Think of the Butterfly

Written for a friend in despair


It is amazing to me,

a wondrous endeavor.

Think of the butterfly:

Its plain beginnings,

its ragged shell,

its captured wings.

Has it gone unheard?

The lilies and the sparrows know:

He cares with a cupped hand.

He stoops down with a lift

as sure as the first Day.

He was, He is,

He will.

And so,

my love,

live your struggle while fixed to Him,

a holy silk.

And emerge,

this time,

ready

to fly.

Matthew 6:25-34

June Story of the Month: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

There are potato chips all over the rug, and I think about how brave Dad is not to care about the mess he’s making.

Crazy. I’m afraid to make Mom mad like that. She’d come and get at me behind my knees with a switch.

Dad’s not afraid. He’s taking his time on the Soul Express, that radio show he likes where the deejays yell and laugh and blow whistles all the time.

“It’s tiiiiiime for the Mighty Ten Ninety, Dee Dee!” And he just goes with it, dancing around the living room, stepping on anything in his way: that bag of chips, paper plates, comic books, the newspaper, his jacket. My sister’s cut-outs, too. She worked really hard to make those clothes for her paper dolls, but I see her smiling while Dad does his thing.

It’s like he’s in a dream.

Mom is at work. I watched her leave wearing the pink and gray uniform with her “stand all day” shoes. I don’t think she heard me yell goodbye to her from my bed because she didn’t say anything back.

Dad works at night as a janitor. He cleans the junior high school, and his picture is even in the school yearbook. He is the best-looking one of all those men who make that school shine. No one is better looking than my Dad. I checked all the pages of that yearbook. Nope. Not even the principal.

First weekend of Christmas vacation! Having Dad home and awake is my favorite thing. He plays cards with us and cooks really good breakfasts. And because it is Saturday, he won’t get drunk until later. He is wearing that brown V-neck pulled over his light-green turtleneck sweater. It’s my favorite thing for him to wear.

“Look out! Misto is comin’ and goin’!” He dances across the rug, his right arm out to the side, and his left hand across his belly, acting like he’s holding a fine woman real close.

Here he comes my way. I’m up against the side of the hi-fi with a cup of Kool-Aid, legs crossed, with my cat book open on my lap.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell start singing, and Dad says, “It’s my man! Turn it up!” He moves quickly to the hi-fi and fills the room with the song.

I begin to sing along. “Ain’t nu-thin’ like the real-thing-bay-beh.” Eyes closed, fingers snapping, rocking side to side.

“Stand up, girl!” I look up and he’s grinning. I love his mustache. It’s like those fuzzy black caterpillars that turn into pretty moths.

I jump up and take his hands. I place my feet upon his. He holds me up and stomps around as we sing the duet.

Dad makes silly faces when it’s my turn to sing, and I try not to laugh so I can do a good job.

“I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame.”

Dad looks right at me while he sings, and I just know he means it, every single word.

“I got some memories to look back on

And though they help me when you’re gone

I’m well aware nothing can take the place of being there.”

The song ends, and I step off his feet. “You are good, girl,” he says. I tell him his voice is better than Marvin Gaye’s, and he laughs. He goes off to the kitchen, his body moving to the radio’s beat. I go back to my spot and think about being a on TV.

When he returns, Dad has a can of beer in his hand. “Dee Dee, get something and clean up the rug before your mama gets home.” He turns, opens the door to the backyard, and I don’t see him again until dinnertime.

We’re having beans and cornbread again, but I don’t mind. Mom spices the beans just right and puts enough sugar in the bread to make it taste special.

Dad tells my brother to say the usual family blessing:

“Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Amen. Jesus wept.”

The TV set is close enough for us to see and hear the six o’clock news. My brothers are talking about this morning’s cartoons and what will happen on Sea Hunt tonight. Dad says he’s going to see a movie with our neighbor. His eyes are shiny, and I wonder if he hurt himself again. Mom looks mad.

One by one, we ask Dad to excuse us from the table after we’ve eaten everything on our plates. That is the rule in our home. Don’t even think about getting up from the table before Dad says you can.

I get my permission and join the others on the living room floor in front of the TV. My sister turns up the TV so we can hear the show and not the yelling going on in the kitchen. Dad comes through the living room, whistling and doing his dance steps. He grabs his jacket from the floor and almost trips over my brother on his way to the front door. He winks at me as he’s closing it.

Right then, I make up my mind to be a singer when I grow up. I tell Mom, and she says that Dad isn’t coming back.

That’s okay. I’ll tell him in the morning.


“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” © 1967 Jobete, BMI

STORY NOTE: One of the treasured memories I have of my Dad is this incident — singing a duet while I stood on his feet. Writing this story as creative nonfiction was a way for me to relive the memory, and also to roll a bit of my family life into one day. Ten-year-old “Dee Dee” — his nickname for me — adored her Dad despite the things he did or did not do. Whenever I hear “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” I think of my dance with him, how he moved away a few years later, and what a father’s presence and absence can bring out in his child. Three days before he died at age 73, I had a chance to tell Dad to his face, as he lay dying in his bed, that I loved him, I forgave him, God forgave him, and I would see him in heaven.

We Don’t Want Perfect Fathers

We do not want,

should not expect,

and will never have

perfect fathers.

All we want is for them

to make their God-given responsibilities a priority:

to teach, guide,

protect, provide for,

and love in His ways

the children He has given to them.

I do not think that is too much for a child to ask.

I do think that is too much for a father to carry

on his own.

God’s plan is a wife; she, his treasured helper.

But the great submission of man

is to yield to and depend on

the Heavenly Father.

A father will never be perfect,

but he can look to the One who is.

Too often, a father will finally bend

when the sweat of death lies on his brow.

I saw my father’s release at that divine exchange:

too late for a child

but a gift tearfully received

by a long-suffering me.

We don’t want perfect fathers.

We only want them.


Ephesians 6:4

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,

but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

(Father’s Day is celebrated in the United States every year on the third Sunday of June.)

May Story of the Month: A Mother’s Day

The United States celebrates Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. That’s this weekend, and it’s a perfect theme for this month’s Story of the Month.

While researching the Great Depression (1929-1940) for one of my stories, I found this photo and it is an amazing one. The joy this woman shows, despite her poverty, is the perfect picture of motherly love.

Inspired by the photo, I imagined myself sitting with this woman to learn about her typical day.

Cotton picker with her baby, Maricopa County, Arizona, November 1940. Photo by Dorothea Lange

Look at her.

My child don’t know nothing about life. Oh, how that makes me glad.

All she knows about is me, Daddy, her brothers, my bosom, my arms, my whispers. She knows my smell, my smile. And when she wakes, when those eyes open and she jabs my soul with her brown eyes, oh, so deep, dark brown — she knows the love of God through my ragged self.

My day is cotton picking, metal pans, and hot dust. Then I come home to feed my folk. If Daddy don’t come home with some food, I’ll be cooking with weeds and what I can find hiding under a stone. Sometimes I feel sorry for the critters. They hungry, too. It don’t take me long before I get over that sorrowful feeling and aim that club. Daddy says I should just think of them as gifts from God and then do the deed.

Out there, that’s Clarence and Cecil. Good boys. I bring home the critters and make a teaching out of it. I teach my boys how to spell as we skin and cook. R-A-B-B-I-T. Rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes. Use what you got, I say. Even those hoppers can taste good when you know tomorrow might be empty. My boys did get good with the club, too, so I can care more for my baby girl. So thankful for the bags of flour we get. I can always make do with some of that. Salt, pepper, roll it around ’til the critter is covered, thick. Melt the grease and fry up what I got. If the only thing that tastes good is the smell, then at least that’s something.

No meat tonight, though. Fried dough. See that? Flour, lard, water. Roll it up. Stick it in the grease. Eat. And those rations, they don’t last long. Especially the salt pork. Men trade that for cigarettes and anything else that’ll ease their pain. Oh, they are sure bold about stealing. Daddy don’t fight about it. He asks me “Salt pork or be dead?”

He’s a wise man, a good man. Love him so. Clareen looks just like him. When she opens her eyes, you’ll see.

Daddy brings home our dollar twenty-five, tired as a dog. When he looks at her, I see his face rest. Not in a happy way, but a satisfied way.

He works for something better than a meal.

We built our house from scrap piles of junk. Now, this is our home for I don’t know how long. I know folk who don’t have a roof overhead, so I’m not complaining. Can’t keep out the dust, but what it settles on is clean.

Our washing and relieving are in the pail and the ditch. Now that he’s older, Clarence got charge of the clean-out. I help him get ready with the bleach and send him on his way. Can’t have none of those germs around my baby. I’ve watched too many of my folk losing their own because they don’t take time to be careful.

Wonder what she’s thinking. God knows I love her. I sing her this song every day:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so,

Little ones to him belong,

You’re so weak, but he is strong,

Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me,

The Bible tells me so.

Singing is how I take my babies on trips. Leave this dreary ol’ Buckeye place. I sing that we’re riding on a train, new shoes, drinking a peach Nehi. We get to California, the orange trees heavy with fruit. We just pick them, don’t have to pay, nobody chasing us away. Juice running down our faces. My babies love that song, never tire of it. And I sing about the ocean and how they can swim in it, if they want. We read the papers and plan for the day. Reminds me of what the Bible says — the promised land.

Oh, yes, my day is more difficult with her, yes, it is. All my business stops when she’s awake. My boys don’t like it, I know, but they had me, too, like she do now.

Joy, joy, joy. Look at her. Clareen. My first baby girl. Oh, when I’m out in that field, picking, bending, and I feel her breath against my neck — that just grows me. My legs get stronger, my hands get tougher, my aches don’t weigh me down. There’s a reason for all this, I believe.

I’m hoping I have the answer before she starts to asking what it is.

There you are, baby girl. Hush, now. Hush.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy;

at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16:11

Ode to Bandit (And Beloved Animals Everywhere)

One year ago today, I made the sad announcement that my beloved Bandit had died.

Journal Entry, 2/27/19 AM: “Bandit is not doing well. Please take him, Lord, to end his suffering.”

February 27, 2019. The day was cold, and it was raining hard. Bandit was 14 years old, had lost a lot of weight, and could barely walk. But that morning, while he was outside — he did love to play in the rain — Bandit found the strength to make his way through a fully-fenced backyard in search of a solitary place to die.

When I arrived home from work, the rain was still coming down, as it had been all day. Then, I heard the news. Bandit had not been seen since 10:00 that morning.

It is safe to say that I went into a bit of shock. When I left Bandit that morning, he had spent thirty minutes in my arms. Yes, I had prayed to God for his suffering to end, but I could not have imagined that his taking would be in such a heartbreaking way. When I heard that Bandit was lost, my mind saw him in terrible ways: lying under a bush, alive, cold and soaked, still suffering and near death; dead and covered with the things that crawl from the earth to consume corpses; and worst — dead, in the middle of some nearby street, picked to pieces by crows.

I cried loudly as I rushed through the front and back yards, peering under bushes and cars, calling his name, all to no avail. I tried to pull myself together as I called the City animal shelter and gave Bandit’s description.

My dear neighbors, Tom and Nancy, placed a “Lost Animal” report in NextDoor to get the word out in the area.

Nothing.

Journal Entry, 2/27/19 PM: Love that cat so much. I hope he isn’t suffering. God sent that cat to me during the horrible days of divorce, when I felt lonely and rejected. Bandit was so affectionate from Day One and to the end. I knew the end was near. Still, I wanted him to die in my arms — not alone.

That evening was the first time in decades I had trouble sleeping. Where was Bandit? I assumed he was dead. The worst part of it was not knowing what he had gone through and where he had died. It cut into my heart like a twisting knife.

Journal Entry, 2/28/19 PM: He’s in God’s hands — that’s where. Peace in that, but sad that he’s not here while he’s so old and frail. Strange how things change in a blink. God allowed this bit of tragedy. One of the saddest days of my life. I miss him. I wonder why God took him from me in this way. I want to bury his little body if it’s somewhere outside.

We love our pets like they are members of the family, don’t we?

Bandit had become a star on Facebook, with his feline perfection and ability to give me great joy. I received many comments of condolence. How is it that a human being can be so in love with a creature who can only speak to you with a lick to the face or a paw to the cheek — or a purr as he nestles, for the last time, in your lap, enjoying your hand-strokes across his fur, and looks up at you with complete adoration while you wonder what you did to deserve such unconditional love.

Journal Entry, 3/1/19 PM: SOMEONE FOUND BANDIT!! The Cat and Bird Clinic left a message for me in response to the lost ad. A woman found him Wed AM and took him to the clinic. Thank you, God! Bandit had not been outside very long. The clinic put him on an IV, but he died there on Thursday, 2/28/19. So grateful to God that He led a person to Bandit, and that he was with people dedicated to helping cats specifically. I will never be able to give back to God what He gave me by providing a safe, warm, loving place for my beloved Bandit to die if he couldn’t be with me.

Bandit had been in God’s hands, and I knew that he would be, but this? As I spoke with the clinic, I imagined the expert treatment and care that Bandit received there. What’s more, the woman who found him PAID for the care. I mumbled my thanks through bittersweet tears, and said I would mail a check to reimburse the kind woman.

Bandit was cremated there.

Journal Entry, 3/3/19 AM: Last night I dreamed that Bandit was here, but I was the only one who could see him.

Last week, one of our students came to school in tears. Her pet dog had died, and she was visibly sad the entire day. I was able to speak with her about Bandit and how I was still mourning him a full year after his death. She said, “I’m so sorry,” and I know she completely understood. We consoled each other over the loss of good friends.

During lunch that day, I pulled out my novel and came to the chapter where the family had agreed to keep a lost dog. I was astonished as I read this: “Mma Ramotswe was touched by the sight. There was something particularly appealing, she thought, about children lavishing care on an animal. They were repaying, in a way, the love and care given to them, showing that the message that we should look after one another had not fallen on stony ground. A child who loved a pet was showing the love that would in due course be given to another, and that was a reassurance. Love was like rain: there could be periods of drought when it seemed that love would never return, would never make its presence felt again. In such times, the heart could harden, but then, just as droughts broke, so too could love suddenly appear, and heal just as quickly and completely as rain can heal the parched land.” (From Precious and Grace, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, #17, by Alexander McCall Smith)

“They were, in a way, repaying the love and care given to them.” As a child of God, I felt as if I was receiving a lesson from Him through this author’s beautiful words. My love for Bandit was another way for me to “repay” the love and care God has given to me. Bandit was a gift, and loving him was thanking the Giver. With that, I shall always remember my beloved Bandit as one who gave me the opportunity to show love for my awesome God.

Journal Entry 3/5/19 AM: I miss Bandit’s presence. A sweet creature to pour love and care into — now I can give that to someone else. Whom shall it be?

Maybe it’s time to “repay” God again in this way. Kitten or adult cat? [Update: I adopted a cat in March 2020, right when COVID hit!]