Mama Madison: American traditions

How we celebrate the Fourth

I'm as "Proud To Be An American" as Lee Greenwood could ever hope to be. And thanks to a near-religious Saturday morning devotion to School House Rock growing up, I can still sing the preamble to the US Constitution and know how a bill becomes a law .

My first crush was none other than the author of the Declaration of Independence himself, Thomas Jefferson. The actor that played him in our local dinner theater's bicentennial production of 1776 was even cuter than Vinnie Barbarino and all the Bay City Rollers combined. Casting definitely counts.

But I am not a big fan of light-up-American-flag lapel pins, Miss America speeches or "Don't Tread on Me" bumper stickers. I think these may just be "the impostures of pretended patriotism" George Washington had in mind when he warned against them in his Farewell Address of 1796 [PDF] . I find this Hallmark-y take on nationalistic pride to be a bit of a turnoff. And at no time of year does it wave its flag more intensely than on the Fourth of July.

Growing up in DC, I always felt estranged from Independence Day. With hundreds and thousands of red, white and blue-clad visitors descending upon the Mall to take in the Army-Navy Band playing Sousa, I usually chose to stay home. The Fourth seemed to be a holiday for interlopers chomping at the bit to sing the Star Spangled Banner en masse while overlooking the Reflecting Pool. There was no room for a native, a townie. I was an alien in my own backyard on the "holiest" day of the year in the Nation's Capital.

I cannot remember a single July 4th from my young adulthood in Chicago. As a post-collegiate (maybe-not-so) swinging single, I should have been having the time of my life playing volleyball on North Avenue Beach or at least going to some swank urban barbecue to celebrate our country's birthday. But I don't think I even stayed up late enough to see fireworks. Maybe it was successive Reagan/Bush presidencies, or the fact that I hate loud noises--the holiday still wasn't speaking to me.

But moving to Wisconsin in the late 1990s gave me a sense of civic pride I had never before enjoyed. I could finally name my state senators. Heck, I could finally name my U.S. Senators, sad but true. I became interested in local ordinances and local history.

I even became interested in the Fourth of July.

This year the annual Virginia Terrace July 4th Parade and Block Party -- one of the oldest in Madison-- will be turning 84 years old. That's nearly 84 years (the 'hood took off four years in the late '50s/early '60s due to lack of kids on the block) of youth-engineered floats jockeying for "Most Patriotic" in the eyes of gentle-hearted judges. It is four-score years of adorably aggressive toddlers hunting down lollipops in a wading pool of cedar shavings. It's hard to believe that back in 1927--two years before the Great Depression, not quite two months after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight--families were lined up on both the east and west sides of the street anxiously awaiting the start of the water balloon toss.

While my address technically puts me "Off-Terrace," my family managed to jump the imaginary velvet rope governing invites to the Rockwell-esque celebration the very first summer we moved in. The neighborhood had been running low on little kids once again and decided to include families from adjacent Norwood Place.

I've been a loyal Virginia Terrace patriot every year since. I've made my children promise, that no matter what their addresses may be in the years to come, they will return each Fourth to the Terrace -- a kind of patriotic pilgrimage. While I know monarchy is frowned upon this time of year, I long to someday be the matriarch of one of the event's "Royal Families," holding court, sipping a root beer float and furiously rooting for one of my grandchildren to take first in the "Run to Daddy" contest.

While my neighborhood rocks each and every day, the Fourth is something special. And I know I am not alone in feeling this way. The popularity of community-oriented Independence Day festivities in and around Madison is extraordinary: parties all across town and in surrounding towns and villages. It's wonderful to see love of country played out at this most local of levels.

Yes, some recent events have definitely put some distance between cliched patriotism and me. I can't say I've been able to muster up my normal "Forward" pride this time of year, given what's be going on down at the Capitol.

But, as always, I plan to celebrate our country's independence from England by celebrating my dependence on my neighborhood, my community. And Virginia, sans Terrace, was one of the 13 original colonies, after all.

What's your family doing for the Fourth? Are you part of the Rhythm and Booms crowds, or more sparklers on the corner, like me?

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