The Fourth of July holiday that celebrates our country’s independence and fight for freedom has for me become one that has been long-steeped in family tradition. I can remember seeing my first large-scale fireworks display at the age of four warmly wrapped in a blanket at Shadle Park, the “then” place to watch fireworks in Spokane, WA. I could feel each one explode in my chest, surrounded by a sparkling glittering sky. It was a rare family outing as my dad hated crowds, and public gatherings made him nervous. But it branded me forever to seek out experiences you could feel in the middle of your chest, those that remind you that you’re alive and that there is still wonder in the world. Growing up, we mostly stuck to the backyard Roman fountain, a few sparklers in red, green and white that would burn down to your fingertips as you wrote your name in the sky, and those smelly black worms that would ooze out of a small tablet. Those fireworks were portable; they could go from backyard, to lake cabin, to grandpa’s house, to neighbor. They were our tradition. I would have to wait until I was an adult to experience another large-scale fireworks show. And as an adult, I have made every attempt to be where the “real” show was taking part.
When my daughter was young, I remember cuddling her and cupping her ears as she had her first fireworks experience. She was never a child to be afraid or frightened of the larger-than-life experience, rather she held onto me as if she was riding a rollercoaster. Later she would tell me she liked how the “boom-boom” felt in her heart and how the sparkles filled the sky. I knew exactly what she meant. When I worked for The Cleveland Orchestra, we would have summer concerts at Blossom, its outdoor performance venue, and several concerts would end with a short fireworks display. It was like having the Fourth of July all summer long. Even last year, when I was single-parenting, without a kitchen or a sink, somehow my daughter and I put together a picnic, dressed up in the patriotic colors and went to our city park to take in the display. Joined by her Aussie girlfriend, we wrapped ourselves in blankets and whispered our “oohs” and “ahs” as the magic filled the sky accompanied by the local symphony orchestra. I felt victorious that despite the setbacks I had at least accomplished delivering that moment and sending a photo marking the tradition to her father studying in Italy.
This year, my daughter is the one away, singing in Europe with her choir and the decision to go to the Fourth of July celebration in the park seemed a hard one for two adults that didn’t have a child to spur on the decision. Distance, both physical and emotional, does something to the will. I tried all the telltale tricks to lighten my mood. I ran five miles hoping that a few endorphins would find their way into my system. I painted my toenails “Keys to My Karma” red remembering the symbolism that this particular polish had for me in past years. I tried to revel in the rare sunlit day that we were blessed with and mastered a new task: using the tree pruning saw on the neighbor’s juniper that was blocking all light to my meager flower bed. I made plans to make my traditional Fourth of July pie, just to find that my culinary husband had usurped the task that I had always held as my part, my rare domestic tradition. And I found the simple bracelet that my daughter had found last summer in Paris on the plaza outside of the Musee d’Orsay and had tied on my wrist telling me to always remember her and not to take it off until it fell off. It was just a simple fabric cord with a few beads strung between knots. I did as she told and after we came home, the knot eventually worked itself loose and the child’s bracelet fell off in the shower. Today, I tied it back on using my undeft left hand and my teeth. This way, at least part of her would still be with me. I passively agreed to go to the park, brought my biography of Catherine the Great and hoped that going through the motions would at least move me from definitely blue to at least a lighter shade.
For the next three hours I took in the scene. On display were parents yelling at their kids - clueless that they were more irritating than whatever behavior they were trying to correct. The melting pot of our country was present with all shades of ethnicity represented; languages swirling as passionately as the American flag they were waving. Colorful inflatable entertainment choices abounded, designed for young kids to release their energy as they bounced with hundreds of balls, scaled a climbing wall, or slid down a slide. My husband asked, “Do you want a ticket?” I just shook my head. Perhaps he was remembering it, too. It seemed like yesterday that we were at this same park with an adventurous eight year-old, eager to get her stream of tickets and paint her face as two clueless parents accompanied her unaware of how fast she would grow up.
I thought about feeling “definitely blue.” Certainly part of it was missing my daughter. But as the symphony began to play and the “boom-boom” of the fireworks began to beat against my chest, it hit me. I’m a person that needs real experiences and emotions. I play hard. I work hard. I feel deeply. And I need people around me that are doing more than going through the motions. Just like fireworks can never be captured in a photograph or have the same effect when shown on TV, one has to live life in order to experience it. That takes facing the crowds, staking out your spot on the grass and not being afraid to acquiesce to something bigger than yourself. I also was struck by the difference between the real and the unreal. I thought about the difference these days in how we define the word “friend.” There are those friends that have your back no matter what versus the new virtual friends who never look you in the eye or experience the highs and lows of this thing you call your life. It’s like those relationships that deepen and grow because you are willing to risk it all by showing up, saying how you feel and being present even if you don’t like what the other person said or did versus those relationships that simply go through the motions naively expecting progress. To me, that’s like watching fireworks on TV or thinking someone is your BFF because you hit “like” on a facebook post.
So, I hereby make an offer of independence and freedom to all those who have let me know in no uncertain terms that I live life too intensely and that I am a fool to believe in BFF because that isn’t how real life works. Consider this an offer of emancipation. As you celebrate your freedom, I’ll still be here living my life like a firework, in all its various colors. I’ll still be here believing that BFF exist (I have cherished lifetime friends to prove my point). I will wear a child’s bracelet to a state dinner at the White House if it means that I will never forget the connection between the words “I love you” and “don’t forget me.” I will advocate that being blue is better than being colorless and rocking the boat is always better than slowly gliding into oblivion. And I will live my life feeling the “boom-boom” right in the middle of my chest.
© Kelly Tweeddale 2012