On July 24, 1777 Boston merchant Thomas Boylston got what was coming to him. Or at least that’s probably how it was understood by the one hundred or more women who attacked him on King Street. Boston, like most cities around this time in the burgeoning nation, was experiencing a series of food shortages. Both the British and Continental armies frequently requisitioned food and livestock and a lot of women had been left scrambling on their own to manage families, homes, farms, and businesses while their husbands were off fighting a war.
Like there are in most good crises, there were those who saw advantage in the struggle. Boylston, who was a cousin to John Adams, was generally thought to be a patriot, and who seriously underestimated the wrath of a whole horde of caffeine-deficient women, decided to hoard coffee in order to drive up the price.
Now, I am not a coffee drinker, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers. Some I might even call obsessive, a category that might even include you. I know it includes the people who make it difficult every single day for me to drive down the access road behind the main Starbucks in my town. I say “main” because we do have more than one. They’re both busy. Always.
I mean like winding drive-through line that spills ten cars deep out of the Starbucks parking lot and into the road that I innocently attempt to drive down in order to make my way from one place where I don’t buy coffee to another place where I don’t buy coffee kind of busy. This line, I assume, is filled with people who might have joined in with the women of Boston that marched to Boylston’s business, demanded his keys, and when he refused, seized him by the neck, forced him into a cart and, according to some accounts, spanked him until he complied. He eventually did. The mob then carried off all the coffee and left Boylston contemplating the fact that he’d been beaten up by a bunch of girls. One farmer justified the mob actions by saying, “This is the very same oppression that we complain of Great Britain!”
While that may be a slight oversimplification of the causes of the Revolutionary War, short supplies can make people do crazy things, like hoard twelve years-worth of toilet paper next to the Christmas decorations and model train sets in their basements. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a desperate shortage of coffee right now. Or at least there wasn’t before National Coffee Day yesterday.
To celebrate the day, Starbucks offered a free cup of coffee to any customer who came by with their favorite mug. No need even to spank the barista. The offer was limited to one cup per customer per store, but since there are approximately forty-seven Starbucks stores within an hour of my house, and probably yours, too, coffee drinkers could have kept busy picking up free coffee all day long. Judging by the line spilling out of the parking lot, most of you did.
So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.
Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.
As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.
I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.
Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.
It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.
The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.
But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.
The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.
But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.
If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!
If you live in the US (and you don’t live in a cave), I’m sure you know by now that this Sunday (May 14) is Mother’s Day. It’s hard to escape the ads for jewelry, and chocolate-covered strawberries, and flowers, and yes, free glass vases. And there aren’t many stores you could walk through without seeing some display or other of sentimental greeting cards and “World’s Greatest Mom” tee shirts or coffee mugs.
That’s all well and good. I’m sure many of you will pick out something like that to give to your mother to honor her on the special day, and I am certain she’ll appreciate the thought. But for me (and I suspect for a lot of mothers), it’s kind of a strange holiday. I hate to say it, but I don’t really look forward to it all that much.
Here’s the thing. Moms do a lot of stuff. And we’re pretty good at it. No, most of us are probably not born that way, but when we become mothers, we gain more than a child. We gain a desperate longing to do everything we can to ensure that child’s well-being. That’s challenging, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve, requiring some big adjustments, like:
Accepting that the bathroom is the only place you will ever again have any privacy (a luxury that is by no means guaranteed).
Learning to eat the yucky flavors in the popsicle box because that’s all that’s ever left.
Managing to function, more or less, in a constantly exhausted state.
Understanding that at no point will you be able to honestly say the laundry is done, unless you have convinced your family to go naked for a while.
Feeling guilty if you don’t prepare a nutritious, balanced meal for your kids, while acknowledging that if you do, there is no way they’re going to eat it.
Tolerating that your actual name will rarely be uttered anymore, but you will hear “Mom” at least 10,000 times a day, often several times in the same sentence, because I guess your kids assume if they don’t remind you who they’re talking to, your exhausted mind will wander.
Knowing that no task (like writing a blog post) will ever be something you can complete without interruption by a kid who is learning about Scott Joplin in music class and desperately needs to use the computer to look up the “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube before he goes to school.
Okay, that last one might just be me, and it really did happen this morning. It was kind of awesome. But in a more general sense, the struggle is real.
So you might think that what moms really want for Mother’s Day is a day off, maybe even some time alone. I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say, yes, that is definitely something we want. The trouble is that the moment our children go away and leave us alone, we miss them. And then we kind of resent them a little because we can’t even take a break without thinking about them. And then we feel guilty because we feel resentment toward some of the people we love the very most in the whole world. And we’re sad that we’re missing the day with them, when all they wanted to do was to make us feel special.
You see why I don’t really look forward to Mother’s Day?
But I have given this a lot of thought lately. I’ve looked at some of the things said by and about famous mothers in the past, and I think I’ve finally figured out what moms want.
First, I read about Hoelun, mother of Genghis Khan (a fact which, according to some historians and geneticists, makes her the most successful grandmother in human history). She overcame a lot of tough challenges as a mom. Then when the successful Genghis rose to become a great conqueror and threatened to kill his own brother, Hoelun put her foot down. Out of respect for her, Genghis let his brother live and his mother became one of his most trusted advisors.
The second example I found interesting was Nancy Edison. When as a young boy, the eventually wildly successful inventor Thomas Edison was deemed mentally incompetent by his teacher, his mother Nancy began homeschooling him. Later he would say of her, “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
Another great mom, Alberta Williams King worked hard to instill a sense of self-respect in her children, teaching them that segregation was a construct of man and had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of natural order. It was a lesson her son Martin Luther King, Jr. took to heart, making it the cornerstone of his life, and not forgetting to give his mama the credit she deserved.
And of Abigail Adams, one of only two American women to have been both a president’s wife and a president’s mother, her son John Quincy Adams had this to say:
My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence.
Actually that might be a tad bit over the top. Because I would bet that even Abigail Adams didn’t feel like she always deserved such high praise. The lesson here, though, for those of us who are mothers and for those of us who have mothers, is that what Mom probably really wants is for you to love your family, to know that she is behind you, cheering you on, even in the really tough times, and to understand that regardless of what you look like or what the world thinks of you, you are precious.
But go ahead and get her some flowers, too. Because she also wants you to know that she appreciates that you appreciate her. And it’s nice, once in a while, for a mom to hear that she’s an angel upon the earth. Because she’s exhausted and her shower got interrupted when somebody needed something RIGHT NOW, and the laundry is piling up, and she never feels like she does enough, even when she feels like she does it all. And just this once, maybe you could insist that she chooses first, so she doesn’t get stuck eating the grape popsicles.