We need a new flag to hang on the front porch. The old one looks tired and no longer snaps smartly in the breeze. It’s almost Independence Day as I write this, and I’m wandering around humming George M. Cohan tunes and checking to see if Netflix has Yankee Doodle Dandy in its archives. Once, homebound with tonsillitis at age 12, I watched that movie six times. It was playing continuously on some local channel, and I memorized all the songs and most of the dialogue. For me, it’s not July 4th until I’ve heard Jimmy Cagney belt out “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
I indulge in a moment of nostalgia for the small-town Fourths of my childhood. My brothers marched in the parade, wearing their Cub Scout uniforms and accompanied by the slightly tinny high school band. The VFW turned out in force, including ancient veterans of the Spanish-American War who rode in a vintage Cadillac draped with bunting. After picnics and cookouts, there were fireworks on the golf course. The air smelled of hot dogs and trampled grass. Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home.
Then I remember a much later Fourth, a family celebration that coincided with my stepmother’s 50th anniversary of American citizenship. She grew up in Nazi-occupied Austria and helped her mother run the family farm when her brothers were drafted into the Wehrmacht. Her carefree youth ended abruptly. She continued her studies, but leisure time ceased to exist. She became her mother’s right hand, organizing the planting and the harvest, tending the livestock. Bombs fell nearly every night; she became an expert at picking up the distant hum of the planes and hurrying everyone into the cellar for safety. She recounted all this matter-of-factly, surprised when we asked her if it was hard or depressing. It was what happened, she said. We did what we had to do. Later, she went to the university in Vienna and married an American serviceman and came to the United States.
We drank toasts to celebrate her citizenship and the long road that brought her to us. When she rose to speak, there were tears in her eyes but her voice was strong. I studied a long time before I made this choice, she told us. I have lived under other kinds of government, and I can tell you from experience that this is the best. Please do not take it lightly.
Our son-in-law came to America from Vietnam by way of an open boat and a refugee camp in the Philippines. His family worked tirelessly to make their way, sacrificing and saving to build a home and educate their children. After becoming an American citizen, our son-in-law attended the Air Force Academy and served his country with honor and distinction. When I hear the word patriot, it is his face I see.
My own immigrant ancestors came from France and from Ireland. One was a wine compounder with a packet of handwritten secrets. One was a clerk with a passion for books. One day, long ago, they stood on windy docks at the edge of the Old World and made a choice: They would become Americans.
They boarded ships and came to New York in the mid-19th century. They never met, and yet their lives converge in me. It was their choice that brings me here, to the flag aisle in a Home Depot in Knoxville, Tenn.
I survey the merchandise and remember some lyrics from that old George M. Cohan song:
Every heart beats true
Under red, white and blue
I think about our nation of immigrants. From the very start of this bold experiment called democracy, America has been home to people who came here from somewhere else to find something better. Messy, complicated, and often contentious, its heart beats true.
I do not take it lightly.
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