Every year, on the Fourth of July, the relatives on my mom’s side went to Grandmom and Grandpop’s house in northeast Philadelphia. A cozy neighborhood attracting a variety of European immigrants, Lawndale had blocks of row houses and twins with single homes mixed in. My grandparents lived in a brick two-story twin, which presided like royalty on a main corner of the neighborhood. My grandfather set up his shoe repair shop in the basement and there was a separate entrance around the corner for the customers. The smell of shoe glue and the sound of hammering reminds me of the Bazooka bubble gum my cousins and I would snag from the shelf in the back of the shop. There were only fifteen of us, including my aunts and uncles and cousins, but it felt like an army as we crowded Grandmom’s living and dining rooms to indulge in our holiday feast.
Our meal was unlike what my friends back home would be eating: hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, watermelon. You know, the usual Fourth of July food. Instead, our meal incorporated unusual favorites from my grandparents’ German heritage, including succulent bratwurst, a bowl of vinegary potato salad, red cabbage, a lone dish of pickled herring, and the dreaded German lunch meats. No, I didn’t eat the lunch meats. Just looking at them scared me. I’d learn years later that one of them, called head cheese, is a meat jelly made with the flesh from the head of a calf or pig. If that wasn’t bad enough, they’d also have “blutwurst.” Translated, it means “blood meat.” And the word tongue was involved in one of those delicacies. I felt sorry for the poor cow who wouldn’t be able to talk any more. Yuck. But there would always be orange soda, so that was a good thing. It was my grandmother’s favorite.
I remember being 11 or 12 years old before I got a taste of personal independence when I was allowed to walk to the local park with my cousins---and no adults. We’d skip the entire way down a couple blocks to the carnival held there every year. Our coins jingled in our pockets, ready to be spent on games and treats. I never won a stuffed animal there, but it was always exciting to try. We’d eventually find the ice cream truck, and take our good old time savoring the pictures of the ice cream choices before making our decision. I always picked a chocolate éclair Popsicle with the candy bar inside. It was a sweet ending to a sweet afternoon.
The grand finale would be the neighborhood fireworks display. Just past dusk, we’d suddenly hear the first boom, then a whoosh, and soon pinpricks of light exploded into starry arrays of color. We’d marvel at the showers of light for what seemed like forever. “Did you see that?” we’d say, or “That one was my favorite!” Our “oohs” and “aahs” followed each one.
I always wondered why we went to Grandmom’s on the Fourth of July when there were other holidays to choose from for our annual visit. Over the years, more and more stories were shared by my mom and aunt. With each detail, I’d fall in love all over again with the love story of my grandparents’ immigration to America despite all odds. They met in Germany but Grandpop wanted to come to the states first, so he could get established with a home and a business to provide for his anticipated family. Months passed before he sent for his true love, and Grandmom followed him, leaving all she knew, including her dying father, to join him in America.
Eventually they married, but I didn’t know until I was an adult what their anniversary date was.
It was the Fourth of July, fireworks and all.