The story of Independence Day in my family fuses inalterably with the birth date of my mother, the only daughter of a steam fitter, whose small outfit dug artesian wells for residences before he surfaced as a clerk in Providence, R.I.'s City Hall in the 1940s.
My mother, this Sunday, would have been 87. One of her grand-uncles played baseball in Pawtucket, R.I., and Philadelphia for Connie Mack, and had the misshapen handshake to prove that he'd caught more than a few hard baseballs barehanded. My mother's mother, Alice Whelan, as far as I could tell from the farthest recesses of my memory until she died in 1991 at the age of 93, never stopped talking.
My grandmother Alice's never-ending yarn wove together the little dramas, exploits, mishaps, misadventures, illnesses grave and minor, and achievements of cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors, acquaintances of neighbors, bus drivers, and inevitably, the mayor, governor, a state Senator, a Rhode Island Congressman, and the local pastors and priests. She was walking talking oral history, and of me, one of her 11 grandchildren, she'd say, based on the times I'd answer her telephone calls in my mother's absence and respond to her questions about what was going on, who was in the house, and who wasn't ..., "John is an endlessly deep font of misinformation." This, of course, was accompanied by the staccato four- or five-beat quiet laugh that punctuated almost all of my grandmother's vignettes.
My mother tended more to listening, like her father. Her eyes spoke. The set of her chin and lips told you mostly what you needed to know. She'd help you solve math homework problems counter-intuitively, holding a looking glass up to them and breaking them down in measures and pictures you could get your mind around. My mother was happiest working, mostly outdoors, in cultivated gardens some, but most ecstatically in the untamed meadows she sculpted into "the view" from her kitchen sink picture-window. She was the queen of indoor-outdoor living a couple of generations before it became a hot trend. Once, over a several month stretch of bruising, tedious, poison ivy-riddled yanking, chopping, uprooting, hacking, pruning, and hauling, she cleared several hundred yards of thick undergrowth that choked a beautiful, babbling brook. You could stand at the kitchen sink in the morning, and look at wisps of mist rising from the thin stream that stretched across the property's border below the house.
There it was, teeming with watercress, edged almost intentionally with thickets and sprays of meadow grass, a little granite man-made bridge just-so, and fresh mint you could pick and serve minutes later in salads, or iced tea.
What wasn't there before now was. A brook that deer and pheasants and cows drank from and our Irish Setter bathed in now etched the bounds of a lower field that hosted countless hours of family baseball, football, frisbee, capture-the-flag, and, later in the late summer, dreamy languid sycamore-leaf-catching afternoons. And, of course, these hours of play and work spilled into my grandmother Alice's never-ending narrative and my mother's proud, bemused eyes.
The story of my family's Fourth of July, as I said, is the story of my mother, that brook, the voice of her mother telling the story that had no end, no beginning. It was just there, where it wasn't before.
An early 1800s, 3,800 square-foot, American Colonial farm house, gabled, balconied, and with two hard-working chimneys on either end of the length of the roof, overlooked meadows to the north and west, and on July 4th, after the birthday celebration ended and party clean-up finished, you could stand in the dark kitchen, look out into the night, see the stars, and after your eyes adjusted, catch the sharp line of the brook in the distance.
What wasn't there, then was. It's what you home builders do. And we Americans, each with our own stories, thank you today for what you do.