We didn’t have much planned on the evening of Independence Day. I had made a big supper, and my daughters were taking their time getting around to their cleanup duties. Nearly all our local fireworks displays had been COVID-cancelled, but we’d been to one in a neighboring state the evening before, watching from a school parking lot.
As darkness fell, and the girls continued to let my gentle reminders about cleanup bounce serenely off their consciousnesses, the sound of a dozen home fireworks displays became audible throughout our small town. My second-born, her ears suddenly functioning, perked up her head. “Could we run up to the battlefield and see how many fireworks we can see from up there?” (Coincidentally, she was also the one tasked with washing dishes.)
“Okay, go ahead,” I told her, “but wait, I’ll come too.” My four teenage daughters were off like a shot. I brought up the rear, half-jogging in flip-flops, vainly trying to catch up with my offspring by the light of the nearly full moon.
Five minutes later, the five of us had reached the top of the heights and found each other on a grassy knoll. As we turned around, we could see the entire ridge, with the river gap off to the left, all lit up by the moon. A light summer breeze was blowing at our backs.
The little town lay, as it has for centuries, like new-fallen snow: nestled thickly in the river valley and clinging sparsely to the hillsides. And blooming across the entire scene, like flaming flowers, were the fireworks. Fireworks coming up from nearby backyards, fireworks sparkling across the ridge, fireworks from two neighboring states glimmering in the distance.
It was pure magic, and we all felt it. After a while, my youngest said what we were all thinking. “I think this is the best fireworks show we’ve ever seen.”
“Well,” I answered. “I guess this one is in the true spirit of Independence Day, isn’t it? People aren’t letting the cancellations stop them from celebrating. They’re just doing it independently. But they’re doing it together too. It’s just . . . spread everywhere this way.”
We watched a while longer. I thought about how the hills just opposite us had once been illuminated not by fireworks but by cannon fire, aimed at the thousands of Union soldiers encamped where we now stood. I thought about the little town below, and how it had been battered and tempest-tossed here at the confluence of North and South: its surrounding heights often filled with brother-enemies, raining down deadly fire into its streets across four years of war.
I thought about how this scene was now united, with little backyard outposts in three different states — one from each side of that old conflict, and one borne of it — all sending love letters to America up into the night sky. I thought about how Americans are at our best when we take initiative, acting independently of a centralized authority, but according to a spirit of togetherness and community.
I thought about the importance of celebrations, rituals, memorials. Even when they become rote, their existence invites us to remember, to ask who established them and why. They invite us to know our past and re-examine our present.
I thought about how the only certainty in life is change. Children you carried on the hip ten minutes ago can now outrun you up a hill. A nation that left its imprint on the world now totters with strife and self-doubt. A conflict that once set these hills aflame seems ready to break out anew, across different fault lines but no less vicious.
And yet the hills remain. And the nation celebrates its 244th birthday. And the children are here around you. And the only thing to do is be fully present here, in the beauty of this moment, and be thankful.