A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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In the backseat on long car rides home from my grandmother’s house in southern Illinois, I cataloged light sources in the dark: gazing at flare towers burning above oil wells, watching the taillights of faster cars shrink to pinpoints, following the sweep of flood lamps up the domes of concrete grain silos. The orange glow of the radio dial tuned to an oldies station bled into the beams of our headlights on the road. Bright kitchen windows in passing houses gave way to fireflies in fields. Lulled by the hum of the engine, I fought sleep for as long as I could, but finally it pulled me under. The next morning, as though by some magic, I woke in my bed. The only evidence it hadn’t been a dream waited outside in the driveway: the windshield of our station wagon spattered with insects.
My grandmother lived in a little white house by the railroad tracks on a brick-lined street. The bricks fascinated me — their rich and varied shades of ocher, the way time and wear had smoothed them. They emanated oldness the way my grandmother emanated oldness, her skin every bit as shiny and smooth as their surfaces. Late in the afternoon we played canasta, and I watched cigarette smoke curl around her face, caressing the fine hairs on her cheeks. At dinnertime I sat at the kitchen table while she fried squirrels my dad and uncle had brought home from a hunting trip.
I couldn’t slip past her without getting pulled into her arms for a hug. She liked to tell me I had a tender heart because I let her win at cards. Nobody else hugged me like that. Nobody else nurtured my tenderness.
I knew her only as a widow. To me she had always lived alone in that little house by the railroad tracks. I didn’t know that my grandfather had died of a stroke three weeks after I was born, or that the only reason they’d been able to afford the house in the first place was because its previous owner had hanged himself in the living room. Stories told around the table — about how she slept on a straw mattress as a girl, how she saw a brother off at the train station on his way to World War I — were just that to me: stories. All I knew about her was how she made me feel. On those long car rides home the feeling was everywhere, hovering out in the dark; the lights I cataloged were a kind of map to the far reaches of her love.
I was ten when she died. My dad said she was in a better place and that we were selfish to want her here with us when God had called her home. After the funeral the family converged at the house to divvy up her possessions. We boxed dishes, heaped clothes on the couch. My brother found a Colt .32 wrapped in a handkerchief in a back closet. I ended up in the kitchen with a handful of photocopied pages from her diary from May 1975. She opened by apologizing for how long it had been since she had written and promising to be a more faithful correspondent. She talked about the weather and day-to-day events before slipping seamlessly into the past. There was a story about a time she had earned a whipping from her father for hollering with a bunch of friends, pretending to be hurt. There was a fable about a witch who shape-shifted into a wolf and was killed by a hunter’s silver bullet. In one passage she lamented that the world was too quiet now, that her girlhood had teemed with insects and fluttering wings. Would to God times could be so simple again, she wrote.
It struck me as an adult that she had been widowed for less than a year when she’d written those words. Of course she wanted her world back.
I love to imagine her at that kitchen table with her diary: she takes a drag from a cigarette, looks out the window, collects her thoughts, and writes. I know the moment well — the plunge into possibility, when I begin to conjure the past with words. Writing about her, I can hear the sizzle of her cast-iron skillet and smell its hot grease. I am a boy again, counting stars. Even the lost insects of my grandmother’s youth — on the page I can raise them again.
Not far from where I live now, in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau kept a meticulous record of the spring wildflower bloom around Walden Pond. Modern scientists consult his records today to chart climate change’s disruption of plant life. I am not as exacting an observer as Thoreau, though at times I wish I were. Then I might know when last I saw a firefly.
Several summers ago one was drawn to our window by the blinking light on a cable box, and I joked to my wife about unrequited love. But I don’t remember seeing them last year or the year before. All across the country fireflies are under threat, disappearing due to habitat loss and light pollution and the chemicals people insist upon spraying on their lawns. As a kid growing up in rural Indiana, I saw fireflies everywhere. They hovered and dipped over our front yard and in the woods, streaking the air with big, glowing curves. My brother and I captured them in glass jars, and our dad punched breathing holes in the lids with a nail. As we got older, we stalked them with Wiffle-ball bats, too, plinking them through the sky like shooting stars. We thought the world was ours and everlasting.
I have a son who is eleven. Sometimes I see myself in him so clearly it hurts. Last summer my wife ordered a series of science kits for him, and one came with long spiral tubes and beakers and an array of powdered chemicals to dissolve. It was an experiment in illumination. On our screened-in porch after dark, my son donned safety goggles and rubber gloves. He took great care scooping sodium hydroxide and fluorescein into a cup of water, then poured the solution into a beaker. He hit the lights. Crickets pulsed in the dark woods behind the house. He aimed a small UV flashlight at the solution. The liquid, which before had looked like clear water, now swam with swirling green fluorescence. When he leaned in close, it lit up his face.
The fall before the pandemic my son lost his beloved pra-babka, Babci, my wife’s grandmother. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Babci was an emissary from another world, and he was her little sweet thing, a pączek. Under the spell of her love he got to be the best version of himself and feel utterly adored. With his auditory-processing disorder and speech delay and her hearing loss, they talked right past each other, oblivious, missing each other’s points entirely. It never mattered. They were together, his hands in hers, the eighty-five years between them an inconsequential flickering.
The pandemic, which took so much from him — friends, school, summer camp — only sharpened his sense of her loss. Night after night for weeks he cried about how unfair it was that she had been taken away.
One afternoon my wife brought him into our bedroom to scroll through hundreds of old photographs on the computer. In one he and Babci collected rocks on a beach in Rhode Island. In another she sat in a rocking chair in a pool of light, reading him The Night before Christmas. In another still he sat slumped on her crumbling stoop, head in his hands, crying because it was time to go home. She sat beside him, wrinkled and skinny, an arm slung across his shoulders, pulling him close.
“I used to do that, too,” my wife told him. “When I was a little girl and had to leave her house, I cried my eyes out.”
The earliest pictures made him sad because he couldn’t remember the events depicted, and it pained him to think that so much of his young life had already vanished into the past. He perked up at the more-recent photographs, recalling how it had felt to be with her in those carefree days. “But I still feel like she’s fading,” he said, his face darkening with worry. “It’s like — it’s like she’s being erased from me.”
That night at bedtime I sat on the edge of his bed. I told him I knew it wasn’t the same, but I’d lost my grandmother when I was ten.
“Do you still miss her?” he asked.
“I’ll always miss Babci.”
“Yes,” I said, “I suspect you will.”
We were both quiet. Finally I said to him what I would have said to myself as a kid if I could have: “Missing her means you loved her, bud. And that she loved you. Missing her means all that love hasn’t gone anywhere.”
He thought about that for a second and sighed, easing his grip on the tangle of blankets. My wife came in and stayed with him until he fell asleep.
In the kitchen I made a cup of tea and sat by the window. Outside, cars navigated the curve in our road, headlights sweeping in wide arcs across the pavement. I watched them pass, a steady stream of stories I would never know. All the while, my grandmother’s love for me was right there in the love I felt for my son. His heartbreak had summoned it.
I am writing now from the cusp of another pandemic summer. The days are growing longer and warmer, a feeling of expectancy in the air. All week I have been watching a catbird tend its nest in the forsythia. It lands on our porch rail with supple twigs and twists of dry grass in its beak.
This bucolic New England town, with its white churches and hillside orchards, is a world apart from the landscape I grew up in, but I see reminders of that world everywhere. Down the street is a small dairy farm, a place of barns and sheds and weeds and tilled earth. On our evening walk the cows come up to the electric fence to greet us, as though expecting a scratch behind the ears. We give them names like Butterscotch and Cocoa and Henrietta. When the light hits right, the sun outlines their bodies in gold, shining pink through their ears.
The farm is a holdout, one of several here that developers salivate over. Half an hour outside Boston and near a major highway, land comes at a premium. I expect that one of these days a FOR SALE sign will appear at the end of the drive. For the time being, however, it’s still a sprawling farm with derelict equipment scattered about, Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow growing wild in the roadside ditch. Sometimes we see two little kids running around, a boy and a girl — grandchildren. They tromp about in rubber boots, exploring the barns, wandering at the woods’ edge, leaping off hay bales. Yesterday we heard them splashing happily in an aboveground pool behind the house, and I felt a pang for the pastoral goodness of it all, the joy of their days set against what has surely been a tough year. I wondered if they — and my son, too — would chase fireflies this summer. There is a chance they won’t. Local populations sometimes go extinct. There is a chance the fireflies around here have blinked their last. I sit with that thought, marvel at it, tend it like a wound. Nothing to do now but watch and wait and write. There are worlds I want back, and, like my grandmother, all I have are these words.