Janet Sheridan: Happy Fourth of July
Editor’s note: The Saturday Morning Press announces the addition of Janet Sheridan, a Craig resident and former Moffat County School District administrator, as a new columnist.
Sheridan, who is retired, spent 40 years in public education, including five years as the school district’s director of curriculum and staff development. She is a guest columnist for the Denver Post for 2009-10.
From the moment I first met the word “flabbergast,” I wanted to experience its dumbfounded surprise. I had my opportunity in Brazil at age 45. There, with tearing eyes, amazed mind and full heart, I felt flabbergasted.
I had traveled to Brazil to teach a course during a conference for English teachers. The last day of class, in their generous way, my students invited me to a birthday party.
When I asked if I should bring a gift, unrestrained merriment ensued. Because they often giggled at my American phrasings and actions, I wasn’t offended.
When I arrived at a party decorated with red, white and blue, I understood their laughter.
They had planned a celebration for the United States. My stunned speechlessness occurred at the conclusion of a documentary shown as the highlight of the evening – a movie filled with American wonders like sky-piercing cities, purple mountains and amber waves of grain.
It was the Fourth of July in Rio de Janeiro, and as the film ended, 250 conference participants, patriots of Brazil, leaped to their feet to cheer the birth of my country and its world-altering democracy. They commemorated the Fourth with an appreciation that made my past celebrations seem misguided.
As a child, I viewed the Fourth of July as an opportunity to publicly humiliate my cousin. Born a week earlier, Jimmy tied his shoes sooner, threw balls farther, burped longer and bragged louder.
But, once a year I exacted revenge.
Much to my father’s delight, I could run.
Dad claimed I ran with a stride like Man O’ War; I was just a little slow responding to the trumpet. But, once I realized the race had begun, and my long legs hit their stride, the bobbing heads of those quick off the mark receded in my dust.
When Jimmy raced, as he always did at the city park on the Fourth of July, the race ended with my gloating victory and Jimmy’s whining claim that he slipped on somebody’s spit.
I concluded my celebration by running him down with lit sparklers after the picnic at grandma’s house and threatening to poke his eyes out.
Later, in my early teens, I developed a better understanding of the holiday.
It existed so the carnival could come to town.
With cherry-picking earnings in my pocket and my best friend at my side, I ate cotton candy and rode the Tilt-a-Whirl, taking a break now and then to scurry through shuffling crowds in search of the eighth-grade boys my friend and I had chosen to marry.
When we managed to find them, we loitered nearby in fetching poses; unfortunately, our intended, busily throwing firecrackers at each other and cackling with adolescent laughter, took no notice.
As I aged, the day dedicated to the nation’s founding became a blur of picnics and watermelon, parades and snow-cones, bonfires and marshmallows, barbecues and beer; all ending with multihued fireworks that flowered, shimmered and danced, eliciting oohs from the crowd, terrorizing neighborhood dogs and creating traffic jams upon exit.
I enjoyed the festivities, but other than a fleeting feeling of pride as the flag passed at the head of a parade or the national anthem played before fireworks exploded, I gave little thought to the date’s history or importance.
Then I stood at the end of a movie in a bunting-adorned amphitheater that smelled of wood smoke, engine exhaust and tropical blossoms.
I heard citizens of another nation – people who spoke Portuguese, dressed with European flair, danced to a Latin beat, ate squid with pleasure – celebrate my country.
In those moments, I marveled as never before at the miracle birth of the United States.
Standing to cheer my flag, 9,000 miles from home on the edge of the sea in a foreign harbor, I realized how far the Statue of Liberty casts her light.
I felt a rush of love and pride for my birthplace. I was flabbergasted – stunned, amazed, astounded – by the country I call home.
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