The NIGHT of A THOUSAND FIREFLIES
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
In 1950, when I was not quite 13, we went to visit my grandmother, my mother’s younger sister Katherine, her husband my uncle Bill, and my two cousins Connie and Bill Jr. in their hometown of Crawfordsville Indiana, population 200. I had not seen Cousin Connie, who is the same age as I, since we were infants. And I had never met her younger brother, my cousin Billy. It was an amazing experience, meeting the maternal side of my family, so different from the omnipresent Birnkrants that, apart from my Hoosier Grandmother Heckingbottom, who visited Detroit many times, were the only relatives that I had ever known. I took this photograph on that occasion, sixty years ago, with a camera as humble as the one, hanging around Billy’s neck. Billy was exactly the kind of kid that came to symbolize boyhood in rural America. We have seen his familiar image countless times on calendars, barefoot, whistling, and “goin' fishin',” with a homemade fishing rod over his shoulder, a straw hat on his head, and freckles, followed, sometimes, by a puppy. What this photograph does not reveal is the fact that, at 12 years old, I was bigger than my uncle Bill. If you have ever seen the TV show, “King of the Hill,” then, you have met my family in Crawfordsville.
The highlight of this once in my lifetime visit was catching fireflies with Cousin Billy. It was amazing! I had never seen so many fireflies. We ran after them, each of us, carrying one of our grandmother’s large canning jars. We didn’t need to run very far, for lightening bugs were everywhere. All we had to do was keep the lid ajar, then, open and close it, quickly, to trap each new arrival. One could catch them on a plant, or in the grass, and even flying in the air. And in that brief moment that the jar was opened, the growing multitude of insects inside it made no attempt to escape. I was convinced that they liked it in there, and were content to be “my fireflies.” Later, we added some grass, and twigs, and leaves, and pierced several holes in the lids to let them breathe. Last of all, we sprinkled sugar in each jar, so they would have something to eat.
I can’t recall when I had so much fun. This was Firefly Nirvana, a midsummer night’s dream! Years later, I was able to recreate this level of excitement, running through the fields of Brimfield, gathering treasures. The taste for collecting that overtook my life might have begun, right there and then, on that glorious night, The Night of a Thousand Fireflies, in Crawfordsville Indiana, where the lightening bug population exceeded that of humans by, at least, a hundred million.
That night, I went to bed with my precious firefly habitat, twinkling on the night table beside me. This bottle full of happiness was the most magical of night lights. I lay there, basking in its radiance, for as long as I was able. Then, I finally bid my bugs goodnight, and closed my eyes. As I drifted off to sleep, the beauty of my fireflies was still glowing in my mind.
In the morning they were dead!
Of late, a certain question has occurred to me repeatedly: For whom do I write these ramblings? I guess the answer is: for me. And I sort of hope that my grandson, Sammy will read these pages, someday. Perhaps, that is simply wishful thinking, for no other member of my immediate family has ever read them, or anything on the entire website. But, I keep in mind the fact that I have a few small sheets of paper, written by my grandfather, when he was in a veterans Hospital. He was wounded in the Spanish American War, and died a few years later, when my mother was four. These few notes are all I know of him, and I treasure them.
I am convinced that life ends in one of two ways, either abruptly, or badly. And in these later years, if one is fortunate, they learn to embrace loss graciously. As we lose friends, loved ones, faculties, and abilities, how well we accept these losses, and carry on without them is what matters. So, I have come to the conclusion that if I hope to find happiness, I am more likely to discover it by searching in the Past than in the Future.
It has been said that at the moment of one’s death, their entire life passes before their eyes. I find this concept fascinating. At the same time, it is troubling. It seems to me to be highly implausible, if not impossible. Therefore, I am not waiting, or willing to chance it. I try to live my life over, a little bit each day, and especially at night. And I’m taking my time. I’m inviting my entire life to flash before my eyes, very very slowly, and enjoying every moment of it, all over again.
Lately, I find myself rising in the middle of the night, and sitting here at the computer. Having been awakened, once again, by long forgotten fireflies. They fill the firmament of my mind, like those that filled the air of Crawfordsville, on that magic night, so many years ago. I must quickly, lift the lid and gather them in. And, while they are still glowing, let them dance on the computer keys. For if I make the same mistake I did, back then, of falling asleep, then, when I wake again, in the cold light of morning, they will be dead. Therefore, in the dead of night, when all the world is slumbering, I am running through The Fields of Yesterday, gathering fireflies, while they are still alive and glowing; and so, am I.
At the same time, there is no doubt that these memories are fading. At night, I'm like that image, incorporated in the DreamWorks logo, a small boy who looks, not unlike, Little Nemo, sitting on the edge of the crescent moon, floating among the clouds and stars, and fishing. I have no idea what he is fishing for. Dreams, I guess, or maybe, like me, he is fishing for memories. And the middle of the night is the perfect time. The memories are jumping then, like fish swimming upstream. Whales, and sharks, and minnows, there is no memory too large to tackle, too dangerous to catch, or too minute to cherish. No catch is insignificant enough to ignore. I catch them all, all the memories I can, and I never throw any of them back.
I realize that if I was writing this stuff to be read by anyone but me, it would be sorely in need of editing, as it is hopelessly rambling. But, that is all part of the journey that continues, throughout the night. As my mind and I follow the trail of memories, we never know where it will lead.