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In the basement, we putter and flutter

By Ron Charles / June 5, 2002



If you don't see any butterflies in your garden, I apologize. My daughter and I made a number of butterfly houses for relatives this Christmas. They're probably drawing the winged gems from miles around.

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I had not known that butterflies needed us to build them houses until Madeline brought home a book called "Beastly Abodes," by Bobbe Needham (Sterling, 1996). It outlined several options: the Adirondack Fish Shanty, a Rustic Dismal Swamp Cabin, a Quaint French Country House, a Southwestern-style Miner's Mesa, and a Colorful Fruit Market.

"These look pretty complicated," I tell her soberly.

"What about the Quaint French Country House?"

"I don't see any reason butterflies should live in a house nicer than ours."

She considers this carefully. "We'll do our own," she announces. "Come on."

The house never seems so delightfully unfamiliar as it does in the basement. With those little windows at ground level, it's a dark passage in the hull of some comically unkempt steamer.

At the workbench, I realize Madeline isn't wearing any shoes. The basement may be hallowed ground, but it's also dangerous ground, and rules are rules.

"But Dad!" she complains, as though I'm insisting she wear a helmet in church.

"No, there are all kinds of things around here," I say ominously, peering into a dark corner, trying to suggest that only shoes could protect her from what might be lurking behind the artificial Christmas tree and deflated pool toys.

She reappears minutes later wearing leopard-skin slippers. We each consider this a partial victory. I cut the boards with a handsaw. Madeline drills holes and cuts out slits in the front for the butterflies to come and go. Watching her clutch the saw with unsteady but determined hands, I realize how few times she's been down in the basement.

When I was her age, I loved going down into that subterranean space, seeing the guts of the house exposed. Our basement was purgatory for household items, an otherworldly realm between the heavenly rooms upstairs and the final damnation of the dump. And there were always projects to build or turtles to look for. My father gave me a huge block of wood to nail things into so we could labor together.

Despite my efforts to raise a liberated young woman, and despite her own enthusiasm for hammers, saws, and screwdrivers, we haven't encouraged those interests as we should. I add this parental shortcoming to my collection and help her hold the hammer steady. She bites her tongue in heavy concentration, an imitation of one of my own idiosyncrasies that secretly thrills me. The metamorphosis of the teen years is still a way off.

We don't spare any nails. Many give their lives in vain. But eventually enough go straight to produce four "beastly abodes" sitting in a row. Our butterfly houses are big. And strong. And heavy. Judging from the number of nails and screws we've used to keep them together, they could serve as eagle houses, or even pterodactyl houses.

But it's the thought that counts (as our relatives kindly remember), and building something together at the workbench is always an occasion for good thoughts.

Admiring our handiwork, we suddenly spot a moth fluttering around the little window above the workbench. Madeline and I instantly think the same thing. We stand very still; so still, surely, that the moth will abandon its effort to escape and choose, instead, to try one of our lovely new houses.

After a few minutes, when it's clear this moth has no intention of accepting our hospitality, Madeline tries to make me feel better: "These are butterfly houses," she points out.

I attach a sanding disk to my electric drill and give it an impressive spin. "In the olden days," I note, "they had to sand everything by hand."

"Wow," she says, "I feel sorry for Jesus."

Of all the challenges Jesus endured, I had never considered his lack of power tools a significant hardship. A trip to the basement inspires all kinds of fresh perspectives.

Madeline puts on a smock, one of my old button-down dress shirts. "That's perfect with leopard slippers."

"Oh, this old thang?" she says in her best Southern drawl.

The painting is her specialty. It's my turn to watch. Mostly, she paints butterflies, perhaps anticipating that they're the only butterflies these houses will ever host.

"Grandpa will love this," she says confidently.

"I think so, too."

"When I get married," she says, "we'll build a big house for all of us to live in together."

This seems unlikely for several reasons, but I'm delighted to let the thought flutter around for a moment. "We could do the rustic Dismal Swamp Cabin," I say, "with three big slits in the front instead of doors."

She flaps the super-long sleeves of her smock and darts around the furnace – a leopard-footed swallowtail.

My wife calls to us from upstairs. Madeline and I stare at each other. We can hear her shoes on the floor right above our heads, and for a moment we're hiding. Dinner must be ready. The footsteps are moving toward the basement door, but we're not quite ready to leave this little cocoon.

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