I lay in bed last night, looking out over the neighborhood roofs, catching an occasional glimpse of the city fireworks display alongside the cove. And I was thinking, drowsily, about Fourth of Julys in the Pennsylvania mountains, when my great-aunt Louise would make my mother mad by blasting Roman candles off the hillside; when my sister and I drank grape soda all day long; when our very best entertainment was six or eight elderly siblings trying to outdo each other with innuendo tales of romance and dog racing; when my granny stood silent and alone against the screen door, wearing her filthy housedress, a Lucky Strike poised in her thin and elegant hand; those days when my parents were the bewildered young folks, harassed and uptight; when my sister and I were the wild raccoon babies wrestling in the grass.
That was fifty years ago, but its vibrancy marked me forever. I was a member of the clan. Unlike my parents, who were struggling hard between their poor roots and their professional aspirations, I whole-heartedly loved the place and my place in it. I was a child then, and of course as I aged my links became more uneasy. But for a long time Scottdale, Pennsylvania, was my Eden . . . a tumbledown, rusted-out, foul-smelling paradise, a place where books meant nothing, where cows and dogs meant everything, where machines had loud and simple lives and the gritty odor of coal colored the cool mornings, where we joyfully pitched garbage into a quarry.
My sister and I will be the last to remember this life. Our children never saw the place or met the dingbat great-aunts and -uncles; sweet and steady Grandpop; crazy, theatrical, sad, terrifying Granny. They never knew their own grandparents as young adults: so strong and struggling, so embarrassed by their own past.
So, Fourth of July. Independence Day. I lift the memory of a can of Miller High Life, slowly sipped by an old man wearing a white t-shirt and green work pants. My grandpop is a handsome man, not tall, balding now, but still with the arched nose and deep-set eyes of a movie idol. He is sitting on the grassy hillside behind his farmhouse, and we are watching the lightning bugs. The hill is dotted with old men, his brothers and brothers-in-law. They all dress like him; they all sit in the grass, even big Uncle Melvin the butcher. There are no mosquitoes; why were there never any mosquitoes? The old ladies have bad feet and girdles: they fill up the chairs . . . these old ladies the men married, or didn't marry; their sisters, their long-ago teenage hookups, all somehow blended into this odd and elastic clan. My granny stays in the house, watching. My father lies in the grass too, pretending to be an old man. My mother hovers between house and hill, uneasy about everything, but especially those Roman candles. And my sister and I, the only children, the future . . . running barefoot until dark.