We crept under Great Uncle Charlie's window stifling our little girl giggles, set off our loudest firecrackers, ran away whooping, deliberately waking the train engineer just asleep after his late night run. Soon, a white-haired child-at-heart, he was out with us, making the neighborhood reverberate. Great Aunt Maude joined the action, demonstrating how to extend the wick to set off a small firecracker under a can so it would shoot up into the air, then egging us on to do it again and again by ourselves. Grandmother fried chicken, deviled eggs, sliced tomatoes, chilled watermelon. Three generations feasted on the front porch. Uncle Pierce appeared with the chicken trough setting it up between the two maples in Grandmother's yard for shooting off the roman candles. He, Uncle Charlie and Granddaddy competed to produce the most exotic displays and biggest bangs. We danced with sparklers. Since that 1943 family Fourth of July in Springfield, Missouri, when I was nine, America's annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence has been my favorite.
Over the years, my own family and I have joined the now-236-year national continuum, marking the occasion in many places. At the Tidal Basin with a picnic in front of the Jefferson Memorial exposing our first-born to fireworks. With the entire American community in ambassadors' gardens, gathering to re-enforce who we are as a people living away from home. With foreign diplomats at vins d'honeur, toasting the government and people of our host country and the United States. In the crowd on the Virginia side of the Potomac in 1976, sharing picnics with strangers -- who were really not, because we were all essentially one -- a hillside of people singing the national anthem with the concert coming from a hundred radios; ooohing and aaahing with each blossom of pyrotechnics. On the Mall, walking from the Capitol in under the sprays of colored sparks to the Lincoln Memorial and the car parked nearby to beat the traffic home. And now, for eighteen years, hosting a 'picnic' on our sixteenth floor balcony.
The Potomac, the river threading through our view, got its name from the First Americans who used it as a trade route. The Capitol and Washington Monument with the City of Washington splayed out around them are our daily vista. Nearer, the Alexandria Masonic Temple where George Washington belonged is actually attractive when it is lit at night. Mount Vernon, our first president's stately home on the Potomac where 100 new citizens from around the world were sworn in this weekend, is spittin' distance south and slightly west. Robert E. Lee's mansion, now host to National Cemetery and the honored dead from all our nation's wars, is not far up the road. The Episcopal High School, on the ridge to our northwest, lost more students in the Army of the Confederacy than Harvard College lost for the Union. When dark falls, hunkered on the ridge covered with the battlements the Union Army built to defend the nation's capitol, where earlier it would have been possible to watch Washington burn in the War of 1812, we have a ringside seat for fireworks across the panorama.
Thus, we live surrounded by America's historical ghosts and its present. The Washington area metro-plex, toward the tag end of the built-up continuum of the East Coast corridor that starts in Boston, is among the country's top twenty metropolitan areas. National news is local news. Yet, here on the fringe of the Beltway, our condo community within its acres of woods is, in its way, a small town. Four buildings curved on the hilltop, 1024 units with around 2000 residents.
We are never more a small town than we were this year on the morning of the Fourth and our community parade. The gathering point outside the community center, a milling sea of red white and blue, a buzz of preparations. Decorating cars as floats. A miniature fife and drum corps banging. "George Washington" gulping coffee. And waiting with his Martha. Checking out the bedecked security vehicle. An over-hatted little girl dancing with glee. Women veterans of active duty in World War II waiting for their ride. A fashion display of patriotic clothing kitsch and flags.
Like small towns parades across the country, Montebello's steps out. No band. Music blares from cars. Flags and Boy Scouts. Veterans from every era since World War II. The major domo pounds her pan. Pet club members lead their dogs. Kids march; they may remember this excitement like I do my nine-year-old Fourth. The whistle-blowing marshal sets the pace. Past two buildings, behind the next and up to the "Village green," neighbors line the route. Our intrepid leader thanks onlookers and participants alike, calling everyone to follow for ice cream and games. A fire engine brings up the rear.
As our community celebrated the Fourth, I saw not just an easy patriotism, red, white and blue as that may be. I saw our faces. Even in this small spot, we mirror the complexity that has become, that always was, America. If you sit around our pool after this parade or on any other summer afternoon, you will hear a wide range of languages; not just English, but Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese among them. If you ask us what we think about anything, you will get the same variety of views as anywhere, from wildly liberal to wildly conservative. We do not just reflect "inside the Beltway-think," even though many of us, but nowhere near all, are civil servants, or have been.Uniquely, these faces remind me, we are a nation built on an idea -- beginning with
"...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"
-- for which we have fought and died, which we believe more in principle than always honor in practice. And a nation to which all but a few of us have come, over generations, from somewhere else. We the people make up a nation of immigrants. We forget that to our risk.
"we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor"
Yet, this post-July Fourth week, swirling in the air across our river, our representatives are arguing over an immigration bill that seeks the ultimate safe harbor of citizenship for some among us who have brought their strengths and their beliefs with them but, undocumented, live and work in our shadows. Common wisdom has it that although it passed the Senate, the bill's chances in the House are slim at best.
As I look at the cross-section of America in our microcosm Independence Day parade, I cannot help but wonder how any of us, we who have come from the four corners of the earth, can be unwilling to accept a compromise that would provide a path to citizenship for others already here, not an easy one but a path, to join us. Making the many one is part of what we should mean as we celebrate the Fourth of July. That, in my view, was the original idea.