by Susan Ives
Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, July 4, 2004
Aunt Lydia would bring hot dogs. Aunt Alma marched through the kitchen carrying her big plastic bowl singing, “Stuck a feather in his hat and called it …” and we’d all chime in, “Macaroni!”
Aunt Emily with her coleslaw, Aunt Bertha with enough potato salad to feed the Continental Army. An endless stream of aunts bearing Tupperware.
Aunt Helen made room for the baked beans in the oven. The bottom shelf of the refrigerator sagged under the weight of a giant watermelon, beads of condensation trickling down the rind. The table was covered with cakes, boxes of tiny candles stacked at the ready.
“Run out to the garden, Susan, and bring me some lettuce,” my mother would order.
Colander in hand, I’d scamper barefoot down the back steps.
Linda, Lois and Jackie — the girl cousins — would be stringing the badminton net between the clothes poles. The uncles, pale, knobby knees poking out beneath unaccustomed shorts, argued about the proper distance between the horseshoe stakes.
My cousin Tommy, out of sight of the grownups, would slip me a box of sparklers, and I knew that somewhere he had hidden a small stash of illegal fireworks. For later, when it grows dark.
Just then the Blue Angels from Willow Grove Naval Air Station would fly low, right over our picnic table. Everyone looks up and gasps.
This was the most exciting day of the year, the Fourth of July. Here we were, just 12 miles north, as the crow flies, from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, where it all started. Fifteen miles south of McConkey’s Ferry, where on Christmas 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River and captured Trenton, the first major American victory of the Revolution. The epicenter of liberty, in my back yard.
And to top it off, our whole family was born in July. My father, as was his due, had the best birthday of all. A Yankee Doodle Dandy. Born on the Fourth of July.
I’d abandon the lettuce and get my bicycle. Early that morning my brother and I had carefully woven red, white and blue crepe paper through the spokes of the wheels and taped small flags to the
I’d zig and zag between the borrowed lawn chairs, across our own half-acre of the United States, ringing the bell mounted on the handlebars, shouting, “Happy birthday America! Happy birthday Daddy!” until my throat grew raw.
My father, flipping burgers on the grill, would wave the smoke out of his eyes, or maybe he was brushing away a tear, and the gathered family would grow quiet.
Even the grandparents, enthroned in the most comfortable chairs, under the makeshift blankets strung on rickety poles to keep the hot Philadelphia sun at bay, these German-born grandparents who never learned English, we were all Americans. Free people, in the greatest country on Earth. This was holy ground and at that moment we all knew it and rejoiced.
John Adams predicted all this in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776. He wrote, “The anniversary of the Declaration … ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade. With shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
We did our part. And for 228 years, Americans have fulfilled Adams’ prediction of pomp and parade, bells and illumination, with the occasional chicken dance thrown in for good measure. The Declaration of Independence was an unprecedented act. Never before had the people — the people! — thrown off the yoke of tyranny. Each Fourth of July we gather to celebrate, remember and renew ourselves to the promises made in Philadelphia.
I had my own copy of the Declaration, one of those crinkled brown faux parchment copies that we had bought on a trip to Independence Hall. I’d ceremoniously read the best bits to the gathered family, proud that I had mastered the cramped calligraphy.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“What about the women?” cousin Lois would call out. “We’re equal, too!”
“I have a right to happiness, happiness, did you hear that?” Uncle Herman grumbled, nudging Aunt Bertha, who rolled her eyes.
Proclaim liberty throughout the land, from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. Light the candles ring the bells, read the list of complaints against King George III. Do the chicken dance, if you must. Celebrate. Today marks the birthday of a free people.