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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

the day i almost blew up my new dad

one of the only pictures i have of my dad. 
here we are on the way to the reception on the day my new dad married my mom.
 it's hard to see but I was blissed out holding that flower girl basket.

When I was a toddler my young mom started dating someone I called Uncle Rusty who later married my mom, adopted me and became my dad. I never had a father so finally getting a dad at seven years-old was a BIG deal. Then in my enthusiasm I almost blew him up on the Fourth of July.

My mother used to say that I was a fearless kid who drove my grandfather into a nervous condition. I lived in a trailer park with my mom and my grandparents but I had no idea we were poor. I thought I lived in wonderland. It was an amazing place with GIANT C7 Air Force planes which roared just up beyond my fingertips. There were dark hiding places under the trailers and giant trees to clamber up. Being an only child I found it easy to amuse myself, often with accidental consequences. My grandparents called me polissone, French for naughty child/monkey.

I was feral, not mean or hissing, mind you, but I had no fear. I wasn't afraid of people or animals or bugs. I kept baby food jars filled with insects (and anything else that would fit in these jars) under my bed. When I was between 2 and 7 years-old I had more emergency room visits than most people do in a lifetime. I was the girl who accidentally locked her grandfather's keys in the car and then slammed the driver's side door with my pudgy little fingers in the door. I remember my grandfather ripping off his shirt to throw over my head and body as he smashed the window to get the keys to drive us to the emergency room.  We were at the same hospital literally dozens of times because I fell off of or slammed into something. One time after an especially hot day at the lake we went to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction to a styrofoam life preserver which left me with evil looking raised red and purple welts around my entire midsection. I remember being in a room alone with a doctor and nurse who told me that it was OK to tell them the truth. My mother was hitting me, right?  No, no, no. "I'm 'lergic." They pushed hard but I knew what was right and wrong and no one could convince me otherwise.

This was the child that my mother's young boyfriend, now fiancé and
 soon to be husband was inheriting, a willful, fearless little monkey.

Rusty could hold his own with me, however. When they became engaged my mom was working as a student nurse. She worked every Saturday so to give my grandparents a break, Rusty took me on Saturdays. Where does a twenty-something year-old take his soon-to-be little daughter? To a bar, of course. If I close my eyes I still can remember the place on Springfield Street exactly- the maroon stools, the sticky bar top, the smell of burgers, the TV above the bar always tuned to sports. I liked the way Uncle Rusty's friends called to him and laughed when he arrived but I loved the way he lifted me up onto a stool next to him. We had a tradition at that bar every Saturday. Sitting around the high bar with his friends, Uncle Rusty would buy me a Coke and Tic Tacs and the bartender would give me napkins and a pen. I couldn't have been happier if I had been given free reign in a toy store.

Uncle Rusty was popular and I adored him. Sometimes a friend of his would smile at me and wave me over. I would scramble down off the stool and onto his lap. As I write this it's chilling to me that this was OK with anyone that a little girl would sit on the laps of various men but I promise you that it was all innocent. I remember everything well and I couldn't have been happier. In my mind they were all dads who left their daughters at home. I remember thinking that I was the lucky girl here with her almost dad. Not ever having a dad, this is what I thought most little girls did on Saturdays. Did my mom know where we spent every Saturday? Uncle Rusty never mentioned it to her and not wanting to jinx it I never mentioned it either. If you're seeing this for the first time, Mom, it really was OK.

One summer Saturday a couple weeks before my mom married Uncle Rusty we went to the bar as usual. I had my Coke and Tic Tacs and Uncle Rusty laughed and drank beer with his friends but instead of leaving through the front door, we went through the back, me, Uncle Rusty and all his friends. In the parking lot behind the bar my dad's friend went to his car and opened his trunk. There it was. Contraband. Fireworks. Illegal in Massachusetts.  Uncle Rusty and his friends bought everything in that trunk including sparklers, something I had never seen before but my dad-to-be told me that I would be able to light my name in the air with FIRE. For a fearless girl, those were magic words.

On that Fourth of July, my mom and Uncle Rusty took me to the lake along with their friends. I was giddy with excitement. Uncle Rusty would write my name with fire! As darkness fell, we watched the Chicopee fireworks and the men each got their supply of fireworks from their cars and brought them all to one spot. I remember sitting there in my Hampton Beach sweatshirt on my mom's lap. We watched the men lay out their fireworks display. This was exciting. Danger. Wonderful! I was bored with the women talking (I was the only kid) so I scrambled off my mom's lap and walked over to where the men were. I asked Uncle Rusty about the sparklers and he promised he was keeping the best for last. If I was patient there would be sparklers. I sat quietly and watched the men carefully set up their fireworks in the order they would use them. My dad had the most experience with fireworks so he would be the one to set them off.

I watched as he carefully lit the fuse on Roman Candles, Fountains and Missiles. Beautiful. Loud. I remember my mom and her friends squealing with the loud accompanying booms and the men cheering. When I looked over at the piles of fireworks neatly arranged, however, I was disheartened. There were so many, with the sparklers at the very end. I decided to help Uncle Rusty. He didn't have to do the job alone. It was a slow process, lighting one at a time. And so, as he was lighting one of the fireworks, I took the matches, lit one and started in on a different pile, lighting the fuse. I lit one then another. "Let's hurry this up," I thought. "We have magic sparklers to get to." Uncle Rusty must have seen the light from the corner of his eye because in a flash he had grabbed one of the buckets of water (for that purpose) and doused the fuse out. I looked up at his wild eyes as he threw another bucket of water at the pile of fireworks. The fuse went out and my dad sat on the pavement. I stood in front of him. He looked at me and shook his head. "Don't. Ever. Do. That. Again. Fire is bad. You could have killed us.  Let's not tell mom about this, OK?" My mom was laughing with her friends and didn't know that I had set the fuse on a huge pile of fireworks intending to light them all at the same time. Their friends started shouting "Hey, let's go. Light 'em up, Rusty!! Light 'em up!"

"Sit here," he said, placing me on the curb a few feet away from him and the fireworks. "Do not touch the fireworks. Do not touch the matches. Do not touch anything. Just sit. OK? Can you just sit? Just sit. There. Don't move. OK?"

"OK," I thought. "Jeez, I'm not a baby." Then it hit me. If he was upset he may not marry my mother. I wouldn't get a dad.

"Uncle Rusty?" I asked in the darkness between the fireworks. "I'm sorry. Are you still going to marry my mom?"

"Yeah," he said watching the sky light up. "Yeah, I'm still marrying your mom."

"Even with me?" I watched his face smile up at the sky when the fireworks erupted.

"Yeah," he laughed. "Especially with you. Jesus, you are going to be a handful to some man someday, kid."

Later that night, as my mom and their friends danced around with sparklers, Uncle Rusty showed me how to write my first name in the darkness. Two weeks later we celebrated the wedding of my mom and my dad. After the ceremony and the reception we lit another sparkler. This time he wrote my first name and my new last name. I had a dad. I. Had. A. Dad.

May your Fourth of July be safe and happy.

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