Running in the Family

Our parents can influence us in unexpected ways, and that can be a good thing.

My father was born on the Fourth of July.

Until he died in 1997, every Independence Day I woke to the sound of John Phillip Sousa marches, the smell of Italian sausage and burgers cooking on the grill, and the sight of my patriotic father with a spatula in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, humming along with “Stars and Stripes Forever.” At night, whether we watched fireworks from Scarborough Beach or our own backyard, he always said the same thing: “Thanks, Uncle Sam, for putting on this show just for my birthday.”

In other words, the Fourth of July was a major thing in our family. Even as an adult living far from home, I made sure to be back for that weekend. It wasn’t just that it was his birthday that made the day special. My father loved the United States. He had an eagle sitting in front of a rising sun with the letters USA tattooed on his forearm. He’d served twenty years in the Navy. He knew the words to every patriotic song and he sang them loudly, off key, with gusto. If ever a person was meant to be born on the Fourth of July, it was my dad.

Other than the coincidence of his birth and the birth of our country’s independence, I’m not sure why he was so patriotic. How I wish he were still here so that I could ask him! As time passes, there are more and more things that I wish I had asked him about. I suppose that is true for all of us; our loved ones take their wisdom and their perspective with them when they leave us. Even now, at almost sixty, I still do so many things my father advised me to do. To the puzzlement of many, I always sell a car before it reaches 100,000 miles. I don’t often give people who betray me second chances — “Fool me once, shame on you,” he’d say. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” I know how to fold a flag and how to treat it with respect: It must never touch the ground and it must be taken down at sunset. I make homemade macaroni and cheese the way he taught me, even though that means using American cheese instead of real cheese. I will pay more for better quality clothes, furniture, electronics because he told me, “It only costs a little more to go first class.” I get my subway or bus money out before I arrive at the turnstile. And I always vote.

Growing up in a family of Democrats in a state that almost always votes Democrat, it would be easy to skip an election or two. I remember once reminding him that my vote didn’t really matter. “Why bother?” I said, with all the sarcasm and know-it-allness only a twenty-four-year-old could muster. Which is to say a lot of both. His blue eyes flashed angrily. “Because you’re an American,” he said. “That’s why.” With that, the subject was closed.

n 1970, the summer I was thirteen, my brother, Skip, came home from his freshman year at University of Rhode Island a changed, mysterious person. Gone were the Bermuda shorts and polo shirts. Gone the Buddy Holly glasses and smooth, clean-shaven cheeks. Instead, my brother had been taken over by a longhaired, rip-jeaned, bearded hippie who traveled with a pack of other longhaired, rip-jeaned, bearded hippies. For most of that summer, my father looked bewildered. These boys sat in our backyard, drinking his beer and eating my grandmother Mama Rose’s meatball sandwiches. He would join them there, but the conversation always turned to the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and the draft. Inevitably, my father came back inside, where I sat watching reruns of “The Mod Squad” and “Bewitched,” angry. “Those boys,” he’d mutter, but no more. Looking back, I think he couldn’t find words for what he felt. His own son contemplating ways to avoid the draft. So many young people angry at the United States. It was confusing to him, and to me, and no doubt to those boys sitting in our backyard.

One night toward the end of that hot summer, the boys all filed in, laughing and smelling of sweat and beer and, well, of boy. I’d fallen in love with every one of them over the course of the summer. The one who taught me how to throw a Frisbee. The one who gave me books to read. The one who took me to Del’s sometimes in the afternoon and the one who took me body surfing at East Beach, a beach with big waves and wild surf where I’d never been before.

My parents and I were playing High-Low-Jack at the kitchen table when they arrived. From the living room, Dean Martin sang “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” on the television. Beers were opened and the boys started to make plans — whose girlfriend was getting off work when, which cars to take (they all drove VW Bugs) where. I wanted nothing more than to go off with them on one of their grand adventures. One night they’d ended up on Cape Cod, swimming at a beach famous for its phosphorescent water. Another night they’d climbed the tower on Route 138. And on still another they’d gone late at night to Chelo’s for strawberry pie.

But I was thirteen, stuck between childhood and adolescence, too young to do anything but watch TV with my grandmother and play cards with my parents and dream of getting in one of those VW Bugs and driving to the ocean or climbing the highest thing I could find. I didn’t have much time to feel bad for myself that night however, because my father was suddenly out of his chair, red faced and angry, rushing toward the gaggle of boys crowded into our small kitchen.

“You!” he said, jabbing a finger at one of them. “Get out of here! No one who does that is welcome in my house!”

I can count on one hand the number of times I ever heard my father raise his voice. He was gentle and funny and fun loving. It wasn’t until the startled boys began to leave that I saw what had made him so angry. One of the boys — although I don’t remember his name, I do remember that he was from New Jersey and had a twin brother and a girlfriend named Midge, like Barbie’s friend — had sewn an American flag onto his jean jacket. To my father, this was an unforgivable crime.

The boys left. We finished our card game without speaking about what had happened. I suppose we didn’t have to talk about it. Where my father stood on such things was known, immovable.

o be raised by such a man — a patriot, yes, but also a true lover of the United States of America, someone who believed in freedom and democracy, in what the American flag stood for and our responsibilities as lucky American citizens — is a gift. Like all young people, I liked to argue with him about politics, to get a rise of him. But mostly I learned from him. We are lucky, all of us, no matter which side of the political divide we stand on. That’s why every November of every election year, I vote. Proudly. Thoughtfully. Happily.

This year, my son, Sam, and his friend came home to Rhode Island from New York City where they live, just to vote in the Democratic primary. All those hours on a bus. All the time spent away from their lives in NYC. For the primary. Sam and I walked into our voting place together. We signed in, got our ballots and stood side by side in election booths. I cannot say who he voted for that day, only that he voted right next to me. I like to think my father was there too, humming “Stars and Stripes” forever off key. Smiling at us both.

Providence’s Ann Hood is a best selling short story writer and novelist, whose works include The Knitting Circle, The Italian Wife, and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. She’s won numerous awards, including two Pushcart Prizes. Her latest novel, The Book That Matters Most, was published in August.

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