If asked to recall poignant Fourth of July memories, most people would probably summon up fireworks and cookouts, flag-bedecked houses and small-town parades. While I have certainly seen my share of Fourth of July pyrotechnics, my most enduring memory of the 4th is a bittersweet one….the first time I recall seeing my mother cry.
I was seven years old, out for lunch with my parents that 4th of July at my favorite restaurant in the world , Hamburger Junction, where a model train ran from the kitchen, down the entire length of the counter and back into the kitchen. It was that toy train that delivered your hamburger, on a flatbed car, right to your place at the counter. The piece de resistance was a tiny gorilla leaning out of the caboose waving a flag. Such is the stuff of childhood memories!
Returning home that afternoon, I went out to play with my friends in the neighborhood. I came home some time later and was greatly perplexed and distraught to discover my mother sobbing in my father’s arms. At seven years of age I could not remember ever having encountered such a scene and I was at a total loss to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. I soon learned that my maternal grandmother had died that very afternoon, having suffered a sudden coronary while out of state. It was my first conscious awareness of death and how it intrudes in the lives of even the happiest of families, even on the most joyous of days in the calendar.
That memory informs my every encounter not only with the Fourth of July, but also my every reading of a list of yahrzeit names when we worship. I sit down before each service and read not only the names of those we will recall just before we recite Kaddish, but also the person by whom they are remembered….children, spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. They form a web of loss, yearning, sometimes complicated emotions and, of course, memory.
Like the chrysanthemum-like fireworks that burst overhead and leave a fading trace on our retinas, the memories of our loved ones may fade into darkness but they can always be summoned up…..like memories of the most vibrant fireworks display we ever saw. Such is the gift of memory.