Growing up just twenty miles north of Manhattan had so many advantages. My family had access to the big city whenever we wanted. Often on a whim we hopped in the station wagon and headed south. There we would enjoy Broadway plays, Christmas extravaganzas, world class shopping, restaurants and, of course, sightseeing. The Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Canal Street, Radio City Music Hall and the sorely missed World Trade Center are part of the fabric of my childhood quilt. Trips to The Big Apple were magical. But there was also magic right in my front yard and none more memorable than on the fourth of July.
Each year as July 4th approached my older sister, younger brother and I would grow giddy as the day approached. The anticipation could almost be likened to waiting for Santa Claus or The Easter Bunny. We knew that when the big day arrived our dad would come home, summon us to the driveway and open the back of that navy blue Pontiac station wagon. There, laid out in all their wonderment and glory were boxes of 4th of July sparklers. Not just one or two boxes, but dozens of boxes or great big Fourth of July enchantment. And not just any sparklers, they were the great big sticks that burned for what seemed like ten minutes each. To make the day even more stupendous, Dad always bought enough for us to share with all the kids in the neighborhood.
My dad was a hero, almost a legend, to all our friends and in part that made him a hero to me; and not just on July 4th. He was the guy that stood outside when the Good Humor Ice Cream truck arrived and made sure that everyone got ice cream even if it meant paying for them all. He was generous and had a big heart although outwardly he seemed shy and was always quiet and reserved. He was the cool dad. Long before they were popular he wore dark sunglasses all the time. It wasn’t until years later that I found out he wore then to protect his already failing eyes from the sun. I thought it was just for appearances sake. When dad would accompany us on class trips he always gave a few dollars to one of my classmates who never had any money. It was money for a souvenir, not for food; dad bought him lunch too.
As darkness masked the sky of my childhood Independence Days we gathered on the front lawn. Beaming from the excitement and anticipation we were nearly breathless we waited for the last little ray of sunshine to drop behind the horizon. When that moment finally arrived dad would come out of the house, still donning the dark shades and smoking a cigar. He’d open a box of sparklers while the cigar stayed clenched in his molars. He started passing them out to eager children who themselves became frenetic as the sun slowly set. I still remember the delighted faces of kids with arms and fingers outstretched eagerly waiting to wrap their fingers around a glorious sparkler.
Then dad would walk to the center of the lawn and we would follow behind him knowing that he had a plan. He was like a pied piper and we little rats followed him obediently. He leaned over and told my old sister to spread everyone out and have them hold up their sparkler. Once in acceptable formation he would use his cigar to set the sparkler alight. The squealing, laughter and joyful outcries of a couple of dozen crazed children holding a simple 4th of July sparkler is a soundtrack that I can play over and over in my memory. That was always the best day of our summer vacation. As other families set off noisy fireworks we had fun with our sparklers as they slowly burned emitting a personal light and color show.
Now, all these years later so many things have changed. The Good Humor Ice Cream man is just a distant memory. The great big sparklers are gone forever. Now they are so small and thin that they’re hardly worth lighting. Fireworks themselves have been outlawed. Neighborhood children gathering on the front lawn; are those days just for the history books? And dad, he’s gone too. Well, not entirely; he makes up a big part of my childhood quilt. I think he has a little square on a lot of other people’s quilts too!