another fourth of July in suburbia

Of all the sights on this planet, none are captured on film, or in words, or in art, less successfully than fireworks. They must be viewed in person, they demand to be seen by the naked eye. The way the rockets shoot up up up over your head, leaving a trail of fizzy sparks, only to explode seconds later like artillery shells, living golden glitter against the darkened western sky. The red, white, blue, gold and green lights hold their crazed, ecstatic shapes for the space of a heartbeat, then begin to wobble. Their remains fall to earth like stardust.

This is the reward of living in suburbia. After the obligatory Fourth of July barbecue, we drive to the park. The streets are blocked off by police cars, the red and blue rollers producing their own light show. People in shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops saunter down every feeder street, converging on the park, the grass dry now with the drought. Some bring folding chairs, some bring blankets. Children wear glowy necklaces, whirl toys that light up in all the colors of the spectrum. My own kids are arrayed in glasses that blink on and off in 7 different patterns.

We arrive before sunset. We’re experiencing a heatwave here in the northeast; the sky is blue, the air is warm. We spread the blanket and lie down. Parents wave and call to each other as they recognize friends and neighbors. Barefooted children, too excited to sit, run in widening circles over the green stubbly field that opens before us. Swallows, bats and cicadas streak over our heads. Just beyond the scrim of trees lie the banks of the Hackensack River.

Slowly, the light fades from the sky. Somewhere in the dark, we begin to hear unmistakable staccato popping sounds. The towns around us, thick with early American history, have already started their fireworks shows. A smattering of applause starts up in anticipation. Still, we wait. Jude gets up and runs an elated lap in front of our blanket. With his glasses flashing blue, he is like a compact laser show.

I think of another Fourth of July, twenty years back. I was living in New York City, downtown, in a twelve-story apartment hi-rise. My friend and I bought steaks, a small grill, and hauled them up to the tar-papered roof of my building. As the wide sheltering sky changed to a deep Prussian blue, we listened to Sousa on the boombox, ate charred meat and watched the Macy’s fireworks show sparkle over the East River. Other tenants, strangers, came up to the roof and joined us. As if we had practiced in advance, we said “oooh” and “ahhh,” at the same time. After it was over, the last rockets’ red glare fading into memory, we said goodnight to each other and filed back down the narrow stairs, past the sign warning us not to go on the roof.

My parents are immigrants. The Star Spangled Banner brings tears to my eyes, as does America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee,and if I am being wholly truthful, Dixie.I’m proud to be an American, and grateful to be here.

Later today, we’re going to the swim club. On the way, we will pass a graveyard that holds the bones of Indians and early settlers, and a bridge that George Washington crossed with the Continental troops as he fled from the British to regroup at Valley Forge. Out here, I find myself surrounded by Revolutionary War history. And even though it’s suburbia, I like it.