My husband and I took our boys to a fireworks tent last year.
“Oh, NO,” I said to him, shaking my head vigorously as I saw what he’d placed on the card table where the register was located. “You know my rules!”
The woman at the table, ringing up our fireworks, looked up curiously.
“I don’t like the lanterns,” I explained to her. “It is so dry this summer, and all I need is the hubs sending a flaming ball of paper straight up to the sky to get caught in a tree somewhere. Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” I added, eyebrows raised in what I thought was a nice teachable moment.
The girl behind the table rolled her eyes. Honest to God, isn’t that the first thing you learn NOT to do in customer service classes? I swear I am not a confrontational person, but I had visions of myself flinging the $150 worth of fireworks to the ground in a double-armed sweeping motion, picking up my kids, and stalking off the lot.
But of course I didn’t. Instead, I said, “What?” in a really huffy tone of voice. It’s about as feisty as I get, folks.
“It won’t start a fire,” she said, sighing impatiently at me and having the nerve to ignore my one firework rule and ring the motherfcking lantern up, placing it into a bag right in front of my face. “People are always afraid that’ll happen, but it never does.”
“Oh, really?” I said, jutting my head out for emphasis. “Allow me to tell you a story, lady, about one of the few times I’ve witnessed fireworks just like these start fires before my very own eyes.”
Here’s my idea of confrontation: Following her around her tent, where she wasn’t allowed to leave her shift, yapping about how dangerous fireworks can be while she hoped my scratchy man voice didn’t carry to where customers were perusing her goods and hurt her sales any.
And I truly hope I didn’t hurt her sales. I also don’t want to be a Fourth of July spoilsport. My only rule was no paper lanterns, and since my husband and the fireworks girl were in cahoots to break it, they now had to listen to one of my precautionary tales.
It happened when I was young—about 9 years old, if I remember correctly. We were at my grandpa’s house.
My gramps—may he rest in peace—was a wonderful man. He just wasn’t a huge fan of kids in or around his house and yard. Especially the five of us.
“They’re like a pack of wild beasts,” I heard him say more than once to my mom or dad, setting his lawn chair and ubiquitous red cooler, complete with his very own name plate, up on the front porch and cracking open a beer. It was the only way he knew how to deal with us kids as we ran wild, dirty hair flapping in the wind behind us—or so he told my grams as he enjoyed beer after beer on those beautiful summer nights.
My mom would usually open her own beer, settling in next to her dad. “I know,” she’d sigh. “And you know what? They’re so dirty that one more bath won’t even matter. I’ll just bathe them tomorrow night.”
I remember that particular 4th of July like it was yesterday. Or 27 years ago, or whatever. Gramps had finally drunk enough beer to calm his anxiety over the pack of us heathens playing with flammables. He’d even started to enjoy himself, joining us in making letters in the air with sparklers.
And then: the unthinkable.
My younger brother, the one we now call The Golden Child because our dad makes us, lit a Roman candle under the careful supervision of my dad. But I suppose “careful supervision” means something else entirely when your dad has been drinking 4th of July beers since the afternoon with your grandpa.
Because that damned tree went up into flames.
As the adults scurried for a hose and my grandpa started crying about what this was going to mean for his very meticulously manicured lawn, my older sister and I do what all older siblings do: We made our younger brother cry over the guilt of it all.
"JEEZ, GC,” my older sister said. “How could you do that?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, flaring my nostrils self-righteously as if the same thing couldn’t very well have happened to either of us, “what were you thinking?”
“Grandpa will probably never forgive you,” my older sister added, shaking her head sadly.
That did look to be the case. Gramps was now somehow simultaneously sucking down a soothing beer, wiping the rolling tears away from his cheeks, and shooting daggers at my younger brother, to whom we were pretty sure he was referring when he whispered “damned faulty birth control producing more grandchildren when nobody even asked for them” venomously.
Later, after the fire had been put out and the tree mostly saved—all but 2 or 3 crispy branches—I was in the kitchen playing kiss ass by washing all of the dishes. I knew what I was doing; the sink had a window that overlooked the porch swing on the back patio, where Gramps, finally halfway calmed, had moved to get some peace and quiet while he worked on a new beer.
“You’re such a good girl, Shay,” he said, smiling up at me through the window as I made sure to clink the plates together so he’d hear me doing the dishes. “You’re always wanting to help out.”
I beamed at him. Suddenly, though, I could feel my little brother—the fire starter himself—jumping up and down next to me to get a glimpse of Gramps outside. The Golden Child was still trying to get back into Gramps’s good graces, and he was flinging a dish towel around, trying to get noticed as he yip-yapped like a little dog about drying the dishes for me. He wanted to be a good boy again, too.
“Hey, Gramps,” I said, taking control of the situation. “Remember that time GC almost burned down your house with a firecracker?”
Suddenly, my gramps’s serene-ish smile disappeared, and in its place was a grimace as he remembered his ruined tree. “Remember?!” he shouted. “How the hell could I forget? It happened 30 minutes ago!”
The Golden Child ran off crying, and I smiled smugly to myself, knowing that I would be Gramps’s favorite for at least the rest of that evening.
It’s one of my fondest memories.
I hope your 4th of July is filled with fond memories, too, my peeps.