When I was young, Independence Day was my favorite holiday. Every year on July 4th, my entire family would get together at my paternal grandparents’ house for a particular type of barbecue that is known as a “pig pickin’.” I can’t think of a food I love more than Eastern NC barbecue, so as far as holiday eating went, this day blew every other food-related celebration out of the water for me. But there’s more to it than that. There was a rhythm to the day that hasn’t been repeated for any other holiday in my life. It created its own kind of romance, and now that it’s gone, its own kind of melancholy.
The party actually started the night before, on July 3rd. Granddaddy would start cooking the pig that afternoon in the garage, so by late evening, parts of the pig would be perfect for snacking. Mum, Daddy, and I would go to the town’s annual street dance, where my mom would invariably complain about the fact that my dad had never taught her how to do the popular dance that everyone else in the area knew, The Shag. She’d be feeling left out and a little sulky that he wouldn’t dance with her. He’d go around and make small talk with everybody who wasn’t dancing. I’d run around the crowd with my friends, and we’d get excited when the Electric Slide came on for the umpteenth time (not even a little embarrassed to admit that I still do – I love group dances).
After the street dance wrapped up around 9pm or so, we’d head over to check on the pig at my grandparents’ house. My dad and his brothers would come over and drink beers, and when I was little, I’d get to run around in the front yard and catch fireflies until way past my bedtime. When I was older, in high school, I’d invite a friend or two over and hang out in the front yard, or at the community center/beach a few blocks away.
July 4th morning was only to be outdone by Christmas morning. There was always some excitement to preparing for the 4th, and my mom would always go out of her way to buy me a fun new outfit. Something red, white, and blue, and if I could get my way, sparkly. There were special hair ribbons, and colorful socks. Even though hindsight is 20/20, and those late 80s/early 90s clothes were hideous, I always felt special when I put on my special new duds.
We needed to be at Granddaddy and Nana’s house by 11am at the latest, so we could drop off whatever my dad had cooked for the party (deviled eggs, potato salad, a jug of his particular hot sauce recipe, maybe a couple of pies that Mum had thrown together last minute – chocolate and lemon, probably). Then we’d walk a couple of blocks down to East Main Street, to catch the annual 4th of July parade – my town’s crowning glory. In my dad’s youth, my town was famous all over the state for having the best Independence Day celebration. By the time I came along, the parade was still beloved, but not that exciting.
Unlike parades in New Orleans, where the floats are huge and colorful and throw you goodies, the 4th of July parade in Belhaven, NC, was much more laid back. My favorites were always the floats of pretty girls, dressed up in evening gowns. Sometimes they were beauty queens from surrounding towns, sometimes they were just girls who were sponsored by local companies, but I was always envious of the dresses. Plus, they typically threw candy – who doesn’t like candy? When I was little, I was very optimistic, and assumed I’d get my chance to be one of them, but that never happened. I was in the parade plenty of times, though. When I was 12, my softball team won a championship, and the team rode a float. Then, once I got to high school, I was in Air Force JROTC, and I marched in the drill and colorguard teams for every parade in a tri-county area. I definitely got my fill of parade appearances.
After the parade, we’d all head back to Granddaddy and Nana’s to eat barbecue. Nana was always in the house most of the time, her nerves frayed to the max from having so many people in and out of the house, and having been up all night fixing side dishes. Sometimes one of their old buddies from Granddaddy’s Army days would visit, bringing his wife and two poodles. Nana and the wife would sit in the living room and chat, fawning over the dogs while the party went on outside. Granddaddy was the people person, invigorated to have so many friends and family over. He loved grilling (and drinking), and this was his day. Every single 4th of July for my entire life (and probably before), he wore the same shirt – this very soft, knit, short-sleeved shirt that looked like an American flag. It was hideous, and on anyone else it would have been a joke, but for some reason on him it just looked jaunty and appropriate. In my memory, he was all smiles.
Enormous amounts of barbecue consumed, Daddy would be content to stay at his parents’ house, but Mum and I would always get bored and want to go downtown to the festival. The town always had a full lineup of activities for the day, with a beauty pageant, jet ski races, musical acts, face painting, helicopter tours, free rides in the electric company’s bucket truck (in the bucket), craft vendors, etc. Some years we’d also have a little carnival, with a Ferris wheel and other assorted rides. Most years, there was no money to go buying things. But we’d look at everything there was to see, and sometimes my dad could spare the change to buy me a snow cone. I always hated the texture of the ice, but loved having a crunchy, sweet rainbow to hold. They were also specific to the 4th of July festival – there was no other time or place to find a snow cone. I remember one year, my mom bought me a roach clip with pretty colored feathers from one of the vendors, so I could put it in my hair. I was so pleased by that stupid thing, and I think it tickled her that she had the chance to buy something naughty for a completely benign purpose. I had no clue what a roach clip was, just that the feathers were beautiful. By late afternoon, I’d be tuckered out, and we’d either go back home or back to my grandparents’ place to rest and recharge before the fireworks show that evening.
Now that I’ve lived elsewhere, the fireworks show back home seems pretty rinkydink. But when I was a kid, I was enthralled. I still adore fireworks shows, despite being annoyed at having them happen too often near me, freaking my poor cats (particularly Munky) out. It seems like they’re always setting off fireworks for some festival or other out at Waldenberg Park, which is less than a mile from me. The fireworks are visible over the river from my front door, which is lovely, but also highly annoying when you’ve got pets who think the world is ending every time a car backfires.
Even though I’ve seen some big, amazing fireworks shows in the years since leaving home, one of Belhaven’s shows is still in my all-time Top 5. The fireworks get set off from a barge out in the middle of the creek. Typically it’s one explosion at a time – oooh, ahhh, ohhh, oooh, ahhh – followed by a grand finale that looks similar to the main body of a New Orleans fireworks show. So, like, 30 seconds of a few bursts at a time. It’s nice enough. But one year, the show had just started, and one of the firemen who were in charge of the show accidentally set off a chain reaction. The entire fireworks stack caught fire, and the guys had just enough time to jump into the creek before the entire barge went up at once. It was the shortest fireworks display my town had ever had, maybe three minutes long. But it was GLORIOUS.
I have so many great memories of the 4th of July. But nothing lasts forever. The last 4th that I remember clearly was my last one with Granddaddy, between my junior and senior years of high school. I was waiting tables that morning, and missed the parade and the pig pickin’. My glasses broke midway through my shift, so I couldn’t see as well as I’d have preferred. I’d also crashed my car the night before junior prom, and was rebuilding it myself over the summer as a sort of punishment. But after my shift, I was invited to a party on the other side of the creek, and I’d requested to borrow my Granddaddy’s truck, so he came to pick me up. He was suffering from macular degeneration, and was probably too blind to be on the road. But he was stubborn, and this had been his town for the last 40 years or more, so he knew the way from his house to the restaurant where I worked. I drove him back to his party, then took off to my friend’s house. In my memory, there’s a deep sadness to this moment. I don’t know if I felt that way at the time, or if I inserted that emotion after the fact. I don’t regret not spending more time with him, because we were together often. But when he died a few months later, I was blindsided. We all were. What I wouldn’t give for one more 4th of July with him.
When Granddaddy passed away, I asked for two things – the onyx and diamond ring that he’d always worn, and his American flag shirt. I didn’t get the ring, but when my Nana dug the shirt out of the closet for me a few months later, she gave it to me like it was the silliest piece of trash. At first it smelled like him, and I’d bury my face in it when I was sad. It’s still in my closet. Sometimes I think of giving it away, but I can’t stand to think of anyone else wearing it as a joke, or treating it with disrespect.
I’ve tried moving on, tried finding a way to celebrate Independence Day again, but it’s nearly 20 years later, and I have yet to figure it out. Every year, this day rolls around and I’m heartbroken and angry and I don’t have it in me to be in the presence of others. I feel similarly on Thanksgiving, but tend to be able to power through (though to be honest, I prefer to cook myself a feast and spend the day alone, watching movies, drinking champagne, and eating all the green bean casserole). But July 4th is harder. There’s no magic solution. When Granddaddy died, so did the barbecue. It’s never been the same. I’ve been home a handful of times to visit with family on the 4th, but there’s something missing when my uncle cooks the pig. He chops the whole thing up too fine, and doesn’t leave any pulled pieces on the side. He doesn’t understand how to get the skin crispy, and leave it with the chopped bits to add crunch and fat. And his sauce is way too mild. The whole package is lackluster. It doesn’t have that special touch that Granddaddy added. And maybe it’s not about the barbecue. Maybe that special touch was just the way he smiled at me when he was making me up a plate, or maybe it was a combination of things that go away after childhood – the magic of catching fireflies, getting a new outfit, loving without reservation.
Tonight I’m working my second job, writing this at the front desk, and I can’t stop crying. I tell myself that I just have to make it to 7am, then I can go home and hide from all the revelers. But the party has already started here in New Orleans. Like all holidays, it started a few days ago, and has been rolling along all weekend. I work on our music street, and the bars are rolling with live music. People are still out in our pool, partying it up. I’m tired. I miss my grandfather, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There will be no barbecue tomorrow. Even if I could stand to see other people, everyone will be grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. What’s the 4th of July without barbecue? It doesn’t make sense to me.