I chose the photo above as a reflection of my ambivalence about the Fourth of July. I ran across it accidentally as I was musing over how to describe my feelings about this day. I haven’t been a big fan of this holiday in many years, but this one in particular has been one of the most challenging as democracy teeters in the balance in my deeply divided country. Lubec, Maine is one of my dear friend and her husband’s favorite towns in the U.S. Right now he’s struggling with two different metastatic cancers and will begin aggressive treatment this week. Somehow the dissonance between, holiday, celebration, fear and despair got summed up for me in this photo.
Back in the summer of 1968, I was a seventeen year old high school graduate, working downtown in the Chicago Loop. When the Democratic convention took place in late August, the city was already a powder keg of raw divisions. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy earlier that year sparked intense emotions as people took sides about race, war and sexism. I was trying to find my way through all of it. Was I a patriot? When I disagreed with my government and people called out, “love it or leave it,” I wanted to stand my ground. Who said my views made me a potential expatriate? I had my right of free speech like everyone else. Or did I? I began college that fall and along the way, rapidly developed points of view that put me on the fringe of mainstream culture. I well remember the dualism of that vibrant, energetic time. I experienced a simultaneous sensation of being both in and out of different worlds that undulated around each other, with occasional extreme intersections and divergences. I’m glad I grew up in that era. I was optimistic and active. I was certainly aware that lots of people didn’t agree with my views but after Watergate, in which “the system” seemed to work, I had hope that ultimately, the dark side of politics and the injustices of our “isms” might ultimately hold majority sway and that life would improve for many.
As my political street smarts developed, I recognized that for the bulk of my life, I would live in the minority. The political world on any level besides the local one was a disappointing cesspool of insiders, lobbyists and big money. The aspirations of the “founding fathers,” so dated, and wavelengths away from modern society, may have sounded aspirational, but in truth, excluded women and minorities and fell short of anticipating the sea changes that would alter the world as they knew it. For many, the eighteen century was still alive. For me and millions of others, it was increasingly irrelevant, except for the idealistic tenets which don’t exist in practice. The best example I can draw is that for some, a mandated mask and tight gun control laws trample their individual freedoms, while their view that life begins at conception means they can force any female, even a young child to carry a pregnancy to term, whether she wants it or not. I can think of nothing that will reconcile me to that contradiction. So, Independence Day. When I was young, I spent years lighting sparklers and those snakes that shriveled into ash, going to parades, barbecues and fireworks until finally, I wore out. Except for this monolithically titled moment being an occasion to gather with my family and a few friends, the 4th was just a day off work.
Today I woke earlier than usual and watered my thirsty garden. I made a quick trip to the grocery store to get celery for making my famous potato salad, for decades a staple at family events, but for years now, a dish relegated to where most of my dishes are, in the unmade pile. I hoped I’d remember how I did it, but that muscle memory came rolling back and as I assembled my ingredients, I was positive it smelled just like my mom and Michael. I’m definitely getting unexpected sensations as I age, this one in the synesthesia category in which one sense behaves like another. It’s like those people who can taste or smell music. What’s interesting about this is that my sense of smell has been significantly altered by having Covid in 2020. So why this powerful scent? Wondering about it set me off on one of my scientific mental meanderings, the ones with no answers. This one was about how much microbial exchange happened between me and my mom, and me and Michael, wondering if certain microbes linger in one another’s bodies like the bits of baby boy’s DNA that have been discovered in their mother’s brains. I’m never going to know everything I’m sure has an answer somewhere out there in the universe.
The next thing I knew, my phone started blowing up with news blurbs. On the 4th of July, that most American of days, the most American event had occurred, a mass shooting, this time in Highland Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, and the place where Michael grew up. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been to Highland Park. He lived on a big corner lot on Summit Avenue, with a lawn that stretched out forever. My boss, his high school classmate, lived there too back then. I knew which neighborhood grocery store was the best, which ice cream shop Michael could go to for a milkshake after school because his parents pre-paid them. I knew where he played tennis, where he bought his fancy clothes from his friend’s dad’s store, and where you could eat the best Chicago hot dog. I could easily visualize its downtown, not simply because of having gone there but because it was featured in films like Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I have lots of old friends from my South Shore neighborhood days who now live there. At one point, Michael’s dad was its mayor. What a sad event to mark Independence Day. For an inner city kid like me, those suburbs like Highland Park were bastions of safety. Michael and I weren’t ever suburbanites, but there’s certainly a nostalgia for those places which were considered neighborhoods where kids could walk to school without being shot at random. Is there any place like that in this country today? I don’t think so.
As I’d driven to the grocery store this morning, I noticed that the couple of homeless men who live between our local Starbuck’s and an empty gas station had moved some bedding and lawn chairs into their little protected space. They’re always there, panhandling, waving to drivers going by, holding up their signs asking for help. I heard that Starbuck’s has an open bathroom policy which means you don’t need to be a customer to use them. I know there’s always been a sector of the population that’s out on the street, but the juxtaposition of that homeless mini-community, with the random attack on a wealthy suburb’s holiday parade, just felt so symbolic of the multitude of issues facing this country today. Not exactly a backdrop for celebration, at least to me.
In one small-world twist of irony, one of the Highland Park stories that rolled into my phone was written by a woman who lived in my dorm in 1969. She’d had a crush on my current boyfriend and managed to get my room key, lock me inside, and run down to the lobby to flirt with him until I banged loudly enough for someone to hear me and get me out. Those were the days when males weren’t allowed on the girls’ dorm floors. I knew she’d become a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and for some years would see her as a pundit on CNN. When I saw her byline, I thought back and realized she might’ve lived there or was perhaps close enough to get the story. That turned out to be accurate – she was at the parade when the shooting began. Small sad world.
I spoke to several friends with contacts in Highland Park and then joined my family for our afternoon barbecue. The weather was oppressively hot which is consistent with most 4th’s of July’s. After a few hours, I went home to be with my scared little dog on her first Independence Day. I haven’t had one of those animals who become severely unnerved by all the booming sounds of fireworks in almost 40 years. I wrapped her in a scarf and held her in my lap all evening, until finally, all the noise stopped. That is, except for the noise in my head as I contemplated life in the USA on this Independence Day.