I was way ahead of the game when Sister Mary Pauletta announced on the first day of Sophomore Biology class that we would be required to turn in an insect collection before the end of September. I had seen my older sister, Cathy, poke pins into her bugs two years earlier, labeling and mounting all manner of tiny creatures into an artistic display of creepy-crawlies: bright orange and yellow butterflies, red ants, black ants, shiny beetles, glistening green grasshoppers, their legs still arched as if arrested mid-jump by my sister’s aggressive net.
If she could do it, so could I.
So I’d spent the summer collecting insects. In fact, my friends and I had bug-hunting parties, all of us being high-achieving, conscientious students, who also had fun high on our list. We had bugs in our neighborhoods, but we also slid down the banks of the Mississippi River to see if we could snare something more unusual. Minnehaha Park across the river in Minneapolis was another gold mine for us entomologists. And then there were the woods behind St. Kate’s, the nearby college I would eventually attend. I later learned it was probably not safe to walk in those woods, but we were blinded by our pursuit of exotic and fascinating…bugs.
As the assignment deadline approached, I looked at my collection. I had done my best to elevate ordinary beetles, bees, and butterflies by tagging them with scientific names like Alniphagus aspericollis (elder bark beetle), Dolichovespula arenaria (aerial yellowjackets), and Danaus plexippus (monarch butterfly). It was a good collection, but not A+ quality. By then, though, all those summer insects were dying off and my choices were limited.
Enter my younger sister, Mary.
The fifth of seven children, Mary was sweet and generous—and I knew it. Middle children trying to make their mark are easy targets, especially by greedy big sisters. Providentially, Mary had received an enviable insect collection of her own, a gift from our Biology professor dad. Lucky stiff. She’d always been his favorite, I surmised. I must have thought Mary had a social responsibility to share her wealth because I asked if I could borrow her insects so I could add mine to hers and turn in the best collection Sister Mary Pauletta had ever seen.
My kind sister said yes. The problem was that our teacher never returned our insect collections, and I was too timid to ask for it. After that, I developed amnesia.
That was in 1964.
A few years ago, Mary—both of us now in the strands-of-silver age group—reminded me that I had never returned her favorite bug collection, a cherished gift from our father.
I had completely forgotten about it.
I was horrified. How could I have been so selfish? So insensitive? That sweet little ten-year-old, who may have even looked up to me, I had let her down. I donned the cloak of guilt and felt its burden on my shoulders in the years that followed. How could I ever make this up to her?
And then a miraculous thing happened.
A couple of clicks, and there it was. An insect collection of the highest caliber. Not only would this make up for my breach of trust against my dear sister, but I do believe it was a million times better than the one she had lent me.
The insect collection took a long time to arrive, originating far away in Indonesia. I pictured a father sending his children out into the rivers and rainforests, their tiny hands clutching nets, then welcoming them home with their cache, which he carefully mounted, lacquered, and packaged for its long journey to America.
I was beside myself with excitement the day I presented Mary with her gift. She was going to love this! I watched in giddy anticipation as she ripped open the box, swept away the Styrofoam pellets way too slowly, popped a few bubbles, then at last lifted away the bubble wrap.
My stomach was tickling with joy.
Finally she lifted the gift out of the box.
I could tell Mary really liked her bug collection. In fact, she immediately placed it on the table next to a vase of flowers.
Okay, okay, it was behind the flowers. But I know her intention was to show it off.
Seeing my sister’s exuberance made it clear: it’s never too late to make restitution.
My guilt lifted. Atonement accomplished.
Maggie McCann Pike
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