My earliest Fourth of July memories include fireworks, flags, barbecue and parades. Not watching parades, being in them.
As the daughter of a Georgia politician (my father, Newt Gingrich, began running for Congress when I was 7 and won his first race when I was 11), I found the Fourth of July to be more of a marathon than a day of rest.
The day would begin in Atlanta with the WSB parade. This would be followed by two or three more parades.
Before Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy had the 6th District divided into little pieces in an attempt to get rid of my dad, we would always participate in the Newnan parade.
The route would begin in the commercial district, wind its way through town, travel the length of the railroad tracks, where Dad would shake hands on both side of the parade route and my sister and I would carry signs and wave, and then there would be a mad sprint through a more sparsely populated residential area before finishing in the park where the Rotary would serve barbecue.
The day would end at a local festival (often in Carrollton) that would be capped off with fireworks.
The attire for the day revolved around red, white and blue.
One year, I wore red shorts, a blue top and a white button-down short-sleeved shirt open and tied at the waist. Yes, it was the late ‘70s.
The Fourth of July, our nation's birthday, was a time to celebrate, be thankful and be aware of how lucky we are to be Americans. So it is too today.
A lot has changed since I was a child walking in parades. I'm married, we have two children, and I appreciate many things that I took for granted when I was younger.
My thankfulness and awareness to be an American has strengthened and deepened.
We have so much freedom in America.
Sometimes it's hard to appreciate what we have until we look at what others have not had.
A good friend, Luis Haza, was born in Cuba and lived under its totalitarian regime. When Luis was a small boy, his father was taken from his family's home and executed by Raul Castro (Fidel Castro's brother) because he wanted free elections.
Luis' mother fled to Europe with her children, and they eventually immigrated to the United States.
Luis became an American citizen and loves our country with great passion and emotion. He understands that we have great freedom.
With hard work and thousands of hours of practice, Luis became one of the top American violinists, playing in the Washington National Symphony.
Now retired from the symphony, he guest conducts international orchestras and volunteers with the Coastal Youth Symphony, in St. Simons Island, as conductor and music director.
For those of us blessed enough to be born in the United States, it is easy for us to take our freedoms for granted.
After all, that is all we have ever known, and we have become used to them.
It is important that we understand we live in an exceptional nation.
We were founded with the Declaration of Independence. It says, in part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ..."
This declaration acknowledges that God grants individual people their human rights. People then loan power to our government. The government holds only as much power as we, the people, are willing to yield.
These "self-evident" truths seem simple, but are powerful.
First, all men are created equal.
We all have equal value at birth. It does not say that, regardless of whether people work, they shall end up equal.
We are created equal and given equal rights by our Creator: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Not a guarantee of happiness. Happiness is up to every individual, not guaranteed by the government.
We are a nation of believers in God.
This provides us with optimism, a belief in the future and solace and strength in times of crisis.
This year, whether you are in a parade or watching a parade, reflect for a few moments about how incredibly lucky we are to live in the freest country in the world, where we, not government, get to determine our destiny.
Learn more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman at Creator's Syndicate, www.creators.com.