July 3, 2011

Maybe It's Me: Broad Stripes & Bright Stars, or, God Keep Our Land Glorious and Free

When I was seventeen my Advanced Placement English class used to play this game; someone would make a statement, and everyone would point at the person they thought that was most true about. I was infrequently pointed out; which, at the time, didn’t bother me since I hated the course and everyone in it. Looking back though, this should have bothered me more than it did: I think it’s probably better to be thought something of then nothing of. People who don’t think either negatively or positively about someone means they aren’t thinking about them all; which makes them totally forgettable.

And if there’s one thing I don’t want to be, it’s forgotten.

One day the teacher asked who we thought the most patriotic was. And everyone pointed at this one very particular, very – in my opinion – unexciting and uninspiring girl.

But the teacher pointed at me.

“I don’t think you are now, but I think someday you may be.”

I remember being taken aback by this bold statement made by one of the most intelligent men I had ever met and one of the most desired teachers at the high school I went to for generations. I knew he thought little of me – while other teachers thought I was special, I knew he did not – so it was quite bizarre to get any recognition from him at all.

But, in the end he was wrong. I think we’d all like for the nice things people say about us to turn out to be true, especially when it comes from unlikely sources. It’s okay, though, if they don’t.

I am one of the least patriotic people I know.

Around Thanksgiving, I feel a strange connection to my New England roots. That’s about as far as my nationalism goes, and really it’s more towards the culture of the holiday because of the region I’m from, and less to do with my country as a whole.

Oddly enough, I feel my least patriotic during Independence Day. And in a way my indifference saddens me; this is in part due to the fact that I don’t feel any allegiance to my country or even really identity with what an “American” is supposed to be, which segues into the second reason: my grandfather.

My grandfather was the first of his family to be born stateside. His parents uprooted their young family from Canada to the United States in pursuit of the “American Dream.” They wanted more for their children then they had, and so they moved here to acquire that better life. One filled with freedom, equality, and opportunity which would help them find personal happiness and material comfort.

That made my grandfather a first generation “American.”

As a result the fourth of July was always very special to him. It was a day where he truly acknowledged and embraced his freedom as a citizen and first child of the United State of America. And yearly, our family got together on the holiday for barbequing, baseball, and fireworks – all very Americana traditions - in honor of the history and government of our country. Years later, I now know that part of our celebration – whether or not we ever acknowledge it - was also for him and his family for making that very difficult decision of relocating their lives here and starting over. For themselves, for their kids, for their kids’ kids.

For me.

And my grandfather truly loved being an American. He took his roles and responsibilities very seriously. After serving in the military during World War II, he worked tirelessly and without complaint to provide for his family. During his free time he was actively involved in local politics, and contributed even more by way of volunteerism in the community and with his children’s schools. And just like America embraced him, he returned the favor to anyone down on their luck: his home and heart were open to anyone who needed a hot meal or a little love. And he was man who enjoyed the simple things in life: football, growing his own tomatoes, a good bowl of pistachio ice cream, and spending time with family.

All things he was able and allowed to do because he lived in the land of the free, the home brave.

He passed many years ago, and since then Independence Day just isn’t the same. Without him, I feel nothing regarding the holiday. And I feel guilty for feeling that. But I’m a third generation “American” – every generation that goes by, the holiday gets more diluted in my opinion. I don’t know (and never have and probably never will) what it’s like to achingly and desperately want to move to a different country because I know without a doubt it’s going to be a more prosperous place; an accepting place where my family will be safe.

And, after living abroad multiple times, as I mentioned I don’t feel any particular allegiance to my country or even identify with what an “American” is. We’re not an ethnicity – we’re a country. We can say we’re “Americans” – but that’s only a geographical label. That’s not my heritage; my heritage is French, Irish, German, and Polish. That’s where my ancestors come from – those are the people, those are the cultures and traditions, I identify with. There is no such thing as “American”: none of us come from here. We all relocated. Maybe at some point, generations and generations down the line when we can’t specifically catalog what our ancestry is anymore, will we then become “American.”

Thinking that way, feeling that way, makes me feel like the stereotypical, ungrateful “American” the rest of the world see’s us as

It makes me feel like I’m discrediting and blatantly disrespecting all of the hard work (much harder work than I’ve ever had to do) that my ancestors did to get here. Everything they scarified for, I just take for granted.

And it makes me feel like I’m not honoring the spirit of my grandfather, who really did love this country with all of his heart and soul.

One of my finest memories about Independence Day was when I was a teenager. My mom, sister, and I, my uncle and his family, and my grandparents were all sitting at our summer home watching the fireworks go off across the lake. Spontaneously, we began singing the National Anthem. And immediately after we were done singing it, completely we sang the Canadian National Anthem.

And my grandfather wept openly.

It was a completely unplanned moment that couldn’t have happened more naturally. And my grandfather felt so blessed: his children, and his children’s children were glorifying his two – essentially their two – countries. He identified himself as a French-Canadian American, and Independence Day was a time to celebrate that: the freedom to be who he was.

And maybe it’s me, but don’t we all want that same liberty?

I may never be a zealous flag-waver, but I can appreciate the tremendous amount of energy and courage it took my ancestors to come here to start their lives. Because of their bold move, and without any effort on my part, I now have the will and right to be who I want. Freedom, equality, opportunity? Those were never anything I had to struggle for. The least I can do this Independence Day – and every Fourth of July hereafter – is to be grateful and pay homage to my grandfather and his family for that wonderful luxury.

So, with a hand over my heart, I proudly sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” once again this year in honor of my ancestors.