I walked alone last night through the quiet of my little town. The sky was a dark ink blue, the sun finished setting only an hour before. The warm summer air felt like an embrace as I walked. I watched the fireflies shine their lights; on and off, here and there. They flashed like miniature stars I could whisper wishes upon, bringing me back to childhood, when my father was still here.
He hasn’t died. He is less than an hour’s drive from my home, yet I rarely see him. But it wasn’t always this way.
As a girl, my summer birthday bash was well known among my town’s children. We invited all of my classmates and their parents. We invited both sides of my large extended family. My grandmother would cook pasta, chicken, appetizers and entrees galore. She loved to cook like that. I would wake up early on the day of my birthday and watch her and my mother set up tables filled with food inside tinfoil trays, with tiny flames underneath to warm it again and again.
We lived in a modest house in suburbia. I was an only child, living with my parents and my grandmother. Our backyard was larger than most on our street and stood against woods, where dozens of deer would come and wander. I had a swing-set in the yard and a barbie car to drive in.
My Father built our very large deck with his own hands, and the above ground pool attached to it. He was always so talented with his hands. His paintings hung on the wall of my parents bedroom. He painted Zeus on a large canvas above their bed, the background was sky blue and he had bright yellow lightening bolts streaming from his hands. My father was an artist who used many mediums, but mostly he worked in NYC as an electrician. Later, he would quit to pursue his true talents and passion. But at this time, none of that mattered yet.
I would throw on my Disney princess bathing suit and run around the yard. I would swim and grab snacks, and ask when my friends and cousins were coming over. Soon enough, everyone started to stream into our yard. The pool would come alive with dozens of splashing and laughing children. The adults would help us walk in a circle along the edge of the pool, creating a whirlpool effect. I let the water’s force take me spinning around and around.
We stuffed our faces full of watermelon and other fruit. The adults always had a plate of my grandmother’s famous meatballs, and a cold beer in the other hand.
My father had this famous trick he did every year. It was dangerous, really, but that was the fun of it. Everyone would be loudly talking and the children were playing, when suddenly my dad would appear on the lowest part of our roof and yell out to us. Everyone would turn and gasp “Tom! What are you doing?” I always kept my hands over my eyes, but my fingers spread enough so I could still see him.
He would run across the roof yelling “cannnnnon balllllll!” and jump into the pool. The huge splash delighted us kids, and elicited knowing laughs among the adult about how crazy Tom was.
Eventually, it would be time for cake. I would sit on a plastic deck chair in the middle of the table, surrounded by kids hungry for cake. My blond hair was tangled and half wet from swimming in the sun, my bathing suit smelled like summer air and chlorine.
“How old are you Steff?”
“Make a wish sweetheart!”
My smile beamed as I got ready to blow the candles out. One..two..three..four..five..six..
I can’t remember what my wishes were for. It already felt like I had everything I could ever want or need.
Next, I would open seemingly endless gifts from all my relatives and friends. But my grandma’s gift was always the best one. Whatever I wanted the most, she was sure to find it. Years before shopping online was a possibility, she would travel to any mall and wait for hours to find that year’s gift.
One birthday, she gave me the barbie cruise-ship I wanted. I opened it and immediately jumped into the pool with my barbies. They made smoothies in the kitchen blender that sounded real.
As the sun set and people steadily left, my cousins would remain and we would chase fireflies. It seemed like hundreds of them flashed in my yard. The night air felt good against my skin after spending all day in the sun. We caught them in plastic cups, covered with tinfoil we poked holes in with a fork so they could breath; but not big enough for escape.
I set the cup down near my bed, with my fireflies blinking at me. My eyes closed as I relaxed into exhausted sleep. Safe and peaceful. My father’s hugs and goodnight kisses sending me off to dream.
I’m 31 years old now, and my heart still longs for my father’s love like I had.
I had it before divorce would send the three adults I loved most into different houses and states.
I had it before the fire burned that modest house with the loving memories into ashes.
I had it before I lost my way as a rudderless teen.
I thought he would come back to me. Part of my heart still foolishly wishes, like candles on a birthday cake or fireflies in a jar.