My mom would have been 69 yesterday. I couldn’t make her lamb stew, or an icebox cake. I couldn’t buy flowers or send a card. So, instead, here’s a story about Jackson Ave – the small town block where she raised me. She would have liked it.
The sky was clear that night, and the lights from Atlantic City had not yet blotted out the stars entirely. The Westcoats, who lived across the street, were the first out of their house, dragging tattered lawn chairs to the sidewalk. Mr. and Mrs. Westcoat set the chairs up carefully side by side and lowered themselves into them, glancing up at the sky.
I was ten years old that spring, and the wait was almost too much to bear. I hopped from foot to foot on the cold slate of the foyer in our old ranch house on Jackson Ave., pressing my nose up against the glass of the storm door so I could see the street better. Someone on the city council had decided that the streetlights should be shut off that night so that the residents of Northfield could see better. It was a once in a lifetime event – everyone said so.
The door of the yellow house at 612 Jackson banged open and Linda came down her walk with her ancient collie, Chenny, at her heels. She had an orange blanket tucked beneath one arm, a flashlight under the other, and wine glasses and a bottle balanced in her hands. She lifted the glasses in greeting as she crossed the street. Then came the DeSalles, from 614, with the block’s other ten year old leading the way swinging a flashlight from her wrist.
“Jen’s here!” I shouted, and raced out of the door barefoot, ignoring my mom’s calls to please put on my shoes. We met in middle of the block, dancing wildly together until I tripped on the uneven sidewalk, pushed up by the roots of the old sugar maples. My mom came out, holding my shoes in her hand, socks tucked inside. She gave me “the look”, handed them to me, and headed across the street. Jen one-foot-two-footed along the hopscotch board we had chalked on the sidewalk earlier that day while I pulled on my shoes. My dad came from the back of the house, carrying two chairs under his arm, and took my hand as we stepped off the curb.
All told, there were thirteen of us waiting there as the night deepened. The men leaned against the car, legs crossed, Budweisers in hand, occasionally glancing up at the sky as they talked about the Eagles’ draft prospects. The women sipped pink wine and chatted about this and that –the neighbor on the corner nobody ever saw and when the city would come fix the sidewalks. Jen and I sat, heads together, noses pointed to the sky, not daring to blink.
We sat like that for what seemed like hours. The wine ran out, and the conversation slowed. Jen’s baby brother fell asleep on their mom’s lap, and I struggled to keep my eyes open and focused on the stars. “There it is!” someone called out, and everyone jumped up, looking to the south, squinting at the sky. “There! Over there!” We all tried to follow the finger to see just what, exactly, it was pointing at.
“I see it too!”
“There! Right above the chimney! Don’t you see its tail?” Voices joined in one-by-one until all of us – except the baby, who slept through it – were declaring we’d spotted it and exclaiming over the bright length of its tail.
The media would report later that Halley’s Comet had not been very visible in 1986. Sightings were rare. In fact, it was the worst viewing year in centuries. But on Jackson Ave., we saw that comet, and we would tell you so. Every last one of us. It was, after all, a once in a lifetime event.