I can still see the metal lawn chairs—woven with green and brown plastic, forever hot and sticky for the next person who sat down. There’s my dad and his friends playing horseshoes—beer in hand—in the background. Off to the side are folding tables covered with real fabric tablecloths and platters of hot dogs and hamburgers. Added in, as each guest arrived, was usually a tray of sausage and peppers and endless desserts. Someone always brought ambrosia. A Jell-O mold of some kind appeared too. 

And I’m pretty sure the kids survived the entire day on popsicles and Kool-Aid.

Related: Delicious & kid-friendly recipes for the 4th of July weekend 

I can see my mom (freshly permed, of course) running around since dawn, always the hostess, but somehow also making sure to visit and catch up with her friends and family throughout the day. A gaggle of women filled the kitchen, endlessly preparing food, cleaning up, preparing new food, rinse and repeat. 

It was a postcard for a 1980s summer picnic, and it was my backyard. 

They never had a lot of money, but my parents (my dad—a truck driver, my mom—a house cleaner) sure knew how to throw a party. And the one party that holds one of the biggest squares in the fabric of my childhood memories was our annual 4th of July party. 

Our home was small, but our yard was a vast open field, and for a classic 1980s summer BBQ, that was all you needed.

Now that I’m a mother, I wonder if my mom and dad realized the impact those annual picnics would have on me and the other children who were there.

Fourth of July was the one day of the year when everyone from my parents’ endless circles of friends, family, co-workers and neighbors came together, filled those metal lawn chairs, picked up some horseshoes, and let whatever trials and challenges they were facing in life wash away—for a few hours, at least.

I remember that around noon, I’d start staring out the front window, wondering who would be the first to arrive. Some years it was a neighbor, walking over with a tray of brownies or a Tupperware full of watermelon. Other years, a family friend who parked in our driveway knowing full well they’d get blocked in and be stuck here for a while.

I can still see my “cousins” (who were really just the kids of my parents’ good friends) barreling down the hill upon arrival.

Related: Here’s what experts want you to know about keeping kids safe around fireworks

Also there is my Uncle Biff, who always walked with a cane, so he took our backyard hill slowly, but he eventually got to the bottom and found a seat where he’d spend the rest of the day.

Their old work friends were there—people they’d known long before my sister and I came into this world—as well as new friends who were attending our annual picnic for the first time. 

To some, it may have seemed like just a day, just another backyard picnic. But to me, it was everything my childhood was about.

Aunts, uncles, grandparents—them too. Babies, toddlers, school-age kids—we covered the whole range. Guests from next door and guests from an hour away—they always came, year after year.

And now that I’m a mother, I wonder if my mom and dad realized the impact those annual picnics would have on me and the other children who were there. Kids who ran themselves to exhaustion, who often fell asleep in their parents’ laps as the day wore on, only to wake up at dark when fireworks painted the sky. Kids who rode bikes and played hide-and-seek and spent hours on a tin swing set, burning their legs on a hot metal slide. Kids who danced to Madonna and Janet Jackson and couldn’t fathom in their wildest dreams what something called the “internet” might be.

To some, it may have seemed like just a day, just another backyard picnic. But to me, it was everything my childhood was about.

I realize now, when I close my eyes and see it, how beautiful it is to see so many families from all corners of our lives coming together, with my little family as the nucleus of it all. I realize now how incredibly blessed we were, how loved we were, to have that many people who wanted to be with us, at our home, with the rest of our people. 

And to be honest, I often look back and wonder how they did it—host backyard BBQs with a hundred people at their three-bedroom, one-bath little house. How an endless stream of cars somehow made its way into our suburban cul-de-sac and everyone always miraculously found a place to park. How my mom, despite never sitting down or stopping the entire day, still always seemed joyful and looked forward to this day every year.

Related: The ultimate summer bucket list for your family 

I can see her, peeking out the kitchen window as the yard filled with people, seeing my sister and me sprint across the yard in a game of tag with our cousins. And I imagine her smiling, knowing that this is what life is really about. Not having the biggest house or fanciest car, but gathering everyone you love on one beautiful day, roaring with laughter as old stories were re-told, saying “just one more” (but not meaning it) when kids ask for another cookie or marshmallow, and watching as friends and family reunite for the first time since the year before, pull their chairs close to each other and begin to catch up on life.

It was a day that brought people together. It was a day that my very patriotic family appreciated and honored and felt incredibly grateful for all that we had. It was a day full of beer and popsicles and endless laughter. Of sunshine, happiness and the purest of memories. 

Related: Simple & stunning Fourth of July desserts to make with your kids

Our annual 4th of July party is a mainstay in my mind—my favorite childhood memory. And I will always be grateful to my parents for teaching me about the beauty of family traditions, that no matter how much space you have, there’s always room for one more and that all that you need to throw a really good party is a bunch of cheap lawn chairs and a great group of friends. 

A version of this post was published June 28, 2022. It has been updated.