Ode to the Firefly

One of the great pleasures of summer comes in a tiny, fiery package. Behold, the firefly. 

At the end of a long, hot, sticky day down on the farm recently, Farmer Brown and I kicked back with a glass of wine and sat down to The Night Show outside. At first, it was hard to tell what we were looking at. There, dotting the thick, inky air on the hillside below us were dozens, at first, then slowly, hundreds, then thousands of fireflies punctuating the darkness.

Sparkling, like shiny confetti…. reflections of the stars above…. stars themselves on Earth. It was as if I had just hit my head really hard, like in the cartoons. 

It reminded me of a time, some twenty-five years ago, when my husband and I were on a sailing trip in the Caribbean with his college buddy and had dropped anchor in a calm bay for the night. All of the sudden, tiny, glowing beings appeared in the water around us: glow worms emitting bioluminescence.  It is a natural phenomenon in which microscopic worms literally glow in the water and it took my breath away. These farm fireflies were like that: profuse and magical.

From our farm deck, the firefly display was impressive enough, but riding the four-wheeler down to the bottom of the hill, we were immersed in them, swimming in them, the inky black darkness around us forming a perfect canvas for their light show.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude. What an amazing, simple pleasure. As I reveled in their nighttime glow, I wrote a mental thank you note.

Thank you, fireflies, for being an added bonus of summertime. Thank you for giving children one more game – catching fireflies – at the end of long summer evenings when moms and dads are exhausted and need to sit and sip something cold and look on, remembering their own firefly hunts. Thank you for letting me catch you, put you in a jar and stare at you for hours, fogging up the glass with my grubby breath and boogery nose.  Sorry about squishing you, stepping on you and smearing your iridescence to make a glowing, gorgeous streak on the sidewalk as a kid. I did that only a few times because I couldn’t live with the guilt  of destroying something so beautiful and harmless.

Thank you for being one of the coolest insects ever. To my knowledge, you don’t bite, you delight. Why are you here? Are you just a whimsical gift from God? Did He think, “You know what? Fireflies … why not?” You don’t sting, you don’t buzz. Do you even pollinate?

Thank you for being the much cooler cousin to the beetle and, by the way, thank you for not eating my garden. Picking lettuce in our farm garden the other day, I discovered where you sleep during the day: under the wet lettuce leaves. But you didn’t eat the lettuce. What do you eat? Do you simply survive on the joy of children? Do you only need handclaps and laughter as your food, like Tinkerbelle?

Thank you for being so understated. You’re not much to look at by day, wearing your simple black suit with a smart orange strip down the middle. Very low key. Your big reveal comes when the sun goes down. 

I’ve read that your butt lights are all about attracting mates. That’s downright charming, romantic. Does a glass of rosé come with that candlelight? If I was an insect, I would be so envious that I hadn’t evolved to have luminescence. Well done, you. I hear that you speed up or slow down your blinking pattern: steady glow, flashing blinking, depending on whom you are seducing. Sexy stuff, Firefly. And with a life span of two months, you have no time to waste. Carpe candeo – seize the glow! I think that is my new motto. At least for summertime.

Thank you for choosing Ohio and the Midwest as one of the relatively few places in the country you hang out. You love humidity and we’ve got plenty of that in the summer. The coasts have the oceans, the west has the mountains, we have you. Thank you for summering on our farm. We are so glad to have you.

I guess I took you for granted in my youth, Firefly. You were always there in my dad’s backyard, dotting the thick air back by the pine trees and the railroad tracks. I would catch you, cup you gently in my chubby fist and slowly open my hand up, like a clamshell. There you would be, burning brightly inside my hand cave. Then, up you would rise, silently, effortlessly, lighting on my fingertip as if to check me out as I inspected you. And then, you were off, beaming up into the night sky. I would crane my head back and watch you rise as the enormous oak and elm tree branches would frame you and your shiny friends. 

Bye bye, Firefly! Thanks for the visit! Thanks for the memories! Carpe candeo!

Photo by Mindstyle/iStock / Getty Images  For other amazing photos of fireflies/lightening bugs, check out this website!  http://www.fireflyexperience.org/photos/

Photo by Mindstyle/iStock / Getty Images

For other amazing photos of fireflies/lightening bugs, check out this website! http://www.fireflyexperience.org/photos/

Ink in the Clink

Right about this time last summer, my husband, Captain Fun, had the idea for us to go visit a local music festival at The Ohio State Reformatory. I had just spent the weekend cooking and feeding a house full of people and was ready to be off duty. “Sure!” I thought. “I’d rather go to prison than cook or clean one more thing.” Perfect.

The Ohio State Reformatory, not too far from our farm, is where the film The Shawshank Redemption was shot some 23 years ago. I loved that movie and was interested to see the building, a gothic inspired kind of castle whose exterior beauty, I would find out, belies the sorrow within.

A music festival out in the country …” I mused. “Hmm … what to wear?” Well, I wanted to fit in out here, so of course I donned my cowgirl hat. And it was a hot summer day, so my flouncy white skirt and a light pink shirt were just the thing. “I wonder if there will be square dancing?” 

Well, the “music festival” was titled Ink in the Clink.Hmm … that’s funny,” I thought. “Ink? Like a writing festival?” Nope. It was a tattoo festival. “Oh, ok, cool,” I thought. Tattoos are so mainstream now. My daughter, Flora, has a darling one on her foot. My hairdresser, a beautiful young woman whom I adore, rocks them all over her body and she is precious. Tattoos are as ubiquitous as freckles these days. I’m not getting one, mind you, but I have no problem with them on others. "Let’s check it out."

At first, it felt like any other festival: corn dogs, elephant ears, fried cheese curds, freshly made lemonade … all the usual suspects. But things took a dark turn fast when I turned the corner to the vendors’ section and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. First of all, I could not have felt more suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was dressed in all black, Goth attire, most with dyed black hair and sleeveless t-shirts (why have an arm tattoo if you’re not going to show it, right?). Nary a cowboy hat in sight. My flouncy white peasant skirt was like a beacon in a sea of darkness. I felt like a prison spotlight was following me throughout the festival, screaming “Hey! I’m a big square, a poser and don’t belong here! I’m not even a real farmer!”  

I ventured in and swished over to check out the vendors. I noticed something swaying in the hot breeze ahead. “Oh, look! Is that some sort of wind chime?” Nope, that was an anatomically correct replica of an upside down human being, skinned and hanging from a pole, swaying back and forth. “Nope, I don’t need one of those, thanks.

Onward. “Let’s check out this toy booth. Looks like they have some cute little teddy bears …. Oh no! Good God in heaven, what in the …?” There, before me, sat a disemboweled teddy bear. For sale. Apparently there is a market for devil faced teddy bears with their guts spilling out. They came in all sizes, too: large ones to put on grandma’s rocking chair, medium sized ones to give to the Munster kids, and tiny little ones to carry in one’s purse, I guess. I backed away, trying not to show my revulsion and swished over to check out the S&M whip and handcuff vendor next door.

Babe, you want a beer?” Captain Fun asked. “Oh hell, yeah.” I’m not big on day drinking, but yes, I will have a very large can of beer, thank you. Must get the image of the tortured teddy out of my mind. “Let’s go listen to the band,” I said, guzzling my Natty Light.

Ah, music. It soothes the soul. I was expecting some good country music. Wrong again. The featured band, Saliva, was just starting. “Hmm. I’m not familiar with them,” I thought, wiping beer from my mouth. Now, I hate to sound as suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted as I am but, well, let’s just say that Saliva was not my cup of drool. I just don’t get screamo bands. I have no idea what the “singer” was saying, but I think he was very angry about something. Maybe he was scared of that devil teddy.

We downed the cold beers and went inside the Reformatory to check out the “ink” portion of the festival. The interior of the Ohio State Reformatory is rather interesting and historical but oppressively sad. One can just feel the misery. It permeates the walls. Oh, and it’s definitely haunted. (They have regular ghost hunting events and I am 100% sure they bump into plenty.) We perused the exhibits a bit then wandered into the old infirmary of the prison, where the inking was taking place. It was such a surreal scene: rows and rows of gurneys were lined up with customers laying down receiving their customized tattoos in the hushed, semi-light. It felt like that scene in Gone With the Wind when the camera pans out to the rows upon rows of soldiers being treated for gruesome injuries. But these people were quite cheerful, paying good money to be here and seemed completely at ease in this haunted prison. And the art being made was quite beautiful, really.

To complete the scene, for some reason there was a little display in the corner of the room with jars of potions as well as preserved newts, bats and God knows what else with a very serious sign in front of them: “No photographs please.” No photos needed, thanks. These images will haunt my dreams.

After a quick tour of the prison cells, stacked one on top of the other like sad shoeboxes, paint peeling, as if the wall themselves were weeping, it was time to go.

Ink in the Clink was definitely an experience. The visuals were something else. But the most surprising thing was that, to a person, every single individual I encountered was completely lovely, polite and welcoming. Even the tortured teddy vendor. Go figure. Maybe they just were coveting my pasty Irish flesh as a canvas for their art. Maybe they were high on eye of newt or something. Or maybe you just can’t judge a tattooed book by its cover. 

Why?  Postscript: Dear reader, you're in luck because  Ink in the Clink  is happening the weekend of this writing, July 14-16, 2017!

Why?

Postscript: Dear reader, you're in luck because Ink in the Clink is happening the weekend of this writing, July 14-16, 2017!

Papa Was a Garden Gnome

We have a garden at our farm. Not like my suburban garden, full of hostas, spiderwort and hydrangea, but a “Garden garden.” The previous owners were real farmers and had a huge, lovely vegetable garden, overflowing with tomatoes, squash, beans, and a beautiful strawberry patch. While I’m a halfway decent suburban gardener, I’m a lousy farm gardener because – guess what? – you have to tend a farm garden. The first year we tried, we ended up with a weed garden that had a few spindly vegetables fighting for existence.

Whenever I am working in the garden, I think of my dad. A son of Irish immigrants, he had a deep love for the land: nurturing it, fiddling around with the soil and whatnot. It’s not like he was a farmer by any means. He as a lawyer, an estate planner, a numbers guy. But he loved a beautiful yard, a large expanse of freshly cut grass with beautiful flowers tucked in around it. 

When I was two years old, he moved our family of eleven into a house on an acre of land in Rocky River, which is a good-sized plot for a suburb. Our family spent the next 33 years working every square inch of that yard, weeding it, cutting it, planting it, trimming it. With 9 kids and an ever-growing army of grandchildren providing free labor, Big Jack would dream up all sorts of projects to direct us. Dad had 5 sons who were coming of age at the height of the mid-60’s. Any parent knows that a busy teen is a tired teen and a tired teen is much less likely to be a naughty teen. (My brothers proved that axiom wrong, but still it was a good thought.) So it was Jack’s mission to keep us all tired.

Every Saturday growing up, our yard was abuzz with activity. My older brothers were in charge of heavier manual labor – hauling grass clippings, cutting the grass (another never-ending chore). My job was to weed the front myrtle patch. And the grass. And the flower beds. It was a Sisyphean chore, never, ever done. I’m sure Jack sprinkled weed seeds around that garden at night, just to keep us all busy weeding the damned thing all summer long.

I was the only person I knew whose job it was to weed the “wild grass” from the front law. On scorching summer days, as friends would pedal by our house on their way to the pool or Dairy Queen, I would be bent over, like a crop worker picking cotton, a hot sunburn cooking at the base of my back where my t-shirt would ride up. Hard work for a gal who was up until 1 a.m. watching Johnny Carson with her mom (there are benefits to being the youngest of 9). Any friend who wanted to play got roped into weeding with me so as to free me from my chores sooner.  By the end of the summer, they too had the “Mark of Jack,” that same low back sunburn.

Nothing pleased Jack more than a yard full of child laborers whom he rewarded every Saturday with freshly grilled “skin on wieners.” To this day I have no idea what those are, but of course it always sounded dirty. They were delicious, but after slaving in a hot, humid yard all day, sunburnt, freckled and dehydrated, I would have eaten a boot.

One of my other jobs in the yard was planting little pockets of flower gardens around. Because I was the youngest and smallest, Jack thought it was cute that I could fit under the bushes, squeeze behind the grill, duck in just under a window. I would battle the midgies and mosquitos and then, like an urchin chimney sweep, I’d emerge all dirt covered and sweaty, but the task was done --- a lovely little pop of color just outside the dining room window. A little floral surprise just under the sweep of the pine tree limbs. A tiny begonia bonanza under the mushroom lights over on the swale. I have to admit, it did look pretty as I lay with an ice pack on my head, applying Noxzema to my sunburn in the air-conditioned living room.

God, I hated working in that yard. But of course now, I am thankful for it. I am thankful for the time together with my family, all of us pissing and moaning and cursing under our breath. Talk about bonding. I am thankful for the lesson of hard work, working together for a shared goal. I am thankful for the lessons of cherishing the land, walking gently upon the earth, reducing, reusing, recycling. (A man who was years ahead of his time, he had 3 large compost piles at the back of the property to recycle grass clippings, leaves and yard waste.) And above all, as my nieces so beautifully said at my dad’s funeral almost 20 years ago, I am thankful for a dad who was wise enough to know that all the manual labor wasn’t about the yard at all. It was about us. About keeping a large family busy, engaged, in touch, humble. And yes, tired.

This Father’s Day, with the help of real farmers who know what they’re doing, we’ve figured out the vegetable garden (raised beds and plastic covering!). As I plant my little pots, weed my garden and look out over the awesome beauty of the sun rising over the mist covered hills of our farm, I will think of Jack, smiling down on me, arms akimbo with that big Irish grin. He would never say, “told you so,” or anything like that, but rather an understated “God love you,” or “Keep the faith.”

Thanks, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. You would so love this farm.

Amish Guys Got Swagger

I begrudgingly agreed to my husband’s farm fantasy. I don’t know how it happened, really. We stopped in to look at a farm one day, and as luck would have it, it was one of those magical autumn days in Ohio. As we drove through the gates, rather than seeing steaming piles of God-knows-what, I saw rolling, grassy, well-manicured hills, horses frolicking about. The air was crisp and cool. The sun shimmered on the yellow and orange leaves of the trees. It was breathtaking. It really was.

Ok,” I thought. “You’ve got my attention.”

A four wheeler tour of the property, a glass wine and an al fresco lunch of locally raised pork with salad greens right from the garden … some bids, and counter bids and … boom! We were farm owners. Well, weekend farm owners, really. Because we wanted to stay married and, like I've mentioned before, I'm not Amish, we kept our suburban house. This farm fantasy would only work because we invested in a self sufficient, well run business. We would visit the property on the weekends and such. Like posers, you know.

So, just as I was entering a crossroads in my life, ready to clean out junk drawers in my kitchen and maybe find my "Calling" in there, I found myself building a farm house. My husband, Farmer Brown and I are both from very large families. This adventure would only be fun if we had playmates, so we decided to make room for them by building a house that could hold a sizable group of folks for dinner. (And, ok, a lot of beds because our friends and family like wine and it’s kind of drive to get there.) We interviewed various builders of all stripes and in the end, we chose the Amish guy. Not because he was the cheapest, but quite frankly, because the guy had swagger. He didn’t have zippers or a belt, but he had swagger.

The Amish, guy was actually one of a dynamic duo of brothers. I’ll call them Levi and Uriah because all Amish men are named either Levi or Uriah*. I didn’t know much about the ins and outs of the Amish lifestyle before this, but I was expecting much more quaint, country bumpkin fellows. Not at all the case, as it turns out. Tall, lanky and bearded, Levi was the father of 9 boys. I’m one of 9, so we had some simpatico. Uriah, (“Uri”) was the office guy, very efficient at showing samples of beautiful wood, going over blueprints and roofing materials and closing the deal. Only his bowl haircut gave a hint that he was Amish. I was kind of like, “Are you putting me on? Are you really Amish or is there a Jag out back and scotch in your bottom drawer?” He was legit, though.

Levi was the day-to-day on site guy. He had his own driver, thank you very much, a fine “English” man who drove him anywhere he needed to go because the Amish don’t drive cars. When he would arrive for our weekly meetings he’d amble out of the truck like an underdressed rock star and saunter over to me, a toothpick in his mouth. He had a glint in his eye that said, “Yeah, I’m rocking these overalls and straw hat, lady.” And he did. A handsome devil, I have to say. Not exactly Harrison Ford in “Witness,” but kind of an Amish Michael Keaton, if that makes any sense.

So Levi doesn’t drive, but he and Uri do both use email and cell phones. When I discovered this, I got excited.

"Oh," I said, "Can I share my Pinterest account with you to give you an idea of what we're thinking about?" 

Silence. Farmer Brown looked at me askance, shaking his head.

"No? … Ok, I guess I just ... never mind." 

Hard to know the rules here. In fact, later on in the project when I visited the Amish cabinetmaker they referred me to in the remote back hills of Ohio (surely a cousin, because the Amish are like the Irish that way, keeping things in the family), the office was in a barn with a gaslight hanging from the ceiling, no air conditioning in 100-degree heat … and a desktop computer. What the? 

Anyway, I got comfortable with Levi after a few weeks. When things looked like they were slowing down, I’d playfully punch him in the shoulder … “We’re going to be in by Thanksgiving, right, Levi?”  

“Oh yeah, Miss Mary, we’ll be done by then” he would cockily reply.

I liked the guy so I hoped he wasn’t lying because Farmer Brown, an entrepreneur who doesn’t take BS from anyone, not even a handsome Amish building magnate, had a stopwatch going, and had pulled Levi aside at the beginning of the project, warning him, “I know that all contractors have larceny in their hearts.” Good one, right? “I want you to assure me that this house will be finished and we will be in by Thanksgiving.”  Game on, Levi. One bearded man against another. Farmer Brown was clearly not intimidated by that straw hat.

Uri and Levi were true to their word and, with a flurry of silent, hardworking, task-driven Amish craftsmen descending on the property, they had that darned house built in 8 month’s time.  We were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, right on schedule.

It was all set to be a picture perfect holiday in our new farmhouse … until I sent my daughters on a drug run from the dinner table. But that’s another story.

* I hope I’m not offending anyone here … but my Amish friends aren’t allowed on the Facebook and blogs are they? If you’re Amish and cheating  … tsk, tsk!

Photo by Anetlanda/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Anetlanda/iStock / Getty Images