Certain summer nights, regardless of where I am in the world, bring back poignant memories of childhood. There's a certain something in the air - high humidity, the way the leftover storm clouds hang in the sky, the smell of earthworms on the sidewalk, and the music of cicadas filling the sky.
Some of my strongest memories involve summer nights at my grandparents' house in southeastern Ohio. Earlier in the afternoon, the family would have feasted on corn-on-the-cob, baked beans, cottage cheese, sliced tomatoes, and hamburgers, all eaten at the old picnic table on the back porch.
When the meal was finished, the adults would retire to lawn chairs in the shade to talk, or to sleep, or to avoid Great-Aunt Margaret. The kids would raid the shed for the wiffle ball and bat, the giant plastic boats, and all kinds of intriguing antique toys that were hidden in the depths of the dark shed, which always smelled like warm wood and turpentine.
Eventually, Grandpa would get up from his chair and start breaking apart the ice for the ice cream maker. (For some reason, this was always a big production, involving the bag of ice, a heavy canvas bag, and a small hammer.) Grandma would be in the kitchen mixing up the world's best vanilla ice cream (I'm not even kidding) and the sounds of gossip would come drifting out the kitchen window, as all of the female relatives took care of the cleaning up.
The taste of the fresh, not-quite-solid vanilla ice cream was enough to dispel the lingering taste of Deep Woods Off, and you could hear everyone give a little sigh of contentment with that first bite. Homemade vanilla ice cream, made with pure Mexican vanilla and my grandma's loving hands, needed no additions - it was a perfect delight.
After the ice cream, after the toys were put away, after the wiffle ball and frisbee were retrieved from the roof, came our favorite time - the lightning bugs were starting to come out. (Some of you might call them fireflies, but they've always been lightning bugs to us.) Grandma would hand out old baby food jars with holes in the lids - they always stood ready on the wooden cabinet on the porch - and my brother, my cousins, and I would begin to hunt.
It's not hard to catch lightning bugs, so we'd fill our jars pretty quickly. Then we'd go find our parents sitting by the campfire that Grandpa had built in his fire ring, and watch the fire and our lightning bugs while we listened to our favorite grown-ups talk about everything and nothing. When the yawns started taking over I'd be shuttled inside, and put to bed in my Dad's old bedroom, in the twin bed with the strawberry-patterned sheets - Grandma knew those were my favorites.
With the window open, I could hear the gentle sound of conversation continuing in the backyard, even over the window fan. My lightning bugs flashed on the bedside table. I scratched a mosquito bite, and then drifted off in perfect comfort and security.
I am glad my kids have had a chance to do some of these same things in my grandparents' backyard, and to build wonderful, lifelong memories in my parents' backyard, too.
*Post originally published 2008; updated 8/9/15*