The magic and the wonder

Fourth of July brings back bittersweet memories


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Barbara Huffman of the Sleeping Lady Lions, paints faces at the Fourth of July celebration at Lions Park.

CINTHIA RITCHIE

When I was growing up on a farm out in northwestern Pennsylvania, my mother would drive my three sisters and me the next town over to watch the fireworks.

We’d lie on blankets itching mosquito bites and pinching one another as the darkness slowly descended, and as we waited we stuffed our mouths with candy (usually forbidden) and drank cold sodas (also forbidden) and fidgeted in that hushed and anticipatory moment that stretched on forever.

And then a single shot of color zig-zagged magically across the sky, followed by a bang, and then more color and more bangs, and we pressed our small hands together and laughed and laughed because really, how often does the sky explode and fizzle right in front of your eyes?

But soon I grew up and the annual fireworks lost their magic, and instead of staring at the sky I was staring at the door, waiting to get away from the farm and the country lifestyle. Years passed and I barely even noticed the Fourth of July. I was away at college and then bumming around out West and before I knew it, I was living in Alaska and raising a son. That’s when I started watching the fireworks again, my son and I standing on the hill by the Coastal Trail, and during the grand finale, as the sky shimmered with reds and greens and golds, he’d suck in his breath and his eyes would widen. Watching him, it all came back, that wonder, that magic. It was like reconnecting with something I hadn’t even known I had missed.

Then my second oldest sister died. She died unexpectedly on the Fourth of July, and that pain, that loss, that hole inside of my heart, threatened to destroy me.

So I started running, it was the only thing I could do, run and keep my body in motion. Before long I began running the Mount Marathon Race in her memory, and each year at the starting line, as I waited with the first wave women, most of whom were much faster than me, I’d think of my sister and sometimes I’d even hear her voice in my ear, urging me on.

It became something I did each year, a ritual to celebrate not her death so much as her life. I raced up that brutal yet beautiful mountain, sweating and struggling, the breeze at the halfway point blessing my skin with coolness. I always fell at least once on the descent and I always left blood on that mountain, and it always felt right, as if it were a communion, as if I were leaving something behind.

This year was the first time in over six years that I didn’t line up at the start of the Mount Marathon Race—I took a year of absence due to a stress fracture. Instead of traveling down to Seward and watching the fireworks from the beach the night before the race, my partner and I drove out to the Eagle River fireworks at Lions Park instead.

I thought I would be sad, but I wasn’t. There were children everywhere, and people smiling, and the smells of picnic foods and music and games. We strolled around, and we laughed a lot, and we watched kids play and dance and run around, and it was like being a kid again.

Right before midnight, we lay down in the grass and stared up at the sky, and behind me a small girl sat breathing out of her mouth, the way my sister used to, and it was as if she were right beside to me again, watching over me, keeping me company as the fireworks began and colors streaked across the pale and blue twilight sky.

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