The Fourth of Julys of my childhood run together: the morning parade in Towson; evening fireworks from Luskin’s Hill; afternoons of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and Grandma’s potato salad, toted from Dundalk in a red Tupperware bowl. Baltimore Fourths were hot, humid and always spent with family.
After I married Kevin and moved to Chicago, I quickly learned that weather and the Fourth rarely cooperated. In Chicago, Fourths were often chilly and rainy; we wore jeans and sweatshirts, not shorts and halter tops.
Nonetheless, our Chicago Fourth of Julys were some of the best we ever had. Since our apartment building in Rogers Park had both a back yard and access to the beach, the cookout was always at our place.
The first year, our neighbors Sue and Mike dragged their monster Weber grill across the street to our back yard because Mike was sure our tiny Smokey Joe couldn’t handle the amount of food we’d need to grill. (He was right.) Friends Andy and Margie, who, like us, had relocated to Chicago from Baltimore, brought artichoke dip and a card table to set up on the grass. And my grad school buddy David made the trip north on the El, schlepping a 12-pack of Goose Island beer. We played music, complained about our professors (nearly all of us were or had been in graduate school), and ate and drank until it was time to walk to the beach for fireworks.
From year to year, we added new friends and new recipes, but the routine was pretty much set. And every year, as we sat on the sand and watched the fireworks, I would think how lucky I was. So when my sister asked if she could visit with her boyfriend over one Fourth of July weekend, I was especially excited to share my new favorite holiday with her.
Kathleen and her boyfriend arrived on July 3, and after we picked them up at the airport, we went out for dinner and a few beers and all was well. But the next morning, we woke to gray skies and a gray mood.
“Why does it have to be so cold?” my sister grumbled. “This is the Fourth of July. It’s supposed to be hot.”
I had no answer beyond, “It’s Chicago,” but that didn’t seem to satisfy based on the heavy thud of her coffee mug against the table and the sigh that followed.
I had tried to do all my grocery shopping ahead of time. I’d bought pounds of ground beef and three types of bratwurst from the German deli in Lincoln Square, put together an ice cream roll, and tried a new bar cookie recipe where you cut out stars from the dough to decorate the top, jam-covered layer. But I’d waited until the Fourth to put together the potato salad and coleslaw. And now, as one of my Iowa brothers-in-law called to tell me, we were suddenly expecting six more guests. I was thrilled they wanted to join us— and normally my philosophy is why have six guests when you can have 12?— but with Kath grumpy, the thought of more people just stressed me out.
“When are we going to do something?” my sister asked, after I returned from the second trip to the grocery store. “I don’t know why you had to invite all these people, Mary. And if it rains …”
I didn’t want to hear the end of that threat.
“Why don’t you get out of the apartment and do something?” I suggested. “Take a walk along the lake. Go see a movie.”
“But I’m here to visit with you, Mary.”
Biting my tongue, I thought, “A good thing to do would be to help me.”
Then, as if by magic, Kathleen’s boyfriend picked up a knife and a bell pepper and asked me how I wanted it cut. He shredded cabbage, diced onions and peeled cucumbers, before looking at me and my sulking sister and saying, “Let’s go for a walk.”
Down at the beach at Loyola Park, the wind spit drops of rain, but the Mexican families eating grilled meat and corn under huge tarp-like tents seemed not to mind. The jaunty throb of salsa danced from their boomboxes, the kids still dug in the sand and the men ventured out from the shelter to kick a soccer ball.
“See? They’re having fun,” I said to my sister.
By the time we returned home, my cherished Fourth of July had begun. Sue opened the gate of our backyard fence, so Mike could bring their grill through to the back yard. Andy and Margie showed up minutes later with their ever-mobile card table. We made several trips from the sixth floor in our apartment’s ancient elevator loaded down with blankets, chairs, bowls of salads, a radio and a cooler of beer.
My brother-in-law and his family arrived, and as intros were made, the radio played rock’n’roll, and we all started to feel a little warmer. Kevin and Mike grabbed beers and spatulas and soon were piling flimsy paper plates with burgers, slightly charred Sheboygan and Hungarian bratwursts, pepper slaw and Spanish potato salad. My brother-in-law stretched out in a lawn chair; glasses of wine in hand, Margie and I sat Indian-style on an old red bedspread we’d thrown on the ground. Namdé, my African neighbor from the fifth floor, came by to say hi and share a cookie, while our building manager, Kazim, turned a steak on his small grill as his mother shuffled out of the back door in her usual slippers and house dress to give a shy hello. Andy, as usual, talked to everyone. Between mouthfuls, I realized I hadn’t seen my sister for a few minutes. Then I turned around to see her laughing with my friend Sue. The sun had come out.
Later that evening, when dark fell, we bundled up in sweatshirts and trooped down to the beach to watch the fireworks explode over the lake (thanks to the City of Evanston) and on the beach (thanks to my rock band neighbors, Roxy and Ed). Kathleen and her boyfriend cuddled on the rocks, my brother-in-law stopped talking about how long it took him to find a parking place in our neighborhood (a half hour, not all that bad considering) and our jaws gaped at the exploding spectacle.
I’m rarely accused of being a patriot. I crave French wine and Italian food, British novels and Latin dancing. But I do love the Fourth of July because it’s a holiday about eating, talking, doing nothing and having fun doing it— even when it’s cold and rainy.