It was a cold Kansas morning, but Mom's voice was warm and comforting as she pulled back the covers on my bed and tucked herself in beside me.
"Good morning, Jenny girl. It's butterfly day," she whispered in my ear.
I rolled over to face Mom and pressed my nose against hers. She was already dressed for the day. She wore jeans and a sweater with a tribal print. The reds and browns in her sweater made her dark chestnut hair glow. Her bangs framed her face and highlighted her brown eyes, the same eyes I had.
I stared at her and smiled. I had been looking forward to turning eight and doing my second grade report on butterflies ever since my big brother Andy had done his three years earlier. I loved sitting next to Andy and running my fingers over the glossy encyclopedia pictures of butterflies while he recited facts about migration. Andy told me how lucky we were because every single year the most beautiful butterflies, the Monarchs, stop to rest in Kansas as they migrate to warmer places for the winter.
Mom and I walked to the park across the street from the house where we lived. The park was sprawling and, like most of Kansas, flat. My favorite part of the park was the trail that twisted back into a wooded area that felt like my own private forest. We often walked our dog along that trail, and every time we entered the wooded area I imagined I was transformed into a wolf or a soldier or even Dorothy Gale herself, moments from stumbling upon the Cowardly Lion.
Fall was my favorite time of year in Kansas. The ground was covered in orange and red leaves. The amber sun illuminated the never-ending, flat landscape. The wind picked up the leaves and swirled them around, creating a mini tornado. If I was careful, I could step in the middle of the funnel. I would spin around and around, arms tucked in tight to my body, as to not disturb the leaves, eyes looking up as if the power of the wind could lift me to the clouds.
Mom held my hand and a butterfly net in the other. For my butterfly project we had the choice of writing a paper or doing a presentation. Like always, I chose presentation. I had started feeling the shadow of Andy’s intelligence on my average grades. I knew I couldn't compete with the butterfly paper he had written three years earlier, but I could do something more creative, so I was going to bring real live butterflies to class. As always Mom encouraged my creativity and agreed to help.
We walked to the back of the park where we had seen butterflies the day before. Mom stuck her tongue out in concentration as she tried to catch one of the butterflies flying in the morning air above us. I tried to be helpful by running after low flying butterflies and screaming for Mom to catch one.
Frustrated, Mom suggested we go into the forested area where there was less light and more trees. My imagination transformed our jeans and sweatshirts into khaki safari gear. We were no longer just Joanie and Jennifer, we were the greatest mother-daughter butterfly catching team in the world! We found a big, old tree with lots of nooks and crannies left behind by bigger animals and birds. Inside one of the nooks was a cluster of butterflies and a cocoon. Mom shot me a look telling me to hush as I shouted, "Mom! Do you see the butterfly?" She nodded and put her net right next to the butterfly's temporary home. She swooped the net down and then up again, capturing the butterfly.
We never talked about it, but it's safe to say Mom felt the same way I did as she shut the lid on the butterfly cage. It was a mixture of joy, because we got to see a butterfly up close and sorrow for capturing something so beautiful and free. I'm sure her heart ached just like mine did as the butterfly crashed into the plastic walls over and over again.
We walked home from the park holding hands. I held the butterfly cage up in front of my face and watched the creature try to escape until finally settling down into a corner where I had placed twigs, leaves and bits of grass. I had asked Mom the night before if I could keep the butterfly as a pet, but now I wanted to let it go. I made a silent promise to release it as soon as my presentation was over. We half-walked half-skipped the rest of the way home, Mom checking her watch to make sure we wouldn't be late, me never taking my eyes off the butterfly because I trusted so completely in Mom’s arm around me, guiding me home.