking like the fortunes you found in the cookies at Chinese restaurants. He'd announce each job, mimicking a game show host, reach into the jar and leave us holding our breath. Edging and mowing the vast grass that seemed to grow in size every week, weeding the vegetable garden and flower gardens, were the listed choices, and when done, we each received five dollars and lunch. The "babies" as we called them, only got two dollars.
The riding mower clanged loudly when the operator rode it down the driveway to the garage, pulling me from my memories. I shifted on the rock and leaned my elbows on my knees, squinting through my sunglasses at the porch. White wicker furniture with bright floral cushions arranged in formal groupings replaced the colorful wooden rockers that used to occupy the space. On the back porch, facing the cornfields and barnyard, hung a porch swing. I wondered if it was still there, or if modern iron patio furniture had replaced that memory as well.
Six rocking chairs, each painted a different, bright color would sway in ghostly movement with the afternoon breeze. They were for the "adults" to sit in and watch us as we played ball on the lawn, fought over the tire swing hanging from the old maple tree, or climbed precariously through the thick branches. The tire swing had disappeared and the lower branches we could reach as children had been trimmed away. The tree stood formidable, unfriendly, and lonely among the other sculpted bushes sharing the property edge.
A flag ruffled in the breeze atop a new tall mast on the other side of the driveway. Today was the Fourth of July. My gaze shifted back to the front of the house, the porch, where instead of a large flag boldly marking the day, half-arched banners in stars and stripes used to drape the railing, and little flags from the "five-and-dime" store waved proudly between the rose bushes and petunias.
Next to Christmas, the Fourth of July held my fondest childhood memories. Clad in new summer tops and shorts, mine always pink (I was considered Grams "girly-girl" among my older boy cousins), hair pulled into pigtails or braids to keep cool in the summer heat, we would be nestled in the backseat of the cars at the crack of dawn with our favorite quilts. The trunks would be packed with games, swimsuits, beach towels, coolers of food, and boxes of fireworks. Coming from different directions, our family caravan would descend one-by-one down Harper Lane for the annual Harper Family Fourth of July Celebration.
The half hour drive would lull us back to sleep, until the familiar crunch of gravel beneath the car tires when we turned off the highway and headed down the lane, brought us back to life. Spilling from cars in a noisy ruckus, we'd race to be the first through the front door. The smell of bacon and coffee greeted us on the porch, wafting through the open windows. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, piles of crisp bacon and carafes of orange, apple and grape juice waited our attack. From that moment on, the food never ceased.
After we tired of checking out the barns, playing hide-and-seek in the cornstalks, or croquet on the back lawn, Grandpa would haul out the large bright yellow strips of plastic and stretch them down the front lawn, then turn on the sprinklers, the arcs of water crisscrossing each other and making for cool afternoon in our very own water park. When our lips turned blue, we'd redress and the little ones usually napped on the floor in the living room, along with Gramps, while we were placed at the dining table with board games and threatened with cleaning animal stalls if we woke anyone.
Our mothers and Grandma chattered about everyone in town over potato salad and brownie preparation, while we played Sorry and Life. When the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers being grilled started our tummy juices churning, we were ushered out from under foot to set the picnic tables out back. Pitchers of lemonade captured the golden rays of sunset and kept the tablecloths secure. Soon, platters of steaming corn-on-the cob, plates of deviled eggs, bowls holding salads and baked beans joined the baskets of buns and various condiments dotting the tables. Gramps offered a prayer, much longer than necessary in our childhood opinions, and only when we started making faces at each other and giggling did he pronounce "amen," allowing us to eat.
The fathers and Gramps were in charge of evening entertainment once the sun dipped behind the hillside, to allow time for the "women folk" as Gramps called them, to do dishes. The boxes of fireworks were retrieved and each of us grabbed out favorite blanket and spread out on the front lawn. The "adult" rockers were carried off the porch and lined up for the firework display the town put on, once the sky officially blackened.
Meanwhile, we danced with sparklers raining dangerously over our heads and sparks burning out bare feet. The dads took turns lighting cones of spraying sparks that whistled ear piercing screeches, or lit buzzing plumes that hopped along the cement. The Harper Grand Finale consisted of the spinning "fire of death" Gramps would dramatically announce as he mounted the fiberboard wheel on the nail below the steel mailbox. A hose would be stretched out on the driveway in preparation, as many times, Gramps fire wheel caught the wood post on fire. Grandma repainted the mailbox every summer after sparks peeled her handiwork back to bare metal.
After all the burned remnants were cleaned up and hosed down, mothers and Grandma would shut the house lights off and join us on the lawn with pans of warm brownies and a platter of watermelon wedges. Gramps would set up a card table and bring the ice cream freezer out of the garage and place it in the galvanized bucket of ice. We'd settle in our little family groups, kids nestled close to moms and dads to await the sometimes scary fireworks while our faces became caked with chocolate crumbs and vanilla ice cream dripped over our knuckles from our cones.
The first bang always brought our hearts in our throats, followed by the standard "oohs" and "ahhs" for those colorful bursts of colors that followed, lighting the world in brilliance for a few seconds. After the last blinding flashes fall earthward and the sky returned to midnight velvet, we hugged and kissed goodbye, lumbering back into cars and snuggling into the blankets slightly damp and smelling of the sulfur air, drifting to sleep as the highway whined beneath the tires.
I close the memory and stand, stiff and sore from sitting so long. The sky has morphed to a burnished bronze, washing the house below in a blaze of orange from nature's daily finale. I lean against the tree beside me. Did the ice cream freezer ever get taken out of the attic? Did the new owners even know what the nail on the side of the mail post was used for? Maybe they watched the fireworks from inside, behind the plate glass living room window instead of laying on the cool grass, transformed in the blooms of color overhead or the smell the singed air.
As I turned toward my car, a familiar squeak echoed across the small valley. A woman carrying an armful of quilts emerged from the house, followed by the man in the straw hat carrying several folding chairs. I smiled as they lined up the chairs facing the hillside, spreading the quilts across the freshly cut grass. A van rolled down the hill, passing me in my hideaway, and turned down the lane. Mesmerized, I watched as doors opened and kids poured out of the vehicle, squealing excitedly. Another car emerged from the other direction, the same scene playing out. I counted four copper headed children in various sizes, hug three fair haired counterparts, before laying claim to a chair or blanket.
A melancholy sigh pushed my heart against my ribs. I'd almost made it halfway across the road when I heard the pound, pound, pound. I turned and watched as someone nailed a "wheel of fire" to the mail post.