This is the third appearance in Other Voices of this exquisite column. The reprise is prompted by First Sightings on the editor's lawn Sunday. New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. THE LIGHTNING bugs are back. They are small right now, babies really, flying low to the ground as the lawn dissolves from green to black in the dusk. There are constellations of them outside the window: on, off, on, off. At first the little boy cannot see them; then suddenly he does. "Mommy, it's magic!" he says.
This is why I had children: because of the lightning bugs. Several years ago I was reading a survey in a women's magazine and I tried to answer the questions: Did you decide to have children: a) because of family pressure; b) because it just seemed like the thing to do; c) because of a general liking for children; d) because of religious mandates; e) none of the above.
I looked for the lightning bugs, for the answer that said, because sometime in my life I wanted to stand at a window with a child and show him the lightning bugs and have him say, "Mommy, it's magic!" And since nothing even resembling that answer was there, I assumed that, as usual, I was a little twisted, that no one else was so reductive, so obsessed with the telling detail, had a reason so seemingly trivial for a decision so enormous. And then the other night, yellow bug stars flickering around us, my husband said, in a rare moment of perfect unanimity: "That's it. That's why I wanted them, too."
Perhaps we are a reductive species, we human beings. Why else would we so want to distill the slow, often tedious span of our lives to a few stiff portraits and a handful of candid shots? The Statue of Liberty is meant to be shorthand for a country so unlike its parts that a trip from California to Indiana should require a passport. In the same way, we all have neat little icons that stand for large messy lives: a pressed corsage, a wedding dress, a birth announcement, a grade school drawing, a diploma.
I look in my high school yearbook and from the picture, the messages, the words that describe me, I can reconstruct four years not unlike the ones little Richie spent on "Happy Days." Of course, it was completely unlike the years I actually spent at high school. The question is, do I want to remember it the way it was, or the way it should have been? Did Proust have his cake to inspire his memory -- or his fantasy?
I know my own answer. The lightning bugs are my madeleine, my cue for a wave of selective recollection. My God, the sensation the other night when the first lightning bug turned his tail on too TTC soon, competing with daylight during the magic hour between dusk and dark! I felt like the anthropologist I once met who could take a little chunk of femur or a knuckle bone and from it describe age, sex, perhaps even height and weight.
From this little bare bone I can reconstruct a childhood: a hot night under tall trees. Squares of lighted windows up and down the dark street. A Wiffle ball game in the middle of the road, with the girls and the littlest boys playing the outfield. The Good Humor man, in his solid, square white truck, the freezer smoky and white when he reaches inside for a Popsicle or a Dixie cup.
The dads sitting inside in their Bermuda shorts watching "Car 54, Where Are You?" The moms in the kitchen finishing the dishes. The dull hum of the fans in the bedroom windows. The cheap crack of the Wiffle bat. The bells of the ice cream truck.
The lightning bugs trapped in empty peanut butter jars with triangular holes on top, made with the point of a beer-can opener. The fading smears of phosphorescent yellow-green where the older, more jaded kids have used their sneaker soles to smear the lights across the gray pavement. "Let them out," our mothers say, "or they will die in there." Finally, perfect sleep. Sweaty sheets. No dreams.
We were careless. We always forgot to open the jars. The lightning bugs would be there in the morning, their yellow tails dim in the white light of the summer sun, their feet pathetic as they lay on their backs, dead as anything. We were always surprised, and a bit horrified by what we had done, or had failed to do. As night fell we shook them out and caught more.
This is why I had children: to offer them a perfect dream of childhood that can fill their souls as they grow older, even as they know that it is only one bone from a sometimes troubled body. And to fill my own soul, too, so that I can relive the magic of the yellow light without the bright white of hindsight, to see only the glow and not the dark. Mommy, it is magic, those little flares in the darkness, a distillation of the kind of life we think we had, we wish we had, we want again.