If you were counting, I’ve lived in two countries and seven states (you could say eight, if you count both times I’ve lived in Ohio). I like to tell people “I come from a little bit of everywhere.”
But really, you can’t quantify someone’s identity. You cannot be defined by how many places you’ve lived, how many people show up to your family reunion or how many miles you’d have to drive to visit your parents (although for me, that’s 902). Each of us is a summation of the experiences that make up our unique human experience. It’s not how many vacations your family took, it’s how many embarrassing candid road-trip photos you managed to take of your brother in the backseat of the minivan. It’s not the score you got on your S.A.T., it’s how many hours you spent growing up playing school with your dolls in the basement.
Me? I can count my childhood in fireflies.
Living in Pennsylvania as a kid, Saturday afternoons were Mom’s time to grocery shop. I hated it! The ice-cold frozen section on my bare summer legs, the weird sprayers making the produce slimy and wet—I complained about having to tag along every week, without fail. But if I behaved and was a good helper, I’d get to pick out any candy I wanted in the checkout aisle.
I always chose the same kind: these little candy tarts that were shaped like bugs. I’d ride squished into the middle seat on the way home, popping all the candies into my mouth before we could pull into the driveway. They tasted good, but it wasn’t really about the sweet treat; it was about the plastic jar they came in. It had holes in the green, yellow, or pink flip-top lid, making it destined to be the perfect bug-collecting container. After the candy was gone, the groceries were put away, and dinner was made and cleaned up, my family always, always sat on the porch. Mom would soak the plastic jar in hot water until the label peeled off, and while my parents enjoyed a warm summer evening on their lawn chairs, I’d run around the yard collecting what my family called lightning bugs.
I was entranced by them. It seemed almost magical that a little bug that would have disgusted me in the daytime could be so intriguing in the dark. They seemed entranced by me, too; when I’d catch one in my hand, it didn’t seem afraid or try to fly off. Instead it would explore my tiny palm, softly glowing on again and off again, and seemingly trying to figure out just what kind of giant bug I was. I’d collect five or six of them in my little jar just as Dad called me in to get ready for bed, and I’d stare at my glowing nightstand with my head on my pillow, willing myself to stay awake so I could enjoy them for just a little bit longer. Of course, as soon as I fell asleep my parents would release them – until the next Saturday night when we would do it all over again.
We moved to Minnesota when I was seven years old, and I’m not sure why, but there aren’t any lightning bugs there. The climate probably isn’t temperate enough. I never thought much about them until last summer, when I moved back to Ohio with my husband. We were driving around, trying to catch a breeze of relief from the August humidity, and there, on a hill, were dozens of tiny flashing bulbs rising a few feet at a time out of the grass. Suddenly, I was back to being a kid on a warm Saturday night. We pulled over and cut the engine, enjoying the muffled darkness, those glowing dots the only indication that there were any other creatures around. I caught one, and it crawled around my now grown-up palm with that familiar tickle.
I know I’m not the only person who collected fireflies as a kid, and I certainly won’t be the last. But if you see me sitting on my patio in a lawn chair at twilight, you’ll know it’s because a little bit of me comes from those odd little bugs. I may be older now, but none of the wonder has gone away, so don’t bother trying to talk to me about bioluminescence. The reason why fireflies flash is nothing short of magic.