The Fourth of July

I didn't realize tomorrow was a holiday. Earlier this week, friends started telling me about their plans to be out of town this weekend, asking me to water their plants, feed their cats, pick up their farm shares, etc. Then I remembered. It’s not just because of my current unemployment. I’ve been ignoring the calendar for years. I worked for newspapers for a long time, which always publish on holidays, and was a very junior employee, which meant I usually had to work. (Some day I will write a book about the people who work on holidays: doctors and nurses on Halloween, firemen on Thanksgiving, cops at Christmas, etc.)

 The holidays most jealously guarded by the senior-most employees who could take their pick were the Big Three—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. But if I couldn't get a whole week of vacation to travel home—which I usually couldn't, except the year when I found out my dad was sick and my more senior and most lovely coworkers agreed to work for me, which is a debt I can never repay—having the day itself off never did me any good.  The office was as fun a place to be as any. At the Times, they used to put out a big buffet at Thanksgiving. On Christmas, we got Chinese food. And on the Fourth, someone would bring in a tiny grill. Because I worked at night, I could participate in the orphan get-togethers my friends held during the day, or wonder around the lonely city, sparkling cold and absent even of tourists, and have the decorated windows on Madison Avenue mostly to myself.

 The Fourth of July is a different thing altogether. As an adult, it’s just been another excuse to have a cookout and drink in the daytime, like Memorial Day and Labor Day, and just about any summertime Sunday. But as a kid, it was the rare day we left the air conditioning. It was my mom’s dad’s favorite holiday, which meant we couldn’t miss it. My mom’s family lived, and some still live, on 100 acres we called “the farm,” though the land didn’t grow much, at the end of Shake Rag Road. (My mom said it got its name because farmers used to ride to the end of the road and shake a bag full of letters for the mailman to pick up: I’ve never checked the truth of this, and don’t want to.)

 Behind their land is a branch of one of the many creeks that run through town, feeding into more fertile farmland on the other side that was flooded in the 60s to become Greers Ferry Lake. We’d drive through the fields to the river, where we grilled hot dogs and burgers, ate the green-ringed store brand potato chips we didn’t get at any other time of year, and wait for my grandpa to lug the watermelon to the top of the cooler for slicing. There was a rope hanging from a tree that braver children swung from to splash into the deepest part of the creek. My sister went first and most often, but I never trusted my arms, and never took a single jump.

If you looked beneath you while swimming, you’d see water moccasins lacing themselves between moss-covered round rocks. We all swam fully clothed, with shoes on, though I don’t know if this was a protective measure or modesty or habit. (When my cousin later went through special training in the army, he said the part where he had to swim through a river with his uniform and loaded pack on was just like the Fourth of July, and he swam by his sinking fellow enlistees.)

 I don’t know why my mom’s family splintered the way it did, but it probably started with the death of my grandfather, in 1993, and then the death, with annual regularity, of another member every year after that. And of course, most of us grew up, and some of us went away.  In truth, there are probably some holidays I forget on purpose.