It was our first Fourth of July at our first house. It was evening, and I was sitting in a lawn chair watching my brother-in-law, Jon, light a fountain in the street. He’s a long slender man, and his four long slender kids were crowded around the driveway. My mother-in-law, Joan, and my father-in-law, Paul, were there too. Along with Mel, our new baby, and Mel’s youngest brother, Kurt, and younger sister, Lucinda. They were all on my porch eating ice cream. Tristan and Norah were sitting at the end of the driveway with their hands in their ears, eagerly waiting for Jon to light the first firework.
We’d been doing a good job of keeping the kids at a distance from the fireworks so they wouldn’t light themselves on fire. That seemed to be the main rule of our evening. “Don’t light the kids on fire.” Joan kept reminding the children to keep their distance.
The safety rules, the distance from the fireworks, all of it, seemed right. It all seemed very normal. Very Americana. Jon lit the first firework, and as it went off, Norah, my four-year-old, ran from her seat and climbed into my lap.
And as I held her close to me, as I felt her shiver with amazement while the fountain screamed and popped, I thought about how this is what the Fourth of July should be like. This was how I always wanted it to be, even when I was a child.
My father left when I was nine-years-old. I can only recall spending the Fourth of July with him once. I must have been 10 or 11. By this time he’d married his mistress. My brother and I, along with my two step brothers and step sister, were at my father’s home in central Provo, a one story brick house that was close enough to the tracks that we could wave to the engineer. We all ranged in ages between 7 and 14. Dad must have spent a few hundred dollars on fireworks, because we had several large boxes of fountains.
My father was a short slender working man who wore tight fitting Wrangler jeans and polyester shirts. By nightfall, he was drunk and high on painkillers, and I recall him staggering as he hauled the fireworks from his maroon Ford pickup. He sat the boxes down in the driveway, handed my older brother, Ryan, a long-nosed lighter with a trigger, and said, "Have at it."
Then he and my stepmother sat down in lawn chairs near the back of their long black asphalt driveway and drank beers wrapped in blue insulated cozies.
And have at it we did.
It started out normal, with us lighting a few fountains in the driveway. But then my stepbrother, James, decided to run across the driveway and leap through the sparks of one of the larger fountains. When neither parent said a word, we all started doing it.
Shit got crazy then.
At one point I remember holding a fountain in each hand. My brother Ryan lit the fuses, and then I ran across the yard with the fountains gushing out sparks, both my arms rotating like windmills. At another moment in the evening, I recall my brother and stepbrother lighting fountains, one in each hand. They pretending the sparks were swords, and jousted. We went like this for hours, screaming with the thrill of pyromania. The whole time my father simply gave us a lazy drunken smile.
At the time I recall thinking it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me. My father had shown a complete disregard for fire safety, and we children had taken full advantage of the opportunity. Now, as a parent, the thought of this scares the hell out of me. I am honestly surprised that no one lost a limb or an eye or ended up with a third degree burn. I didn't realize it then, but I really learned what not to do as a father that night.
There is something about caring for my children enough to keep them safe that generates a sense of warmth and love. It’s one of the major differences between being watched after by a friend, and being watched after by a father. That Fourth of July with my father, I don’t remember feeling love or compassion. What I remember was feeling like a nuisance. I recall feeling like my father just wanted me to leave him alone, and he was willing to do anything, even allowing me to light myself on fire, to accomplish that goal.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is, when I think back on my drunken father watching his children nearly light themselves on fire, I feel like he didn’t love me enough to try and keep me safe.
Flash forward to the Fourth of July with my own children. Half way through the event, Tristan asked if he could light one of the fireworks. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” I said. “You’re only seven.”
“So?” he said. He looked angry, so I reached out, gripped his hand, and said, “You see these fingers. Your mom worked real hard to give them to you. And I’d like you to keep them. I care a lot about you and your safety. I’m not being mean, I just want you to be safe. Sometimes that means telling you no.”
He didn’t like my answer. When I was his age, I wouldn’t have liked it either. But now, as a father, I get why people say stuff like that. Because they love their kids enough to keep them whole.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley