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Flights of Fancy

I grew up in a sweet little barrio in southwest San Diego with two younger sisters and all the leisure time in the world.

Every summer, the Mourning Cloak butterflies would pass through the area, wandering between the north where they overwintered and warmer Mexico. How exciting it was that they paused in our own backyard, the one I was hardly ever allowed to leave, and place eggs on the milkweed plants.

We carefully gathered the leaves and placed them in a shoebox to watch the show.

After four days, the tiniest caterpillars you ever saw would hatch out and immediately begin devouring the leaf they were on. Our job was to feed them as many leaves as possible each day and watch them grow into 2” long black, chubby, spiky, red spotted larvae.

But because they were almost-butterflies, we found them handsome.

The trick was to keep them in the box; they moved fast!

After three weeks or so, we placed long twigs into the box and watched them climb up to a roosting spot. They made webbing and attached themselves to the stick.

And then it looked like they just curled up and died.

A covering formed around them and they hung there in the oddest shaped cocoons.

The pupa has two rows of tiny spikes that end with what appears to be a beak and devil horns. You’d think this was impressive enough to keep our little girl hands off, but if you tried to touch them anyway, the whole thing would wag and shake.

We understood that whatever was going on in there, something was alive.

We had to be patient.

The chrysalis became darker as the butterfly inside developed, until one morning the shroud began to split open.

She very slowly emerged, swollen abdomen and crumpled wings resembling an unopened parachute, to crawl up the stick into the sunshine.

She looked exhausted.

Quite deliberately, the fluids from the abdomen transfer into the tissue thin wings. With each pump of a heartbeat, the butterfly unfurls her magnificent new appendages. Vibrant colors begin to glow, the edges becoming patterns and ripples with a soft downy finish. The wings are actually covered by tiny feathery plates that will fall off if touched by a stray finger, so we keep our hands out of her business.

Even very little girls can see a miracle is occurring.

Once the butterfly has completely opened to the sky and the sunshine and the breeze, her wings all pumped up, her body sleek, and her eyes infused with knowledge not transferable, she takes to the heavens with erratic joy.

And little girls can understand that feeling…like you just want to hug God with your whole self.

Because just being alive is so magnificent.

Published inLiving Larger


  1. Thank you for this inspiring trip down memory lane. My friends and I collected and watched the same miracle… But with monarch butterflies! Same process… Different colors.

  2. Andrea

    What a beautiful scene!

  3. Pam Schlottman

    I loved that wonderful account. I have never seen that unfold but have read of course how caterpillars became butterflies. It is kind of like how the resurrection will be when we will be full of joy. I loved how you described it. Thanks Pam

  4. Kiki Dulaney

    Beautifully written! I remember my first year of teaching doing this with my students with the butterflies in the desert and then letting them go. They remember it too. Such a great experience. Thanks for letting me relive it!

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