In my childhood memories, the Fourth of July might have lasted all summer, the same way a summer day drags and stretches on long and slow, the hot sun beating on the fresh-cut lawn, its clippings stuck to my damp feet as I walked to the garden to snag a taste of a sugar snap pea or pull on the top of a carrot to see how they’re coming along.
Growing up on a ranch in North Dakota, you quickly learn that the work is never finished, especially in the summer when the fences need fixing along with everything in between them. But when it came to Independence Day, my family was always sure to take a breath, take a break and head to the water.
In the years when Dad couldn’t get away from the ranch for long, the holiday meant loading up the lawn chairs and digging around those carrots to look for worms so we could plant our fishing poles in the bank of the Little Missouri River or the shore of Lake Sakakawea.
But mostly it meant packing up our best red, white and blue for a road trip to my grandparents’ lake cabin in Minnesota where we would eat summer sausage sandwiches while we watched the boat parade from the shore, waving our little American flags before sticking them in the lawn where we played croquet and sat around the campfire singing and pulling our hoods up around our faces to ward of the swarm of mosquitoes. Many times the holiday would be the only trip we would get to take in a summer filled with putting up hay, fixing broken down swathers, moving cattle to new pastures and completing our 4-H woodburning/gardening/rabbit/latchhooking projects. Which is maybe why being by the water in Minnesota always felt so luxurious to my sisters and me.
For a long weekend, we got to ditch our jeans for cutoffs and swimsuit tops, our boots for flip-flops and wear a sundress to the flea market down the road and pretend we were from a big town somewhere. We got to be a part of a culture that was laid-back and lazy, lounging and reading magazines on a beach towel with nowhere else to be. We ate chips and drank pop and took evening strolls on the bicycle-built-for-two on paved roads while the neighbors in fancy cars slowed down to wave us by.
We took the boat out and bobbed in the water while our aunt attempted to get us up on skis — because we were lake people, tan and smelling of sunscreen, aloe vera and bug spray, and lake people know how to ski. It doesn’t matter if it’s for three minutes after a 30-minute attempt at a lesson.
I’m all grown up now, raising young daughters of my own on the ranch where I was born, but each year the Fourth of July comes around and I feel like that 10-year-old girl again. And so I follow suit with plans to head to that Minnesota lake to meet up with family and transform for a moment.
My overworked husband lets the sun hit the places on his body that are perpetually covered in fire-retardant fabric and denim. He pulls out his dusty tackle box and fishing poles and gets to tangling and untangling, heading first to the bait shop for smelt and earthworms, because the Fourth of July smells like fish and dirt. And my young daughters become the mermaids they were born to be, jumping and splashing in the cool water until the sun goes down, the campfire flickers and their fins turn to dancing feet while Papa Gene plays guitar and their cousins twirl them around.
Because the Fourth of July sounds like “This Land is Your Land” sung in my father’s voice as the fireworks crack and pop across the lake. And I turn into a version of myself unconcerned with deadlines or supper on the table, a lake person with no fences to fix or cows to chase from the garden, with a little sunburn on my cheeks, a little less weight on my shoulders and a little grass at my feet, thankful for our freedom and the eternal summer stretching out before us.