On Raising Savages: Ladybugs
By Kris Green
“Should Natalie go into the one-year-old class or not?” my wife asks about the church childcare classes.
“I don’t know.”
“I mean with Tenny, he wasn’t walking well when he turned one, so maybe we should keep Natalie with the one and under.”
“Should we tell them that she just turned one?”
My wife absently turns to look at the bright shirt my daughter is wearing with big, multicolored letters spelling out that today is her birthday.
“I don’t know. We should get going; we don’t want to be late.”
Ladybugs live on average a year. It’s one of those weird things about life. Everything has a lifespan, from the universe to a ladybug. Things that are living today might not be living tomorrow. As we celebrate my daughter’s first birthday, I can’t help but consider that the ladybugs that were alive when she was born are not around anymore.
The day before, Saturday, my wife and I are up at 6 a.m. waiting for my three-year-old to knock on the bedroom door. I check the camera at five-to and he is out, so we have some time to be adults and not just parents. Other mornings aren’t so fortunate, where he’s lying on his bed staring at the clock, waiting for it to turn 6:00 so that he can come out and knock on the door to start the day.
I’m craving coffee and my own start for the day. My daughter’s first birthday is officially tomorrow but the party is in four hours. Only family for the party this year. Hoping to keep it simple was the unintentional theme of the party. That, and well, ladybugs.
“What can I do to help?” my wife asks.
My brain reels as I think about everything. My sausage queso dip is prepped. The meatballs are easy and will start up in the crockpot quickly after my son knocks on the door at 6:30. I’m picking up the cake at 9:00. I have food being delivered at 9:45. Party starts at 10:00. Everything is in place, but I’ll still spend the bulk of the morning prepping the backyard and the food and the house.
“You do enough with the kids.”
“No,” my wife persists. “What can I do to help?”
I’ll carry the chairs, the table. It’s easier for me to hang the birthday banner and set up the plates and plastic silverware. Line up the food and then the cooler filled with flavored sparkling waters and actual water, the old-fashioned kind from a bottle.
“I can blow up the balloons.”
“Okay,” I say absentmindedly, still internally checking off my to-do list.
January in Florida is one of the best months for a party outside. I look over at my wife sitting under a blanket, but everyone else seems fine. My wife gets cold easily. I like the cold, always have.
Her stepfather has had health issues piling up for the last month. His wife, my wife’s mother, my kid’s grandmother, follows him around catering to his every move. He sits down a little away from everyone under a camphor tree in the backyard wedged between the table of food, the fence, and the pool.
I wonder if he’s cold. The man won’t admit it. I catch a brief expression on his face of what he’ll look like in twenty years when he’s less mobile and stuck, trapped in a body like we’re all doomed to be if we make it to an old age.
My heart fills with sympathy even though I’m still upset about the drama of the last year.
Later, when my father-in-law leaves, he shakes his ex-wife’s husband hand and tells him that he’ll get through those health issues. My father-in-law’s laughter fills the room as he says, “You’ll be back to being that mean old man that you’ve always been! Heck, you’ll be worse!”
Ladybugs are not strictly female. They’re actually beetles, not bugs. I don’t know the difference between a beetle and a bug, but I relate. All my life, I’ve felt like one thing when I’ve been something else.
My brother is thirteen years older than me. My sister is eleven. According to the psychology books, after seven years of separation, the next child acts more like a first born.
Our childhoods were different. My father separated from my mother after they were already leaving the house. He died when I was too young to know him as a man. I came to faith a few years later, and my siblings weren’t exactly accepting.
I came to know God by reading the Bible before believing what people told me. My in-laws don’t always like my unique views. They don’t like my questions. When I quote the Bible in the middle of a conflict imploring them to seek peace rather than allow the disagreement to fester, they see it like an attack. No wonder God’s word is called a sword.
Not that I’m innocent. My words are quick and sometimes I don’t know how cutting they are until it’s too late.
My neighbor stops his pickup in the street, catching me Sunday evening as I’m pulling the garbage can to the curb filled with broken streamers, paper plates, empty food containers and wrapping paper—things we couldn’t salvage to recycle.
“Your daughter turned one this weekend. Congrats!”
“How ya been?”
He starts talking about what church he goes to, then sheepishly says he stayed home today and slept. “Most people,” he tells me, “grew up going to church but don’t talk about it. It’s not that they’re ashamed, they just don’t want to offend anyone. It’s how the world is now; everyone is afraid of offending someone.”
He tells me we should get the families together for dinner. I agree but struggle trying to find the time. Most days I feel so busy I’m drowning in the sea of need-to-dos versus want-to-dos.
“Smell this.” My sister shoves a leaf off the tree in the backyard into my face. “What is this?”
She breaks the leaf in two. She’s an arborist. Tree talk becomes popular when she’s run out of other things to say.
This is the first time she’s met my daughter. A year has passed, and she’s only lived a few hours south. I feel cold to her. Disappointed, as I think effort indicates interest.
I smell it. My sister urges me to take the leaf, but I don’t as she pops it in her mouth and chews it. I wonder briefly if that little tree jetting off from the bigger tree isn’t one of the many spots my son has chosen to mark his territory in the backyard. There’s no time to warn her.
“It’s camphor,” my wife’s stepfather says.
“Yeah.” She looks up at the larger tree. “Whole thing. It’s a beaut. Your trees look good.”
My daughter dips her fingers carefully into her smash cake. She’s not really interested in it but destroys it enough so that the ladybug design is unrecognizable. We sing happy birthday, but I don’t really sing more than the first line. I just want to stare in awe.
My son leads the encore. It’s the song he sings while he washes his hands.
“Why ladybug themed?” my sister-in-law leans in to ask.
My son spent the party running around digging holes in my backyard. When my nephew, an agreeable ten, asks if it’s okay. I smile. Yes, it’s fine.
We don’t want to overuse our “no” with our son. ‘No’ is for safety and for how he treats his sister. If he wants to dig up the backyard, he can. There might be weeping and gnashing of teeth when he’s forced to fill in those holes, but he’s learning as much as a three-year-old can that actions have consequences.
My father-in-law, who welcomed me to the family by reaching out his hand to shake while changing lanes in traffic, stands next to me watching my son run past and tells me how blessed I am. I nod knowing it won’t always feel like this, but it’s true. I am blessed.
I watch the two cousins running around. My son digs a hole. My nephew fills it up. My son, who is very shy and not around his cousins a lot, tells my nephew not to fill this hole.
“This hole,” my son, Tenny, indicates, “is special.”
When the crops were failing in medieval Europe due to pests, the farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary. I never understood praying to the Virgin, although I know many who do and are satiated by it.
A bug appeared in those pest-ridden fields. The bug, red with black spots, was called the ladybug because it was seen as an answer to prayer. The ladybug, named after the Virgin, ate the other pests. The red represented her cloak and the black—her sorrows. Or so the story goes. I’ve always liked things better when I know the story behind them.
I guess I understand the Virgin Mary a little more now that I’m a parent. There’s a certain sorrow that comes with it. Lost in the ups and downs in the lives of our children. Already there’s so much I feel has been lost as each day and week passes. Let them learn. Let them grow. Let them skin their knees and stumble around. If you carry a baby too long, it’ll take them longer to walk.
Black is for Mary’s sorrows because she lost her son. Jesus, it says in the Bible, was a man of sorrows. But Mary’s grief is somehow different.
“Is there something you want to talk about?” my brother asks.
I look at him. I play dumb because I don’t know what to say. How do I tell him I was offended that my family didn’t receive a Thanksgiving invite because of the controversy of the vaccinations for Covid? My brother falls on one side and I on the other. My sister-in-law’s family has a bigger hesitation aligning with my brother’s and boom, we don’t get an invite but a call a week later saying why we weren’t invited.
Truth be told, I didn’t even think about the lack of an invite until I got a call from him as I was leaving a funeral. I was happy to not have any family over for Thanksgiving. I was happy just having the four of us.
I don’t tell my brother what’s wrong. My daughter’s party isn’t the place for that talk if there’ll ever be a time and place.
We look at our kids playing and say nothing. It’s suddenly okay. My brother spends most of the party with my daughter, holding her hands as she stumbles forward learning how to walk.
Monday at noon, I’m at the steel gate of the preschool for my son’s first day of school. He sees me and tries going for me, but they have a procedure. After, I take him to lunch, just him and me. This quickly is going to be a ritual for us on his first days of school.
He doesn’t talk a lot about his first day, not then. Maybe he was so quiet the whole morning, it’s stuck. Maybe he’s facing the reality of his own life changes, my little man of budding sorrows.
He spends lunch on my lap, needing to be close. As I question about school, he tells me he was a little sad at first. I ask if he cried, and he tells me he didn’t. He’s proud that he didn’t cry. He leans his head against my chest and pops a chicken nugget into his mouth.
Of all the things I feel in that moment, I think of the Virgin Mary. The black dots on the ladybug represent her sorrow. It’s kind of beautiful. It’s kind of sad. All the things I want to tell my son about how much I love him and hold him tight and want to protect him from the world, and yet even more I can’t say. Not yet because he needs to learn to live. He needs to find his own sorrows. He needs to struggle. He needs to see the pests eat the crops. He needs his own answered prayers and lost hope fulfilled. He needs to feel the weight of time passing in his own way.
But there, eating chicken nuggets, none of it matters. His world is resting in my arms, and he knows he’s safe and loved.
I built a Little Tikes Dino car for my son for his second Christmas. He still runs around with it. For my daughter’s first birthday, I built her a Ladybug Tikes car.
She likes riding in it. She has this expression on her face that reminds me of my grandmother who’s long gone, but somehow lives on in our blood and my daughter’s expression of who you kidding.
Maybe it’s just another year going by. The weird, ever pressing feeling that life is moving faster than I can grasp. Maybe it’s the inevitable sadness of watching my kids growing older. How small they were when they were newborns and now, they’re older, bigger. The notches I draw on their doorframes marking their heights every passing birthday and charting the inches of how tall they’re getting serve as a constant reminder. The moments we had when they were so small are past.
My heart stirs with this verse in Luke: “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19 KJV). Mary had just witnessed shepherds arriving at Jesus’ birth proclaiming that they had seen and heard angels talking of the Messiah. Mary, who knew more than the shepherds, kept note of all these things happening around her young baby boy. Mary, who would know her own sorrows, took in everything that happened and kept them in her heart.
I remind myself to put my phone down. Playing on the floor is more important than whatever nonsense that can make me laugh on social media. Maybe all these thoughts mean simply to just slow down and take a breath. There’s plenty to be grateful for and there’s plenty to enjoy, but ultimately, if I’m not engaged, I miss it.
It’s easy to say life is short. It’s one of those throw-away comments people make when there’s really nothing left to say. The hard part is making the most of every moment. Not allowing a moment to be wasted. Not letting a hug fall by the wayside or an opportunity to tell my children I love them pass. Not allowing the hurt or anger or frustration cloud what could be a redemptive moment that will echo for eternity in their hearts.
“Why ladybug themed?” my sister-in-law asks.
“Of all the Little Tikes car options, it’s the most feminine without being overly girly. Does that make sense?”
My sister-in-law laughs. “It does.”
I find my arm reaching around my wife as people talk to us. I look at my daughter, both hands in the air as my brother walks her. My niece sits in a chair old enough to think the world is not in her uncle’s backyard, young enough to not know what she’s missing.
The cold January winds blow. I wonder not for the first time how I can nurture my daughter’s feminine spirit. Maybe that’s my wife’s job. As a man, as a father, I know how much I don’t know. My son is easier. Maybe all boys are for fathers. I don’t know. I know him instinctively. But shying away from princesses and fairy tales, I only call her ladybug jokingly because of the party theme.
My wife bends down to pick her up. It’s the only place where my daughter truly feels safe. My wife looks at me and smiles. We glow proud. I only call her ladybug this weekend. Normally, I call her “The Thunder Maker,” because inside, I see this reservoir of strength just waiting to come out.
She reaches her little hand out to me. I walk over. Knowing after careful trial and error that she doesn’t want me to hold her. She beacons for my presence in a way only true royalty can. I take her hand. She mutters a one-syllable word. I talk to her. My son runs past me holding a shovel with my nephew in his wake. My daughter makes another one-syllable word, trying to get my attention.
“What is it, my little ladybug?”