When I was a girl, we always celebrated the Fourth of July at my grandmother and grandfather’s home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. They had a beautiful piece of property on the edge of the woods with shade trees, a small pond, and a spring-fed stream that meandered through it. The brook was stocked with fat, brown trout and was cold enough to keep our soft-drinks chilled on the hottest summer day. My grandparents had a gift for hospitality. All their friends and relatives arrived with pot-luck dishes to share and looked forward to this grand summer picnic all year. So did my two sisters and I.
My grandmother’s four sisters, who I secretly referred to as “the old aunts with the mustaches,” celebrated with us every year. They always seemed so ancient to me but were probably no older that I currently am! Last year at a family reunion at my niece’s home, I turned to my sister and said, “Hey, now we’re the old aunts with mustaches!” I wonder how ancient we must look to the younger generations.
One of my favorite Fourth of July memories was the day my Great Uncle Otto walked into my grandmother’s kitchen while she was making potato salad for the picnic. Grandma always used a shot glass for a measuring cup and that day it was filled with vinegar. Uncle Otto, who was fond of schnapps, spotted the glass of amber liquid and thought it was for him. Before anyone could stop him, he downed the contents in one gulp. I didn’t understand the torrent of German words that followed but I could guess their meaning by the coughing and sputtering that accompanied them!
We roasted hot dogs over a wood fire, ate Kuchen and homemade sauerkraut, and drank grandma’s delicious home-brewed root beer. When it grew dark, we lit sparklers and played games in the warm summer night. I took America’s independence and freedoms completely for granted back then, but my grandmother and great aunts didn’t. Their father, my great-grandfather Friedrich, immigrated to the United States in the 1880s to avoid being drafted into the German army. He was a pacifist and was about to be called into service even though he was married to my great-grandmother Louise and had a small daughter, Great Aunt Martha. I fictionalized some of his story in my novel, “Eve’s Daughters,” and told how he escaped over the Swiss border, found work in America, then sent for his family to join him. I found the record of their arrivals in the archives on Ellis Island.
My grandmother and the rest of her sisters were born here. They kept in contact with their relatives in Germany for many years and grieved over the suffering they endured during WWI and WWII. After the second war, the area where they lived in eastern Germany fell under control of Communist Russia and my family lost touch with them. Great-grandma Louise’s family was Jewish and all died in the Holocaust.
I realize now that as my family gathered on Independence Day each year, they must have been thinking of the family members they left behind—parents and great aunts and uncles who never knew the freedoms they knew, especially the freedom of religion. And they must have been very thankful to God for the life they enjoyed in America, with children and grandchildren running around in the warm, summer evening, swatting mosquitoes and lighting sparklers. They had truly been celebrating America’s independence and freedom.
This year, my sister and brother-in-law are coming to visit, and as we sit together on our beach, watching our town’s firework display, that’s what I’ll be celebrating, too.