Butterfly Wings and Snakeskins

Monarch I have a friend with whom I talk on the phone every day. These calls are often little more than check-ins. Hey. How was your day. What are you doing. How’s the cat. It’s not that he isn’t interesting and I just don’t care; it’s that I’m a busy mom who’s having a good day if she can stay on her feet and keep her cool from when she gets up at eight to when she crashes into bed at midnight. It’s one of those “It’s not you, it’s me” situations. But a call last week was somehow different.

I’m not sure what it was that put me in a reminiscing mood. It had been a long day. The kitchen was a mess. There was food to be put away and brownies to be eaten. (Oh, so many brownies.) I was tired and I had a Sunday School lesson to prepare. But for some reason, I got started talking about my childhood and I just could not stop.

My father is a member of the armed services and so I moved frequently as a child. It was always a mix of heartbreak and adventure. Nearly every year, it was a new place: new school, new house, new friends, new climate, new streets and shops and trends to keep track of. There was so much newness that I couldn’t help but feel optimistic that maybe this would be the new best year of my life, my new favorite home, my one friend that I would really hang onto over the years. It was sad to leave behind my last best year, my last favorite home, my last batch of friends that I felt so sure I would hang onto forever, even though I really wouldn’t, but I couldn’t help but feel like this could be great. Like this could be a turning point.

Sometimes, I can go for months without ever thinking about those places and the people I knew there. But then I’ll get a text from my mom referencing something I had forgotten until that moment. Or I’ll chat with my brother and he’ll ask if I still hear from so-and-so. Or I’ll make a phone call and reminisce.

My friend is another military brat. Air Force, actually, but I can’t blame him for his parents choosing an inferior branch. And we just started talking about moving. I don’t even remember how it came up. But he didn’t like it the way I did. He only had bad memories. And I realized I was overflowing with good ones.

I told him about the school in Kentucky that had the back yard lined with honeysuckle, a treat I’d never tasted before, and I spent every recess with tiny white blossoms pressed to my lips and I never once remembered playing in that yard, and how I cried to be leaving a teacher whose name I now cannot recall. I told him about El Paso, Texas where I could walk for miles and miles under the searing sun, my skin red and freckled, and never see an end of houses and gas stations, an endless oasis of uniformity theoretically slipped between arid strips of sand, and how my friend’s mother had been murdered while she and her brother were at school and how my mother had whispered to my father in the next room that she was so sure it was the husband and I didn’t really know what she meant until years later. I told him about the house we lived in that was right on the migration path of the monarch butterflies, and how twice a year my brothers and I would slip through the barbed wire at the back of our yard and into the farmer’s golden fields ripe with butterflies and just run and run with the bugs so thick you could hardly see sky nor wheat.

I went on for more than an hour, past the kids’ bedtime, with the food seeping heat into the countertops, before I finally realized that I had to stop or I would go on all night. I went to five elementary schools and three middle schools before we settled in Alaska for my high school career, and I am brimming over with memory. Each place is seared vividly in my mind, a flower pressed between pages, dry but bright. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget Sapora Bradley and her black braids, or racing on hands and knees with my brothers through the furrow during a warm summer rain, submerged grass sweeping lazily between my fingers, or the third limb up in the twisted old tree by the basketball courts in the park down Sierra Vista Lane.

But then I mentioned the last time I had gone to that home where the monarchs had flown their yearly journey, taking my new husband with me to share a piece of my childhood. I remember standing in the back of a yard that was no longer mine, staring over a wooden plank fence instead of rusted barbed wire, into a massive gray complex of condos, not a scrap of green nor gold to be seen. This was not the sort of place where a bare-footed girl could run, butterflies tangled in her hair. I felt like Camelot had burned. I never went back. I don’t know that I ever will.

I’m a little afraid to visit places like that now. I’m a little afraid that it won’t be like I remember, that somehow I’ve injected magic into a truly mundane childhood. But I think I’ll give my kids the magical version.

I don’t know why I decided to blog about this. Maybe I’m still reminiscing, even days later. It’s trapped in my head, these images of lilies in the woods and leaches on my brother’s back, of a snow mountain so riddled with tunnels I worried it would collapse on me, of snakeskins as long as I was tall in the dry grass beneath a cloudless Arizona sky. Every place left its mark on me, like swirls in mental fingerprints. Maybe some day I’ll write about, so my grandchildren can know, and their children too, what a crazy lady Grandma was even when she was a kid.

So reminisce with me. What’s the most magical thing you remember as a child? What’s your micro-memoir?


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