When I was nine years old, my Dad, a Canadian native, gained American citizenship. As a third grader, the significance of his naturalization didn’t fully register.
I remember him explaining that he could now enjoy all the privileges granted to American-born citizens, except the right to hold public office. And I remember my earnest reply, all full of schoolgirl my-father-the-hero bravado. “But you’re my Daddy. Of course you can be the President!”
I remember a party at the house, with lots of people milling around our back deck, which, overflowing with red, white and blue streamers and balloons, looked like a campaign headquarters. And I remember cake.
Oh that cake! Festooned with sparklers! Topped with a Rawlings baseball, a miniature 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and a ceramic apple pie topper. And the not so subtle warning from my mother, who in no uncertain terms declared that she’d chop off little fingers if my brother or I so much as sneezed near it.
Fast forward twenty something years, all ten fingers still intact thank you very much, and my reflections on Dad’s naturalization are quite different. Particularly around Independence Day, when, as with so many other nationally observed “holidays,” the focus seems to be more on bargain-priced appliances and barbecue than the day’s original intent.
Did you know the Civics Test portion of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization exam includes 100 questions? Candidates are only asked 10, but must be knowledgeable about all 100 to prepare adequately for the test. Take a quick skim through that list of questions, and your reaction to them may embarrass you, as it did me. How many can you confidently answer? (no Googling allowed). What I take for granted, my father had to work deliberately to earn.
For what I take for granted, my father-in-law had to endure much. I will never fully understand what he experienced as a 1st Lieutenant in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, but I will remember the pain in his eyes as he told me what it felt like returning to U.S. soil, only to be met with vitriolic, spitting protestors full of disdain for the sacrifice made by he and fellow soldiers.
While my own children (ages 4 and 2) aren’t yet old enough to understand the solemn significance of this day – what it means personally for our family or what it means for them as American-born citizens – that doesn’t mean they are too young not to be made aware.
This year, as we always do, we will participate in the typical Fourth of July rituals in our community. We will slather on sunscreen and make the bounce house rounds at I Love America Day. There will be swimming, and sparkler holding, and embarrassingly large amounts of pork consumption (blame it on the sauce from Moe’s). And I will once again try to make a “Flag Cake” a la magazine perfection, that in reality becomes a soggy mishmash of icing-tinged berries.
But on July 5th, and in the days that follow, long after Lee Greenwood leaves the airwaves and the fireworks trailers disappear from the roadside, wouldn’t it be wonderful if families did more? Making care packages for soldiers, even for the families they have left behind. Running a lemonade stand and donating monies to Soldiers’ Angels of Alabama. Helping hang an American flag at home or outside, and learning the proper etiquette for caring for the single most powerful symbol of our nation’s freedom. At a minimum, walking up to a person in uniform and saying “Thank you for your service.” These are simple acts we can easily do with our children, our grandchildren, or on our own, pretty much anytime.
This year, let’s celebrate Independence Day as a time to relax with family and friends, but also to remind us to live daily in service and gratitude for those who are far away from us, keeping us safe.
Originally published in the July 2013 issues of the Vestavia Voice and the Hoover Sun.