By Colleen Gravely
The Fourth of July is a time of warm summer air, bright sunshine, green lawns and blue sky. What a perfect time of year to celebrate our country. When I was a youngster near Philadelphia, my sister and I would rise early to help make the potato salad and then dress up in red, white and blue. We packed our bathing suits and headed to our aunt’s house for a family barbecue. Pulling up to the house, we would see smoke pouring out from the grill where my uncles huddled, talking Phillies baseball. Walking in, we could hear Grandmom chiming in, talking up her favorite players.
We swam all day and ate until our bellies bulged. Then, my cousins and I would loop arm in arm, sitting on a blanket while our uncles lit fireworks in the field behind the house. Each year the fireworks grew larger, louder and brighter. This is what I assumed the Fourth of July was all about — a backyard barbecue surrounded by family. Only in 2010 when I deployed in the Army, did it hit me what Independence Day means.
Backyard barbecues and fireworks were something easily taken for granted until then. Thankfully, my first sergeant took opportunities overseas to always bring a little piece of home to us. Independence Day that year was no different. She put me in charge to celebrate the holiday just like we would have in the states, but even bigger, so I ordered stars, hats, streamers, posters and just about anything red, white or blue that the party store stocked.
Having reserved a gymnasium, our outfit headed there in the morning to decorate it top to bottom with patriotic decorations. The gymnasium was showered with American pride. I looked around at my peers wearing plastic flag hats and beaded necklaces, and I knew that being an American was truly something to be proud of. I was so proud in fact that I sported a Betsy Ross costume for the whole day.
After a year away from home, this federal holiday became far more than a homespun barbecue with a day off. It made me appreciate growing up near Philadelphia, the very location where our country declared its independence. I am proud to live in a country where I, as a woman, have the right to vote for who will lead my country. I am proud to live in a land where all men are created equal, with the same opportunities to succeed.
Every Fourth of July is a reminder of the blessings of living in a free country and raising our children in a place of limitless opportunities. I am honored each year to celebrate this, and so I open my home to friends and family to celebrate our country’s birthday.
Since starting my own family, each Independence Day is a big deal as we gear up in red, white and blue, get a cake, and decorate the house. Last year, my daughter wore a skirt sprinkled with white stars and red stripes, and across my son’s shirt was a patriotic monster truck.
We invite our friends — now considered family — over to celebrate at our house. I make a buffalo chicken dip (with just the right amount of kick) for everyone to enjoy while the burgers and hot dogs send their savory smells from the grill.
Each year means looking forward to watching my husband, the “grill master,” open the grill for onlookers to watch the cheese melt down, dripping onto the hot burning coals.
A buffet-style table loaded with condiments is where each person makes a custom burger — the highlight of course being Sweet Baby Ray’s tangy, sweet barbecue sauce.
Once the crowd is full and happy, everyone piles into a car and heads to the Fort Campbell carnival for rides and games until dark. Two years ago, after a failed first attempt, my son faced his fears and stomped bravely up the ramp into the Fun House with his chest puffed out. He conquered the distorted mirrors, the moving floors and the twisty slide, laughing through the whole thing. It was a proud moment never to be forgotten.
When the time for fireworks gets close, everybody meets back at the cars to enjoy a bright and radiant show. Fort Campbell fireworks are my favorite part of Independence Day, and our kids feel the same. Last year, we found an empty parking lot with a perfect view. I held my kids as we watched each splendid firework shoot up and then burst into the dark, night sky.
The silver fireworks that fall like popped champagne are always my favorite. My kids favor the
vibrant blue and red ones, while my husband is a fan of the grand and exciting finale. In those few dynamic moments, one forgets everything else as these big, beautiful sparklers go off, and we all remember how great it is to live in a country with so much freedom.
Once the fireworks are complete, the caravan heads home singing “Happy Birthday” to our beautiful nation. At home, out comes the delicious marble cake with whipped cream frosting, followed by a time of storytelling. For me, celebrating our independence is not only about cake and barbecue, it is about being with my loved ones in the greatest place on earth to live and pursue dreams.
Colleen Gravely is a U.S. Army veteran, stay-at-home mom and a full-time student at Hopkinsville Community College. Her husband, Thomas, currently serves in the Army, and they live in Fort Campbell, with their two children, Tristan, 3, and Lena, 2.