As an only child, my son can be lonely at times. But, this summer he was treated to a week with his cousin visiting from North Carolina. They played non-stop. At breakfast, the smack talk began with “Oh yay, I’m going to kill you today!” Because of their epic Nerf battles, my husband and I were wearing protective gear to walk through the house. And, we set up a bunker in our bedroom. When they were out of bullets and tired from Nerf, they killed aliens in Halo. The house was filled with screams and laughter. My son had the time of his life. To make sure that we get the “Best Uncle and Aunt” titles, we made sure to treat our nephew to his first Maine lobster. Do you have an only child? How do you entertain him/her?
With his own cheering section, the General marched proudly through town in his faded uniform that he took out twice a year for the Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades. His Band of Brothers all wearing the same faded uniform had seen better days just like their uniforms. This crew of Veterans from World War II was getting smaller every year, but today he marched side by side with the 4 remaining members of his unit. Despite all the Old Spice, I splashed on him you could still smell the moth balls on his uniform. While his knees creaked with age, he stood tall with his customary crew cut looking straight ahead and saluting members of the military and dignitaries. When the high school band started playing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” I noticed a sudden spring in their steps.
Finishing the parade, the General loaded his truck with as many friends as he could bring back to his house. Standing in the driveway with a cold beer was Grandma, wearing her favorite summer dress, apron and bouffant, which was starting to melt in the heat of the day. “You looked handsome in your uniform,” she said smiling and handing him the beer. “Change your clothes the charcoals are ready,” she said and returned to the kitchen to finish preparing her side dishes. She was the best cook in town and when she threw a party everyone came to eat.
In fifteen minutes, she yelled out the door “kids get in here!” As we filed into the kitchen, she handed each of us a bowl to bring outside. My mother was at the tables directing traffic pointing to where we should place the serving bowls, heaped high with my Grandma’s delicious salads, vegetables and casseroles. There was a whole table for just the salads. The next table was filled with homemade pickles, relishes, chutney and sauces. Followed by a table filled with cooked vegetables from Grandpa’s garden to include corn on the cob, green beans, peas and an assortment of squashes and vegetable casseroles. There was enough food to feed an army. My mouth was watering and I couldn’t wait to eat.
When everything was loaded on the tables and Grandpa had brought the first platters of meat from the grill, he said “let us give thanks.” We bowed our heads, and he began “Lord thank you for our freedom that we celebrate today, and thank you for gathering all of our family and friends to celebrate with us. Let us take a moment of silence for those who died for our freedom.” With everyone’s heads down, my cousin seized the opportunity to pull my braid. “Ouch,” I blurted breaking the silence. Shooting a stern look in my direction, he finished with “Let’s eat.”
A line consisting of dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles and half of the town wrapped from the back yard and around the house. Fortunately, they let the littlest children go first, so I did not have long to wait. Piling as much as I could carry on my plate, I found a spot under the big old Oak tree to eat. Soon I was joined by my brothers and cousins. Before long they started the See Food contests opening their mouths to show everyone the half chewed food. And, when that was no longer entertaining, they moved onto throwing the remains of their feast at each other. “Stop throwing your food!” broke the air like a firecracker. It was the General sent to deal with our motley crew. “Now clean up this mess and go play,” he commanded waving his big hand at us as if to say dismissed.
Despite the heat, it was time for our annual badminton grudge match, which gave the winning team bragging rights for a whole year. Last year my cousin Hank and his team won, and my brother Scooter was out to settle the score. “Scooter, I’m gonna beat you again this year,” Hank taunted. My brother put his hand out to stop me from charging at Hank. “Let’s beat him on the court,” he whispered. After hours of heated play, it was a dead heat between Hank and Scooter. They were tied and their teams were fading from the heat, so my Grandma suggested that we break the tie with a pie eating contest. It didn’t hurt that my Grandma’s pies were delicious. With their hands tied behind their backs, Scooter and Hank plunged their faces into the pies in front of them gulping and swallowing the blueberries. Raising his head up in victory has he swallowed the last bite, Scooter had earned the bragging rights for the next year.
As the sun began to set, it was time for Grandpa’s speech. If we sat quietly and listened, Grandma would come out with our July Fourth cake. Every year he told us the story of the Declaration of Independence. How our forefathers risked everything for our freedom to include our own ancestor Josiah Bartlett who signed the document for New Hampshire. I know that it was important to talk about the people that founded our country, but at the time it just felt like homework during the summer. Just when I couldn’t sit still any longer, I felt a hand on my shoulder pushing me back into my seat. I looked up to see my mother looking sternly at me.
After the longest 15 minutes of my life, I was rewarded when my Grandma walked out of the kitchen with a big chocolate cake with sparklers on top. “Yay!” we shouted and ran to her as she placed it on the picnic table. My aunt followed behind her with plates and forks. We all ate a big slice. “Yummy! Grandma this is the best cake ever!” we shouted.
Just when we were looking for an outlet for all that sugar, Uncle Mack walked out with sparklers for all of the kids. It started out as just fun waiving the sparks of light around in the dark. But, then the boys decided to start a competition to see who they could light on fire. Using the buddy system, my cousin Kirstie and I ran interference for each other to escape the boys. Running serpentine around the yard screaming, we avoiding being lit on fire. However, soon the noise was so loud that the parents couldn’t ignore it any longer, so they sent in the General. “What are you kids doing?” he bellowed from his lawn chair. When we didn’t notice, he stood up and ordered “Stop that now!” Knowing what would come next, the boys scattered.
Exhausted from running, I fell into my mom’s lap. While we were running for our lives, the parents had lined up the chairs in the front of the house to watch the fireworks. Resting back on my mother, I looked up in the sky to see the bursts of color that thundered over our heads. “Ahh,” I sighed. “What a perfect day.”
Before there was paintball, there was Grandpa’s Garden. All of the cousins would choose sides and gather ammo from a great selection of rotten tomatoes and squashes. Scrambling to find the most strategic hiding spots for battle, we watched them crawl through the garden rustling the stocks and giving away their positions.
They called me Peanut, because I was small. But, they made me a scout, because I was fast and barely moved the plants. After agreeing on our winning battle plan, I wiggled on my belly through the garden, leaving a trail of dirt and rotten vegetables down the front of my dress. I was very proud that I had thought to leave my patent leather shoes and socks at the entrance to the garden for their safety. “Won’t mommy be pleased,” I thought to myself with a smile.
In the heat of battle, the bow on the top of my head got caught on a plant. Like a soldier trapped in barbed wire, I struggled to get free before the enemy reached me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get free. Ultimately, I left it behind as a casualty of war, shaking the blonde banana curls free from my mother’s handiwork. Why did she insist on dressing me like Shirley Temple? Ugh!
Now free, I continued my mission to expose the enemies’ positions to my troops. Creeping slowly, I thought that I was undetected. Gradually rising up to the plant level, I was ambushed with an onslaught of rotten tomatoes. I was surrounded by my cousins yelling “We captured Peanut! Whaddya gonna give us for her?”
My older brother the squadron leader yelled back, “Keep her! It’s more dessert for us later!” Pleased with his response, my brother smiled and waited for their next move. When it seemed like they would not give me back, my younger brother asked “Can I have her room?”
Dangling from the end of my cousin’s long arm, I struggled to get free. Suddenly we heard the booming voice of the General, “What are you kids doing in my garden?” We called Grandpa the General, because he towered over us giving orders with the authority of a General. He was the only one in the family that we truly feared and obeyed. Consequently, he was the one sent to deal with us whenever they heard strange noises.
Avoiding the long reach of the General, my brothers and cousins scattered in all directions. Falling into a heap when my cousin released me, I couldn’t move. I was frozen with fear and the General was approaching. Looking at the rat’s nest that was once bouncy curls now covered in rotten tomatoes, and the floral garden dress now more dirt than flowers, he began to soften. He asked quietly, “what happened?” With the only weapon left in my arsenal, I began to cry. Thinking me the victim of a vicious attack, he scooped me up and I lived to fight another day…until my mother saw me.
Horrified, she surveyed my knotted curls and filthy, ripped dress. Scrolling down to my knees, she saw the blood and dirt crusting. Despite the scary look on her face, I held up the clean socks and shoes, hoping that this would keep me out of the doghouse. “What on earth?” she yelled. “How can I ever fix you before the parade?” she questioned shaking her head. After the shock wore off, she made a plan for restoring my appearance.
Grabbing my hand, she led me briskly into the bathroom. With surgical precision, she attempted to untangle and fix my curls. “It’s no use,” she sighed “Oh, it’s ruined. All of my hard work on your hair is gone.” Looking down, I shook my head in agreement. “I’m sorry mom,” I mumbled. Because there was little time left, she moved quickly to braid my hair and scrubbed the dirt off my face, arms and legs. Finishing her repairs with Band-Aids on all of my cuts and scrapes. As she tossed the empty Band-Aid box into the trash, she said “honestly you look like a patchwork quilt with all these patches everywhere.”
Reaching into my suitcase to find something clean for me to wear, she grabbed the most patriotic outfit I had left. Holding up my red, white and blue Tutu and matching leotard from our last dance recital, she said exasperated “this will have to do.” Finally clean and bandaged from my battle wounds, I emerged from the bathroom in my Yankee Doodle Dandy costume. Pulling on the socks and my shoes, I joined the rest of the family at the curb waiting for the parade. When the General marched by with the Veterans of World War II, we all stood straight and tall to salute him. In unison we yelled “Happy July 4th Grandpa!”