A bit of self-indulgent, exaggerated memory posted here in hopes of making someone smile. If you called your grandmother Maw-Maw. If your Maw-Maw lived almost a century but refused to grow up. If your grandmother is the fun one in your family. If you’re older than 50. If you remember fireflies, playing cowboys and indians or dripping watermelon on your toes on a hot summer day. If you’re a grandparent and your grandchildren only talk with you virtually.
Are All the Fireflies Gone?
“Hold on, Grandma’s turning the curve,” she sang out with a childish glee.
I grabbed the sling above the back passenger door, giggling in anticipation.
The faded lumpy cushion boosted Corinne just high enough to see over the dash if she stretched her neck. Her petite hands gripped the large steering wheel to hold herself forward in the deep seat. Otherwise, her short legs couldn’t reach the gas pedal. I don’t know why she hadn’t kept another cushion from the discarded sofa to prop behind her, but her tight hold on the big wheel made for some ferocious turns.
Whoah! The ten year old 1949 sedan skid in the crushed clam shell surface from her fast wide turn and I dangled from the strap, my long skinny legs flying freely around the spacious back seat. I had perfected the art of backseat dangling. My younger sister and I replied in enthusiastic ritual, “Hang on, Maw-Maw’s turning the curve.”
Maw-Maw kept her fierce grip on the wheel and foot on the pedal; the car zig zagged, back.. forth.. back.. before the tires regained traction and our feet settled down into the well of the floor board. The railroad tracks, high on a bump of earth, blocked our view of the rest of the street. With a devil-take-care attitude and unspoken trust in Maw-maw, we urged her faster, “Stomp on the gas!”
Scooting to just the right place to maximize our rebound on the springs, we let our bodies go limp, anticipating the next bit of fun. Thu-THUMP, thu-thump. Almost! Dang. We ricocheted from the seat to the window crank on the door, but didn’t achieve the ultimate – butting the roof with our heads. “Aww. Maw-maw, you didn’t go fast enough.”
Roxann bragged, “I bounced higher than you.”
Before I could argue, we had arrived at Maw-maw’s house. I shoved my head out the window and waved my arms, shouting to get my cousins’ attention. Maw-maw braked long enough for us to scramble out.
I was only the third oldest, but I took charge before my grandmother parked the old Ford at the end of her long drive. I pointed to Peter who wore a double holster with fancy pistols belted high over his shorts. “You lead the cowboys. I’m the Indian Chief. Frankie, you can be in my tribe.”
Roxann climbed on to the second bench of the wooden surrey, planting her feet on the pedals. “It’s my turn to drive the stagecoach.” She patted her blonde curls, fluffed the dress she had stubbornly insisted on wearing and waited patiently while the rest of the cousins declared their side – cowboy or Indian.
Practiced in transforming the front yard into our improvisation stage, Peter and his cowboys prepared to escort the stagecoach across the Wild West. I looked out from behind the yellow day lilies in the shallow swale where I lay. Me and my Indians would ambush the stagecoach while Frankie bombarded them with milky green chinaberries from his perch on a tree limb. We had to stop them before they reached the porch – their fort. My cousin Gwen squirmed, uncomfortable in her dark spot under the house. Gwen is the oldest cousin and my envy of her new cat-eye glasses probably drove me to position her in that creepy space. The cobwebs rubbed some of the shine off her sophisticated look.
The stagecoach evolved into a wagon train. We tied Peter and Roxann to the tree, whooping around them. When we tired of attacking and retreating, we pedaled the yellow surrey with its fringed top along the fence line collecting fat purple figs for Maw-maw’s jam into a dented metal bucket. Dusty and sweaty from playing hard into the late summer afternoon, we weren’t too tired to take turns cutting strips of grass with the rotary push mower – its reel blade with no engine a novelty for us.
After an early supper, Maw-Maw shooed us back outside to eat our watermelon slices. When you’re eight years old, there is no more perfect dessert than cold sweet watermelon, unless Maw-Maw brought out the ice cream crank, but that wasn’t happening.
We gravitated to the front yard. I took my usual position on the top porch step. Some cousins sat cross-legged Indian style; others sprawled in the fresh cut grass. Roxann pranced in circles. Peter spit his seeds aiming to hit Frankie. Frankie, usually the quiet compliant one, spit back. Boys can be so gross.
I leaned forward to avoid the fruit dripping onto my bare midriff or the new pin-striped shorts and crop top my Mama sewed last week. Not quite far enough. The juice plopped, dribbling between my toes, the heat turning it into instant sticky gunk in my flip flops. Roxann’s prissy dress was limp from humidity, splotched with grass and fig stains. A muddy print smudged the right lens of Gwen’s stylish glasses. Magnificent streaks of dirt painted the chins, necks, elbows and knees of my cousins. I took another bite of my red melon, relishing in kinship.
What a good summer Saturday. Conspired opportunities.
Our watermelon finished, we roosted on the steps between the tall hydrangea bushes – expectant, waiting. Dusk finally arrived, with sparkles falling from its coattails. Maw-maw said God turned off the big lights so we could notice the flickers in life.
“There. And there!” Roxann called, pointing to blinks at one of the giant blue mophead blooms. Her excitement was contagious as she sang to the tune of Old MacDonald, “Here a spark, there a spark, everywhere a spark, spark.”
Maw-Maw skipped around the corner of the house, the pink sponge curlers sprinkled through her ink black hair incongruous with her scuffed high top Red Wing boots. Singing her own bastardized version of Perry Como’s latest hit Catch a flying star and put it in your pocket, she shook cardboard soda bottle cartons, rattling the glass. No one waited for me to take charge. We surrounded her, grabbing for our favorite jar in one of the slots. I took the large mayonnaise one. Roxann picked the short squat pickle jar hurriedly unscrewing the lid which Maw-maw had poked holes in.
We chased the tiny flying lights, catching lightning bugs in our jars until dusk lengthened into a night with no moon and the cousins had to go home. Tonight Roxann and I got to sleep over at Maw-maw’s.
What a great summer Saturday! Imagining possibilities.
After our baths, we placed our glowing jars next to the bed and cuddled under the white chenille bedspread with its lumpy rose design. Rain began to drum on the metal roof, soon settling into a hypnotic rhythm. We cradled our heads in our hands and gazed at the bugs winking on and off – an unsynchronized concert of light.
My sister and I shared a bed at home which caused us to squabble most nights. Roxann talked aloud about her thoughts and dreams. I wanted to be left to the solitude of my own languid cogitations before slumber. If I ignored her, she habitually elbowed me in the ribs until I responded.
In an attempt to stretch the end of today just a little further, she asked, “Do you think they talk to each other with light?”
“I dunno,” I mumbled, annoyed that she disrupted my zen-like connection with the mellow cadence of the thrumming rain.
“Maybe they have fire inside or magic messages,” she mused.
A slight breeze blew mist through the window screen; the aroma of damp dust momentarily overpowered the distinctive smell of fresh rain. I closed my eyes and ignored her. Maybe she’d give up. I concentrated. Different sounds fell from the roof depending on whether the fat drops pelted the peak or valley of the waved sheets of tin. Whock. Ping. Ping. Whock.
The mattress shifted. Oh-Oh. What was she up to? I cracked open one eye, stealing a peek.
Fireflies flickered and danced, performing winged acrobatics above us. My silly sister had released a whole jar into the room.
“Why did you do that?” I grumbled. Secretly, I believed it splendid and wished I had thought of it.
“Because, Maw-maw told us lightning bugs have short lives. I don’t want to steal their light.” She bounced the mattress and in a sing-song cadence, because she knew it irritated me, and said “The world wouldn’t be so bright without fireflies to watch at night.”
When I didn’t respond, she elbowed me lightly and whispered, “I think God painted the end of the bugs just to remind us to listen. Look at them. Even in silence and the dark, they are talking to us.”
The ten o’clock whistle of the nightly cargo train heralded the real end of our day. The vibration and rush of the iron wheels served as a warm nightcap, lulling me to sleep.
What an enchanted summer Saturday. Magical conversations.
“Magic messages. Wouldn’t that be awesome?” My nine year old grandson looked up from the virtual world of his computer tablet. “I’ve never seen a real firefly, but Ramon in The Princess and the Frog was pretty cool.”
I tamped the earth firmly around the last shrub and shifted my weight off my knees, attempting to rub the streaky dirt off my chin with the back of my garden glove. Across the front lawn, Jared slouched, dangling one leg over the wide arm of the wobbly Adirondack chair. Everywhere, all day long he stayed connected. To anybody but his family, it seemed. At dinner, out shopping, even visiting me, he was present yet somewhere else. Even when he played games with his friends, it was remote, virtual.
Had he actually been listening to my fond reminiscence? My grandmother lived for ninety-eight years. Her funeral last week had stirred poignant memories among the cousins. I’m sure we embroidered her child-like delight and the profoundness of her wisdom. No matter. Her soul glowed now, flickering in her final journey. I had my grandson’s attention.
“You know, my Maw-maw once said If you’re bold enough to be aware of the flickers in life, they might just light up your soul.”
His dark eyes reflected pained puzzlement – evidence he didn’t understand the analogy. Should I bother to explain further? Too late. Jared had already tuned me out, his head bent down to his tablet, tapping away. I sighed. I hadn’t kept his attention long.
“Wikipedia says flicker is the refresh rate on a video display, a disruption.” His glance strayed up, lips pursed in dissatisfaction, then said with a sarcasm that a nine year old shouldn’t know. “I don’t see how that could light up my soul.”
“Well, computer screens didn’t exist when Maw-maw first said that. If she were here, she’d say Every truth has two sides.” My heart fluttered with the hope of a continuing dialogue. “What’s the dictionary say?”
A few taps later he read, “Glisten, flash, to flutter, momentary quickening…”
Silence. He struggled towards recognition of the abstract while I fought the urge to preach a saccharine conclusion. I sat back on my heels – expectant, waiting.
“Nana, do you think all the fireflies are gone?”
What a hopeful summer Saturday. Capricious connections.
Opportunities. Possibilities. Conversations. I reflected on the row of hydrangeas I had just planted along the curve of my driveway. It’s never too late to turn out the lights. Fireflies might be rare, but they aren’t all gone.
In memory of Corinne, our honky tonk angel, whose response when asked her age was “I’m as old as my hair and little bit older than my teeth”