Kimberley's Childhood 4th of July

by Kimberley Thompson, Tastemaker in Residence

The celebration of the 4th of July, or Independence Day as my Grandmother Ruth Agnes called July 4th, has radically changed since I was a child 50 years ago.

Today, the 4th, if remembered at all for its original intent, has been slotted as a colorful page of brilliant fireworks photos in the local newspaper or broadcast as the PBS's special "A Capitol Fourth 2016" from the Mall in Washington DC, hosted by Gary Sinise. (A wonderful show, but the 4th deserves more from the citizens of this land.) 

In 1965, we attended parades or picnics held in city parks and staked out our spots for the fireworks display "in town.” I had a white, red and blue sailor dress, handmade by my Mother, worn to church, school and fireworks. Our flag was proudly displayed on the house, the barbecue fired up and the watermelon iced. Stores were closed, families were together. 

Vietnam memorial July 2015

Vietnam memorial July 2015

Veteran's organizations decorated the city streets with small US flags planted in every front yard. Local city bands had been practicing all of the old patriotic songs for weeks: America the Beautiful, God Bless America, Home on the Range, Anchors Aweigh, God of Our Fathers, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Yankee Doodle, This Land is Your Land, My Country, 'tis of Thee, You’re a Grand Old Flag, This is My Country, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean and The Star-Spangled Banner. Voices young and old, in tune or not, all came together on the last song. Children's squeals and adult conversations hushed as the band hit the first notes. Unbidden, all eyes looked to our flag. Old men straightened to a military posture; many saluted. Hands to hearts, our voices carried the sacred words to the heavens. Mothers held their child's' hand, children quit clamoring for another slice of watermelon, politicians stopped shaking voter's hands. Some eyes grew moist as they remembered what coinage their sons, brothers, uncles and fathers had paid for the privilege of the day's celebration. Others saw the bounty around them and remembered what their lives had been back in the "old country" where freedom and democracy were not observed.

Retail was closed, yes, shut down, not just shorter hours...closed. Gas stations closed. Libraries were adored with red, white and blue bunting and closed. The city park was immaculately decorated with flowers beds of red geraniums, blue salvias and white alyssums marching in Old Glory stripes. The band shell had been scrubbed spotless by willing hands the day before and draped with pleated bunting in exuberant red, white and blue. Podiums stood to the side for speeches of greatness, blessings and historical remembrances. Time slowed to a hallowed beat as babies dozed, old men snored and women wearing summer's bounty on their hats, bobbed their heads in agreement. Aging men grasped long rifles, each staccato volley recalling the bullets fired to gain our freedom from tyranny.

The 4th was a day to be savored, each memory a spice. Not a shopping day or "hittin' the beach" day.

There was limited travel, certainly not to "destinations," lake houses or theme parks. We alternated between staying "in town" or going to the farm to meet up with the aunts, uncles, cousins and assorted "shirt-tails" who happened to stop by. Dad packed us up, with the dog, in the big old sedan that Mother had labored to fill with coolers of food. Cold fried chicken was wrapped in wax paper next to the "calico beans" in their brown glazed pot. Long loops of hot dogs snuggled in white paper sat under Tupperware bowls with assorted jello salads adorned with shredded carrots, pretzels or pineapple. Flat boxes held 7 layer bars, blonde brownies and lip puckering lemon bars. The Coleman 4 gallon thermos had fresh lemonade inside. Pies were carefully wedged in last, secured by rolled blankets and picnic baskets: Meringue topped coconut cream, tart cherry with latticed, real lard crust and apple pie redolent with cinnamon. 

The drive to the farm was never fast enough...slowing through each small town festooned with Old Glory, street light garlands and sparklers. Empty chairs reserved prime curbside viewing spots for the parade occurring hours later. Roads were barricaded...routing traffic around each town's “heart."

The whitewalls made a sticky, humming sound on the warm asphalt. Our conversations wove around questions of "are we there yet?" and "how much longer, Dad?" and what favorite dish would be brought by the aunties. Would the older cousins let the little kids (of which I was one) help with lighting the bottle rockets? Could I have a sparkler? How late could we stay up? Long enough for card games and late night milky coffee?

When we arrived at the homestead, we could barely wait for the car to stop before the doors were flung open and we ran screaming into the melee of cousins gathered under the shade of the big elm. We tended to separate into groups by age: the "big" kids, the "kids," (middle ages), and the "little" kids. The big kids definitely were the pack leaders and were allowed to stay up late, play ROOK with the adults and light the contraband fireworks. The "middle" kids were in that grey area of wanting to be "big" and cool; but could only play outside until dusk, had their Mothers wash their faces in front of everyone and still sat at the table on the back porch with the "littles." But least the "middles" were not the "littles" anymore.

Supper time, which was in reality afternoon lunch, always started with a blessing from my Grandfather. Leonard was a humble man who counted his riches in the smiles and laughter of his children and grandchildren. He never failed to thank "his Ruth" for everything she had brought to his life, making it far wealthier than any man deserved. He spoke of what Independence Day meant to him. How he and his children and grandchildren could be ANYTHING we strived for because dreams required work and effort on our part otherwise we would not so strongly value what we achieved in this "Great Land." His prayers for our country wrapped all present in the fortune of living in America where we could worship freely, where a family could work hard and achieve much and a poor man's child could go to school just as the rich man's child.

The adult table conversation started with appreciation for the hands that made the bounteous food and the Lord that blessed the rich earth. After a few minutes, talk turned to "Our Country" and where it was going and where it had been. The "big" kids listened and chewed, realizing the futility of interrupting the adults' conversation and truthfully wanting to get back outside so the festivities could commence.

After dinner, when table clearing, dishes and general clean up were completed by the adults, they finally joined the impatient children outside. Red checked tablecloths were draped over picnic tables. Tubs of iced watermelons were brought out and set under the trees. Lemonade sat at the end of the table loaded with desserts: pies, bars and cakes.

The uncles brought out the fireworks: all the cousins shivered with anticipation of sparklers, bottle rockets, squibs, caps, roman candles, poppers and snakes. Our young ears barely heard the multitudes of the "be carefuls," "don't blow off your fingers," "you're not old enough" and "who is watching the kids?”

What followed at dusk was childhood heaven. Shrieks as boy cousins made girl cousins with run by throwing poppers. Sparklers in chubby hands in close range of vigilant adults. Bottle rockets screamed as they arched over the huge barn. Faces were lit in eerie light. Cheers accompanied the oohs and ahs as favorites exploded against the deep blue velvet heaven.
I miss those days...

We never had an agenda of go-go-go on the 4th. It wasn't about water skiing, or a round of golf or bargain shopping. Nor the movie theater, museum exhibit or casino. The day was given over totally…not just an hour or celebrating our freedoms.

Life...Liberty...and the Pursuit of Happiness.