Terry Marotta: Time is like a paper straw package

Terry Marotta

Remember the first time you sat in an ice cream shop or soda fountain and an older child showed you how to take the paper casing from your straw and fold it in tiny increments so it made a paper accordion smaller than a postage stamp?

Remember how that child then set it on the counter and, siphoning off a little water from his drinking glass, released it drop by drop onto this small paper package until it grew into a caterpillar? The real caterpillar’s transformation into butterfly seemed no more astounding to you and you saw, not for the first time, that life was shot through with mystery.

All this week, I keep thinking of this bit of youthful origami. It seems such an apt symbol for time: how we most often experience it as a thing folded in on itself according to some unknowable cosmic design; how very occasionally it will suddenly open for us, allowing today and yesterday almost to merge.

Maybe it’s the season that has me remembering this childish trick.

Not a month ago, I sat by a pond and saw that the day’s high winds and bitter cold were working to re-solidify that body of water, so recently released from its frozen mantle. The waves splashed drops up onto the thin branches of surrounding brush, and the wind froze them there, making them into clacking fringes of ice, into beaded curtains of crystal droplets.

I spend five days of every week in a town eight miles north of Boston, where, 10 days ago, the tree branches were still gray and the spring bulbs were wee green shoots, mere kitten’s teeth in the earth.

But when I boarded the bus to Manhattan, I sailed straight into Boston’s future. 

Connecticut’s landscapes sprouted lashings of daffodils. By the time we passed the gorgeous brooch of Central Park, the air was thick with apple blossoms, and I suddenly found myself thinking about my Smith College roommate Judy Engel who was just 16 years old for most of our freshman year.

“She LIVES in New York!” was my first thought and “Is she still 16?” was my improbable second.

On one of my nights in the city, I’d planned to meet up with our youngest child, also now living and working in New York (and yet how can that be when I so clearly see him as a toddler still, reaching up to say, “Hold you mine hand, Mama”?)

Michael is about to turn 24, and for this birthday dinner, he wanted to eat at the new restaurant that floats below the painted firmament at Grand Central Station.

I was hurrying to meet him for our reservation when, glancing quickly into one of the station shops, my gaze briefly bounced off that of a blonde in Tina Fey glasses - then snapped back again. In a city of millions it was my old friend Judy Engel.

Our cries of surprise at last subsiding, we walked together to my restaurant and on meeting my son for the first time, she said three things: “BOY, are you cute!” and, “You look just like your dad,” and, putting an arm around my shoulders, “You have NO idea how well I know this woman!”

She didn’t see my eyes brim, but brim they did, and why? Because it was the old origami trick all over again. Because it was the caterpillar before my eyes becoming the butterfly. Because it was spring again when every second moment seems eternal.

Go to, scroll down to “Time is But the Stream” to see some nice old photos, then click on  “Comments” to share your own thoughts and memories. Terry also welcomes letters, sent c/o Ravenscroft Press, PO Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890.