Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Watching Hale-Bopp
by Rachel Dickinson

Several years ago my mother was obsessed with the Hale-Bopp comet. This was not a magnificent obsession -- she didn't read everything ever written about the comet or invest in a telescope or check out the Heaven's Gate website. Her obsession had a less frantic edge to it and was, at the same time, sweet and melancholy.

She first really noticed the comet one evening as we left the church after rehearsing our Easter cantata. I had just turned off the porch light and was locking the church door when I noticed she was standing on the steps. I thought she was taking it all in -- the unnaturally warm March evening, the sound of the peepers peeping, the reverberations of the Bach and Handel we had just sung -- and all seemed right with the universe. But she was just standing, staring at a point in the sky to the left of the silhouettes of the tall pine trees across the street. She finally said, "There it is -- there's your 'hey Bob' comet." (When I first heard about the comet it was from the radio and I was sure the announcer called it "hey Bob.") And indeed there it was, looking just like the picture of the Bethlehem star that appears on Sunday morning church programs around the country during the Advent season.

Over the course of the next several weeks my mother often brought up the comet in conversation. "Did you see the comet last night?" she'd ask. "It just hung in the sky surrounded by millions of stars." Or she'd give me facts -- facts that were well known to anyone who had read a newspaper or magazine that spring. Facts like "did you know that the comet's tail is a million miles long?" and "the last time the comet came near Earth was at the dawn of civilization." She would occasionally call me mid-evening and tell me that I had to go into the backyard, away from the street lights, to look at the comet. "And take your binoculars," she'd say. "It's particularly bright tonight."

I loved hearing about the comet from my mother. She'd tell me of sitting on her back porch, wrapped in a coat, during the early spring evenings so she could look at the comet that hung bright and still beyond the bare branches of the lilac tree. I could imagine her sitting there thinking about her parents who never got the chance to see anything as amazing as this comet. And I imagined her marveling at the collapsed notion of history -- she was looking at the same comet that probably terrified the people who were building the great pyramids in Egypt, and the next people to see this comet will never even know she existed.

My own relationship to the comet was not as complicated. I liked reading about the comet -- its almost simultaneous discovery by Hale and Bopp, the details of its size and shape, and where it fit in our universe. And on several especially clear evenings I had occasion to drive along Cayuga Lake in Upstate New York, far from all the street lights, just as the comet was at its brightest. The comet was perfectly framed between the dark hills that defined the boundaries of the narrow glacial lake and was tilted at such an angle that it looked as if it was about to pitch into the hills on the far side. Although this was achingly breathtaking, I looked at it for a few seconds and kept driving.

My then twelve-year-old daughter barely took note of the comet. She is a thoughtful girl who's just becoming aware that the world is bigger than our living room. On the several occasions I dragged her outside to view Hale-Bopp she seemed properly impressed and pronounced it "beautiful" after looking at it for 30 seconds through the binoculars. And when I tried to start conversations about the comet, she'd politely feign interest and then change the subject.

I guess comet-viewing in my family broke down along generational lines. My mother is well acquainted with the idea of mortality and the fragility of life and the environment. She also marks many events by how they relate to her lifespan. She lives on a street where, until a few years ago, the occupants of the houses hadn't changed since "she was a little girl," and when a neighbor cut down a huge tree she couldn't drive past their house for months because, she said, "that tree's been there as long as I can remember." When the village talked about planting saplings along the main street, she remarked "they'll never amount to anything while I'm alive."

This self-referential view actually helped her savor the comet. Every night she could sit on her porch and thoroughly enjoy that comet because it was whizzing past the Earth at the same time she happened to be on it. I also think she enjoyed the fact that this comet was truly inaccessible to man who, she believed, was determined to change and control everything within reach. As the comet grew fuzzy and indistinct and finally left our part of the world, she grew more and more silent about it, until finally, she couldn't talk about it at all.

I know that when my daughter grows up she'll talk about seeing the comet and will probably remember it the same way I remember looking through a negative at solar eclipses when I was a kid -- it was a neat astronomical experience you had with a parent. I, on the other hand, will always feel bad that I couldn't muster the passion my mother felt toward the comet. And I'll also regret not taking more time to really appreciate Hale-Bopp because I am old enough to know what I missed.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York and writes for a number of publications including Audubon, Islands Magazine, New Choices, and The Christian Science Monitor.