Ladybugs by George Merrill

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Artistic types, like those who paint, write, sculpt, garden or research, spend a lot of time alone. They’re often accused of being temperamental, even flaky. I prefer to think of such idiosyncrasies as signs of their complex personalities.

Many have a loners’ streak. They find energy in being by themselves. I, for one, have to be intentional about being social. It’s not that I am a misanthrope; just a dreamer. Dreamers, in their several pursuits, work with very little outside material, as it were. They try to draw most from their own experiences – from their heads and hearts which, occasionally, can be inspiring. Of course, there are times when what they draw out from themselves bombs. When artistic types begin drawing blanks, then they know that’s the time to get out there and mix it up with others.

I do have friends, dear and devoted ones. It occurs to me they may be friends precisely because we don’t see each other that often. There’s always the danger that frequent contact might change the equation in the way old married couples are often heard to say, “For better or for worse, please God, not for lunch.”

I bring this up because of the two lady bugs that became a part of my normally solitary life in the last couple of weeks. They just showed up.

I began looking forward to seeing them each morning as I entered my studio. I now had two friends whom I did not mind being with all day. They, too, were perfectly content to have me around. I never intruded upon their routines. They never bothered me. It was the kind of presence that can satisfying, a kind of special presence that requires so little other than gratefully acknowledging the fact of who or what the presence might be.

I believe etymologists would identify my new roommates as Coccinella. Their elytra is colored deep red or orange with distinct black spots.

I could not identify gender, whether the two were mates or partners, were kin of some kind, or just good friends.

When first entering my studio, I’d look to see exactly where they were. For a while I might not see them, but as the morning wore on, I’d catch the sight of one or even both walking along a slat of the venetians blinds that hang at my windows. When I saw the ladybugs, I would leave my chair and go for a closer look. I welcomed them, and then returned to my chair, satisfied in knowing my companions were safe and well.

They had mixed feelings about being touched. On some days, I could coax one from the slat onto my finger. He or she seemed content to explore for a minute or so. Suddenly, though, it would hop; fly, really, making a soft sputtering sound, while going a short distance. It was time to leave the ladybug alone.

I’ve read how sailors, making solo ocean voyages, welcome petrels or other seabirds landing on their sailboat. The birds behave like hitch hikers, riding for a short time and then getting off. Sailors describe a kind of mystical bond that develops between them and the birds. The skippers talk to them and the birds listen. Then, one morning the skipper exits his cabin, goes to the cockpit ready to chat only to find that his fragile defense against the vast loneliness of the open sea has vanished. A simple presence made all the difference in the world. Each skipper described with undisguised grief the impact made on him when his hitch hiker left the sailboat. They mourned the loss and felt lonely.

It’s odd to say but we bond not only with each other, also with other species (dogs and cats), but objects as well. Aging people, when ready to unload a lifetime of collected stuff, will agonize over surrendering an object, some trinket or a photo that has accrued a significance, far beyond its material worth. They either keep it, offer it to the kids, or pitch it and then mourn its loss.

I can understand why frequent flyers like sea birds welcome a place to land and rest. Just why the ladybugs chose to inhabit my studio is not clear. Their reputation is legendary in helping farmers rid their crops of pesky aphids and other insects that destroy the harvest. But that’s all outdoorsy stuff, working in the fields. I have no plants or any vegetation in my studio. I wash daily. Why my studio?

It’s finding a warm place to winter.

Who would want to be out in the chill and wind of winter? The ladybugs were just hunkering down in my studio like Eastern Shore retirees that go south for the winter. It’s a way of getting through the bleak days until the sun feels warm again, crops grow and eating outside is fun.

One day I couldn’t find them.

I entered my studio and went to the slats to wish them a good day. They weren’t there. I looked around but didn’t see anything. My studio is painted in white and the rug on the floor is an off-white. It shows anything that falls on it.

I took my chair as usual and then saw a speck on the rug, half again as big as the head of a ten- penny nail. I got up to see and sure enough it was one of the ladybugs.

I had the horrible feeling that I’d stepped on her. I reached down to pick her up. She slid from my fingers. I was relieved that she was intact – indicating she’d not been squashed. I’ve seen her dormant before and by picking her up she’d start exploring my finger. But she didn’t try this time as she had in the past. She was dead.

I was sad. Fearing the worst, I began scouring the studio to find the other ladybug. Nowhere to be seen. Leaving the studio late one afternoon I went to open the door, and there on the threshold was the other ladybug.

Again, saddened, I picked her up. She, too, had died.

I noticed that both ladybugs did not die, as so many insects do, with their legs pointed in the air. Instead, ladybugs meet their maker, heads down and their elytra up, their cheerful colors in the open for everyone to see.

I believe they prefer being remembered that way.

Not that strange, when I think about it. I’ve often seen photographs accompanying the obituaries of septuagenarians or octogenarians that can only have been taken forty years prior to their deaths. For Coccinella and homo sapiens, vanity extends beyond the grave.

I shall miss them.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Christina Mills says:

    Beautifully written story about these delicate and colorful insects.

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