| by Cynthia Overbeck Bix
In those long, slow summers of my 1950s Baltimore childhood, we called them lightning bugs. “Fireflies” is so much more enchanting—a name that conjures up the fairy-like quality the insects have when they appear, twinkling randomly in the dark. Really, they should be called fairyflies. But lightning bugs they were, and we simultaneously took them for granted and found them entrancing.
After a long day of roller-skating and jumping rope, my little sister and I begged to go back outside after dinner. In the waning light, we ran barefoot on the prickly grass in the backyard, making dashes from the “safe” spots, the oblong patches of light thrown by the kitchen windows, through the danger zones—the dark splotches in between. But the lightning bugs were always there, winking in the darkness like friendly spirits.
Sometimes on a close, still evening when the temperature stayed around 90 and the humidity stayed right up with it, our parents would say the hoped-for words, “C’mon, kids, hop in the car and we’ll go out to the Big Dipper.”
“Yay, ice cream!” we’d yell. They didn’t even make us change our sweaty blouses and shorts; we jumped into the backseat of the Buick just the way we were. With windows rolled down, we sailed through the city streets, out onto the two-lane highway, and soon were driving through the countryside. The low, rounded hills
formed undulating silhouettes against the evening sky, and the warm breeze ruffled our hair and dried the sweat on our necks and hairlines.
We passed under shadowy arches of trees, and in the bushes along the side of the road, we could see the staccato flashes of lightning bugs. There were so many more in the country, and they made a backdrop of sequins along the roadside.
I felt a stirring of shame as I thought of last summer’s project, when my sister and I had caught and imprisoned as many fireflies as we could. Johns Hopkins University was conducting a study of bioluminescence, and they offered a dollar for each jar of Lampyridae. Greedily, we captured the flashing lights in our grubby hands and plunked them into a jar. Open the lid, slip in the bug, quickly cap it again, until we had a thick layer of wriggling insects.
Instead of turning the jar into a glittering show, they stopped flashing almost right away. Soon the jar was a miniature mass grave. Watching the twinkling live lights turn into a dead, dull pile gave me a sick feeling of having spoiled something wonderful, but I did it anyway. In the end, we never did get around to taking them to Johns Hopkins.
Now, as we sped along, I saw a different kind of light, harsh and yellow-white, shining against the trees up ahead. The Big Dipper came into view—a white-tiled roadside stand in lonely brilliance, all glass windows around the top half, with a slanted roof and a neon sign. The fluorescent light inside beamed like a searchlight out the windows and lost itself into the darkness.
When my father shut off the car engine, the night was silent except for the hum of the neon and, out in the bushes just beyond the light, the chirping of katydids.
We ordered our ice cream at the window: I always chose the hot fudge sundae—a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in a waxed paper cup, drenched in warm homemade chocolate dispensed from a stainless steel spigot with the push of a pump, then slathered with whipped cream and topped with a fat red maraschino cherry. My father always got a vanilla cone; my mother, butter brickle. My sister played the field, sometimes choosing rocky road, sometimes marble fudge.
We stood around in the pool of light eating our icy treats—my sister and parents licking around and around their melting cones to catch the drips, me stirring the warm chocolate and cold ice cream into a delicious creamy mush and slurping it up with my flat wooden spoon.
Then, cooled and satisfied, we climbed back in the car and headed home. The headlights blazed a path ahead on the road through the dark tunnel of trees, and our parents talked quietly together. In the backseat, my sister and I leaned against each other, our sticky hands interlocked, getting sleepier and sleepier. I watched the lightning bugs flash and twinkle until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, and they disappeared.
Cynthia Overbeck Bix is a Berkeley editor and freelance writer. Her personal essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion Magazine, and her nonfiction books can be found on www.amazon.com.
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