Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of the Fourth of July. In Swampscott, Mass., we used to have a parade of kids on bikes that went down Aspen Road and then around the corner to Forest Ave. and then up around Lexington Circle, our bikes decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper carefully slotted through the spokes of the wheels.
Then, in the afternoon, we'd go down to Phillips Park for all the races, and even though I was never very fast and could never jump very far, there were usually ribbons for everyone. And at night, we'd pull the old beach blanket out, green and brown and rough to the touch, and get a good spot at Jackson Park to watch the fireworks.
It was about family and memories, but it was also a celebration of being an American. We children of the Baby Boom, we children and grandchildren of those who “got out in time” from Europe and Russia, we children who saw Khrushchev bang his shoe and threaten to destroy us, we waved our flags.
That was before Vietnam, before the Soviet Union collapsed, before the enemy became terrorism and we learned that not all of our enemies wear uniforms and not all wars can be won. It was before kids (my own included) got on planes to fly all over the world with far greater abandon than I felt the first time I walked up the stairs of an airplane at 17 to fly from Boston to New York.
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In so many ways, the world was smaller then. It wasn't necessarily less scary (Those useless air raid shelters in the school basement were plenty scary.), but it was smaller. The people you loved were not so far away. I was proud to be an American, but compared to what? I'd never been any farther away from Massachusetts than New Hampshire.
There were no parades of bike riders in my neighborhood this week. They don't do fireworks here on the Fourth of July due to safety concerns, crowd control and all that. My son said that maybe the Fourth of July is a bigger deal in small towns, or maybe it was just a bigger deal 40 years ago. My kids have friends from all over the world. Our community, unlike the one I grew up in, is full of people who came here to go to school, to be with family or to build a better life -- and not just to flee from the pogroms and the camps or from famine and oppression.
For many people, the Fourth of July is just a day off, a day for a barbecue or maybe a day for your kids to roll their eyes as their mom describes her old blue Columbia bike.
But for me, it will always be more.
I'm not much of a traveler. I always want to come home. My heart leaps when I walk through customs and see that sign welcoming me to the United States.
I know that we are not a perfect country, not even close. Fifty-one weeks of the year, I write about all the things that are wrong: divided politics and ugly rhetoric; racism and sexism and lack of opportunity; lousy schools and inadequate healthcare for many in need; diseases we haven't cured; fights we haven't won; the inhumanity that can rear its head in schoolyards or in the Senate. I am a columnist, which much of the time means that I am a critic.
But I still believe.
In the opening scene of the new HBO series “Newsroom,” the television anchor, when asked why the United States is the greatest country in the world, reels off a long list of statistics supposedly proving that it isn't. Since he is the hero, I think we are supposed to agree with him. I don't. I know we can do better. There has not been a moment in our history when we could not do better. But believing that we can and should do better is precisely what makes us American.
This is the week when I shake my head at the courage and wisdom of those half my age, fresh from battle, who imagined a country “where all men (and today women, too) are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with certain “inalienable rights” to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness; who have created in this land a nation of laws and not of men. This is the week when I thank God and my grandparents for the courage to get on a boat and sail in steerage to a nation that will always be committed, I hope, to the belief that the best is yet to come.