Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fourth of July Memories

Growing up, I always loved the Fourth of July because it meant a time for family gatherings. I don't recollect specific events, but I know that it has left me with an abiding love for sparklers. Waving them around to spell letters in the cooled evening air, feeling content from a perfect meal of slightly blackened hot dogs drizzled with French's mustard from a pump jar. Chilled canned peaches on iceberg lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise. Homemade ice cream more deliciously earned because you had to participate in cranking the ice cream maker, its wooden bucket crammed with ice and rock salt. Later, when the sparklers ran out, there were always glowing fireflies -- lightning bugs -- to catch in a jar with a few leaves and an aluminum-foil top punched with holes. Eventually pity forced us to release them, and they escaped into the velvet of a Tennessee summer's night sky. I wonder, sometimes, which of my hazy memories are of the Fourth itself, or simply other happy summer moments. I don't think it really matters.

In my teenage years, July 4th meant rising early to watch New England village "Horribles Parades" where hastily costumed children on beribboned bicycles and not-yet-grown-up adults straggled through the town center. Uniformed Cub Scout troops marched in vague formation, and local swells waved from the back of a borrowed convertible, Veteran's caps perched jauntily on their balding pates. Sometimes a homegrown Uncle Sam or a small marching band, or a few funny floats, the joke understood only if you lived in town. Being local felt comforting.

Later July Fourths witnessed my own toddlers and their little cousins as they swung plastic bats at wiffle balls on the broad lawn of the family place on the Massachusetts coast. By afternoon the "littlees," as they were called, invariably got splinters in toes or on knees as they scrambled on the wide weathered porch of the house, their chins stained purple from dripping popsicles. All generations of the womenfolk shelled fresh peas in the kitchen and every year discussed anew the best way to poach and serve so much salmon to feed the extended family. A faded, moth-eaten 10 foot by 12 foot American flag flapped gently against the grey shingles of the lumbering old Victorian, a perfect backdrop for what looked like the American Ideal. The years and years of the Annual Photo, with smiling faces of babies, aunts, in-laws, step-uncles, siblings, and grown cousins and their current roommates or best friends or loves or spouses, posed in the same place in the branches of the sprawling catalpa tree. Thinking about these July Fourths, I prefer to choose the happy appearance of those successive photographs as the memories to retain. Because by nighttime, when the menfolk scuffled to detonate contraband fireworks on the beach, with frantic dogs barking, mosquitoes swarming, and exhausted children cringeing or squealing, the darkened evenings of the Fourth had inevitably lost the joy that the day's anticipation and sunshine had brought.

That classic Fourth-of-July house now belongs to some other family, to create their own American Dreams. And I live in Paris now, to create mine.

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