When Memories Come "Fourth"
Marilyn Adele Kinsella
Today is Friday, July 4, 2003. A memory came forth as I was posting an E-mail. MSN, grrr! popped up with an ad and deleted it! I was so mad! Well, lesson learned today – put it in Word first. So, I had to rewrite the story, and blessed be...the story came out fuller and better than before. Bless you, MSN. This story took place in "Old Fairview" circa 1958.
The Fourth of July was my Great Aunt Josie’s birthday. She and my Great Uncle Blaine lived right next door to us on the corner of St. Clair Rd and North Rd. I was their unofficial, resident house pest. I snuck over there every chance I got. They always made me feel so at home, as they did all their many kinfolk. They were always so gracious to anyone who “came calling.” So, on the Fourth of July we decided to have a big picnic in our backyard – aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, brothers, sisters and so many cousins (first, second, once, twice, thrice removed) you couldn’t even count them all. We celebrated our country’s independence right along with Aunt Josie’s 70th birthday.
Everybody came with a potluck dish. The tables were filled with potato salads, coleslaw, and Jell-o every color of the rainbow. We didn’t have BBQ pits back then. BBQ was a special treat that we only had at our town picnic (another story for another time). So, mom and dad sliced up a ham. Our sodas were kept in a round, gray, galvanized tub. There amongst the ice cubes were Grape Nehis, Orange Whistles, 7-Ups, and Dad’s Root Beer. There were also some darker amber glass bottles floating down there under the ice, but the kids weren’t even allowed to touch those. We reached inside that tub, our hands stinging with icy cold, and pulled out our favorite drink. The bottle opener was tied to the handle of the tub to keep it from walking off. (who ever thought of twist-off caps!)
We took our sodas and paper straws and plopped down on the many blankets spread under the elm trees. We didn’t have the lightweight, webbed chairs we have today. What we did have were brightly colored, molded, metal chairs that were so hot that you burned your backside in the sun and frosted your tushie in the shade. But, they were reserved for the adults anyway. Aunt Josie and Uncle Blaine staked out their place in the shade to watch the kids run around and to catch up on family gossip.
My cousin Rollie and his family played music together. One, two, three…a waltz or a polka filled our back yard. “Come on, Aunt Josie, let’s dance.”
“Oh stuff and bother, dancing is for young folks. These bones have had their fill of dancing days.” My Aunt Josie always seemed old to me. Did she ever dance? Her gray eyes matched her thinning gray hair that was always twisted into tight ringlets of permed curls. She must have been tall at one stage of her life, but now her thinning bones gave her a frail look. Her skin was deeply etched with time and her mouth was puckered as if she wanted to say something, but didn’t. She always wore pale, colored housedresses except when she wore her Sunday-best-for-church. As she sat there under that tree, her thin, bony fingers clapped off-beat to the music.
Meanwhile, there were other things for the cousins to do. Croquet was set up in the front yard and badminton on the side yard. My cousins were a bloodthirsty, competitive lot. They hit those birdies so hard I had bruises for weeks. Like scud missiles those birdies hit their mark time and again. One of the cousins started a rainbow of water from the gardening hose. We had no sprinklers back then, just a finger pressed tightly against the flowing water. As we tried to make it under the archway of water without getting wet, invariably my cousin directed the spray of cold water at us. We were soon drenched and squealed our dis-pleasure. Off in the distance, the boy cousins (it was always the boys) lit some firecrackers or cherry bombs. If we begged long enough and hard enough, our parents let us light up some snakes. By carefully lighting one end, the “snake” would writhe and curl leaving an indelible, black mark on the sidewalk. After that, my cousins (boys) brought out the firecrackers and the dreaded - cherry bomb!
Eventually, the women started to “dress the tables” with tablecloths and food. We took our plastic, reusable plates and loaded up. Then, someone brought out the homemade, chocolate cake aglow with decades of candles made just for Aunt Josie. We sang loudly and off-key, “…happy birthday, dear Aunt Josie….happy birthday to you!” After she blew out the candles, we asked, “What did you wish for, Aunt Josie?”
“Can’t tell you or it won’t come true!” she answered. But, I secretly knew.
The tables were cleared as the sun made it’s way over the western horizon. The elms cut deep swathes of shadows as the fireflies starting winking their hellos. The cousins grabbed empty mayonnaise jars and started capturing the little beacons of light. By the next day, we released them only to recapture them come another evening.
Finally, it was time for the big show. This was the fifties and fireworks were not yet banned. So, the boy cousins (it was always the boys) started to set up their display in the fields. The younger cousins delighted in the sparklers. I always tried – unsuccessfully, to write my name in the sky with the sparkler. The “old” folks took their chairs and the kids spread the blankets in the grass to form a gallery of spectators. Soon, Roman candles lit up the sky, bottle rockets whistled, and bursts of red, white, and blue bloomed overhead. We all oohed and ahhed our appreciation. I snuck a peek over at Aunt Josie. She was worrying her embroidered handkerchief in her hand and occasionally wiped away a tear.
The first time she ever saw fireworks was at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. She was a young woman and the fair was her fondest memory. Oftentimes, she and I sat on her front porch rocking away in the cool of the evening. Bit by bit she told me about her life.
She and her eleven brothers and sisters lived in the family-run Lauman House in East St. Louis. They had to work “like the devil” to keep the world-renown boarding house and tavern in tip-top condition. They had very little free time. But even her parents understood their children’s desire to go to the once-in-a-lifetime St Louis World's Fair. Aunt Josie and her sisters took the trolley from Missouri Avenue, across the Eades Bridge, and down Market Street to the Fairgrounds. Every day they had a new wonder opened to them.
Top to right: Adele, Josie, Lulu and Birdie, circa 1893
Living and working as they did, they had no concept of the world except what they saw in newspapers and books. The fair widened their horizons. There was a section of the grounds where they could see and interact with cultures from far-off distant lands. They totally re-enacted their lives for the fair-goers to view as they walked by. Pigmies, Native Americans and Eskimos were no longer pictures, but living human beings with families, and languages and cultures all their own.
Since it was summer time, the girls got to wear their long white muslin dresses tied with a bunting of colored ribbon to the fair. A hat was a must to keep off the hot, St. Louis sun.
They walked down the Palisades eating their first hot dogs topped off with their first ever ice cream cones. Sitting on top of the world’s highest Ferris Wheel with 80 others in the car, they could almost imagine that they could see the Mississippi River. The girls pretended to wave to their parents still at home – always working. Sometimes they strolled past fountains lit by new-fangled, colored lights. “Why, “ Aunt Josie told me, “they had bands on every corner. We just picked up our skirts and danced right there in the streets. Such a fair there ever was.”
One trip the Laumann sisters decided to go on the Fourth of July - Josie’s 18th birthday. They gave Josie red-white-blue striped ribbons to tie in her long light brown hair. The sisters were under strict orders by their father to be on a certain trolley at a certain time. No excuses!
But, that day they were having so much fun. And besides, they never got to stay for the fireworks – the grand finale. They heard others talking about it, and just once they wanted to be defiant and see the fireworks for themselves – to assert their own bit of independence! So, they stayed. They weren’t disappointed. First there was the the sunset that transformed fair into a soft rosy glow. Then, the illumination began with fountains and buildings lit in a myriad of colors. Then, as night approached, a dazzling array of fireworks lit up the St. Louis sky.
The band – led by John Phillip Sousa – played patriotic numbers while their hearts filled with pride. Josie and her sisters were sitting on the hill (now known as Art Hill). She once more kicked up her heals and danced until the last burst of light. When she talked about this moment, her gray eyes filled with light and wonder. "It was grand, simply grand!"
But, too soon, it was time to go home. And the sisters knew they would have to face a different kind of music – the unpleasant kind. Their father would be waiting on the street corner, and they dreaded “that look.” Fortunately, however, their older brothers found them and took them home in their car. The brothers explained to their dad that they decided it was safer for their sisters to come home with them… but with the traffic and all, it took longer than they imagined. Their father accepted this explanation without another thought, and they were saved! Aunt Josie told me that they went over to the fair every chance they got, but that nothing ever compared to her birthday celebration. Such a fair there ever was!
I wish I could spend this fourth with my Aunt Josie and see the fireworks once again through her gray eyes. Each burst of light brought a memory back to life – strolling the palisades, waving atop the world’s biggest Ferris Wheel, and dancing in the streets. She wore a white muslin dress tied with a pink ribbon. She was young and beautiful. She was my “great” Aunt Josie.
Happy Birthday, Aunt Josie…and, your secret is safe with me, for I still know what you wished when you blew out those candles.
For more information on the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, click on
"The Sights, The Sounds, The Story of the St. Louis World's Fair."