I see what I never saw: my father in his late thirties, on his evening drive home from the General Motors Tech Center, suddenly pulling our station wagon off the road before an open field in mid-Sixties' suburban Detroit. He steps out to the roar of the rush-hour traffic, and in his white shirt and tie he wades out into that springtime field of tall blond grass, searching for something he'd never thought of seeking before. A city boy of southern Italian immigrants, he isn't even sure where to look, or precisely what to look for, and what I can't quite imagine is his actually finding one—but there, that tawny protuberance attached to a grass stalk: this may be some sort of cocoon, and he hopes it will satisfy his insatiable first-born son, who is all of five and has been coveting a chrysalis for weeks. He carefully snaps off the stalk, and with his find he gratefully wades back to the car. And this is what I saw and still can see: my father in our inexpressive one-level in Warren, holding out to me what recalls nothing so much as a miniature corn dog, and I am ecstatic. He helps me arrange it in one of my terrariums not occupied by the turtles and frogs I had captured at our cottage. But he makes no promises, and is of no help in anticipating what might emerge, and until I am ordered to bed I am sitting expectantly before my inert cocoon, like a fanatic awaiting the immanent Second Coming of Christ.
The next morning my father walks me to school with my terrarium. And then it will sit on a table under the windows of my classroom, among other student's curiosities, including an ant farm. I don't recall how many days ensued before I arrived one morning to find a small gathering at the table, and then, when I was able to gain a vantage on my terrarium, an epiphany that I have been seeking to possess by understanding ever since. Maybe the inner life of an artist is built upon only one or two consuming early experiences, for which all other memorable events in his life serve his art only as metaphors. This is one of mine: motionless at the bottom of my terrarium lay a Cecropria moth larger than my open hand. I have always desired to weep before visions of the imponderable or unattainable, and this moment is my first memory of that lifelong affliction. The moth's emergence was positively annunciatory. The blessed extravagance of its open wings with their warm, Persian opulence, that would draw me to certain of the late abstractions of Kandinsky: they were an open book of indecipherable script, explaining in two pages the everlasting mystery of Being. The principal dark ocelli staring from each wing considered me with rivaling amazement. I don't recall any of my classmates, and I only know that my teacher was a young woman; but what my muse said to me through her I would never forget: this moth lives for only a day. One day. This day. I was speechless with mystification, and then with something that may have been outrage: the moth's emergence was also its departure from the Earth. Its greeting was a greeting goodbye. Maybe this was my first intimation of mortality, of the indifferent Earth as a beautiful inferno, of the fundamental unacceptability of things as they are. My prize possession, and what would become my most unforgettable gift from my father: I have to let it go. I said, and surely everyone agreed, "We have to let it go! We have to set the moth free now!" Our classroom had an entrance door opening onto a central outdoor playground, and I remember the afternoon drenched in sunlight, when before my classmates I removed the lid of the terrarium, and watched that magnificent moth launch on its maiden flight, and then eloquently diminish in the blue. When it finally disappeared, I was suffused with a boundless melancholy that was almost joy.
The flying carpet of my Cecropia moth. I don't recall relating the experience to my father, maybe because it had likely made little impression on him, or I already knew that the epiphany was only my own. In later years he would have only a fleeting memory of the cocoon; after all, I had encumbered him with so many creatures in my acquisitive childhood. And I have never encountered a moth as large and illustrious as the one I recall with irrepressible nostalgia. But there are moments in afternoon light when I can still see my great moth retreating in the azure. And it still seems to me that everything can be explained in the revelation of its existence. But of course I have never possessed such understanding, it eludes me like that ever-diminishing moth, until the half-century that has been allotted me can seem to have passed in a day, the day that was the life of my Cecropia moth.