While we Americans celebrate our 227th anniversary of independence from British rule on this Fourth of July, I reflect on a family tradition that has been the constant across the highs and lows of forty-five years. Beginning during childhood and continued while caregiving, I invite you to join me on this walk down memory lane, and hope it will bring forth your own memories.
In the sixties, Fourth of July started at 9:30 in the morning with a parade around Kosciuszko Park, across the street from my childhood home. The parade ended with a much-anticipated treat—individual-sized containers of vanilla or chocolate ice cream with a little wooden serving spoon. By mid-day’s heat, my mother helped us cool off with ice-cold slices of watermelon. By nightfall, she was popping corn the old-fashioned way—on a stove top. An eight-pack of sixteen ounce bottles of Coke had been chilling in the refrigerator.
Since my sister and I were going across the street to the park, she filled two plastic bags with popcorn. If we stayed at home and watched the fireworks from the front steps, she’d pour the freshly popped kernels in stainless steel mixing bowls as she did for my brother, father, and herself that night.
My sister and I grabbed our bags filled with popcorn and a 16-ounce bottle of Coke each and made our way to a prime spot next to where the fireworks would be launched. We chomped down on the freshly popped corn almost finishing before the fireworks started. Our bellies full, we lay in the grass and squealed with delight at the colorful spectacle raining down and almost touching us.
I continued the tradition as a young adult. Except the glass-bottled Coke was hard to come by and the cans changed the taste. Thanks to microwave cooking technology, in less than three minutes, we were able to enjoy a batch of freshly popped corn using a special container that would later give way to the paper bags of pre-salted and pre-buttered microwave popcorn many of us enjoy today.
The years also had me moving from the front stoop of my childhood home to a party at my friend’s downtown lakefront condo on the twenty-third floor. I brought popcorn and Coke; but this childhood tradition was being challenged during the early eighties by “special brownies” and alcoholic beverages.
That night, as the clouds came in low and remained below the balcony, we felt fortunate to enjoy the full display of fireworks popping up above the clouds and then disappearing as they fell back to earth.
Middle-age and Pre-Caregiving
In 1993, my mother passed away, following an eleven-year battle with congestive heart failure. My husband, David, and I had since moved to California but returned to Milwaukee for the Fourth of July holiday. We treated my father to a special view of the fireworks off the Hoan Bridge. With our Cokes and popcorn, we drove on the bridge that connects the south side of Milwaukee with downtown along Lake Michigan.
A couple years later, when I took my father on the Hoan, he seemed uninterested in the popcorn, Coke, and fireworks. We would learn later that dementia had a grip on him. For the time being, I tried to keep the tradition alive but another threat loomed. As more and more of us parked on the bridge for a front-row seat to all the fireworks along the lakefront, police began patrolling in increasing numbers. Unless I wanted a ticket for parking on an expressway, I had to keep an eye out for the police while trying to continue a tradition. It would be the last time we’d drive on the Hoan Bridge to enjoy the fireworks.
During the final years of the last century, I made one last attempt to carry out the fireworks-with-Coke-and-popcorn tradition while my father was living in a nursing home near our California home. I wanted to make it fun and invited the staff, residents, and their families. After packing a cooler full of sodas, juices, including sugar-free sodas for the diabetic residents, and a bag full of assorted treats, we arrived with lots of microwave popcorn. A handful of residents followed my father, David and I outside to watch the fireworks.
None of the staff attended nor did the residents’ family members. The fireworks were so far away; my father thought they were ribbons in the sky. After drinking a few sips of sodas, two residents had to go inside to use the bathroom. (Perhaps, if they had Depends on, they could have celebrated InDEPENDence Day a little while longer with us. I couldn’t resist!) Then my father wanted to go inside. This would be the last Fourth of July celebration I would “celebrate” with my father.
During the past decade, when we’re not visiting in-laws in Milwaukee, we keep close to home and enjoy the fireworks.
This year, we will join my English neighbors and enjoy their American-English tradition of serving bangers (a kind of English bratwurst) on Good Riddance Day. To think, despite wishing Americans Good Riddance on the Fourth of July, they have become US Citizens. Ahhh, the quirkiness of the British! We’ll be there with a lot of other Americans to help set them straight…it’s a tough row to hoe but we’re up for the challenge. And who knows, with enough Coke and popcorn, we’ll succeed! After all, we survived caregiving!
Happy Fourth of July! Stay Safe!
Brenda Avadian, MA