Happy 4th of July to all my American friends! For my non American friends, today we celebrate America’s Independence Day. It is a big holiday, the second of the year (Thanksgiving being the first) that draws all Americans together across all races, religions and classes to celebrate. Other holidays are big, but many are religious, and for non Christians not a holiday. This is one of the few that is secular and just brings everyone together. We will be celebrating with a barbecue and outdoor picnic tonight and watching fireworks on television. When I was a teenager living near New York City, my brother would take my sister and me into lower Manhattan near the seaport and we would queue up for hours to wait for the Macy’s fireworks show near the Statue of Liberty. To be part of a million-strong crowd, watching fireworks blaze behind Lady Liberty, pushes even the most skeptical into patriotism. For me, just remembering the fireworks makes my nose twitch with the sulfurous smell from the fireworks and the scent of hot cart-made pretzels on city streets.
Today made me think of lots of 4th of July celebrations in my life. I remember my mom making a ‘flag cake’, a big sheet cake decorate with blueberries, strawberries and lots of goopy white icing to mimic the American flag. I have a photo of her holding the one she made in 1976 for the Bicentennial. My dad would grill a steak on a hibachi (a little charcoal fired grill) in the backyard. I would play with my tiny plastic farm animals in the yard while my dad grilled the steak. Guess even then I knew where I belonged!
And of course my mom insisted we got to Mass (church) in the morning…to her, 4th of July and Thanksgiving were added to the official roster of Catholic Holy Days of Obligation. There was no special service, just the regular weekday Mass, but we would sing God Bless America, America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee and spend an hour thanking God for the gifts we have. It was a great way to start a holiday for sure. My grandma left Germany in the 1920’s, and she never forgot food shortages, runaway inflation, and World War I. My grandpa had fled Germany during World War I, migrating to Holland, then Canada, then the USA. I am thankful I had two first-generation American grandparents and that I knew my grandma and the stories she told, and the stories my dad repeated, to help me understand why she was so thankful to be an American. I remember how my parents tried to make us understand why freedom was so important, and so rare. Growing up in America you take so much for granted until you get to know people living in other countries and you hear news reports from countries where people live under a dictatorship. Then you start to understand why we cherish our freedoms.
No matter where I am, there’s always certain sounds and smells and sights outdoors and in the garden that instantly calls to mind a time of year.
In New York, it was the first song of cicadas and crickets, and the dance of fireflies across the lawn. For my readers who don’t live in America and might not know these insects, cicadas are large, ugly and pretty harmless insects with big, bulgy eyes and green iridescent bodies. They set up a shrill long cry during the hot, humid summer days. I have heard that they only “sing” when temperatures reach 80. We used to be able to tell how hot the day would be by how early the cicadas would start singing. If they were singing at dawn, running through the lawn sprinklers and buying cherry Italian ices at Shannon’s Candy Store were in order!
We used to catch big Hall’s toads down at the water sump. Even children like us who grow up in city-like conditions near New York City find ways to be like country kids! A sump is a big drainage area for the street water sewer systems. They generally don’t have standing water like a resevoir, but can be swampy. On Long Island, there would be one about every half mile, fenced in to keep kids out, which of course challenged us to get in. The one right by my house was near the railroad tracks and had a lot of trees planted around it which to us was like the country, even though the trees were only about 10 feet away from a paved parking lot for the town playground across the street.
My friends and I would yell to our moms, “We’re going to catch frogs today!”, grab a pail from the cellar, and run all the way to the sump. We ran up the hill on Magnolia Avenue, down through the tunnel, an area under the Long Island Rail Road tracks that formed a long pedestrian tunnel. It echoed and we would stop and yell and carry on to hear how loud our voices would echo. If a freight train was rumbling overhead, we would count the cars and make a wish on the caboose. If the train had 2 cabooses, it was an especially lucky day!
Around the sump, we’d hide among the trees, watching where we stepped because people would walk their dogs there and never clean up after them. Then with lightning quick reflexes we would catch as many frogs (toads) as we could! They would hide among the leaves, but as kids we were close to the ground and could catch them easily.
We would bring them home and release them into the garden, with our dads congratulating us on how we ‘helped’ by bringing home frogs that would eat the bugs. Later that summer we would find huge toads hiding under the cucumber and squash leaves in the garden, and I always wondered if they were the same toads we’d brought home in June, now grown to monstrous size.
Here in Virginia, summer’s heralds are the blackberries ripening on the bushes growing along my driveway and around the clearing. It’s the changing panorama of wildflowers, the spring blossoms giving way to summer’s richness of Queen Anne’s lace, purple thistle, and so many more I cannot name. It’s hummingbirds darting to the feeder and back to the safety of the sheltering loblolly pines. It’s a mama deer and her twin fawns scampering into the clearing at sunset.
And of course, the toads. We didn’t see any the first year we lived in Virginia. Last night I took Shadow out for her walk around 10 pm, and was startled by several toads hopping around near the garage. The lights on the garage must have attracted flying insects…and the toads knew a good thing when they saw it!
Happy summer on this American “official” start to summer fun!
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.