By PAM JOHNSON
Terry Steinmuller has known loss. Her husband, John, died a little more than a year ago. She lost one of her three sons to leukemia in 1991. Her Catholic faith and love of butterflies have seen her through the saddest of times.
In 1991, she visited her 28-year-old son, Gerard, in the hospital after he had a bone marrow transplant.
“We knew they couldn’t do anything more,” Steinmuller recalled. “He said to me, ‘Come upstairs to the craft room and I’ll make you a piece of jewelry. What would you like?’ I immediately thought, ‘I so wish he could be free like a butterfly. Free of the pain. Free of the hospital.’ So a butterfly is what I asked for.”
Steinmuller’s most prized piece of jewelry is the butterfly pin with its daisy – her favorite flower – in a circle of stones. Gerard passed away shortly after making it, just weeks before his 29th birthday.
Everyone in the family was heartbroken, especially Gerard’s brothers, his twin, Peter, and Thomas.
In 1996, John and Terry left their native Long Island to retire in Venice, where other family members already lived. They bought an island home with a spacious backyard that needed some loving care. The couple began creating flower beds around the fence line, planting flowers that would soon draw multiple types of butterflies.
One area, shaped like a butterfly, hosted pentas and milkweed, while other plants such as cassia, a particular favorite of yellow Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, and orange trees, known for the Giant Swallowtail eggs found on their leaves, grow happily in the yard. One of Steinmuller’s favorites is the large purple passion flower blooming on vines along the fence. It is also a favorite of the Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary butterflies.
It wasn’t long before Terry began cutting leaves with eggs attached to them, bringing them onto her lanai, putting them in water, and watching them turn into caterpillars and chrysalis before evolving to beautiful butterflies.
“I did it so the ants wouldn’t eat the eggs,” she said.
At the pupa stage, she constantly checks on them, so they won’t come out of the chrysalis and die because they can’t get outside to a food source.
“When they are first born, they let you hold them,” she said. Then she sets them free. When she sees similar butterflies fluttering in the yard, she wonders if they are the ones she nurtured.
“I call them my kids,” she laughed.
She credits her next-door neighbor, Julia Joyner, for supporting her interest in raising butterflies. Joyner is also an avid butterfly gardener, from whom Steinmuller learned much about her hobby.
Watching the transformation from egg to butterfly is fascinating. The eggs are attached to the underside of a leaf. Different types of butterflies prefer different hosts. An example is the Monarch butterfly, which prefers to lay eggs on milkweed. In less than a week, the eggs hatch into caterpillars, which eat everything they can and grow profusely. They also poop profusely. At this stage, Steinmuller cleans their cage regularly.
The caterpillar grows so fast it must shed its skin several times. Once it is full grown, it leaves its host plant to find a place to attach itself. There it moves from the larval stage to the pupa or chrysalis with its hard casing from which a butterfly will appear within two weeks. It is weak and wet when it comes forth from its chrysalis, but within an hour it is ready to fly. That is when Steinmuller releases them from her lanai.
She believes she assists the butterflies’ reproduction by protecting them in their most vulnerable stages. It’s important. Some years, it seems, there are fewer than usual butterflies.
“It goes in cycles, but it seems that there were fewer butterflies last year. I feel like I give them a better chance at survival,” she said. Inside her lanai, the eggs are less likely to be eaten by ants and the larvae less likely to be picked off by birds.
“I think the Lord puts us here for a purpose,” the 82-year-old said. “The butterfly represents rebirth. They have two lives. We have two lives as well. One here and one in heaven.”
Heaven is where she looks for her son and husband who have departed this life. And she sees signs of them watching over her here on earth.
“It was Gerard’s birthday when I found the lone daisy growing in the yard where I couldn’t get any plant to grow. Obviously, a bird had planted the seed. But I believe it was sent to me by my angels in heaven,” Steinmuller said.
Despite her share of life’s sorrows, Steinmuller said she is greatly blessed. She will continue to enjoy her hobby of helping butterflies propagate, and in turn, her butterfly kids help her to appreciate the many blessings of her own life.
Editor’s note: Pam Johnson recently retired as the city’s first information officer.