When I was very little, the 4th of July was celebrated on aluminum foldaway lawn chairs in the front yard of our house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Bakersfield. Neighbors gathered to watch distant explosions light up the sky from the state college a few miles away. I don’t remember barbecues (although I’m sure there were some). But I do remember VanDeKamp’s molasses cookies which is what the cocker spaniel belonging to the neighbors two doors down liked to eat. There were sparklers which I was afraid of and games like “kick the can” – games I couldn’t play because I was too little and had to go to bed while the other big kids on the block, including my sisters, got to stay up late and run around in the hot dry desert night air.
I honestly don’t remember any 4th of Julys after that until I was in my late 20s and my friend, Gary, took me on my first trip to East Hampton. We took a train from the city and arrived, rumpled and sweaty, at the station where we bummed a ride to the rinky-dink airport and rented a car before heading to the beach. I’d never experienced the beaches of the East Coast and didn’t expect the miles and miles of unspoiled beaches butting up against grassy dunes. The water was bracing and the waves rough, but the air was soft and downy and the light was heavenly. We stayed until sunset and then headed to the summer share of a friend of his where I was a little surprised to find there was no bedroom for us. But ever undaunted and more familiar in the ways of young hungry weekends in the Hamptons, Gary acted as if it was perfectly normal and we hunkered down on the living room floor with sheets and scroungy blankets and no pillows and slept like babies after a long day at the beach and a brilliant cookout in the backyard with a revolving-door crowd of friends and acquaintances.
The next morning, we drove to Southampton to watch the 4th of July parade – a real old fashioned, all-American, flag-waving parade replete with vintage cars, 4-H kids and church floats. It never occurred to me before that day that people other than Republicans waved the American flag. But here I was, surrounded by some Republicans but also a lot of Democrats and gays and young and old and we were all waving flags and celebrating the day. I was swept up in the Americana of it all – it was foreign and new and utterly thrilling to me.
For the next decade or so, I did whatever I could to make sure that I could recreate that feeling. There were 4ths spend on Martha’s Vineyard and 4ths in the Hamptons – parades and fireworks and barbecues galore. Hours on end were spent making buckets of potato salad and shucking dozens of ears of corn for an annual party that became a grand tradition. I learned from my friend Ben the great tradition of reading aloud from the Declaration of Independence – an amazing document and one you should review if you haven’t of late. Every one of those holidays was glorious – even the one spent hunkered inside the pool house fashioning slickers from garbage bags as rain bucketed down from the early July sky.
But times change and our lives change. Circumstance moved me from east back west and though my life is far superior in every other aspect now, I must confess I miss those 4ths. Somehow, a trip to overcrowded Malibu in horrendous traffic doesn’t hold a candle to any version of the 4th on the east coast. And watching fireworks from the parking lot of the yogurt store down the block is ok, but not really my fantasy of the celebration of Americana. One year we tried Ojai – which does come replete with quaint town parade and pokey local fireworks. It was pretty good actually. I adored the vision of a pack of children running like wild banshees across the golf course against the darkening sky, and loved being surrounded by friends I know I’ll have forever. But still, it wasn’t quite the same. The air was different against my skin, there were no fireflies or June bugs, no drippy wet humidity.
The truth is, whether sitting on the beach wrapped in a blanket watching fireworks explode over the water or watching from an outdoor table in Little Italy as sparks fly out over Chinatown, New York will always have a corner on the 4th of July market in my mind.