In the North Carolina branch of my mother’s family, we have fireworks at every major celebration: the Fourth of July, of course, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, the first and last days of school, and weddings. Especially weddings.
This is in all other ways a dignified and conservative family, filled with doctors and ministers, teachers, lawyers, and missionaries. It was my missionary grandfather, in fact, who brought the custom back from India where fireworks enliven the best festivities. Several of the dignified pillars of the family disapprove of fireworks at weddings, so we have to sneak to set them off. Fireworks aren’t the only mischief in the family, but they are the central mischief.
At a recent family wedding I heard one of my cousins say to his two-year-old nephew, “Darlin’,” he said, “there is going to be a beautiful lady in that church carrying some flowers. Now son, some of those flowers are for you. So when she walks by, you just run up and grab you a handful.”
As the service began, one cousin slipped outside. No one noticed. We practice not noticing; it’s part of the protocol. A few minutes later, when my opera-singer cousin was hitting the high notes in “Where Sheep May Safely Graze,” we heard the cannon fire. Then, from right outside the open windows came the rapid-fire volleys of the Black Cats that come in strings of twenty or thirty firecrackers. It made an ungodly racket. The entire crowd on the groom’s side of the church jumped in their seats and looked around, wild-eyed. The cellist in the string quartet fell off her chair. On the bride’s side, my family gazed calmly straight ahead, squinting a little against the acrid smoke that drifted through the windows into the sanctuary. No one giggled. That is against the code. No one even smiled.
At one family wedding, guards were hired and posted outside the church building. One string of Black Cats did get lit, but we only heard three pops. Those strings are hard to stop once they get started. I imagine one of the guards threw himself bodily on it. There was a brief incident at the reception where an uncle set off his cannon and his sister, the mother of the bride, called the police. They came and investigated. There was a lot of talking into police radios. I was motioned over in case a minister was needed. In Kings Mountain, North Carolina, though, the police just don’t arrest orthopedic surgeons in the middle of the day, even if they are shooting off a cannon in a residential area.
My dream was telling me a truth. The fireworks do blow a hole in that childhood church of mine. Each explosion lets in a little fresh air, it declared a little independence. They supply a welcome balance to the self-sacrifice, obligation, and stern structure that is so much a part of that religious tradition. I left that church long ago for the freer and more progressive Unitarian Universalists, but I honor joy, celebration, and kind mischief in any tradition. I’m glad to have been taught that the sacred and the silly walk well hand in hand.
Adapted with permission from The Best of Radio Free Bubba (Hub City Writers Project), copyright 1998 by Meg Barnhouse.
- The Best of Radio Free Bubba. By Meg Barnhouse et al. Hub City Writers Project, 1998. (UUA Bookstore)