As a small boy growing up in the ‘60s I lived off of a steady diet of comic books. The action stories told on cheap pulp in cheaper ink placed me squarely in the midst of super heroes saving mankind from all manner of diabolical evil, but the advertisements found in those 25-cent comics had the same power to fuel the imagination of a young lad being raised in the Atomic Age.
X-ray specs would allow me to see straight through walls! Bodybuilding panaceas were available for 98-pound weaklings who were tired of getting sand kicked in their faces by beach bullies! Chattering teeth, slingshots, whoopee cushions, and piles of faux feces filled the pages.
Unbelievable! Incredible! Amazing! And all for the princely sum of $1.98!
None of the offers was more captivating than the very, very creepy ad for sea monkeys—the one showing wildly inaccurate cartoon depictions of a nuclear family of the creatures (little Sis Sea Monkey even had a bow in her hair)—that turned out to be nothing more than microscopic brine shrimp. The very notion of live animals being shipped through the mail was mind-blowing to me, so it was with no little trepidation that I learned all these decades later that my wife, Julie, had ordered a live butterfly garden for our grandsons, Easton (4), and Barrett (3).
Unlike the cheesy come-ons from the ads in vintage comic books (A seven-foot Polaris submarine for under two bucks? Really?), our butterfly garden turned out to be a real world adventure showcasing one of nature’s most astonishing transformations. The boys took charge of every step in the process of the care and feeding of the inchworms. Multiple readings of the kid-lit classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, acted as something of a field guide for understanding what we were witnessing as exoskeletons were shed before upside-down perches were established so that a miraculous metamorphosis could unfold before our very eyes.
Julie, a para-educator at Hartman Elementary School, skipped the summer session this year so she could care for the boys. The babysitting schedule meant that our little junior entomologists would get only Monday-Wednesday-Friday lab time with their chrysalide charges. The timing was such that they missed the emergence of all five butterflies, but nothing could dampen their enthusiasm as they raced to the butterfly cage upon each new arrival to see what new wonders awaited.
Being of a certain age, I fondly recall a hippie-era flick featuring Goldie Hawn as a free spirit who invades the world of a life-challenged neighbor. And just as the name of the film was Butterflies are Free, our little investigation into insectology would naturally culminate in a big-big-big butterfly release party.
Easton, after doing his squealing, tippy-toe, flailing-arms dance of nerding out the way only a small child can do, had the honors of unzipping the top of the butterfly garden. But he didn’t quite yet grasp the concept of “free.” All he wanted to do was bury his face in the opening for one last, close-up peek at the Painted Lady butterflies he and Barrett had nurtured along.
But a sense of serenity—or as close to the word as any 4-year-old can hope to attain—soon prevailed as he leaned back and watched as, one-by-one, a quartet of winged beauties fluttered onto the lawn. The last of the butterflies needed a little coaxing before making his jailbreak, and that one landed gently on Easton’s hand for a moment—just one split second—before darting away.
“Look, Easton,” Julie exclaimed. “He just gave you a butterfly kiss!”
The metamorphosis was complete. But there was also a parallel transformation playing out that day and all throughout the experience. The minds of young boys were going through a metamorphosis of their own as they were filled with a reverence for nature and the world around them.
And that’s pure magic in the eyes of a grandparent. Even more magical than sea monkeys.