It’s funny how much we forget. I spent countless happy summer hours in my pajamas, chasing fireflies on the lawn in front of our house in Pittsburgh. When it came time to go to bed, my twinkling little friends would accompany me, housed in a mason jar, tiny holes poked in the top, a handful of dry grass on the bottom. I’d fall asleep watching their faint illuminations, then in the morning, I’d let them go so I could capture them all over again.
I hadn’t thought of those twilight summer evenings in years. But when our grandson came to visit last week and saw fireflies twinkling in the gloaming, it all came rushing back to me on a flood tide. At first, I just watched him stalk his prey, swipe the air, then slowly open his hand to see if he had captured one. Absorbed in the moment, time stood still for Gavin, but it my mind, it hurtled back to one of my childhood’s most magical moments—safe, carefree, sublimely happy. I couldn’t help myself: I joined the party.
Fireflies or lightning bugs? Apparently, the answer depends on where you live. In New England and out in the West, the term of choice is firefly, while in the South and in the Midwest, people tend to call those little flying lanterns lightning bugs. Theories abound on this difference of nomenclature, but to a kid, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. All they know and see is that tiny dot of yellow light, hanging on a puff of air, winking a signal to attract a prospective mate. They hardly care that it’s the males who tend to twinkle while they fly; the females wait in the grass or on the leaves of a tree and when they see a signal they like, they respond with a blink of their own—nature’s way of saying, “Here I am. C’mon over” And so it goes…
I did a little more research. The life cycle of the firefly lasts about a year. As summer wanes, females lay their eggs in sheltered spots. It takes about three weeks for the eggs to incubate before they hatch as larvae. Believe it or not, the larvae are carnivorous, feeding on spiders, snails, or other insects. They spend the winter months underground in a protected environment, their pupal form slowly developing wings. By late spring or early summer, they emerge as adult fireflies. Up, up, and away they go; the cycle begins anew.
But all that is mostly grown-up gobbledygook to a kid out chasing fireflies on a summer evening. The magic is in the moment and the science behind it is something to put away ’til later. How sad that sense of wonder fades as we grow older; what a blessing it was to trip over it again after all these years.
Memory unlocks, a door on rusty hinges. One of the great joys of being a grandparent is that occasionally we get to vicariously experience a moment of childhood all over again. We watch the grandkids at play and suddenly we’re transported back to a time when there was nothing more important than a bedside jar of fireflies. All those memories are still down there, biding their time, waiting to glow on a warm summer evening.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com