July 4th was a big deal in the provincial little New York town my husband Rick and I affectionately called Cornball. Cornwall is a hotbed of Revolutionary War history. The Continental Army set up camp everywhere. There’s an apocryphal tale that George Washington cut short a visit with companions at the Sands Homestead – in the center of town – when he was alerted of a plan to kidnap him that night. Rick and I would go to the Cornwall boat landing to picnic with friends and gaze at the spot where revolutionary soldiers put a chain across The Hudson River to try to block the British.
Fourth of July festivities included a crafts fair on the lawn of The Town Hall, a pet judging contest, a lobster festival. People came to the lawn at 8am to put down blankets to ensure a good spot for the fireworks at 9 pm. There was a 5K race through town and a parade complete with trucks representing local farms, the Scouts, the Fire Department, and even a septuagenarian swing band.
But the most enjoyable aspect was the sense of community we felt, gathering with friends and neighbors to cheer as the floats went by. Kids wove between us to catch candy tossed by the people on the floats – no one had to check if it was safe – and threw poppers that made little bursts of sound as they hit the pavement. Later we gazed at the fireworks above our heads on warm summer nights that were also lit by the glowsticks teens wore on their wrists and necks. At around 11 pm, we all companionably crowded Main Street for the walk back to our cars.
I, not much of a celebrant of holidays, joyfully participated in some of the events, even in 2017, a time during which my pride in my country had already taken a complete nosedive. But as the news got worse every day, I greeted the next July 4th with the enthusiasm most cats and dogs have for fireworks. I gave up on the public events and enjoyed cookouts with small groups of friends. Where once Rick and I had large gatherings with people from all ends of the political spectrum, we found it difficult to unite those groups.
And then we moved out of state.
July 4 2020: we have a global pandemic. Here in Florida, numbers have risen alarmingly: 9,000 cases reported in one day. The thought of large gatherings is frightening, especially given the fact that there had to be a council meeting about whether masks should be mandatory in the city since apparently spreading a potentially deadly disease is yet another of our constitutional rights.
Thankfully, the commission voted, 4 to 1, for mandatory public masking in the city. There has been no vote yet on the rest of Sarasota County. But judging by local social media, compliance in the busy downtown city area is not guaranteed. Yes we pay a price for freedom. The question is: whose freedom and at what price?
The European Union might open up soon – but not to us. Forget the Revolution: Britain doesn’t want us. Once a mighty superpower, we are now the leading nation of contagion and not just of Covid19 but of institutional racism, prison population and jingoist ignorance.
I understand the urge to gather, and I understand patriotism, which, to me, includes speaking out when you disagree with what your country is doing. For years, I thought that was what made our country great. Free speech is part of our foundation, yes? But now it’s as if we are speaking different languages and a disregard for responsible translators puts us at great risk. The most trustworthy interpreters of our current situation are scientists and medical experts, not politicians.
So fire up the grill. But when you get your groceries, do it online or with a mask. And when you set out the lawn chairs, consider setting them six feet apart for those you are not living with. Because if this holiday is about anything, let it be about community and our responsibility to those within it.