Everyone was talking about seeing the aurora borealis this past week. It was a reminder that this thing I love and obsess about is something many other people love and obsess about as well.
I saw the northern lights when I was 6 years old, and I have never recovered. I will never rest until I see them again.
The circumstances which led me to them were far from ideal. How can one put this delicately…. one can’t. My father’s parents were horrible people. Had they lived in different times, they probably would have ended up on the news for how they abused their children, and/or on reality TV for how they drank, fought, and struggled with one another. But the downside of the fabulous, stylish, future-loving 50s was that tendency to look the other way on things that really shouldn’t have been tolerated.
An ugly digression about a topic so beautiful. Can’t be helped, I’m afraid.
Fast forward many years. My father had always tried to maintain a relationship with his parents, even as he became a miserable, violent alcoholic himself. There were some wild family barbeques, let me tell you. Anyway, my father’s father had a stroke when I was five, becoming paralyzed on one side and causing a kind of forced détente, at least temporarily. My father’s mother still wanted to go out to bars and bingo on weekend nights, so my father would take care of his father every Friday or Saturday evening. We didn’t have a washing machine in our tiny rental Cape Cod, so my mother would usually schlep the dirty laundry and me to spend the evening there as well. She often drove separately because my grandmother tended not to come home before one or two a.m., at which point my father could leave.
So it was on a winter night in 1989 that my mother and I were heading home from Zilwaukee to Midland along country roads unpolluted by light, and we saw them.
The Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis. A pink-and-green light show across the sky.
It was one of those moments where everything you sense becomes tied together. Belinda Carlisle on the radio. The aftertaste of root beer still in my mouth. The way our Mercury Capri (with its big bubble rear window) was always a little drafty and always smelled faintly of antifreeze. I couldn’t forget one part of it without forgetting them all, and that was impossible.