We’ve celebrated Independence Day the same way for as long as I can remember.
Every year the extended family gathers at my Papa’s house for BBQ and swimming. All of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and long time family friends whose names I can never remember come with their special dishes and touchy feely nature. The prize winning pies and baked beans I don’t mind, the touching I do.
I can only deduce that Southerners, in general, are a touchy feely sort. Everyone in this area is always hugging, patting, and holding. With strangers it’s easy to say, “Hey, motherfucker, touch me again and I’ll break your fingers off one at a time and shove them up your ass.” With family...not so much. I can’t very well say that to my Aunt that comes around three times a year, but who's name I can NEVER remember. It would ruin my façade of the friendly, slightly quirky relative that is so sweet she calls everyone “babe” or “sugar”.
Anyway, after a day filled with eating homemade goodness and diving off of moving water vessels to avoid the tender embrace of old ladies, we take the boats out to a big island and watch the fireworks. It’s usually the same old show – small bursts of red, small bursts of blue, small bursts of white, small intermittent bursts of other random colors and then – BAM! There’s a rousing five minute display of continuous color and noise, each one seemingly bigger than the last, until there’s nothing left but the tiny waving lights of boats on dark water and wisps of tell-tale smoke floating over the trees. And of course the unspoken musing – I wonder how much they paid for that shit? That finale would probably cover the cost of my car loan...
When I was a kid I loved watching the fireworks. Sometimes my dad would spend a fortune on poppers, sparklers, and huge kits instead of on the crack rock and we would set them off on the dock after returning from the island show. Sometimes we’d have contests with the Yankee neighbors two docks over and if they came close, a stragestically placed beer bottle with a rocket in it would send them scattering, securing the win and my father’s good humor.
As an adult fireworks lost most of their appeal. Every time a huge burst of color filled the night sky, I imagined a brand new Coach bag being set on fire. Such a waste. Yes they were pretty, but so are hookers if the lighting is just right.
Due to circumstances beyond my control (i.e.: divorce, home wrecking whores, and the possible contents of a suspicious plastic baggie) dad moved to Oklahoma. And somehow it became common practice to spend a week or two every year visiting him over the Fourth of July holiday. This never bothered me very much until last year.
See, spending the 4th in Oklahoma also meant spending my birthdays there. And after last year’s incident, I’d had quite enough of that. So when it was time to set our vacation dates for this summer, I refused to go until after the 4th.
This, of course, allowed me to plan my first real birthday celebration in three years (specifically: the beach trip I’m not through telling you about) and to once again be present for Pop’s Independence Day celebration. Yay. And of course, when Pop found out I’d be attending, he solicited my help with the grub.
Lucky for me though, a week before D day I was invited to join a group of friends on a boat for the entire day. I’d never been one of those people that could float around for hours at a time, swigging beer and doing the Macarena until I collapsed from heat exhaustion and/or alcohol poisoning, but who was I to pass up an opportunity to slip away from the touchy feely crowd.
Saturday morning I got up at nine and put together two pans of macaroni and cheese, covered them with tin foil, and took them down the hill to Pop’s. I was a little apprehensive about leaving the rest up to his Filipino girlfriend, but I was told to be waiting on the dock by 11:30 and that was way too early to stick those suckers in the oven. I gave her instructions and went back home to shower and change, vowing that if she ruined them I’d deny involvement of any kind.
At 11:20, right as the boat pulled up, I was on the gazebo in my bathing suit, shorts, and tank top – a case of Mic Ultra in one hand and a bag of lake necessities in the other. Claire and two others were already there waiting. Once on board I took inventory: 10 people, 7 coolers stocked with beer and snacks, 4 cases of beer to replace those already in the cooler, and an undetermined amount of red, white, and blue paraphernalia.
I was in high spirits as the boat glided away from the dock, leaving the touchy feely relatives behind and taking me to a place I’d only been once before (and never for something this big): Party Cove.
I sang along with the radio and chatted with the others for awhile, but soon I was staring out over the water, lost in thought. (I’ve always been more reflective in transit than I am sitting still, if that makes much sense. Maybe it’s the blurring scenery or the hypnotic rolling of the waves.) I wondered who would be at the famed cove. I wondered how I’d stay on the boat all day, until dark, and if I’d be begging to go home before it was over. And I wondered, just briefly, what Thomas Jefferson and his crew would think of the way we celebrated – in bikinis, swilling beer on a boat, wearing red, white, and blue Mardi Gras beads.
But reflective only lasted until the third beer and our arrival at Party Cove.
We tied up to another boat and started the chain. Three hours later we were in a row of nine and sporting a crowd of at least 50 people. And though our group didn’t have the flashiest boats in the cove, we definitely had the loudest. Rap music blared from one where girls danced on seats. Country music blared from another and a football was tossed back and forth over the chaos. People floated all around the row on fun noodles and rafts like scattered debris. And almost everyone visible had a beer clutched in their hands. I didn’t know half of the people there yet we all scrambled back and forth over those boats to get something or other, do something or other, and everyone was as friendly as could be.
When my cousin Dooby arrived around 4 with his wife, and my friend, Marie in tow, I’d managed to drink more beer than I ever thought possible. By 5 I was staying in the water as much as possible. I’d slathered on the sunscreen too late and could practically hear my arms sizzling. So when they decided to leave an hour and a half later, I decided to jump ship and go with them.
Sitting on their boat, on the very end of the row and pulling away, I looked out over the party still in full swing. Claire and the rest of my crowd seemed a little disappointed about my desertion, but they waved and promised to see me on the dock later that evening anyway.
The long ride home was fun and peaceful. Dooby did an impromptu dance, Marie and I took more pictures, then we all sat and enjoyed the breeze and the waves.
When Marie and I made our way into Pop’s in search of leftovers, we discovered that the touchy feely fuckers had hoovered my macaroni. We had to make do with ribs and squash casserole, but it was worth it because they were all already gone. My skin was as red as a baboon’s ass and throbbing worse than Fabio’s manhood in a Harlequin novel, but I’d managed to stay away long enough to miss them all and that was worth celebrating.
All too soon the sun was going down and we were piling back onto the boats for the fireworks display. I’d slowed down on the beer, eaten, and taken a brief nap – but I wasn’t necessarily in the mood for more boating. I was a bit cranky and whimpering in pain, actually.
We found a spot among the hundreds of other boats and dropped anchor. The sun was almost gone, the final rays casting just a tinge of orange and red on the waves, and I felt relief. I was glad it was gone, glad that I’d managed to survive the entire day without chickening out...much. And while we waited on the fireworks the waves got larger.
I love to swim out in the open, big water and convinced the others to join me. And that’s where I was when the first sparks shot into the sky – straddling an orange life vest, bobbing up and down like a cork, cooked arms blazing, with a beer in my hand and a smile on my face.
And they were as terrible as I remembered. But you know what?
I loved every minute of it. Especially the highly overrated ending.
Because some traditions, especially the kind that don’t involve touching relative strangers or getting up early on a weekend to make macaroni, are quite comforting. And definitely fitting.