Red, white, and blue.
Must be the 4th of July, otherwise known as THE holiday on my dad’s side of the family.
My grandmother was totally into the 4th of July. My grandfather had served in the Navy during World War II, and patriotism was ingrained in who they both were. Most grandmas can’t wait to throw huge Christmas celebrations full of family, gifts, baking, and tree trimming. They handle (with expertise and ease) all those little details parents are too harried or too tired to remember.
Gram liked Christmas, but I’m fairly sure she started her countdown until the next year’s Independence Day celebration on July 5th. No effort was spared, whether it involved fireworks, decorations, treats, or “fun plates” (4th of July-themed paper plates found in the seasonal aisle that cost double or triple what the plain paper plates cost). She even made herself a 4th of July outfit out of material that featured American flags and fireworks.
Until my grandparents passed away, I never celebrated a 4th of July anyplace besides their house, hours and hours away in Lower Michigan. My aunt, uncle, and cousins always came up for the holiday, too, and around dinnertime, many neighbors, friends, and local family members gathered for our 4th of July party, which featured great company and a mouth-watering barbecue. We even got our own personal fireworks display, selected and set off by my dad.
If Christmas Eve is the longest night of the year, 4th of July is the longest day. As a kid, it’s torture to wait for the sun to go down. Poppers and snakes are fun, but every kid knows that 4th of July doesn’t get good until dusk. Then the sparklers can come out, which is the only way to pass the time until it’s dark enough for fireworks.
Everyone had their traditional 4th of July roles:
- My dad spent the day organizing all the fireworks, from the least-impressive-but-still-fun small ones to the “grand finale” and everything in between.
- My brother was his assistant, helping to plan and then, come dark, set the fireworks off.
- My uncle manned the grill, expertly flipping hot dogs and hamburgers.
- Gram baked cookies and bought treats from the local bakery. She also baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag. (Once, a cat named Frosty walked across the cake, which caused flurry of frantic baking in order to get a replacement one ready in time.)
My mom and aunt (and myself when I got older) kept my younger cousins busy with water toys, walks around town, and games. It always seemed that we got a heat wave that week, so we’d set up a wading pool to splash around in.
- Grandpa set up the fireworks stage (an old door placed horizontally across two saw horses) and a bucket of water, ready to snuff out wicks and keep everyone safe. He also put up the traditional screen tent so we didn’t have to share dinner with any bugs.
- Joey Chestnut, professional competitive eater, tried his best to out-eat the other competitors in the nationally televised Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which we had to find on TV or 4th of July morning would be ruined. It was ten minutes of intense competition that was so disgusting we couldn’t look away.
- Friends and relatives brought side dishes, such as potato chips, baked beans, fruit, and salads.
We lived for the moment the first relative’s car pulled into the driveway because that meant dinner could start and we were that much closer to fireworks. As soon as Great-Uncle Art or Johnny from across the street showed up, the party would officially start, and we could dive into the food.
Every dish was delicious, especially the perfectly-decorated American flag cake and my uncle’s grilling. But the snack we looked forward to most was Cheesy Puffs.
My grandparents’ across-the-garden neighbor, an elderly lady named Bena, brought over a bag of Cheesy Puffs every year. I don’t remember which name brand of these tasty treats she bought. Come to think of it, I think they were the generic brand sold at the local grocery store. But they were fabulous, and my brother, cousins, and I always piled them high on our “fun plates.” Who cared about baked beans or salad when there were Cheesy Puffs?
After dinner, we’d light sparklers as dusk slowly and painfully turned to dark, each of us kids (and some of the adults) sneaking back inside several times to grab another handful of Cheesy Puffs out of the bag. The worst was when your hand kept reaching deeper and deeper into the bag, only to graze crumbs at the bottom. The best was when Bena had brought a second bag, and you could rip that one right open at the sight of the first crumb. All night, we reached for sparklers with neon-orangish-yellow stained fingers.
The fireworks would finally begin . . . and then they’d be over after many sparks, crackles, pops, whistles, explosions, and “ooh . . . aah”s. Then the countdown to next year began.
One year, everything was going as usual. The cake had been decorated, my uncle had started the grill, my dad and brother had the fireworks line-up set, my cousins and I had played several board games, and Joey Chestnut had beaten his own hot dog eating record (he’s not nicknamed “Jaws” for nothing).
Friends and relatives began to arrive, and we headed for the food. We loaded our plates and found spots outside at the picnic table. The food was yummy and the company lively, but it felt like something was missing. I worked my way through a hot dog (one, not 68 like Joey), potato salad, chips, pasta salad, fizzy punch, and a huge piece of good old American-flag-decorated cake . . . and suddenly I realized—there weren’t any Cheesy Puffs.
Bena had passed away that winter, and without her there, nobody brought the Cheesy Puffs.
This might sound strange, but the whole evening’s activities felt “off” after that. We didn’t sneak back inside to snag more of anything off the table. We didn’t feel as stuffed as we usually did. The fingers that reached for sparklers that evening were boring and clean, not neon-orangy-yellow.
I sat in an old lawn chair and watched with everyone else as the fireworks exploded, but this time they didn’t seem quite as “Ooh . . . ahh . . .”-worthy as usual. I just kept thinking about how something so small that someone took care of every year could be missed so much when that person wasn’t there to take care of it.
Now, I realize that off-brand junk food is a silly example. But I’ve heard so many people say they don’t feel important, that because they don’t do huge things in life, they don’t matter.
The truth is, everybody brings something unique to their families, groups of friends, and neighborhood 4th of July parties. It was a small thing Bena did–bringing Cheesy Puffs. But those Cheesy Puffs were just as important to us kids as the fireworks were to our holiday enjoyment and just as integral a part of our memories.
Our contributions, both large and small, all contribute to the life experiences of the people we come into contact with. People say “I’m just a kid” or “I’m just a stay-at-home mom” or “I’m just one of many salespeople at my job.” Well, Bena was “just the neighbor who brought Cheesy Puffs,” but when she wasn’t there, our holiday wasn’t as stupendous as it was with her.
And yes, the fireworks displays and fancy cakes of life are what will draw the “ooh”s and “aah”s of the world. But sometimes, the smallest things we do mean the most to people around us.
Happy Fourth of July! I hope yours is full of fireworks and Cheesy Puffs.
Jenifer Brady is a mom, photographer, and the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series, set at the fictional Camp Spirit. Her current work-in-progress is a YA fantasy trilogy. Find out more about her books at JeniferBrady.com or her Amazon Central author page.