Cardella: An American Holiday

By Tom Cardella:

Back in the day, July 4th really used to be something in our family. Grandpop was born on July 4th. We used to call it Independence Day. Maybe they still do, but I never hear the term anymore unless it’s some DJ introducing that Springsteen song. Anyway back then, most of our family lived in side-by-side row homes around 9th and Wolf.

My Aunt Betty’s back yard was, by today’s standards the size of a postage stamp, but we thought it was glorious. And it was big enough for our celebration. We even had family half-ball games back there.

All of us idolized Grandpop. He put the “grand” in “grandpop. A mane of silvery hair. The kind of hair that befits a king. He was beautiful if you can call a man “beautiful.” As were the roses that he grew in his garden. Roses, corn, and figs. That was Grandpop’s crop. Kind of summed up who he was — elegant and practical. He was what was best about the Old World. You knew that whenever Grandpop visited, he’d be armed with fresh corn and figs. And, of course, beautiful roses. He was our greatest contribution to America. Our Yankee Doodle Dandy.

He’d come here as a young man from the region near Naples. I never did find out exactly where. Italians like the Irish were vilified back then as lazy, dirty, and not bright enough for anything but back-breaking labor. Sort of like what we say about the new immigrants today. Yeah, I’m sure you’re about to remind me that our Grandpops came here LEGALLY. But it was an easier legal path back then. And it wasn’t as if he had much choice either. It wasn’t like he could swim the Atlantic or hope to cross in a row boat. And I have a feeling that if he had a family at that point and they were in danger of getting murdered in their own country, Grandpop wouldn’t have cared about the legal fine points either.

This Fourth of July doesn’t have the same feel as the ones back then. It isn’t only because Grandpop … and most of my family who worshipped him … have been gone a long, long time. It feels different now. Sure, folks still hang out the flag. The smoke from the BBQ still smells fragrant and sweet. Fireworks still light up the sky. Politicians give speeches extolling what they like to call America’s “exceptionalism.”

I’ve always thought our exceptionalism was based on a noble experiment. Kind of a crazy experiment at that. The idea that a nation of immigrants from countries the world over could somehow unify under one flag. That we could all believe in the same basic things even though we could fight like hell about the particulars. Hell, that’s what made us exceptional, not apple pie and baseball. But it all kind of rings phony now. The politicians know it. You know it. I know it. The world knows it. We really don’t believe in that noble experiment anymore. Oh, a lot of us still believe we’re exceptional. After all, this is our home. But pretty much everybody around the world believes their home is exceptional. The world believes in the concept of “Home Sweet Home,” unless, that is, some member of a drug cartel is raping and murdering their sister or their family is being systematically starved to death. And that’s when they swim the Rio Grande or walk hundreds or even thousands of miles to come here. To be safe. These desperate souls must be foolish enough to believe that the Statue of Liberty means anything more than a thing we can visit while we pretend that we still welcome the tired and poor humbled masses.

These new immigrants don’t look like us or talk like us. They eat funny food made of stuff we throw away sometimes. They worship religions that we kind of snicker about. They tend to have too many kids. Pretty much what the Anglos said and wrote about our own grandfathers more than a 100 years ago when they came through Ellis Island.

Truth is we like to ignore the fact that this nation of immigrants hasn’t always been so welcoming. We gave the cold shoulder to the shiploads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Turned them away with an indifferent shrug and sent them back to the death camps. We “relocated” Japanese-Americans (U.S. citizens, not immigrants at all) during World War II. Took away their homes and possessions and sent them packing to detention centers, ostensibly for their own safety like we separate the migrants today at the border. Only for their own safety, you may be assured. And now we’re even thinking about deporting the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants back to their homelands — the homelands they’ve never seen because they foolishly thought that this was their homeland. The law’s the law, you know.

So, we still fly our flags. We will gather in our backyards for BBQ. We will gather at Independence Hall and hear speeches from politicians that amount to patting ourselves on the back. And we will light up the sky with real pretty fireworks. We will all pretend as if nothing’s changed in America. Pretend we’re just one big happy family. The noble experiment is working just fine.

Grandpop is gone. So is the America I once knew.