Tonight, after I finished doing my parents' shopping and as I stood in the driveway, talking with my father about my mother's respiratory problems and secret smoking, we looked out across the front yard (which is almost an acre) and saw the lightning bugs rising from the grass. This is one of those phenomena that I'll always treasure from growing up in a small town, where there's not a lot of traffic and little things like that mean a whole lot. My current house is a lovely rented World War I-era bungalow that sits across from the triangular side yard of the house across the street; because there's no street light directly in front of either, the lightning bugs show up really well as night descends.
When I was a child, before my uncle married when I was eleven and my grandmother moved to town, I spent endless hours beating the tall grass next to the corrugated-metal outbuilding we called "The Structure" in order to drive the grasshoppers onto its walls. The object was to see how many and what sizes of grasshoppers were there at any given time. Because I am allergic to grass, my grandmother would always dress me in denim overalls and Keds for this routine- I was a painfully ladylike child who wore dresses without exception until the third grade, but stick me on the family farm and I morphed into this howling little tomboy who got switched for climbing the barbed-wire fences and cherry trees when I was told not to.
Both in Smalltownland and on the farm, we had a wide variety of birds. There were whippoorwills and bobwhite quail in the woods behind my uncle's house, and redwing blackbirds in the fields. Later, my aunt put out hummingbird feeders that attracted a colony of around a hundred tiny, buzzing, brilliant flying jewels- my parents followed suit and attracted at least two pairs of ruby-throated hummingbirds every year with the feeder staked at the corner of the patio. At home, there is a colony of ordinary house wrens who've populated everything from a string mop head to a Boston fern to a small painted birdhouse suspended from the support post for the sundeck; on Derby Day, as I sat at the breakfast table, a wren zipped in, snatched an insect from a spiderweb on the window, and zipped off...no doubt another descendant of the wrens who've always been there. Every once in a while, we'll look out to find the odd North American bluebird in the milieu under the feeder my father hangs from the maple in the back yard.
One summer night when I was a sophomore or so in high school, Will, a friend from band who also attended my church, appeared without warning at the house. He asked my mother if I could leave with him for a little while, but he was mysterious as to why. When we arrived at the high school, he pointed to the embankment between the vocational school and the second-tier parking lot cut into the hillside between the two buildings: there were thousands and thousands of tiny white moths covering the grass in a snowlike blanket. It was really spectacular and I've always been glad that he shared it with me- I was probably one of the only other kids he knew who would be excited about a bunch of moths!
Last summer, I went to the movies with The Boyfriend and heard, as we stepped out of the car, a familiar call. In the small marsh-like drainage area adjacent to the theater, among some volunteer cattails, was a small colony of redwing blackbirds. As we neared the edge of the parking lot, two dozen or so took flight, the red and yellow streaks on their wings flashing in the dim light of the setting sun. I realized then that the blackbirds and I had been too long divorced, and that I had become too jaded about so much that I had lost sight of the beauty in simple things.
So tonight I stood there in the dark up at the Chez, watching a thousand tiny blinking lights rising around us, and found a little comfort-and a little peace. Who knows when we will have those things again?