I dare you to find a happier place on Earth to be a kid, American or otherwise, than my neighborhood on the Fourth of July. I don't care if Mickey and Minnie dress up like George and Martha Washington this coming Independence Day, Disneyworld will have nothing on my "Magic Kingdom." We have balloon tosses, fire engines, hot dogs and brats. We will listen to John Phillips Souza blasted over loud speakers as every child in the five-block radius of Virginia Terrace makes his or her way up and down the block for the annual Grand Parade.
And my kids and I agree, the perfect way to finish off the festivities is with the Roman Candle, Black Cat and snap display that some how manages to crop up every year right in front of our house around eight p.m. It's pure pyrotechnic joy until the first kid steps barefoot on a sparkler. That scream though, usually around 8:45 p.m., serves a signal to the rest of the neighborhood that it's time to slather on the Deet, pack up the blankets and head over to the Village of Shorewood for the volunteer fire department's fireworks show.
But I'm going into my favorite kid-centric holiday a bit more solemnly this year. Because for the past week and a half, I've spent many of my evenings volunteering with The Road Home Dane County shelter program for homeless families. And I am reminded that the magic of July 4th isn't the same when you have no permanent neighborhood to celebrate it in.
The three families currently in the program have been staying on the lower level of Temple Beth El on the city's near west side. And while a typical Road Home rotation usually lasts just a week for congregations, this time around we had the rare opportunity to host the families for two weeks in a row.
This longer stretch has had the advantage of being less disruptive for the guests; it's one less time a family needs to stuff everything they own into labeled garbage bags for the move to the next host house of worship. But the two full weeks together also allowed volunteers and guests to get to know each other a little better than they might have otherwise.
I met a lovely mom of five who made the move to Madison last summer with her four younger children. The kids have settled nicely into school. Now they just want to settle into a permanent home.
Another young couple had two little ones and a third on the way. Her due date is mid-July. All the baby-loving volunteers not-so-secretly hoped the new arrival might come a bit early, during our host weeks. Who doesn't want to cradle a newborn in their arms?
But we were all sobered by the realization that if this did happen, the infant's first night "home" would be in an institutional basement. Much to my happiness though, the third family, an adorable first grader, his mom and older sister, has likely secured housing and will be moving out of shelter later this week. If all goes well they should be fully settled in to their new place by July 4th. Talk about giving new meaning to the idea of Independence Day.
I'm hoping I can even buy them a few fireworks, legal of course, as a homecoming present.
Because stepping on a sparkler always hurts. But it hurts a little less when it happens in front of a home you can call your own.