The town where I grew up in Maine celebrates Heritage Days each Fourth of July, and has done for as long as I can remember: three days of almost every magical childhood tradition one can imagine: a parade, games, a firemen's muster, a strongman competition, a strawberry shortcake festival, a carnival on the waterfront, music, fireworks and this year even a whoopie pie-eating contest.
This year, as we watched the parade on the main street in town--a pretty street lined with 19th-century buildings along brick sidewalks--my sister and I reminisced about the once-a-year homemade red, white, and blue ice creams we'd always buy at Hallett's Drugstore after the parade when we were kids. I also got to thinking about how we'd watch the fireworks over the river some years from behind the big plate glass window in the employees' lounge of the grocery store my father managed in those days. I always felt like we had the best seat in town, high up over the river, drinking Cokes (from glass bottles, of course) and eating donuts. Hallett's is long gone, as is Sampson's Supermarket, and my father passed away when I was a teenager, but still, we come back to watch the parade on the same street, just one door down from Dad's old storefront where my mother, her sister, and their good friend have owned a wonderful antiques shop for the past several years. Friends and family gather with portable chairs to watch the fire trucks and local bands. My nephews sit on on the curb at our feet with the other kids, just like we used to, and we all cheer for the muster crews, the Shriners, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
We come to celebrate and remember and to give thanks for our many freedoms. I haven't lived in my hometown in 23 years, and I often feel like an outsider when I return, but on the Fourth of July, I am transported back to what, when I was a kid, was my favorite holiday, partly because we were allowed to consume all the potato salad, ice cream, and strawberry shortcake we wanted, and partly because by the time the firemen's muster was over, we were soaked and happy on a steamy day. Plus, come nightfall, the carnival turned into a fairyland of lights. But the biggest reason I loved the Fourth of July was that my father was at the center of that weekend, grilling burgers, giving shoulder rides, and singing songs.
Today my feelings about this holiday are bittersweet, but I still love it, and I am amazed that I can come back after all this time to the same brick sidewalks in the same old town and find family and friends who have always known me, and who always welcome me back like I never left.