Wings of Wonder

Just beyond my patio garden there is an abelia bush that is bursting with pale pink blossoms. This year it is especially eye-catching because of a host of yellow and black swallowtail butterflies that flutter, dip for a moment into the nectar, soar above it and return.

I’ve never seen so many bees and butterflies cluster in ecstasy on and above this bush until this year. For me, it has been the Year of the Butterfly. I have seen them almost everywhere – above the treetops, winging past parking lots, even flying down a highway on their way to who knows where. Is there something special about this summer that has created this miracle? Were there this many last year and I just didn’t notice them? I don’t know the scientific answer, if there is one, and it doesn’t matter. But the swallowtails have jarred memories I haven’t thought of for a long time.

Some years ago my family celebrated my birthday in Indianapolis. The city’s White River Gardens were featuring a butterfly garden, a novelty that was brought to our attention by one of our visiting family members. As it turned out in a few months, this was to be our last visit with her. We were eager to take her anywhere that interested her. I remember her thin, fragile figure slowly strolling along the paths, looking up at those exquisite, fluttering butterflies. One alighted on her head and we held our breath. It seemed to be a blessing. Later, we were sure that it had been.

One of Chopin’s most beautiful etudes is referred to as the “Butterfly Etude.” To play it well a pianist must have excellent technique and a light touch to replicate delicate wings undulating over the keys. When I was a teenager living in Springfield, Mo., our next door neighbor was a piano teacher. Nellie Schellhardt  was perhaps not gifted, but a good pianist. I can still remember her occasionally playing this particular Chopin etude. The music seemed to fly out her windows and immobilize us in delight for a few moments.

Once when I was a child, my mother and I were on the front porch of my family’s restaurant named Half-A-Hill. It was five miles from the city limits of Springfield. Suddenly, a multicolored moth or butterfly flew to the porch ceiling and affixed itself there, motionless. My mother jumped up from the porch swing where we were sitting and said, “Wait here. Don’t move. I’m going to call someone in Drury College’s science department to see if they’ll come out here and identify that butterfly. I bet it’s a rare one.” She turned to me and cautioned, “Don’t touch it. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Her warning had the completely opposite effect on me. I had to touch that fascinating creature – to make it move and yet somehow remain on the ceiling. I don’t remember what I got to reach it – perhaps a broom. But before my mother returned, I had reached up and gently nudged a wing. Inevitably, it flew away. Subconsciously I may have wanted it to escape. My mother didn’t punish me when she joined me on the porch. I have a feeling her phone call to the college hadn’t been successful. But I’ve never forgotten the magic of those jewel-colored wings flat against the porch ceiling, outspread and glowing like an art nouveau pin.

All these memories are miles away and years ago. What a gift it is when something like a butterfly can conjure up scenes from one’s past.