To my child mind, the concept of bugs emitting light seemed like something that could only happen in a storybook. Yet here they were right in front of my eyes. On and off, near and far. Tiny bolts of lightning that could be collected in a jar.
The first time I saw a firefly was at the lake. The first time I held one so carefully in my hand, watching the light grow brighter then dim through the cracks of my pudgy fingers. The wonder of it all I can’t ever forget.
The lake was full of wonder and firsts for me. Summers at my uncle’s lake, that surely wasn’t his alone even though that’s the way it felt to me, were filled with splendor and awe like holding stars in the palm of my hand.
I took my first swimmer’s strokes at that lake. At first they were chaotic and afraid, but eventually smoothed out as my confidence grew. It was there I learned how to row a boat and make a proper iced coffee, the way my aunt made them. The best way. Some might say the only way.
As I remember it, though, the fireflies were the best first of all the firsts during my summers at the lake. To have heard of them, read about them in a book, it still seems unbelievable. To see their first light in the corner of the yard at dusk, to catch them in a jar and watch them turn on and off, that’s when you understand they’re real.
I experienced that first once again a few years ago when I moved my family from south Florida to the piedmont of North Carolina. After decades of nothing, I was gifted the joy of the first spark of light just as the sun started to set.
First one, then two, then more. The memories of that summer at the lake, including the first one where I learned that magic is real, started flooding back. The coffee colored lake, rich in tannins, a few shades darker than the many iced coffees my aunt would make. Dark water being cut by arms and oars.
I hadn’t thought much about the magic of those fireflies in the intervening years, but the second sight of them was perhaps more special than the first. Attached to the surprise and delight were the feelings of awe that I had as a child.
I shouldn’t be embarrassed to tell you that I squealed, though my child wouldn’t say the same. I let out a yelp of delight and shouted, “Firefly!” Then the stories came out about all my first times at the lake and I relived them all in my head.
I still wait for the fireflies every summer. I get excited thinking about what evening will be the first evening where lightning will strike again. And this summer, the one where the pandemic forced us all to stay home, was no different. I still remember peeking through the blinds for one last check before I got ready for bed. There it was, a tiny bolt out of the blue.
This summer has been one of firsts, not many that felt magical, but ones we’ll surely never forget. But I’m more interested in the other firsts, the second firsts, the ones that will happen when it’s safe to get out again.
Dinner with friends, movie theater popcorn on opening night, vacations, running to the store without cursing yourself for forgetting a mask, staying in because we want to and not because we have to.
All those firsts are waiting for you. They’re coming. As simple as they are, they’ll be delightful and joyous in ways you’d never imagined. Because you’ve missed them, longed for them all these many months inside. And the second firsts will be magic, like the first time you see a tiny bug light up the night sky, like catching lightning in a jar.