Darkness, the way night makes the edges of things indistinct and brownish-grey, is something I experience most often within the walls of my own home. Children who need to go to sleep by 8:30 and a husband who travels nearly every week mean that night is something that descends gently outside our windows. It does not fall on us while we are sitting on a terrace, enjoying the end of a restaurant meal. It does not surround us as we walk down city streets, or hike through woods. Even in the winter, when the sun dips below the hedge-line of our backyard before dinner, cold keeps us in and cozy. Night does not often fall on us somewhere other than our house.
Which is what makes memories of bonfires on freshwater lake beaches stand out as unique, both as a child and as an adult.
I remember being only six or seven when I was encouraged to try roasting my first marshmallow over a bonfire. The small circle of light cast over the grassy sand only reached the feet of the adults who were watching us. They sat back in lawn chairs, their faces obscured by shadows unless they leaned forward to peer at us more closely. I kept darting carefully between the fire and the adults in that circle of sand, amazed that I was holding a stick over fire without grown-up hands holding on as well. My legs were still bare in shorts, but a sweatshirt helped keep the chill off when I would venture further away from the glowing heat. I asked again and again if the marshmallow was cooked enough because I wanted to do a good job of it, until one patient grown-up who became tired of leaning forward so often to see a still bright-white confection explained that when it was “golden brown” it would be done. I remember nodding my head not really sure what color that was. As I left it in a little longer, and a little closer to actual flames, I got to see it for myself and understood.
With the adults’ faces hidden and their voices hushed I got the first sense that, while they were there if something happened, I was alone to think and discover and learn without them. The glow of this small space in such a large darkness was enough. Even with an entire universe unknown, there was safety being alone in it as long as some light remained.
A few years ago we went to a family reunion on Kentucky Lake, and one of the nights we had a bonfire on the beach.
My older son was only six at the time, and afraid of many things. I saw him come close to the fire, then retreat with his father just feet away from the light. They were swallowed by darkness quickly, and I could hear their voices trip down to the water’s edge and come back. In that short trip, with my son only reassured by my husband’s hand holding his, he accomplished something big I didn’t know he could. He walked through unknown places without fear; he even felt a frog jump onto his foot and didn’t panic. In fact, he was excited to report what adventure had happened in his short absence from my sight.
I stayed in the sand with the littler ones, including my younger son who was four. We stayed a little ways off from the fire, but made our own circle of light with glowsticks. Preschoolers, with parents just out of the cast of pinks and greens and oranges and blues, sat with me and buried their glowsticks in the sand. They retrieved them and would bury them again, checking how far beneath the surface they could plant their treasures before they were completely obscured. They threw them and chased after them, holding so loosely onto the only light they had. Even in the daylight I couldn’t necessarily figure out who belonged to whom, which children went with which adults. I made sure to lean forward so they could see my face and I could see theirs and then tried to let myself feel safe that other adults were circled around us in the darkness. That they were still watching us even if we couldn’t see them as clearly. No one would really be lost in the darkness for long, even if they danced on the edges of it. Though it looked like I was the only one keeping an eye on the children in the circle of light, I wasn’t.
I knew as a child, and as an adult, that a safe presence can still be there even if it is unseen.