When I was growing up, in the 1950s, the Fourth of July was a true day of freedom. We had a huge family picnic at our relative’s house. The festivities included a swimming pool and was held in a neighborhood without fences, which meant we kids could run breathlessly through the yards, chasing each other, playing tag, baseball and hide ‘n seek.
But first, we politely greeted our relatives. Then our aunt said, “How about a drink?” to my parents. And “Kids, there’s sodas in the cooler.” Dad wanted Scotch on the rocks and Mom asked for gin and vermouth. Mom joined the women who were arranging the food on long picnic tables and Dad hung out with the men, who were grilling burgers and dogs.
That’s when the freedom began. My younger brother Dan and I, normally allowed to drink only juice and milk, eagerly surveyed the array of icy sodas and we both chose Grape Nehi.
Quickly we were swept into a game of tag. Some of the kids were already wet from swimming and others still wore shorts. Underneath our clothes, Dan and I had on our bathing suits and were ready to leap into the pool and get immersed in a game of Marco Polo.
The adults were busy with drinks and conversations and no one admonished us to be quieter, slower, or more polite. We were a band of glowing energy, sweating with the joy of freedom and racing to escape being IT. We were a burst of independence, throwing off our shorts and t-shirts and cannonballing into the pool, shrieking, splashing, and laughing.
After several hours, the women beckoned us over. We dropped onto the lawn and ate ravenously off drooping white paper plates loaded with baked beans, hot dogs, corn, cole slaw, and potato chips. Then we spit watermelon seeds at each other. Finally, we sated ourselves with rich chocolate cake.
By then, the fireflies flickered and glowed. My uncle handed out sparklers without even warning us to be careful. Those dangerous sulphury sparks thrilled us. We raced about, a sparkler in each hand, writing our names on the sky, streaking across the dewy grass, leaving a trail of smoldering light behind us.
At the end of the evening, my uncle set up the fireworks. We sat on blankets, this time with our families. We were smudged, sweaty, and stained with watermelon juice and dirt. I leaned against Mom and my brother snuggled next to Dad. As the fireworks spurted up into the sky, we pressed our hands against our ears, the noise and brilliant layers of light bursting around us.
“God bless America,” my father said.
“America,” the adults echoed, their voices hushed and reverent.
Only later, when I was older, did I realize the significance of the holiday: my relatives were all first generation Americans—and on that day, among others, they were grateful their parents had escaped the tyranny and religious persecution of Poland, Russia, and Hungary and had come to this welcoming land.
But that night, I was simply worn out from my own childlike version of independence. Dan and I leaned against our parents, fighting our tiredness, and let the sounds of freedom ring us to sleep.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.