Monday, August 6, 2012

Sunshine Days and Firefly Nights

photo from

The hard-packed earth of the path was warm under Larry's bare feet. The afternoon sun beamed down from a bright blue sky, and a light breeze rippled the meadow grass. Larry swished at the grass with a stick as he plodded along, mindlessly decapitating red clover and Queen Anne's lace with each whack.
Startled insects whirred up, rattling past his face, landing with a plop just ahead, zinging up again at his approach.  Meadow scents rose, hotly green, mingling with a faint smell of cool mud from the creek in the distance.
Larry felt vaguely discontented, a bit out of sorts.
Thinking about it he realized his entire household  had been rather subdued all day.
For several weeks past, ever since school let out, the big farmhouse had teemed with people.
Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, released from factory jobs in Massachusetts, had packed suitcases and children into their cars, strapped boxes of provisions onto the roofs and running boards, and headed north to spend their precious vacation days in the place of their youth, the quiet green farmland that lay along the shores of Lake Champlain.

Cousin Arthemese ['Art' to the family] had arrived first with her husband John Howe and their nephew, Jimmy Walsh.  Jimmy was a year younger than Larry's little sister Lizzie, but he was no baby, ready for anything the farm had to offer.
Arthemese and John loved to go fishing and were well supplied with poles, tackle box, and comfortable old clothes.  John lugged in a grocery carton filled with canned beans, an assortment of fruit, boxes of crackers, a jar of pickles and a wedge of cheese.  As Cousin Art declared, "It's going to be too hot to stand over a cookstove, and I'd rather fish than fuss in the kitchen this week."

Larry didn't mind sharing his bed with young Jimmy, who was eager to help with the morning chores so that Larry and Lizzie would be free to tag along to East Creek where Art and John contentedly dangled their lines in the sun-dappled water by the hour.

Before the week was out, word came that Cousin Stella and her lively boys, Edward and Arthur, would be arriving at the Orwell Station and father would need to drive in to fetch them to the farm.

Larry and Lizzie, with little cousin Jimmy in tow, were waiting when father carefully backed the 1918 Overland from the shed.  The train had already arrived when they reached the Depot on North Orwell Road.  Stella and the boys were waiting on the bench outside, luggage piled around them.

Edward was Larry's age, Arthur, two years younger, was Lizzie's age.
The station agent came out to help Stephen stow the baggage in and on top of the Overland, while Stella flapped rather uselessly at the boys, who released from  long confinement in the train, whooped and bounced. They produced bags of gumdrops and jellybeans, somewhat the worse for a long stay in their pockets, and thrust them generously toward Larry and Lizzie and Jimmy.

Stella's voice, talking earnestly to her uncle, was a steady undercurrent from the front seat as her sons in the back overwhelmed their country cousins with talk of moving picture shows, popcorn venders, city policemen and fire engines
It was a busy evening with supper to spread on the big table and more bedroom accomodations to be made.  Stephen soon called it a night, knowing he and the older boys would need to be up early as usual to milk the cows and make the run to the creamery.

Larry, thinking back, realized that the days after the arrival of Stella and the boys had all run together in a fast pace of play under the spreading dooryard maples. Then there were treks down the meadow to the creek with Arthemese and John to fish. In the evenings when the grow-ups sat and talked on the front porch, the children dashed about in the twilight scooping up lightning bugs, or playing hide and seek as night shadows crept in.

Eddie and Arthur had apparently seen every 'western' that had run in the city movie theaters. They directed Larry and Lizzie and Jimmy in games that involved tearing around shouting, "Giddy-up-Go!" as they whipped up imaginary horses. "Bang, Bang," they whooped as they 'shot' at invisible Indians or chased off wild animals.
When the children, sweating and disheveled, burst into the house for drinks of cold water, the women, sharing the kitchen chores, laughed and said, "Here come the Get-Up Kids!'

 By mid-morning on the 4th of July the yard was full of cars.  More cousins spilled out as Mother's brothers arrived with wives and children. The aunties sailed majestically up the steps, carrying covered dishes, or a fancy plate holding a lofty frosted cake.
Best of all was the appearance of Aunt Julia and her husband, Uncle Bill.  Young as he was, Larry was aware of the elegance that they added to any gathering.  Julia, who had no children, was still slender. Her hair was always freshly waved, her clothes were pretty and new.
Uncle Bill, superintendent in a paper company, drove a sleek car, wore a suit and tie.
They were memorably generous.
On this festive summer holiday the trunk of the shiny car held cases of soda pop,'sparklers' for the kids, a tablecloth and napkins in red, white and blue, crusty rolls from an Italian bakery---the treats were endless.
After lunch the men gathered on the porch to smoke, sleeves rolled up, legs stretched in relaxation.
The women, kitchen work done and aprons removed, strolled the yard, commenting on the flowers and the prospects for the vegetable garden.
Conversation among the adults was in French for the most part--the language of their childhoods.

Cows have to be milked, holiday or no,and mother's brothers were farmers.  As the afternoon shadows stretched across the lawn, watches were checked, children were collected; empty dishes and carriers were stowed,  and the little procession turned slowly back up the road, leaving Arthemese and John, little Jimmy, Uncle Bill and Aunt Julia, and of course, Stella and her boys.
Bedtime was long past and still the grown-ups lingered on the porch.  Uncle Bill lit the sparklers for the children and when those ran out, they chased fireflies in the gathering darkness.

Next morning Bill and Julia were the first to depart, headed back to their
busy life in Albany, New York.  Before lunch time Arthemese and John had gathered up their fishing tackle, young Jimmy had made his wistful good-byes, and they too were gone, with promises to return for Labor Day weekend.

Stella, with Eddie and Arthur, the Giddy-Up Kids, were still there. The boys' energy was unflagging; they endlessly charged through the chase scenes of their favorite films and by now Larry and Lizzie knew the parts they were expected to play.
Stella helped Mother in the kitchen, keeping up a flow of talk in a mixture of French and English.
She was moody, sometimes angrily tearful, but wiping her eyes hastily when the children appeared.
During one of their rare moments alone Lizzie confided to Larry, "I think Aunt Stella is mad at her husband.  I heard her tell Mother she doesn't want to go home."
Whatever the truth of the matter it was resolved rather dramatically before the week was out.
As the four children romped through another warm forenoon, a car turned into the yard.
While Larry and Lizzie silently took stock of  the stranger unfolding himself from behind the wheel, Eddie and Arthur, after a stunned moment, flung themselves on the man with shouts of, "Papa!"
Their racket brought Mother and Stella to the back door, where Stella, as surprised as her sons, stood speechless, arms wrapped in her apron.
The man, Stella's husband it seemed, hugged his sons, reached into the car for a bag of candy which he handed over with the caution, "You share that now."
Pushing back his railroad engineer's cap, he strode briskly up the path.
"Stella", he said firmly, "I'd like you to come out for a little walk with me.  We need to talk.  I've come to take you home!"
And home they all headed after a hasty lunch of sandwiches.  Arthur Bealand had spoken quietly with Stephen while a subdued Stella gathered her belongings. Passing through the kitchen on one of her trips to the car, she indicated a stack of folded trousers which she placed on the table.
"Maybe Larry or Lizzie can use these," she commented, adding "We'll take the boys shopping for new ones before school starts."
The "Get-Up Kids" excited by their father's presence, chattered happily at the prospect of new 'westerns' on view at their neighborhood cinema, enlightened Larry and Lizzie about their Dad's important job:  "Papa drives the train!" declared Eddie, strutting.
They departed, hanging from the car's back windows and waving.  Father had patted Mother's shoulder as they walked back toward the house and remarked, "Quiet again, eh?"
Mother nodded, then replied, "Bless Arthur for coming after Stella.  Bless him!"

Larry circa 12 years old, cropped from a photo with friend, Leland Bishop.

Larry brushed a persistent fly away from his head, squinted upward through the over-hanging branches, then came to his feet, still pondering how suddenly almost normal this morning had seemed.  At breakfast the table was roomy, the extra chairs which had crowded round for days, sent back to their accustomed places. There were no small cousins swinging bare legs or upsetting a glass of milk. Oatmeal porridge was dished out from a modest saucepan instead of the big kettle needed to serve a full house.

The quiet meal finished, the older boys had followed father out to get up hay.  Lizzie trottted upstairs with broom and dustpan to give the bedrooms a good sweeping.  Larry was assigned the job of cleaning the hen house, which he had done, forking out the soiled straw and replacing it with fresh bedding.
Now, trudging back up the path, the sun at his back, Larry supposed that by tomorrow everybody would be 'back to normal'--for now he felt, if not actually lonesome, a bit let down.

After supper he called Lizzie out to play. He had with him the old pickle jar, holes punched in the lid, that they'd been using each evening to collect fireflies. A fresh breeze blew in from the lake stirring the tall grass at the edge of the road. Larry pounced on lightning bugs, transferring them swiftly to the jar each time Lizzie cautiously tipped open the lid.
On the porch behind them Father soaked his tired feet in a basin of cool water. Mother, in the rocking chair, leaned her head against the tall back, hands folded quietly in her lap.
There was a small sloshing sound as father rose and flung his basinful of water toward the lilac bush near the steps. "Early to bed would be good," he announced.
Lizzie handed Larry the jar of fireflies and skipped up the path.
The screen door whined on its hinges, slapped to as the older boys went in.
Mother, with a glance over her shoulder at Larry, followed them.
Larry sat on the edge of the porch, the jar of lightning bugs between his knees.
The small insects bumbled about in confinement.
Their tiny phosphorescent lights glowed--went out--flicked on again.
Larry gazed at them, fascinated.
The screen door creaked again, Mother's head came round the edge,
"Larry," she said firmly, "Come in and get washed up. Don't forget to wash your feet."
It was scarcely full dark, too early for Larry to consider sleep. He scuffed into the dim kitchen, the jar of fireflies cradled against his shirt.
Father was reaching up to wind the clock.  From the pantry came muffled rattlings as Mother put something away.  The door of his parent's bedroom off the big dining room stood open.  On a sudden impulse, Larry scooted in, twisting the cap off the jar as he went.
Quickly setting the open jar in the corner by the wardrobe he whisked back out as Father padded  through from the kitchen. Lizzie, already in her pink-flowered feedsack nightie, said a soft "good night, Pa" and received an affectionate pat on her dark head, before skittering away to hug Mother.
Larry was headed for the stairs when Mother's voice stopped him. "Your feet, Larry!" she reminded.
Larry took his time washing at the pantry sink, spending a few moments carefully drying each toe.  In his room, he hustled into his faded cotton pajamas, then eased down the hallway, poked his head into
Lizzie's room.
"Lizzie" he cajoled in a whisper, "Come out and sit on the stairs with me a minute,"
"Why?" asked Lizzie, but she came, carrying her big doll.
Larry settled himself on the top stair, patted the space beside him.
"Why are we sitting here?" hissed Lizzie.
In response there was a small sound from below, from Father and Mother's room, a swishing sound.
Larry, grinning in the dusky stairwell, went down two more steps on his bottom, towing Lizzie with him.
There was a creak of bedsprings from the parental chamber, muffled voices.
There was a clinking, which Larry identified as a jar rolling about on the floor.
Swatting sounds, thumps.
"Ce qui se passe?" Father's voice, slightly raised.
Mother's reply was indecipherable.
A chair scraped, a stumbling sound as if someone had bumped into it.
"Ou sont ce bugs?"
Father's voice was testy, but still muted.
More swatting sounds.
"Damn il en enfer!"
Beside Larry, Lizze clutched her doll closer.
Neither of the children had a grasp of French, but the tone of Father's voice was unmistakable.
His normally soft manner of speaking was approaching a shout.
"Cette salle est pleine de la foudre des bogues!" he roared.
"Il sont-ils venus de?"
Swish, slap, a tinkle of objects swept from atop the dresser.
"Comment est un homme de dormir?"
The bedroom door smacked against the wall as Father flung it open.
Lizze rose from the stair, gathering her nightgown, and scooted for her bed.
Larry had one hand against his mouth, stiffling his giggles.
Behind him he heard shufflings as his brothers came out on the hall landing.
"Au diable les mouches!" bellowed Stephen.
"Larry! Venir en bas vette minute! Come down!'
Larry arranged his face in a serious expression, swallowing his laughter.
He whipped down the staircase, marched to his parent's room.
"What's the matter?" he asked, politely, from the threshold.
A light came on, a short determined figure stomped past him.
"Matter?" repeated Father furiously. "Qu'est'ce qu'il y a?"
"Get ce bogues out!"  We will see what matters!''

Mother was sitting on the edge of the bed, grey hair in a braid down her back.
She looked weary.
"You have upset your father," she said. "He works hard every day.  He is tired at night.
"If you do not want to sleep, you don't need to keep anyone else awake.  Now, catch the lightning bugs and take them outdoors."
Larry could hear father rattling the dipper in the kitchen, getting a drink of water. It occured to him that it might be best if the fireflies were collected speedily.
He thought perhaps he had brought in nearly a dozen. He located three of them, dead, when his bare feet crunched over them on the floor. Several more were clinging blearily to the thin curtains at the window.
Lizzie came softly into the room, her small feet light on the bare floor.
She picked up the fallen pickle jar, found the lid.
"You catch them," she whispered, "I'll hold the jar."
One of the fireflies was on Father's pillow, its little light pulsing dimly.
Another was in the folds of his workshirt where it dangled from a peg.
Larry shot a glance at Mother, who eyed him steadily.
"Errrm--I think that's most of them..."  His voice trailed off. Maybe he was getting sleepy, he thought in surprise.
"I hope that is all, " said Mother.  "Take them out and ask your Father to come to bed."

Larry trailed through the kitchen, out the back door. Uncapping the jar he shook the fireflies into the night, watched as they bumbled away into the soft moonlight.
Father still sat in the old rocking chair by the unlit kitchen stove, his head back, eyes closed.
Seeing him so, Larry faltered, unable simply to say, "Sorry."
Stephen opened his eyes, glared, but the heat of his anger had ebbed.
"Why do you put bugs in the bedroom?" he demanded, his accent  more noticable after his
outburst in French.
Larry thought hard, dredging through the mixed feelings of the day.
"There was nothing to do," he said more in astonishment than in his own defense.
"Everybody went home and there was nothing to do."
Father heaved himself out of the chair.
"Rien," he muttered, "Nothing to do! Tomorrow has plenty to do--and you will be up early to help do it!"
He made shooing motions toward the hall stairs and disappeared into the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.
Larry stood for a moment in the spill of moonlight that lay across the worn boards of the dining room floor. He heard the creak as Father settled himself again in bed, the soft sound of Mother's voice, the murmer of Father's reply.
From the upper landing he could pick out his brother's slight snores. They too must be up early to take on the work of a hot July day.
He stopped at Lizzie's open door.  She was curled on her side, facing him, covers wadded at the foot of the bed, her big doll, "Baby," a lumpish shape against the headboard.
"Did Father spank you?" she whispered. "You were naughty."
"No," Larry replied. "He was too tired.  But he might remember to spank me tomorrow."

In his own room, lately crammed with boy cousins, Larry looped back the curtains so the slowly cooling air could come inside.
He stretched on his bed, flinging his arms out on either side. The room and the bed which had seemed too empty and quiet last night, was suddenly his own space again.
He closed his eyes, absorbing the sound of a whip-poor-will near the creek, the muffled moo of a cow in the night pasture. A moth flitted against the window screen, a breeze rustled through the trees. In the distance a dog yipped, yipped again and was silent.
Larry slept.


  1. BRILLIANT. I've always enjoyed your writing but this is SO good. I loved the minor dramas which were actually "big deals" for those concerned, and the minutiae of daily life. I do wish you would write a book . . . WHAT a fresh approach to family history.

    P.S. Your French is excellent - this from someone who is language-blind and once got 2% in her French exam (I hated the teacher . . .)

  2. Such a beautiful, descriptive and fun story. Loved it.

  3. A quick 'disclaimer' which I should have noted after the story. I used an English to French website! I had two years of French in high school and was at the point where I could read more than I could speak or easily comprehend of spoken French. For the story I took some of my Dad's favorite English expressions such as "What's going on here?" and "Damn it to hell!" and ran them through the translator.
    Unlike most of the French Canadian families who came to our area of Vermont during the late 1800's-early 1900's, my grandparents didn't insist on speaking French in the home with the children. It was a wise decision in terms of social integration for the youngsters, but I've rather regretted that I may have lost the chance to grow up bi-lingual.

  4. Love your writing - so fresh and wonderfully descriptive.

  5. I did enjoy this. A wonderful way to bring your family history to life.