Baby Talk: Metamorphosis

Crouched low against the stone wall, Ya'ir was closely inspecting one of the many wild caper plants.

new amanda logo 88 (photo credit: )
new amanda logo 88
(photo credit: )
Crouched low against the stone wall, Ya'ir was closely inspecting one of the many wild caper plants growing in our Jerusalem neighborhood. We were walking en masse to our far-away car, not having been lucky enough to secure parking close to the apartment. "Look, Abba! Caterpillars," he cried out in excitement. My husband, equally - if not more - excited, rushed to get a look. A real butterfly-nerd, he's been scouring these plants for the 10 years he's lived in the small neighborhood and found nary an egg nor a caterpillar. "Wow! Good job, Ya'ir!" he praised our beaming three-and-a-half-year-old son who was busy calling them his cuties and kissing the petite green creatures. I asked, half-joking, if he planned to take them home as pets. But my somber husband said they could be infested with eggs from the parasitic wasp Apanteles glomeratus, which hatch inside the caterpillars' bodies and devour them from the inside out. No, he said; he and his slightly less nerdy twin brother learned long ago to raise butterflies only from eggs. (Their first word, so legend goes, was "parpar," butterfly in Hebrew.) In the ensuing weeks I noticed that my husband was paying ever closer attention to the wild capers. And then, one Shabbat afternoon as we were taking the kids to the playground - eureka! On the tiniest, most miserable looking bush, suspended in mid-air, growing out of a crack in a retaining wall, was a batch of minuscule yellow butterfly eggs from the common large or cabbage white (Pieris brassicae). Being the respectful sort, he and Ya'ir waited until after sunset and took a moonlit walk to fetch the eggs. Over the next couple of days, that sprig of caper became the most-watched Dan pregnancy since our twins entered their ninth month in utero. Unlike the twins, however, our little caterpillar friends were eager to enter the world. One very hot day after day care, Ya'ir, racing through the door to check on his precious eggs, announced they had hatched. No bigger than specks of sand, we could barely detect movement. Shortly, however, we felt like we were living the beloved children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Before they had consumed their birthplace and left it a mere twig, my husband began to make early morning forages for fresh caper leaves. Soon he moved them from the glass jar to a shoe box, where he brought them daily offerings of what looked like half a caper bush. Every day he would clean the bottom of the box and check that they had a back-up cabbage leaf to munch on if they finished the caper leaves. My husband then moved them to a large matza box left over from Pessah. And they still kept growing and eating. I asked him one morning to count them up and he made the startling discovery that we were raising over 60 caterpillars! YA'IR WAS in seventh heaven and constantly asked to hold and caress them, giggling with glee as they tickled him. It was his main conversation theme and he greeted relative strangers with, "I have cabbage white caterpillars." But the ever-growing brood was starting to stress me out. I mean, I can just barely manage to make sure the three kids have something moderately nutritious to eat; forget trying to keep houseplants alive (there was one that recently got too big, needed daily watering and had to be given away). And here we were, responsible for another 60 life forms. (Granted my husband did all the work while Ya'ir "helped.") One early morning, I woke before the twins for a change and waddled sleepily out to the kitchen to put the kettle on. We'd left the large matza box uncovered on the kitchen table the previous night and I glanced over to see if the caterpillars were left with stripped twigs yet again. To my surprise, they were making a mass exodus! Swarms, seemingly thousands, were jumping ship at the same time and looking for a place to cocoon. I thought about shouting for my husband, but he'd worked late into the night on his endless doctorate, and instead I gingerly picked up each one and put it back in the box - which I quickly covered with plastic wrap. We kept them covered and within a day or two all of them had cocooned, mostly in three corner clumps, lined up in neat rows. Now Ya'ir's patience was sorely tried. He went from being able to play with his little squirmy friends to being told not to touch; they went from being active and interesting to stationary and dormant. He (and I) wondered, when would they finally hatch? The whole Dan clan was going up North to celebrate my mother-in-law's 70th, so in addition to the clothes, diapers, excessive snacks and beach equipment, we duly packed up the matza box. It rode on the floor of the car under the kids' short legs and Ya'ir periodically checked to make sure nothing could harm them. The next morning, fittingly on my husband's birthday (he celebrates separately from his twin, but more on that another time), I woke up before the twins and went to the box to check on my foster kids. The box was half empty! This time I did wake my husband, and he and Ya'ir spent the morning oohing and aahing as each butterfly struggled out of his cocoon, wobbled to a safe place to dry and eventually spread his untried wings and flew. Enraptured by this fantastic ending to the journey they had begun with the minuscule eggs all those weeks ago, father and son were lost together in the miracle of birth. The writer is the mother of twin toddlers and a three-and-a-half-year-old. [email protected]