I wore my sunglasses for the first time this year today. And what with the emergence of little yellow daffodils everywhere, I pretended, for a moment at least, that Spring was upon us. That was until I left the house and felt the North wind blow. But the tiny bit of sunshine and flowers reminded me of a present that Renée received last year. And thinking back to it, I felt the urge to offer you just the smallest piece of advice, in case the sunshine gave you any odd ideas. So this is the advice. Never buy a child a butterfly rearing kit for their birthday. Seriously. It may seem like a good idea when it's all prettily packaged in the shop, but once you've opened it, it's like a time bomb waiting to go off (or fly away in this instance). Now don't get me wrong, Renée loved the present (and in a funny way, so did I). Perhaps that was part of the problem. Let me explain.
Renée turned 4 half way through August and one of her presents happened to be a 'Grow your own Butterfly kit'. 'How original' I thought. 'Fantastic. Let's open this up and see what we have to do'. The kit itself contained a fold-away butterfly cage, a magnifying glass, a pair of plastic tweezers, an instruction booklet on how to care for the butterflies and a colouring book to keep the child occupied whilst they were waiting for their delivery of butterfly larvae. On closer inspection there was no actual butterfly larvae (that's baby caterpillars to you and I). No, this had to be ordered on the Internet, at an extra cost. 'Never mind', I thought, 'It's the least I can do to make my child happy'. So I did exactly that. I ordered a batch of baby caterpillars on the Internet and six weeks later they arrived. Now bear in mind that that's six weeks of 'Mummy are my caterpillars here yet.' After a week I was slightly impatient, after two weeks, mildly annoyed, and after a month I was ready to phone up and cancel the order. Funnily enough, when they did finally arrive both Renée and I had forgotten they were coming.
Caterpillars are funny things. In their embryonic state they are tiny, wriggly creatures that are completely unobtrusive, yet strangely they need more looking after than a newborn baby. The instruction booklet stated that they would eat only 'organic' cabbage. 'Oh how ridiculous', I thought, 'how stupidly middle class and unnecessary. Even my own children aren't fed organic food'. So when they first arrived, I ignored the instructions and instead scoured the depths of my cupboards to find something just as suitable. Brussel sprouts were what I came up with. Surely they're from the cabbage family and they'll be just as nutritious...? Within two days, three out of the five baby caterpillars had carked it. 'Oops', I thought. 'Better not let Renée see'. Maybe I should have gone organic after all.
It was at this exact time that I mentioned my predicament to some friends. 'You don't happen to have any organic cabbage lying around do you?' I asked almost as a joke. 'No we don't' they replied, 'but our neighbours grow their own cabbages. Let's go over and see if they'll give you a couple of leaves.' The neighbours turned out to be overly generous and I was rewarded with not just a couple of leaves, but a whole cabbage instead. A whole cabbage complete with it's own treasure trove of insects, and you've guessed it, even more caterpillars. I couldn't believe my luck. Inadvertently I had managed to shield Renée from the inevitable pet/death scenario (for the time being at least).
So with a brand new hoard of five or six caterpillars, a future butterfly seemed like a dead cert. But did I mention they needed more looking after than a newborn baby? If it wasn't washing leaves, it was cleaning up poo and if it wasn't cleaning up poo it was counting the tiny creatures to make sure they were still there, and if they were still there, prodding them ever so slightly to see if they were still breathing, just in case they too decided to cark it. It was exhausting work. And it got even more exhausting when Renée volunteered to look after two giant African snails for the half term holidays. All of a sudden our kitchen was a veritable menagerie of insects and crustaceans. Renée was in seventh heaven. I, on the other hand, was not. As a parent who's familiar with Eric Carle's 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', I had assumed that the life-cycle of the butterfly (or at least of the caterpillar part was a little over a week). You remember the book - on the Monday the caterpillar eats one apple, on the Tuesday two pears and by Sunday, after eating half the countries' supply of fruit and food, he has a tummy ache. The very next day he emerges as a beautiful butterfly. I had never realised, reading the book, that Carle had employed artistic licence. How naive of me. Day after day our caterpillars ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate. I can't tell you how much they were costing me in organic cabbages.
Then one day, after more than a month of, well nothing much other than eating and occasional skin shedding, we woke to find that one caterpillar had disappeared and left behind a funny-looking brown creature. I could only assume it was the chrysallis. A week or so later, a butterfly emerged. But by this point in time, not only were we slightly jaded by the whole affair, but it was also November and far too cold to let the poor creature loose outside. So we kept it caged for a day or two and then when the rain had cleared enough, we took it into the garden. It was like watching your child walk for the first time. With baited breath we looked on, unable to assist. Just watching and hoping that it would take flight. After a few moments settling itself on a leaf, it took off and fluttered over the fence. And that was it. After six weeks of waiting for the larvae and another six weeks of daily maintenance, our one and only (have I forgotten to mention that somehow only one caterpillar managed to survive to butterfly stage), flew off and left us. Just like that. No 'thankyou for raising me. I'm glad it was you and no one else. I feel priviledged to have known you, if only for a short time.' No little glance over it's cabbage white wing. No sly wink and promises of return visits. Nothing. It left me cold. But maybe that was because it was November. I dread to think how the butterfly felt. Or even if it lived to see the end of the day. As for Renée, I think she was a bit disappointed that it didn't stick around a bit longer too. But for six whole weeks she had indeed witnessed the life-cycle of a cabbage white butterfly and I can safely say it is a present she will never forget. Just don't take the giving or receiving of this gift lightly!
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