While we wait for the darkness to cool the sheets of our beds, my mother keeps her fingers busy braiding my younger sister's hair. My brother plays a lackadaisical game of catch with the neighborhood boys. Lightning bugs rise from the limp grass, grazing the tips of shrubs and tree limbs, drunk with their own heaviness.
My older sister patiently follows the airborne yellow glow of a firefly, occasionally capturing one with the lid of a Ball jar.
I lie back, wondering why the evening dew doesn't cover my face and arms the way it coats each blade of grass. Through the outline of the black treetops, the sky glows purple with an orange underglow. I turn over onto my stomach and watch individual droplets of water form, swell and drip down shafts of green.
Our father is with us this night, though frequently he is not. He is a working man who spends most of his time in a Ford Econoline van, crammed with the goods he sells to grocery stores and drugstores around our part of Kentucky. His natural state is propped up in the driver's seat of a car, the window rolled down, his suntanned forearm and elbow jutting out into the passing air. He travels with ease and familiarity down back roads and highways. He never has met a stranger.
On this night, my father reaches deep into the pocket of his baggy cotton slacks and pulls out a small cardboard box with a hinged lid. Carefully he raises the top, and from the felt-lined case lifts out a shiny silver Marine Band harmonica. Daddy taps the top, where the air holes are, across his upper leg a few times, then raises the harmonica to his lips.
His cheeks puff in and out as he blows a spirited "Oh, Susannah," tapping his foot on the blanket to keep time. The verse is followed by the familiar chorus, reaching up into the higher-up holes: "Oh, Susannah, oh don't you cry for me/ 'Cause I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee."
The thin, reedy sound fills the night air. My sister with the lightning bug jar dances a little jig. My mother smiles a knowing smile. My younger sister and I stare at our father, our mouths hanging open. We have never heard him make music, outside of singing in church, where he mimics a blustery baritone, embellishing with deliberate vibrato.
The stars are out now. Daddy flows from one familiar tune to another -- "Home on the Range," "Dixie," "Amazing Grace." We call out songs we want to hear -- "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Oh, How I Love Jesus." He humors us briefly, then cuts into a boogie-woogie tune, huffing in and out, bending notes.
I am amazed. My father is not a man who does things, outside of playing baseball, swinging a golf club, working and driving fast -- man things that don't much interest me. In my life, his primary purpose has been to tease, to flirt, to entertain with jokes and tall tales. His ambition is to be carefree.
Daddy hands me the harmonica and explains the simple scale, how to blow out on the whole notes and in on the sharps and flats. I am a quick student and, eager to please my father, I master "Oh, Susannah" before the evening is gone. The sound of the harmonica mixes with the shrill night songs of crickets and cicadas.
"Time to go to bed, little frog," Daddy says. He returns the Marine Band harmonica to its case and takes my hand. In summers to come, he will play it again, though less frequently as the years go by, and finally, one summer, he will drive away from our family to live in a new town, and I will never hear him play again.
When I am 16, I will buy a Marine Band harmonica of my own and will regale my friends with Bob Dylan tunes. Years later, grown up, busy and only an occasional player, I will place harmonicas in my children's Christmas stockings, hoping that one of them will learn to play. When summer comes and the nights grow warm, I think of the grass and the fireflies and "Oh, Susannah" and the night my father surprised me with music made simply, with just a breath, the notes traveling like light through the dark summer air.
A version of this essay first was published in the summer of 2002.