The Butterfly Nebula — Two Fragments from Part 3.

December 28, 2017


She visits at least once a month, more often if it’s a holiday month. She needs me to see that things are alright with her, and I know that they are in spite of me and our past. After the divorce, her mother had resorted to a good deal of brainwashing, but not enough, it seemed, to create a lasting severance between father and daughter . . . . She will graduate in May from Penn, and begin applying to graduate school next year. She’s matured, she’s figured things out, and she still wants this connection, though I question the nature and depth of the connection she seeks. I’m 61 years old and unemployed, and I have little to offer that would help her with her career and life. Ramona wants to become a microbiologist. After all the years I had instructed her to look outward, through a telescope, Ramona’s passion now is to go in the other direction. A microscope.

“You’re stagnating here,” she tells me. “You should take a trip.”

“And where would I go?”

“That’s for you to figure out.”

“Hmm. Maybe after you graduate. . .”

“Perfect! I can house sit while you’re gone.”

She fills the tea kettle with water and places it on the stove, a ritual she follows on most of her visits. She is a beautiful, 21-year-old woman who doesn’t seem to have inherited her mother or father’s genes when it comes to looks.

“How’s Laura, by the way? Have you seen her?”

“Saw her a few weeks ago . . . she’s good  . . . designing web pages . . . has a girlfriend.”

“I’m glad that she picked up marketable skills before your business died.”

“Me too. Laura’s been through a lot.”

Ramona stares at me. A wry turn of her mouth.

“Haven’t we all.”

The conversation switches to Wyatt.

“He may go out there to live next year. He wants those night skies,” she says.

“Really? He paints from NASA Hubble images! Maybe he wants to be closer to his mother.”

“You’re in your 60s now,” she says to me, “and years ago you had some pretty incredible experiences. You don’t need to work. Treat yourself for a change. Travel. Visit a few observatories.”

“I gave that up, remember?”

“You’re being stubborn and silly. Start again. You’ve left the glass room exactly as it was when you stopped looking through telescopes, except for the ‘tropical rain forest.’ You could start again at any time, with or without moss and lianas, and parrots! Find yourself!”

The cliché sounds more like a threat.

“I look at stars nearly every night,” I remind her.

“Yeah, outside with the naked eye.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“’You are so Scandinavian. Gloomy. Look, it’s ‘Haleing’ The sky has taken on that weird hyper-ionized tint.”

I’m well aware that, because of our past, Ramona likes to indulge her sarcasm at my expense, and I am not offended or angered. There is mild reproach in her voice, though the reproach is more reasoned and gentle than the punishing shrillness of her mother. Late February and March is not a particularly good time for her or me when I think of it. Though five years ago at this time I’d hung on every detail of Comet Hale-Bopp and became totally preoccupied with the comet, Ramona had stopped observing the comet with me. By early 1997 she had lost all interest in astronomy in spite of my cajoling her to join me, because Hale-Bopp was approaching perihelion. By the summer of ‘97 she and her mother had moved out and I swore off telescopes, as if it had been some nasty habit of 35 years. Instead, I started to fill the glass room with plants. I brought in Vincas, Philodendron and Cylamen then added several palms, Philodendron, Cymbidiums, African Violets, Anthurium, Birds of Paradise, giant cut leaf Ferns, Rubber Plants, Bromeliads. Over time the room assumed a jungle-like character: rank foliage obscuring the mission-style table stacked with my star charts and maps, untouched for four-and-a-half years or more; giant ferns and cut leaf towering to the ceiling, vines and tendrils  coiling around and ensnaring the silver barrels of the smaller telescopes, a fascinating juxtaposition contrasting the cold inorganic elegance of astronomical science with the Edenesque organic fertility of earth. A year later I acquired a couple Macaw parrots to match the tropical decor. I named the parrots George and Gracie though I never intended on using the pair for breeding purposes. At night they mostly sleep outside their cage on the limb of a rubber plant or palm tree. I occasionally find hardened droppings on a telescope, but I no longer care.

Ramona has a passion for poetry and poets. Odd, for a would-be microbiologist, or maybe her passion is not that odd as a means of self-examination. She likes to quote the famous poem of Yeats where “. . . things fall apart/the center cannot hold . . .” She tells me those lines make her think of our family, including Laura, Wyatt-Edwin, and also Beatrice. She isn’t sure, in our case, that things actually did fall apart, and prefers to view it as a rearrangement, and one where the gravitational glue is stronger than ever. It’s possible. The laws of attraction are not always predetermined. Anarchy and order, motion, entropy, may all be willed illusion. The atomic and sub-atomic levels are in constant flux.



“I need a place to live.”

“I thought we’d already established that.”

“Kind of. I mentioned house sitting for you. Not exactly a plan. I need somewhere to live during the summer and maybe through next fall until I can get a place of my own.”

“Tired of your mother?” I ask.

“A little . . .” She finishes her tea and stands up to take our cups to the sink. “The problem is Bert.”

Bert is Gladys’s new husband, a middle manager (Director? VP?) at her marketing firm.

“He’s kind of weird,” Ramona explains. “Not like the way you’re weird, but controlling, uptight, rigid, inflexible, with draconian rules, like their house is a place for him to try out models of boorish efficiency.”

I laugh.

“He never had children,” Ramona adds. “Maybe that’s the reason.”

“And Mom?”

“She had children—a child.”


“Mom is mostly indifferent to my presence.”

“Lovely . . . does Bert pay attention to her? Does he treat her well?”

“I don’t know . . . she seems happy.”

“You can stay here as long as you like,” I tell her.

“Thank you!”

“And I may not be here much of the time.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“I plan on travelling . . . your suggestion, remember?”

“Please don’t think I have some ulterior motive to get you out of the house.”

“What’s his name?”

My comment breaks her up, penetrates to the core of her wit, though her laughter is a bit excessive, a result, perhaps, of nervous truth. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. I know she had lovers in college (don’t know how many), and I wonder who among them had heard the story. I doubt she would have bothered to divulge. But what will happen when it’s a long-term boyfriend, or even a husband? What, if anything, might he eventually hear in the hoarse night whispers of flesh and pillows? And how will she shape and set up her narrative? How does one risk bringing that bleak subterranean information to the surface without fear of violent censure? Without fear of immediate rejection and loss?

“I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” she says, ominously.


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