Today is the day of the year I remember to celebrate, or perhaps more appropriately, commemorate the changes that have occurred during the course of my life. I didn’t consciously pick Independence Day to do this. It just revealed its significance for me over time as my touchstone.
Christmas was almost always celebrated at home and with so much excitement and activity, except for the occasional fantastic or disappointing gift, that each blended into one generic memory. Birthdays followed pretty much the same pattern. Thanksgiving was family, close friends, and food, differentiated by an added or missing participant, though the drama surrounding the new cuisine of deep frying the turkey by my fearlessly confident nephew has added memories that do stand out. But the Fourth of July was different. Different places due to vacations or relocation, different activities based on venue, new and supposedly spectacular ways to improve on the already spectacular caused America’s Birthday to stand out from the rest of the year and provide me the opportunity for personal reflection.
I must give credit to where I grew up for why celebrating Independence Day stood out to me from an early age. My grandparents moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, before it was Sin City, before it was even a city. Their 40 acre ranch was located exactly 5 miles north of Fremont Street or “Glitter Gulch”, but when they settled there in the late 30s, it and the famous Las Vegas Strip didn’t exist. There weren’t any bright lights to look at, just lots of dark space on the valley floor that stretched out below their homestead. By the time I came along 30 years later, there were visible twinkling city lights marking the town’s growth and in the distance through the then pristine desert sky I could see for 10 miles or so and watch neon bubbles float up the Flamingo Hotel marque.
City lights and the brilliant stars that filled the sky over my head, since light pollution hadn’t yet happened, made their sparkle an everyday occurrence for me that I grew to see as commonplace, not awe inspiring. But the Fourth of July provided a new light show, courtesy of the Las Vegas firemen, who created a fireworks display that lit up the valley sky with an unobstructed view from my family property perched on the still undeveloped outlying hills. It was the first holiday celebration I remember and I was probably 5.
My next Fourth of July memory began with a bang. My grandfather owned a building supply company and since it was downtown and we lived far from the populated area, he stored the dynamite he sold at the ranch. One year when I was old enough to anticipate excitement and fear, my father decided to set off an explosion to remind the encroaching property owners, now about a mile away, it was time to start celebrating our nation’s birthday. He set up his prank in our lower pasture, far from the houses, and ran like mad when he lit the fuse. I watched and waited. Nothing happened. My father waited too, but always impatient, didn’t wait long. He was already headed back toward the dynamite when it blew. He wasn’t hurt, the sheriff got alarming calls from startled nearby residents, and my grandfather put a lock on the dynamite house.
Refusing to release control of the dynamite, the next year my grandfather compromised by ordering a huge box of hi-tech fireworks, rockets, roman candles, the works. I believe that year the neighbors were watching our show with as much attention as they did the firemen’s show in the opposite direction. But we got all their attention when my uncle accidentally dropped the punk he used to light the devices into the fireworks box. Its remaining contents ignited all at once, culminating in a blazing finale, as the spraying fireworks set the sagebrush hill next to my grandparents’ house on fire. The flames were put out with a garden hose manned by my father, but one of the dogs bolted in the excitement, never to be seen again. That was my last memory of a personal fireworks display. Fireworks weren’t ordered again per my grandmother and sparklers didn’t warrant a record in my mind after what I’d already experienced.
What did register was the Fourth of July was a day to look forward to, imagine what might happen, and reflect on what did. I moved to big cities where to see fireworks you had to go to a stadium, endure traffic, and inhale lots of choking explosion smoke. I watched New York’s fireworks extravaganza on television, while looking across the water from Long Island to see them burst in real time seconds before appearing again on the TV. I moved to small towns where I marched in Independence Day parades and medium-sized towns where I did parade route crowd control.
Every year on July 4th I couldn’t keep from thinking about all my earlier celebrations. I would compare them. “Didn’t measure up to last year” or “Way better this time.” Somewhere along my journey to maturity, I realized I was anxious about the holiday. “Would I be disappointed? Would I be alone or with people I just met and search for faces I wanted to see again? Would I be so blasé or tired I’d just skip it all together?” Finally I asked myself why I was analyzing the holiday instead of celebrating it. I didn’t find a reasonable answer.
Now I celebrate my past memories and in-the-moment feelings. I no longer compare. I just enjoy and I smile. Right now I’m sitting outside under a bright blue sky, not thinking about colored sparks against a black background coming in a few hours. I’m looking at my waterfall, my golden retrievers playing on the grass, and the few patches of snow left on the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. And I’ll remember this time too on July 4th for all the years I have left.
You can do this with any or every holiday. A long time ago, Independence Day came to be my touchstone. Maybe something deep inside wanted me to know it is important to be myself, to be independent. It just took some time and lots of changes, along with breathtaking fireworks for me to understand how good it is to be me.
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