Heart of the Comet
“End of world.” my grandmother, Mary said. She gripped the arms of her black naugahyde recliner and peered out the picture window in my parents’ house in Montauk, searching for the reoccurrence of the fireball she’d witnessed in the night sky of 1910 and the terror it brought. Below us in Ditch Plains, most of the houses were dark this late into the winter of 1986. The summer people were long gone, only the hardy remained.
Before I got married, I used to surf those waves, rolling onto the Ditch Plains beach break on my Lady Rhodes long board in a red bikini, waist length hair pulled back tight into a ponytail, always managing to avoid the notorious rip currents running along the shore but was caught now in an undertow I refused to acknowledge. My baby daughter, Amber, gurgled and laughed in my lap as I leaned forward, needing to hear my grandmother continue her tale of the last time Halley’s Comet visited Earth, seventy-six years before when my grandmother had been twenty. My mother, Sarah, listened to the story along with me although she had heard it many times before. The 1910 comet had been brighter than four moons. The core of the comet, the coma, was made up of frozen particles of ice, gas and dust that once warmed by the sun became visible.
“People screaming, crying into streets,” my grandmother said from her chair in my parents’ house in Ditch in 1986. “I was not afraid.”
I did not doubt it. Mary had come to America from Hungary at fifteen after her beloved father, her apa, died from pneumonia contracted fishing in a storm. Her mother had remarried, having other children with her new husband. Mary had packed her metal trunk, snapping the leather straps shut and headed to America. Pretending to be another woman’s daughter, she’d eluded questions and found her way onboard the ship which brought her to into the Port of New York where she’d become an actress on the Hungarian stage. Traditional embroidered costumes, flowing dark hair, and a voice so sure and strong. She had not been beautiful in the usual sense, face too round, eyes too small but she radiated outward to everyone who saw her. One had singled her out with love and many promises.
Mary held my hand on my marriage day.
“Kek eyes like you, blue. Hands soft.”
My grandmother had looked sad.
Unlike the reflection in her eyes that night in 1986 in the house on the hill in Ditch Plains.
“Tail of comet was like broom, sweeping stars across sky, clearing the way,” she said with certainty.
My grandmother paused, turning her head to squint outside again. I stared, too. The returning Halley’s Comet was not yet in view. My mother, Sarah, joined us at the window. She had deep brown hair like me, the color of expresso at the bottom of an empty cup.
Amber squealed and my grandmother held out her arms. My daughter let go of me, wiggling and stretching until she slid out of my grasp into the older woman’s lap.
The Montauk night darkened.
“Mom,” my mother said gently. “Do you think you’ll be able to walk with us to the bottom of the driveway to see the comet? It will be coming in low on the horizon, hard to see clearly from up here with the pine trees on the front lawn blocking most of your view. Won’t be as bright as when you saw it last. The comet’s tail isn’t passing through Earth like before.”
“Will watch from my chair, Sari. Good eyes.” Sari was short for Sarika, my mother’s Hungarian name, Americanized to Sarah, a change immigrants often made with the names they’d left behind.
My grandmother adjusted her spectacles, kissed Amber, then handed her back to me.
“Strong one and another coming. A girl child. You will see.”
How did she know I was trying for another baby?
Mary had gypsy blood, according to the family story. Always correct at predicting the sex of all of our children. Her creamy white hair was once been as dark as mine. What else could she sense? I averted my eyes. I had always been good at concealing, even the truth from myself about my difficult marriage. Hopes and dreams.
Montauk was the perfect place to view the comet, unspoiled by bright city and suburban lights —a clear, cold winter night in 1986, far from the busy lives most people live, where they never think to look up at the stars. Our small town at the tip of Long Island was free of the light pollution that plagued other areas, a place to relax and observe, to enjoy our time at this very moment, reflect on our past, and envision our future. Not sure I could.
My grandmother smiled at me then turned back to the window. She was one of the rare few who would see Halley’s Comet twice in their lifetime. Amber will be another, many years from now with her own children, long after I am gone.
The sound of the roaring ocean magnified by the wind rushed into the room as my mother swung the front door open, salty sea air caressing us like a loving hand. The waves surrounding Montauk continually etched away at the sandy beaches, rocky shoreline, and mighty bluffs —could not be stopped.
But I could stop my husband’s mood swings, the screaming that appeared without warning and disappeared just as suddenly, couldn’t I?
My mother touched my arm then clicked on her flashlight, leading Amber and me down the steep driveway to the road. When we reached bottom, I studied at the horizon, searching for the fiery display that my grandmother had seen all those years ago to reassure me that I had chosen the right path.
Don’t panic. You are an experienced swimmer. Try to breathe.
A frosty sea wind sliced through the layers of my coat as I hugged Amber closer. My little girl started cooing, as if welcoming the comet, born in the icy Ort Cloud at the edge of the galaxy eons ago, choosing Earth from all the other planets to come back to again and again.
“Look, there it is!” cried my mother.
I blinked in the cold trying to find the spot she was pointing to.
The stars spread out across the night like a sprinkling of diamonds on a velvet cloth with no moon to dim the view of the grand constellations of winter: Orion, Perseus, Cassiopeia.
“Don’t see it, Mom. Where?”
Amber was suddenly still as if looking, too.
“Above the neighbor’s roof.”
The pitch of my mother’s voice changed to that of a younger woman as a fuzzy meatball of light with a short, blob of a tail was barely visible.
“That’s it?” I said, expecting more.
“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” my mother said, dancing a pirouette like I had seen her do in an old photograph in front of the Montauk Lighthouse. She’d been through the Great Depression and the loss of her first love, a pilot, shot down during World War II. My grandmother had survived an abusive bootlegger husband, finally sticking him in a nursing home and outliving him. Not what either woman had expected. Hopes and dreams.
Amber’s head nodded into to my chest, she would soon be asleep. The pale comet continued across the sky.
I looked behind me at the silhouette of my grandmother watching us from her chair. At that moment, I knew in the end I would be all right. Many years later, after both my daughters were grown, I finally let go of my marriage and entered the life meant for me.
“Honey, I love you,” my mother said that night in Montauk, giving me a hug. She smelled of the sea. We started back up the driveway toward the house, where my grandmother was waiting.