1 It's mid-September, and in the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservancy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the woman at the register is ringing up the items of a small girl and her mother. There are pencils and postcards and a paperweight-- all with butterflies--and, chilly but alive, three monarch caterpillars--in small white boxes with cellophane tops, and holes punched in their sides. The girl keeps rearranging them like a shell game while the cashier chats with her mother: "They have to feed on milkweed--you can buy it in the nursery outside." "We've got a field behind our house," the mother answers. The cashier smiles to show she didn't need the sale: "And in no time, they'll be on their way to Brazil or Argentina-- or wherever they go--" ("to Mexico," says the girl, though she's ignored) "and you can watch them do their thing till they're ready to fly." 2 I remember the monarchs my son and I brought in one summer on bright pink flowers we'd picked along the swamp on Yetter's farm. We were "city folks," eager for nature and ignorant--we left our TV home--and left the flowers in a jar on the dry sink in the trailer. We never noticed the caterpillars till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things on the marble top--which turned out to be their droppings. And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves, each studded with four gold beads--so gold they looked to be mineral--not animal--a miracle that kept us amazed as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through, pumped fluid in their wings, dried off--and flew. I gauge from that memory that it will be next month before the girls are "ready." I wonder how they'll "fly" when there's been frost. "And they'll come back next summer," the cashier says, "to the very same field--they always do." I'm sure that isn't true. But why punch holes in our little hopes when we have so few? 3 Next month, my mother will have a hole put in her skull to drain the fluid that's been weighing on her brain. All summer, she's lain in one hospital or another-- yet the old complainer's never complained. In Mather, the woman beside her spent a week in a coma, wrapped like a white cocoon with an open mouth (a nurse came now and then to dab the drool). My mother claimed the woman's husband was there too-- "doing what they do"--though it didn't annoy her. Now she's in Stony Brook--on the eighteenth floor. I realize I don't know her anymore. When she beat against the window to break through, they had to strap her down --and yet how happy and how likeable she's become. When I visit, I spend my nights in her empty house-- in the bed she and my father used to share. Perhaps they're there. Perhaps we do come back year after year to do what we've always done--if we can't make our way to kingdom come, or lose ourselves altogether.
We thought that they were gone— we rarely saw them on our screens— those everyday Americans with workaday routines, and the heroes standing ready— not glamorous enough— on days without a tragedy, we clicked—and turned them off. We only saw the cynics— the dropouts, show-offs, snobs— the right- and left- wing critics: we saw that they were us. But with the wounds of Tuesday when the smoke began to clear, we rubbed away our stony gaze— and watched them reappear: the waitress in the tower, the broker reading mail, a pair of window washers, filling up a final pail, the husband's last "I love you" from the last seat of a plane, the tourist taking in a view no one would see again, the fireman, his eyes ablaze as he climbed the swaying stairs— he knew someone might still be saved. We wondered who it was. We glimpsed them through the rubble: the ones who lost their lives, the heroes' double burials, the ones now "left behind," the ones who rolled a sleeve up, the ones in scrubs and masks, the ones who lifted buckets filled with stone and grief and ash: some spoke a different language— still no one missed a phrase; the soot had softened every face of every shade and age— "the greatest generation" ?— we wondered where they'd gone— they hadn't left directions how to find our nation-home: for thirty years we saw few signs, but now in swirls of dust, they were alive—they had survived— we saw that they were us.