Friday, July 4, 2014

Poetry Friday: A Holler, Not a Smile

Today's the 4th of July! 

When I was a kid I said "Today's the 4th of July" with a mix of delight and terror. I knew the day would be loud, it would be beautiful, it would be a little out of control, and it would ride roughshod over all those polite holidays like Easter, the day of white gloves, white patent leather shoes, white purse, white hat. The 4th of July was all about shorts, bare feet, sunburn, skin that tasted like salt if I licked it - which I did - and somewhere in the distance, cherry bombs and bottle rockets going off.  Easter was a sugary smile, the 4th of July was a holler.

It was also my grandfather's birthday. Walter Vane Wagner, married to my grandmother for more than sixty years. He tattooed a couple of his knuckles --- a spider and a butterfly ---- with a sharp pen knife and some ink when he was a teenager back in the late 1910's - and when I sat on his lap as a kid, I would make him show them to me. He was a man too thin for his name, so everyone just called him "Skinny" --- if it hadn't been for a good set of suspenders, his pants would have been down around his knees each day. He worked his whole life as a lumberjack for the Weyerhaeuser Co., back when trees were big

When we all got together for our 4th of July picnics, it was my grandfather who was the center of attention rather than anything as abstract as America. He was one of those complicated men who made it through the Great Depression on pure grit and willpower, and he wasn't sweet - my grandmother, Mary Alice, took those honors. Gramp was...what was he? For me, he was a combination, of fascinating, scary and magnetic. He smoked - in fact, he was the only smoker in our big, extended family - and from a young age I associated cigarettes with long, lean men of the Wild West. My grandfather beat Marlboro cigarettes to the punch on that. Now my grandfather's great-grandson - my youngest son, Mike - has a tattoo of a tree all the way up his arm from wrist to elbow. My eldest son, Josh, has a tattoo of Mt. Rainier at sunrise. Both are gentle souls. Neither one smokes.

Skinny, Mary Alice, my Aunt Gloria (who was called Gee) and my cousins Randy and Colleen, my dad John, my mom Lorene, (everyone called her Peach) and the three of us - Johnny, Mary, me - on the beach for the 4th of July: When I close my eyes, I can still see it, smell it, taste it. Later, my own kids got added into the scene - Josh and Mike and my daughter, Mary, always the bravest of the bunch, turning over rocks to discover crabs, or swimming with her Aunt Mary and her Great-Aunt Gloria in the freezing water of Puget Sound.

Gad, I loved those warm days and those picnics, sharing laughs, sharing food. There were always hot dogs cooked on sticks over a beach fire, potato salad, baked beans, corn on the cob, dill pickles, olives, maybe some A&W root beer to wash it down, always plenty of coffee in heavy, glass-lined thermoses, strawberry shortcake to round it all out. Gramp - Skinny - could out-eat everyone.

As the dark came on, there were boxes of sparklers - we would run across the grass creating trails of light, or sail lit sparklers out onto the saltwater, stuck straight up into big driftwood logs. When I was a kid "the beach" was in front of the cabin my grandmother's parents built on Elger Bay, half way down Camano Island. During the years my family lived in California, we substituted the fireworks at Spartan Stadium in San Jose for the beach, but it wasn't the same. Eventually, we all moved back - first my husband and me, then my mom and dad, then my brother and his family, then my sister. Once we were back in the Northwest, the beach became Rosario Beach on Whidbey Island, home now to the Maiden of Deception Pass.

And for the years my parents had their own home on Whidbey Island's Penn Cove, we had our picnics there in front of the house.

It seems we stayed out from dawn (sunlight coming up over the Cascade mountains) to dark (sun going down behind the Olympic mountains.) The day would end with s'mores around a beach fire and all of us getting sleepy staring at the embers.

Since it's Poetry Friday, I'm going to post the lyrics for America the Beautiful. Whenever I hear this song, it un-glues me. But I don't think of this country the way I thought of it when I was little.

America the Beautiful: a holler rather than a smile. A little out of control. Not always sweet. Magnetic but scary. Riding roughshod. Yes, we have spacious skies and purple mountains' majesty, but just like the 4th of July, in America there always seems to be the sound of something exploding in the distance.

Happy 4th of July, everybody.
If you're interested in seeing what other people have posted for Poetry Friday, head over to Heidi Mordhurst's My Juicy Little Universe. You'll find the round-up there. 


  1. Love all these memories, Julie! I enjoy fireworks a lot more when I can't hear them and totally prefer fireflies and sparklers to the big deal stuff. It's always so hot in the deep south that our daytime celebrating is often indoors, but at night all the neighbors come out. :) Hope you have a wonderful day!

  2. Oh Julie, I so love this post, this tribute to the day, to your family, to the country-- this glorious holler of love mixed with memories. Wishing you a fabulous, not-so-scary day!

  3. This is such a rich post, Julie. You made me wish my own family had a warm, spirited July 4th tradition. And S'mores.

  4. I lost myself in your memories, Julie - such a rich collection of deep connections between family and traditions and the land. And I love that wistful ending - age and experience and reality alter the meaning of those lyrics somewhat.

  5. Julie, I am so glad that I visited your site because your story was so rich in memories that it could be a children's book. I love people telling stories of families and traditions. Yours was well-done. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Although it wasn't near water, except perhaps a pond or two, my memories came back when I read yours, Julie. It's such a mix of times throughout the years. My own children remember parades in my husband's little town where he grew up, I remember the great-uncles and my grandfathers shooting off the 'big ones". "Stand Back", they'd say, & we knew it would be awesome. Thank you for this sweet post.

  7. You got to float your sparklers?! You were so lucky. This is a wonderful piece, Julie.

  8. What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing your family and your traditions with us.

  9. Julie, I'm glad I waited until an emptier moment this morning to read the story of your family's Fourth of July (Happy Birthday, Skinny)! It's a landscape of people and place that's unfamiliar to me yet so similar in some details to mine. I always feel torn when it comes time to celebrate America--I believe deeply in our ideals, but I don't want our heads to get any bigger than they already are. Thank you for this experience of the Beautiful.

  10. Hi there Julie. I loved reading your reflections here, so heartfelt, and filled with loving memories. I only had one 4th of July experience around three years back in 2011 with family who now live in the US for over 20 years now. Such great fun. We were in Las Vegas at the time - lots of free concerts! And yes there were lots of roughshod hollering thrown into the mix. :)