Happy Fourth of July to all. Here are five of mine:
1. The farm.
Each car arriving over the hill would receive some announcement. Somebody could identify the car and if not, there were predictions, and Mom would run out to greet it. I was sitting there at that window that faced the hill, the only phone here at our weekend farmhouse, pressed up against my ear, mouthpiece tightly covered. I was listening to the party line, and somebody on some farm on the other side of the hill was having a party too, and was worried about not having enough corn or heavenly hash and who would run the barbeque now that Eleanor’s husband wasn’t coming.
I’d watch the cars come down the long dusty and rocky drive to park on the grass, and then the families would emerge and unpack the goodies: the mayonnaise-dressed salads and the jello deserts, the coolers filled with grape and orange sodas, beer, jugs of Gallo wine. Kids would roll out of the backseats, kids we only saw once or twice a year on these family gatherings, bigger kids whose names I never got straight, kids who belonged to the couples my parents had started friendships with so long ago in Cairo and Istanbul and Rome, and maybe Japan – yes, likely Japan, with Uncle Bill, who wasn’t really an uncle but we called him that.
The older kids would venture down to the meadow and the pond and some of us would run to the barn to swing from the rope and land on potentially snake infested hay bundles. The smell of the hay in the barn on those hot days and the smell of the sheep and the sound of the sheep wafting up through the boards were thick with summer. Potato sack races with genuine Idaho potato sacks sent by Mom’s sister Aunt Ruthie, who was still out west, never left it, followed by three-legged races and prizes, always prizes.
Then, the ceremony. Dad and various combinations of us, though right now I’m seeing Jonny, Mark and Davie, who were all boy scouts, raising the flag on the tall white pole, to wave above us and over the whole of Fairfield, Pennsylvania. Then dad would walk up to the porch of the old house and the group would naturally follow him there and he would turn around to face us, and from his back pocket pull out a rolled up version of the Gettysburg Address. He would unroll it with great fanfare. Silence. My father would begin to read: Four score and seven years ago… He and Uncle Bill had fought in the war, as had most of their peers. They had seen it, they believed in what it stood for.
It was solemn when he was done and Dad held it for a while. Then he announced with his signature twinkle: Dessert. There was a rush for the dessert table but there was always enough. And then watermelon and dark and sparklers and the packing of cars and the goodbyes and the dust and the loud of crickets and the quiet on the porch as I sat on his lap, rocking there.
2. Wheaton Plaza.
After the five oldest kids grew up and moved out, the holiday was a quieter thing. Davie and I were the only ones still home, or maybe I was visiting from college, but he was still living there. We put blankets and a cooler in the back of his pickup, Heidi, his black Lab, in the bucket seat behind us, and we headed for Wheaton.
Of course Davie was patriotic all year round, not just on this day, he repeatedly told me, and the bald eagle American flag that covered his rear window, was sure proof. In the parking lot, he poured Heidi a bowl of water and threw in some ice cubes from the cooler. That cooler was a cooler of Cokes, and I remember saying, Davie, how many Cokes can two people drink? We (he) did some damage. Lays potato chips and Chips Ahoy chocolate cookies were also in the picture.
Some lady that worked with him, moving boxes and shelving merchandise at the home supply store, stopped to say hello. She was super friendly and wore the American flag on her shirt and on her arm. As usual, he introduced me as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, which was a dangerous thing to say here in Redskin country. Though Davie is a big guy with a Fu Manchu mustache, so who was going to mess with him? After she moved on, I explained to him again that I was not a Cowboys cheerleader, never was, I just tried out for them once and didn’t even get a call back. In my Flashdance-inspired cut up TAB t-shirt, though, I did look the part.
I climbed into the back of the pickup and spread the blankets out. Davie lifted Heidi up, then climbed in and closed the tailgate. The fireworks from so close were loud and shook the truck and poor Heidi was shivering and shaking. There were hoots and hollers; others were not just drinking Coke. Poor Heidi. I’m remembering now that she had this name bestowed on her for just this reason: loud noises scared her and she would hide. But still, she’d rather be here at Davie’s side, than at home listening to the thunder without him. Davie covered her with a blanket, even covered her head, and she lay there shaking between the two of us, in the back of his pickup. We both petted her and said It’s okay, Heidi, it’s okay, as we looked up to admire the show.
3. Block Island.
The girls were small then. Their arms were soft, plump. It was one of the very few times I can remember that they wore matching sundresses. Maybe it was the only time. I remember saying to John, We look like those people that dress their kids alike. But in this case, they happened to have the same dresses, an Indian block print floral pattern, one in coral, one in green, and they happened to have both chosen them, and they happened to have not cared that they matched, and I wished I had my own dress in that pattern in blue. The dresses had the added addition of little matching shorts to wear underneath, so headstands and cartwheels, which were sure to happen, would reveal more of that pretty pattern, and warm, tan legs.
These were the days before summer camp commitments, and we were open, open to the summer, and in this case, we were open to Block Island, and green hills topped by grand old white Victorian Inns. On this hill stood Spring House, which provided a view of Old Harbor, where the boats seemed to move in and out in slow motion.
There was a miniature house on the lawn there. It was smaller than a playhouse, larger than a doll’s, just right for climbing into and popping heads out of windows and pictures of the two of them crawling and peeking about.
We found four Adirondack chairs, two adult-sized, two child. They were painted red, rather than the traditional stained wood, and we lined them up, right there towards the top of the hill. John and I sat down to take in the view. The view also included a large sand pit at the bottom of the hill where lots of kids were kicking balls around, blowing bubbles. Our smaller one was too small for such adventures on her own, so I joined them both to the great pit, while John saved our prime viewing seats.
We returned to large Shirley Temples with extra cherries, frozen margaritas, fried mozzarella and shrimp cocktail as big as lobster tails. The sounds of the band off somewhere by the harbor, floated up to fill the sky with Gershwin and jazz standards to which John knows all the words. The girls and I put on our light sweaters, the smaller chairs went to another family, and one girl curled up in each of our laps to watch fireworks, a spectacular show.
Annie was wearing red of course, a tight red dress and sandals to reveal her red toe nails. The Mini convertible was silver, and sitting on top of the rear headrest for all the world to see, was Annie. Her older daughter, Eliza, was on her right, our littler girl in Lizey’s lap, and our bigger girl was on Annie’s left. They were all waving and smiling, and Annie was in her element, euphoric. She was laughing her big giant laugh and shining in every sense under the brightest blue sky. The banner on both sides of the car said Councilperson, Annie Zusy. She had recently been elected. Red stars surrounded her name.
Our girls were six and ten then, just the right ages to parade around in a grand parade with the fabulous Aunt Annie. Al and I walked the sidewalks, crossed barricades, weaving through town, crossed corners, cut through open spaces, all the way down the parade line, trying to get ahead of them and find our way to the VIP Grandstand with our reserved seats and unnecessary cover.
At one point we caught up with Katie, who was playing in her high school band: marching band hat, brass buttons, saxophone. We dodged through the marchers to catch up with her eyes and her smile. There was some talk between Al and I about tough times, rough times and heartache, in ways that simmered quietly and were not prominently on display.
At the Grandstand, many Hellos to neighbors and friends, some of whom I knew. Probably ice cream or popcorn, though I don’t remember really. And then, Here they come! My girls lit up to see faces that they finally knew. People were calling out to Annie: Congratulations! Go Annie! And she was calling back to every one in town. With tired enthusiasm, the girls and Eliza were still throwing out strings of red, white and silver beads.
That night, lounging on so many blankets on the Ridgewood High School field, were just Annie and Al and my girls and I. One of Annie and Al’s girls was off with her boyfriend someplace, the other with some boy who turned out to be not so great. (Alex was in Cairo already, John, working.) We said Oooohs and Ahhhhs and, when I looked at Annie, looking up at those Technicolor pyrotechnics, I could see her quiet pride and enthusiasm for all that lay ahead.
Last year a few close friends and neighbors came to a gathering at our house. A trip with our little one to the party store, meant one of everything adorned with the American flag, and that was a lot of things. Fresh cut daisies filled the small vases and giant sunflowers in the large ones. We hung the large American flag from the deck, for all of the deer and raccoons of New York State to see. The flag was from the United States government, honoring my father. It was large enough to cover a casket, though was never used for that purpose.
We had a potluck of extreme deliciousness and a line up of decadence for dessert. I learned too late that one should never have desserts on the table when you haven’t yet served the main course; I also learned that in this case, especially in this case, you should not to let the children go first. There were puff pastries and fresh pies that were dripping and a huge cake decorated with the American flag. We had seltzer and coke and fresh made iced tea and good wines brought by friends that are much smarter about these things than I am.
My mom had died three months earlier, and we just passed the two-year anniversary of Dad and Annie’s deaths.
Our now ten year old and her friends ran around the yard catching fireflies and jumped the trampoline; our now teenager and her friends hung out in our recently inherited Eastlake furniture. John played America the Beautiful on the trumpet- he’d been taking lessons via Skype with a guy in Florida. And I followed my heart and, much to my friends’ surprise, read the Gettysburg Address.