90: Independence Day

90: Independence Day

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Independence Day

Freedom is the oxygen of the soul.

~Moshe Dayan

I can still hear those defiant words blaring from the radio in my mother’s Volkswagen sedan. Sitting alongside my mother as we scurried about the streets of our little town, running our usual errands, she sang along without missing a beat. She raised her left arm — the other firmly on the wheel — as if to accentuate the melody, and sang with the passion of someone who could relate to the woman described in the song, with the passion of someone with newfound freedom and independence.

From the frequent screaming and fighting, the abusive language, and the love/hate drama that had unfolded between my parents before my eyes, I knew that “Independence Day,” written by Gretchen Peters, was more than just a popular song that summer. For my mother, it was the music of courage and self-confidence. For me, at the formative age of fourteen, it was the music that turned my world upside down.

The song’s lyrics told of a woman’s response to domestic abuse, seen from the point of view of her eight-year-old daughter. On Independence Day, while her daughter attends the local parade, the woman starts a fire in the house, and she and her abusive, alcoholic husband both perish in it.

The song has double meaning in that the woman was finally gaining her freedom from her abusive husband — thus, it was her Independence Day — and the events occurred on the Fourth of July. Its message suggests that what the woman did was neither right nor wrong. Instead, it was the only way she could ultimately gain her freedom and, at the same time, protect her daughter from the violent home where her little girl had seen bruises on her mother’s face far too many times.

“Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing… Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong.”

Those were some of the lyrics that my mother sang with the deepest passion.

My mother left my father that summer and never went back. A teenager at the time, I was initially angry about it all. The last thing I wanted to do was spend time with the woman who didn’t seem to understand me and with the woman whose decision forced me to live in another house, to ride another school bus, to memorize another phone number, and, worst of all, to endure the financial limitations of a single-parent home.

As we continued about our errands that afternoon, I glanced over to the driver’s seat at the middle-aged woman my selfish teenage self had begun to resent. With her long red hair, petite figure, sculptured face, and deep brown eyes, my mother truly was a picture of beauty. Although she seemed a bit overbearing and protective at times, she was my strength and I admired her. But she was increasingly down on herself. Inside the radiant beauty that most people saw was an increasingly broken, weary, and sad woman.

She tried to be strong for my younger sister and me, but I’d often see her cry and witnessed how the pain of ending that relationship drove her to a state of depression. I tried to be sympathetic, but there was little that I could say or do to help mend her heart.

Just the night before she had cried herself to sleep and, as we lay beside her, whispered, “I love you girls, more than you will ever know.”

As I watched her sing that afternoon, I began to understand why that song was so meaningful for her. And I came to realize how much her freedom, her independence, and her ability to do what made her happy, really meant. I began to gain an appreciation for the sacrifices that my mother made, not only for her own wellbeing, but for my sister’s and mine as well. Though we struggled financially, her courage and strength allowed us to live in a home free of fighting and verbal abuse. Her decision allowed us to stop living in fear.

When the song ended and she parked the car, she smiled as big as she could, and said, “I’ll be celebrating my Independence Day on July 31st, not July 4th. Bring the fireworks.”

It’s been ten years since the day I watched my mother harmoniously sing along to “Independence Day” while en route to the grocery store. I’m no longer the teenager in the front seat, dependent on a ride to my destination. I no longer use my Sony Walkman to block out her high-pitched singing. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed since that hot summer day in the passenger seat: the significant impact the song’s message has on me.

When I hear the words “Independence Day,” I don’t always think about the fourth day in July, the red, white, and blue, or America the free. Instead, I salute those brave women who, like my mother, had the strength and the courage to make difficult and painful changes in their lives, changes that now face me as well.

Perhaps it’s true that history repeats itself. Not long ago, when I left my alcoholic husband, I knew the same kind of pain my mother experienced nearly a decade earlier. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the lessons of my mother, the lessons of my upbringing, and the frequent anguish of my childhood. But perhaps I was destined to follow in her footsteps, to make her mistakes, to feel her pain, and to develop her courage, strength, and independence.

I know she never wanted me to, but now I know. Now I understand. And as soon as I was able to roll the stone away, I had my Independence Day.

Coincidentally, I left my husband on July 31, 2010 — exactly eight years to the day my mother left my father. “Hard to believe,” she said when she reminded me of our shared date. “Only now do you understand why it was so important for me to leave… for me, for you, and for your little sister.”

Not long after our phone conversation, I came across that song, which I hadn’t heard in years, on one of my late-night drives. Like Mom always had, I turned up the radio and sang along with passion. And for once that day — probably even that week — it didn’t feel so bad to be alone.

Let freedom ring.

~Ellarry Prentice

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