04 December 2011


It's a Sunday afternoon in early December.  It's cold outside, and we can feel winter closing in.  The late-afternoon light throws a rosy cast on everything.  I'm at the piano, and I snap on the little lamp next to my music.  My second daughter and I are practicing her solo for the upcoming Christmas concert at school.  She sings "Dost Thou in a Manger Lie" in a beautiful, warbling soprano, while I squint at the hymnal in front of me, my fingers struggling to keep up on the keyboard.  I will never be more than an adequate accompanist, but it's good enough for our purposes.

"Hey Mom," my son calls from the other end of the room, "look at this!"

I turn and look.  He's standing by the living-room window, where, on the sheer white curtain, there is perched the most exquisite yellow butterfly I have ever seen.  It looks like this:

At first, I'm pretty sure it's a prank.  He's trying to trick me into thinking there's a butterfly on the curtain.  It's some kind of paper toy he's stuck to the window, to see how gullible I am.

Then it flaps its wings.

We all gasp simultaneously.  I get up from the piano bench for a closer look.  It is, in fact, a real butterfly, fully grown, a creature of summer right here in our December living room.  I stare at it in awe for a moment, and then I run for my camera.

"How did it get there?" Becky asks.

My only guess is that it must have come into the house in a chrysalis attached to one of my house-plants.  I have several plants that live on the porch all summer and then come inside in early November, to spend the winter in the living room.  There must have been a secret life clinging to one of my plants all this time, developing in the darkness, and I didn't know it until it burst forth and flew over to my curtain.

I examine the Christmas cactus and the spider plants, but I see no evidence of a chrysalis.

The children want to keep the butterfly as a pet.  It's cold out, they reason.  If you turn it loose, it will freeze overnight.  Here, we could keep it in an aquarium and admire it all winter.  Please, mom.

But our butterfly is a wild creature, entitled to live out its life span, however short, in its natural habitat.  I capture it carefully under a Tupperware bowl, careful not to clip its wings or its exquisite antennae, and then I release it in the backyard.  We watch it fly away before the sun sets.

It's just a moment, just ten minutes out of an ordinary day, but the gift the butterfly has given us lingers.  Nothing we can make or do can even approach that level of beauty.  We are surprised by summer in the midst of winter, and reminded of all the ways in which life can touch and affect us.  I take the lesson for what it's worth, and then we return to the piano.

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