On this Mother’s Day weekend, it seems appropriate to breathe new life into this blog of mine that has languished for months. Being a writer requires a discipline I often find challenging to maintain – especially when life undergoes such a transformation as mine has in the last year. Joy does not prompt me to pour out words for others to share in the same way that pain does. Isn’t that odd? I believe that phenomenon is common one, however. As Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
So let me begin again to be a writer with some regularity. After all, being “in it for the long run” means that you don’t give up even if you’ve fallen down. Life cycles. And it’s time once again for rebirth.
Let me share with you a story that I wrote after my mother died. I can’t think of a more fitting way to honor her memory for Mother’s Day. Thank you, Edna Bach, for being the primary influence on my life and for using every opportunity life gave you to teach me important lessons – like this most important one of all.
A Story about Life for Children and their Grown-ups
By Anna Bach
What do you keep on the dining room table at your house? Maybe a pretty vase with flowers . . . or a bowl of fruit . . . or a candlestick? I’ll bet you would never guess what we kept on the dining room table at my house when I was a little girl. Caterpillars! Not just any old caterpillars, either — these were giant silkworms, the caterpillars of the Cecropia Moth, the largest moth in North America.
Not many mothers would help their children raise caterpillars on the dining room table, but my mother wasn’t just any ordinary mother. She had a gift for knowing what was important about life, and she knew that for the few summers of my childhood the lessons those caterpillars could teach were more important than an uncluttered table.
If I close my eyes, I can still picture the tiny white and brown-spotted eggs that dotted the backs of leaves. As they began to hatch, tiny black worms wiggled out about the size of a large ant. Inching along the fresh leaves we provided for them every day, the little worms nibbled the green straight across, never wasting a mouthful. Sometimes two worked together, chewing away, until only the veins of the leaf remained – like an old umbrella with the fabric removed.
Soon each little caterpillar would grow too big for its skin. One-by-one they would clamp their tiny caterpillar feet on a stem and split their black suits right open. And guess what — with their next suit of clothes, they turned green.
They were lean, green eating machines, those caterpillars. The more they ate, the bigger they grew. The bigger they grew, the sooner they would split their skins and come out even larger and more colorful. Soon they boasted bright orange, yellow, and blue tufts down their green backs. No matter how colorful they became, however, I still thought they were rather ugly-looking worms. Fascinated, I grew brave enough to let the caterpillars crawl on my finger and cross my palm from one hand to the next. I wasn’t supposed to play with them. Mother made it clear that we must behave gently. Their well-being was our sacred trust.
The ever-growing caterpillars ate so fast we had to work hard to keep them in fresh leaves. Sometimes taking care of them seemed tiresome to my six-year-old self, but I understood that their lives depended on my efforts. Every day we cut branches from their favorite wild cherry tree to place in that vase in the dining room. So long as food was provided, they stayed right at their tasks — devouring greenery, growing more plump, and shedding their skin – four more times! We had to put fresh newspaper under them every day, too. Watching life’s lessons can be a pretty messy business. But Mother seemed to care more about the unfolding story of the cecropia moth than any mess or inconvenience. I told you she was no ordinary mother!
With the coming of fall, the caterpillars went to school with us. Maybe I forgot to I mention that my mother was a teacher. How her first grade students loved to watch as those cecropia caterpillars spun their cocoons! And, of course, so did I.
Throughout the winter, the vase sat safely on a window ledge, holding bare branches that supported the brown crescent-shaped cocoons. After a while the students — and even I — forgot the caterpillars. We were busy with other things, like learning from books. Then, in early May, something wonderful began to happen.
I remember the first time Mother called to me, “Anna, come here. See what you feel when you put your hand around the cocoon.” The dry, spun silk felt leathery as I gently, but firmly, closed my hand over its wrinkled outer walls. Inside the warmth of my grasp, the cocoon that looked dead stirred with life. Deep within the caterpillar’s tomb, the moth was struggling to be free. The wiggling both tickled and frightened me at the same time.
“Let’s help it, Mother!” I cried. “We could use scissors and snip through the cocoon so that the moth doesn’t have to work so hard.”
“Oh, no,” said Mother, “if you want to be helpful, you must let the moth find its own way out. If you try to hurry the process, the moth might not survive or it might be deformed. The struggle is part of the process — part of nature’s way of making the miracle happen.”
Mother reminded me of a big word we had read about: Metamorphosis. It meant “the process of being transformed.” She said the ugly green worm with the colorful spots had somehow spent the winter learning how to be a moth — changing its form from an earth-bound, ugly green worm to a delicate flying machine with beautiful reddish-brown markings. When the transformation process was complete, the new creature had to escape the once-safe cocoon in order to stretch its new wings. That was why it was important to leave the cocoon on the branches — so the soft, downy legs of the cecropia could pull that lovely new form into the light of day.
I certainly had read in books about metamorphosis, but no words could describe my feelings as I watched one of those big, beautiful moths unfold its new wings and begin to fan them dry. Now, Mother said, the new moths would find mates and lay eggs that would hatch into more little cecropia caterpillars, and the process would start all over.
Those summers we spent growing cecropia caterpillars were long ago. I am now a grown up — a mother and grandmother myself — but I am still discovering the value of my little girl lessons. In fact, I think I am just beginning to learn the most important lesson of all. My mother taught me that one, too.
By the time I became a grandmother, my mother was old and frail. Her spirit still enjoyed life just as much as when I was a little girl — or when she was a little girl — but her body couldn’t house that energy anymore. Life for Grandma B, as the children called her, was beginning to be more and more of a struggle. One night I was called to her bedside because she was very ill. I held her close in my arms as she fought with pain. Although I didn’t want life to change, the time to let go had come. I cried and was so sad.
But my story doesn’t end here.
The next morning I woke early and went outside alone to think. I knew the day would be difficult. I had to tell our children and grandchildren the sad news. I tried to think of words to use to explain losing someone we loved so much. As I stood in the early dawn, listening to the birds sing, watching the raindrops drip from the leaves of the trees, I remembered how my mother always taught me to find strength and comfort in creation. However, instead of finding the words to share with my family, my mind kept returning to the moment I held my mother as she struggled within her body. I searched my mind for happier pictures, trying not to be so sad.
Then the childhood memory of holding the cecropia cocoon came back to me. What was it Mother had said? “The struggle is part of the miracle.” A sudden, wonderful feeling washed over me. “If an ugly green worm transforms to a magnificent moth, imagine how glorious life must be beyond this earthly cocoon for someone already so beautiful.”
At that moment, I experienced the understanding of another big word — Resurrection. Just as there is no way to explain to a little green worm about wings and flight and being carried by wind currents, so there is no way for us to understand any life beyond this physical one. But by faith we catch an occasional glimpse of what eternity must be. We can sense that the transforming miracle we call death is really just a new beginning, a transformation, a metamorphosis.
I left the porch and the quiet morning rain with a deep sense of peace and assurance. I knew when my grandchildren asked the question, “Why did Grandma have to die?” I would be ready to respond — “Let me tell you a story from my childhood about a giant silkworm moth called the cecropia.”
Better still — this fall we will find a cocoon and wait for the spring.