Once, clouds of them filled the city streets.


On the last day of our January visit with our grandfather in Milwaukee, my sister Emma and I go with him to the City Museum downtown.

The wind is bitterly cold. Grandpop wears gloves while he drives, but takes them off once he parks the car. People call him Smoke. He tells us he’s not sure where the nickname came from, but he’s had it since he was a kid. A friend of mine surmised that because his name is Morris, one of his friends must have pulled the “Smoke” from the association with Morris Tobacco. He was the first child in his family born in the United States, a few years after his parents immigrated here from Russia. He grew up in Philadelphia, which is where he met my grandmother Frances, and raised my father, Howard, and his sister Ellen.

The rivers in Milwaukee are frozen, a novelty to us northwestern girls. We find parking, and wander into the museum. Drink coffee and hot chocolate in the cafeteria, then make our way up the stairs, under a giant whale skeleton covered with white lights for the holidays. We are drawn almost immediately to the butterfly room. Stepping through the double glass doors, the warm humidity envelops us. There is piano music playing, and a small waterfall. Plants and trees crowd around, pressing at the walls and brushing our shoulders, and the windows face the street.

Outside, the bitter Wisconsin wind sweeps snow off the sidewalk drifts and swirls it into spirals. A schoolbus stops at a stopsign, then lumbers through the intersection. Pedestrians tug their collars higher around their necks and lean into the wind.

Inside, we begin to shed our scarves and coats. There is an utter absence of wind, only the movement of thousands of luminous butterfly wings.

We walk so slowly we are scarcely moving at all, gazing at the tiny, soft bodies, the shimmering colors and intricate patterns on their wings.
We watch them fly and hover and rest. Some land on us, clinging to hair and bright scarves.

“When I was young,” Grandpop says, “clouds of butterflies would appear in the city. Not just monarchs either, every color. Clouds of them. Of course, you don’t see that anymore.” I see it in my mind: a gang of young Jewish boys playing stickball on a cobbled 1920s Philadelphia street. Women in dresses and hats pass by carrying shopping baskets, and horse-drawn delivery carts make their way up the streets, bearing coal or ice. A sudden swirl of color and movement in the sky, thousands of butterflies, oranges and reds and pinks and purples and blues, hurrying between the buildings. The boys stand still, craning their necks, shielding their eyes against the sun, watching the living cloud pass by.

We stay in the small butterfly room for a long time. They feed on sponges soaked in sugar water and fruit juice, and land on tiny chunks of watermelon and apple. I watch a large one, brown on one side and shimmering blue-purple on the other, fly up against the window, over and over, and wonder if they mourn for their migrations, for larger spaces. I wonder if they remember the stories of the days when clouds of them filled the streets. For now though, they live in a tiny utopia, replete with all of the problems and advantages that come with an engineered habitat.

We glory in them, speaking in soft voices and watching carefully where we step. Emma spots one dying on the pavement, and searches for a twig, which the butterfly weakly clings to. She deposits it in a plant. “I didn’t want it to die on the pavement,” she tells us.

When we leave, we take turns spining slowly in front of three mirrors, to make sure that none of them have hitched a ride to the Big World on our clothing.

I think: I will remember this when I am old.

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6 Comments

Filed under butterflies, Emma, Grandpop, habitat, History, January, migration

6 responses to “Once, clouds of them filled the city streets.

  1. emma leighe fox

    sarah, that was absolutely beautiful… i so enjoyed reading that, and i’m printing it out for my journal… thank you so much for taking that trip with me! it was magical…

  2. theresa

    Lovely! Thanks for taking the time to write this. Such a treasure, the words, photos, blending of memory and place and butterflies.

    Love m

  3. Heather

    This is truly wonderful. Plus, I have not seem Emma in about 10 trillion years! Emma, you are gorgeous!! I hope you see this, if not, maybe your big sis will tell you! I love this whole blogging thing. I live for your writing, Sar. I got my mom to start reading yours. She may not know how to follow it or post a comment, but she is loving hearing your words!
    Love you tons, H

  4. Andrea

    your words were so vivid, i feel the soft whir of the fans in the butterfly room, the humidity.
    i can see the gorgeous colors swirling about
    and i can hear your grandpa sharing what he remembered of butterflies and philly.
    reading this made me miss mi abuelita terribly…but thank you so much for writing this, amiga.
    the front of my brain is flooded with rich memories of her–especially ones spent in her garden.

    xo

  5. Seth

    Sarah, I love this story so much. It reminds me of an afternoon I spent in the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. I think it is one of my favorite places in the city. I love conservatories. There is something about the temperature of the air and the sense of sanctuary from the outside world that I find particularly conducive to reflection.

    Seth

  6. Sharkfin

    Sometimes I feel like I live in one big engineered habitat too.

    I love your words.

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