My parents' house in Pennsylvania is close to the road, maybe thirty feet between the front door an old road named after a soldier who died in some war or another. Between the stretch of patchy grass that's dotted with limestone and silica lies a flagpole. Its verdigris mixed with mud thats been caked on from Mid-Atlantic summer rains and bird shit, the pole within buzzing distance to a nearby bird feeder.
The flagpole was made from a swingset that was never cemented into our backyard. It had come with the house and if we pumped our legs too hard, it would tilt precariously forward and backward. One time it toppled to the ground, my sister landing on her knees as she jumped away from it. My parents had it melted down and three weeks later, it was erected in our front yard as a flagpole. I remember being embarrassed of it; how, within that 30 foot stretch of yard where my mother tried to make some semblance of a garden, we would waste the precious land on a show of patriotism. I was eight, but I was confused.
The garden never grew, the roses always came out deformed, small. My dad said it was from car exhaust, I think my mother just wasn't good at gardening. We once buried a mouse that had died underneath the flagpole. We once buried a blind finch who had fell from its nest there, too. The flagpole was sort of a tombstone then, small burials took place for the pets I had made throughout the years. One small duckling, a butterfly whose wing I had ripped in a net. I figured that's what the flag represented, all those red stripes for blood, punctuating the white of innocence.
The flagpole was also the landmark for our back country road. If you followed the loops of the countryside, you'd come across the lone flag that billowed in the pre-thunderstorm silence of a humid summer. Sometimes it would hang at half-mast, but always it was visible as a midway point between the small towns of Imler and New Paris. Small towns with foreign names to anyone outside of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
I wonder how many people are driving by that old country house with its flag in the front yard today. How many children are sitting backseat with their water wings on in anticipation of some aunt and uncle's swimming pool. How the creek is so filled with glass bottles, no one can swim in it anymore. I wonder how many years I spent resenting any appreciation for patriotism and family, I stayed in doors and read.
But I did celebrate, I remember the year I left for California I spent the Fourth of July tie-dying shirts with my mother and catching lightning bugs in a jar. I remember that night I snuck out to smoke the last cigarette in a pack and found my dad on the porch with a beer. I tucked the cigarette into the waistband of my underwear and sat with him in silence. He handed me a beer. I was 19 then, but I tipped the can to him and sipped it while the stars turned dark as the clouds rolled in. One year, I sat on that same porch and started a fire with matches and nail polish remover. One year, I dangled my feet off my friend's boat and ate hummus out of a red solo cup. I found ways to keep up the tradition I didn't even know I was a part of. I kept my sunglasses on and drank deeply from the cups that were proffered to me.
And I will do the same this year. Thursday, I bought a six-pack of beer and more hot dog buns from 7-Eleven. It will be just the two of us this year, relaxing, boring, quiet as that may be. The grill is hot and the dogs will sit anxiously at my feet. I'm going to look back on today and think it's been the best Fourth of July of them all. No artifice, no conversation, just the steady stream of languid stretching and a movie in playing in the background. I'll enjoy it all with a plateful of hot dogs, potato chips, an open beer, and a side of homemade mustard.
Homemade Spicy Beer Mustard
- 1/4 cup mixture of brown and yellow mustard seed, ground with mortar and pestle
- 3/4 cup mustard powder
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 1/3 cup clover honey
- 1/3 cup beer, pref amber ale (Fat Tire)
- pinch of salt
- Pinch of sugar
- In a small saucepan, add all ingredients and stir to combine
- Heat on medium for 5-7 minutes until thickens
- Allow to cool before storing in airtight container
- For a milder flavor, let stand for a few hours on counter