Let Them Eat Cake

My father loved the fourth of July. With his heightened sense of patriotism he celebrated the day with gusto.  July 4th was a big deal to my Dad.  Around our house, it seemed bigger than Christmas.  I remember years when he set up his stereo speaker system to boom music out the windows of the house.  He’d push super-sized sparklers into the ground along the driveway to light up the night.  And always, always, there were sparklers for us kids to spin around with in the dark that night. We’d roast hot dogs on a fire and it was the one day of the year that we got to drink pop. That was a big treat for us; the fizzy taste of the otherwise banned drink. A bottle of soda pop was enough to make the day special for us.  But no, we also had the opportunity to bang caps all day.  Dad would dole them out to us liberally; those rolls of caps made for cap guns.  Then he’d give us a hammer (or a pliers when he ran out of hammers) and we’d lay the caps out on a flat rock in the pasture or on our driveway and hit them, one after another, all day long. That was a little too tame for my older brothers.  They would meticulously cut around each little circle of gunpowder, then fill a large metal bolt with the circles and drop it from some height onto a rock for a very satisfying “BANG” upon impact. There were also smoke bombs and snake “shows” from either Dad or my brothers throughout the day.

And then, of course, the day culminated in the fantastic fireworks display our small town managed to pull off every year. The celebration included a baseball game, games of chance and bingo, and a cake walk.

It still does.

The magic of the 4th of July diminished after my father’s death. My mother tried valiantly to keep it a major holiday. She planned picnics, encouraged her sons and grandsons to do their own fireworks after dusk, and really looked forward to guests that shared her memories of July 4th with Dad, but it wasn’t the same. In the last few years, it had only been my sister Angela and I and our families who faithfully put in an appearance and stayed for the festivities up at the school grounds.

Sadly, the holiday had lost its luster for me a long time ago.

It began when I became a parent and was horrified to discover the heat in those beloved sparklers could seriously burn a child who is making big circles around their sister’s head. It got worse the more children I had.

It had something to do with raising and nursing eight babies who would be plastered to me with their sweaty little bodies in the July humidity. And then toddlers who clung to me in the same July heat, wailing during fireworks displays. I was the one walking back to a car in the dark to soothe a sensitive, sobbing child or nurse a sticky, screaming baby. Other than the family picnic, I really didn’t enjoy the 4th of July anymore.

Except the cake walk.

Now, when we were growing up, our father had always suggested we siblings group together for the cake walk and win a cake, but we never did. It would be too embarrassing. We’d look like pigs, we thought.  Because, of course we would have won a cake. The odds were for it. All of us together would fill practically every square of that 12-square cake walk. Dad even went so far as to plead with us once or twice.

“All of you step on the cake walk at the same time and you are bound to win,” he’d say, and I’m sure he’d have given us the nickels to do it.

Dad liked cake.

Well, sadly enough, it was only after his death and our mother’s reminder of Dad’s suggestion that my sister Angela and I decided to take it upon ourselves to follow Dad’s advice.  Somehow, with age, we no longer cared what anyone thought. We’d assemble out motley crew of  husbands and anywhere from 4 to 13 children between us, walk to the school and assemble around the cake walk, carefully weighing the perfect time to step into the cake walk fray. Sometimes it was a no-brainer: The cake walk would be practically empty and we’d fill it up, dutifully win our first cake, and then decide who’d step around it next, depending upon what kinds of cake were available for the picking, how many of us were eager for a chance to walk the circle, and/or how many quarters we’d already spent in getting a cake. (the price had gone from a nickel to fifty cents in the ensuing years since our Dad had made the wise observation regarding the odds of us winning)  Once we were stunned when we covered nine of the spaces with our relatives and still lost that round. Another year we won three cakes and my niece ate one of them on the way back to my mother’s. Another time we spent so much in our attempt to win a cake that we made our own cakes the next year to save money.  But it wasn’t the same, and we went back to the cake walk year after year, each time vowing to win a cake for Mom, who smiled broadly each time we came back bearing the spoils of our fight to win a cake on the cakewalk.  It wasn’t the cake, we realized, it was the tradition and the memory of our father, who had loved the 4th of July. It was how much Mom enjoyed our going.

This year my children have been asking me repeatedly, “What are we doing for the 4th?”

And I have lamely replied, “I don’t know.”

And now, here it is. The 4th of July.

I have eggs and potatoes to prepare a potato salad, plenty of hot dogs, and even some pop.

What I don’t have is my mother.

What are we going to do today?

I’m not sure yet. I have three articles due on Wednesday that I need to work on. I have to spend some time writing today. I’ve informed the adult children they can come this evening for a cook-out, but other than that, I have no concrete plans.

My father and my mother are gone. I still have a child young enough to whine about the heat and the mosquitos and who doesn’t yet care whether or not she sees a fireworks display.

What are we going to do today?

I’m not sure yet.

But I don’t think there will be cake.

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