I love barbecues! The aroma wafting from a sizzling hot grill under the summer sunshine is a definite perk of the season. But, an added tinge of excitement wells up inside of me around this time of year. It’s nearly Independence Day – by far, my favorite day to grill.
Without a doubt, my preferred barbecue food is a good old-fashioned hot dog. (I tip my cap to the 9% of my carnivorous American brethren who say the same in the latest, national Marist Poll.) Yet, my fondness for the July 4th holiday goes way beyond food.
Consider it plain old sappiness, but the Fourth of July brings me back to the carefree days of my childhood. My most vivid memories are the celebrations that occurred before the age of nine. It was the time when our close, extended family was still together — before cousins moved to distant parts of the country and before we lost many in the elder generations.
Our Independence Day celebrations always began early and ended late. With the cicadas acting as their soundtrack, mom and grandma would be preparing the food and puttering around the house from the wee hours of the morning. Dad was usually in the backyard cleaning the grill (which he would man) or skimming out the pool. Next door, Great Uncle Ben put out lawn chairs for the guests, and Great Aunt Lucy set up the buffet table between our two yards. As for me, I was usually doing one of two things – playing with whichever cousin was staying with Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ben or getting under mom’s feet. The former of the two was the most dangerous scenario. My excitement was often matched or exceeded, especially if Cousin Greg was nearby, and the tag team would end in nothing else but trouble.
As the clock ticked down, dad took the helm of the large grill, and he was no joke. Dad barbecued old school style – with charcoal and lighter fluid. He fired up the grill early, and flames often shot up higher than one level of the house. (Needless to say, mom’s nerves were shot before the first guest arrived.)
Then, it was time. Swarms of family and friends descended on the two yards. The scene resembled the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Just swap out the Greek relatives with Italian, Irish, and Lebanese ones. The kids ran between the two yards, climbed trees, or jumped into the pool while the men played bocce ball in my uncle’s lengthy side yard.
And, of course, food and drink were served throughout the day. Each year, either Uncle William or Uncle Tony brought a watermelon bigger than me. And, my mouth watered as I waited for it to be cut up and presented.
As dusk drew near, the pool “closed.” The kids dried off, changed clothes, and bounced around, filled with a new anticipation. It was the mid 1980’s, and fireworks were rampant in my neighborhood. As we all bundled up and curled up on lounge chairs, we watched the fireworks explode in the air above the bay in our backyard. Topped off with dessert, the official celebration came to a close.
The day ended much like it began with mom, dad, and grandma bustling around the house. But, now it was time to clean up. My brother, cousin(s), and I were never ready to let the day come to an end. We continued to snack on hot dogs and other leftovers as we ran up and down the block until we were lassoed and put to bed.
Today, through the lenses of age and wisdom, I realize that the family togetherness I cherish so much would not be possible if not for our founding fathers. No, it’s not just that the holiday would not exist. But, my ancestors, like those of so many others, came to this country seeking a better life for their families. Here, they found freedom, diversity, and a land of unlimited possibility. Where else would my Italian, Irish, and Lebanese relatives mesh into one extended family? Would the face of my family look the same if not for the melting pot that is this great land of opportunity? Probably not.
So, as I gather with my family and friends this July 4th, I thank our founding fathers for the freedoms that we, as Americans, enjoy, and in a way, I am grateful to them for shaping who I am today. Happy July 4th!