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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

This Fourth of July is the fourth anniversary of my dad's death, an event that has forever changed the impact of fireworks on my heart. When I see fireworks now, I vividly remember that night four years ago, driving south on Interstate 5 and passing at least five distant displays of Independence Day fireworks on the way to pick up my newly fatherless sister at Burbank Airport. She remembers seeing even more bursts of pyrotechnics from above as she flew south from Oregon.

But it occurs to me as we mark this sad occasion that we as a family are forgetting how much our dad really loved the patriotic pomp and ritual of the Fourth of July, from morning parades to midday barbecues to nighttime fireworks. We are forgetting some of the rituals that mattered to him.

We humans seem to yearn for ritual, as a way of ordering our emotions, of marking our milestones, of making sense of our lives. While traditions can be carried forward through the generations in a variety of ways, rituals are much more specific.

A ritual involves particular actions in a particular order. A ritual may be small, like the way we make our cup of tea in the morning, or as large as a sacramental ceremony. No matter its size or scope, however, a ritual is a series of deliberate steps that are overlaid with meaning. It can spring from joy or recognition or praise or catharsis or comfort or grief.

We use ritual to make the spiritual more tangible, or the tragic more bearable. A ritual can be religious or secular, and is usually performed in the company of others, couched in community. It can bond us to each other in a profound way, as well as place our fleeting existence within a universal perspective. Ritual connects the past to the future by witness of the present.

From baby showers to college graduations to presidential inaugurations, each ritual we perform functions as a cultural inscription on a particular moment in our lives.

That is why I am thinking that it may just be time to re-embrace our family's bygone Fourth of July rituals.

For the past four years, there have been no parades, no trips to the beach, no matching flag T-shirts from Old Navy, no corn on the cob, no patriotic sing-alongs and no fireworks. We have instead gone to morning Mass at the church where my dad's funeral was held, and then visited the cemetery and shared the old stories and mourned our dad or husband or father-in-law or grandpa or uncle or friend.

We have gathered to eat lunch together, and then have quietly gone our separate ways, a surreal and somber version of former Fourths.

My children are all grown-ups, old enough to remember and miss their grandpa, but also old enough to cherish the memories of happier Fourths of July. But my younger siblings have since added more little souls to the roster of grandchildren, and so I wonder, what about these new youngsters, who do not remember this grandpa who loved the Fourth?

A trip to the cemetery is all well and good, but we are perhaps doing these members of the next generation a disservice by not recreating the rituals of old.

We are perhaps robbing them of the joy that the Fourth of July has always signified in our extended family, the planned morsel of summer dedicated to leisure and sleeping late and relaxation and sunburn and togetherness and late nights and heart-to-hearts and too much food and lots of fun.

It's a bit trite but entirely in keeping with the continuation of family ritual to say that our dad would have wanted us to carry on and to instill his love of the Fourth in the little ones who bear his bloodline forward in time.

So this year, after our morning at the cemetery, after we spruce up our dad's grave and plant little American flags and fill his vase with roses, some of us will head to a cousin's backyard party. There will be a barbecue and cold drinks, a swimming pool full of happy children and, after sundown, fireworks in the sky.

It may be time to integrate the ritual of remembrance with the ritual of celebration. In this way we can honor our dad by rekindling and passing on his enthusiasm for Independence Day. Rituals are also for healing.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz and not necessarily The Californian's.