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PRIVATE LIVES

The striped caterpillars strut with the mystery of possibility hidden inside, but to force the secret destroys the magic.

Yesterday I found a black-and-yellow-striped caterpillar on the back deck. I'd collected these caterpillars when I was a kid. I don't know their technical name but, for some reason, I had called them all "Jeffrey."

Feeling like a child again, I picked up this little fellow, laughed and called him "Jeffrey" as he tickled and inched his way across my hand like so many of his predecessors. I watched his little feet go up and down in perfect synchronization, and I suddenly remembered why I have never liked the color chartreuse.

I always liked caterpillars. When I was 6, I'd had a large collection of Jeffries in an old cigar box under my bed. My mother did not think much of my collection. Sure, Mama loved nature _ in its place, in the garden. But she didn't really appreciate my Jeffries.

A caterpillar got into the popcorn at the movies, and Mama was the lucky recipient of it. Unfortunate, but that was an accident.

I'd found this wonderful translucent cocoon in the fields. I knew it contained a caterpillar en route to a glorious existence as a butterfly.

I put the cocoon in a sunny spot on the dining room window next to my mother's prize African violets and checked it daily. I planned to watch the butterfly hatch.

Instead, 865 praying mantis babies (more or less) popped out and immediately assumed prayerful positions all over our dining room, mostly on the windows and the African violets.

The windows looked so interesting with the little creatures all over them, sort of a lacy, living curtain. Mama was not thrilled. It took us forever to get the prayerful ones out of the house.

Surprising how fast praying mantises grow. Surprising, too, how irritated my normally calm mother could become, especially when I accidentally knocked over her "Pink Cotton Candy" violet. It had just begun to bloom after years of false starts. Lots of prayers _ mine and the bugs' _ were said over it. But it didn't help.

Popcorn incident aside, my Jeffries were definitely a lot less trouble than mantises.

I could easily carry my caterpillar-loaded cigar box around, or just take the individual Jeffrey with me on my regular jaunts across our fields and woods, letting them tippy-toe across my hand as I walked.

I liked the Jeffries' sense of determination and concentration as they would hunch their way across my hand, lifting their multitudinous little feet one at a time in an organized way that boggled my imagination.

How would it feel to have so many feet to keep track of? What if the next-to-last foot on the left side got out of step? Would the caterpillar stumble and fall on its small face? I was intrigued.

I had been walking one day, having a chat with a Jeffrey, when I ran into my big brother. Like my mother, he was not enchanted with my caterpillars.

"Now what are you doing with that dumb thing?"

I tried to educate David. I held my hand up and said, "Look at this Jeffrey. Look at the way he walks! It's like a little wave going across my hand."

"And why do you have to call them all Jeffries? They're just stupid caterpillars!"

"I like to call them Jeffries!" I held my hand up so David could see better. "Look at him! He's so cute!"

With that, 9-year-old David lifted his big, calloused boy's hand and slammed it down onto mine. Suddenly my hand was a mess of chartreuse.

"Now he's cute!"

David laughed, and I looked at the oozing remains of my Jeffrey.

It took a long time to forgive my brother for that. I look at the yellow-and-black caterpillar crawling across my hand now and remember a forgotten pain and my hatred of the color chartreuse.

Jane Hallock Combs taught in Pinellas County schools for almost 20 years. She lives in Murray, Ky., where she writes full time and is a regular commentator for National Public Radio through WKMS-FM at Murray State University. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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