In years long, long past, we often celebrated the Fourth of July at the family compound in New Hampshire. Ma’s father’s family had been visiting Squam Lake since the 19th century; first they boarded at local farm houses and later rented a cottage at Rockywold-Deephaven. Eventually GreatGrandFather began to buy parcels of land on Mooney Point.
The shape of Squam Lake resembles a cartoonish SPLAT, roundish with long deep coves. Mooney Point is a wide wedge of shoreline that reaches out into the lake. Boulderwood, as G-GF named it, is the tip of the Mooney Point wedge. Eventually, Boulderwood was sliced into four small wedges of shoreline, one for each of the sons (there were no daughters) and a much bigger and mostly landlocked piece called “common property.” The common property came to include, among other things, a Big Beach, a Little Beach, a chapel, a tennis court, a large parking garage surmounted by a playroom, an ice-house and a rambling shed structure.
G-GF’s sons all married and the clan expanded. Three of the brothers–Dick the Reverend, Jerome (my Pop), and June (Elwyn Greeley, Junior)–plus Roger’s widow Anita, ruled as oligarchs, a tetrarchy whose decisions were final and whose idiosyncracies brooked no challenge from anyone’s grandchildren.
The Fourth of July was a festive day often shared by the Prestons in residence. (We were all “Prestons” regardless of our last names, and more specifically a “Richard, a “Jerome,” a “Roger” or an “EG”) My Nannie would make a fruit salad by excavating a watermelon and filling the shell with chunks of red melon, grapes and cantaloupe and blueberries and whatever else was on hand. I suppose we ate hamburgers and hotdogs too, but I really don’t remember. I only remember that awe–inspiring watermelon bowl and the cold, sweet things inside.
Afterwards we gathered on our dock as the sun set to watch the slopes of Red Hill change from green to rosy purple above the pine-rimmed lake. The grownups lounged in chairs and sipped Sanka from tiny cups; the men smoked Pop’s fragrant cigars. Children waved sparklers, writing their names in the deepening gloom, giggling and dancing, shrieking for attention, and driving the dogs into yapping frenzies. Occasionally, the sound of a splash and a shower of droplets announced that one dog or another had landed in the drink.
As darkness fell, Uncle Nat took charge. Nat is the family craftsman, intellectual and prankster; on the Fourth of July he was also the Master of Pyrotechnics. First he moved all of us–most especially the younger folk–a safe distance back from the watery end of the dock. Then firecracker by firecracker, rocket by rocket, fountain by fountain, he produced an astonishing display. Our faces turned green and gold in the light of falling sparks, smoke wafted over our heads, and the delicious bite of gunpowder filled the air.
The grand finale, the pièce de résistance, was the Roman candle set adrift in the now-empty watermelon shell. With drama worthy of a traveling thespian in the 19th-century Wild West, Nat set the candle into the watermelon boat and set the vessel onto the now-inky surface of the lake. He lit the fuse then gave the boat a push down the rippling moon-trail toward–we hoped–one last spectacular explosion.
I don’t remember that we were ever disappointed.
But then, I remember all those Fourths of July as one. Each has the same cast of characters forever wearing the same faces and fashions and states of grayness, lives unified into a single moment of my childhood.