Photograph by Ian Lindsay
— For K.C.G.
“This is the moth spectacular.
Gather round!” Little Kay
gathers moths from tiger lilies,
drainpipes, mossy stones,
the shingle under which I left my heart.
Lake pebbles and pools,
watery stepping stones along the path,
moths multicolored and amber,
red-striped, marmalade, and tiger-black
like the stones that line the shallows and the shore.
Slender stems of buttercups blow and bob in the wind
like their crossing antenna and gentle wings
that flutter like petals.
The gossamer, ghost-thin specter,
the white bow who sweetly lights
on lamps and bed-posts
before sweetly bowing out the window —
all stream to Kay’s waiting fingers. She knows
how to hold a butterfly, cup it close,
lighting on her thumb;
how to send a firefly soaring
around my bedroom for a nightlight
in this late, lonely summer —
she can identify the wing of a butterfly,
yellow and black on the pebbled walk
of a rest stop on the way to Dad’s grave —
Tiger Swallowtail cupped on her palm,
twin of the wing at home in her secret chest.
“This is the moth spectacular!”
Fluttering, flaming from
my niece’s magic hands:
little girl of four, just lost her grandpa,
putting on a show for everyone
to cheer us up. Bright wings,
white and yellow, dove-soft gray,
fluttering gently in cupped hands,
a tickling surprise! How can all those moths
fit, there in the dark?
Does she have a magic bag?
She carefully cups her hands —
“Look, Aunt Adele” —
Then opens her own pocket universe
as she carefully parts puckered thumbs
to push another one inside.
“It’s a secret,” she says, laughing,
tinkling sweet as the Little Prince,
while all our hearts sing the bottom notes.
Low, so low.
She pulls us up, sparkling like the lake we love,
“Gather round, gather round!”
This is the morning we leave behind
this haven, this peace, our own childhoods,
spent with our Daddy who chortled and tickled,
joked and sang, taught us to swim
and take joy in life’s beauty.
He’s here, every moment, just beyond our reach,
this heartache deep
as the lake’s aching cold this September,
first touch of frost in an upstate New York summer.
Where is Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,
laughing, splashing, smiling, singing
“Stop Hiding Behind the Pillow”
and “Put on a Happy Face”?
So near, so far, like the college on the other side
of the lake where he used to work
and we to live, up on the hill —
we could swim all the way, as we did when Dad was alive,
one of us in the boat, two of us swimming, laughing
so hard we nearly sank, and the lake coast guard
floated over to check on us. We reached that shore, but
had nowhere to go. Not home anymore, our old house
just a reflection, not a past we could climb into.
But on clear days, hardly a ripple, the sun just coming up
bright as eggs sunnyside,
it looks so close, a breath away.
I can see my bedroom window
from when I was Kay’s age.
“This is the moth spectacular. Gather round!”
She opens her hands — explosion!
Wings by the thousands —
streaming outward, swirling loops and
spirals and snowflake drops,
soft powder and delight.
Wings striped, blonde, calico —
bright blue, electric green, plaid, polka dot!
A thousand butterflies sprouting like fireworks,
When she opens her fingers to the blue, blue sky —
“Blue skies are going to cheer up” — Daddy’s song,
so right for the little girl with my curls
and my little brothers’ blond hair —
their sweet, impish smiles —
She’s only a year older
than I was when I lost my first grandpa.
Back home, she carries around his hat,
takes it to parades,
sleeps with it on her pillow.
Dad’s alive in this eternal present.
“This is the moth spectacular!”
Little Kay has eyes full of flyers.
They tickle, feelers, feet, their tiny wings
beating like hearts against her hands.
She stuffs them into her closed fist
like colorful handkerchiefs at a magic show.
She catches them like a magician snatching coins
from the most unlikely places:
colors I gasp to see on butterflies,
vivid violet, rusty blood, a shocking blue
as bright as Kay’s sparkling eyes
that alight shrewdly, lightly, quickly
to spot the swallowtail nestled among the daffodils,
the luna moth hiding in the heart of a moonflower,
the generous monarch I was keeping safe in my pocket,
whispering comfort and cheer, those things
I wasn’t quite sure I believed in any longer.
“This is the moth spectacular!”
A giant moth, antennae all atwitch,
wings bigger than the little fist it lands on,
feet groping as though to free its kind,
folds up as easily as a pocket handkerchief,
and daintily slips within
the opening of her thumb like a hand-puppet’s mouth
voraciously swallowing anything with wings —
a hummingbird perhaps, this sparkling green
iridescent as the shimmering lake below this hill.
Princess Kay, her blond ringlets, her wicked, merry laugh
as she scoops up sweets of the air.
Has she spoken to goblins, whispering to her in the twilight
from the edges of the garden where she sought fireflies,
their cabbage ears disguised among the rhubarb leaves,
to make her hunt fairies by day?
“This is the moth spectacular.” We don’t ask Kay
her secrets, to spoil the surprise,
though we follow her with worried eyes,
knowing the trick that we ourselves fell into
when, not much older than she, we played
Allergic to Grownups on the hill,
dodging in and out of cottage windows,
laughing as we ran from Dad’s jovial call
until, bewildered, he began to shout
that we’d get lost. It wasn’t till hours later
among the cold, damp boats, the eels
and eerie voices in the waves,
we realized we already were.
“This is the moth spectacular. Come quick!”
Kay lures our wandering spirits home,
clutches us close, then with a whoop
and a rush of upflung hands,
sends all flying free:
moths and butterflies stream up,
quick as escaping balloons,
that same spiraling, erratic flight,
and we go up with them,
light in hearts and heads,
a happiness we can’t explain,
soaring again with curiosity and color.
Dad’s gone. His spirit here’s so strong.
This last day, we’re about to scatter
to the four winds.
It’s funny — some years I didn’t want to come,
family fights too much to bear — causing missed fun with Dad —
but now that family brings him back to life for me.
These firm foundations Dad gave us here,
a strong family that doesn’t crumble
despite bankruptcy, divorce, alcoholism, feuds —
and death after family death.
Young Kay and her little brother speak of Dad,
alive in the sky — draw pictures where he flies,
as real as these moths. For hours on the dock
I watched clouds in the water, missing him so much,
my heart full of stars, feeling at any moment
he might row up to find me,
my brothers’ kids my only solace.
Kay lit up the night with fireflies,
the morning with moths.
But to leave this place now, where Dad lives still —
this last morning, it’s too much to bear,
like that last night when we left him in the hospital.
We didn’t know it was the last.
But for now, we’re together —
drawn here by butterfly Kay,
who gave me my very own worms for my birthday.
When we get home,
I’ll grow her a butterfly garden
where she’ll tell me the names of all the caterpillars,
while I share with her those of the stars.
Together we’ll carefully gather
the fairy dust by dusk,
following the sparkle of tender wings,
preserving our very own garden-variety
Gardner family magic.