This week a freelance project randomly took me to my old elementary school! And, as my daughter would say, I am not even joking. Out of all the schools in all the cities…
It smelled the same; Pine Sol and pencil sharpenings, wet boots and forced air. And most things looked the same, including the hypnotic, durable scuff AND vomit resistant black and white tiled floor. One Lilliputian moment: in the washroom, a line of small pink stalls containing teeny, tiny toilets. And me, my mid life self. Enough said.
I walked down the hall and into the past, stopping outside my former Grade One classroom. Little coats hung on sturdy hooks. A brass hook, a tile floor, a familiar scent, it’s surprising how small things can take you back. Grade One was a safe place for me. Thank you Miss Browne for making math fun (the only time, ever) for Japanese Pen Pals, singing goodbye in in five languages, for showing me kindness. Thank you. Thank you.
I was a dreamer, a book nerd, a sensitive kid. My parents were never called into anyone’s office, and they couldn’t have come anyway. My Dad was on no one’s schedule and my mom worked shifts to raise four kids. You were expected to stay out of trouble. Period. We did not celebrate academic milestones.
Now we do. Enter The Amazing Butterfly Party.
My daughter had finished Grade One! (Easy for kids, harder for parents , who spend a year learning how to let go). We baked butterfly cakes, invited the fellow Grade Ones, their parents, my friends, and my very new-to-me man. And of course my mother, who loves a good metamorphosis. She hit her stride after 50, so symbols of hope, death and rebirth are talismen for her. Once, in the middle of a very deep heartbreak, she gave me a poem I still carry in my wallet:
“Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is just beyond your grasp. But if you sit down quietly may alight upon you.”
I had spent the better part of two years waiting for happiness to alight upon me. It was time to stack the deck.
Three dozen monarch butterflies were ordered online, to be delivered 24 hours in advance of the party.
They arrived in a small Styrofoam cooler, the kind you might use shipping human organs for immediate transplant.
We set the cooler on the floor. Inside, another smaller cooler, and inside that, an elegant box with 36 individual envelopes, paper thin sleeping bags to be storied, as instructed, in the fridge.
Did you know butterflies hibernate at temperatures below 14 degrees C? That you need to “thaw” them about half an hour before launch to wake them? Butterflies do not like living in the cold.
Welcome to Canada in June: butterflies on the bubble.
The morning was heavy, uncertain clouds shuffled in and out. We optimistically and practically setup in the backyard, as the 60 or so people we had invited would simply not fit into our charming mommy daughter house.
The temperature inched up to nearly 14. Food arrived, followed by children, parents, my new boyfriend, and my best friend, J.
3o minutes before the desired butterfly launch, and as per instructions, I pulled the box out of the fridge. We’d release the butterflies at peak party.
J. suggested a test release, so we snuck out the front. The origami style envelope folded down, revealing an amazingly static butterfly. The instructions suggest you blow gently on the wings as you recite the “Butterfly Prayer”. Said butterfly will magically waken and fly away, taking your wishes with it.
I blew quickly into the palm of my hand. The butterfly remained frozen. Then, breathed hard, the way you would on a car window or mirror…creating enough moisture to write a heart or happy face.
Movement. Barely. More breathe, more movement. J flicked the cardboard envelope and…the majestic Monarch transformed into a groggy old man butterfly, wobbling into a heavy grey sky. Good enough.
We headed to the backyard.
In the spirit of celebrating successes, I handed out three dozen envelopes containing tiny, sleeping insects. To six year olds.
I explained, in my best calm Hostess Mommy voice, how to open the envelope and blow on the wings. Then, the Butterfly Prayer:
May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness and riches.
Today, tomorrow and beyond
We gently opened the envelopes. These newly minted Grade One graduates had never been asked to breath on an almost dormant insect in the palm of their sticky hands before. Visions of sparkly Disney Magical Butterflies, with long eyelashes and names like Sugar or Anastasia, vanished.
These were Danaus plexippus, and they were starting to warm up.
Chaos. Little hands tried to shake off stunned butterflies, bigger hands took over. Magic? Not so much. You could almost hear the Monarchs, forced to take flight or be trampled…”I morphed from a caterpillar for this”? Amazingly, only one tumbled to the ground, to be immediately scooped up and placed carefully on a branch. It’s wings opened and closed quickly, catching its breath after a terrible scare.
Life is full of transitions and opportunities to reinvent yourself: student, graduate, parent, partner. Metamorphosis isn’t easy. Sometimes you have to trust the unlikely hand of fate, placing you gently out of harms way so you can simply catch your breath.
( PS: No live insects for Grade 12 ).
I learned how to make Butterfly Cakes from BFF J’s Irish Aunties. It’s easy!
Take a dozen simple white cupcakes. Slide off the tops so that the cupcakes are flat. Ice.
Take the cupcakes top and cut each in half, so you have 24 semi circles. (wings). Stick two circles each on the top of the cupcake, flat side down in the icing, so that the round bits are sticking up, like two wings.
Place a small piecee of licorice in the centre to make the butterfly “body”. Add licorice antennae, more icing or sprinkles as desired.