When I was a child, the days were long, the weeks and months crept along slowly, and years seemed like an eternity. I laid in bed and stared through the window at the stars of the summer night sky. Listening intently to the older kids still outside laughing and having fun. Wishing I could be out there with them. Thinking how wonderful it was that summer was so very long.
As hard as I tried to stay awake until the last child went in for the night, the rhythmic sound of the crickets always lulled me into an early sleep.
But that was okay, because there was always tomorrow. I knew tomorrow would come and I could once again fill my day with hopscotch, jump-rope, running barefoot through the freshly mown grass, and catching fireflies at dusk.
Back then, time was measured differently. Back then it was marked by tangible things such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the sun was up, it was time to be awake, (except for nap time which immediately followed lunch). If the sun was down, it was time for bed. Time was simple; it didn’t rush me.
Time was as ideal as my life. My parents, baby brother, and I lived in a new suburb outside Dayton, Ohio. Our house was built brand new just for us and was the first one in the subdivision other than the model home.
As a small child growing up in the early sixties, the middle class suburban neighborhood felt safe and perfect — perfect as something brand new should be. Everything in my memory of that time and place is bright, crisp, and clean. The yards were manicured and bright green. The skies were the bluest of blues with white clouds that changed shape as they floated lazily across the sky.
My house was equally as perfect, or at least, it must have been, as every new house built replicated its style. Ours was a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch with an attached two-car garage. Every home started life with two maple trees in the front yard, and two in the back, and all were situated on a third of an acre.
Backyards were separated with chain-link fences; enough substance to divide property, but short and open so that neighbors could see and talk to each other. Most backyards had a concrete patio with folding lawn chairs arranged in a semi-circle where the grown-ups sat in the evenings, sipping cold drinks.
A cool breeze would inevitably blow by, lifting any troublesome burden, and leaving in its wake, rest and relaxation; the ability of grown-ups to relive their youth as they watched their children play in the warmth of the summer air, laughing and running, and helping them catch fireflies at dusk.
I marveled at the fireflies. I cupped them in my hands and peered through the gap between my thumbs. In that small space, their tiny, magical bodies tickled my hands as they flitted around, making me laugh. Their bodies would alternate glowing and not glowing in a consistent rhythm that kept time with my breathing. Then, I released them and watched as they flew away before jumping in the air to catch another.
Back then, there were no goals, no “to-do” lists. The past didn’t matter and the future only held glimpses of what it might be like to be older, but it didn’t get much attention. What mattered was the here and now. What mattered was doing what I wanted to do right then. There was no guilt, no responsibility. My only job was to be me.
Growing older, however, did bring with it a few responsibilities which left less time for fun. Household chores needed to be done and a proper amount of time set aside to do them well. I helped take care of my baby brother sometimes. There were ballet lessons and tap lessons and piano lessons to go to and to practice at home for, which were all fun but required a schedule.
The more I had to do, the faster time moved. I noticed the days seemed shorter. There wasn’t always time to run, and jump, and play. My summer vacations were moving along faster than the years before.
No matter what the plans, though, I always tried to make time for catching fireflies. Instead of laughing as they walked and flew around in my cupped hands, tickling me with their small, wispy bodies, I began to marvel at how they were able to walk and fly and especially, how and why did they glow?
As they walked along my hands and arms, I stared at them intently, studying them. I wondered what their purpose for glowing was. I wondered why they only came out at night. What did they do during the day? Where did they go in winter? I would capture the fireflies and put them in a jar with grass and leaves, and my dad punched holes in the lid so they could breathe. I wanted to keep them forever, to be able to have them in the cold and boring winter. I wanted to catch fireflies in the snow.
I had a great respect for fireflies. I thought they must be something really important, really special in order to be able to glow. I thought of them like little insect fairies, somewhere far above the average insect, but not quite as high up as a real fairy. For a while, I caught fireflies in the front yard with my friends, but they didn’t truly appreciate the fireflies the way I did. They didn’t see how magical they were.
Some of the kids in the neighborhood would tear the glow part off of the bodies and squeeze it so that the glow liquid would be on their hands. Then, just to be extra sadistic, they would tear off the wings and throw the remains on the ground. It upset me, so I went back to catching fireflies in the backyard while my parents sat in their folding lawn chairs on the concrete patio, drinking their cold beverages. I didn’t want to watch what the other kids did to those beautiful creatures.
I tried to take really good care of the fireflies that I caught, maybe to counter the monstrosities that my friends were doing. I made sure I didn’t hurt the fireflies, and I made sure to only keep them in a jar for a couple of days because they were special and were meant to fly freely in the summer sky. After I released them, I would be back outside at dusk, catching them again, until they disappeared with summer.
In no time at all, I became a teenager with more responsibilities and homework and boyfriends and school clubs and lessons. I took notice that time didn’t last as long as it used to. Back then, though, I was living for future milestones, and didn’t mind the ever-so-slightly hurriedness of time.
Turning thirteen was a big deal, as was sixteen, and eighteen, and twenty-one. Life was filling up and opening up new doors, new freedoms. There was no time to catch fireflies, but it didn’t matter because catching fireflies at dusk was for children; it was a silly waste of time. Time was valuable, precious. I needed every second of my time to make goals, make plans, and work toward their accomplishment.
Soon I had daughters of my own and my whole perspective toward time changed. Suddenly, I wanted to hold onto it. I wanted my daughters to be children forever. I wanted to hold them and care for them and protect them.
The more I wanted time to stand still, the faster it moved forward. I was told that “children grow up so fast.” I couldn’t let that happen. I wanted to capture every moment together and make a memory.
I taught my children to catch fireflies at dusk. I relived my youth watching them cup the fireflies in their little hands and peek through the small gap between their thumbs. I relived the joy and excitement as they laughed with glee at how the fireflies tickled their precious hands.
As they grew older, I watched how intently they studied the fireflies and they wanted to capture them and keep them in jars with holes in the lids so they could enjoy them even in the winter. But, fireflies aren’t meant for winter, and deserve to spend their short life flying free, sharing their precious glowing gift with others, maybe being caught for a night or two to be watched intently by other children before being set free to do what they were born to do. I waited with my girls through the long, cold winters, looking forward to summertime when we could once again catch fireflies at dusk.
My daughters did grow up so fast, as everyone had warned me. It wasn’t long before they had friends to hang out with and activities and softball and so many other things to do.
One summer we somehow forgot to catch fireflies. It was the beginning of their accelerated time. The beginning of living toward future milestones. The end of living in the moment.
I lived for those milestones with them, but also began living in the past. I longed for those golden days spending time together, laughing and living and being. It all went by so fast.
They grew up and moved out. Time was at a dizzying speed. I began to age rapidly. Living in the past provided a great comfort, but has since become more difficult because the past is becoming more blurred. There’s no point in looking toward the future because it’s only a fleeting moment away.
I realized it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve even noticed a firefly. Do they still exist? Do they come out at dusk? I never did look up how and why they glow. I never discovered what their purpose for glowing was. I quit wondering why they only come out at night, what do they do during the day, or where do they go in the winter.
Now, with time moving at an alarming rate, I’m beginning to reflect and question. I know there’s nothing I can do about the speed of time. So, what should I do to make the most of the time left to me? What’s my purpose? Can I glow? Is it too late to live in the now? Is it too late to just be?
Maybe the acceleration of time is inevitable, but maybe instead of feeling hopeless and lamenting the speed, I could look at it as a sign; one that is flashing bright red neon in my face telling me that time is precious; enjoy it, live it, make it count. It’s a sign, giving me permission to play hopscotch and jump-rope and run barefoot through the freshly mown grass.
That sign is a reminder to see the world through the eyes of a child, the child version of me, full of awe and wonderment, a child who laughs and marvels as I once again, make time for catching fireflies at dusk.
about the author
Beeda L. Speis lives in Dayton, Ohio. She has an Associates Degree from Sinclair Community College, and a Bachelor’s Degree from Ohio University. She writes nonfiction and poetry, and is currently working on her memoir.