Birthday celebrations are not always sparkling affairs.
The day I turned 6, I raised my hand to announce to my fellow first-graders: “You are all invited to my grandmother’s house today at 4 o’clock to celebrate my birthday. She lives down the road from Smith’s Grocery. You can bring a present if you want, or not.”
Then I ran home after school to tell my grandmother.
“You did what?” she said.
“I invited everybody. Plus my teacher. And the principal.”
“Well, why didn’t you just invite the whole dang school?”
“I wanted to,” I said, “but I feared it might get out of hand.”
Her eyes got big. “Lord help us! How many are coming?”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty short notice. Maybe not everybody.”
She muttered a word I won’t repeat and ran to the kitchen to try to scrounge up a cake.
I combed my hair and waited. Only two guests showed up: A boy who gave me a Hershey Bar. And a girl who ate it.
They left when they saw the cake. My grandmother forgot the baking soda and it looked rather like a lopsided short stack of pancakes.
For lack of a candle, she lit a match. I had to laugh. Not at the match. At the light in her eyes. I wish you could’ve seen it.
“Make a wish,” she said.
I closed my eyes and wished I never had to go back to school. Then I blew out the match, she sang “Happy Birthday” and we each had two pieces of cake.
As parties go, it wasn’t bad. But I had no desire for another one. Not even for my country.
That’s what they called it: “A Birthday Party for our Great Country.” It was a Fourth of July picnic hosted by the mill where my stepfather worked.
Like any other red-blooded, God-fearing, 6-year-old Southerner, I’d been raised to feel blessed to live in the land of the free. I would never take that freedom for granted. I didn’t feel special about much, but I felt special to be an American. I loved my country. I just didn’t want to go to that picnic.
“Too bad,” said my mother.
I went. It was hot. Yes, hotter than a firecracker on the Fourth of July in a feather bed in hell.
I wore a dress that made me look like Orphan Annie and sweated like I’d just been baptized.
Old people sat in the shade fanning themselves as if it helped. Babies lay on blankets, too hot to cry. Toddlers staggered off and got lost. Boys my age tried to kill each other. Girls my age stayed home.
The millhands stood around smoking and joking, while their wives set food on the picnic tables, whirling their arms like human windmills swatting flies.
Cold food was hot. Hot food was cold. And the iced tea tasted like last week’s dishwater.
Then the sun went down, the night came up, the air cooled off, the stars came out and the mosquitoes nearly ate us alive.
I was hiding under a table when the fireworks began. I thought we’d been bombed. Then I looked up and saw all those colors exploding in the sky. And suddenly, everything bad turned to good and all things ugly became beautiful.
The old people stopped fanning and picked up the babies. The toddlers came back and the boys stopped fighting and the millhands crushed out their cigarettes to hoist their children up on their shoulders and pull their wives close to their sides.
And there for a few blessed moments we all stood as one on equal ground – no fighting, no arguing, no differences, all the same – to smile up at Heaven, alive and free, oohing and ahhing and feeling special.
I fell in love that night with fireworks. Not just on the Fourth of July. I can find them anywhere – in sunsets and city lights, in fireflies and campfires, in hopes and dreams and the gift of freedom and, most of all, in the eyes of people I love.
I bet you can find them, too.
Look. Did you see that flash?
Reach Sharon Randall at P.O. Box 777394, Henderson, NV 89077, or on her website: www.sharonrandall.com.