July 4, 2014

Tell about Independence Day traditions of your childhood.
— writing prompt for July 4 from Mom, Share Your Life With Me

Pie4thI baked an apple pie today. I used a recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that my mother gave me when I got my first post-college apartment in 1970, and a Corning Ware pie plate that I bought when I moved in there, using books of S&H Green Stamps that my mother gave me. Apple pie just seemed like the right thing for today. I’ve been baking in this kitchen for 38 years. That’s continuity. That’s history.

I’d been living in this house for less than six weeks when the first Fourth of July here came around. It was 1976, the Bicentennial Year, so more things were red, white, and blue themed than usual. I made a frozen dessert out of a Woman’s Day or maybe a Family Circle magazine.

It had blueberries and strawberries over a layer of cheesecake, walnuts, and Cool Whip. You spread the cakey part in a 13×9 pan, placed the blueberries and the strawberries to look like stars and stripes, and then put it in the freezer overnight. It was when I got to the “put it in the freezer” part that I discovered that my new refrigerator, a GE 18 cu. ft. side-by-side in harvest gold, selected and purchased by my mother without consulting me, was too narrow in the freezer side to put the pan in without tipping it. The concoction, not yet firm, sloshed around some and dribbled over the side.

For a number of years after Ron and I were married in 1983, we went to the home of his Uncle Flash and Aunt Nanny (brother and sister) for a “cookout” on the Fourth. There were at least three cookouts each season: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Ron’s father’s birthday was July 14, and Ron’s is July 19, so I think there might have been a cookout for that occasion as well.

A cookout meant setting up a charcoal grill in the driveway of Uncle Flash’s house, cooking hot dogs, hamburgers, and corn on the cob. Ron’s father had a joke he told at every cookout about seeing a police officer on the street wearing an ear of corn on his head. “There goes some corn on the cop,” was the punch line.

One year, when Lynn was still in a high chair, the smoke alarm went off, and its piercing wail made her cry out.

“Oh sweetie,” Ron’s mother said, using her habitual term of endearment for any of her grandchildren. “Is that hurting your ears?”

“It certainly is,” said Ron’s oldest daughter, then about 25.

“I don’t think she meant you,” said the second daughter, 22.

Times had changed. Uncle Flash died in 1992, Ron’s father entered a nursing home in 1995. I don’t remember exactly when the last cookout was. We took Lynn to the riverfront for the fireworks display the city puts on. When she was four or five, the noise and the crowds frightened her, and we came home. We didn’t go again until she was maybe ten, and then not every year.

I found the 4×6-inch spiral notebook, “a daily journal of childhood memories” from which I took the epigraph for this piece, on a shelf in my study today. I’ve had it since at least 2005 — the page for June 1, “Tell about a strange person that lived in your town,” has a notation about where in my paper journal for 2005 one can find material I wrote about the people who lived across the street from us from the time I was seven until I was fourteen or so. They were religious fanatics, and I know without checking that I wrote about the time they dragged their 16- or 17-year-old daughter, literally kicking and screaming, out of the house on a Wednesday night, stuffed her in the car, and took her off to their midweek church service.

It was my intention, of course, to write in this book from time to time, as a way of beginning to compile the anecdotes of my life, to leave a trace. There are only a few other notes — my first piece of pizza was enjoyed at Marabella’s at 6th and Woodbine (March 14), a description of the Poplar Grove cemetery in Camp Hill (a place I liked to go to be alone, February 24). Like many of my projects, it started with enthusiasm and then got deferred in favor of other, more interesting or more pressing projects.

When I found it today, a day when I am moving into a new phase of my endeavors, taking up blogging again, I turned to July 4, of course.

Only yesterday I did talk to someone, my psychotherapist, as a matter of fact, about an Independence Day tradition of my childhood. In those days, the city used an area called Reservoir Park for its fireworks display. The park was on a hill between Market Street and Walnut Street. My “Aunt” Jeannette, not an aunt (hence the quotation marks which she always used) but a lifelong friend of my parents, lived on Walnut Street.

Her front porch faced the part of the sky where the fireworks appeared. It, too, was on a hill, reached by climbing a switchback of concrete stairs built into her front embankment, which was planted in a cascading green ivy with a crape myrtle tree at the top.. It was on that porch that I learned why you heard the whistle of the rocket after you saw its red glare.

The fireworks display, and its attendant science lesson, is but one among many clear and precise memories I have of “Aunt” Jeannette. I didn’t know just how many memories I had, nor just how clear they were, until this day last week. I had not been in touch with her since probably 2006, the year of my last Christmas party and my last end-of-year letter. Oh yes, I did think from time to time about calling her, inviting her to lunch. I thought, but didn’t act.

“Aunt” Jeannette died last week. I attended her funeral on Monday. I can’t do anything about my neglect of this relationship, which gave me so much. I’ve written about her in this space before, here. That is dated 2007. It is unclear if I followed through on my resolve to see her again. I suspect I did not.

It is near 10:00 pm as I write this. In recent years, Ron and I went to the place I use as a studio, high above the river with a splendid view of the island where the city now stages its fireworks display. We got pizza, and sat on the porch there. City budget constraints made for a subdued display. We didn’t even think about going this year. I’m giving that space up soon, so that trip, like the one to Walnut Street, won’t be happening again. There is some rat-tat-tat and the occasional boom nearby, but no bombs bursting in air. I hear a neighbor, trying to walk her dog, explaining that the sounds are just noise, not a threat. From the sounds of it, the dog is having none of it.

I’ll be printing this out, and writing in my journal of childhood memories directions for where it can be found, for my descendents to read. For now, I move into the rest of the summer. I have a lot of living to do, a lot of promises to keep. And some apple pie to eat.

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