This is a beautiful garden for you, with a few things of your Mama’s, by way of your big Sister’s girls, and a Butterfly all your own.
Good night, dear. I love you.
Mom tired me out today. She knew just what she wanted to do. First, we had to write the blog post from London. Then, even though everything in the apartment is a complete mess – books spread on the floor, butterfly backgrounds by all the windows – she said, “Honey, let’s go somewhere.”
Once I was in the car (and had a little espresso in me), her directions were clear as a bell – “Let’s visit the antique mall first, then go to Vinnie’s.” And it dawned on me – this is the day. Her last day. This is the day she really needs me. By tomorrow, there is nothing I can do for her anymore.
After the antique mall, where the garden display with the indoor fountain was resplendent in Easter pastel silk flowers and white painted wicker furniture, we walked next door to St. Vinnie’s Thrift Store, and walked right out again 10 minutes later without spotting a single treasure. (Hey, sometimes the magic works…keep reading…)
At 2:41 I heard the next bell: Olbrich Gardens. “But Mom, its so grey and we are heading to this other place and tomorrow the weather will be nicer…” “Olbrich Gardens, honey.” “Ok,” I say out loud. “I’ll turn the car around.”
Of course, she was right. There were things at Olbrich Garden we needed to see and hear, from our bench in the shadow of the two story Rose Tower, which looks across a wide lawn encircled by pergolas, over the traffic and the large city park beyond, to the domestic beauty of Lake Monona, the last of the lakes Mom was able to call her own. Robins and grackles swarmed the trees, and the air was almost frantic with the trill of red-wing black birds. Brick paths puddled with reflecting pools, criss-crossing the repeating pattern of the deep red pavement with the clear, floating image of branches and trellises above. I stuck mainly to the dryer, gravel walks, circumambulating twiggy rose beds and the formal herb garden with its English boxwood hedges. In Olbrich’s lobby, the prettiest gift shop Mom ever saw in Madison was full of the prettiest scarves and cards and Everything Butterfly you can imagine. I told the young woman there how, of course, my Mother loved this place. I could tell she hears that all the time.
Did you know that when she was little, Barbara Ann Downtain’s favorite special meal to have on her birthday, was Creamed Hamburger? So we stopped at Mr. Miller’s Grocery – whose owner (“I’m Carl,” he always says, “Mr. Miller was my father!”) gave Mom such a treat by delivering her weekly order of frozen broccoli and Twinings Irish Breakfast himself – and bought tulips and heavy cream, and roasted salted pecans for dessert.
At home finally, I sat for a while and listened as the birds and the traffic slowed down for the night – listened to how good they sounded, filling the present with the most it can actually contain, if you are just spending a few quite moments in a cozy old slipcovered arm chair by the window at home. And I heard one more bell – not ringing but chiming, very, very deep.
“Celebrate me.” she said. “Celebrate, honey. Celebrate.”
butterfly of london
here am i
the circus streets
i had to try
never in my dreamland
was it as real as feels
now i’m home
here’s the Victoria Albert
the Kings Road is right at my door
i walk to the Mews of the Queen Mum
you just can’t know
what it means
a place i can never
the one place i finally
hear my heart’s song
i’m sorry i had to go so far away
to be me
but i did.
(more or less to lullaby of birdland)
This work composed on a base photograph by the absolutely superb Evelyn Hoefer, appearing in her collaboration with V.S. Pritchett, London Perceived, which found me through the magical power the Sequoya Branch Library Book Sale, answering my prayer for a photographic record capturing the London I believe my mother dreamed of finding. Note that the 1962 NYT review I have linked to here is by Philip Toynbee, for crying out loud.
I hardly even had to ask. All I had to say was, ” I do this butterfly thing on my blog…” and Bobbie put the butterfly in her hair. Sherri wore the perfect backdrop to showcase brilliant glittering wings. Leslee gave her butterfly a deep blue sky and paisley clouds. That was last week.
“I brought this butterfly my daughter made.” Leslee casually mentioned when I saw her today at our stitching date. Holding a red and yellow construction paper treasure out to me, her face shone with playful pride and delight. “I want it back.” I nod mutely, a little awed by her generosity and trust. I don’t often get to make a picture with something so powerful. “I can use my phone,” I say. “We’ll do it just like before, by the window, before we go.”
We have to pull out both self-storing leaves of the vintage teak table for everyone to find a place to sit, and still, there isn’t enough room for all our stuff. I keep my kit of colored pencils, glue and doilies under my chair with my London Fog purse in red fake patent alligator. I sit next to Maureen, and we talk about her father. He died four years ago, today. The anniversary of her mom’s death was just 2 weeks ago. “There’s a lot of death in March,” she says. I nod. “My mom’s is coming up on Saturday.” “Oh,” she replies softly. It’s b’shert – meant to be – that we should choose these particular chairs today.
Maureen is embroidering a small landscape of one their favorite places, where she and her father had happy times. She painted the lake, trees and shore line with water color, to deepen the tone of her colorful threads. “It’s like those memento mori embroideries on silk,” I point out. “They were painted and embroidered too.” She hadn’t thought of that before. It’s reassuring to discover that, without realizing it, you are comforting yourself in the same exact way other women did, long long ago. Everyone at the table is working on some similar project, channeling stories of love and loss into stitched loops and dashes, like a binary code of personal history.
There’s no pretending here. Some of the people we need most are gone. Around this table, it’s ok to talk about them, as long as you are doing something with your hands.
high above the tuillerie
float the butterfly and me
along the champs elysee we
alight amidst the ancient trees
the arch de triomph monument
to human effort so misspent
a shadow of the past presents
escaping through your grasp like sand
while on your shoulder beauty lands
for we on puffs of air are free
to play and live eternally
the butterfly francais and me.
dictated by mom. it made me cry as she told it to me. i think that she is happy. that is all i ever wanted.
A butterfly of friendly creations turned up. Artist Amy Hoeffel accepted my invitation to imagine butterflies, through her unique photographic eye and approach. Using old school film techniques, Amy layers multiple exposures and special developing processes to achieve images of spontaneous, improvised beauty.
Amy has given the butterfly in me a warm reception on many occasions. It was her generosity that gave me the courage to show some images last fall, by joining her in a gallery space for the Riverwest Art Walk – an experience I am still learning from.
Thank you, Amy and my butterfly dears, for bringing your eyes to the butterflies!