THE LIGHTNING BUGS ARE BACK
The lightning bugs are back. They are small right now, babies really, flying low to the ground as the lawn dissolves from green to black in the dusk. There are constellations of them outside the window: on, off, on, off. At first the little boy cannot see them; then, suddenly, he does. “Mommy, it’s magic,” he says.
This is why I had children: because of the lightning bugs. Several years ago I was reading a survey in a women’s magazine and I tried to answer the questions: Did you decide to have children: A. because of family pressure; B. because it just seemed like the thing to do; C. because of a general liking for children; D. because of religious mandates; E. none of the above.
I looked for the lightning bugs; for the answer that said, because sometime in my life I wanted to stand at a window with a child and show him the lightning bugs and have him say, “Mommy, it’s magic.” And since nothing even resembling that answer was there, I assumed that, as usual, I was a little twisted, that no one else was so reductive, so obsessed with the telling detail, had a reason so seemingly trivial for a decision so enormous. And then the other night, yellow bug stars flickering around us, my husband said, in a rare moment of perfect unanimity: “That’s it. That’s why I wanted them, too.”
Perhaps we are a reductive species, we human beings. Why else would we so want to distill the slow, often tedious span of our lives to three stiff portraits and a handful of candid shots? The Statue of Liberty is meant to be shorthand for a country so unlike its parts that a trip from California to Indiana should require a passport. In the same way, we all have neat little icons that stand for large, messy lives: a pressed corsage, a wedding dress, a birth announcement, a grade school drawing, a diploma. I look in my high school yearbook and from the picture, the messages, the words that describe me, I can reconstruct four years not unlike the ones little Richie spent in Happy Days. Of course, it was completely unlike the years I actually spent at high school. The question is, Do I want to remember it the way it was, or the way it should have been? Did Proust have his cake to inspire his memory or his fantasy?
I know my own answer. The lightning bugs are my madeleine, my cue for a wave of selective recollection. My God, the sensation the other night when the first lightning bug turned his tail on too soon, competing with daylight during the magic hour between dusk and dark. I felt like the anthropologist I once met, who could take a little chunk of femur or a knucklebone and from it describe age, sex, perhaps even height and weight.
From this tiny piece of bone I can reconstruct a childhood: a hot night under tall trees. Squares of lighted windows up and down the dark street. A wiffle ball game in the middle of the road, with the girls and the littlest boys playing the outfield. The Good-Humor man, in his solid, square truck, the freezer smoky and white when he reaches inside for a Popsicle or a Dixie cup. The dads sitting inside in their Bermuda shorts watching Car 54, Where Are You? The moms in the kitchen finishing the dishes. The dull hum of the fans in the bedroom windows. The cheap crack of the wiffle bat. The bells of the ice-cream truck. The lightning bugs trapped in empty peanut-butter jars that have triangular holes in the lids, made with the point of a beer-can opener. The fading smears of phosphorescent yellow-green, where the older, more jaded kids have used their sneaker soles to smear the lights across the gray pavement. “Let them out,” our mothers say, “or they will die in there.” Finally, perfect sleep. Sweaty sheets. No dreams.
We were careless. We always forgot to open the jars. The lightning bugs would be there in the morning, their yellow tails dim in the white light of the summer sun, their feet pathetic as they lay on their backs, dead as anything. We were always surprised and a bit horrified by what we had done, or had failed to do. As night fell we shook them out and caught more.
This is why I had children: to offer them a perfect dream of childhood that can fill their souls as they grow older, even as they know that it is only one bone from a sometimes troubled body. And to fill my own soul, too, so that I can relive the magic of the yellow light without the bright white of hindsight, to see only the glow and not the dark. Mommy, it’s magic, those little flares in the darkness, a distillation of the kind of life we think we had, we wish we had, we want again.
A PAUL GIRL
I was a Paul girl. Still am, I suppose, at the core. It was one of four choices you had, in 1964, when I was on the cusp of adolescence: a Paul girl, a John girl, a George girl, or a Ringo girl, with all the attendant Beatle buttons, glossy color pictures, and daydreams. Little did we know that in some broad way we were defining the sort of people we were on our way to becoming.
The girls who picked George as their favorite Beatle were self-contained, serious, with a touch of the wallflower and a bit of the mystic. The ones who picked John were aggressive, irreverent, the smart mouths, the wisecrackers. Ringo got anyone who was really determined to distinguish herself, the kind of girl who would wear wax fangs or weird clothes to get attention, who would choose the one at the back of the band, with the big nose and the strange looks. And Paul got the little ladies like me. He was cute in a mainstream way, funny in a mainstream way, a public persona not much different from the most popular boys in the class. He was for girls who were traditional, predictable, who played by the rules.
Who knew what John might do? We Paul girls were not in the least surprised when John blurted out that line about being more popular than Jesus, or when he married Yoko. Paul, on the other hand, was sure to marry a Paul girl and have lots of pretty children, which is precisely what he did. He’s even aged wonderfully. Nowadays he looks like one of those computer-generated pictures of someone twenty-five years later, the ones that add only lines and gray hair and overlook the usual accumulation of fat and jowls and rapidly enlarging forehead.
Over the years I’ve sometimes tried to escape being a Paul girl, but it’s never worked for long. I once made an attempt in high school, taking a crack at a hefty blonde who’d made fun of me in the cafeteria and missing her substantial jaw by a good six inches because of bad eye-hand coordination. And once or twice, particularly in convent school, I’ve had friends so good-natured and conformist that they made me seem like Irma La Douce for a time. When the going got tough, however, I always wound up a Paul girl again. I’d had lots of practice. One of the most satisfying things about growing up Catholic during the 1950s were the rules, which were not then, as we say now, flexible. The only questions were of degree: If you inadvertently ate baloney at lunch on Friday, would you go to hell if you were hit by a car during recess afterward? If you sucked on a cough drop in the car on the way to nine o’clock mass, had you violated the Communion fast requirements? And which was worse: to leave a piece of Host stuck to the roof of your mouth during breakfast, or to move it with your finger in direct violation of what the nuns had told you about stuck Hosts?
Is it any wonder I became accustomed to the letter of the law? Rules were a relief. They were like basic tap-dance combinations: you could set them up any way you pleased, add the stray shuffle or heel-and-toe, but at least you didn’t have to improvise everything. Of course there were always the people who seemed not to need rules—the John girls, as it were. My last year in high school I nursed a secret admiration for them, even while I scrambled each morning to match kilt and crew neck, circle pin and earrings, knee socks and Weejuns. In Indian-print dresses and sandals, the John girls skipped pep rallies, asked the history teacher whether Richard Nixon wasn’t as bad as Adolf Hitler, and applied to alternative schools.
I got to know them better in college, and realized that they had their own set of rules, and that they distrusted deviation and liked conformity as much as I did. Talk about how high you got even if you didn’t; look bored; disdain all academic disciplines except for philosophy and creative writing; use rhyme in poetry only on pain of death; and affect a writing style as close as possible to that of Franny and Zooey. That was how their game was played.
We’ve all changed a good bit since then, although when I wear dinner-plate earrings just because everyone else is wearing dinner-plate earrings, I sometimes have my doubts. More of my life now is about character building than image making. While there aren’t quite as many rules as there once were (you can pull a piece of baloney out of your purse in church on Friday and nobody seems to mind as long as you show up) I distrust them more. They just don’t work as well for human relationships as we might like. I wouldn’t insult either my husband or myself by reading one of those one-minute marriage manager books. And as far as kids are concerned, the rules are just plain silly, as you find out the first time you try to give a baby his every-four-hour nurse and discover that an hour-and-a-half later he’s hungry again.
I guess I can tap-dance better now—more improvising, fewer set pieces. I think of the Paul girl as a bit like an illustration in a coloring book: black outlines, no fill-in. It was useful in its time, in its place. It made it easier to believe in God, to hate certain people passionately, to choose Paul without thinking twice about any of the other three. Of course, I now understand the bits of those three that were attractive to others; I understand the gestalt, which was a concept, not to mention a word, that was beyond me at the time.
I saw Paul on television the other day. He seemed to have changed less than I had. He doesn’t appeal to me as much anymore; neither does the safety he once personified.
Copyright © 2010 by Anna Quindlen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.