The story of a butterfly offers a lesson for the new year

A childhood memory triggers an idea for supporting each other.
A monarch butterfly feeds on a goldenrod.
A monarch butterfly feeds on a goldenrod. [ RICH BEAUCHESNE | AP ]
Published Dec. 30, 2021

They say regret is the most corrosive emotion, and that seems right to me. It tends to hit me when I least expect it, a memory about a stupid thing I did or said, or a hurtful experience from the past.

Such a moment was triggered by the sight of a monarch butterfly, fluttering in our grass. This was no surprise in itself. We have two small trees in the front yard, one that produces orange honeysuckle flowers; and a cassia tree that showed up on its own not long ago. It is bursting with bright yellow blossoms. Butterflies — yellow or orange — show up as if they know that their vibrant colors will match the trees.

I have read reports that monarch butterflies were becoming endangered from a variety of human and environmental factors. It startled me to realize that the one in our grass, fluttering in the wind, was dead.

I picked it up, oh so gently, and held it in the palm of my hand, hoping — since butterflies emerging from their cocoons were ancient symbols of resurrection — that it was sleeping and would be startled from slumber and just fly away. In that moment of hope, I was taken by its wondrous beauty, the sunlight shining through its orange, yellow and white segments like godlight through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

I don’t want to misrepresent myself here. I am no sentimentalist when it comes to insects, and — with no regret — have killed my share of houseflies, mosquitoes, roaches and spiders. But the butterfly moves me in a different way, and as I laid the body of the monarch in the shrubs beneath the trees, I was transported to a moment in my past.

It is probably 1960. Picture me as a 12-year-old in the backyard of a suburban house near the North Shore of Long Island, about 20 miles from Manhattan. I am wearing a New York Yankees cap and, on my left hand, a Rawlings baseball glove. In my right hand I have a pink rubber ball, a Spalding, its good bounce perfect for playing neighborhood games with other baby boomers, such as stickball, running bases, box ball and, my favorite, stoop ball.

The idea was to throw the ball against the stoop to see how far it would go. If you caught the edge of the concrete steps to the house, it would really fly, sometimes over the head of the fielder. On this day, I was practicing on my own, throwing the ball from a distance and fielding fly balls and grounders.

I caught sight of something over my head. I looked up and there it was against the sky, the largest, most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen. I even knew the type because it had the coolest name. It was a tiger swallowtail, a name it got from its dramatic black stripes against brilliant yellow wings.

I knew this because I hung out with the Masterson brothers — two of three who became Eagle Scouts. They knew something about everything, and I was an eager learner: boy adventure books, Civil War history, short-wave radios and lepidoptery.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

That is the fancy word for butterfly collecting.

I had seen exotic butterflies pinned in displays in the Museum of Natural History, and my pals had put together their own collections from the local varieties fluttering in nearby yards, ball fields and woods.

As I stared up at the tiger swallowtail, I flipped my baseball glove in the air in a kind of boyish tribute, like a military jet flying over a stadium. The glove hit the butterfly. The beautiful creature fell to the ground.

I have no idea what my mom and dad thought when I burst through the back door into the kitchen wailing. I was not a stoic child. I cried when a neighborhood kid hit me on the side of the face with a rock. But that was external pain. What I felt now was a sense of guilt that I had destroyed something beautiful. It left me — in spite of the comforting efforts of my mom — inconsolable.

My dad, a tough but sentimental man of action, stepped into the backyard. I have no sense of how long he was out there. He came inside to find me still weeping. He said something like this:

“Son, you didn’t kill the butterfly. It is just stunned. I put it gently on top of the bushes. It was fluttering and looked like it was trying to fly. Let’s go take a look.”

He walked me down the back steps, between two sycamore trees, and toward the line of bushes that marked the back edge of our property.

No butterfly anywhere in sight.

“Son, it must have flown away. It’s OK. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

I always knew that it was possible — maybe probable — that I had killed the beautiful creature and that my dad had disposed of it to salve my feelings. If so, he may have proved at that moment to be the best actor in the family — and we have a lot of them.

I told this story to my wife at the coffee shop. She had never heard if before. (How can you be married for 50 years and still have stories left?) As I got to the end, I was surprised to hear emotion creeping into my voice and something wet in my eyes.

It was not, I knew, lingering regret over a butterfly. It was gratitude at the tenderness of my dad, who did his best to lift me up. Maybe there’s a lesson here for the new year. Let’s lift each other up.