The newest citizen in this morning’s 4th of July parade was less than three weeks old; the oldest arrived on the planet over one hundred years ago. The span of years between the tiny, swaddled infant riding in his mother’s arms and the frail old man waving to the crowd from a vintage Chevy was astonishing — a century’s worth of Independence Days come and gone for one, a very first public outing for the other.
The fact that they were both on hand to be honored on this steamy summer day seemed cause enough for holiday spirit. The sight of these two, the innocent babe and the proud centurion, put everything else into perspective: the down-home joy of a small town’s annual celebration, the comfort of tried-and-true traditions, the preciousness of this particular, never-to-be-repeated morning, the inevitable passage of time.
I tried to take it all in: my own parents, cheering on their two youngest grandchildren on their decorated bicycles; my brother and his wife, gamely marching alongside the trikes and training wheels; my husband snapping pictures; the multigenerational crowd gathered along Main Street; the antique tractors, the Shriners in their funny little cars, the kids with water balloons and squirt guns; the bagpipers, boy scouts, and baton twirlers; the fire trucks and vintage cars.
The 4th of July always feels poignant to me, a day when my heart lifts and, at the same time, feels heavy in my chest. It is the too-soon turn of summer, the moment when this brief season suddenly starts to feel over instead of still beginning. We go from one first after another — the first dinner on the porch, the first day it’s still light at nine, the first ripe strawberries, the first hummingbird at the petunias, the first nasturtium blossoms in the garden — to a glimpse of endings. The baby robins leave the nest, the foxgloves drop their blossoms, the furled goldenrod appears alongside the road, the school forms arrive in the mail, the sun sets a little earlier.
I guess I’m greedy. There is never enough summer for my liking, never a long enough day, never an afternoon that fully satisfies my yearning for more. “The strange part about being human,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote the other day in a reflection in the New York Times, “is that that ‘life’ so easily comes to mean a quantity of time, an allotment of experience. We note that we are alive, without recognizing that we are, for a time, indomitable organisms sharing a planet with indomitable organisms of every other kind.”
I’ve thought about those words all week. The mystery that delivers us into existence, the luck-of-the-draw allotment of time, the very fact of our own insignificance in the large scheme of things. And yet, because we are indeed human, we do need to invest our time on this earth with meaning. More and more it seems to me that the real meaning is not in the big moments, but in the chain of interconnected small ones, the ones we might miss altogether, so eager are we to get on to the next thing. A parade is a pretty good time to slow down, take a good look around, and remember the blessing of our being here. What we tend to forget, unless we are the awe-struck parents of a newborn, or the venerable holder of the Oldest Citizen cane, is that every moment in life is big.