For years, I hated the Fourth of July.
As the mother of four sons, I found myself terribly conflicted on that particular holiday. In the 1980s, it seemed to be the duty of every adolescent boy in Oyster Bay to honor his country by detonating his personal arsenal of paper-wrapped bits of gunpowder. At the same time, mothers like me felt obligated to tell their sons horror stories of guys who, while engaged in the use of illegal firecrackers, lost fingers, blinded themselves or even died.
“We can watch the professional displays over Long Island Sound,” I offered. “Or we can go into the city and catch the Macy’s fireworks from the rooftop of my friend’s apartment building.”
“No,” was always the answer.
I tried forbidding them to touch a single firecracker, an unenforceable and ludicrous edict. Finally, I rationalized that if I allowed a “bit” of a fireworks display in my own yard, I might satisfy their need to explode things and my need to protect them. My oldest demurred; his friends went to barbecues and parties. I had to let him go, trusting that he’d be smart and careful.
It was my second son, Rich, who became the grand showman of our backyard July Fourth events, the first when he was in seventh grade. He had “connections,” secret to me to this day, older boys who traveled into the city and down to Chinatown, returning with a variety of explosives guaranteed to make booms loud enough to wake sleeping neighbors and drive terrified dogs under beds.
I called Rich recently to ask whether he remembered what he bought.
“Sure, I do,” he said. “A brick of firecrackers, a brick of jumping jacks, a gross of bottle rockets, a gross of whistlers, and some smoke bombs.”
Pretty tame stuff, it turns out, in comparison with the M80s, Roman candles and cherry bombs that adults in the neighborhood ignited to entertain their children and guests on the holiday.
Still I was frightened. Finding my son’s stash in the bottom of his closet, I removed several packs of firecrackers so that he would have fewer explosives to light and fling. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, Rich, realizing the theft, located the goods in my sock drawer and stole most of them back.
A few neighborhood boys joined us each year for our celebration. I stood ready with the garden hose, spraying the roof of the house every time a bottle rocket landed there. I even drenched my youngest son’s head when I thought a tossed firecracker threatened to land in his hair.
The smoke bombs, saved for the end, were rolled down the driveway; and the sparklers, my contribution, were lit and thrown spinning through the air. Finally, it was over and, miraculously, everyone was unharmed.
On the phone, Rich said, “Those were the best days ever!”
For him, yes. Maybe for me, too. My neighborhood is mostly quiet now; a lot of the population is older. On the Fourth, I sit on my front porch to watch, over the trees, the spectacular fireworks display from the Pine Hollow Country Club. But later, in bed, I strain to hear, if only in my memory, the boom of a firecracker in my own yard and the laughter of my sons as I hose down the roof, a tree or one of them.
Reader JoAnn DiFranco lives in Oyster Bay.