It’s 100 degrees by lunch time every day and firework stands pop up on every available corner, but I can’t help thinking about Christmas. The 4th of July always makes me think about Christmas. Kids from all over town pedal bikes across sweltering pavement to stare at clapboard walls pasted over with firework posters advertising things that ought to be shouted, like “The Avalanche” and “Black Night Explosions” and “Fiery Clouds.” The sweaty kids agonize over what to buy, hand over their sweaty, crumpled dollar bills for Black Cats and firecrackers, then ride off with backpacks full of explosives.
My mom used to be the one selling those explosives; she was the one in a lawn chair with a book to read when things got slow, the one organizing shelves of combustible merchandise, the one running the firework stand for a week every summer. My parents did not lead a simple life. My dad pastored a small Baptist church (very small, more like a large dysfunctional family than a congregation) and owned a remodeling business, while involving himself in countless other endeavors. An entrepreneur to the fullest measure, he is a man of dreams and hypotheticals, a man of longing and heartache. The way I remember my dad in my childhood is the way I feel when I see old pictures of him: Enthralled, distant, equal parts afraid and adoring. There’s my dad at graduate school in 1978, head full of blonde hair and face alight with a slightly smug gap-toothed grin as he cradles his first baby. There’s my dad in 1989, father now to seven children, blonde hair receding rapidly off his head, a half-demolished house in the background, adventure in his eyes. It is completely shocking that my dad even has 7 kids. As a grandfather now, he is the dad I think he would’ve been if life hadn’t squeezed around him like a vice for all those decades of raising us and a church and a company, all at once. He was not an available person. But if you’ll believe it, I don’t resent him. Because while I love my father, and crave his approval even now, it is my mother who holds my childhood in her hands.
My mom likes to say that she tricked my dad and asked for 14 kids so they could “meet in the middle” and have 7. The truth is, many of us were surprise arrivals. Conservative Baptist members might dress up for church, but apparently they have no qualms loosening up in the bedroom. Almost every family we knew had at least 4 children – I don’t have any memories without a pack of kids around me, cousins and friends alike. And at the head of the pack stood my mother, dark hair loose around her face, shoulder pads giving authority to her knit shirts and dress jackets, full of a desperate desire to give her kids the love and safety she didn’t feel in her own childhood.
With her husband working for God (no money) and a fledging remodeling business (fluctuating money), my mom walked the fine line of managing a house full of kids and their constant needs (soccer fees! new shoes! medical bills! dental appointments! groceries! clothes! mission trips! tutoring!) and fighting back her longing to give us everything we wanted. While no child should get everything they want, the truth is, it hurts when you know you can’t do it anyways. As a mother now, I ache when I think of how my mom daydreamed with us about what she would do if money wasn’t a factor. She didn’t tell us about trips she wanted to take or things she wanted for herself; she dreamt of redecorating our bedrooms. Of buying brand new wardrobes for us instead of piecing them together from sales at Shopko and hand-me-downs. Of sending us to every summer camp we wanted to attend. As a little girl I couldn’t understand the yearning behind those conversations, how primal a mother’s desire is to be generous and good to her babies. That bone-deep drive is why our mother stood at a temporary firework shanty in the parking lot between The Wave (a now defunct burger join in west Boise- sorely missed) and the 7-11 gas station (also gone) and hocked sparklers, Family Value Variety Packs, and tiny boxes of snappers for one week every summer. She stood in that parking lot, working for a friend who owned several firework stands, so that 6 months later she could create a Christmas miracle in our living room.
I never knew.
I never ran down the stairs on December 25th, glanced at our piles of gifts, and thanked my mom for selling fireworks and saving the money to buy us beautiful dolls and coveted boom boxes. I didn’t know where our gifts came from, how my parents suddenly had extra cash to fulfill the wishes of seven kids and make dreams come true. I just knew that Christmas morning was my mom’s dream come true. I knew she beamed as we opened each present. I knew she curated each of our gifts to create a perfect, individualized experience of joy. My mother was the goodness of my life, and Christmas morning was her only chance to lavish that goodness on us in tangible, material ways.
The rest of the year she and my dad took care of us, loved us, provided for every need and some of our wants; but Christmas existed on a different plane. On that holy day my mom burst with love and glowed like her fireworks, and that light got into us. Her sacrifice lit something inside each of sons and daughters, and it made us generous. Kind. It made us love our own children in a way I don’t think we could have managed without a mom who led the way, in the scorching heat of a Boise July, in a plywood shack full of roman candles and slow burning fountains of sparks, with a paperback mystery and a cold soda and a resolve that only a mother can hold.
We celebrate the 4th of July to celebrate our freedom, and we eat burgers and light fireworks in gratitude for the sacrifices that make our democracy possible. But when I watch that twilight sky erupt with color and the smell of sulfur falls around me in a neighborhood full of hollering kids, I think of my mom and her sacrifices. And as a mother of three babies, humbled and tired in ways unimaginable- I am more thankful than ever.