It’s the Fourth of July today and I’m thankful the weather is sunny and warm, bringing back some wonderful childhood memories. Camping often coincided with the holiday. My parents took me camping when I was about nine months old and by the time I was old enough to remember any of it they were seasoned campers, complete with a home-made food box that transformed the trunk of our car into a well organized pantry. The car and trailer would be packed in expert tetris style, each item having a special place to go so that everything would fit. The cloth bags for the various necessities had unspoken color codes; the blue one held kitchen foil and trash bags, the red one for beach towels. Amongst them was a brown bag, full of toys and games saved especially for camping. Part of setting up the campsite was creating a matchbox town for our dirt caked cars to reside.
We always packed books, crayons, and various other bits and pieces that could keep us busy when it rained, which it inevitably would at some point during the stay, but ultimately we were outside as much as possible. We had treats like chocolate pancakes, gorp, s’mores. I thought my Dad was the smartest man ever when he cut my mini cereal box open, poured milk in it, and let me eat straight out of it – a cardboard cereal bowl? Genius.
We learned how to build camp fires, how to skip rocks, how to get dressed inside a sleeping bag on really cold mornings. We rode our bikes, collected kindling, searched for the perfect marshmallow roasting stick. We climbed the lean-to roof. We had cherry-pit spitting contests. I went barefoot as much as possible and pleaded with my parents to let us go swimming every chance I got. I felt like a grown up being sent to fill the water jugs or walk to the bathroom block all by myself. At night, we’d play cards by lantern light, speaking in hushed tones, taking turns keeping the fire going. We got camping giggles. And so did our parents. We laughed when we heard the guy four sites away sneeze…and laughed again when someone yelled back “bless you.”
My Dad had a knack for finding random celebrations or parades in small towns so each year the Fourth was different but still packed full of tradition. We’d line the street with the rest of the crowd to watch marching bands, homemade floats, shriner cars, clowns throwing candy to the crowd, and the town kids, their bikes decorated with red white and blue streamers, riding past. Hamburgers and hotdogs, cooked and sold by the local parents group or veteran’s association, always tasted amazing.
After a long hot day, we’d find the local ice cream stand; one of the few occasions where we’d be given the okay to order whatever we wanted. No matter how hungry I was, I’d order the largest ice cream on offer. Chocolate/vanilla swirl soft serve teetering on top of the cone, threatening to melt down my arm or topple on to the ground if I didn’t race to eat it in a balanced fashion, making sure to pack some into the cone as I went.
Evening brought the main event. Off we’d go, smothered in bug spray, longsleeve shirts tucked under our arms for when the sun went down. Once the picnic blanket was spread out and dinner was finished, we’d play with the other kids until the fireworks started. They always made my mom jump out of her skin but she liked that the rest of us enjoyed them so she’d sit and smile while the rest of us oooo-ed and ahhhh-ed.
When people her ask me what the Fourth of July is all about, I tend to gloss over the parade and fireworks component, but for me it’s a much more personal than that.
Being so far away from my family is hard, especially on days like this. Since moving to the UK, I’ve tried to find some sort of American themed activity for the day but it has always fallen short of my expectations. (Last year’s trip to Aldi because Hersey bars were on sale obviously left a bit to be desired) It’s taken me a few years to realise it but it’s not about going through the motions, it’s about the feeling that goes with it. Traditions can vary from year to year as long as the sentiment remains the same. This year we got it right. This weekend’s BBQ attracted plenty of Americans but it didn’t have that weird ‘support group’ feel that some expat gatherings seem to reek of. The atmosphere was relaxed and family oriented which, as it turns out, was all I’ve been looking for.
Sometimes celebrating Independence day involved a road trip but often it meant getting up when we felt like it, taking our time to eat breakfast, and seeing where the day took us. From lobster bakes to the Boston Pops, the consistent part of the Fourth has always centred on having a good time with those I love.
Later, we’re going to have a BBQ, just our compact family of three. I hope it’s the first of many to come, and I hope I can continue my family holiday tradition – one of love and laughter.