Whenever the 4th of July rolls around I get a squirrely feeling that I’m not patriotic enough.
This is probably because my parents were from foreign countries (New Zealand and Lithuania – have you ever met anyone who is “New Zealand/Lithuaniaish”? I bet you haven’t.) When I was a kid it wasn’t like we were sitting around watching football and grilling cheeseburgers or anything. Every 4th my dad would make a point of hanging the New Zealand flag outside our house. Not only that – he would play Scottish bagpipe music on the stereo, instead of something American. I still haven’t memorized all the words are to the national anthem, so I lip sync them. The only remotely patriotic thing my father did was crash the 4th of July parade in his WW II army jeep, waving at everybody like he was General Patton.
Fast-forward to now. I’ve married an Irishman who is not a citizen but is probably more American than I am. Tonight at dinner (BBQ ribs, grilled corn, and red, white, and blueberry jello! How’s that for patriotic?) he asked me to tell the kids about the meaning of Independence Day. It took me about a minute to tell what I know – the British, taxes, the Boston Tea Party – blabbity bla bla. When I finished he was looking across the table at me as if there was supposed to be more. Way more.
I don’t know about other moms but I’ve pretty much cooked down what I know about history into little Cliff’s Notes sound bytes that I can dole out to my kids now and then so they think I know what I’m talking about. The truth is I often don’t know what I’m talking about. I have to Google it. I don’t know the in-depth historical facts that I should, or that my Irish-born husband thinks I should. I’m wondering if this is an American thing, or just a me-thing.
He said, “A lot of Americans think Samuel Adams is a beer.”
I had no idea who Samuel Adams was in history and it didn’t occur to me that he was anyone. I only knew him as a beer. (And I went to seriously swanky private schools.) (Maybe that’s my problem?)
I said, “Tell us what you know about Independence Day.”
I figured he really didn’t know much about it. He’s not an American citizen, was born in Ireland, and was playing Christy Moore on the stereo – instead of Bruce – on the 4th of July.
Well. He told us all about Paul Revere, and the history of Independence Day, and who signed the Constitution. He told us how America wasn’t always the most powerful country in the world – Rome was (I knew that). He told us that in order to understand Rome, and America, we needed to to understand different periods in history.
He started with the Mesopotamians in 11,000BC, then moved onto the Egyptians and the Greeks.
“Then came the Romans, of course,” he said as if we should all know this because we’re American citizens or something.
“Of course,” I said. (I knew that but I always get the timeline jumbled.)
“After Rome fell, you had the Dark Ages – Rome was conquered by the Visigoths, the Goths, and the Huns.”
I was thinking: The watchamahoozits? and: Aren’t Goths the people who wear black nail polish in high school? Did I miss something?
He said, “Ever heard of Atilla the Hun, Ella?”
She said no. At least she has an excuse – she’s only six. I was trying to Google my brain – why didn’t I know who Attila the Hun was? I once knew more, but I’d long forgotten. He told us how Attila was a foe of the Romans and then moved on with his Quick Tour of World History for Ignoramuses.
“Then you had the Age of Enlightenment…various empires,” he said.
“What empires?” I asked. (Really – what I wanted to know was whether or not he had forgotten something, because if he had I would feel a whole lot better about myself.)
“Well – you had the Australo-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empires, the Czars, the French kings, the British kings…”
I was frantic: did we even cover this shit in high school, in college? If we had, why couldn’t I remember it?
“After that you had the European empire, the Age of Discovery – I’m not really sure what it’s called.”
Ella wanted to know why it was called the Age of Discovery. She looked at me for an answer.
I had no idea what they discovered in the frigging Age of Discovery. The wheel? Gold? No, that was the 49ers. But aren’t they also a football team? My mommy brain went all higgledy-piggledy, even worse than usual.
“Ships went out to discover new lands,” he told her. “After that were the Victorians under Queen Victoria – ‘We are not amused’ is what she said a lot.” (He listed a bunch of people related to monarchs I can’t remember.) Then there was World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and presto: here we are today in America, where you were born. The most powerful country in the world.”
After the girls left the table he went a little deeper into – I’m not kidding – how in 534 the Byzantines retook Africa from the Vandals. Holy shit, okay? I had no idea that vandals were anything other than destructive graffiti taggers. As I listened to him discuss world history (and he wasn’t even a history major) I was shocked at my own lack of ability to retain historical knowledge.
When I asked him about this, he said he thinks it’s America’s schools – that they don’t teach the same way the Irish schools did in his day.
“You had no choice but to learn it, and then remember it,” he joked. “The Jesuits beat it into us. Obviously, it’s a superior educational system.”
So…we had a nice 4th of July and my kids and I learned something about America’s place in the history of the world. I bet when they grow up though, the only thing they’ll remember is that their parents were playing Christy Moore on the stereo instead of some American band. That’s the way kids are.
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