It’s dusk, and my barefoot children and I are chasing fireflies where they rise from the grass beneath the pecan trees in our backyard in rural North Carolina. Wielding cheap butterfly nets, we zero in on one insect and track it against the backdrop of cattle browsing in an adjacent pasture. The lightning bug sinks and drifts like a dust mote in a sunbeam, and when its light goes out, wecrouch to followits silhouette against the purpling sky. I capture the firefly and hand it off to my two-year-old daughter, Zoe, who cups her hands around it and forms a slot to put her eye up to. When the lightning bug flashes in her cupped hands, she looks up at me, rapt. She hands it off to her three-year-old brother, Stillman, and he has his moment with the mystery.
Perhaps it is the honey-summer air or simply one of those pangs a parent feels knowing that this is it, that this is what he will be recalling in decades to come when he talks about “when the kids were small.” Whatever it is, passing a firefly off to my children takes on a sudden and poignant weight.
We’re at another farm, the one in Upstate New York where my own parents handed off fireflies to me long ago. Summer is on the wane, so it’s too cold up here for fireflies, but there is plenty else to do. We hike, we ride horses, we catch frogs, and we play backyard games.
It has always been this way. My parents, both approaching 70, raised six of us while my father taught high school English, and they ran a small farm. In case that wasn’t hard enough, they farmed with 19th-century horse-drawn equipment, accepted leadership positions in their church, and took in foster kids, FreshAir kids, relatives, vagabonds, the elderly, rascals, and strays. Yet they always had time for us, and they always had time for fun.
They hiked us up mountains, floated us down rapids, and taught us how to do flips. Backyard campfires all summer long, board games all winter. Suppertimes were occasions for riddles and trivia and puns, and Dad read to us as a group on winter nights even when some of us were teenagers. I cannot remember a time when he came home, said, “I’m tired,” and sat down to rest. Neither the words nor the action had a place in my parents’ lexicon.
Today will be no different. My father hitches his ancient rawboned horse, Duke, to his buggy to take us for a ride down the busy country road. Dad bought Duke years ago from the Amish. Too old for much else, Duke still likes to pull; although knobby and lopsided, he trots along nicely. Half a mile from home, we look back down the road and see a blue dot gradually gaining on us. A moment later, the figure looms larger: It’s my mother cranking hard on her bicycle, and before we know it, she has caught us, grinning broadly, the kids cheering.
After dinner, we pile onto a hay wagon, and Dad hitches it to the tractor and hauls us to a pond where we’ll fish in the rain. By the time we’re finished, the sun has set and the calves in the pasture around the pond are barely visible through a thickening fog.
I sit beside Mom on the wagon for the ride home, holding my kids. Mom gazes out at the mist with a dreamy look. “Do you remember playing in the fog?” she asks.
“Sure. All the time.”
“Oh, I was thinking of one time in particular. It was an evening like this. We saw the fog coming in, and we said, ‘C’mon! Let’s go out to the meadow and play in it.’ I remember playing hide-and-seek and calling to each other through the fog.”
I can’t recall that night, but it doesn’t matter. I have for visual aid the breathtaking scene before me: a yellow fingernail moon glowering high above the skeins of fog; pockets of low, slick pasture grass where the fresh-fallen rain still seeps; the smell of soil and hay and young life. I think of my parents, probably in their 20s, dropping everything to frolic in the fog with their children, and now here is Mom, decades later, recounting the fun, and I wonder, On that foggy evening long ago, did that feeling race over her, that knowledge that this is it, that this is what it will mean when I look back and say, “When the kids were small”?
I’m having my regular Sunday- evening phone call with my parents. As usual, the winter is mild in North Carolina, but my parents have had an old-fashioned cold spell, with subzero temperatures and a bitter wind. Dad tells me that Duke has died. Normally Duke would have been in the barn when Dad went out to do his chores, but one frigid evening, he was not there. Under pinprick stars, Dad walked through the pasture calling for his old horse and found him stretched out on the frozen brook. He had likely slipped on the ice and succumbed to the cold. I can hear in Dad’s voice the guilt and loss. Dad tells me that he will not be replacing Duke.
That gives me pause. It’s part of a larger pattern, scarcely detectable unless one takes the long view. The farm is steadily shrinking—no more beef, no more dairy, no more pigs, fewer horses, smaller garden. My parents talk of slowing down. Right now it’s mostly just talk. I sure can’t imagine it. And that’s a problem—for me. Slow down they will, and part of my job as an adult is to come to grips with that.
The kids are a year older, and the backyard is once again festive with the cold green lights of fireflies. I catch the first one of the season and pass it to a delighted Stillman. There is no place I would prefer to be, nothing I would rather be doing.
Was my childhood as idyllic as I recall? Perhaps not. But the love outweighs the rest, and with any luck, it will be the same for my children.
At one point in my life, I made hopeful but doomed forays into Buddhism but could not reconcile myself to its principal doctrine of detachment. I can see that an enlightened detachment from my parents would serve me well as they begin their inevitable decline. And yet I cling: to my parents, to my wife and children, to the thrills and magic of this world, calculating that the pain of loss will have been worth the joy of attachment. Still, one of the Buddha’s lovely images has fixed itself upon my mind: He likens reincarnation to the passing of a flame from one candle to the next; the source of life is the same down through the generations, but it’s no longer the same flame once it has passed from one candle to another.
That’s what I’m doing here, I finally understand, as the little pure light of each firefly moves from my hand to those of my young children: simply passing the flame that is briefly mine to hold. Passing a firefly off to my children takes on a sudden and poignant weight.