Memories That Matter

The smoky smell of hot dogs, baked beans, and charcoal. The cold creaminess of homemade vanilla ice cream in your mouth and silkiness of green grass under your feet. The brilliant bursts of color and glittery streamers against the night sky. Independence Day is about celebrating our country’s heritage and honoring those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy. But the details of those celebrations, like the specifics of other holidays and special occasions, are much more personal. The smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of these events become portals through which we can easily slip back into tiny versions of ourselves just learning about life all the way through growing up, leaving home, forming our own friendships and families, and becoming the people in charge of keeping the traditions going.

If you were to ask me to tell you about all the Sept. 8ths in my life, or Feb. 17ths, I would only be able to guess at what I might have been doing. Unless one of those dates is your birthday or anniversary, I doubt you could remember them either. No clear picture would come to our minds about how our families interacted that day, or what we wore, or ate, or said. For that reason, no emotion would be sparked within us either. But if you ask me about all my July 4ths, many vivid memories come rushing back, and they all come colored with emotions.

When I was very small, the 4th of July took place in our backyard in Bethany, OK. We cooked out, something we didn’t often do, and made homemade ice cream. Sometime the previous week Daddy had taken us to the firecracker stand, and when it was dark we made fiery pictures with sparklers and about jumped out of our skin when the Black Cats were lit and exploded like gunfire. Daddy lit Roman candles and pop bottle rockets, and Mom kept telling him to be careful! Almost all the surrounding houses were also lighting their firecrackers, so we all heard and saw each other’s show. We were in different yards but celebrating together.

By the time my children were born, it was illegal to light your own fireworks within city limits. Some years we rode on a shuttle over to a local park and spread out blankets and picnic baskets. We listened to patriotic music and eventually saw a spectacular show that dwarfed our Roman candles from back in the day. We were among neighbors and strangers, but we were celebrating together. Like my memories from the backyard, this made me feel like I belonged to other people, and they belonged to me. By the time my children were teenagers, we lived in a house with a pool and a good view of the fireworks show from that local park. Many years we hosted 4th of July swimming and cookout parties, and when it was time for the show most of us walked across the street for an unimpeded view of the fireworks. We were with our family and friends, and because we could hear the music and crowd from the park, it was like we were with them, too. All celebrating. Making memories!

My Independence Days have come full circle back to Bethany, OK. Now my mother and I arrive at a favorite spot along historic Route 66 that morning, walk across the street closed to traffic, and set up chairs on the median. Around us are families, most with small children dressed in red, white, and blue. The parade begins! We love all the bands and cars and floats, but we are waiting for the Sooner Model A club and the Okie A’s. In that group, William, my brother-in-law, will be driving his shiny red Model A, usually with my sister Vicky beside him and their grandchildren, Hunter and Juli, riding in the rumble seat at the back. After the parade and an afternoon cookout, we go to a different Bethany backyard to watch the fireworks from Eldon Lyon Park.

Over 30 years of raising children and more than 30 spent teaching teenagers, I’ve come to realize that special occasion traditions and memories aren’t just fun. They aren’t just a distraction from everyday life. They ground us. They help us define who our families are, who we are, and to whom we belong. We all need that small circle into which we were born, but we also need to belong to a larger neighborhood and culture. A church family, a close-knit group of friends, even strangers in a park who are sharing an experience with us in which we honor something we have in common help us make connections. They make us feel less lonely and more significant.

When I gave writing assignments to my AP students at a suburban high school about family, culture, or childhood memories, they had recollections as vivid as mine. Whether it was making tamales with their families to be eaten on Christmas Eve, going to a sunrise church service on Easter, or going fishing every Father’s Day with dad and all their siblings and cousins, they had memories and emotions that helped form who they were. When I gave similar assignments to the at-risk students in danger of not graduating, I found a lack of such memories and deadened emotions. Too often nobody in their lives had made occasions memorable. These kids lost more than they knew. So in our at-risk program, we made seasonal activities a priority. We decorated Christmas cookies. We dyed Easter eggs. We had cookouts and picnics. Teen parents were taught how to make crafts and play with their children. Most of our students, 16-20 years old, already looked world-weary much of the time, but not when dying Easter eggs or making S’mores. Those activities weren’t frivolous. They had too few of those memories that matter!

The 4th of July is a serious occasion because of what it means to be American. Just as serious are whatever those traditions are that make your family your family - your place in this world memorable. It can be an elaborate fireworks display or just the tradition of eating popsicles together and running through sprinklers. It doesn’t matter what we do, but the memories created because we make it a priority to do special things together matter. They matter because they help us realize that we matter.