Bye-Bye, Miss American Pie

I used to love the Fourth of July. As a kid, the holiday always marked the middle of summer vacation. And a reminder that some of the hottest, swimming-est days were still ahead and to get a move on if everything I wanted to do would be completed before Labor Day.

Independence Day meant that 40 – 50 (or more) aunts, uncles and cousins, from my mother’s side of the family, would descend upon our house and one-acre back yard for a huge feast and celebration. Although lots of cooking and barbequing happened during the day, it was over several days of food preparation for most of the women in the family.

The Fourth of July started early in the morning with most of the cousins and the uncles heading down to the beach, clamming/quahogging to gather bushel baskets filled with shellfish for the clam bake. The older cousins and my sisters either stayed and cooked or did the heavy lifting chores to prepare the picnic tables and seating.

THE CLAMMING KIT: 1 bathing suit, 1 towel, 1 bushel basket, 1 inflated inner tub and a piece of rope about 20 – 30 feet long. I can still see the bushel baskets stuck firmly in inner tubes and the inner tubes tied with a long rope around each uncle’s waist. The baskets floated on top of water in the tubes so the diggers’ hands were unencumbered and the rope kept the baskets from floating away with the tide. The cousins were separated into groups and were assigned an uncle, and his corresponding inner tube/basket. Each uncle had their special spot for digging. We would stand with our uncles, feeling the ocean floor with our feet and toes to identify a bed of shellfish. Once it was clear that we hit paydirt, we would dive underwater and start digging through the sand with our hands, snatching shellfish, bringing them to the surface and placing them in the bushel basket. “Don’t throw them – you’ll break the shells,” or “Hey! Nona moves faster than you, let’s speed it up.” Quahogs, cherry stones, little necks, steamers, they all made it into the baskets (sorting was for later); sometimes our hands were overflowing with crustaceans. Squeals could be heard reflecting off the water announcing a treasure trove with uncles shouting to each other, taking credit for the team of cousins they cleverly assigned to themselves, filling their baskets faster than the others.

Sometimes, in my dreams I can see the underwater image of my uncle’s bare legs and feet, his hunting toes digging into the sand, guiding us to a bed of shellfish. His balloony swimsuit with the rope tied around his generous waist; everything veiled in a sea screen of blue, green and yellow with streams of morning light flickering between everything that moved. Watching seaweed dance on the seafloor. The underwater sound of my own heart pounding in my ears, air bubbles immersing from my mouth, voices sounding far away from above, muffled with excitement and instruction; a result of that strange, silent, ocean ambient pressure against my ears.

We never left until all of the baskets were full or nearly full. The baskets were pulled to shore, lifted into the trunks of cars or backs of pick-up trucks and off we went home. We smelled of salt and sea-air, and other than changing from our bathing suits to shorts or summer dresses, I don’t recall any of us ever taking a shower for the rest of the day! Maybe we got “hosed down” at home; that memory escapes me. But I do remember the taste of salt on my lips and how the salt made my skin feel tight and a little itchy for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful morning. My cousins, my uncles and the ocean.

At home, my mother and aunts prepared an Italian feast including desserts. And before you arrived in the driveway, you could hear them talking (Italians don’t talk, they communicate in high decibel levels), singing, laughing, clanking pots and clicking plates. Picnic tables were set up around the yard and table clothes were being tied to each one. Older cousins toted kegs of beer on their shoulders and placed them in ice that had been chipped from blocks.

Cousin Tony (pianist) and his brother Carl (bassist), set up their instruments in a cemented area that abutted the base of the house – level enough for additional musicians and their instruments. We had music for most of the day into the night. There was a wide, half-moon driveway that went around the entire back of the house, that separated the cemented area from the grassy backyard. The rule was that you could park your vehicle on either side of the house or on the street, but parking was restricted from the part of the driveway directly behind the house. That area was reserved as the dance floor; which my older sisters and cousins took advantage of as soon as dusk dissolved into evening and the spotlights were turned on. My mother’s family was a glorious, musical one — but that is for another story.

The Fourth of July included games for the kids, lots to eat; two uncles sat most of the day in the corner of the yard shucking cherry stones in a basket filled with chipped ice for anyone who ate them raw. There was a giant pot of clam chowder (clear) which my father made. Kegs of beer and a fireworks display at the end of the day that did not disappoint. One Fourth of July display was epic.

Each year, the firework display was provided by, maintained, produced and orchestrated by a next door neighbor. We shall call this person, Ronnie Shavey; in order to protect the guilty. Now, in RI, most fireworks that people want to see or fire off are illegal. But, like most illegal things in RI, our good friend Ronnie, probably “knew someone.” Jeez, back in those days, we ALL knew SOMEONE. Ronnie would come to the celebration fairly early, as he had to set up the display. He was meticulous about the timing of each firework how the display was presented. There were all kinds of fancy illuminations; pinwheels, fireflowers, Roman candles, sparklers, rockets, boxes (yes, plural) loaded with F1, F2 and F3 fireworks. Some were, perhaps, just short of a Class 4 – however it is not for me to know the veracity of what was understood to be in his stash. And, I must add that while this was the guy that conducted the display annually, and we actually allowed him, it is important for me to go on the record as saying that Ronnie had an intellect rivaled only by garden tools.

Picture 9:00 PM on a beautiful July evening. People have had plenty to eat and drink. Everyone is selecting their place to observe the fireworks. The music has stopped and with grand anticipation, we hold our breath for the first firework to light the sky. And, as usual, the presentation is just as promised with the obligatory “oohh’s” and “aahh’s” rising from the crowd when appropriate – everyone is having a terrific time. Now, to this day, no one seems to know exactly how it happened, but a lit rocket inadvertently was fired into one of the five-side-by-side boxes of fireworks. With a resounding thud, the box tumbled over, causing a chain reaction that set fireworks scattering in all directions. In an instant, colorful rockets, pinwheels and fountains are shooting up into the night sky, completely taking everyone by surprise; firing out in every direction.

The family, who were moments ago engaged as merely spectators, suddenly found themselves in the midst of a battlefield of fireworks. Nervous laughter mixed with screams as a shower of sparkles rained down on the crowd, eliciting both panic and astonishment. Uncles and aunts jumped from their seats, ducking and dodging the unexpected display, their hands waving wildly as they tried to avoid the blazing rockets whizzing by them. Some of them hitting the dirt. One uncle attempted to use a grill cover as a makeshift shield, while his wife hid behind a picnic table. Another uncle who brought his trombone began to match a valve slide sound with each squeal of a rocket!

Meanwhile, the kids were in a state of pure shock mixed with glee. Their eyes widened as they chased after the sparkling fireworks, attempting to catch them like fireflies. Everyone was in some state of disbelief, hysteria and awe. It was a mini-Armageddon! As the final fireworks fizzled out, the backyard was left in a state of disarray. The grass was speckled with remnants of spent rockets, and the family members were covered in a dusting of residue. Then there was dead silence. Even the crickets stopped. But once the shock ended and everyone was aware that we were all alive and had all of our limbs, an unforgettable moment of pure hilarity rolled over us. I am not sure, to this day, if we were crying-laughing or crying from relief. Maybe both. And amidst the laughter, memories were forged, making that Fourth of July a family gathering we have cherished and reminisced about for years.

After my mother passed away, in 1973, my sister Marie (Bebe) took over the tradition. We no longer had the music or fireworks display, but lots of food and people – with the next generation of family in attendance. My sister and her husband have a big, beautiful pool which was a great addition to the summer fun. Everyone came with a dish of something and the day was filled with food, laughter and family. This was that summer celebration that brought us and kept us all together – especially after my mother’s death. I have always admired my sister Bebe and her husband Sarkis for not letting it go – that our generation kept it going. She clearly understood the importance of how critical it was to keep the family together. Every year. A tradition.

Sadly, in the last 10 – 15 years, only one of my mother’s nine siblings remains with us. Several of my first cousins have passed away as well or moved away. We no longer have a big Fourth of July celebration. My older sisters are now in their 80’s. Bebe is caretaker of an ailing husband and can no longer accommodate the big crowds of yesteryear. And the tradition of gathering on the Fourth disappeared into the past. The generation after us did not take over the large, family gathering each year and it slowly disappeared.

Seems like everyone is just “too busy” to get together as an entire family or it just isn’t very important any more to carry that kind of family tradition. Just a sign of the times and how life changes, I guess. No matter what you try to plan, even immediate members of individual families are off doing their own thing. Technology has had a hand in this and the recent pandemic has encouraged a separateness that before did not exist. You can’t even strike up a conversation with a stranger anymore as they are too busy glued to their Stupid-phones. Or, they use the Stupid-phone to avoid connecting in person. Connecting. I worry for my grandchildren more than anything. Will they know the kind of connection to family that I have known? I doubt it.

I miss those days – those big family-gathering days. Maybe I hold these “traditions” too dear. Maybe they weren’t as important as I remember. I do remember that those times brought the family and our extended families closer. Bonded us forever. I never felt safer or more loved during that time – those gathering times.

And this is not to say that there are never invites from wonderful friends to gather with them and their families. Thankfully, there are several of them every year. There is always something to do or somewhere to go on the Fourth of July. But it is the “my-family” tradition that I miss most.  Has the world changed so much for those of my generation; especially those with strong ethnic ties.  I often think that it was when my mother passed away and the glue that kept the family together slowly disappeared over time it just evolved into something else.  What is your “else,” I wonder?

I see lots of postings of families on Facebook, large gatherings, from those who continue their Fourth of July traditions. I am happy for them. They are building something that every generation who attends will never forget and will hang on to – and will need in times of aloneness and separation. Those families are creating and maintaining their legacy. I hope I see those postings every year and that they never stop. They bring me back to a happier time and make me grateful that I can still remember when my family did the same.