It’s the Fourth of July in rural Western New York. The family is gathered at the grandparents’ house, the house the mother grew up in, only a mile down the road from their own. Both grandparents are still alive, although the grandfather won’t be much longer. The family doesn’t know this yet, but they are preparing for it. The homestead that had sheltered three bookish children in America’s golden age of microwave ovens and color television and the lingering threat of nuclear war now boasts an upstairs rental unit that bolsters the income the pensioners receive from the tenant-occupied cottage out back and the Social Security checks promised to all Americans of a certain age since 1935. The tenants are transient but the property division is not. It will only increase with time as the front of the large house is sectioned off into an efficiency and more of the expansive yard is bulldozed for parking. The grandparents’ belongings, when he has passed on and she is passed off to the care of a nursing home, will be consolidated into basement and garage, and later just the garage, and then they will be nowhere. But tonight, the children are free to roam around and the garage is still a garage in function, not just name.
The riding lawnmower sits in the center of it, already gassed up for the next time the oldest son of the family that stayed close by will ride it up and down the field where the family now sits in the dusk, waiting for last bit of the sun’s light to fully disappear so the father can set off the fireworks he smuggled home from Pennsylvania the last time the family drove through on a vacation to visit Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. Tonight, the damp clippings of freshly mown grass cling to their toes and their summer scent fills their noses, but a decade from now, three foot tall grass will dominate half the field and in another decade, all of it. With the grandparents interred beneath a lawn that will never grow wild, the unfamiliar occupants of the property wouldn’t understand whose great-grandchildren were rummaging through the antique tools in the greenhouse or playing tag around the row of oaks that line the 60 yard driveway or jumping on and off the small wooden deck on the lawn pretending that it was an island keeping their shipwrecked souls save from great whites, so they won’t be allowed to.
The grandparents built that deck so they could enjoy the outdoors without mosquitos in the wet grass nipping at their ankles. They are sitting on it now, so the mosquitos plague only the grandchildren. They wave sparklers with their right hands and slap at their bodies with their left hands. The adults are more subdued, their free hands casually waving the bugs away as their gazes shift to the driveway at the sustained rumbling of tires on gravel.
The aunt pulls up the long driveway and parks next to her sister’s minivan. Her two boys whip open their doors and run across the lawn to join their cousins before she even shuts off the ignition. The kids all get along so well. And the aunt gets along just fine with her sister and brother-in-law too, now that she doesn’t live in the upstairs apartment anymore. Sure, the rent had been cheap and the cousins loved seeing each other so often, but the proximity to her sister’s family hadn’t been good for her. She sees the house in her rearview mirror. She looks ahead and sees her children, energized by their numerous cousins and more animated than they ever are at home. Their reserve since moving away has been unbearable at times. While her nieces and nephews fulfill their duty as the offspring of lower class Americans by growing up more comfortably than their parents had, her sons move backwards, growing up fatherless, in cramped apartments with meals paid for with food stamps. But on nights like this, gathered together in the growing murkiness that obscures facial features just enough, she can pretend her sister’s husband is her own, that he isn’t really gone, that she, the pious one, the righteous one, still has her family in tact, and that the house is whole and hers.
Written in Robin Black’s To Bore or Not to Bore…Descriptive Passages No One Will Skim (June 10, 2015)