What are We Celebrating Again?

by Julia Buckley
According to the list of 4th of July facts here, 1/4 of Americans answering a Marist poll did not know the name of the country from which we won our independence on July 4th.

I suppose it can't be avoided--that gradual evolution of a great event into something (for some) of no importance at all. But for me it also raises questions about one of America's greatest rights: the right to an education. Like everything that is free, knowledge can be taken for granted. My teacher colleagues who have taught in far-off lands could not believe how grateful those students were for education; how rooms full of 60 and 70 students would sit in absolute silence, hanging on every word out of their instructor's mouth, because this was their only chance at education.

And while many American students (including mine) are respectful of both education and teachers, I'm sure all teachers, at one point or another, have experienced one of THOSE classes--the ones with students who mock the very idea of education, reading, homework--and who take for granted the very gifts which America has guaranteed them.

Why would they do it? For one, they are assaulted by media images of young people who are oversexed and undereducated. They are fed the visual rhetoric that teen moms and porn stars are the new American heroes, and that fame is necessary for self-esteem ("fame" being a nebulous term which includes being on television for any reason). They are given this shallow, un-nourishing diet of pap, and if they are not given the analytical tools, they will think that this is the world and that these people are what they themselves should be.

"Reality" tv is nothing like reality, and an uncareful viewer might not see the neediness, the narcissism, the affectation and posturing. And unless that viewer occasionally read a book, he or she might not realize how poorly these television stars speak and think.

Remember this footage of poor Miss Teen South Carolina?

Not only can she not explain why Americans can't recognize their own country on a world map, but she can't string together a coherent sentence. But somewhere along the line she was swayed by the visual rhetoric of pretty hair and make-up, of fakery and feigned composure, and by the idea that if it looks good, it must be good.

She's not the only one. Check out this blog, which reveals that more American teens can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government.

No, I'm not trying to depress people on the 4th of July. I am suggesting, though, that the date will cease to have any meaning unless we continue to invest it with some, and to demand more from our cultural representatives in all forms of media.

Let's celebrate America by asking Americans to think--something our founding fathers did very well.

What Fourth of July means to the Deadly Daughters

Elizabeth Zelvin

This is the holiday that has my husband flipping over hamburgers and hot dogs, an annual event. (He grills, but usually prefers a good steak or such elevated fare as jumbo shrimp and alder-smoked salmon.) For me, the essential element of the holiday is fireworks, the more spectacular the better. I like to sit as close to the source as possible so that the bursts blossom right over my head and I can feel the bass thumps in my chest. Do I wax patriotic? No, I’m too much of a historical relativist. After researching my book about what really happened when Columbus “discovered” America, I’m keenly aware of the ambiguities in any such event, the American Revolution included. But overall, I’m glad it happened—and bring on those fireworks!

Julia Buckley

For me, the 4th of July used to look like this:

These are scanned right out of my family scrapbook (which I abruptly stopped doing about five years ago because it was SO time consuming. My sons will think that one day I just stopped loving them. :)

Yes, the 4th was once about face paint and patio-chalk-flags and excited little boys. I remember one magical fourth, on the evening of which we went to the biggest town park with our blanket and some provisions and waited, with what seemed the entire village, for the fireworks to start. One of my college friends had joined us, the new godmother of my youngest son, and 11-month-old Graham seemed to sense their bond, because he spent the evening crawling on her and occasionally biting her toes.

The fireflies were out, and my older son (the one in the pictures) skipped around and thought everything was SO exciting!

Now they are 16 and almost 13, and seemingly young existentialists. The most exciting thing in life these days is the never-ending array of video games that they have in their collection, and it is indeed hard to pry them away.

But they still love the fireworks, Liz--just like you and every good American. :)

Jeri Westerson

When I was a kid, it was all about the fireworks. But less about big park displays and more about our neighbors getting together with those streetside stands of purchased fireworks: sparklers, Whistling Petes, those whirly things that spun on the ground. We'd pool our resources and have a safe and sane fireworks show all our own.

We can't buy those anymore as they have been outlawed in many California counties so we have to travel to outlying cities to seek out those city park fireworks displays. I like putting together gourmet picnic baskets of wonderful little salads and grilled chicken on skewers, cheeses and fruit. Wine. You also don't get embarrassed about being a little extra patriotic and get the opportunity to just reflect on the past and what brought us to today, appreciating the freedoms we have that even some of the freest democratic countries don't quite enjoy.

Sheila Connolly

I lived in the Philadelphia area for twenty years total, at various times in my life, including elementary school.  Yet somehow my suburban Quaker school never offered us a tour of Independence Hall, although I have a dim memory of sitting in a bus and watching the Liberty Bell go by.

When as an adult I worked in Center City, within walking distance of the site, did I ever do the tour thing?  No.  Maybe I'm a history snob and prefer obscure places to tourist Meccas.  It took a visit from out-of-state relatives to force me into the building.

We all probably know the bare bones of the story--representatives of the colonies locked together in a room, the windows closed so no one could eavesdrop on them as they hammered out the Declaration of Independence.  One wonders if they were allowed to remove coats (probably wool) and wigs, and roll up their shirtsleeves, to get the job done.  Let me tell you, it gets hot in Philadelphia in July!

So when at long last I saw that chamber, I was struck almost viscerally by how small it was.  Crammed together, hot, tired, and in equal parts frustrated, exhausted and exhilarated, a small group of men drafted a single document that changed the history of the world. Being in that space made them human for me.

If you're ever in Philadelphia, it's worth the visit.

Postscript:  I'm a member of the DAR, which celebrates the role that our Revolutionary War ancestors played in the founding of the country.  So far I can list thirteen of mine who participated in some way, and mainly they're in Massachusetts, where I now live.  I visit them regularly.  Here is one of my ancestors, alongside his brother.  The house they were raised in was the inspiration for the Orchard Mystery series.

Sandra Parshall

For me July 4 means the height of the blooming season for the hundreds of daylily plants in my garden -- a glorious sight, prettier than any fireworks display. At least it used to mean that, until the deer in the nearby woods discovered how delicious daylily buds are (they're sweet and tender and are used in some Asian stir-fry recipes). For the past few years we've waged a battle throughout June to protect the precious buds that should burst into gorgeous bloom around the 4th of July. And we've been losing. But this year things are looking up. We've been extra diligent in applying revolting repellent spray, and although we've lost some buds to the deer, the plants have plenty left. Some have already survived to the point of blooming, and others are fattening up, waiting their turn. The countdown begins. What will I find when I walk through the garden on July 4 -- the sad snipped-off stalks that once held flower buds, or a riot of colorful blossoms? Will this be the Independence Day we liberate our garden from the tyranny of the deer?


by Sheila Connolly

I was planning to write a post about how we accumulate Things in the course of our lives, and then become stymied with what to do with them all.  Then a couple of weeks ago I came upon an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine written by Carina Chocano ('Underneath Every Hoarder Is a Normal Person Waiting to Be Dug out'), and she said many interesting things about hoarding, its history, and our cultural fascination with it.  Plus she said them well, and I'm not going to repeat all her points here.  However, I think she missed two important aspects of Keeping Things.

I live in an 1870 Victorian house, that most people would consider large--you know, twin parlors with sliding doors, nine-foot ceilings, spacious entrance hall with sweeping mahogany staircase.  There's one problem, though:  a dearth of closets.

Or, I should say, a conspicuous absence of clothing closets.  On the ground floor there is a walk-through butler's pantry with a china closet, and in the dining room there is another china closet with a glass front--I guess that was for the "good" stuff.  There is a pantry closet in the kitchen, and I think there was once a second, long since converted into a powder room. 

But clothes?  Ha!  Coat closet?  Nope, only two rows of wall hooks by the back door.  Bedrooms?  One has no closet at all.  Two have very shallow closets flanking the chimney flue (lined with hooks, but not deep enough for a modern hanger), and the last has both a closet and a linen closet.

To put it simply, the storage in this house is lousy.  Or at least, the easily accessed storage.  We have a full basement--damp.  We also have a full attic--which is either freezing or broiling, may have a mold problem, and is not easy to access, especially carrying anything larger than a breadbox. 

I have a lot of stuff, and I've filled every closet, and a lot of the attic.  In my own defense, let me say that it is not stuff that I acquired; mainly I inherited it.  My grandmother, a fiercely independent woman, lived for the last twenty-plus years of her life in an exquisite studio apartment facing Park Avenue in New York.  Everything she owned was encompassed in that room, plus a walk-in closet and a storage closet on another floor.  She chose carefully and cherished each item she kept.

My mother shared her mother's taste, and kept many of the things that my grandmother relinquished.  One of the first purchases my mother made when she married was a matched pair of glass-fronted corner cupboards, to display "nice" pieces.  I still have them (yes, they're full).

And I inherited all of it.  When my mother died, my sister and I divvied up what we wanted, and sold the rest.  There were still two trucks' worth that we carted away.  The furniture was nicer than anything I had managed to acquire by then, so I was happy to have that.  But it's all the other stufff...and I find it almost physically painful to part with something that carries memories.

Someday my daughter (our only child) will inherit most of this stuff.  Much of it won't mean anything to her, since she doesn't have the memories that I do.  How do I pass those on?  What about the collection of demitasse coffee cups that my grandfather--who I never met--collected and enjoyed, as my mother told me on more than on occasion, cradling the cup in her hand?  What about the pink jade Buddha with a removable fan?  I remember playing "hide the fan" in my grandmother's apartment in the 1950s (we always found it, as you can see).  None of these will mean anything to my daughter.  But how can I get rid of them?  I haven't come up with any answers yet, but I pity my daughter in advance.

The other topic that Chocana didn't address is collecting books.  I've always loved books.  I truly believed that our local library was giving me books to keep (so I hid them under my bed).  My grandmother and my mother read books, usually hardcovers.  I had the full set of Nancy Drew before I was ten.  I started on science fiction in college, then shifted to mysteries, and never looked back--and all this was long before I ever thought about writing myself.  My husband and I collected mysteries when we were first married, and inherited more from his father.

So I have thousands of books, and those are only the ones I chose to keep.  I'll admit up front:  there's not enough time left to me to reread all of them, especially if I want to keep reading new books as they come out, and now I have to read the ones that my many writer friends are producing.  And yet...it's painful to part with a book that I love.

How do you handle it?