I haven’t written this out before and I can’t figure why it suddenly popped back into my mind with such clarity except that it was one sure memorable Fourth of July.
It’s been a lot of years since 1976. Thirty-nine years. If I whirl into the past to that time (for that is the sensation: one of rapid flight through a huge and disorderly picture book) a frenzy shapes it all, that desperado overlord of young motherhood in Brooklyn demanding more of a day than could possibly be managed. Reflecting back on that, I may excuse myself for being out on a major roadway, late afternoon, Fourth of July in a crowded New York borough without having thought what on earth I was thinking to have done something so dumb. If any New Yorker had not left town in July they had certainly left the house by now to follow the siren song to terrific holiday fun. Well, my answer is simple. I usually did what had to be done without evaluating the consequences. I had gone out for the money. Now heading back to the neighborhood after a long day in Coney Island, my little boy in tow. I’d taken him with me so I could get sign painting jobs without having to hire a babysitter. It’s the kind of thing I’d be chucked in the hoosegow for these days for child abuse, as Coney Island was seedy, sticky, dirty, dangerous. Trevor was four years old and I’d been doing this since he was newborn. I was a distracted bohemian poor excuse for a mother who sometimes had to be asked by friends or strangers if I’d remembered to feed my son that day or why he was missing his socks or told that redheads need to have a hat in the summer sun. I treated him a lot like I treated myself which was a bit rough and a bit badly. That day however I had gotten us hot dogs and French fries and root beers before leaving the amusement park, which made me feel rather proud of my brilliant parenting skills. We were stuffed and happy. I had even added ice cream cones because I’d earned a nice piece of change painting a mural on the front of Big Jimmy’s Jumpin’ Shootin’ Gallery (hit the ducks, five shots for a dollar). Trevor sitting next to me. (The prosecution rests.)
I must say I cannot help but marvel at the monumental contrast in every aspect of today’s motherhood with 40 years ago. Parenting, if done singly, sure was something you did alone those days in a big city. I never got offered a seat on the subway during my pregnancy. One time I got robbed by a teenaged girl in the local grocer’s when I was seven months on with her threat of a beating to ”make that baby come out in the store” if I didn’t fork over the $20 bill in my hand. The shopkeeper, a friend! looked the other way. And I worked every day, until labor started. I was up a ten foot ladder painting a mural in the Westbury Long Island Music Fair lobby five hours before giving birth after a frenzied trip to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. (I got paid early, it covered the bill of $150; thank you, Don Gilman).
And I will never forget one day racing like an engine on fire to a billboard painting job in Brooklyn….I had just dropped Trevor off at the lower Manhattan babysitter. The sign painter shop owner had a firm rule, one minute late and you didn’t get sent out on the job ~~ you got sent home. The taxi I could ill afford sped across the Brooklyn Bridge but was soon halted in its tracks by some son of a bitch I cannot forgive who’d chosen that morning to kill himself by leaping in the waters far below. Traffic stopped, sirens blared, nothing moved until the emergency was surrounded. By the time I got to the job I was three minutes late. I blamed the jumper, cried out that it would make the headlines in all the papers, believe me! and please give me the day’s work I need it, please! But the boss glared steely-eyed at me and said, Hey. Nobody told you to have a baby. Get lost, go home. I did.
Well life was like that, it just was, hardship was the juice sluicing the day’s tempo. I was on my own and there were more brutal edges than easy rides and you had to invent your pleasures out of thin air and take a good time where you found it. I still had hours of work ahead of me once we got home and I knew it. The thirty minutes or so that the car trip took was going to be the only relaxing part of the day I’d get and maybe (if lucky) see bed by midnight. It was warm and sunny that July Fourth, a beautiful blue skied prettiness in the air. Everyone not heading out to Coney Island for rides, dancing, beach fun and nighttime fireworks was heading into the city for the spectacular light and sound show NYC really knows how to put on. This was a special year, a very special year: the 200th Birthday of America, 1976.
For months, each day brought a new story about what was in store for us, most of them about The Tall Ships. It might have been the first of the tradition that became a yearly event. We’d all heard about the massive American flag that had been specially made for the event, to hang from the cables at the top of the Verrazano Bridge, across the center facing the water (rather than road traffic) to welcome the sailors. A week ago it was finished and delivered, and they’d hauled it into place. Some tricky job that high with something so huge. To everyone’s shocked amazement, within minutes of hanging it high, the winds up there shredded the flag to ribbons. Small flags on the guy wires were substituted. But we all knew whose birthday it was for the newspapers and radio and TV reported on all the human stories, the events planned, the politicians attending, the best place to see fireworks and ships, details were non-stop. New York was doing it up royal with a year of preparation leading to this Bi-Centennial Birthday.
Well there we were, mother and son in my beat up old Chevy heading back home and getting into thicker and thicker traffic and going slower and slower. We were on the Belt Parkway, which is a fabulous road I know and I adore. It hugs the river at the outskirt edge of Brooklyn, passing under the beginning earth-bound span of the Verrazano. You’re never far from the water. There’s a slim and pretty run of land between the road and the river that’s got grass and flowers and park benches and paved sidewalk, well used by a pleased public. For most New Yorkers, schedules prevail and stopping to smell the roses does not, so it was a road you could travel often without really being aware of its form and style and charm. The Belt Parkway was certainly not the center of anything, it was just a link to more important places. Nobody had reason to suppose that this part of Brooklyn might be included in the July 4 festivities.
Well as I said traffic slowed to a snail’s pace and that finally turned to a dead stop. We were next to the Verrazano Bridge, a beautiful span of architectural genius that was briefly the longest suspension bridge in the world; it connects Brooklyn and Staten Island. It was right there. As for the roadway, we were bumper to bumper as far as you could see in both directions, absolutely packed with only a couple of inches between the cars. Then suddenly The Tall Ships were there! Right in front of us!!
Apparently, The Tall Ships had gone up the Hudson in parade formation, sailed past Manhattan, come down the Narrows and were passing under that perfectly beautiful Verrazano right before our eyes. It was unbelievably stunning. Sailboats and clipper ships from all over the world appeared, broad spotless canvas whipped by the wind, white water bursting up alongside restored and ancient wooden bows as their underbellies sliced through the river and it just took your breath away. America’s red, white and blue flew from every mast. It made your heart stop. It overwhelmed the senses. The Tall Ships were vast and brilliant and blazingly heroic and nobody could get enough of them.
You just could hardly believe what you were seeing. For miles and miles cars had come to a standstill. New York City’s reputation would have called for ear shattering horn blowing at the traffic jam, furies of shaking fists, hurled epithets, donnybrooks and murder. Instead there was an absolute, total, complete, compliant silence.
Not one horn blew. Not one voice raised up. Radios were stilled. One by one, all of the people parked unexpectedly on the jammed up Belt Parkway shut down their motors. You could hear the wind move around you! The sound of water thrown against the river barriers! In New York! And a kind of mass phenomenon began to happen. I’m willing to bet no New Yorker had figured anything like it yet it started spontaneously and went on universally taking in every single person on that road. It was impossible. It was miraculous.
All of us, as if participants of a rehearsed ballet, were drawn from our cars. We turned our faces and bodies toward the water. We stood still and watched what nobody knew was going to be there in front of us. Sailing ships on parade. It seized your heart.
I got out too, and I lifted my four year old son onto the hood of our car. Mind you, we’re on a major thoroughfare surrounded by cars, all parked in place! Too bizarre. Then in hushed voice (to continue the moment’s dignity), my arm around him, I explained America’s 200th birthday, and the sweet sailing ships, and our citizenship, to the American child watching this with me. I could see the fleeting images of miracles reflected in his eyes, adventures of his own making spread, visible, through his mind and body.
The stillness, the whole huge emotional happy pride that thrilled everyone in their stilled cars for miles both directions that lasted a good fifteen minutes at least, maybe more. We waved to the intrepid sailors and they waved back! Then the ships passed out of view to begin the process, further down river, of negotiating their turns to come back.
Quiet continued to prevail along the parkway. There was not a single raised voice. The faces of people around me were, like my own felt and must have looked, aglow with the wonder of this, some near tears, everyone moved, thunderstruck by ourselves! By what we were witnessing!
Gradually all those New Yorkers stuck in traffic got back inside their cars. It was slow, thoughtful, even moody. Engines started up. And then as if on cue, the cars on the Belt Parkway, three lanes wide, began to move.
Trevor and I looked at each other. Pretty amazing, huh? I said. He was wide-eyed happy from it, too. He snuggled half in my lap and fell into a well-earned sleep and I put my arm around him. It was long before the days when child’s seats even existed in some fascist social engineer’s brain that now set children and parents separated on car trips. Foolishly distant, not touching not making any contact but sitting back to back! What gross horror.
But this was then, the good old days, and we were sticky and hot and tired and glued together with it all. We were both needing a good bath and change of clothes. I still had paint on me and Trevor was wearing some of the ice cream cone on his little yellow tee shirt. In truth we were wonderfully decorated for the holiday and it made me happy. It made me laugh out loud.
We picked up speed slowly along with the other cars around us. The crowded lanes began to open as we put some distance between each other and a kind of Brooklyn normalcy returned. The sun was beginning to go down enough so you could spot the first pale emerald green flicker of a fireworks spray that exploded into a huge dandelion shape over the waterway, in the sky, up ahead.
Happy Birthday, America. We will always be country ready for unexpected change, with the good people in it outnumbering the bad, and knowing who we are and knowing what we want.
And the times, and there are too many (maybe even unfairly), that I think I never got any part of motherhood right or did anything good for that little boy of mine I can pull this memory out of the mix and be warmed by it, being sure I passed something on that day, full of caring for him and what he learned and how he might grow up, the example of a tradition that I could show him and teach him, and by way of a special holiday that drew my son and me closer to each other than I’d ever thought to be making time for.
I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I got touched by a loving motherhood that night that had previously eluded me. I picture it in the way a July 4 sparkler maybe would be held above the mom’s head in a benediction, bright jumping around happy promise lit on one end and some kind of fairy godmother holding it on the other end, saying it’s all gonna work out okay. Don’t worry, honey. You’ll be fine.
Not bad for the day’s celebration of freedom and liberty.
Happy July Four, 2015, everyone. Happy Birthday, America.