Every summer I loved to go outside after dark on sticky, humid evenings. This experience held much more relish for me than it might at first seem for two reasons. One, I was actually allowed to go outside after dark. And two, the lights that flashed across the summer skies were so much brighter than the lights inside my house.
Despite the strict and frankly despairing, attitude of my mother, and despite the fact that she simultaneously wanted me out of her sight—yet not so far out of her sight that she didn’t know where I was—outside was often a place she sent me.
Outside, the winter chilled my feet to the bone. My breath would puff around my scarf and my toes seemed to turn into tiny ice cubes after about five minutes, but I’d do my best to stay out of her hair as long as I could. I’d make snowballs until my fingers sparked with cold, then tingled, then, finally, ceased to complain—knowing that I’d have to cup my whole hands around the doorknob to get back inside. And knowing that there would be no hot cocoa or soup waiting to thaw me out when I did finally retreat from the cold.
Outside in the summer was magical. I grew up in northern New Jersey, which meant that in the summer, thousands of fireflies danced each night in June, July, and August. Sometimes September if the weather was warm enough. I’d slip outside, temporarily blinded by the shift from the blearing yellowish lightbulbs to the inkiness of the night sky.
Something shifted in me whenever I went outside at night. It felt as if the night air flowed in through all my pores and the Earth itself sent energy coursing up my legs and into my body. And then the light show began. Yellow blips of light, followed by tiny laser trails as male fireflies sought mates. I’d see the evidence of their mating ritual the next day, in tracks etched on forsythia bush leaves—one of their favorite foods.
The forsythia bushes were another dichotomy in my childhood years. In my early days, they were my enemy. One reason my mother chose the house we ended up in, in Butler, NJ, was because it had a yard, and in the back of the yard, a huge forsythia bush plumed out wide and lush.
The cheerful yellow flowers and abundant food for fireflies and other small creatures was wonderful. But in the long, springy branches, my mother saw a weapon that could leave red welts on my body after she’d stripped its leaves and used it to convince me to be submissive—or at least, to capitulate momentarily under her demands.
I couldn’t see the forsythia bush at night. And maybe that’s one reason I felt so much stronger when I went outside in the balmy summer air to watch fireflies. In many ways, on those evenings, I felt freer than at any other time.
I quickly learned that if I wanted to catch a firefly, cupping my hands over the places where I saw their light would leave me empty-handed. As my eyes adjusted to the dim starlight, I learned to look just ahead of the blink of neon. There I would see a darker blob, moving through the night. Clasping my palms around that gained me the prize I sought—a blinking male firefly.
Fireflies are related to stinkbugs, so I also soon learned that to avoid coming inside reeking—causing my mother to wrinkle her nose and remember just how annoying my presence was to her—that using an empty mayonnaise jar was far more effective than catching the lightning bugs (as I called them) with my hands. I became so accomplished at placing the jar in front of flying bugs and slapping on the lid that I’d catch a hundred or more each night.
The jar would blink bright enough for me to read a few words under the covers in my bed before they’d blink off. Not an efficient way to read, but an enlightening experiment for me as a pre-teen.
The next day I’d screw up my courage and walk to the forsythia bush, open the mayonnaise jar and let the fireflies go so that they, like I, could have yet another chance to shine.