Back in the day, August was bug time. Insects were everywhere, sharing our lives whether we asked them to or didn’t.
Houseflies got in through the screen door no matter what, landing to rub their little faces and tap the kitchen table with their tongues if they got half a chance. That meant running to get the fly swatter from inside the closet door, because if they landed on our hands we’d get the typhoid fever. We had no idea what typhoid was, but we knew to run for that swatter when they got in the kitchen.
Dive-bomb beetles came in at night to bounce off the walls during the best part of TV movies and right into our lemonade.
Cicadas rattled the air every day. We called them locusts, hefty noisemakers in green military camouflage and armor and clear wings, thrumming around in treetops and then leaving empty molted shells of papery brown skin and glassy eyes clinging to the bark.
Ant wars looked like a pound of coffee grounds in motion dumped on the sidewalk. Every so often they even sprouted wings and came right into the house to swarm on the curtains.
Inchworms spun around on invisible threads to drop down and hunch and wave along. They got into Mom’s petunias, so we had to coax them out and put them back on the trees.
Rose beetles hid in the roses, ready to burble out and ambush our noses when we stopped for a perfume sniff.
Tomato hornworms could strip a whole tomato stem in no time. A common chore for children was to check all the plants and pick the caterpillars off, and to wave away the white cabbage butterflies before they could lay eggs. We also had termite duty, checking all the concrete foundations of the house with the garden hose, to wash away anything that looked like a sand tunnel leading up into the wall shingles.
Click bugs ticked at night before thunderstorms.
Some moths were beige and got into the pantry for the flour, and then we had to shoo them away outside. White moths circled and circled the porch lights at night. But the prettiest kind was Sweetheart moths. They sat there on a tree like just part of the bark. But if you got close they opened their pretty pink underwings and flew away.
Praying mantises the size of your hand rocked back and forth on branches and twisted their tiny heads around to stare at us. We kids knew that if we killed one there was a fifty dollar fine, and the police would knock on the door and tell your parents and take the money out of your allowance for like a whole year.
Candy-striped leafhoppers had beautiful red and turquoise stripes, and lived on the wooden street light pole.
Dining needles, or darning needles, or dragonflies, were pretty too. Their wings were so fast and clear that you couldn’t see them. Instead you could see that they were very thin shiny bright blue or green sticks. Tt the edges of ponds and streams they skipped around forward and sideways, flashing in the sun.
Yellowjackets would be all over a soda can or hamburger in no time if we left them on the picnic table.
Nobody liked spiders, but we had to let them stay around to get at the flies.
Everybody liked ladybugs. If you hold still and let them walk to the tip of your finger, they pick up their red shell wings and unfold their black lacy wings underneath and sail away. We counted the spots on their back to see how old they were, because they grow a new spot every year.
Crickets were good luck, so we didn’t mess with them. It was nice when one crept in under the warm oil burner and kept chirping right into frosty weather. We knew about Dolbear’s Law, how we could count the chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 and get the temperature outside. But it took a lot of arguing to get the kids to agree on what was 14 seconds and which cricket we were listening to, so all the crickets generally got quiet until we let them be.
Lightning bugs trailed their lights around after dark, nestling with their stickly feet and pink and black stripes, turning our cupped hands into magic lanterns.
Bees were everywhere, hard at work with multiple armfuls of fluffy yellow pollen. So were butterflies: Tiger Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Skipper, Painted Lady, Monarch, Cloudless Sulphur, Buckeye, Red Admiral.
But in life with bugs, I had this dream of finding the most beautiful insect of all — a Hyalophora cecropia, a Cecropia moth. I read up enough to know that the Norway Maples lining the street would be just the right habitat for them, and knew just what color pattern to watch for at what time of year. I kept going to Martin’s Candy Store and soda fountain, and asking for any empty cigar boxes. Finally one day Mr. Martin happened to have one in the trash, and he fished it out for me — a real Dutch Masters, with men in black hats standing around in the picture. Then I asked Mom for some cotton from the medicine cabinet, and pins from the sew box, and moth balls from the linen closet. I drew a nice label on an index card, with a space for the place and date of capture. With display case and butterfly net ready, with daily patrols around the neighborhood, I was all set for that moth to show up.
There was competition though; pesticides and light pollution and habitat loss. And there are plenty of natural enemies out there, from parasitic wasps to squirrels and birds, who find an appealing target in a red white and brown moth with a seven inch wingspan. One summer slipped by, then the next. Only one moth turned up on a morning after a big storm, a traveler with shredded wings who latched on to our kitchen light to breathe his last until he spiralled to the ground.
Summers and years went on, and later I was a teenager at college, walking around in a lot of locked-in sadness and not knowing why. But one day Mom and Dad invited a favorite guest for supper, a cheerful friendly elder priest from Ireland. He’d spent his summers helping out at our parish, and his kindly counsel in the confessional was a real comfort over the years. It was comfort too to have that little distraction for the day, helping Mom with the meal.
By noon, everything was planned out. The patio furniture was scrubbed and hosed off, the garden was watered, the table settings were ready to carry outside, the flowers were earmarked to cut for the centerpiece, the citrus-scented citronella candles were set out (our insect friends included mosquitoes). The vegetables were picked and trimmed, the meal all prepped for final cooking and assembly. I stopped to rest in the kitchen garden doorway, looking around to see it all through the eyes of a guest. What more could I set out, for an appealing atmosphere?
Maybe this Cecropia.
It landed on the house, right at my shoulder. It was a perfect specimen seven inches wide, in warm vivid oxblood-brown with red and white highlights, a furry red body, and feathered red antennae. I slid sideways inch by inch, lifted a fluted glass vase from the picnic table, eased it down over the moth, and slipped a napkin under to seal him in. This was our living centerpiece now, a gem that few Americans and fewer Irishmen would ever see. In only six hours Father would be here to marvel at it with me, with his signature delight in all the workings and wonders of the Creator.
The moth under glass fanned its wings in slow trusting gentle strokes, waving its antennae. Its fresh coloring, clear markings, and perfect wing condition suggested that he’d just emerged from his cocoon, perhaps that very morning. For a person carrying around an individual portion of inner darkness, it was very moving to sit transported by such amazing beauty, to know how fleeting and rare this experience was. I knew that Cecropias live for only a few days, and that this moth had one mission in life: to fly and fly and find a moth like him, and spend the day with its own mate so that one or other of them could lay some eggs before they both died.
Then it dawned on me. For a creature with three days to live, half a day lost was a disaster. Cecropias did not grow on every tree. In these hours of fluted glass captivity, what if this moth’s mate was passing by and the two of them missed each other and just kept searching and searching for the rest of their small lives?
That night, Father (may he rest in peace) got a fluted glass vase near his plate, and a story with his dinner of the moth that got away.
That Cecropia was long gone by then. He floated over the roof on his way to the sky.