Going to watch fireworks is the last thing I want to do on the Fourth of July. I’m mulling over the possible excuses and reasons I can present to get out of it as Bob and I walk the dirt road, scanning the blossoms on the elderberry bushes. We’re checking to see if any of them are open yet. Today is the solstice, and Bob, the girls and I want to drink elderflower and lemon thyme tea before going out to play and sing for the fairies in the woods behind the house.
Elderflower and lemon thyme tea helps to thin the veil between worlds. It is an assumed truth in our household that the fairies’ world is right here, in this same place, but a veil of perception separates us. On certain nights of the year, that veil grows thin, and drinking the herbs as a tea helps us to see through it.
But I can’t get my mind off the Fourth. I’m down right sullen about driving down into town, facing all that heat and traffic, just to watch some stupid fireworks.
But we’re supposed to, because we are hosting a foreign exchange student from Madrid this month. Her name is Martina*.
Dove, who graduated two years ahead of me in school, is coordinating the program. Every year, she goes on a campaign to find enough host families to welcome these students to the area. She posts signs on telephone poles across Cobleskill, puts bulletins out on Facebook, pulls every string she can to get people to open up and take someone in.
We have the perfect excuse not to. Summer is our busiest season. And these kids are coming to see America. The real America. We don’t actually live there.
Yet Bob and I, without any real discussion, both suddenly feel compelled to open our home. We contact Dove, details are arranged, and Saoirse and Ula are over the moon with excitement. Martina is 17. She is an only child, and she has always wanted to have siblings, a dog, and to try roasting marshmallows. We feel uncertain we can introduce her to the real America, but we can offer those things.
Dove stops by the cafe and brings me a schedule: the dates the exchange students will be taken to New York City, to Boston, to a baseball game in Troy, to.a shopping mall?!… I shudder. and wince.
“Why would anyone want to go to these places in July?” I ask.
Dove’s eyes are bright. She laughs. She’s known me since childhood. She is as surprised by our willingness to participate in this program as we are, but she’s delighted. Knowing my distate for the topic, she gives me one word in answer: “Shopping.” The consolation she offers is that, while our family is welcome to join the larger group on these trips, our participation is optional. I will not be expected to take Martina shopping, thank goodness. But, she tells me, “they want to see fireworks.” And those are my responsibility.
I consider the America I imagined sharing with Martina. Fourth of July in West Fulton doesn’t come with a fireworks show. It is backyards with little fires….wood-smoked sausages and fish, tasty bites of casual little finger foods, an abundance of berries and whipped cream. Last fourth of July there was no single location of a gathering. It felt like neighbors just wandered from fire to fire, or simply stood in the roads, most of them barefooted, beers in hand, laughing and hugging and letting the night be timeless.
It’s common knowledge in our town that West Fulton is the only place to be in July, between the shady trees, the swimming holes, the hiking trails, the quiet roads for biking, the company, and the good food grown in everyone’s backyards. For nighttime entertainment we’ve got lightning bugs, thrushes, the occassional guitar, and lots of stories to catch up on from the neighbors who can only make it home for this month each year. We’ve even got our puppet festival coming up this weekend.
And, of course, we still have a resident fairy population, which we worry is getting pushed out in other towns.
These things are my America in July.
Part of me frets that Martina will feel trapped, isolated from metropolitan culture, disappointed that she’s not witnessing the real America that she’s imagined from media depictions. The other part of me shrugs it all off. Maybe the fates are bringing Martina to us for a reason. This might not be the America she has heard about, but it is America nonetheless. Just a different one.
Saoirse and Ula share none of my worries. When Bob and I get home from our hunt for Elderberry flowers, they are on the computer with Martina, meeting each other for the first time over Skype. Saoirse tries to tell her the socioeconomic history of West Fulton. Ula wants to talk about the proper way to hold a turtle. Martina asks how far we live from a shopping mall.
Both girls fall silent.
“Ummm….I think there’s one in… Cobleskill?” I hear a question in Saoirse’s voice. She’s not confident in her answer. I frown. COBLESKILL? There’s no shopping mall in Cobleskill! Where is this coming from? “But they’re not very big here,” she adds. “They have big ones in Albany. That’s about an hour away.”
And then I realize. Saoirse doesn’t actually KNOW exactly what a mall is. The awkward thirteen-year- old who feels compelled to explain the socioeconomic history of West Fulton, who obsesses about the nuances of how coffee particle size impacts the flavor of an espresso shot, whose favorite store is Goodwill, doesn’t know the definition of shopping mall.
When she comes outside to sit down with Bob and me for morning coffee, we look at her quizzically. “We don’t have malls in Cobleskill,” I begin.
“Well, there’s places to shop, right?” She shrugs, grabs our coffee pot and pours herself a cup. She drinks it black.
“But you’ve seen a mall before,” Bob pushes. “That’s where the Apple store is.”
“I want to go on that trip,” Ula pronounces as she sits down with us.
“Me too!” Saoirse adds. She’s on her sister’s side?!
Bob and I can’t quite figure out how to respond.
“Why on earth, in the month of July, would you want to go walk around a shopping mall that you’ve been to before?” Bob asks.
Saoirse puts her mug down, leans back in her chair, then crosses her arms and gazes levelly at both of us.
It is Ula who answers first. “We go to the mall when you need to grab something. Then we run out again. We don’t even walk. We’ve never actually been there!”
“You see,” Saoirse coolly addresses us both. “For the next month, we’re the foreign exchange students.” Saoirse jabs her thumb at herself and Ula. “We’re going to see this other America.”
I wince. She’s absolutely right. Bob and I have raised our children in yet another parallel universe. We’ve traveled extensively as a family, but we don’t really allow our children to dip their toes into this foreign land that shares our borders. It’s more mythical to them than the fairies.
So at dusk on this night of the solstice, we brew the tea. We set four porcelain cups on the kitchen table and each of us drinks. The tea is hot and intensely yellow. We swallow it down, then pour ourselves more, drinking and drinking until the pot is empty. We stand up, ready to peer into the world of the fairies, but also ready to peer into the other America.
*Actually, her name isn’t Martina. But she’s under 18 and not my kid. So for the sake of her privacy, it’s Martina!