I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic lately. Some of this is a longing for what I remember to be simpler times. Some comes from intentional review and contemplation of just how I want my post-COVID life to be. Other triggers for my nostalgia include the fact that my high school class is having its 50th reunion.
And of course, today is the Fourth of July.
I have so many memories associated with this holiday. Childhood memories include decorating my bike by weaving red-white-and-blue crepe paper in the spokes and hanging red-white-and-blue tassels on the handle bars. Then there were the sparklers that my dad would light along with the strands of firecrackers. I would run around the back yard shedding sparks and holding my hands over my ears as the firecrackers snapped.
I also remember waiting for the fireworks and getting absolutely consumed by mosquitos. Once the fireworks started, the mosquitos didn’t bother me as much. The fireworks were in direct competition with the fireflies that magically lit the twilight. It was endlessly fascinating to me that these rather pedestrian bugs captured in a Mason jar could turn into the blissful, radiant light show that made me giggle and smile.
It seemed forever before it became dark enough for the fireworks to begin. The challenge was to find a spot to view that was far enough away so that the sound wasn’t too loud, but close enough so that you could lie down and look up at the multi-colored sparkles, streams, streaks, and blossoms that filled the night sky.
Over the years, I have watched fireworks from the ground, from roof-tops, from blankets spread on grass and from comfy chairs lined up like church pews. Sometimes the weather has been hot and humid (90° and 90%,) to low fog and frigid (55°). I was either shedding clothes or dressed for the Arctic!
The best fireworks are always the ones I am watching right now, but there have been stand outs. San Francisco has a certain panache unmatched by any other city. Because fog inevitably plays a role, organizers have found ways to provide a ground show for folks who line the Bay and a higher elevation show for those who watch from hillsides and rooftops around the City.
I remember watching New York City’s impressive show during the Bicentennial and just gawking at one magnificent aerial display after another. And I love how my current small town finds a way to show off with a marvelous collection of Roman rockets, chrysanthemums, cones and confetti in hues of blues, reds, silvers and all to the chorus of “oooooh’s” and “ahhhhhh’s” that come from those of us watching.
Food is a central part of my July 4th memories. There was always the requisite potato salad, baked beans, corn on the cob and hot dogs. But the crowning glory that I waited for was my grandmother’s strawberry schaum torte. Light as air, literally melting in my mouth as soon as I bit into it, the strawberries at their summer height of ripeness; it all came together in sweet delight.
Next in importance to the schaum torte was the corn on the cob. Corn was picked, bought directly from the farmer who picked it and sold it to us off the back of his truck for a dollar a dozen. We then raced home to make sure it made it into the boiling water before the sweetness was lost.
As a child, I was given the task of shucking the corn. I got to do it outside (most likely to keep from being underfoot) and ritualistically spread the newspaper out in front of me to set the stage for the multi-part process. First, I grabbed the tassel and pulled it down far enough to reveal the top rows of kernels. Then I used my thumbnail to puncture one of them to see whether it was dry or milky. Next task was to systematically remove the outer leaves, usually in three groups, which would bring me to the final, detail work of removing the corn silk. Once cleaned, it was straight into the boiling, salted water. The remnants were gathered up into the newspaper and put in the trash.
There is nothing better than a fresh cob of corn, butter slathered over it, lightly salted just begging to be eaten. Can’t eat just one!
There is nothing that can top a small-town parade to my mind. Groups of children who are wearing uniforms representing their youth organization or church group, clowns and acrobats, folks riding old timey bikes and driving classic cars. Depending on where in the country you are, fraternal organizations wearing fezzes and riding small cars or riding on the back of a truck and tossing candy to those at curbside. And of course, fire engines and marching bands!
The parade was always led by a color guard made up of VFW and American Legion members, along with active service members. As a child, I remember learning to stand at attention when the flag went by, my right hand covering my heart, and feeling proud of my country. I have a very faint memory, which may be more from hearing the story than actually being present, of watching a grizzled old man in a faded blue uniform being driven in an original electric car. I was told he was a Civil War veteran.
One of my favorite parade groups was a synchronized folding yard chair marching group. It was made of up some 20 folks dressed in shorts and tee-shirts who did a whole routine around flipping their chairs in the air, setting them down, sitting in them, folding them, then picking them up and moving along! What a hoot!
Why Is the Fourth of July?
The memory that sticks with me the most, though, is having my grandfather ask me, “Why is the Fourth of July?” As a child who was rather serious and shy, I would try to figure out the answer to this question. I would think about the founding of our country and just how amazing it was that the celebration occurred during the summer when the weather was good and the corn was ripe! I would furrow my brow and try to put together all the different elements that needed to fall into place for all those smart men to show up in Philadelphia at the same time and write the Declaration of Independence. But, I really couldn’t answer the question.
Then my grandfather would look at me with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye and say, “J” is the first, “U” is the second, “L” is the third, and “Y” is the fourth of July.