There were no babies in the house; my brother and I were grade school age. Yet for some reason my mother had stock piled what seemed like several cases of those chunky, glass Gerber baby food jars.
For the most part they sat on the shelf in our basement storeroom alongside board games and old Christmas candles. My father used some to outfit the man cave section of the garage. Filling them with nails, screws, washers, and bolts, he nailed their lids to several 2×4 planks of wood that rested along beams in the garage ceiling. You simply “unscrewed” the jar portion. If only Pinterest had been a thing in 1978. In the fall, mom filled a couple with white glue and packed them into our pencil boxes as part of our school supplies. I have no idea in what Little House On The Prairie time or place that it was kosher for kids to bring their own glue supplies to school, but now I realize the whisker thin line between “hipster” and “weirdo.” In the summertime we used the jars to catch fireflies.
The yard around our modest ranch house was a blend of lawn, woods, and sloping, untamed areas overrun with blackberry bushes, sumac trees, and the weedy, tall grass that riots in vacant lots. It might as well have been the Scottish Highlands to us for how vast and sprawling it felt. Days unspooled in hours of adventuring around the area playing games like hide and seek, capture the flag, or any number of made up things with complex rules and elaborate back stories. And somehow we managed to hang onto all our fingers and toes.
Even living in a mid-sized suburb, the light pollution then wasn’t remotely like it is now, which is to say pretty terrible, as in there’s less lighting on soundstages of movies set in the Sahara then there is in an average, non-rural neighborhood. Stars readily appeared. On Halloween, ribbons of shiny, reflective stickers marred our store-bought costumes so that cars could more easily spot us. We were lucky.
Stalking fireflies was a summer ritual I definitely took for granted as something that everyone did, that everyone grew up doing. I thought the space to roam and explore was a given for most, that some of nature’s most simple wonders were available to all. I didn’t connect the dots between geography and privilege until many, many years later. And when I’m out in the deep country now and floating sparks appear, I’m desperate to believe the lie that kids will see this in their own real lives and not just on the screen in the latest Pixar flick.
Mom stood on the front porch twisting a metal skewer into the lid to make holes. She gave me the jar. “Put a little grass in the bottom,” she said. I reached down off the stoop and grabbed a few tufts of lawn, sprinkling them into the jar and then smoothing them out into a bed of sorts. “Go ahead,” she said, nodding off toward the yard draped in darkness, the outlines of trees and bushes barely visible.
I’d set off in any direction, watching for the tiny pinprick of yellow light that would briefly flare and fade and then scramble after it like a lunatic. The firefly’s light is actually its mating signal. It flashes in a unique pattern like some kind of Tinder Morse code. I do not think it bargained to attract a human. As I bore down on the thing, screeching with glee like some kind of deranged ostrich, I can imagine him panicking: “What the? That doesn’t look like the cutie I was just cruising. Oh God! Pull back, Phil! PULL BACK!!” I come in peace, gentle firefly, I felt like screaming. Laughing, arms outstretched, palms cupped, I’d swipe. Sometimes you could sneak up on them and make your move when they landed on a bit of grass, but that always felt like cheating.
I raced back to my mother carrying the poor, confused bug in my hand. “Drop him in,” she’d say as I carefully placed the firefly on the grass inside the jar. She screwed the lid on. “We’re just keeping him for a little bit and then we’ll let him go.” I nodded. Even at the age of five or six, this felt like more than operating instructions. There was something fragile and a bit magical in that jar–a life, a dream, a wish, a hope—on loan to you, dependent on your grace. You could let it grow weak and wane or you could release it back into the world so it could find its course and flourish in ways that maybe you couldn’t even begin to know.
I peered into the glass watching it pulse, my very own lightening in a bottle. Mom unscrewed the cap. I tipped the jar onto the grass letting the contents slide out. The firefly blinked once and then vanished into the darkness as if it had never been there at all.