My grandchildren live on the other side of the country. They are here for two weeks in the summer and two weeks at the winter holidays, so I’m lucky that I’m the grandmother associated with an exotic locale and the freedom that comes with vacation. Who wouldn’t like a lifestyle that includes rolling off Mayflower Beach at 7 p.m., stopping at Captain Frosty’s for hot dogs and ice cream, and taking an outdoor shower as the moon rises?
For my part, grandchildren are the antidotes for complacency, habit and my blindness to the daily wonders around me – especially since I’m not distracted with the responsibilities and distractions of actual parenting. Even in familiar places, our nonstop activities are voyages of discovery. Had I never noticed the subtle greys of a scallop shell until it was held in the pudgy hand of a toddler? Did I simply forget the joy of a crashing wave until I laughed with a 6-year-old struggling to stay upright? Was I in too much of a hurry to see beauty in the marsh’s thin skim of ice until we scanned for hibernating frogs? And, the fireflies; OMG the fireflies.
Fireflies are rare in California where my grandchildren live so they had never seen them. But on a July night in my backyard, fireflies are fairy lights in the bushes. The mosquitoes and no-see-ums usually drive us off the deck at dusk, so it took a 2-year-old standing at the slider to spot them – and get me to re-appreciate their wonder. Sitting on the edge of the deck, the kids in their PJs, we stared into the yard’s darkness and watched for the pinpoints of bioluminescence among the azaleas and andromeda. They watched as if waiting for stars to bloom, the youngest shouting “Firefly!” each time as if it were the first.
Growing up in Ohio, we called these tiny beetles “lightening bugs” and captured them in mayonnaise jars, only to find them dead the next morning, despite pounding holes into the tin jar lids. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to catch them in my backyard but discovered I wasn’t quite as good at it as when I was 7. My grandkids didn’t care. They were perfectly happy with the fireflies staying exactly where they were supposed to be. Indeed, not knowing where the next one was going to show itself was far more miraculous than watching them trapped in a jar.
I know there’s a lot my grandkids already treasure about vacations on Cape Cod. Much of it – the sticky drip of soft-serve, the freedom of early-morning cartoons, and the adrenaline of the water park – has little to do with the natural world. But I hope when they are grown and spot a firefly, they’ll remember sitting on the edge of the dark at their grandmother’s house, waiting for the fairy lights. And I know I will never look at fireflies the same way again.