I have high expectations for the Fourth of July, which were instilled in me before I can even remember properly by perfect celebrations at my childhood best friend’s farmor’s.
Farmor lived next door to them in a beautiful house on a lily-pad-choked pond almost entirely encircled by houses in Seattle’s north end. Together with my friend’s three siblings, I spent many a summer day in that pond called a lake, swimming and diving off farmor’s dock and even fishing, but for some reason the Fourth was special. I suspect that reason was FIREWORKS.
Back then there was no ban on setting off fireworks (not that our ban has slowed the practice down much anyway), and most of the adults at farmor’s party would have spent ridiculous sums of money at area Indian reservations. We were always well supplied. Add to that the fact that at least half the other houses surrounding the pond had done the same thing, and it made for a pretty spectacular display. No one ever lost a finger at these parties, and we kids got to stay up late. What more could you want?
As an adult, I find it’s hard to re-capture the magic of the holiday. Without a reliable plan it tends to sneak up on me, and I end up doing something so non-memorable that I honestly can’t recall more than one Fourth of July in recent years. There are never enough fireworks! Bummer.
One year I spent the summer backpacking in Europe, and on the Fourth of July I was staying at a shady hostel in Rome—some guy’s apartment that he’d crammed bunk beds into, that was the only bed I could find that night. I asked the guy if he knew where folks would be celebrating the American holiday and he offered to take a bunch of us. So off we went, but for some reason no one but the guy remembered to bring the hostel key. When we weary travelers wished to return home before the hostel guy did, he became the hostile guy. Were we feeling independent? Not so much. Needless to say, the Roman Fourth of July wasn’t the party I was looking for.
Ten days later I found myself in La Rochelle, France, on Bastille Day. As a parade passed by with marching bands and red, white, and blue flags, I felt patriotic stirrings and reflected on how easy it is to tug on those particular heart strings.
What is Independence Day? Like all holidays, it probably ought to mean more to us than explosions and potato salad. But I’m not convinced it has to be a celebration of our violent separation from England either, or a day to pat ourselves on the back for living in this bizarre and arrogant upstart of a country (which, don’t get me wrong, I love—for all our problems America has many fine qualities too). For me, though, the holiday is a more personal one.
In the excellent movie Smoke Signals (based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie), a father asks his son on July Fourth, “Are you feeling independent today?” Since that year in Rome I’ve taken this as my Independence Day mantra. Can I take care of myself? Am I doing what I want to do? Have I, at the very least, remembered my house keys? It’s nice to check in on these things from time to time.
Whatever Independence Day means to you (alien invasion? I hear they’re making a sequel to the movie by that name), I wish you a happy one. With fireworks.
This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.