The smell of burlap and old wood drifts into my memories every 4th of July. I've been afraid of fireworks for as long as I can remember but still, the 4th of July is a day of fond memories for me. I've wrestled with this irony for some time now and I think I've finally settled on what it is that draws me back to warm chunks of nostalgia every year. I've finally put my finger on it. It was Pa.
My grandfather, who only went by Pa in our home, was not fond of holidays. He mocked us on Christmas, barely leaving his room and he teased us about Easter and baskets of candy. He did seem to enjoy Halloween, as long as everyone who ventured upon his front porch was shorter than a yardstick. He was known to retrieve his shotgun to run off late-knocking teenagers. I don't remember him being a part of any of our holiday celebrations, with the exception of the 4th of July.
Early in the afternoon on the 4th, he would venture out to the old shed and carry back the burlap gunny sacks. The scent of that dusty burlap is seared forever in my memory. He would gather the ice cream makers, a sledgehammer, and a few old wash tubs. We were making ice cream! This was an every year tradition and I got to help.
He would pull milk cartons of frozen water from the big deep freeze, put them in the gunny sacks, and bust them up with the sledgehammer. Sometimes he let me help, but I was usually doing it wrong. Now, to fully appreciate this ice, you have to understand something about my Pa. The man never spent a dime he didn't have to. He had dimes- that wasn't the issue. But he was not about to give them away. We were not about to go down to the corner filling station and buy ice. You don't pay for frozen water! That would be silly. You make it yourself. There were always milk carton-shaped blocks of ice in the freezer and when you needed ice chips, you got out the sledgehammer.
While we created ice chunks in the backyard, my Grandma Nonnie made up the ice cream mix. We had two flavors every year when I was young- chocolate and vanilla. I would get to walk to the grocery store with Nonnie and pick out the Junket ice cream mixes every year. There wasn't really much picking out to it- we had chocolate, and vanilla- but it was always a fun thing to do. Nonnie would make up the two mixtures and then the fun really began.
There were two ice cream makers. One was electric. I can still hear the motor churning through the ice. The other was an old hand-crank outfit. Pa would add the ice cream barrels and layer in the ice chips and rock salt and then the chore was delegated to my sister and I. We would sit on top of the ice cream maker, crank between our knees and start churning for what seemed in my young mind, hours and hours. When one got tired, the other took over, but my sister, Kimmie always had to finish the job when the mixture got to solid for me to crank.
Nonnie always let me have a little bowl as she scooped the soft-set ice cream into old tupperware containers to firm up in the freezer. When I was a teenager, we took to making a strawberry recipe in an electric mixer as we continued the tradition, but the fake vanilla taste of that Junket package ice cream holds a place in my heart. I would lick the lid clean, until I ran onto a chunk of rock salt and ran sputtering to wash my mouth out with a sip of Coke.
Once the ice cream was made, the grill came out. My next job was to help Pa shuck the corn. We always had fresh corn and if I was lucky, I got to find a worm in one of the ears I shucked! I had to hurry though, because Pa was a lot faster at it and he would find all of the corn worms before I did. This makes me giggle today. I would be somewhat mortified if I found a worm in my corn now. I have also come to realize that something has changed- we no longer find worms in the corn husks and I'm sure that is because the pesticide levels have increased, but that is another story.
Pa would light the grill while I went inside and watched through the back door. (I've always been afraid of fire!) We would have burgers and hot dogs with corn on the cob, and then I would dance around the house for hours anxiously awaiting fireworks and homemade ice cream.
Fireworks consisted of several novelty fireworks- tanks, camelias, smoke bombs, glow worms, and such- nothing that went 'pop' and nothing too big. My hometown had some sort of ban on fireworks and the police were fairly serious about issuing tickets and fines, but that didn't stop Pa. He would venture out into the street, far enough behind the house to make it difficult to detect which house the illegal fun belonged to, light the firework, and then hustle back up to the door to watch. After a few we would go inside and wait for a police cruiser to drive by, then he was back at it again.
At the end of the night, he would retrieve from his stash, a cherry bomb. These were not legal anywhere, I'm sure. They would blow a hole in the dirt and remove a two-foot ring of grass from the earth. He would tell me the same story every year about going fishing and throwing one of these in the lake "to blow the fish right out of the water so you can just scoop 'em up." He would promise to take me fishing some time, but he never got around to it.
The 4th of July was never a favorite holiday for me, but it was the one holiday that I spent most of the day with my Pa. I think the memories that flood my senses every year- the corn worms, the smell of old burlap, the sight of a glow worm burning on the concrete porch- those memories remind me of time spent with Pa.
Our 4th of July traditions are different. We haven't made homemade ice cream in years now and we usually don't pull out the grill on this day. Instead, we'll pack a picnic dinner with Mason jar desserts and go watch a professional fireworks display. But all day, I'll smell burlap and think of ice cream and smile.