That day was the Fourth of July. I woke that morning with an aching heart because a boy had broken it the night before. I looked at my ceiling a long time before I made myself get out of bed. I was nearly fifteen, and this hurt of trusting and betrayal was new to me. I wanted nothing so much as I wanted to stay in bed and grieve the loss of an emotion that had been brief and surprisingly painful. But that would not be possible, because I had plans that day. Every holiday for which there was a celebration had been spent at my Grandma’s for as long as I could remember, and this day there would be fireworks and barbecue for dinner. My mother had mentioned something about us having homemade ice cream. I hoped that this year I would be old enough to get some; most other years only adults got the homemade kind and we kids ate the kind from the box. So I got up, but I could not put this boy from my mind. I could not imagine what I could have done to make him treat me so carelessly.
It was noon before we made it to Grandma’s. Everyone was there before us. My aunts sat at the dining room table and complained as loudly as magpies. Cats draped across the backs of furniture, and two of my uncles, Andy and Jeff, watched their football team lose in stoic silence. My favorite uncle, Kevin, who lived there with my grandmother, was hosing down the front yard so that it would not catch fire. Most of the boys in my family were hyperactive, so they were running across the hard wood floors, screaming. My only female cousin, younger than me by eight years, begged me to play dolls with desperation in her doe-brown eyes. Normally, I found someone to talk to and something to say, but that day I was close to tears and sat down on the couch to watch TV.
Kevin left the lawn to tend itself and stomped around the house, muttering into his bright red beard that he was tired of all these family gatherings and that he would never again host another of them, just as he did every holiday. He was roundly ignored. My grandma was in the kitchen, cooking and swearing. She had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, but that day she was still quite strong and would stop her cooking periodically to sit on the porch and smoke. She wore a bright kerchief over hair that I suspected was beginning to thin. My uncle had forced her vice outside with the diagnosis. For probably the first time in her life, my grandmother had meekly complied. Kevin had stopped smoking, but grandma had been unable to. On a normal day, I would trail out after her, afraid that she might disappear like one of her smoke rings. I had never loved anyone who was terminally ill before and I had no idea what to expect.
Today was different. I moped. It was all I could force myself to do. Face in hands, I watched the Denver Broncos embarrass themselves. If I had been a football fan I surely would have lapsed further into depression.
At around two o’clock my uncle announced that all children would be given sparklers and smoke bombs, and as that still included me three weeks before my fifteenth birthday, I dutifully trooped outside with everyone else. The whole family would watch us with our snakes to make sure that Nicky didn’t set fire to his sister or that we didn’t run with lit matches. Also, if anyone threw a popper in the direction of anyone else there would be immediate hell to pay.
My Aunt Trudy, a tiny woman who had married my Uncle Jeff several years before, flipped her fluffy blonde hair and looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity. She had finished talking with my other aunt and deposited herself beside her husband on the couch. They were a peculiar couple. He was as tall and dark as she was short and blonde. When they stood together she barely came to his shoulder. As I was walking listlessly outside, my Aunt Trudy asked me, “Shelly, are you okay? You seem unhappy.”
I sniffed away sudden tears and said, “I hate Jason Taylor.”
My aunt and uncle exchanged understanding looks and said simultaneously, “Oh, a boy.”
I went outside, sat on the steps next to my grandma’s peonies, and tossed my fireworks into the yard. Behind me, whispers that I was not meant to hear crossed stealthily from mouth to ear. It was a matter of minutes before my entire family knew about my broken heart. At dinner, I picked at my food, and for once I was not bothered about eating the rest of it. When it started to get dark, Uncle Kevin asked me if I might like to help him light the fireworks; after all, I was the oldest and therefore I was more responsible than the rest of the kids.
At that I had to smile. In my family, the way they tried to cheer you up was by letting you set stuff on fire. I gratefully told him that I might light a few.
As night gathered, the boys were so excited they could no longer be kept in check. A bucket was filled with water, the hose was set to run into the grass, and all children (including myself) were sprayed down with bug spray. Then we all trooped outside. My grandma followed and took her traditional space on the porch swing. Everyone else landed in lawn chairs near the street or on the porch rails. Of course all children were ordered down at once on the grounds that they would fall off and break their heads open. They found new spots on the stoop from which they would have a good angle to push each other. There was a brief scuffle, and it was broken up immediately.
Chin in my hands, I cast an annoyed look at the wrestling cousins. From her traditional place on the peeling white porch swing, my Grandma looked at me kindly and said, “Would you like to sit next to me, Shelly?”
I looked up at her from the highest porch step and said, “Sure!” I had never before been allowed to sit next to grandma. That spot was usually reserved for adults who wouldn’t annoy her by wiggling, especially now that she was sick. I sat gingerly down on the swing beside her, and she put her arm around me. For a moment I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to think of it. Grandma had never done any such thing before. I decided that I liked it and settled against her, leaning my head on her substantial breast. She felt solid and reliable beside me. I could not help but be comforted.
My uncle started the fireworks. As the first one erupted in a shower of green sparks, everyone cried, “Oooh! Aaah!” as if they were a parody of people enjoying the show. I laughed at their noises, and Grandma smiled at me to share the joke. As my uncle lit the next one, grandma and I both cried, “Oooh! Aaaah!”
I loved her completely at that moment. I felt connected with her, one soul to another, as we sat there in the darkness together. I knew that she understood the silly girl hurt that I had worn on my face all that day, and I understood in that moment that once she had suffered with the same youthful longings. I had before then thought of her as a strong woman who needed no man. And she was. But it didn’t mean that once upon a time she hadn’t ached for some little fool who didn’t know what good he had in her. I wondered what he must have been like, and whether, if I had been there, I would have been sensitive enough to comfort her as she was comforting me. In that moment my hurt changed from youthful self-pity to real grief. For the first time in my life, I really felt that I knew my grandma. And she was dying as she sat beside me. I started to cry, and in the darkness she hugged me comfortingly. To this day, I cannot say whether or not she knew what I was crying about.
In the street, my uncle was lighting the last firework. “Get ready,” she told me. “This is the last one.” With a whistle, it ignited into a scarlet waterfall. As one, my Grandma and I cried, “Ooooh! Aaaah!”