By Sean Grover
In the 1970’s my parents fell in love with throwing big outdoor theme parties for friends and family. The aftermath of their parties filled our backyard with oddities which included a twenty foot tall fiberglass Cleopatra (harvested from the 1964 World’s Fair – don’t ask), a collection of enormous rubber tire flower pots, a twelve foot long plastic shark, a hollowed out African canoe and an endless stream of nautical items such as crab and lobster pots, fishing nets, abandoned row boats, machine parts, and whatever else floated up from the bay behind the house. A mixture of Alice in Wonderland meets Moby Dick. Looking back, I could never tell if visitors’ silence meant that were impressed or completely dumbfounded.
My parent’s final and last theme party, the Hawaiian Luau of 1975, stands out most in my memory.
For weeks they transformed the backyard into a tropical paradise — palm trees, burning torches, huge plastic flowers and a two hundred pound tee-ki that my mother craved from a tree stump that drifted up from the bay. Yet, my parents were unsatisfied. Something was missing. They needed a centerpiece, something really, really Hawaiian. But what it could it be? They had scheduled a Hawaiian band, ordered flowered lays for guests, a whole pig for roasting.
Then it dawned on them: what could be more Hawaiian than a volcano?
Ideas were tossed around, sketches were drawn-up during meals and soon materials began to appear in the a corner of the yard; three empty fifty gallon aluminum oil drums, four plastic lobster traps, rolls and rolls of galvanized steel mesh, several large gallons of liquid form and ten buckets of paint.
This centerpiece was going to be a whopper.
Completed, it stood about ten feet tall, twelve feet wide at the base. The three metal drums held up the core of the volcano and were wrapped in the galvanized steel mesh. The drums also contained a water pump and a series of hoses and tubes, which led to a small pool at the bottom of the volcano. The pump circulated red flowing water (aka, lava) from the pool at the bottom to the spout at the top. The liquid foam was poured over the entire structure and painted bright crimson and green; holes were later carved into the foam for live flowers and large leafy plants. The final touch was red and yellow floodlights at the base with burning torches enclosing it.
The volcano was a hit, of course. Guests in white leisure suits and plastic flowered lays snapped photos endlessly. Hours later, when the party was over, the volcano sat alone in the corner of our backyard and remained there for the next 37 years.
The volcano aged. Gone was the flowing lava or flowering plants. It’s vivid colors faded, it lost some its shape; yellowed foam poked out from it’s damaged corners and the pool at the bottom was filled. It sat, silently guarding a corner of the yard, never complaining or causing a fuss. For a while it became a home for muskrats and squirrels, until it’s holes were finally sealed up for good.
When an insensitive relative referred to it as “the blob in the corner” we were quick to scold him. It was, and always would be, our volcano.
By the fall of 2012, my father had a new knee, my mother had survived an aneurism and tiny grandchildren filled the backyard at alarming rates. The old house, the center of our family universe for over fifty years, creaked and sighed in the wind more than ever. Weeks later, when Hurricane Sandy hit and filled the first floor with five foot of water, it was like the bay had come to collect a debt.
Days after the storm, my eighty-year-old mother stood on the back porch vainly attempting to dry hundreds of water-damaged photos. Was it worth it? She didn’t know.
She glanced out at the backyard for a moment’s reprise and made a startling discovery: our volcano was gone.
We searched the yard. It was mostly foam, wasn’t it? Maybe probably floated away. Maybe it disintegrated. Maybe it sank to the bottom of the bay.
Our chatter was broken by a shriek from a ten-year-old granddaughter, “There it is!”
She pointed in the air. The volcano rested atop a pine tree in the yard. Like discovering an old friend in new way, we looked on, awed.
My mother sighed and touched my father’s shoulder.
“Honey, can you get the volcano out of the tree?
I climbed the wobbly pine as best I could and positioned my back against its bark. With both feet I pushed the volcano with all my might. The tree bent and swayed, but would not let it go. The volcano held tight.
My father threw me a rope and gave me orders:
“Tie the rope around its center and climb down and help us!”
By a small crowd of relatives and neighbors had gathered; brothers and sisters, grandchildren and in-laws; all congregated at the base of the tree, eager to wrestle with the volcano.
Upon my father’s instructions, we grabbed tight to the rope and waited for his signal.
“On the count of three we pull…One…. Two…Three!”
We pulled mightily like loyal seamen, but the tree only bent with us, and continued to cradle the volcano in its arms. Finally on the third attempt, it started to shimmy and shake loose. We shouted in victory, then in gasped in horror. Gravity was not on our side; the volcano was tumbling toward us.
We stumbled and scattered in all directions, grabbing small children and dashing for cover. At the last moment, someone pulled my wobbling old father to the side and the volcano tumbled past and slammed into the ground upside down.
Bits of foam and dirt exploded and covered us. Remarkably, no one was hurt. We silently dusted ourselves off and surveyed the pile of wire mesh, twisted hoses and dented barrels.
A tiny grandson picked up a twisted piece of green foam and handed it to my father.
“This is for you, Grandpa.”
My father looks at the fragment of foam and exhales noisily.
We break out in fits of laughter. Our beloved volcano is gone but its spirit will always be with us.