It's a mid-1950s Fourth of July, and my mother--adorable, maybe four- or five years old--has a sparkler. She's also wearing a nightgown, and with a wayward spark and a darkly comic whoosh, she goes up like a mushroom cloud. I'm told she briefly illuminated the entire backyard.
Thirty years later on another Fourth of July, an equally adorable four- or five-year-old me is listening to my mother's graphic recollections of her burned, crispy body and her resulting vendetta against non-flame resistant nightgown manufacturers and, of course--sparklers!
And oddly enough, on the very night my mother told me her gruesome tale, my father decided to light a bottle rocket in the yard. I wasn't paying much attention, probably playing with a Tonka truck or something, but once I saw the shower of sparks, it was suddenly as if my ass was on fire. I ran screaming into the house, dove underneath the kitchen table, clamped my hands over my ears, and shut my eyes to dancing images of nightgown-fueled infernos.
Beyond this sole encounter with a real firework, I never saw one close up. Because my mother's memories of her illuminative qualities died hard, she refused to let me set off a roman candle or sea of shells, much less a godforsaken sparkler. The only "firework" she'd let me near were those snake ones, where you light a pellet and watch it slowly expand into a tube of ash. Thus, the fear remained, and like one of those pellets, has been relentlessly growing.
Now, even as a burly adult, I cannot pass a fireworks stand without envisioning combustible nightgowns, smelling scorched young flesh, or ducking from imaginary, white-hot sparks. These days leading to July 4 are perilous ones, when any serene night can be split by the screech of a bottle rocket, the warm darkness seared by a vicious dance of flame. This flame knew my mother, and it knows of me, and I fear it will not be sated until it finds me, whimpering, curled beneath my kitchen table.