Origins of Fourth of July

Home of the Brave

By Bo Niles, 1998
Copyright © 1998 The Hearst Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Country Living, July 1998.

Independence Day is a good time to examine who we are and how we got here.

After nearly 30 years I take my neighborhood almost for granted, but on the rare occasion when I sit down and think about it, I find the place pretty amazing. On any given day within a few blocks of where I live, I can encounter people who represent more than two dozen nationalities or ethnic groups, men and women who have relocated to this country and to this city from enormous distances and vastly different cultures. I conduct my weekly errands at the Lebanese grocery, the Korean greengrocer, the Greek florist, the Chinese laundry, the French baker, the Indian tailor, the Israeli dry cleaner, the Japanese fish store, the Puerto Rican bodega. Our neighborhood is bracketed by a Russian Orthodox church and a newly erected mosque. At noon, when the neighborhood schools let out for lunch, students prattle away in French and Italian, which is not surprising when you realize that the French Lycee and Scuola Italiana back up to each other, only one block away from the kids' favorite Sicilian pizza hangout. All of these people have come -- as my ancestors once did -- to create a better life for themselves and their families in a New World.

Because I have lived in this utterly familiar place for more than half my life, I have almost forgotten what it must be like to pick up and leave everything behind to make a fresh start in an all-too-unfamiliar, unknown place. I say almost, because my family did exactly that back in 1958 when I had just turned 14. We picked up, left everything behind, and moved to Italy. But we went only for a sojourn, not for a lifetime. What we did was an adventure, and, one might add, an indulgence because we went for the music. My pianist-composer father had inherited some money, so my parents knew we would be comfortably set for a year or so. What we might have anticipated, but couldn't fully imagine ahead of time, was what it would be like to live as foreigners in another land. Finding a place to live, finding a school for us children, finding my parents a tutor in the language -- in other words finding a new life -- all were strange. Strange and scary and, ultimately, wonderful.

Overcoming that feeling of strangeness, or integrating that strangeness into one's experience, or adapting strangeness to a totally new way of feeling and being, is, to me, a truly brave act. I am in awe of the courage it takes to leave everything behind and, unlike our family, take absolutely nothing and create new life from only hopes, dreams, memories, and the clothes on your back. My family could never pretend to that degree of bravery when we moved abroad. And yet I believe it was courageous for my parents to make that break from their families, who criticized their move (especially with children) and wondered what on earth they were trying to prove. It was, I believe, brave of my parents to hope and dream that they could create a new life for us all that could be predicated on music and art. We were lucky that the culture in which we found ourselves nurtured those hopes and dreams. During our family's six years abroad, my father found out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, a discovery that he was able to translate into a new career when we returned to the United States for good.

History texts tell us about the millions upon millions of immigrants who have come to America as a consequence of war or persecution or famine. Most started over, slowly evolving new lives for themselves. Many learned new trades and skills. Some took -- or were given -- new names. Some assumed new identities. All wanted a better life.

On the Fourth of July when I look up at the American flag -- which flies so grandly at the head of so many parades and graces the facades of so many houses -- the star-studded blue appears to unfurl and, like the fireworks that also celebrate this day, burst forth into a sparkling canopy. Instead of 50 stars representing 50 states, I visualize a firmament of millions of stars, each star representing a culture and a language and a heritage that have all become a part of this land every one of us calls home. On this day, the flag seems especially vibrant. It invites us to look deeply into ourselves and consider the potential of who we are and who we might become in the land of the free, the home of the brave.

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