By the time I was born, my Momma, being the eldest of seven, had been raising kids her entire life. And she won’t hesitate one second to let you know it. She had, perhaps, a slight advantage over most young mothers because of her experiences caring for her six brothers and sisters. Keeping four younger brothers out of trouble was, as she likes to put it, “much like herding cats,” and in doing so, she learned how to soften the blow of life’s surprises and the inevitable traumas borne out by children. No matter how bad something was, she always found just the right way to turn my focus onto something positive.
Growing up, we lived in the small town of Mabelvale, our yard was a field of prairie grass that wrapped like loving arms around our simple home. Momma could always tell just where I was from the movement of the waving wheatlike growth. Sometimes I would just lie in the midst of the golden stalks, gazing up and observing drifting puffy clouds. It seemed to me that all summer clouds were creatures both large and small, mostly friendly, some threatening. My memories of those early years, now some 60 years past, have gone the way of those summer clouds—drifting and distant. But some days stand out more than others.
It was a warm summer day. Our faithful dog, Lady, and I were exploring our field of secret trails when we happened upon an old apple tree that had been badly damaged by a storm some years long before. Although twisted and bent, the tree still lifted its branches upward above the grass and provided shade for the delicate springtime flowers growing around its roots. I climbed up into the tree and was soon hanging by my knees, swinging back and forth like a trapeze artist. I swung backward so far that the shoulder strap of my homemade bib overalls became entangled on a branch behind me. I could neither release my legs from the limb from which I hung nor free my strap from the snag. There I was, hanging upside down in an apple tree.
Lady was jumping and barking and running in circles around the tree and then darted off through the tall grasses, out of sight. The time I spent ensnared in the tree’s branches seemed like an eternity. Lady eventually returned, still barking and prancing and running back and forth.
And then I saw her.
She was wearing her wash-day petal pushers and a flowery blouse and had her long dark wavy hair wrapped up tight to avoid the rollers of the wringer washer. Momma had come to my rescue. She freed me from the snare and held me and comforted me as only Momma can do.
As my sister and I played together in the twilight that evening, Momma brought us each a quart Mason jar. She’d punched several holes in the lids with an ice pick and showed us how to catch lightning bugs, which we then placed in the jars. We were careful not to injure the mysterious little creatures that lit up like magic wands.
We had our baths in a No. 3 washtub on the back porch as darkness approached, and Momma dressed us for bed. After much pleading and promises of good behavior, we were permitted to take our jars into our bedroom. It was, perhaps, intended to take my young mind off the apple-tree episode of the day—to help fend off bad dreams. It worked. Before falling asleep, I decided that it just wasn’t right to keep my new friends locked up all night. So I set them free in the darkness.
For the next several days, we had lightning bugs all over the bedroom. But Momma never scolded us for granting them their freedom. She encouraged active minds, and I certainly had one. As we lay in our beds each night watching the miracle flashing before our eyes, I imagined that each time one of the lightning bugs flashed, a singular note of music could be heard dancing across the fields. A single note here and there … near and far … the notes growing more numerous as the fading sunset gave way to starlight, moonlight and bug light alike, until finally, an entire symphony filled the night. I forgot the terror of the apple tree and turned my focus to something magical.
As I watch Momma, now 87, beginning to doubt memory, I find that my recall of these times helps to affirm hers, and that brings a twinkle back to her tired eyes. I cherish the memories of those early days of innocence and wonder. To this day, on any warm Arkansas summer evening, whenever I see a lightning bug, I hear a faint, distant symphony.
Don Hendricks freelances from his home and pursues his passion for visual storytelling through photography, videography and filmmaking. Having lived in California, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, Alabama, Florida and Puerto Rico, Don returned to Arkansas and now lives with his parents in Mountain Home, where he still enjoys nature’s silent symphonies.