When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was the highlight of the summer. Every year the day seemed to be filled to the brim with picnics and barb-ques and walks on the beach with friends to catch ladybugs in coke cans (I'm not sure why on that one, it's just what we did). I can almost feel the prickly of the heat on my arms and the relief of leaping in the water. The beach smelled of coconut oil and was filled with teenagers who used masking tape to block out the initials of their boyfriend or girlfriend on their backs or arms so that at the end of the day they had a sun tattoo. Later in the summer we would see several crossed out sun tattoos when beach romances went awry.
When the sun started to set, we piled into our old wooden boat and cruised out to the center of the lake to watch the fireworks. Lying on my back on the deck of the boat, the fireworks directly above me, the water lapping rhythmically, the radio playing patriotic tunes, it was magical. I don't have any memories of the night ending. I suspect that each year I dozed off somewhere along the way back to shore and was carried to our car and then into the house to bed.
I loved it.
And then I grew up and stopped liking the Fourth of July.
I'm not sure when this happened. I'm not a huge fan of crazy crowds and I'm a total heat wimp so I'm going to guess that it occurred at some point during my various stints of living in the South. And the fireworks? Eh. They just never seemed....worth it. Terrible, I know. Will loves the Fourth and I've told him many times over the years that he's just more patriotic. That it's politics that has soured me to the day. But I'm not really political enough for that to be true. But for whatever reason, the Fourth of July has become, over the past few years, just something I tolerate.
Will wanted to go downtown to see the fireworks. I knew he would. It's New York, after all. One of the biggest fireworks displays in the country. Of course he would want to go. And I was resigned to that. Lots of fireworks, lots of crowds. And heat. It would be hot. It's been blissfully cool so far this summer here, but yesterday morning, when we went to see our local firetruck spray the crowd at Morningside Park the air had that sticky quality that usually turns into a hot and humid day.
Nevertheless, I packed a picnic and dressed the kids in their red, white and blue outfits and took the dog out to pee one more time before we left for the long evening, and off we went. And unexpectedly, I fell back in love with the Fourth of July over the course of the night.
The weather had cooled down dramatically, back to my beloved mid seventies, which, I'm not going to lie, put me in a pretty good mood to start with. But it wasn't just the weather. Everyone was in such a wonderful mood. Strangers chatted on the bus, people smiled, weird outfits abounded. We walked from the bus stop over toward the Hudson River and spread out a picnic blanket on the Hudson Parkway. And while we sat there, in the middle of what is normally a highway, while the fireboats sprayed water out in the river and the crowd got bigger and bigger, waiting for the fireworks and eating our picnic, Briton turned to me and asked,
"How could a plane hit the Twin Towers?"
My first instinct was to tell him not to worry about it. Or that we could talk about it later, at home, away from the crowd of people, some of whom most definitely lost someone that day. Or maybe we could talk about it never. Which would be so much easier.
Except, this wasn't the first time that he'd mentioned it. We've had a few questions before, not as specific, but enough to show that he is aware that something very big happened here in this city.
So we told him. We told him about terrorists and why they hate us. We told him about the four planes. About the fourth plane and the bravery of the people on board, how they probably saved a lot of people by fighting back. About the firemen who died and the people who couldn't get out. And I cried. But we also told him about the good things that came from that day. That our country pulled together and became stronger. And I realized that, sad as it was, it's the perfect tale to tell on the Fourth of July. The Revolutionary War is so far away for children. For adults too. It's hard to grasp what the people who lived and fought back then gave up for their country, but it's not as hard to understand what people gave up on September 11. Even four an eight year old. Especially for an eight year old.
And then we watched the fireworks, right over our heads. Huge, amazing fireworks. And for the first time in a long time I remembered why we celebrate the Fourth of July. Really remembered.