July 4th: Watching Fireworks with Mother and daughter, Hudson River, Upper West Side, New York CityThomas Beller
A murky, rainy morning. Then the sun came out. By evening it was gorgeous. The light hit the trees of Riverside Park in a way that made it feel like a magic forest. We went down for a picnic on the promenade.
“Daddy, is that a jungle?” asked my daughter. She pointed to a small stand of trees leading up and out of the park.
“More like a forest. A Jungle is tropical. This is more like a sliver of forest.”
“But is it a real forest?”
Riverside Park swarmed with police officers. I had advertised this fact in advance, as though it were a treat, and my daughter took the implication and ran with it. She said, “Look daddy, a police officer!” about every ten seconds, as though she had spotted yet another Easter Bunny.
A trio of officers rode by on horses as we noshed on our blanket spread out on the grass. One of them stopped so my daughter could pet the horse. All three stopped about fifty yards down the promenade to let the horses be stroked by another group of kids, and my daughter ran over so she could pet the horses some more. Eventually, as I lay on the blanket on the grass, nibbling and making the sure the baby didn’t roam too far away, I saw she was the last one there, still petting the horse’s nose. This went on for a long time. I wondered if she and the police officers were talking, and what they might be saying.
The evening light was so clear. As a kid I would have imbibed this light and also dismissed it, as kids do. But now I reveled in it as though it were a fabric I could touch. But I also imagined it hitting sand dunes on the beach, or a thicket of trees Upstate–in other words I thought of country houses of summers past. This summer would be spent in the city. The subtext of our July 4th was, would the city provide enough magic, or any magic?
We went back to the apartment. The wife and baby went to bed. I went back out with my mother. Her hip better but not fully healed. We took the wheelchair. My daughter in her lap. Now it was dusk. People were streaming into the park from all directions. Riverside Park, which plays second fiddle to Central Park, was having its moment.
We went all the way down to the river. It was very crowded. We found a tiny pocket in the crowd. A woman in a floppy hat was sitting in a canvas chair pulled up to the rail, front row seat on the river. My daughter pushed beside her. Touched the hat.
“So sorry, excuse me!” I said.
The Woman in the Hat spoke, a musical Caribbean voice, and said not to worry. She comes every year to the same spot, she said. Her friend, another woman, stood beside her. The river was silvery in the dusk. The crowd dense around us, and back up the hill on the grass, and still coming. In front of us sail boats bobbed. One was just now coming back to anchor for the night, swiftly moving on a river that seemed like molten silver.
A saxophonist played a solo somewhere in the crowd. He was good. He was very near but I couldn’t see him. I heard familiar riffs–John Coltrane, Miles Davis. It was very crowded now. If it weren’t for the enormous open space of the river it would have been claustrophobic.
The voice of a young girl, unguarded unrestrained: “Whose wheelchair is this!” voice of a young girl. Not an angry voice, exactly, just blunt, direct. She stood there with a teddy bear in her arms. About twelve years old.
“It’s hers,” I said, and pointed to my mother standing at the rail. The wheelchair was just behind her, taking up space. “But I can move it,” I added, and pulled it back. I made eye contact with the mother of the young girl. She winked at me. At least I think she did. The dusk was almost over, it was dark.
“It’s going to start any minute,” I said.
“Another ten minutes,” said the Woman in the Hat, who came every year. My mother and the Woman in the Hat exchanged some conversation. My mother likes fireworks. She told me a story about once taking my grandmother to see the fireworks in midtown. My grandmother didn’t like it at all. She said they reminded her of the war. My grandmother had left Berlin in 1939 and moved to London, where she lived through the Blitz. I never asked her about those years for some reason. A failing of mine but also that imperceptible force field of many who lived through that time–I don’t want to discuss it. I suppose one doesn’t really want to stand beneath booming fireworks after you’ve lived through the Blitz.
The girl with the Teddy Bear, which I saw she was stroking over and over with her thumb, said, “When are they going to start?” in a loud, abrassive voice. A man rowed by beneath us, the guy who brought his sailboat in so late. Police boats with their lights flashing were on the river. It was like there had been a crime out there.
They began. We were about forty blocks from the center of the action, a couple of miles, and though they were magnificent, they were distant. The booms not that loud. When my grandmother had been reminded of the Blitz she had been standing in Midtown. Maybe this would have been more tolerable.
The Woman in the Hat was standing now. My mother was craning her neck, leaning out over the river. I could see her face in profile, lit by the flares.
“Daddy, I’m bored,” said my daughter. “Can we go now?” It was almost as loud and abrassive as the Teddy Bear. The fireworks had bee going for about two minutes. We were surrounded by thousands of people.
“Come on,” I said, cringing, hoping it would stop.
“Can we go do something more fun?”
I took her off my shoulders. I was enraged. But I tried to contain it. There was a part of me that was a bit underwhelmed, too.
“There is nowhere for us to go. There are too many people all around us. We’ll never get Nana out of here in her wheelchair. We have to stay. But I am sorry you are bored,” I said, and could feel myself going over the cliff. I hate it when this happens. But it happens– the passive aggressive mode used on a five year old. “I thought it would be fun for you.”
“It was fun,” she said. “But now I want to do something else.”
“There’s nothing to do. But if you’re bored why don’t you sit in the wheelchair? Go ahead, you don’t have to watch.”
She sat in the wheelchair. A moment later she crowded up to the rail, next to my mother. And a moment later she had stood on the lower rung of the fence, and was leaning out over the river. My mother grappled with her, put her arms around my daughter, admonished her. Then another woman appeared beside the Hat, also with a young girl – bright laugh, hair in cornrows with little beads woven in – who also put her foot on the bottom run and leaned out over the rail.
The flares burst into bright colors, weeping willows, pink Saturn’s surrounded by purple rings. And now there was laughter at the rail from the two girls–laughing at the fireworks, or the peals of anxiety that now surrounded them as they stood on tip toes leaning out, or just at each others laughter.
“I want to stand where your granddaughter is standing,” said the girl with the Teddy Bear. Again that loud blunt voice. It was embarrassing and heartbreaking, the naked need. I realized that something was wrong with her. Autism or Aspergers. Something was wrong, but also not wrong at all, she just didn’t have the filter that makes people suppress their thoughts. There were no boundaries. She wanted to stand where my daughter stood. Because of the view? Or because she saw something between my mother and my daughter she coveted and wanted. And what would it be? What about my mother made the Teddy Bear girl want to stand within her arms?
Meanwhile my mother struggled with her lively grand-daughter at the rail, trying to get her to step down, or to at least not lean over.
“I’m ready to jump in River at a moment’s notice,” said the mother of the Teddy Bear.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said. And then for some reason, almost under my breath: “I’m just glad my wife isn’t here to see this,”
The Hat had taken off her hat. It occurred to me that she had ceded space. It was as if The Hat came early with her chair to stake out a prime spot, and then made a point to offering it to select people, talking about the fireworks, almost as though she were a host.
I heard my daughter say something rude, something with the word “But,” and stepped in to admonish her sternly. Otherwise I hung back. At some point my mother sat back in the wheelchair. The Teddy Bear took her spot. My daughter went back on my shoulders. There was a little bit of complaining. But now the fireworks were in their finale stage.
“It’s the Grand Finale,” I said.
The Hat lady was making cooing sounds, musical noises of appreciating. Ripples of clapping and oohs and ahhs moved through the crowd. My daughter fastened onto the word finale. She kept saying, “Finale!” really loud.
The Teddy Bear Girl, who I saw was compulsively stroking her teddy bear, exchanged words with her mother. “This is even better than last year,” she said.
“You liked last year a lot,” said the mother.
“This is even better,” said the girl. That same flat, overly loud voice with which she said everything. But now the additional information that this was a yearly thing for them, which I found moving for some reason.
Afterwards we all said goodbye. The Teddy Bear girl hugged my mother and kissed her cheek. This shocked me. I hadn’t realized they had interacted that much, or that the Teddy Bear girl had sensed something about my mother, but she had an authority, the mouth of babes, the lack of filter, and I took her show of affection to be a testament to some powerful force in my mother, some authenticity or warmth to which people gravitate.
We all had to go through a tunell to get back out and up to the city. There was a bright spotlight. It was not pleasant. But it wasn’t too bad. All those densely packed heads. I thought of the Blitz, the underground refuges. My grandmother had been the daughter of a well off family in Berlin. C.F. Peters. Music publishers. In London she was a housekeeper. I had never asked her about whose house she kept or what they were like.
Up on the promenade, sweating from the exertion of pushing the two of them, the street lamps cast a powerful glow. As we moved past each one I saw our trio in shadow. I stopped and pretended a shadow bird was eating Evangeline’s nose. Then I took pictures. Then one last push up the hill to Riverside Drive. It was steep.
“You need help?” a woman asked.
“No,” I said. “But the next time you see me I’ll be the one in this wheelchair.”
And then we were back in civilization. Later, when I looked at the pictures under the lamplight, I noted the special joy in my Daughter’s face and wondered from where it came. Was it the fireworks, or her sweating dad pushing her around like a princess, or that she was in the lap of her Nana who loves her so much? Or was it simply the elation of little kids when they are out late past their bedtime. My mom had a glow, too, but I felt there was no mystery to that–she loves fireworks. And I think she liked her company, just then, too.
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