Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Independence Day is not my favorite holiday. In fact, it’s my least favorite holiday, not because I lack patriotic fervor and not because I hate fireworks (although I do hate fireworks if they’re directly over my head)—no, not for either of those reasons. I certainly don’t hate the music, most of which was written by John Philip Sousa, and I even like the Bizarro version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” with its lyrics about ducks and mothers. In fact I love the music, and I used to love the annual telecast of the Boston Pops concert from the Hatch Shell. The evening always ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and televised fireworks over the Charles River. This year’s concert was performed at Tanglewood, although the fireworks still happened in Boston. Unfortunately our PBS station didn’t carry any of it, opting instead for A Capitol Fourth, which I didn’t watch and don’t have anything bad to say about except that it’s not the same thing. I like things to be the same. I like tradition. My problem with this particular holiday is that traditionally (for my family, at least) it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
First there was my maternal grandfather, Joseph Cabral Vieira, who arrived in New Bedford on June 2, 1903, on the S.S. Peninsular. He was 20 years old and traveling with his sister Virginia to join his mother, Amalia, and his brother and other sisters. He loved his new home. He soon met my grandmother at a dance, married her, and made a life for himself and his family in bustling New Bedford. His dream was to become an American citizen. First he had to learn to write his name, and he practiced, over and over, writing “Joseph Vieira” on pieces of paper. Years later, after I was born and learned to read, I found those scraps of paper inside a desk he had salvaged for my cousin Violet. His handwriting was shaky, and sometimes he put the “e” before the “s” so that it came out “Joesph Vieira.” But with time he improved, and he looked forward to the day when he would take the oath of citizenship.
Unfortunately, my grandfather was not destined to become a Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the day of the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, he arrived early, excited and nervous, feeling almost like a real, live, adopted nephew of his Uncle Sam. And then the unthinkable happened. Before he could take the oath he suffered a stroke, a small stroke but serious enough to prevent him from becoming what he wanted to be—a citizen of the United States of America.
Much later, on the morning of July 4, 1941, after a few months of walking with a cane, after his lifelong dream had been squeezed out of him, my grandfather went into the bathroom to shave and get ready for the day’s celebrations. As he stood at the sink in the bathroom of his first-floor tenement on Matthew Street, the unthinkable reoccurred, this time with force and cruelty. The second stroke killed him instantly.
Because he died before I was born, I knew my grandfather only through stories that were told and artifacts that provided tangible proof of his existence. There was the radio in my grandmother’s dining room, a piece of furniture taller than I was with mysterious dials that I wasn’t allowed to touch. At Christmas there was a celluloid Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by celluloid reindeer; if my grandmother or one of my aunts wound it up, it would move across the floor on tiny, hidden wheels. I wasn’t allowed to wind it up. There were stories about THAT DAY like, for example, how my grandmother sent my cousin Violet to Ti’ Frank’s house to fetch him; how Violet, not wanting to waste time getting dressed, raced down the sidewalks of New Bedford in her slip.
Years later, after my parents bought their first TV set, a Capehart that was way smaller than my grandfather’s radio, my mother and I watched the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. It probably was shown as a Fourth of July special. After watching it I started mentally connecting my grandfather to George M. Cohan, who looked like James Cagney and said he was born on the Fourth of July. Because he died on the Fourth of July, my grandfather could have been the Bizarro version of the song-and-dance man on a stage where everything was red, white, and blue. Actually, as I recently learned, the only proof of George M. Cohan’s birth date is a baptismal certificate saying he was born on July 3, 1878, but the July 4 date certainly makes the better story.
One U.S. president was born on Independence Day: Calvin Coolidge came into the world on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Would that make my grandfather the Bizarro version of President Coolidge? Or should he remain in the company of the three presidents who died on the Fourth of July? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And James Monroe followed on July 4, 1831. Let’s wave the grand old flag for all of them.
There were other incidents, not so terrible but not so nice, either. One Fourth of July my grandmother was sitting on her front porch minding her own business when a passing stranger tossed a firecracker into the air and it veered in her direction. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but the firecracker’s collision left her with a small black spot in the middle of the back of her hand. And in another fireworks-related accident, although this time not on the Fourth, my friend Evelyn, who was a majorette with the Dartmouth High School marching band, happened to be in the wrong place when a doofus in the stands threw a cherry bomb into the football field. Evelyn was OK, but the incident was serious enough to be reported in The Standard-Times.
Not all Fourths of July were bad, though, and the very best of them involved Evelyn and happened a long time ago. A few years ago I wrote about the Pickle Pin Club and the grand parades we organized every year. Those were the best Fourths of July ever, and you can read about them here: https://nancyvieiracouto.com/2016/07/03/encore-another-marvelous-fourth-of-july-parade-with-the-pickle-pin-club/
And, if you have survived the holiday, congratulations! Now let’s get ready for Bastille Day.