My grandmother and I once talked about our different school experiences, and I remember her saying, “When I was a girl …” I stifled a giggle. My grandmother? A girl? My grandmother had always been middle-aged, with high heels to match every suit of clothing in her closet, speeding — in a paid-for-in-cash car — down a mountainous two-lane highway toward Hardy, Arkansas, so often that the truckers recognized her and pulled over to let her pass. As I smiled, recalling that event, I realized that I am now older than she was when she talked about being a girl.
But I, too, was thinking about things that happened when I was a girl. Now, 50 or so years ago, I was a little girl celebrating the Fourth of July with my cousins from Kansas City, who usually spent most of the summer at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Thayer. We eagerly anticipated the Fourth, because it was simply the best day of the summer. My whole family got together in Grandma and Grandpa’s yard and sat in old chairs (that are now “cool” again) and on quilts outside in the cool shade of a huge, ancient, gnarled oak tree. We ate Grandma’s fried chicken, cooked to delicious crispiness, and then we rested. While the adults chatted, we children played our favorite game: hide and seek.
To this day, I can hear my cousin Patty squealing as she dashed to home base – that big oak tree – from her hiding place. She always really won the game because we could never find her. But we stealthily concealed ourselves close to the tree so she couldn’t see us and waited for her to run in. “One-two-three on Patty!” And the game was over.
Later, chewed upon by chiggers and mosquitoes, we devoured cold, sweet, crisp, red, juicy watermelon, and then, at dusk, my grandfather brought out fireworks. He loved fireworks, or I guess he did, because he bought an endless supply every year. We shot Roman candles and firecrackers, we lit “snakes” and sparklers, and we stood back while the grown-ups lit bottle rockets.
Of course, I have dredged up all these memories because we just celebrated the Fourth of July – again with my family, though in a wholly different way.
We cousins don’t get together anymore on the Fourth. Gone are the yard and the huge oak tree, and no one plays hide and seek. Many of the people I loved, people who orchestrated the day, are now gone. We have traded fat-laden fried chicken for fat-laden bratwursts and hamburgers and healthy salads. No one sits in old chairs or on quilts; most people bring portable nylon chairs with handy beverage holders in the arm rests. The cooler is full of different microbrews, and some of us share a bottle of wine.
Nowadays, we go to Whitefish Bay, which looks like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, to be with my aunt and her husband, and if we are lucky, her sons, my cousins, and their families. We eat fresh bagels from Bruegger’s, we walk past gaily decorated houses to the Fourth of July parade downtown, we prepare our part of the party – this year it was tomato-corn-mozzarella salad and kale-strawberry-poppyseed salad – and we sit on the patio and talk about old times, new times, and life in general. Then we, and all the neighbors, whose houses are only about 20 feet apart, gather on the driveway and celebrate Independence Day. We do not shoot off fireworks – they are illegal in the city – and the little children, if any are attending, get ready for bed.
We leave, and I am happy. I have been with my family, not all of my family, but enough of my family so that we can carry on as if those many years have not passed, as if things are still the same as the days when I was a little girl. I have a feeling of continuity in my life, that the past and the present have been joined, and for one day, at least, all is right with the world.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.