Around the Island

Memories of Independence Days past; Many traditions recalled

Benjamin Dyett recalls summers spent with his family in Cape Cod, where the Fourth of July meant visiting friends and relatives for barbecues at their homes.

Mr. Dyett, who is African-American, said his family’s house was next to the Wampanoag Indian Reservation, where they would sometimes visit on the Independence day. “They were celebrating their own traditions and culture,” he said.

Since first starting to summer on the Island 29 years ago, he owned a restaurant for a while, and become active in community life. He’s now the chairman of the board of Sylvester Manor, where little known facts about the Island’s past have been unearthed — literally — in recent years.

He encourages visitors to learn about the archeological digs that shed light on the lives of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people who lived on the Manor plantation before and during the time of the European settlers.

Mr. Dyett said his family left their Brooklyn home and sheltered on the Island to avoid the coronavirus this spring. This Fourth of July will probably involve having some friends over for cocktails, while social distancing and limiting gatherings to 10 people.

“Those rules still apply in this house,” he said. “We don’t want to give back the gains we’ve made” of flattening the curve of COVID-19.

Valentine Lysikatos grew up in Rhode Island, where her family had opened an ice cream parlor in 1984 after immigrating from Greece. “Gelina’s Ice Cream — named after my mom — had seasonal window service in Coventry, R.I.

Growing up, the Fourth was one of busiest nights for our store,” she said. Business was steady throughout the day, Ms. Lysikatos remembered, picking up as families made their way to the local high school to park and watch the fireworks.

Many would pick up hand packed pints of “watermelon sherbet, one of the most refreshing offerings my dad made,” she said. The family and their teenage employees were busy up until the show started, then stepped outside to enjoy some of the fireworks.

The last boom signaled it was time to get back to work for the next rush as customers picked up treats on their way home. The traffic was so heavy, Ms. Lysikatos recalled, that “the neighboring businesses that included a church, a ballet studio and a dentist’s office all loaned their parking lots to our customers. The customers and orders changed from year to year, but one thing held true: for my family the Fourth was not a day off from work.”

Ms. Lysikatos, now an attorney working from home on the Island during the pandemic, will spend this July 4 at the Ram’s Head Inn, where her husband, Erich Carey, will be performing with his band during the evening.

Jeanne McCulloch is the author of the memoir “All Happy Families.” She and her family have lived on Shelter Island for 18 years. Her book recalls the dysfunction as well as the fun that was her family life, growing up in East Hampton.

Asked about her memories of the Fourth, Ms. McCulloch wrote that it brought “the briny smell of sea air, the snap of bonfires built by the fathers, our young faces warmed in the fire glow as we roasted hot dogs; afterwards we raced the beach spitting watermelon seeds at each other, the pink flesh of the watermelon studded with sand. Parents with thermoses of cocktails lounged on multi-colored beach blankets spread out like a collage along the soft white sand just below the dune. Finally, the booms would start, fireworks shot from the Main Beach, and we’d stop where we were and gaze in silence toward the sky. We went to sleep each Fourth of July with sandy feet, our hands still sticky from toasted marshmallows and melted popsicles; the smell of woodsmoke still lingered in our hair.”

Ms. McCulloch became an editor at The Paris Review, where her boss George Plimpton, the self-proclaimed “Fireworks Commissioner of New York,” choreographed entire fireworks displays to music.

“He taught me the names of the ones I liked the best, ‘Boy’s haircut’ and ‘Chrysanthemum shell’ — the latter a burst of color spread out across the night sky in the shape of a flower,” she recalled.

The year after Mr. Plimpton’s death, his friends gathered on the Fourth. “During the grand finale of the fireworks show,” she wrote, “those of us who loved him raised our glasses toward the sky. We knew that per his wishes, George’s ashes went up in the very last shell of the night. George became, in the end, his own grand finale.”

Ms. McCulloch turned to her own children, now in their 20s, to see what July 4 memories had been imprinted on them. “Sam, who was born on January 4, for years as a young child believed that each town had a fireworks show to celebrate his half-birthday. Charlotte remembers massive sleepovers with close friends and cousins, all of them lined up in a row in her grandmother’s enormous king-size bed. They fell asleep each Fourth of July as I had decades earlier, with sticky hands and sandy feet, the woodsmoke from our bonfire still lingering in their hair.”