Decades after astronomer Percival Lowell claimed to have seen canals on Mars and shadowy “spokes” on Venus, interpreting both as signs of alien life, an optometrist figured out that the settings on Lowell’s telescope—its magnification and narrow aperture—meant that it was essentially projecting the interior of his eye onto the planets he was observing. The spokes of Venus were the shadows of his blood vessels, swollen from hypertension. He wasn’t seeing other life; he was seeing the imprint of his own gaze.
I am with my husband and teenage son in a freezing Yosemite meadow, dressed as if for skiing, but standing still in the moonless night, our heads tilted back to the sky. A guide with a laser pointer indicates the constellations, recounting myths I learned from my grandmother fifty years ago: Pegasus, the winged horse, who carries Zeus’ lightning bolts; bold Cassiopeia, set in the sky as a punishment for her boasting. My son remarks that it’s the first time he’s heard these stories. We’ve looked at the sky all his life: summer nights lying on our back deck during meteor showers; a deep winter journey to subarctic Canada to see the Northern Lights; a summer road trip to Oregon for a solar eclipse. But we’ve always focused on the science: the gasses that make those stars twinkle; the distance their light travels to us; the fact that shooting stars aren’t technically stars.
When our kids were very young, we visited Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. Outside, we walked along a shady path lined with signs showing the relative distance of each of the planets to the Sun. The kids ran ahead of us to Pluto—no longer officially a planet, but, here at its birthplace, still marked—and laughed about how far away from us they’d gone.
There’s a metaphor for parenting here, but I can see one almost anywhere I look.
We’ve come to Yosemite now to celebrate our son finishing his college applications. I had thought maybe he would brainstorm ideas with us, or at least complain about the questions. I had imagined talking about how his current interests dated back to preschool, and giving him funny childhood anecdotes to spark ideas for an essay. When it became clear he had no interest in those conversations, I pivoted; I looked forward to seeing him click “Submit” on each application portal, high fiving him as the digital confetti burst across the screen. But he didn’t even tell us he’d applied to college until a couple days afterwards, when he asked us to reimburse him for the fee.
The kid who used to pour out his interests—breathlessly sharing “Mama! Mama, my rocket? is so tall?! it’s nine hundred and ninety-TWO feet tall!”—is now closed off and private, headphones signaling his detachment, answering questions in a barely-audible monotone. So we’re celebrating, even though I haven’t been part of his process. Standing together in the darkness feels just right.
I learned to look for light in the darkness from my Grandma Rose. Summer nights in Connecticut, Grandma would point out Venus rising as we sat down to dinner; later, after the dishes were washed and put away, she would pull out the paper star finder, dial it around to the date and hold it up to the inky blue sky, pointing out Cassiopeia or Ursa Major. She didn’t have a telescope, relying instead on her own eyes and our ability to follow her pointing arm. One time, she woke us up in the night and bundled us outside to sit, wrapped in blankets, on the small hill next to the root cellar, where we watched the Northern Lights shimmering their electric blue and green waves across the sky. If it was very clear and dark, sometimes we could see a luminescent streak against the blackness: the Milky Way. Grandma intimidated me just enough that I hid both my disappointment (not actually a candy bar) and my confusion: how could we look at something we were inside?
I inherited my interest in astronomy from my grandmother but never asked what sparked it in her—because I never asked anything about her. She wore khakis paired with pastel Liberty print tops, her dark hair pulled back into a practical low bun. I knew that before she married at 29 she had guided on the Appalachian Trail, and that was cool—I liked camping and hiking, too—but I never saw any signs of that adventurous life. During my childhood, she tended an herb garden, manicured with low plants and stone paths, a quiet, dull place, all pastels and silvery grays. When she wasn’t in her garden or in the kitchen preparing meals for us all, she spent hours at her desk—but what she wrote I had no idea, and no interest. My mother joked that Grandma would fill a desk with her writing and Grandpop would carry it up to the attic and get her a new one. Now I wonder, did her writing really never leave the house? My curiosity rises years too late to ask her.
But one autumn day, decades after her death, I open a box and get to know my grandmother the writer.
First, I find letters written to her mother. They start in 1924, when she is a student at Vassar, and continue to 1940: hundreds of letters from dozens of locations, as she moved from college student to working woman to young wife, supporting her husband in his new job and struggling to become pregnant. I find an illustrated chart of the zodiac, two concentric circles in which Grandma has written the names of the months and drawn the constellations. Typed inside the center circle is Isaac Watt’s 17th century mnemonic poem. I can hear her voice reciting:
The ram, the bull, the heavenly twins.
And next the crab, the lion shines,
The virgin and the scales,
The scorpion, archer, and the goat,
The man who holds the watering-pot,
And fish with glittering scales.
Standing with my son at Yosemite, I see that he is so ready to launch, to slip loose from the gravity of my parenting and my expectations. His writing for those applications will carry him someplace new, and I am wildly curious about it. But I will content myself with following along in his slipstream. I ask if he’ll at least please let us know where he plans to enroll, and he grins a bit and shrugs, noncommittal.
I remind myself that astronauts orbiting the moon can’t communicate with the Earth when they are on the far side; they have to trust that their radio signals will resume once the spacecraft circles back around. I have watched enough space movies with my kids to recognize the tamped-down, anxious energy of a control room full of rocket scientists watching the clock until their signal is restored. I have to pace myself. My communications freeze will last longer than a NASA engineer’s cigarette break. So, I am biding my time, trusting that if I keep quietly putting out my signal (beep . . . beep . . . beep), my teenager will circle back to me.
Home again, to console myself, I look back, into those boxes of Grandma’s papers. I tune in to this woman, finally, whom I took for granted during her lifetime. I find a letter from January 1925 when she, too, stood in a freezing cold meadow. A 22-year-old college student, she has gotten up at dawn and “dressed doubly in every particular: two shirts, three pairs of bloomers and knickers, two sweaters, two scarves, two pairs of wool stockings, two shoes and two galoshes – but only one hat!” to watch the solar eclipse. Her voice rings out, her words starlight, traveling to me across the years, losing none of their radiance as they do:
For an hour, eight to nine, we watched the growing eclipse through dark glasses and looked at crescent shaped shadows’ reflections. Only during the last few minutes did we notice the darkness around the hills in the distance – it seemed like twilight with a brighter light focused on us.
This lasted for 117 seconds and just as I was noticing Bailey’s beads, formed on the rim of the sun by the mountains of the moon, the dazzling sunlight suddenly shot through one little round hole – you could almost hear it fizz!
I think about her standing in that meadow, looking up at the eclipsing sun so carefully, and then taking the time to describe the experience to her mother: distant but connected. In other letters, she writes about her studies, her excitement at meeting the man who became my grandfather, her worries when he falls ill soon after their marriage, her painful miscarriage, and her joy, finally, in motherhood. I can tell she and her mother were close by the sheer number of letters, but also by their tone: newsy and intimate, without a whiff of obligation. A shadow darkens my thoughts—I will never receive such letters—and I shake it away. Different era, different person.
I don’t know yet where my son’s college application essays will lead him. Will they take him as far as my grandmother traveled, writing back to her mother from dozens of places over the years? Will he circle back? Will he signal to me?
That fall night in Yosemite, my son showed me how to set the phone camera for a long exposure, holding it still in the frozen meadow while the shutter opened and gathered all the light it could. Shivering made my pictures fuzzy, but his are crystal clear, the constellations like diamonds scattered across a deep velvet sky. It applies to more than pictures, this need to stay still, to not hover or flutter, so I can fill myself up and still somehow see him when he’s gone.
The year after we visited Lowell Observatory, our family took a trip to Cape Canaveral. We learned about the crawler-transporter, a vehicle bigger than a baseball field, that carries each rocket on a five-hour journey from the assembly building to the launch pad, on a road lined with Tennessee river rocks, chosen specifically because they don’t spark fire under the pressure of the heavy crawler. Naturalists walk ahead and alongside the crawler, moving turtles and other animals gently out of harm’s way.
Am I the transporter, slowly conveying my son to the launch pad? Am I the river rock that can withstand the pressure of his cool disregard? Or am I the naturalist clearing his path?
I see myself in all of them. And I try to see my son, as clearly as I can, launching.