Holidays feel odd to me. They encourage an intensity of spirit, emotion and physical exertion that no other days of the year do. They heighten anticipation with planned events, and never quite live up to our imaginations.
They give us hope, pull at our heartstrings, and let us celebrate or be somber or whatever the holiday dictates. Humans love to commemorate and celebrate. And holidays let us plan parades, throw parties and, most importantly, gather as friends and families.
For people who have suffered loss, holidays rekindle all kinds of feelings — loneliness for the person or people missing from the family circle; reminiscences of other holidays when those folks were with us, and a chance to laugh and remember with those who remain; intense love for the people we still have around us; and a little resurgence of the grief we have learned to live with or move away from.
Fourth of July has been an evolving holiday for me. When I was a child, we spent the Fourth at our family camp. We would spend the day in the water, have a cookout complete with watermelon, and play with sparklers.
When I was a teen, we would take the day off from the farm fields and go on a picnic near the local lake, and I would swim and play in the water with my adopted sisters. I remember one such Fourth in particular because my biological mother had died of cancer the day before — on July 3. The family picnic was somber, and I felt numb and a little lost, but keeping tradition was reassuring.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I worked at a restaurant in Boothbay Harbor, and spent the Fourth working in a small, hot kitchen for all three shifts. People packed the streets of the small village, like so many ants hurrying to nowhere, and the restaurant was full all day.
When I finally emerged into the cool evening air, the peace and quiet settled over my skin like a soothing balm. I can still feel it when I think about that night, and the contrast it was with the heat of the daylight hours.
As a young adult in my nascent newspaper career, I usually volunteered to work on Fourth of July, and would watch the fireworks with my co-workers from the office parking lot. Sometimes I would do a special meal, but mostly I wouldn’t bother.
My husband Jim and I had no set way of celebrating the Fourth. Some years we both worked, but even then, managed at least a cookout. Other years, we were at camp and took part in the campground’s activities.
One year, we launched our 15-foot Corson boat in the Penobscot River at Hampden and traveled upriver to Bangor to watch the fireworks from the water. We took some friends with us, and a picnic lunch, and had so much fun.
The ride back to Hampden in the virtual dark and the wavy tidal water was a bit hair-raising for me, but I survived. Jim thought my worries were foolish.
I am like that.
But even as I worried that the river would overwhelm our little boat, I still trusted Jim to keep us safe. He always kept me safe. He — and God.
Since Jim’s death from pancreatic cancer in December 2010, I have no particular memories about Fourth of July. It has just been another day on the calendar, for the most part.
This year, though, I seem to have experienced a revelation. It struck me at a dog show (think scaled down Westminster) I attended recently as I stood with hand over heart during the National Anthem.
Fourth of July is not just another holiday. It’s not really about family and friends — although I am blessed this year to be surrounded by both over the holiday. Nor is it about who’s dead and who’s living. It’s not about memories that overwhelm us or feeling alone in a crowd due to grief. It’s much, much bigger than all of that.
The American Dream is real. We truly do live in the land of opportunity, just as our founding fathers envisioned as they plotted clandestinely to create a new government 240 years ago.
Even though democracy is messy and a constant work in progress — and sometimes seems unfair — it still is about choices, and honors those who spilled their blood believing they were creating a better life for future generations.
And for this Fourth of July, I am not in mourning for personal losses. I am focused on the Greater Good, and am keeping in my heart and in my prayers the thousands of military folks and others who are deployed all over the world to help keep terrorism and tyranny off the doorstep of the Land of the Free.
Jim, who served in the U.S. Army, would understand.