Matriarchs and Monarchs


It is a summer of butterflies.

Colorful  fluttering is everywhere. A gathering of blossoms in my garden provides an oasis of nectar in the midst of a forest clearing. Flowers of all shapes and colors line a pink granite path leading from the house down to the rocky Maine shore. The beckoning lavender and magenta spires of lupines and butterfly bush that abut the stone steps to the water have the blue bay as their backdrop. Scattered pines, spruces, and firs that edge the cobbled beach and tower above the grassy yard echo their forms.

But all I can see are butterflies.

 

The startling indigo eyespot on the taupe wing of a buckeye butterfly stares at me while it drinks. Nearby a series of orange fritillaries speckled with brown line up on a flowering stalk like a regiment, each on its own pink perch of flora. If I get too close they twirl away, chasing each other up into the sky. Nothing seems to disturb the red admiral butterflies that spiral around lavender veronica spikes, probing each floret with their straw-like tongues. Their open wings are black cloaks edged in vermillion, a few white splotches on their upper flaps. But the most familiar is the most enchanting: the monarch.

Monarchs sail in to sip from yellow coreopsis flowers, their wings like stained glass windows in a cathedral, each orange segment outlined in black. Are they part of the herd of monarchs that migrates all the way down to Mexico over three seasons? Or are they allowed only one brief hop in a series of hops that takes their species from Mexico to Canada?

It takes three generations of monarchs to make this journey of more than two thousand miles. Each butterfly lives about two months and travels only one-third of the way before laying eggs on butterfly weed and other milkweed species. These eggs enable the next generation of butterflies to carry on the trek north. The fourth generation that makes the return flight to Mexico can live as long as nine months. As Carl Safina noted in his book, The View from Lazy Point, “This raises questions much bigger than the butterflies themselves: How do they ‘know’ what generation they’re from and what they are supposed to do?”

Each hopscotching generation of monarchs has the same genetic blueprint, so different genes can’t solely explain why the northbound butterflies live only a few months, while the southbound live several seasons. Another mystery is how the monarch butterfly, over a span of four generations, knows to return each year to the same forested slope in Mexico to winter – the equivalent of long-dead great-grandparents dictating where their great-grandchildren spend their winters.

***

My long dead great-grandparents were Jews in czarist Russia who were restricted to villages known as shtetls. They left Russia to avoid having their twelve-year-old sons conscripted into the army, their daughters raped during the carnage of pogroms. As a child, I overheard disturbing shards of stories about the Old Country. “Such tsuris [woes] we had there, so many pogroms. I was a baby during one and my mother hid me in a dresser drawer,” my grandmother told my mother as they ate slices of her still-warm apple cake and I did my homework nearby. “Another time my father was coming home from work when someone just started shooting at him. Thanks God he was able to hide behind some trash cans.”

Like the monarchs who hopscotch their way across the continent to find better opportunities, at the turn of the twentieth century my great-grandmother and her family packed a few belongings and embarked on a voyage to England and then to America, where fifty years later I would meet her – a tiny bent-over old woman who always wore a babushka from which only her nose protruded, the rest of her face sunken into wrinkles. We called her the “Old Bubby” and my parents would prod me to come close to her so she could hug me. But I shrank back from this shriveled-up woman, who resembled the witches in my picture books.

***

I suspect the monarchs I’m seeing on the move are northbound and have laid eggs in my garden – shortly after they arrive, I spot the telltale bright yellow, black, and white stripes of monarch caterpillars contrasting, like crosswalk markings, with the green leaves of the butterfly weed plants they eat. Monarch caterpillars take only four days to hatch from eggs and when I first discover them they are as tiny as a thumbnail, but after a few days of continually devouring leaves, they grow to be as long as a thumb.

Eager to see what happens next, I pluck one of the fatter and longer caterpillars from the butterfly weed and put it in a glass jar; I replace the metal lid with a paper towel perforated by a fork. I add some butterfly weed leaves, which disappear each day.

My daughter asks me if we might be harming the caterpillar by holding it captive. Will we disrupt its natural passage into a butterfly? I explain to Eva that as long as we keep the caterpillar supplied with the leaves it has evolved to feed on, we won’t stop it from unfolding into a butterfly any more than we could stop a woman in labor from giving birth.

A few nights later the caterpillar stops eating; before going to sleep, I notice the caterpillar has climbed to the top of the jar where it hangs motionless from the paper towel lid, the lower end of its body curved so it resembles the letter J. When I check the following morning, I discover no caterpillar but a chrysalis: a surprisingly smooth chartreuse pendant dangling at the top of the jar from what was recently the last pair of its black legs, with a striking bracelet of gold edged with black encircling its conical top.

***

“Promise me you’ll take the candlesticks,” my mother said the day she stopped eating. Her pale face framed by short-cropped white hair was gaunt from the cancer consuming her, revealing high cheekbones that had been hidden for years, and sinking her large contemplative eyes into a skeletal frame. “I told the Old Bubby I would pass them on to you.”

My great-grandmother had brought these silver candlesticks from Russia and I always admired their ornate swirls of etched leaves. Once used to beckon the Sabbath into the Old Bubby’s home, the light from these candlesticks had eventually welcomed major Jewish holidays into our own household. I assured my mother I would take the candlesticks and even promised her I would have Eva polish them as I once did before every Passover. A few days later, my brother closed our mother’s eyes for the last time and wept, his shoulders heaving. The workers from the funeral home came and carelessly carted her away, cocooned in a black body bag, leaving behind a profound emptiness.

I brought the candlesticks home that night, and wrote my mother’s eulogy, marking her passage by noting each important step she took: Attending college in the 40s and marrying my father. Having two children in the 50s. Teaching at Head Start in the 60s, going to grad school during the 70s, and starting a psychotherapy practice during the 80s. It was a full life, but she wasn’t ready for it to be over. “Look at all those books I’ll never get to read,” she said shortly before she died, pointing to a stack next to her bed. “Maybe you’ll want to read them after I’m gone.”

 

It’s not just candlesticks that get passed from one generation to another. Each of us carries out a mere step or two that moves our family forward in time. My great-grandparents took a big leap coming to this country, and then worked long hours as a tailor and homemaker so their son could become a doctor, and so that their daughter, my grandmother, could live a much more secure and comfortable life than the one she left behind in Russia. My mother handed off her gift of life with all its unfinished business and imperfections to me, and I will in turn hand off the same gift to Eva; there’s just so much each of us can accomplish in one lifetime. But the seemingly impossible becomes possible when all the generations are strung together, each of us playing a humble role in a magnificently evolving lifeline.

The monarch knows this instinctively.

***

The chrysalis I am harboring continues to hang like a jewel from the top of the jar, small dabs of gold now decorating its tapered bottom. Each day I check it and for two weeks it remains monotonously the same. But one morning I am astonished to discover its light green color has turned an inky black. A few hours later, the chrysalis becomes translucent, and the distinctive orange and black markings of a miniature monarch wing magically surface like a pentimento.

Although I look every few minutes, I somehow miss seeing the butterfly emerge. It has crinkled wings close to its body, reminding me of the water-wrinkled limbs of a newborn baby. Its chrysalis is now a hollow, clear broken shell. Within minutes, the miniature wings expand, stiffened by fluids pumped into them. At this point, I bring the jar outdoors and remove its lid. The newborn butterfly perches on the jar’s edge, waiting for its wings to dry. A few hours later, it flutters and floats up to a nearby maple tree.

The butterfly personifies what Rachel Carson calls in The Edge of the Sea“the life force – the intense, blind, unconscious will to survive, to push on, to expand.”

***

Even at the end of her days, my mother was a forceful presence and by no means demure. “Why are you talking to her when you should be talking to me?” she would say to the doctors in the hospital when they spoke to me about her medical situation.

Hidden under my mother’s strident strength was a deep insecurity. Buried inside was a wounded child who held tight to her own child. When I was a baby, my parents migrated from Chicago to the Washington, D.C. area, and although she encouraged me to go to the Midwest for college, my mother expected that, like a monarch, I would come back. “Only daughters who don’t get along with their mothers move to the West Coast,” she said after I told her I was moving to Oregon, a crumpled pile of tissues filled with her tears surrounding her.

No doubt she was remembering when her own mother moved to California, leaving her behind to withstand freezing winters with two small children always sick. My mother always claimed her mother never loved her. Determined to break the chain of that inheritance, she loved me with a fierceness that could be crushing and overly demanding at times.

Several years after my mother died I was rummaging through her papers and discovered a version of her will I hadn’t seen before. Remember me! she wrote in her distinctive slanted handwriting at the bottom of an addendum specifying that I inherit my great-grandmother’s candlesticks, my brother her wedding silverware.

Did she really think I’d forget her?

I see her every time I look in the mirror – we share an overlapping front tooth and a jawline. She’s there when I am reading and writing, her love of literature deep in my cells. She’s there when I am reflective, her need to find meaning embedded in mine. And she’s there when I gaze at my own daughter, and realize that I must give her the freedom to fly away, no matter how painful the distance between us, if it will make her life and the lives of her children better.

My mother especially worried that her only granddaughter would forget her. I too wondered if Eva, only 11 when my mother died, would remember a concrete version of her grandmother – one who cuddled and coddled her with a warm embrace – or if the memory would fade into something more ethereal. Shortly after my mother’s memorial service, I asked my daughter how she imagined her grandmother. Some people envision loved ones in heaven looking down at the living. Did she see Grandma that way? She was quiet for a moment, put a hand on her chest and said, “Why would I want to see Grandma as being so far away, when I can hold her close here in my heart?”

***

The monarch on the maple tree hitches a ride on the air currents headed north. Bon voyage, I say, and bring its broken shell, the empty chrysalis, back into the house and place it next to the candlesticks Eva has polished so that their silver leaves gleam in the light. With that juxtaposition before me, I take a moment to appreciate how countless generations of matriarchs and monarchs are churned and transformed within the endless spiral of time.

 

Author’s Comment: I grew up spending my summers on the rocky coast of Maine where my father worked at a biology lab. Like the butterflies twirling away in flight, the threads of nature I observe when writing in Maine twine with a family memory that spools up from some deep place. One spins off the other, with nature the ultimate writing prompt that morphs into metaphor, revealing the meaning behind the matter, the stories I need to write while sojourning in Maine after the decline and loss of both my parents and sole sibling within a short span of time.  Writing “Matriarchs and Monarchs” gave me solace, and I hope it might also provide comfort for readers like me, who are struggling to find what remains once the ashes are spread.

 

Margie Patlak is a freelance science writer with more than two hundred published personal essays and articles featured in such publications as DiscoverThe Washington PostProximity, and the Los Angeles Times. Patlak has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies and divides her time between the Schoodic Peninsula of Maine and Philadelphia. This essay is one of a series from her yet-to-be-published nature memoir More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring Nature and Loss on the Rugged Maine Shore.

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