Independence Day has always been an important day for my family. Every year, we’d pile in the car and head to my grandparents’ house at the lake. The day before would be spent packing, planning, and anticipating the moment when we would arrive and be surrounded by our family. It was like this for every holiday, almost, but there was something special about 4th of July. There was a feeling of unity. We all came together for the same reason on that day: freedom. When I was a child I didn’t understand this as much. I had never known oppression or imprisonment, so I didn’t know the true value of the freedom I possessed. But as I got older, I became aware of how privileged I was to be able to call myself free.
When we got to the lake, my siblings and I would scramble to get out of the car and run to greet our cousins. My brothers and sisters and I were very close with our cousins when we were growing up, and since they didn’t live close to us, it was a moment of pure joy when we were reunited.
After helping our parents unload the car, we would hurry inside and change into our bathing suits before racing back out of the house, and down the lawn towards the water. We would be out there all afternoon, sitting on the docks with big slices of watermelon and laughing until our sides hurt. Since my cousin Haley and I were closest in age, I spent most of the time with her, and she was one of my best friends.
Most years we would go out on the boat and watch fireworks as the sun went down. Then, when we were all exhausted, we would make our way inside and all us girls would cram into one room for a sleepover. We made pallets on the floor and talked until one by one we dropped off to sleep. It’s times like these that I remember when I think about my childhood. Surrounded by my family and wrapped in love.
But as I grew up, and things got more complicated, our vacations at the lake house became more and more strained. My grandparents were getting older, and it was getting harder for my parents to wrangle us all to the lake every holiday with our busy lives. We all did our best to be there, but now things weren’t as happy and carefree as they had been.
Slowly, one year at a time, our holidays started to feel more like an obligation that we had to keep so we wouldn’t disappoint our families. My grandmother’s health started to fail, and my grandfather was always irritable. We had to tread lightly, even with our cousins. My family had taken a different path than theirs, and sometimes it felt like we couldn’t understand each other. While they went on vacations, we struggled to pay rent; and while we felt like we no longer belonged in the church as we once had, they refused to see that it was through any fault other than our own that we had doubts and questions that were never answered.
While I still longed to be as close to my extended family as I had once been, it was growing harder to bridge the gap that our differences created. I had to hide a huge and important part of myself that I knew they would never understand, and my sisters and I would go home crying and deeply hurt after almost every trip. I felt like they didn’t know me, and I missed the friendship Haley and I used to share.
When I was nineteen, my grandma’s health got a lot worse, and after a short while, she passed away. We gathered again at the lake to mourn her, and each of us felt that it would never be the same again. As we looked through photo albums of pictures of her and crying and laughing at memories, I felt for the first time in years that my whole family had something that connected them. We bonded over our sorrow, and leaned on each other for support at a time when we all felt broken and not quite whole.
That afternoon I slipped outside for a while to get some air, and Haley followed. We made our way towards the treehouse that we used to play in when we were children. We climbed the latter and got inside, sitting on the aged wood floors marked with carving of our names and stains from the mulberries we used to eat there.
Tears came to my eyes as I remembered that time of my life, and wished futilely that things could be that way once again.
“Catherine?” Haley’s voice shook me from my revery, and I looked up to see she was also crying. “I miss the way things used to be. I miss how close we were.”
I choked on a sob and leaned towards her, pulling her into a tight hug. I wished there was some way that I could erase all the pain we had felt, but I knew it wasn’t possible. So much had brought us to this point, and you’d have to erase more than a few disagreements to go back to how it was.
“I miss it too. I know we can never be like we were before, but I’ll always love you. We’re family, and even though our relationship has changed, it hasn’t ended. You’ll never lose me, Haley.”
She smiled weakly and took my hand. I knew that it would be different now, but I also knew that we were going to be okay.
It’s hard to let go of people that were so much a part of who you used to be. It’s like letting go of yourself, in a way. It’s giving in to the change that must happen, and that’s a hard thing to do. But if we never let go of the past, then we can’t move forward.
We looked out at the soft waves on the water and a sense of peace washed over me.
I’d spent so long wishing I could go back, that I hadn’t realized moving forward could be just as beautiful