Fourth of July in Sligo: Interesting, challenging, disorienting, hilarious
Kathleen Harris: Growing up in Texas, Independence Day was a huge pool party. Then we moved to the west of Ireland . . .
Kathleen Harris’s family and friends celebrate a Fourth of July in Texas
Stocking up for the Fourth of July was like preparing for an apocalypse. I would push the shopping cart – an American-sized shopping cart – up and down the wide aisles of the supermarket as my dad filled it. By the time we had made it to frozen foods, I’d have moved the bags of tortilla chips a half dozen times to keep them from sliding off the top of the pile.
Underneath, we would have an assortment of dips, burger buns and patties, cellophaned hot dogs, fresh brisket, canned beans, ingredients for the barbecue sauce and potato salad, corn on the cob, 12-packs of three kinds of soda and beer, and multicoloured popsicles shaped like Disney characters for the kids.
I grew up in north Texas, off the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. It’s a sprawl of strip malls and gas stations, asphalt you can see the heat rise from in waves. We had a ranch-style house in a somewhat leafy suburb with a big backyard and a pool, the kind without a diving board or proper deep end: a party pool.
My dad’s brothers and sisters rotated hosting holidays. Christmas at my uncle’s house, Thanksgiving at my aunt’s. Because we had a pool, Fourth of July was always at our place.
My brother and sister and I swam in that pool May through September every chance we got, and the occasional day in April and October. During summer vacation I would wake up and change from my pyjamas into a swimsuit and head straight for the backyard after breakfast. My skin would be golden and freckled by June, my blond hair bleached and streaked green from the chlorine. I loved that pool, and there was no better day for it than the Fourth of July.
Food preparations would begin the day before: the brisket and beans were best cooked slowly. On the day, my dad would work the grill in the backyard, singing along to the battery-powered boom box lying in the grass as my mom fixed up the salads in the kitchen. Friends and family flooded in clutching six-packs or casserole dishes – more food.
The kids would hop straight into the water, emerging thereafter only to grab a slice of watermelon or a soda from the ice box. I would wear my stars-and-stripes one-piece, even when I had grown too tall for it, the elastic painfully digging into my groin.
The adults would spend the afternoon wrapped around a cold beer, eating and moving between the white plastic lawn chairs on the deck and the shade of the patio. Texas is a mean kind of hot in July; if you are not in the water, your skin feels like it’s cooking.
Games of Marco Polo
After several trips to the table and many games of Marco Polo, we would all pack into cars and head to the hospital where my mom worked. She would punch in a code at the multilevel parking garage, and we would drive straight to the top. We would sit there, on the hoods of the cars, watching the fireworks over Trinity River. One year, when there was a particularly bad drought, the grass on the river’s banks caught fire. The water looked ablaze.
My family moved to Ireland when I was 19, to Sligo, where my mom grew up before moving to Texas in her early 20s for work and adventure. In those first few years, adjusting to life in Strandhill for my younger siblings and my New Yorker dad was interesting, challenging, disorienting, hilarious.
When it came to American holidays, making Thanksgiving happen was much easier than the Fourth of July. A day always spent outdoors moved indoors. The oven replaced the grill, Coca-Cola replaced root beer. Instead of up to 70 people to feed, there were just five of us. One year I bought red, white and blue napkins for the dinner table and turned on Bruce Springsteen – that’s as festive as it got.
The first year we were in Sligo for it, my dad went to the local butcher’s to buy brisket, a cut from the lower chest of beef that becomes tender as butter if cooked just right. The butcher didn’t understand what he wanted, so my dad drove back home, printed out a diagram of a cow – the “cow map”, as we called it – and went back to the butcher, who cut it especially.
To inject a bit of Americana into the whole affair, my siblings and I attempted s’mores for dessert. Traditionally they are a campfire treat: a marshmallow roasted on an open fire and a piece of chocolate sandwiched between two graham crackers. For our Irish version, we used Cadbury chocolate instead of Hershey’s, plain digestives instead of graham crackers and, since the Tesco didn’t carry large marshmallows at the time, a fistful of mini marshmallows melted together in the microwave. An oozy, crumbly mess. My girl scout 10-year-old self would have been appalled.
A shortage of certain American products, bad weather and well-meaning Irish relatives who keep showing up with the wrong foods have created strange, crossbreed versions of American holidays in our house. It has taken 10 years for me not to mind so much.
I recently visited the US, for the first time in five years. Summer was just starting. The seasonal aisles at the supermarkets were packed with foldable lawn chairs, ice boxes, citronella candles, foam noodles for the pool and s’more kits. It’s a strange feeling when something that was so familiar to you, that was once all you ever knew, becomes foreign – the amusing cultural artefacts of another.
Hybrid holidays are now what I know, my American past blending with my Irish present. Sure there are no more pool parties, but it’s easier to find the foods we loved – and we’ll always have Springsteen.