The Lights of Summer
The brick wall behind me is part of the 200-year-old farmhouse house belonging to an old friend I haven’t seen for far too many years. I’ve returned to central North Carolina for the first time since she and I attended college together way back when John Kennedy was president.
I’m comfortable in her presence. All the intervening decades disappear, and it feels as if we’ve never been apart. I’m pushing back and forth on a white wicker glider on her screened porch, and she faces me in a rocker. Beyond her is the green and darkening backyard of her rural home. We rock and watch the soft, humid Carolina evening settle upon the air.
I gaze at the scene, the lush lawn that we in California are incapable of growing, the towering magnolia with a bed of daylilies at its base, the gnarled old pear tree with a weathered wooden swing hanging from a convenient branch, the golden retriever dozing on the grass beside a black cat, and the dense and deepening woods beyond.
It’s so quiet. No blaring horns, no hum of traffic, no drone of distant planes. Just the frogs’ shrill peeps, so high-pitched they soon become part of the silence, and the last chirps and warbles of songbirds calling to each other as they settle for the night.
We talk lazily of grandchildren and children, husbands and friends, and soon the crickets join in. Our frequent long pauses are easy, natural. The dog pricks his ears at some sound we cannot hear. He lifts his nose, sniffs once or twice, finds all is well, and subsides.
Suddenly something, some quick movement at the edge of my vision, alerts me, and I turn to look. I see nothing, just the cosmos and poppies nodding their heads in a subtle breeze.
But I’m watchful, waiting, wondering…and then I see it again. Turning more quickly, I catch the flash of light. The light that once seen is forever remembered. The light I haven’t seen for far too many years.
A group of five or six signal to each other, and while I watch in awe, a dozen more cruise by to play/
“Ah! Look, oh look,” I say, quiet as a sigh.
“What? What is it?” she asks, turning abruptly at my tone. She looks as though she expects to spy some moose stepping from the woods – but she sees nothing unusual in her tranquil yard.
“Fireflies on the lawn.”
I look at her. She’s holding her glass of iced tea with both hands, just grinning at me.
“You see them all the time, I guess,” I say.
“Sure do. They’re just part of summer,” and we laugh.
“We don’t get fireflies in California, and I’d sort of forgotten about them. I’ve been away long enough to feel the magic all over again.”
She comes to sit beside me on the glider, and together we push back and forth, watching as the fireflies multiply, friends calling to friends. Soon perhaps a hundred come, frivolous yet somehow stately beacons illuminating the evening scene. From the magnolia to the swing, from the lilies to the poppies, from the blueberry bushes to the gravel drive, the fireflies flash their coded lights, signaling secret messages across the lawn.
I recall my childhood, the pleasure of running barefoot on cool grass, capturing a dozen lightening bugs in a Mason jar to keep at my bedside till my mother came and freed them at full dark. I remember my little sister peering into her cupped hands through a window of overlapping thumbs, her face aglow with light like a pale green moonbeams. I see again a neighbor’s baby pointing at a passing firefly; I see his puzzlement when the light disappears – and hear his squeal of joy when it flashes once again before meandering away.
“What are you thinking about?” my friend asks.
“I’m remembering a perfect night on the Jersey shore after a beach picnic. I was probably about ten,” I say, and I recall that the ocean was as still as oceans ever are. I lay on my stomach with my toes in the waves, my belly on the wet sand, and my fingers in the dry sand still warm from the sun. I could taste the shrimp and corn from a family picnic, and the sweet tang of lemonade. Fireflies appeared from nowhere, flashing at me from the beach grass high in the dunes, and I lay there listening to my sister laughing around the distant campfire.
I look at my friend and then at the woods beyond. “I think it was the first time I appreciated peace, the first time I didn’t take happiness for granted.”
In the sultry night air, we press the cool iced tea glasses to our cheeks as the fireflies swing their fairy lanterns above the grass. One alights mere inches from the retriever’s nose. He regards it with composure. Fireflies are just part of summer, he seems to say. Nothing to get excited about.
My friend stands up and goes inside. I hear her rattling in the old pine cupboards next to the kitchen fireplace. She’s making quite a racket. I assume she’s fixing us a snack, though how she thinks I could be hungry after the soft-shelled crabs, fried potatoes, butter beans, coleslaw, and rhubarb cobbler she’s just served me, I can’t imagine.
I look up when she steps onto the porch, and so does the retriever. I’m expecting to see a bowl of peanuts in her hands, and from the dog’s now alert expression I suspect he’s hoping for dinner’s leftovers.
But she’s carrying two empty Mason jars with holes poked in the lids.
“Come on,” she says, taking my hand.
The porch door squeaks when we push it open, just the way screen doors are supposed to sound on summer evenings. It slams behind us with that satisfying smack, and the metal latch jangles against the frame. We leave our sandals on the brick patio and step barefoot onto the cool grass.
I catch the first firefly and hold it loosely in my fist, watching the eerie glow illuminate the spaces where my fingers touch. Then I ease it into the jar. We swoop low beneath the pear tree’s branches, fly wide around the magnolia’s girth, soar to the very edge of the woods, dancing over the grass to capture the light of summer.
It’s dark now, fully dark, and we link arms and go inside.
She turns off the lights, and we put the fireflies in their jars on tables at each end of the glider. It’s not enough light to read by, but it’s plenty of light for sharing memories. We rock slowly, fan gently, and sip our iced tea, talking of love and babies, of life and old friends, of hopes and dreams…and gratitude.
Peggy Vincent, a retired California Bay Area midwife, wrote a memoir of her years of doing home births in Berkeley: Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife, published in 2002 by Scribner, Simon & Schuster . She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and 2 cats. Three adult children live nearby. Peggy is currently at work on another narrative nonfiction book.