A HOT summer evening in Ohio. My young daughters, barefoot and dressed in light nightgowns, press against the screen door. Lavender twilight veils the front lawn. Katie, aged 5, asks to go outside. I hesitate; it is an hour past their bedtime. They are bare-legged and freshly bathed. I am about to shake my head and start them to bed when my wife speaks up, ``The fireflies,'' she says, ``are about to come out.'' Before I know it, we have stepped outside to the porch and begun to peer into the dusk. From across the grass, at the base of the oak tree, the first light quietly winks. Katie and her two-year-old sister, Emily, stare, transfixed.
Neither has seen a firefly before. We are in Ohio only briefly, visiting my wife's grandparents. Back in our New Mexico home, the arid night sky is equally as empty of lightning bugs as biting bugs.
Suddenly Katie, her short hair bobbing, bounds down the steps onto the lawn followed by a wide-eyed Emily. I start to murmur to my wife, ``Don't you think it's too late...,'' when it dawns on me to be quiet. I walk down the porch steps and stretch out on the grass.
By now dozens of fireflies have appeared, punctuating the twilight with pricks of phosphorescence. Katie darts after several at the end of the lawn, while Emily, more single-minded, pursues a solitary flash of light near the calla lilies. As I watch, I feel concern shifting from daughters to lightning bugs, particularly one venturing within the orbit of my two-year-old's grasp.
But my worry is misplaced. Emily intuitively senses its fragility. She approaches patiently, her right arm extended, not catching the firefly so much as letting it catch her. Slowly it alights on her index finger, and an expression of awe and delight breaks across her face. To someone unfamiliar with fireflies, a first appearance is no less astonishing than a unicorn's. Her arm outstretched, she ferries the blinking creature across the lawn and holds it before my eyes. Together we watch it reconnoiter her finger, illumine the skin dazzlingly in yellow light, then lift its wings to sail into the dark.
My wife's grandparents, having followed the scene through the living room window, now have stepped outside on the porch, bringing with them a small glass jar. They pass it to Katie with the gentle admonition to trap lightning bugs, but briefly. Before long, the jar harbors a dozen crawling denizens, their bursts of light briskly irradiating the glass container. Katie and Emily gaze down into the glow, their faces as incandescent as the two girls' in John Singer Sargent's ``Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,'' caught on canvas as they peered into paper lanterns during summer twilight.
I turn from daughters to great-grandparents, silent and smiling, on the porch, the pleasure in their faces animated more by two-legged than winged creatures. Now they watch as Katie turns the lid and opens the sparkling jar to the night air. They have lived here since their birth; they've seen 90 Ohio summers come and go, and this one will be their last because they are moving to another state to live closer to my wife's parents; their house has already been sold.
Suddenly I realize that, had we stayed inside, my daughters would have missed forever encountering fireflies here. I'm struck by how nearly I deprived them of this evening of awakening wonder. And how nearly I deprived myself: I can't imagine anyone recalling more vividly the exhilaration on the faces of those on the grass and on the porch. Distant generations linked by a midsummer-night's awe.
The evening will join the mind's collection of incidents from years past; those experiences too strong to be extinguished which we each carry with us. Images of places and seasons, to be sure. And not least, of faces of family, flickering like fireflies in the dusk of memory.