Continuity: Spending the Fourth of July in the front yard

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Some time near the end of June, Grandma would take a satisfied look on her first-of-the season rows of jams and jellies, close the pantry door softly, take a seat in her old rocker and, when enough of us were around, ask, "Now, what will we do for the Fourth?" It would be the official signal that we could begin talking and planning for it.

"Let's have a picnic," someone would say, excitedly, as if the idea was new and not the way we had celebrated the Fourth as long as anyone could remember.

"Will the tomatoes be ripe?" someone would ask, as if that were a prerequisite for the picnic. And, for all I knew, it was. I've often wondered if the tomatoes would have failed whether or not we'd have had the picnic.

This question would be followed quickly by another, "Will all the hay be in?" That was important, for if it wasn't, no hours of leisure could have been justified.

It being determined that both tomatoes would be ripe and the hay in the loft, plans went forward.

When I think back on those early picnics, I marvel at what a Big Event they seemed to be when all we apparently did was take the food that would ordinarily be eaten at the kitchen table out under the big walnut tree in the front yard and eat it there.

Grandpa and Dad would have set up the sawhorses and put long boards on them for the table. It took two tablecloths to cover them. Then, out of the kitchen, Mama and Grandma, my sisters and I would carry the big platter of fried ham swimming in red-eye gravy, the potato salad, baked beans, creamed new peas, fried apples, green onions, sliced cucumbers, pitchers of buttermilk, and, of course, the ripe tomatoes piled high into a bright red pyramid. We didn't know what potato chips were then. Paper plates and paper napkins were foreign to our economy.

Just to see ourselves eating in unaccustomed places -- Dad, leaning against the walnut tree, Mama sitting in the hammock, Lou in the little red wagon -- made the day different and special. Penny, the dog, was ecstatic with the unusualness of it. The cats curled around our legs purring their contentment. There were no louder noises than the blue jays wondering aloud at our departure from routine, the faraway cowbells in the hills and, down in the creek, a bullfrog going "Gurr-rump!"

There was no hurry to get back to the fields. The hay was in for another season, assuring our cows and horses food for another winter. There was a lull in the re-stocking of the pantry and cellar. It was a day to look out over our little corner of America and take note, however small, that this was an important day in our history.

Later, when Grandpa and Grandma were gone and we had moved to a small village, a few days before the Fourth, Dad would say, "What will we do for the Fourth?" After considerable silence, during which everyone was apparently deep in thought, someone would say, as if it had never been said before, "Let's have a picnic!"

Dad would look at Mama and even before he asked, she answered, "Yes, the tomatoes will be ripe." The hay was no longer a consideration, but the yard was always cut so we'd have the proper new-mown-hay odor.

So, again, out into the front yard we carried the food and set it, this time, on card tables. There were lawn chairs, too. The sounds were those of motored vehicles going by, a baseball game underway at the edge of the village, and a sparse banging of firecrackers. The food had changed some. The former fried ham, cured by us, had given way to slices of store-bought baked ham. But there was still the big platter of sliced, home-grown tomatoes, oozing red goodness.

When my own home was established and the first Fourth came around, I said, "What shall we do for the Fourth?" Fearing the suggestion of a long, hot trip to some mosquito infested fishing hole, I answered my own question, "Let's have a picnic." And so we did, out in the yard under the shade of a maple tree. I would have started my tomato plants in February, in a sunny south window, in order to have ripe tomatoes by the Fourth. There were ham salad sandwiches, potato chips and soft drinks, paper napkins and paper plates. The bang of firecrackers, cherry bombs, rockets, etc., etc., from all around was the whole explosion of the American Legion picnic right across the road, succeeded by the Jaycees Picnic, but that, plus bumper-to-bumper traffic, didn't detract from the beauty and goodness of the slices of big red ripe tomatoes.

Recently, the fourth generation (as I have known for generations) called to say, "What shall we do for the Fourth?" I gave him time to answer his own question and, sure enough, it was "Let's have a backyard picnic?"

"Fine. I'll rustle up some home grown ripe tomatoes. Bring that little beginner of the fifth generation. It'll be her first Fourth! Maybe even her first taste of tomatoes. I'll get the yard cut so it will smell like new-mown hay. What? You're all on a diet! Well, you'll have to eat some ripe, first-of-the-season tomatoes. It's a Fourth of July law!"


This story by the late columnist and author Jean Bell Mosley was originally published on July 1, 1979. Her memoir "And God Answered" is now available in stores.

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