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A CASE OF THE BUTTERFLIES: STRENGTH, WORRY AND THE WISDOM OF LETTING GO

My Nana was a strong, feisty, loving woman of German descent whose faith in God sustained her, as did her obsession with regular bowel movements. She lived to the ripe old age of 94.

You can’t push through life’s hell with a tight sphincter muscle—that much I know—from my Nana and personal experience. As for religion, I’m not so sure she would have approved of my ad hoc, DIY spirituality, but we would see eye to eye about the need for faith.

Nana stayed in touch with societal changes by watching daytime soap operas. “I need to know what my grandchildren are dealing with,” she said.  On her 90th birthday celebration she gave a speech: “I’m so grateful I made it to the gay nineties.” Then, with a dismissive flip of her tiny hand she said, “Oh not that kind of gay.”  There was no malice or judgment. The woman had perfect timing.

Nana was the ninth of as many children.  I was always told her given name, Ninita, had to do with her place in line. Only just recently I found out her name is Spanish for “little girl.”

Oddly, I happened to overhear this as my mother, Ninita Junior, was telling it to a nurse days after being rushed to the hospital, intubated and placed in an induced coma following an allergic reaction to one of her eight meds. For a split second, Mom surrounded by cables and tubes reminded me of Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Then I saw her as the “little girl” for the first time, all 5’2” of her lying helpless in that bed. As she fought her way back to life, she morphed again, into that same strong exemplar of womanhood my Nana had been.

My mother is a warrior, but she’s a worrier, too. Mom says she has no choice on account of her five children, ten grandchildren, and a beloved husband stricken with Alzheimer’s. I want to believe she has a choice, but I suspect her worrying didn’t begin with us. It began with a failed mission from the pharmacy on a snowy Sunday after church when her father, Edgar, died of a heart attack.

The nitroglycerin tablets in her adolescent fist didn’t make it to him in time.

Maybe all that concentrated worry as she ran home to save him never dispersed; she still carries it inside her. My mother’s worry manifested physically as hypertension (thus, the meds) and mentally as obsessive thought: a sad but catchy tune she can’t stop humming in spite of her preference for a Henry Mancini CD she plays to lull her to sleep at night.

Emotional trauma sticks to the body like plaque, clinging there no matter how hard we try to vanquish it with exercise, yoga, meditation, cleansing, retreats, rants, tears. It can take years of mindful attention to wash away.

Her sister, Marge, was always after her about worrying so much. According to my cousins, Aunt Marge worried plenty; they think she only kept it in check to be a better role model for my mother. In fact, the night before Marge died, she and Mom spent an hour on the phone and the no-worry message was relayed again. It wouldn’t be the last time.

During Aunt Margie’s memorial service in August we were reminded of the importance of faith, what one would logically assume is the antidote for anxiety.

Faith is that thing you can’t teach or learn and get down pat. Our faith is tested over and over—sometimes we pass, sometimes we fail. Faith is not a gift, a virtue or a skill we perfect. It’s a practice.

Aunt Marge collected butterfly mementos: artwork, bric-a-brac, jewelry. Among the memorabilia and photographs my cousins assembled on the long, draped table in the chapel was an eclectic display of butterfly pins. We were invited to take one at the end of the service.

My mother, whose memory has become increasingly unreliable, remembered to bring her own butterfly pins and bequeathed one to me. I came away with an endowment of three, including a chance encounter with a live blue Monarch that brushed my bangs with one of its wings as I walked to my car after the reception.

The minister, a tall, calming presence with a thick head of hair that couldn’t possibly have been his natural color or his own hair for that matter (thought bubble as I sat solemnly with hymnal in hand: why would a man of God, a man who deals with end of life issues, worry about baldness and graying?) talked about the metamorphosis of the butterfly my aunt chose as her life’s mascot.

How hard it is for a child, gazing upon a caterpillar—one of Earth’s homeliest creatures—to imagine it someday emerging from its drab sac, evolved into a quilt with wings, flitting from flower to flower, migrating in rivers flowing aloft the great expanse. How hard is it for full-grown adults to accept with inscrutable faith that our own fragile wings, flapping into life’s headwinds, can make the slightest bit of difference to the rest of the world?

We perfectionists worry more than the average Joe. We think we have to flap our wings twice as rapidly and just so to have an impact. Our perfectionism weighs us down, making it harder to catch a tailwind from that fluttering ribbon of silk that will sail us to our rightful destinations.

We think if we free ourselves from worry we are irresponsible; that if we are without a care we are careless. Maybe we mistake all our fretting for being thorough. But does that immaculate thoroughness leave room for mystery?  For the joy of discovery? For the element of surprise?

As I sang and wept through “How Great Thou Art,” my grandmother’s all-time favorite hymn (justifiably—it is one of the few that has a melody to match its epic lyrics and doesn’t require us to become human piccolos) my heart felt like a giant chrysalis; my spirit united with the beloved who have gone before me.

In my imagination I saw the matriarchs of my family with their bathing caps on, arms stretched out like wings, heads back, eyes skyward, floating in the salty blue swells off the Jersey shore they loved so much, without a care in the world, yet—at the very same time—taking perfectly good care of us.

Holly Smith-Berry
Holly Smith-Berry
Like you, I’m a shape shifter, living as many roles as an umbrella has spokes: marketing exec, entrepreneur, parent, daughter, friend, sister, yogi, writer. Most of my career I’ve worked in the Housewares Industry developing new products. Sometimes I’ve taken them all the way from the gleam in an inventor’s eye to America’s kitchens.
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  • Diva Kreszl
    Reply

    All I can say is “How did you know?”

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