Happy Birthday, America

When I was growing up, the Fourth of July was one of my favorite holidays. Summer was in full swing by then, and with it the routine of spending entire days outside with my friends, riding bicycles, hitting tennis balls against the side of the house, playing gin rummy and Monopoly games that went on in an endless loop for hours. The Fourth of July holiday, with its fireworks and parades and picnics, came early enough in the summer to be a celebration of all that.

We also celebrated my grandfather’s birthday on the Fourth of July, the whole family gathering at one or the other of my aunt or uncle’s homes - usually one that had a swimming pool in the backyard. There were at least a half dozen of us cousins running around while the adults relaxed in their lawn chairs, sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, munching handfuls of Chex mix and pretzels while hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled on a charcoal grill. My grandfather would settle himself in a chair where he could survey the whole scene, a beer can in one hand, a cigarette in the other, the sleeves of his white t-shirt rolled up, the sun burnishing his olive skin and enhancing its natural Mediterranean glow, a satisfied expression on his face.

At the time, I thought of my grandfather as an old man, with his white hair, his thin bandy legs and baggy shorts. Now, I realize he wasn’t much older than I am right now, somewhere in his early to mid-60’s, the same age as the century in which we were living in those days. None of us, including my grandfather himself, knew exactly how old he was, nor when his actual birthday was. He came to America as a very young man, a refugee from the genocide in Armenia in the early part of the 20th century. He came here alone, and birthdays were the last thing on his mind as he worked to make a life for himself and later for his wife and their six children. 

So he chose to celebrate his birthday along with America. “This is great country,” he would always say at some point during the day, usually after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. “My life start when I come here.”

It wasn’t an easy life. Trying to raise six children in the middle of the Great Depression was no picnic. Sometimes there wasn’t enough to eat. Sometimes the hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit and were threadbare. But each one of those children got a good education, had productive lives and jobs, raised families of their own. That was the American dream, and they achieved it.

Certainly every one of us has someone like my grandfather in their lineage. No one, unless you’re 100% Native American, springs forth purely from American soil. This nation, like it’s topography, is vast and varied, its landscape of lakes, mountains, deserts and prairies mirrored in the array of people who have come to dwell in it. It’s one of the things that makes America Great - and Great we are and always will be. 

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about those long ago Fourth of July celebrations, thinking about the days when my cousins and I were young and carefree, splashing in the pool, filling up on hot dogs, Coke, and my Aunt Mary’s homemade banana or German Chocolate cake. How it must have pleased my grandfather to see us all running around happy, healthy, and safe, the promise of a bright future in front of each one. As a grandparent myself now, I know that feeling well, that sense of pride at seeing your legacy right before your eyes. But for him how much more delicious the knowledge - having survived the loss of his entire family he landed here in this country to create a family that has swelled into three generations and dozens of descendants.

I’ve been feeling particularly protective of my country for a while now. I told one friend that it feels as if we’ve left our child in the hands of an abusive babysitter and can’t rescue them. We are divided and angry as a nation, we have nowhere to look for appropriate leadership and guidance. We are beginning to despair.

But for as long as America has lived - 241 years today - we have been the shining beacon on the hill for so many. We must not allow the dream to be diminished, not for this generation or for the generations to follow. We must stand strong for the vision of our founding fathers, those inalienable rights that shine so brightly to people like my grandfather who sought their promise. 

Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness.

That must be OUR gift to our country, on its birthday and every day going forward. 

Shine on, America. Happy birthday.