An enormous full moon rises over low hills east of Riverside, California. I am two, maybe three, and cling to my mother in the cool twilight. We have come outside after supper to watch. It will be something to remember, she says.
It has remained one of my earliest and most enduring memories. In my mind’s eye the moon looms above the horizon and seems to move toward us and even though I know it could not really have filled half the sky I have always known that something important happened.
Somehow my mother and I never talked about it, not in the years we were together nor after she left, and I’ve never understood what exactly we witnessed. The image is like a tattered snapshot of recall with only the place—Riverside—to identify it.
The first time I heard of something called a “supermoon” was when my meteorologist niece sent me an article in 2011 (this seems to have been the first time that the term, originally coined by astrologers, crossed over to popular science writing). On March 19, the NASA story said, a “full moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset … a super ‘perigee moon’—the biggest in almost 20 years.”
What was going to happen was uncommon but not unprecedented, and this official encouragement to stop in our usual routines to go outside and wait for the moon caught my attention. It was the kind of thing my mother would have made time for.
Two years later, leaving Gambier, Ohio at the end of a week-long writing workshop, I found myself gazing at a full golden moon rising above the turrets of Bexley Hall. A headline in that day’s Columbus Dispatch, I remembered then, had read “Super Moon Looks Bigger Because It’s Closer.” While the week’s essays had all been completed, I felt there was an unfinished assignment about another such moon. After a week at Kenyon, everything seemed like it might make a good essay, but I’d also fallen in love with the nonfiction “braided” narrative form. I could combine elements of memoir with explorations of lunar phenomena. What causes a supermoon? Why is it rare? The moon could serve as an extended metaphor to tie together the difficult story of my family, my mother, maybe even myself. It would require some research into both astronomy and family history.
The former would turn out to be easier than the latter; the project begun June 25, 2013 is only now nearing completion.
My family story is full of missing pieces, and getting started on a personal narrative stalled repeatedly when I couldn’t remember or find out from someone else where and when things had happened.
Our poet mother and engineer father were both in the Army when they met in Washington, DC at the end of World War II. The war ended, they married and like everyone else they began having babies.
It didn’t work out.
In fourteen years they separated at least five times. Having another baby was more than once a way to reconcile, but after a decade and a half of marriage and four daughters they finally gave it up. Our father got custody (she left or he stole us; another missing story), and at the end of 1962 my sisters and I were sent to live with him. We left behind our friends, our home town and our mother; that radical discontinuity, like a head injury, seemed to cause a kind of retrograde amnesia.
In reasonably intact and functional families, important stories become more similar; agreed-upon accounts emerge with time. Such collaborative memory is at work when a group of friends reconstructs all the details about a particular film. Two people might be stymied at “what was that one in Texas with that no-good and his pink Cadillac?” but by the end of a good dinner party the joint account will include Patricia Neal’s Oscar, Paul Newman’s most unpleasant character, and the fact that Hud was filmed in black and white.
It wasn’t so much a broken home as an atomized one. My mother was gone, then my older sister ran away. The little ones hadn’t been born yet when we lived in California. A collaborative account of that mysterious moon or of other mystifying events has never been possible.
My father had been dead ten years before I realized he still might provide at least some of my life story, the part about where we’d lived and exactly when we’d lived there. He’d been a government bureaucrat, and as anyone who’s had a civil service job will understand, he regularly updated his “SF-171” form. That infuriatingly exacting job application required that the applicant list every past place of residence by date.
I almost didn’t try to find it. My father had always resisted talking about the past and I felt I was doing something against his wishes. But when I did obtain a copy it gave me something I’d never had before—a complete list of where we’d lived and when we’d lived there and how many times, exactly, we had moved.
Eight times by the time they split up; seven more before I left for college.
This put it together. Astronomical records document perigee and full moons, and the civil service form showed that we lived in Riverside from June 1951 to December 1954. There were four perigee full moons during that time, and the first of these would have been right after we’d moved from Washington, a few weeks before my third birthday. My parents, in a phase of energy, optimism and closeness (a perigee in one of the repeated cycles that characterized their disastrous marriage), might have taken time from unpacking to go for an evening walk.
We lived in California for three and a half years, but a close look at my father’s civil service form shows that my parents separated twice during that time. Only the first supermoon occurred at a time when my mother and I would have been in Riverside to see it.
That’s the best I can do. Starting with the persistent image-memory, adding in astronomical data and cross-referencing a list of addresses, I finally had a complete and plausible account.
I have clung tenaciously to fragmented recollections of life with my mother, and it was with an uncanny sense of discovery that I first read the word “supermoon,” first unfolded that civil service form and first constructed a narrative that had seemed lost forever.
We are in Riverside and I am almost three and my mother and I have seen the amazing moon that I will remember for the rest of my life, rising enormous and red. And then, I know this must be true and perhaps I remember it, we watch as the moon rises further and seems to become smaller, turning from pink to yellow as the sky deepens to blue, paling to a flat silver coin pasted on a black sky. Did we stay outside until dark? Did the stars come out? I might have felt the air becoming chilly. Maybe I remember being carried home. I know when it was and I know where it was and I know, finally, that I was there.
(My 7500 word essay “Supermoon” is currently seeking a literary magazine home.)