The long summer days bled into one another and in no time it was the fourth of July. The small town of Lawrenceville showed up big for this holiday; there were flags flying and red, white and blue banners on every street corner. Vivian was walking through the aisles studying the shelves at the local hardware store, looking for fireworks or sparklers or both. Thatcher had come as her official helper to “make sure she got the right stuff,” he’d told her. Nobody loved this holiday more than he did and it might just be because it was also his birthday. It was a sad day when he realized the fireworks weren’t just for him. “Over here, Mom,” Thatcher got her attention from one aisle over. Vivian made her way to where he stood, inspecting all the different fireworks. “I don’t’ know what half of these do, Thatcher;” Vivian wondered how there could be so many choices. Of course, they’d never bought fireworks before because they’d always gone to watch the city fireworks that were launched over the ocean. Sometimes they’d been invited to watch from the water, standing on the bow of a friend’s boat. Vivian loved those days; at the time she thought life would always be that good. The thought of their current situation felt like someone squeezed her heart. “Let’s just get this assorted package and some sparklers and call it a day. You okay with that?” Thatcher agreed but only if he could pick out the assortment. Vivian thought it was a reasonable request and headed to the front of the store to wait.
“You coming to the festival?” Vivian didn’t recognize the voice. She turned toward the register to see a stout gentleman wearing a white button up with red stripes and a blue bow tie. “Um, yes, I think so,” she answered tentatively. “Me and the Mrs. will be there. We never miss it.” Vivian smiled as Thatcher walked up and plopped the package onto the stained wood counter. Vivian paid for the fireworks and thanked the cashier; she’d forgotten how nice it was when people spoke to you without an agenda; the kindness of this town was thawing a part of her heart she hadn’t realized was frozen. In Palm Beach you learned who to speak to and why, it was always about networking and knowing the “right” people. Thomas had trained her well. But, way down in the depths of her heart, she knew she couldn’t blame him for her behavior. She’d willingly learned to “work the room” at a party to advance his career. It amazed her how the other lawyer wives did the same. It was a bloody career path in more ways than one. “Lord,” she spoke in her heart, “please forgive me for treating people as a tool for advancement instead of your beloved creation.” The Pastor had given a convicting sermon last Sunday on loving your brother as yourself; the words pierced her soul then and now. Who had she become over the years? Being in this place and walking the same paths she had as a child was forcing her to face her own corruption and selfishness. She cranked the old Ford and turned to Thatcher buckled next to her, “you want some ice cream?” “Oh yeah!” He bellowed excitedly.
Trevor was riding the lawn mower when he saw Grandma Mae waving to him. She was holding a large glass of lemonade and Trevor knew she’d made it for him. He turned the tractor mower toward the house, stopped at a safe distance, turned off the ignition, and headed to the porch. “Thank you, Grandma, this is perfect.” He was so hot and tired, but his heart hadn’t felt this full since he could remember. This farm life thing was growing on him. He loved driving out to the fields with Grandpa Sonny to check on the growth of the corn stalks; he loved riding the tractors and helping out in the barn. He’d loved riding with Grandpa to the next town over to hire a small plane to spray pesticide on the fields. He and Grandpa had stood and watched as the plane made pass after pass over the expanse of the corn. He’d rescued a stray dog that Tatum had taken a liking to, and watched as baby chicks multiplied, filling the chicken coop. He’d helped Thatcher build a cage for a bunny they’d found injured behind their house, and gathered eggs with his Mom once in a while. The days were so different than those back home where football drills and the gym dominated his time. And yet, he’d never felt stronger than he did right here, working on the farm. He smiled and handed the empty glass to Grandma, “Thank you!” He gave her a kiss on the cheek as he spoke. “I better get back to work, it’ll be dinner soon.” He jogged back to the tractor mower to pick up where he’d left off.
Tatum picked up the small kitten and rubbed its tiny head. The Lord had been so good to give her this opportunity. When she’d first arrived in Iowa, she felt so unsettled and didn’t know if this whole summer away idea was going to be a good one. But, now, she wasn’t sure about going back to Palm Beach; this place was starting to grow on her. “Tatum, don’t forget to feed the dogs outside before you leave.” Tracy spoke from the other room, “Yes ma’am, I won’t forget.” Their second week at church Mrs. Tracy Wheeler had walked up to the family and asked if any of the kids would like to help out at the local animal shelter. “It’s part time and the pay isn’t great, but it’s fulfilling work and we sure could use a helping hand.” Tatum spoke up immediately, “I’d like to help.” Vivian could see the joy in her daughter’s eyes as she spoke; she silently praised the Lord for answered prayer. She’d been asking for an opportunity for her sweet girl and here it was. Tatum started the next day and had been there pretty much every day since. It was only twenty hours a week of paid time, but Tatum loved to be there so she volunteered as many hours as she “worked.” Something else special happened to Tatum that same week, she’d given her heart to Jesus. The kids, well, most of them, had decided on their own to attend youth service on Wednesday nights. Joe and Sharon Miller had invited them to come the first Sunday they attended. Sharon and Tatum had immediately hit it off and that made it easier for the other kids to say yes as well. The Miller’s weren’t paid staff, the church could only afford to pay the Pastor and a part time secretary; they volunteered their time willingly and freely. They were a young married couple with a heart for Jesus and young people. Each Wednesday night included praise and worship, with Joe on the guitar and Sharon leading the choruses, a few ice breaker games and a Bible lesson. Often the group, after Wednesday church was over, would walk to the ice cream shop and spend time laughing and chatting around cement tables. It brought back so many memories for Vivian when they told animated stories about their time with the other teens.
It was a Wednesday youth service when Tatum decided she wanted to be a Christian. Joe had spoken about Jesus preaching to the lost and how often he was rejected. Tatum would later tell her Mother she understood rejection more clearly after all that had happened in Palm Beach; how none of her “friends” stood with her in her time of need. She didn’t want to reject Jesus like that, so when Joe asked everyone in the room to close their eyes and raise their hand if they wanted to accept Jesus, Tatum raised hers. Joe and Sharon had taken her aside and explained the Gospel and Tatum prayed right then to accept Jesus into her heart. No bells went off, but she felt different inside, lighter and happier. She really couldn’t explain it other than to say she was thankful. Vivian let the tears fall as Tatum told of her experience, she was so happy for her daughter. But, in the bottom of her heart she held such regret for not leading her daughter to Jesus sooner. Wasn’t Vivian her example of what it meant to be a good person? Yet nothing in her life had caused Tatum to want for more than selfishness and greed. It was a painful time of self-reflection and confession for Vivian. When trying to describe how she felt after all the realizations she’d had this summer, Vivian would’ve said she felt like an onion. God was peeling back the layers after a lifetime of self-centeredness. It was a painful process, but she wouldn’t trade a single tear cried in repentance for all the money in the world.
The community Festival for the Fourth of July didn’t disappoint. There was a small band made up of retired farmers, who still played their trumpets and tubas, offering up patriotic tunes for the crowd. Burgers and hotdogs were cooking on an oversized grill, homemade ice-cream makers whirred and apple pies were set up on tables covered with checkered table cloths. Vivian, the kids, Grandpa and Grandma wore red, white and blue to commemorate the day. Vivian had even taken a picture of the crew and posted it on Instagram, something she hadn’t dared to do since the arrest. She didn’t want any negative comments or questions, but, somehow, today, she felt like letting the world see the Lancaster’s were doing okay. She felt truly happy and she hoped it showed. Their family spread out a blanket and some lawn chairs and spent the evening visiting with friends, old and new. When darkness fell, they found their places and watched as the night sky lit up with beautiful colors. “This is what joy feels like,” Vivian whispered to herself. She looked around and saw Thatcher’s eyes bright like a full moon; Tatum was smiling and laughing like Vivian hadn’t seen in so long. Trace was teasing Thatcher while Trevor stood and watched with Grandpa Sonny. It was such a beautiful sight; she couldn’t stop smiling. But, what pushed her to tears of joy was Timothy. He was sitting snuggled against Grandma Mae smiling and pointing as the fireworks exploded. And, in that moment, her happy heart did exactly as those fireworks, it exploded with the utter joy of God’s goodness.