Friday, July 4, 2014

Something Different

Now for something a bit different…

Today is the United States of America's Anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, or in other words, its Birthday. Every nation has a birthday; some have several. Every country celebrates in its own way. America is a bit different. We're so diverse; Americans celebrate Independence Day in hundreds of ways. I'd like to share what Independence Day celebrations have been like for me.

When I was growing up, near the coast of North Carolina, July meant hot, hot and humid, so stepping outside resembled being placed in a 500 degree oven wrapped in a wet wool blanket. Our town was little, less than a thousand people in and around it, named for the Scottish village its founders had left in search of free land and the 'American Dream'. It was 'typical small town America', the ones rarely seen today with growth and development and 'progress'. Independence Day meant a parade through downtown Main Street and then afternoon picnics, games and a carnival at the lake, right off the main highway and railroad which had placed our town on the map and would elevate us to 'city' status. There would be a concert and then with full dark, fireworks.

One Independence Day, the year the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta, Georgia, our neighboring state and about 6 hours away, the Olympic Torch came through our town at night, on that highway and carried by a runner with an artificial leg. I've never forgotten the sight of him, in red, white and blue sweats, draped in an American flag and surrounded by a police escort and other runners. He was crying, endless tears streaming down his face, because, he'd later say in an interview, his leg hurt so badly, the heat had sapped him, and yet the honor of what he did outweighed everything else.
He was the definition of 'Independence' to me.

My family was, for the most part, farmers. Grandpa owned a thousand acre tobacco farm in addition to the thousand acres of corn, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. July meant the beginning of harvest, particularly hundreds of ears of corn. My earliest July 4th memories are helping pull and shuck the corn, to get it ready to be blanched and then canned or frozen, and the smell of raw kernels. The humid heat made the fine hairs of the corn stick to your arms, legs, face. Every once and a while a shuck would reveal a worm or a bug and some lesser girl would scream and hop up and down (okay, so I could recognize which ears of corn might have a worm, and sort of steered them toward the girly girls. I was a prankster in my youth).

By mid morning, we needed to be ready for the parade. My great grandfather began the first volunteer fire department in our town, the second one in the state; ever since the men (and now women) of my family have served in this department. Every Independence Day my father or uncle drove the fire truck in the parade and the youngest members of the family sat on the top or the back and threw candy to the parade watching. The only year I didn't ride in or on a fire truck was the year I was heavily pregnant with my first child and in the first stages of toxemia. That year I had to sit in my mom's AC car and only left to wave at the trucks and a few floats of friends—and a walking 'Uncle Sam', who grabbed me and danced a waltz along main street with me. 'Uncle Sam' was female and we danced in my own personal freedom from being confined to bed and her as the first woman in out town's history to portray an American symbol once believed only a male could honor.

Independence Day.

When I moved to my beloved mountains, newly divorced and a single mom, I wondered what this little town did to celebrate. It turns out, they have the park picnics and games and of course, the fireworks. But the biggest parade here is saved for Labor Day, to cap the huge Apple Festival. So for Independence Day here, every war America has ever fought is represented by a solider or the direct descendent of a soldier in full uniform in a march down Main Street. No one sits: every stands, salutes and cheers. We honor our vets in this town, we salute our military. On this day, it doesn’t matter what 'right' or 'wrong' is, which political party you are; it matters that these men and women fight to maintain the whole idea America originally decided to rebel for against the crown: Freedom.

There was the Independence Day only 2 weeks after we lost our son where I remember holding the star shaped firework earrings I only wear on Independence Day and sobbing because I wanted so desperately for my sweet baby to try to grab these earrings and he never would. There was the Independence Day I couldn't get out of bed from chemo treatments and my daughter melted ice cream for me to try to drink it. And the Independence Day my Dad came home from the hospital after his last heart attack and the entire fire department escorted him and stayed to shuck the corn.
Independence Day comes in so many forms.

We always, in my home town and now in my HOME town, grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, ate my Mom's famous potato salad, drank sweet tea (yes, I know it's not *real* tea, according to my UK friends) and banana pudding. When I came HOME to my mountains, we added Independence Sundae Day with its 4 flavors of ice cream and all toppings you could possibly imagine after one ate 'real' food. There's no better way to declare Independence than to make your own banana split or hot fudge oreo topped treat then groan for an hour because you ate too much. And then there's the infamous Water Gun Fight, with most of the neighborhood participating in who can get who armed with water balloons, water pistols, a garden hose, buckets, whatever will soak the opposite team. It usually becomes 'where can Mom (me) hide' because she's laughing too hard to aim and is a perfect target.

This Independence Day, I will grill something and try to make my Mom's potato salad, since she no longer can. I'll eat as much ice cream as I can stand and I'll watch my next generation take over the Water Gun Fight. And I'll thank God for Independence, in whatever form it takes for the person who needs it most.

The United States isn't perfect in any way, shape or form. It's past, present and no doubt future are riddled with atrocious decisions, with inhumane actions, with injustice and corrupt leaders. It also has produced incredible people of talent, intelligence and strength. It had moments of madness and unbelievable beauty. It could be said, with deep accuracy, this country is the best representation of the human race on this planet. It's flawed, it's got amazing potential, and it survives, in spite of its problems and battles.

Happy Independence Day, America.