Please Stay for the Fireworks! (Some Thoughts on Being an American)
My grandparents had close friends – Sonja and Jiri – who high-jacked a plane to escape communist Czechoslovakia. Sonja said her hand was shaking so badly that she couldn’t have hit a target had she tried. Not that she would have tried – she’d never held a gun before let alone shot one. Until that very day she’d been the pampered wife of a diplomat.
To her relief, the other passengers just sat there, bewildered, and not necessarily upset by the turn of events. After all, they were getting a free ride to a free country and that probably weighed more heavily on their minds than the pretty woman with the trembling fingers and fancy handbag. Sonja and Jiri’s defection had forced every person on that flight to make a decision right then and there as to whether they would stay in a new country, leaving their families, their language and their culture behind, or go back to what they knew – even if they didn’t like it.
People often underestimate the kind of determination it takes to give up a homeland. To leave behind a sense of belonging that only comes from being born and raised in a specific place. To know that in many cases returning will never be possible – either for political or financial reasons. Think about that. Never.
It is no wonder that immigrants so often make more valued employees and better citizens than their native-born counterparts. My grandfather had been a famous athlete in Czechoslovakia, but there was no factory job too good for him in the U.S. No floor he wouldn’t stoop to wash.
And to my knowledge he didn’t complain about it either.
In my family a day of work was never missed and a vote was always cast on election day. Like Sonja and Jiri, my kin had risked their lives to come here and felt a tremendous sense of debt to their adopted homeland. President John F. Kennedy had asked them what they could do for their country and they responded by giving generously to veteran organizations even when they had little extra, sending countless telegrams of support or criticism to various sitting politicians, and by forcing (yes, forcing) my brother to join the ROTC in college. Being a girl, I was not encouraged to join the military – my parents were old fashioned that way. But I was routinely harassed about my civic participation. I don’t think I’ve ever missed an election cycle, no matter how hungover I felt. I even cast absentee ballots when I lived abroad in a semi-permanent hungover state. And I’m an easy target for any legitimate charity that supports policemen, firefighters and soldiers. I still reflexively cry when I hear The Star-Spangled Banner.
I think about these things every Fourth of July. How my parent’s immigrant status has effected my life and whether I’m sufficiently passing on the values I was taught to my own children.
As you can imagine, the Fourth of July was a very big holiday at my house when I was growing up. Not bigger than Christmas, but definitely paid more attention than our birthdays.
It was the only time my parents would even attempt to barbecue – they hated barbecue. We ate off of red, white and blue paper plates and sat in traffic for hours to watch some distant fireworks display.
Even whatever bicycle I rode when I was growing up was always required to have some sort of patriotic flair. I remember a bicentennial themed spectacle complete with a banana seat and long, plastic red, white and blue streamers that looked like they’d been shot out of my handlebars. Even in the late seventies, that was extremely uncool.
But I knew complaining about it was useless and I kind of look back fondly on that monstrosity of a bike now. It was so damned earnest and earnest patriotism has gone out of fashion.
But I’m trying to bring it back in my own way.
At our house we don’t barbecue – my husband hates barbecue far more than my parents ever did – but we make fancy-shmancy cheeseburgers on our gas stove complete with homemade french fries. We lift our kids onto the roof of our minivan to watch the local fireworks display, but living in the country, we’re spared of the bumper to bumper. And now that they’re old enough, we’ve started having conversations with them about what good citizenship means and how important it is to think through the political beliefs they are forming and never be a slave to them.
We don’t tell them how we vote and it drives them crazy.
But we think it’s important that they form their own opinions and not reflexively embrace or rebel against ours. We’ve earned ours through trial and error and experience and they’ll have to do the same.
What we do tell them is how important it is to be able to speak freely and make one’s own decisions – even if freedom is a burden. Being born in such a highly functioning democracy is like being born on third base, but it is yours to blow. And you don’t get a home run just for showing up. Our political system allows class mobility and is amenable to change, and our constitution is both an aspirational and spiritual document – designed to help build and sustain a nation and, uniquely, help its citizens evolve into better human beings – a society of equals free to pursue happiness.
But none of these things comes with a guarantee.
As a good citizen, you have to hold up your end of the bargain and behave with courage, dignity and respect for others.
You must actively contribute, or as our friend, General David Bellon, USMC, would point out, “You either leave a legacy or a residue.”
I’m determined to leave the former and do my damnedest to make sure that my children do, too.