Firefly Season

It’s firefly season in New Hampshire, a magical time that awakens the memories of long summer days and playful nights from my childhood. Each year, I discover firefly season quite by accident, and it always takes me by surprise—as if I had forgotten that fireflies exist.

This year, I was walking along a path through the woods with my children. I saw a tiny yellow-green flash against the darkness of the woods. And then another. “Fireflies!” I exclaimed, though my children had already seen them. Each evening since, I have taken a walk just before dusk darkens to night, so I might once again experience their fleeting magic before they slip away until next year.

Fireflies bring me back to childhood summers. Bedtimes were extended to accommodate early July activities—picnics and fireworks and ice cream. We would venture out into the darkness with jars to catch as many of these magical insects as we could. Bugs that light up! We would follow them with our eyes, attempting to predict their path in the darkness, hoping their bright tails would reappear where we were expecting them. As we opened our jars to catch the next firefly, one or two might escape, and the chase would begin anew. At the end of our hunt, when it was way past time to go to bed, we would open our jars and set them all free.

Firefly season always brings me back to those magical nights of childhood. I can feel the warm summer air and soft breezes. I can smell the scent of grass and dew. I can hear the muffled voices of my parents by the open window and the squeals and giggles of childhood.

When I spot the first firefly,  I am right there, surrounded by all the richness of life.

{Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash}

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Jalopy

We are driving up the highway on our way home from a typical crazy trip out. The afternoon started with a long-awaited appointment, and spilled into a trip to the craft store for fabric paint for a school project, a hop into the grocery store for two necessary items for a cake, and a stop at the pharmacy, which (for future reference) closes early on Saturdays.

Just behind my peripheral vision, the clouds are on fire with the setting sun. Up ahead, the sky is tinged with residual pink, as if someone took a paintbrush and accidentally touched a couple spots with the wrong color. It is this time of day on this drive up the highway (as wonder streaks the sky with end-of-day color) when I am most likely to feel that Dad is present.

Suddenly, a large pick up truck pulls alongside my car, then passes me. He is towing a trailer on which rests enough of another truck to allow me to recognize it as an antique from the 1930s.

“There’s a jalopy,” I comment, speaking as much to myself as to my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat. The sight of the antique truck and the recall of the word “jalopy” bring to mind memories of being in the backseat as a child with Dad driving. He would comment on a jalopy on the road or sitting on someone’s front lawn.

“What’s a jalopy?” my daughter asks.

I smile to myself, remembering Dad. “Look it up when we get home.” It’s a Grampa word, I want to tell her, but I don’t.

“I don’t even know how to spell that. How can I look it up?” she asks.

“You’ll figure it out,” I say.

What a great word. Jalopy.

Advice to My Younger Self

Watching teens go through their various challenges is one of the more difficult parts of parenting. I always thought it would be great if I could somehow spare my children the trauma of middle school and high school. These are the years when kids are jockeying for some kind of ridiculous social position. They want to be seen as the best, the brightest, the funniest, the prettiest, the most popular, the most athletic, etc. The “senior superlatives” celebrated in the local high school speak to the role such competition plays in the lives of teens.

And yet, competition—being the best athlete, having the most friends—these are not the things that are the most important in life. The most important things in life are how we treat other people and how we treat ourselves.

By channeling my younger self and tapping into some of the challenging experiences I remember, I can offer some advice to my teenage self [which is actually thinly veiled advice to my teens…].

Mind your own business, and don’t get involved in other people’s drama. There may be situations that look enticing, and times when it is tempting to step into someone else’s train wreck. And there is no reason not to step in with a sincere offer of help. Otherwise, drama is always good to avoid—your own, and that of others.

Set your goals high. The higher your goals are, the farther you will go. If your goals are easily obtainable, you will not have a reason to keep pushing yourself and keep growing. As a wise teacher once said, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” Setting your goals high will give you a reason to keep growing.

Find your own internal motivators. You have to find meaning in what you do, and that meaning has to come from you. No one else can make sense of your life and your activities. No one else can give you reason to complete tasks, to earn good grades, and to pursue your goals. That meaning and sense of purpose has to come from you.

Walk away from those who don’t treat you well. Keep walking and don’t look back. There are many people who use others, manipulate them, control them, etc. These people, they will get what’s coming to them. It’s called karma, and it really does exist.

Don’t let other people define your limits. Other people are always quick to tell you what you can and can’t do. For example, You shouldn’t pursue a career in [insert creative endeavor here] because you won’t be able to make a living. When I was in graduate school, my advisor—who had met me moments before—looked at my proposed plan of study and said, “You can’t take that many courses. You won’t be successful.” I wanted to say, Watch me! Instead, I just nodded and said these were the courses I would take, thank you very much. Sometimes, people tell you things because they want what’s best for you. Sometimes, they don’t want you to be disappointed. However, only you can determine what’s best for you. And that leads to the next point…

Find your passion and pursue it. If you love to write, find a way to incorporate that love into your college program or your career path. If you are passionate about biology and music, be creative about how these two pursuits might fit together into a career that will feed your soul. If you can’t figure out how to form your passion into a career, at least continue to pursue the activity in a way that is meaningful to you.

Always be true to yourself. You know who you are and what you stand for. Don’t compromise your values or yourself to fit another person’s idea of who you should be. Be you because that is the best and most viable choice you can make.

Sweater Hugs

It’s been cold here in New Hampshire. And by “cold,” I mean take-your-breath-away cold. In fact, if you stay outside for more than a minute, one of your vestigial—but important—parts might freeze off: ears, nose, fingers, toes…. If you’ve ever lived in a cold climate, you know just the kind of cold I am talking about. It is C-O-L-D!

The cold sneaks through the walls of the house, around the windows and doors, dancing across the floor as a draft that brings the cold inside. The furnace is struggling to keep the temperature comfortably warm, so we need to bundle up in extra layers, even around the house. Turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm socks are necessary.

* * *

Back in the days when oversized sweaters were all the rage, I might (or might not) have usurped my dad’s old red wool sweater. I have a vague recollection that he let me borrow it for something when I was a senior in high school, and he decided he wasn’t going to wear it any more anyway (something about it being too small and not really something he was likely to wear), so it became mine. Now, I’m not sure if he really thought he wouldn’t wear it, or he wanted me to have it, but over the years, I have held onto it and worn it every now and again. Each time I sort through clothes to donate, I pass by the sweater, leaving it in the cedar chest just in case I want to wear it someday.

* * *

It has been almost a year since Dad passed away. The pain of loss was renewed with the holidays and the approaching new year. As I looked to bundle up against the cold this morning, I remembered Dad’s sweater, folded and ready for wear at the bottom of the cedar chest. I took it out and put it on, knowing that it was the perfect sweater to keep me warm today. Throughout the day, I cherished both the warmth of the sweater and the feeling of being wrapped in a gentle hug.

Since the cold is going to drag on, I think I might wear Dad’s sweater again tomorrow….

The Right Tools

On Christmas morning, we woke up to the quintessential “white Christmas.” Snow was falling thick and heavy, sticking to the trees and piling up on the lawn and driveway. It was the scene everyone longs for on Christmas.

But a white Christmas does not come without its challenges, most notably, the need to deal with snow removal. Snow doesn’t simply go away, and it can’t stay on the driveway and walkways… unless we want to be immobilized until spring, that is, and I’m pretty sure that was not in the cards. So I donned my warm winter snow boots, jacket, and gloves, and I trudged to the shed where—it was promised—I would find my dad’s “snow shovel.”

Let me take a moment to explain my use of quotes on the term “snow shovel.” In my parents’ house, the shovel that had been used (for many years) to rid the walkways of snow seems to be more of a lightweight garden shovel than an actual, dedicated snow shovel.

Sure enough, the shovel that I expected to find was standing at attention on the floor of the shed, waiting for me, taunting me, no doubt. Mom had also offered me a beautiful, rusty child’s snow shovel that I had when I was a child, back in the Dark Ages. This shovel held a picture of a cheerful snowman, and the handle was wiggly and just a few sizes too short for my adult frame.

I used the child-shovel to do a quick scraping of the stairs before I grabbed the larger shovel and headed out toward Mom’s car. After I removed the snow from the car (with a proper tool, not with the shovel!), I started to clean out the snow around the car. I shoveled, removing the snow so she would be able to get to the drivers side door without incident. The shovel was heavy with a long handle. It wasn’t flat like the scraper I was used to, and I struggled with it. With each scoop of snow I threw, I could hear Dad’s voice: “I’ve used this shovel for 40 winters, and it has always served me well. It’s a good snow shovel, nice and light.” Clearly, Dad had not held one of the newer plastic shovels designed specifically for snow. If he had, he’d know it was the right tool for the job.

From the car, I shoveled a narrow path down the driveway, a temporary walkway until the plow arrived to remove the snow from the driveway. When I was done, I retreated to the cozy warmth of the house.

The next day, I went out and purchased two new shovels for Mom, one large with a wide, flat blade and one, a very small scoop with a telescoping handle. It was far from an extravagant purchase, but Mom now has the tools she needs for the next storm. However, I am willing to confess it was maybe a little selfish of me. Now, when I’m at Mom’s house and it snows, I have the shovels I need so I don’t feel like I’m stuck and trying to dig out from the 1950s!

Rediscovered Treasure

This weekend, winter decided to move in. On Saturday, the temperature dropped several degrees, and the snow began to fall just before noon. And Saturday was the day I chose to sort through my Christmas ornaments to decide what I would keep and what I would give away. After all, some of the ornaments in my collection have been kicking around since I was just out of college. And even earlier.

Nowadays, I tend not to burden my tree with an overabundance of ornaments like I did when the kids were younger. Mostly because I like it simple—lights and a few sparkly ornaments to reflect the light back into the room. But there is also the fact that my teenagers are excited about decorating the tree, but not so excited about taking it down after Christmas.

So I sat on the couch and opened the large, green plastic tote, removed the first cardboard box, and began to unwrap small tissue paper balls to rediscover what was inside. Plastic animals dressed in Santa hats with wreaths, hand-painted cinnamon sticks and wooden disks picked up at a long forgotten craft fair, needlepoint plastic canvas squares… these were the items that found themselves in the ever-growing “give away” pile.

As I sorted, I came upon a yellowed box that said, “Mom’s dwarfs” in the handwriting of … I’m not really sure … one of my aunts, maybe? And in pencil, in a similar handwriting, it said, “For Suzanne from Nana.” More recently written were a number of notes in Dad’s handwriting: instructions about being careful, about the fact that there were extra parts wrapped up by themselves, about the things that Dad would typically warn me about as he removed these very fragile items from their carefully crafted tissue paper cocoons.

And now, I pulled one out of the box and placed it in my lap. I unrolled the tissue, getting closer and closer to the treasure it held. The weight of the ornament was less than one might expect, making it easy to fumble or accidentally drop it. But it was cradled securely in my lap. Finally, I was rewarded for my care when I spied the first glint of pointy shoes, a leg, and then a jolly face, its paint cracked and peeling from years of use.

My breath caught in my throat as I could feel Dad’s large hand carefully placing the “dwarf” ornament in my own then small hand. Each year, without fail, before he let go, he would ask, “Got it?” double-checking that this delicate figure was secure and would not fall to the floor where it might meet its demise.

The fact that these old ornaments had seen better days did not make them any less precious. The memories they evoked were worth the extra care needed. Of course, now that I have carefully unwrapped these very fragile ornaments on my own, I believe they are less fragile than all the past fuss would indicate. No matter. I still took great care as I hung them on the branches of my tree.

My one question that will never be answered: why, with elves all around at this time of year, did these ornaments end up being labeled “dwarves” rather than “elves” that might be more fitting for the Christmas season? I suppose I’ll never know. I will be left to devise my own theory.

 

 

Snippets of Life

Memories of my life are filed away like index cards carefully placed in drawers, an ancient and ever-expanding card catalog of snippets of life. I can open the drawers, flip through the memories, and see the things that have brought me to this place—this point in time.

Different drawers contain different sets of memories. The good memories fill several drawers, and I can flip through them quickly, as if spinning a Rolodex, or slowly like I am engrossed in detailed research. When I look in one drawer, I can see my children toddling down the hall. There are first words, first steps, first days of school. I pause for a moment on an afternoon spent running around the front lawn, desperately trying to catch leaves tossed and blown on the wind. The giggles are as vivid in memory’s ear as they were that day.

If I work really hard, I can go back to memories of my own childhood: picnics on an old wooden bridge, dressing up for church on Sundays, holidays, and the occasion or two when I walked home from school in the middle of the day for lunch. There are memories of lessons learned, family time, and brief vacations thrown in here and there for good measure.

Silliness weaves through most of the drawers, knit into the fabric of my very being. Here and there, a memory will bring up the humor that my children often take for granted. It is an essential part of our family life.

There are memories I draw upon for inspiration. Times I was the definite underdog, but I persevered and met with success. Times I was on the receiving end of Mercy and Grace. Times when love and laughter were on my side as I worked through a challenge.

The not-so-positive memories are in a drawer of their own, lest I accidentally stumble upon them while I am surfing my pleasant memories. I don’t open that drawer much—I don’t need to. It is stiff and broken and hard to work. It doesn’t quite close all the way, and sometimes, the memories slip out, catching me when I am low, and nagging at the edges of my brain. These memories, they chastise me for… well, for everything. Not good enough. Not strong enough. Not thin enough. Not happy enough. Not. Enough.

And I work diligently to recover and move on as quickly as I can to another drawer. Because the catalog has never been a bad thing. It helps me to stay organized and grounded. And it helps me to move in a positive direction. The good memories outweigh the not-so-good memories. File away the “mistakes made” as lessons learned, and they suddenly become a necessary step in the process. Because every step and every misstep, every turn and every detour, every moment lived through every age is a tiny building block in the process of creating my life. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, every card in my catalog… these are all lessons learned.