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Madame Butterfly's Cocoon Pets

Updated on January 30, 2013
Japanese mother with baby
Japanese mother with baby | Source

He called her his "Madame Butterfly," always with an affectionate chuckle as he quickly amended that nickname, with:

"Hmmm . . . . I mean Madame Ailanthus."

It was long time joke between them, one she didn't completely get, other than to understand his name for her was one of fondness and respect.

He'd brought her from Sapparo, Japan when he married her only daughter, Akina, shortly after WWII. Akina was Sarge's Asian war bride, a delicate porcelain skinned jewel. She and her traditional Japanese mother, were completely out-of-place in the small minded small town of Abilene, Texas.

Sarge was a career military man, whose after-duty-life completely revolved around the women in his little odd family. He loved them as dearly as they loved him. He and I were both in the Air Force, worked in the same office, and were stationed at nearby Dyess Air Force Base. In contrast to his small and dainty wife and mother-in-law, Sarge was a tall bulky man of Swedish heritage.

The first time I met Akina, she and her mother had just brought Sarge his lunch that he'd forgotten. She asked me:

"You like spa gay tee?"

"Of course, everyone loves spaghetti," I replied, pleased with myself for understanding her.

"Good! You come to dinner tomorrow. Come at 6:00 p.m. sharp! We have spa gay tee, talk fashion, and see Madman's pets."

Towering behind her was Sarge, his eyes dancing with glee, and ample lips plastered in a most humorous grin. I thought he was laughing at his wife's mispronunciation of Madame.

I was both flattered by the invitation and glad for it. Abilene was a very lonely place for a newly-wed California girl, while her military husband was on a temporary assignment in Wiesbaden, Germany. I was one of only three enlisted women on the base. While I had plenty of unwanted male attention, the wives of both the men and the civilians in my neighborhood -- all pretty much shunned me. I was lonesome for some girl talk, even if the other women barely spoke English.

Nigori sake, unfiltered Japanese rice wine
Nigori sake, unfiltered Japanese rice wine | Source

An Eye Opening Evening

As a bride who barely knew how to cook, I dreamed that night of getting Akina to give me a lesson in cooking Italian food, as that was my husband's favorite type of meal.

On the outside, their home was very typical Abilene, clapboard wooden houses that had been built during WWII for military families. On the inside, it was very old time traditional Japanese. Highly polished wooden floors, sparkling clean, minimalistic in furnishing.

We sat on floor pillows at a low table. Sarge brought out the sake set, that I was so familiar with, largely because so many Air Force personnel had been stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I waved off his offer of partaking in this deadly rice cocktail for the non-drinker that I was.

He put some opera music from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, winking and telling me,

"I hope you don't mind the opera music. Ever since I told my mother-in-law that a famous opera was named after her, it makes her so happy to hear that record, that I play it at dinner every night, even if she doesn't understand a word of it."

Akina and her mother were busy in the kitchen. Out they came with some strange unknown to this still teen-aged junk food addict's no-vegetables zone of a mouth. They returned to the kitchen, while I stared at it, thinking there was no way I was eating "that."

Back out they came with heaping plates of "spa gay tee." Not exactly what I was expecting because aside from the vegetables, this was no Italian dinner, but cold refrigerated spaghetti noodles with some sort of Japanese soy based sauce. Needless to say, Sarge was rolling on the floor laughing as he watched me choke it down.

After dinner he retired to watch their black and white television, while I sat with Akina and her mother looking through large used and discarded store sewing pattern books. No words, just lots of pointing on the part of both of them and occasional ooh's and awes.

Abilene was the kind of town where the sidewalks rolled up by 9:00 p.m. Just before time to leave, the women tugged at me to come with them to see Madame Butterfly's pets. In a nearby bedroom, devoid of all furniture except a small table and a rug -- so there they were.

The chewing noises of her pets were the first mind-boggling awareness. These were no ordinary pets. I tried to hide my shock. This is what I saw!

Madame Butterfly's Pets - The Beginning of A Silk Scarf

Here some silkworms are feeding on mulberry leaves.  Other silkworms are climbing the brushwood tend of the spinning hut, while some others are fast asleep in their cocoons.
Here some silkworms are feeding on mulberry leaves. Other silkworms are climbing the brushwood tend of the spinning hut, while some others are fast asleep in their cocoons. | Source
My sweet daughter-in-law Lucky and my son Jeff
My sweet daughter-in-law Lucky and my son Jeff | Source

In the years that followed, we became good friends, despite the language barrier. Many times, Madame Butterfly would permit me to watch her as she tended to her pets, and wove her strands of silk.

That was back in 1969. In memory and honor of those both women, over the years I have always collected and worn jewelry fashioned into butterflies. It's sort of my fashion signature. I loved them both and I didn't want to ever forget them.

My collection was a lot of mostly silver butterfly jewelry and gold butterfly jewelry. Then, almost seven years ago, another Asian woman came into our family -- my lovely daughter-in-law -- Lai Hoi Yan (Lucky).

Prior to knowing my son, she had been engaged to a young Chinese national who tradgically died of cancer, at a very young age. She always wore a gold necklace and ring that belonged that young man, promising him on his deathbed that she would wear it forever.

The year she married my son, she sent me a beautiful jade butterfly pin and jade butterfly necklace, both obviously far too expensive for their budget. When I thanked her for such a generous gift she explained:

"Mommy, it would not be right for me to wear jewelry from another man, when I am married to your son. I thought about it and knew that he would understand, if I sold it and bought you some jade butterflies to set him free. He always wanted to go to America. Now, he will live there with you."

Well, I loved her from the first time I met her. However, her chosen English name is Lucky, and to my way of thinking -- my son and the rest of us, are also "lucky" to have her in our family. All the more reason, to always wear a butterfly.

While commercial silks are made from cocoons whose christaliids have been killed by heat -- the finest silk with the rarest sheen is woven with strands from live cocoons.
While commercial silks are made from cocoons whose christaliids have been killed by heat -- the finest silk with the rarest sheen is woven with strands from live cocoons. | Source

The Differences Between A Moth And A Butterfly

Sarge's joke of calling his mother-in-law, Madame Butterfly and then always amending the nickname to Madame Ailanthus came about when he learned that her silkworms come from the Ailanthus Silk moth, not some beautiful butterfly.

The differences between a moth and a butterfly for the most part are very obvious. The butterflies wear knobs on each of their antennae. The moths, with a few exceptions, lack those knobs, or possess plumed antennae.

Butterfly cocoons are sort of a hardened integument, or chrysalis, the pupae being otherwise unprotected. While, moths make cocoons of silk, or enter the ground, or make cells in wood for they nymphal naps.

Then, there is the body size factor -- Butterflies have slender bodies. Most moths have plump bodies.

Additionally, butterflies are day fliers, while moths prefer to take wing after the sun has passed below the horizon.

Different types of insect antenna
Different types of insect antenna | Source

Amazing Silkworms

If you think about it, man has only sort of domesticated two insects -- the honeybee and the silkworm. The silkworm, whose cocoon China taught the world the art of using it in fashioning the world's finest textiles, shares with the honeybee a rarity of being an insect that we value, and don't generally look upon as a pest.

It takes 900 miles of silk fiber to make a pound of silk, that's 40,000 silkworm eggs to the ounce. Those eggs, in about six weeks the following spring and after four molts become full fledged grown caterpillars, measuring about three inches long. They then began the process of pupating.

My friend Madame Butterfly, provided her "pets" a ready made silkworm hotel for this process. Usually after a somewhat restless search, the silkworm in nature finds a small twig, and produces by spinneret, a tiny orifice in the lower lip, a bit of sticky, viscid fiber, which quickly dries and adheres it to the twig.

Afterwards, the silkworm seldom stops wiggling until its cocoon is complete and produces from 500 to 1,300 yards of silk thread for the task.

This is what silk weavers like Madame Butterfly, seek to reel from the cocoon. Now, most of her pets would give up their lives, but some favorites would be allowed to become her "seed" for the next season's crop of silk. When they hatched, she lovingly fed them massive amounts of mulberry leaves, that Sarge went to great lengths to obtain in the days before the Internet, which would have made that search a lot easier.


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks 2uesday! I didn't miss this comment when you first made it, my reply just didn't register.

    • 2uesday profile image


      9 years ago

      This hub has a lovely thread running through it; I really enjoyed it. I think it is of a very high standard interesting and an easy to read layout; so I have bookmarked it to look at it again. Thank you.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks nolimits nana! Funny I was just thinking about you today. My mom's the weaver in the family. I just weave stories and hubs.

    • profile image

      nolimits nana 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for another good story. Like ginn, I've spun and woven with silk, and love it's feel.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks ginn navarre! I'm glad that I kept the pictures to do their story justice.

    • profile image

      ginn navarre 

      9 years ago

      Jerilee, This was very interesting and I know for I have spun silk many times. Loved it!

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Patty Inglish! I don't know how the poor woman slept, because they were in her bedroom and the noise was very noticable. Watching them work and her work was fascinating though.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I want to hear the sounds of chewing worms and watch them work! Great story.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Nancy's Niche!

      Thanks Teresa McGurk! Although I love all kinds of music, I'm a big opera fan too. Many days I write to Andrea Bocelli and many others.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      What a fabulous hub -- and great music, too. I lived in Hamamatsu, Japan for two years, and became fond of several mother/daughter combos -- their friendship and kindness were a great boon.

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      9 years ago

      Very interesting and educational article.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Montana Farm Girl! That's a very sweet compliment.

    • Montana Farm Girl profile image

      Montana Farm Girl 

      9 years ago from Northwestern Montana

      Wonderful hub... I always love reading your wonderful contributions!!! :-)


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