There is no moral to this story. Neither does it contain a caveat or even a philosophical issue to be pondered. It is simply the indulgence of a writer casting her mind back upon the sweet and innocent Fourths of July of her youth, when time seemed to stand still as it can only for the young.
Stevie Wonder was sending me into ecstasy each time My Cherie Amore floated out of my little transistor radio. Whenever that radio cranked out the dirty bass beats of the Stones’ Satisfaction or Paint it Black, my mother made the Sign of the Cross (oh, why couldn’t her eldest daughter follow those clean cut boys, The Beatles?!?). The Stones were the least of her worries, at least until I hit my mid-teens. Had she known that my grandmother was sneaking me fat, juicy peaches marinated in red wine out the side window of her kitchen — a forbidden, summer-only treat — my mother would have said a novena!
In those long-ago summers, my kid sister beat every other kid on the block with her hula-hoop feats: she could do more than 200 gyrations without breaking a sweat and she performed them with utter grace. Roller skates — real metal ones with four wheels — were all the rage, and God help you if you lost your skateboard key! The forest that had once carpeted my neck of the woods in Brooklyn, before my birth, was gone. But my neighborhood still clung tightly to some pleasures of the past while welcoming innovations like color TV (which my family could not afford).
The milk man still made deliveries, and every morning, my grandfather fished two fresh bottles out of the aluminum box on our stoop: one for him and my grandmother and one for my family, who lived on the floor above them. On summer mornings, the bottles were sweaty and the elixir within them cool and sweet. Just after sunrise, before the sun climbed high in the sky to bake small children and the patience right out of their mothers, a horse-drawn cart clopped beneath my window. A man behind the reins sung out cheerily, “Strawberries, blueberries, ch-her-heries!” Long before the Internet was invented, this was a much simpler way to have goods delivered right to your door. “Stop him!” my mother would cry madly, and my sister and I would holler down to the man with the horse that our mother wanted to buy some fruit. The other ladies on the block all congregated around the wagon, too, trying to wheel and deal a bargain. Looking down from our second story windows in the early morning light, the bed of the truck appeared as a pile of jewels, each variety neatly housed in wooden cartons: green striped watermelons, pale netted cantaloupes, ruby cherries and strawberries, dusky blueberries, and all manner of fresh vegetables.
Hailing from a small island off the coast of Naples, my grandmother, a magician on many levels, had transformed our tiny backyard into a lush urban farm. The fig tree was the central figure in summer, and if you have never tasted a ripe, juicy fig plucked fresh from its tree, I pity you. Herbs and zucchini also grew there, and we ate the deep yellow flowers of the squash (delicious when batter dipped and fried) as well as the vegetables. The entrance to the backyard was a wooden trellis, crafted and painted white by my grandfather. Over this, my grandmother had trained what I came to call her “wild roses” (the roses in the front yard were genuine showstoppers). With every waft of a warm summer breeze, my little backyard was perfumed with the scent of pink and red roses climbing all over that trellis, as well as the small cream-colored ones spreading profusely over our back fence.
With all of this vegetation, our yard was too small for even a kiddie pool. So I took full advantage of Kim’s pool. Kim was my best girlfriend, and on a hot summer day, I’d brave that pool even though I knew that Donald, Kim’s cousin and my nemesis, was waiting to drown me. At least it felt like that, as he’d hold me under the water long enough so that I was sure my lungs would burst and I’d soon come face to face with Davy Jones in his locker. Born a Scorpio and no dumb bunny, I’d plot my revenge and lie in wait for the best time to exact it, which was usually the Fourth of July.
Kim lived around the corner and down the block from me, but she may as well have lived in a foreign land. Although she had four children and a paying job in the days before women burned their bras, Kim’s mother spared no effort pulling out all the stops for her kids, her family, and her friends, particularly when it came to the holidays. Her Fourth of July fetes were her pieces d’ resistance.
Because I liked to cook, I was allowed to help out in the kitchen. Every Fourth, I’d stare fascinated as Mrs. J. injected one fat watermelon, over and over like a hapless hospital patient, with medical syringes. Those syringes contained vodka. She’d carve a symbol on that particular watermelon to distinguish it from its non-alcoholic brother, put it aside to marinate, and fix me with her eye. “For the grownups,” she’d drawl, and then add conspiratorially, “I’ll sneak you a little piece later, okay?” I’d brew the iced tea, from scratch, cut up the lemons and oranges to float within it, and pile Mrs. J’s endless homemade salads into serving bowls. Donald, who lived one flight below Kim’s family, always had to be chased from the kitchen as that good-looking devil filched the goodies and wrecked mayhem upon the cook and, of course, the cook’s helper.
On a hot Fourth, the climb up and down the long flight of stairs and around the big house into Kim’s backyard, to cart and replenish the food and drinks was hell on the adults. Or so they said. I became their “angel”, offering to take charge of that particular chore. Donald was invariably lurking in the shadows to pester me, and on a few Fourths, I caught him with his tongue stuck to the ice cube compartment in Kim’s fridge. It was hot in the backyard, Donald’s middle name was Trouble, and the frosty icebox too much of a temptation for him.
While the adults reveled in the sun, growing happier and happier with each swig of their Tom Collins’s, my nemesis and I were all alone in that kitchen. Whatever Donald was blathering at me with his tongue stuck to the icebox, I couldn’t rightly decipher. But I got the gist of it, all right. He wanted me to bail his sorry ass out. Standing small beside him, I looked up him with gleeful murder in my eye as I told him not to move and I’d be right back with some boiling water … to pour over his tongue. In whatever junkyard that old fridge now rests, DNA testing will prove that a certain Donald K. of Brooklyn, New York was intimate with it. Rather than suffer my brutal ministrations, Donald ripped his tongue hastily off the icebox, leaving many a taste bud behind.
Prior to these Fourth of July bashes that culminated in fresh strawberry ice cream hand-cranked by us kids and the biggest and best fireworks display for miles around, there were some very lean and trying years in Kim’s family. Those years, my family had to be content with grilling hot dogs and burgers on a little hibachi in our own backyard. We sat on Adirondack chairs that my grandfather had brought back from yes, the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The striped, Joseph-coat fabric on those chairs was already faded when I was a kid, but they were sturdy, and my sister and I were so small, we needed help getting out of them. We all drank lemonade out of tall, bright aluminum cups the colors of jewels. And after the dogs and the burgers, we’d enjoy slices of sweet watermelon and honeydew, with the juice running down our chins.
Long before Mayor Rudy Guiliani outlawed fireworks in New York City and its boroughs, my parents were terrified of the dangers that would befall their daughters if we tarried with fireworks. My mom had grown up with a kid stupid enough to put his eye to the neck of a bottle that contained a rocket, a kid who wound up losing that eye. And my mom had shared that story with my father. Fireworks, therefore, were the tools of the Satan! But, my sister and I managed to cajole my dad into buying us sparklers. So that’s all we had, sparklers bought from the candy store in those long red, white, and blue cardboard boxes. As soon as the sun had set, my dad would light the sparklers and my sister and I would hold them up and write our names in the sky. They were magic and beautiful and sometimes, we’d get singed slightly by the flying sparks. But we never told, for that would have been the end of the sparklers!
One Fourth, my Uncle Steve swung by the house, asking where were the real fireworks “for the kids.” When we explained that we didn’t have any, and why, he jumped right back in his car, drove to the other side of Brooklyn, and returned loaded for bear. I don’t know what was more fun, watching my dad throw a fit or watching my uncle laugh his head off, and delight in our glee as he set off mat after mat of firecrackers and tossed those little exploding balls down on the ground.
One year, I was lucky enough to have three or four Roman candles. The secrecy surrounding those Roman candles must have rivaled that with which the CIA guarded its carefully culled intelligence. Into this caper, I conscripted my cousin, Joe D. I’d been blessed with great boy cousins, and Joe D. was my all-time favorite. The son of my mother’s sister and her husband, Joe was a sweet, extremely bright kid a little more than two years my senior. Unlike Donald, Joe did not seek out trouble (well, most of the time, anyway) but trouble seemed to dog him nonetheless.
One summer day, with the Fourth of July approaching, Joe told me about the Roman candles that he and his buddies had set off the year before. When I asked what Roman candles were, his dark eyes grew as large as saucers. He was floored. I’d never seen a Roman candle go off! I hadn’t lived!!! The way he described the Roman candles, they put every other firework to shame. They were gorgeous, miraculous, spectacular! Joe then deemed that my ignorance of Roman candles had to be rectified, and soon — but how? He couldn’t invite me to his house to set the fireworks off there, for he’d be nailed by his parents. And he couldn’t set them off in front of mine, for he’d be nailed by my parents. We conspired, then, or perhaps I’d twisted his arm, to meet around the corner and up the block from where I lived, for there were no grown-ups there who knew us well enough to rat on us.
I don’t remember what I told my folks about where I was headed for a few minutes. God knows what Joe had told his. Once we rendezvoused, my cousin drew the verboten items, with reverence, from a rather ordinary looking brown paper bag. They were small, narrow tubes that looked not only innocuous to me but pretty dang boring. Casting furtive glances around him, Joe stuck the first candle into the ground, lit it, and jumped back, hollering for me to do the same. I prayed I would not lose my eye like my mother’s childhood friend. I prayed I would not be incinerated as a penance for my disobedience.
As I watched with delicious anticipation, three tiny colored balls of fire shot out of the tube: green, blue, and red. They reached the astronomical height of about four feet, maybe five, and then immediately fizzled. Clearly, I was not impressed. Joe lit another one and the same thing happened. Ditto with the third and the fourth. The look on his face told me that he’d let me down, and I didn’t mitigate it any. Finally, I said, “Don’t worry about it. Uncle Steve will be by later with the noisy stuff, to tick off my parents.” “Oh, the noisy stuff is cool!” Joe agreed enthusiastically. Truth to tell, I’d forgotten this little story until I began to write this article
My Uncle Steve has passed on, as have both of Joe’s lovely, funny parents. My grandparents are also gone. My grandfather, who wasn’t supposed to have made it out of World War I alive, reached the age of 80. My grandmother was 93, en route to party at the local senior citizen’s center (no lie; she was a party animal), when her heart finally gave out. Joe moved way down South, landing in the city that gave birth to my favorite musician-singer-songwriter even before that musician had been born. Joe’s eldest child, my beautiful second cousin, will take her wedding vows this October. I have no idea where Kim and Donald are now. I know that God was just in Kim’s case by sending her a handsome, loving doctor to marry. I met him once. I hope they are very happy.
I do know that Uncle Sam nabbed Donald as the Vietnam war reached its zenith. He returned unscathed, at least physically, even better looking than before and yet, very much changed. We met once, briefly, and I sensed that he was interested in me, and not just romantically. I think he’d wanted to share something with me, maybe open up a bit about what he’d seen and done in a jungle so far from home. I think he knew that his cousin’s childhood best friend, who was no longer pug-ugly and who had finally grown some curves, and who’d been feisty enough to outlive his torture, could take whatever he needed to tell me. I think he sensed that, in return, I would offer him some honesty. Perhaps all he really wanted to do was apologize to me for those childhood pranks. But Scorpios have long memories and I was not quite ready to forgive him. So he sped off in his little yellow Carmen Gia and I never saw him again.
Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t blow off my part-time, college-tuition-paying job that day, go down to Coney Island with Donald, put our feet in the surf, and talk. While Vietnam was changing Donald, other forces were at work, changing me profoundly — more than the usual forces confronting every normal adolescent. But there hang other tales.
Each year, I find that I change a little bit more. Each year, those sweet, gloriously simple Fourths of July spent on a Brooklyn stoop and a friend’s pool move a bit farther out of my reach. Thank God for my memories. They are as bright and welcome now as the sparklers on which my sister and I wrote our names in the sky.