Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Rockwellian Fourth

Although Norman Rockwell lived and painted in Massachusetts, it has mostly been in Minnesota that I have regularly found myself, Twilight-Zone-like, smack dab in the middle of the cover of a vintage issue of The Saturday Evening Post. This isn't as creepy as you might think. In fact, it's sometimes quite pleasant.

Most recently, for example, my Morris dance team held its annual Fourth of July picnic in conjunction with the block party in the Saint Paul neighborhood where Matt and Deb live. This takes place on a street of charming small houses of perhaps 1920s vintage, very near each other, nearly all with porches. It's a street that people my age might imagine is inhabited entirely by old ladies, but no, the old ladies have gone on and the street now swarms with small children. I'm told that every summer evening the inhabitants sit out on their porches and hang out while the kids play, in front of different houses each night. Matt says that it is common to find a child and an unrelated parent sitting on a porch of a house in which neither of them lives.

For the Fourth of July the residents block the street off to traffic. Matt's neighbor sets up a canopy and plays dance music with his band for a couple of hours. My Morris team dances for a while. This year two sisters, giggling like the schoolgirls they are, performed a graceful traditional Hmong dance. Two other sisters played some tunes on their violins during a break in the dance music. Several grills were set up communally in the street and everybody put out side dishes and desserts. They also put out all manner of furniture right in the street, so that it looked like a massive outdoor living room.

My favorite part of the day is the official beginning at 10:30am: The bicycle parade. All of the children, and there are scores of them, line up on their scooters and tricycles and small bikes and large wheeled plastic animals. The smallest are in strollers. Then they parade once up the street and back down. Some of the children think they are having a race, but from my point of view it looks as if everybody wins.

What I like so much about the bicycle parade is that the pleasure the children take is huge and obvious, and yet the event requires absolutely no money or special equipment or anything at all except the group gathering to make it happen. Children as young as two talk about the bicycle parade for days in advance, and for the three- and four-year-olds it's as key a part of their yearly cycle as Halloween or Christmas.

Deb says that the reason the parade and the whole event is such a huge deal for the kids is that it is the one day of the year when they can play in the street. Even though the street is quiet and residential, Saint Paul is laid out in a grid and it is common for people to drive through these quiet streets at wildly inappropriate speeds. These kids know from the time they can crawl that going into the street without an adult is absolutely forbidden. This is much too important for any parent to be anything less than completely strict about, always.

But on July 4th the street is theirs, and there are many long tables set up with food they can eat -- food made by other kids' parents! No wonder the day is so special and mythic for them. (And not just because of the Morris dancing, although this year we taught them all a simple dance.) It's all of the kids and all of their parents and hot dogs and brownies. There are many small but distinctive characters for Mr. Rockwell to paint.

The Braggarts themselves bring out some fancy foods, homemade ice cream and desserts made with fresh July berries; we are very much a foodie team. We do put out many side dishes on the communal tables (I myself made a fancy tortellini salad with lots of fresh basil and an olive-oil garlic lemon marinade that disappeared very quickly), but we also keep some aside for our own canopy. Matt and Deb provided beer for us all as well as for the dance band.

Maybe next year I'll borrow a unicycle and ride in the bicycle parade.
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