It’s 3 a.m., so this should be a short post. I should, after all, be sound asleep. However, it’s time to pay some of the cost of celebration.
I’ll get to that in a second, but first, “celebration,” you say?
Yes! Remember that I’m one of those lucky souls who knows several homes. I’m an American, but I’ve chosen to live in the United Kingdom for the last decade of my life, which makes July 4th a complex day, to say the least. Most people, even here, know that the 4th of July is American Independence Day. Although my neighbour yesterday didn’t. I was loading Tidbit into the car for nursery, when he came by and we did the obligatory Welsh greeting ritual of gesturing to the sky, pouring down sleet, to roll our eyes and say “fine British summer we’re having with this rain, aren’t we?” (if you don’t know someone well in the UK, a safe way to start the conversation is to comment disparagingly about the weather.) I then said how it better stop soon or it would ruin the barbecue we had planned on attending. “Barbecue, on a Monday?” I explained that it was the 4th of July, so I was meeting with some American friends to celebrate. He thought for a moment and then suddenly remembered “ah, isn’t that the one you celebrate a dinner with some Indians?” I tried not to laugh out loud. “No, I think you mean Thanksgiving (and there’s a bit more to it than that). Today’s the day I celebrate my freedom from British tyranny.”
If you grow up in small town America, Independence Day is a landmark. One of our biggest national holidays behind Christmas and Thanksgiving (another complex day for an expat). In smalltown USA you’ll spend the day celebrating from morning to sleep. Get up, find cheesy red, white and blue clothes to wear, and go to your local parade. Then you’ll see countless elaborate floats, marching bands, all the local big wigs parading around in classic cars interspersed by all the local fire trucks and police cars squirting water at the grateful families, who have been sitting in the sun saving places, sometimes for hours. You dance babies to the marching bands, the kids run around, ecstatic, when people on the floats throw candies their way, wave flags, say hi to neighbours and friends, and you’ll see all the same ones there each year, because every family has a favourite spot to watch the whole parade go by. Follow the parade with a barbecue, full of ridiculous amounts of food, then we’d go see what was on offer at the local park where Town Days each year meant dancing to local musicians at the bandstand, playing with the kids in the swings and slides, begging parents to buy treats or toys and flags to wave around from the vendors who set up stalls all around. All the local kids’ baseball leagues would have games going on the pitch, and after we’d exhausted ourselves, we’d retire to our traditional spot in the grass off the baseball fields, where the local firemen would put on a fantastic fireworks display. If you didn’t go to the big show, you could still find smaller fireworks displays all around your neighbourhood where locals would blow paychecks buying elaborate packages of fountains. My dad was cheap when it came to fireworks, we only ever got sparklers, snaps, and little coal-like snakes that would expand when you lit them, but it didn’t matter, my neighbours always had more to show, and we’d all pool our resources in our cul-de-sac, set out seats in the street, and share a little gossip while we watched the sun go down. I grew up in the mountain west, which also meant forest fire risk, but we’d look all around, hoping for the inevitable bursts from those who would sneak over the state line into Wyoming to buy the illegal good stuff–the rockets and firebursts that would leave you dancing with glee. It was magical celebration–joy, nostalgia and homespun pride all wrapped together, and you’d cram the day full of it until you dropped off weary to sleep.
Now, I’m not prone to homesickness. I believe in blooming where I’m planted, and I love my life here in Wales, but Independence Day is one time, I can’t help but feel a pang in my heart at what I am missing. I have been in the world enough to know that America is not the best at everything, as we often believed as kids, but there’s a joy to the unabashed patriotism we feel on the 4th, and invariably I’d be working here, running the kids to endless school obligations, and the sky would pour down rain, matching my mood as I read my family’s status updates of all their fun. But it’s sweet to see how so many of my friends and newfound family send me well wishes each year on the 4th, knowing I’ll be thinking of home–most are very sweet. One brother in-law typically sends something along these lines though:
We’ve struck on the remedy for the worst of the homesickness, which is to celebrate the day ourselves, all the better if you can do it with other Americans who understand. So for several years we’ve made sure we attended or held a 4th of July barbecue. It can never compare to the celebrations our friends and family would have at home, but by banding together and bringing all the traditional foods (meat, potato salad, BBQ beans, corn on the cob, pies, cakes, etc) we’re able to cling to that bit of our American identity that remains. It’s a bit of fun, and a way for me to help teach my children part of their heritage since even though they are American themselves, they know their British sides far better.
But then comes the price. A day of celebration doesn’t come without a price these days. I spent the time while my children were in school running to the store and madly baking pies and whipping up Jello salads and dip for our chips/crisps. I’ve already spent the previous weekend resting from fatigue that has bowled me over recently, so this was an exertion. It had to be done though.
After all that time standing, I sat in the car for the drive to our friend’s house, and during that brief respite, my body woke up to say “hey wait! I don’t like it when you make me work!” On standing back up, my SI joint spasmed and I knew I’d not be standing much that evening. Still, I was here to celebrate, not be a martyr, so smile on! Get going! It was a lovely evening, even if my pain was kicking in through the night. I’m thankful for the friends to share Independence Day with, and the kiddos had a ball. It was worth the work and worse ache that would come.
And it did! On coming home, we managed to get the kids into bed, and I medicated myself as my body had enough, and went straight to bed. It’s hard though, when you can’t turn over without crying out, but staying too still also aggravates it. It’s a relief if sleep comes, but then I woke up again, despite the exhaustion, as soon as those medications wore off. I laid there in bed fighting off that familiar sense of resentment. Why must celebration always come with a price? Why can’t I just let it all go and enjoy myself as others do? I can’t wallow in it though. To do so would bring the bitterness and obsession I’ve seen swallow so many with chronic illness. So I celebrated the day, enjoyed myself and kept my brave face on, but if you’ll excuse me, I probably won’t be very good to anyone for a bit. It will now also be compounded by missing the sleep I so need.
It’s a price worth paying though–fighting the voice in my head that says I don’t give enough to my family because of my illness or the fear that I won’t pass on things I value because I’m too busy getting by.
So now I’ll go back to my slightly complex blending of cultures and smile when I see my husband’s Facebook post of “This post is dedicated to all the American mothers who have worked so hard on this day. As you rest your weary bones from your labours this evening, spare a thought for how much simpler your life would be had America remained a colony,” and I’ll smile at the irony of my husband showing my daughter patriotic American songs on YouTube, her sitting with rapt attention as she heard “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” . . . and promptly burst into a verse of “God Save the Queen.”