Jul 11, 2013 0 Share

A Family Fourth

Little boy with sparkler at night.

The sweet-smelling smoke from the firecrackers drifts over to where the group of adults is sitting on the lake house porch. “Kids!” my husband's cousin exclaims. “Move it down by the dock, all right? We're getting smoke up here.” The children scurry; they'll do whatever they're asked this afternoon, as long as they can keep setting off their stock of explosives. They've been a part of the whole preparatory process: going to the store, selecting their stash, and dividing up the spoils so each person has a pile of brightly-colored firecrackers. When evening comes, the adults will help them set off bigger fireworks at the edge of the dock. For now, they stick to the small packages. Since it's been raining all day, they're happy to be outside, to be setting anything off. Their sense of relief and celebration is contagious, so much so that I don't mind the smoke.   

As if reading my mind, one of the uncles says, “I bet celebrating the Fourth of July in New Jersey wasn't anything like this.” 

“You're right,” I say, “Growing up where I did, it was different. Setting off fireworks was illegal, so it's wild for me to watch kids setting them off.” 

When I was younger, my family's July Fourth celebration involved piling into the Volvo and driving to a field to watch the town fireworks show. If there were too many mosquitoes, we'd watch the sky from the car. Either way, I would cover my ears during the loudest blasts, and Willie would wear his noise-canceling headphones the whole time. Afterward, we'd drive to Carvel or Cliff's to get ice cream—vanilla with rainbow sprinkles for me and chocolate for Willie (fruit sorbet after we found out he was allergic to dairy). Ours were simple celebrations, but they had a sweetness all their own. 

Today, my young niece and nephew relish setting off firecrackers, and the power that comes with knowing: What illuminates the sky is something I, myself, have chosen. Even so, I wouldn't trade my childhood Fourths. I wouldn't trade the feeling of melding into the crowd on those fields, looking out for familiar faces. I wouldn't trade sitting on the blanket with my family, all anticipation as we waited for the show to start. I wouldn't trade sitting with Willie, looking up into the dark sky. I'm sure there must have been a squabble or two, but the moments I remember are pure, peaceful. 

When I remember our family's Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays—occasions that received the most attention—I can call to mind some difficult times, long car trips, and meltdown moments. We've had many joyful holidays, to be sure, yet I've always felt the pressure that comes with “significant” days. On holidays, I can't help but wonder: Can Willie keep it together? Will he be able to handle having this many people gathered together, this break in his routine? It's hard to relax into celebrations when you're conscious of a sibling's discomfort. It's hard to be present to relatives when you feel your brother start spinning out of control. And behavioral challenges aside, I've heard from other autism families who feel conflicted about these “special” days. We want to have traditions, to connect and celebrate, but we struggle to do so in a way that honors each family member's needs. 

There's no one-size-fits-all, of course, but looking back on those Fourths, I believe my parents were on to something. They kept the celebration very simple, and very flexible. We had built-in contingency plans, like moving from the field to the car, or leaving the show early for ice cream if Willie was restless. These allowed us to maintain tradition even as we responded to the reality before us. And Independence Day was ideal for this because—in our area at least—it wasn't weighty with cultural expectations like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The Fourth could become whatever we needed it to be. Even if we just stayed home and watched the fireworks from the back porch, I still felt like nothing was missing, nothing was lost. It was a holiday distilled: We were together, and willing to look up.