I lived in Queens, New York - Astoria, to be precise - in the mid-eighties. The subway train was the double-R back then and the last stop was Ditmars Boulevard. In fact, the conductor always announced over the PA system: "Ditmahs bull-vard, last stop on the Double-R. Ditmahs, Ditmahs, last stop."
One night, very late, I came into the station with a backpack of broken dreams. I'd started out some twenty-eight hours earlier in Athens, Greece. I'd lost my girl in France somewhere when we'd split company in a country town in Normandy. I'd also lost my favorite wool sweater that I'd carried all over Europe. I left it on the train I'd transferred from. I was more upset about the sweater than I was about that girl. So the conductor screeched that shrill "last stop, last stop" and I trudged out of the train and down the stairs thinking about journeys, adventures and their final acts.
Sometimes the story is about its ending. Perhaps all stories are.
The details aren't important, but I remember them all the same. I was coming home at maybe six-thirty one morning, I worked in restaurants back in those days, usually closing the one I worked in and then closing the bar I went to afterwards. It was crisp and clear with a river chill from the East River not but a few blocks away. Dawn was hinting behind the endless rows of buildings. There were people out and on their way to work or out for coffee or a bagel or gooey cinnamon bun from the bakery.
A little girl of five or so bundled in a red-fringed, pink parka, dirty and worn yet serviceable - not unlike the neighborhood she called her own - held the hand of an old man, her mittened hand in his brown and wrinkled, strong and proud hand. He wore a tan overcoat buttoned to his neck and under a fifties style hat a fringe of grey hair was trimmed neatly.
The man stooped a bit and walked slowly but there was pride in his stoop and his step - the sort of pride that only comes with character and honor. The girl looked up at him adoringly. For some reason, so did I.
They were a few paces ahead of me and stopped at a crosswalk, waiting to cross Ditmars. I lived on the side we were on and didn't need to cross. The light changed and they started out. I'd been fumbling to light a cigarette and stopped myself near the curb to cup the match which blew out in the wet wind. I turned my back to the wind and glimpsed the girl and the man. As I dropped the match I saw the girl look down the street and stop. Surprise and joy flushed her face and she pulled the hand of the old man and tugged him to a stop maybe a third of the way through the street.
The wind turned her words to me and I heard her sweet voice say, "Oh, Abuelo, look. Mira, mira!"
I looked in the direction of her gaze but saw nothing of note, only buildings and bricks and wires and signs and pigeons and gulls. Their gaze was not up, but more out - straight down the street.
"Santa María, Madre de Dios," the old man said into the wind. I knew it was a prayer, but I couldn't figure why. There was no fear or concern in their faces.
I had to know.
I walk towards them and end up a little behind them and I follow their gaze and...
"My God," I say, perhaps my own attempt at a prayer, although I didn't know it then.
The street rises for a few blocks ahead of me and then slopes off towards the river. There, where all those horizon and perspective lines meet a full, huge, shimmering orange moon is setting right in the middle of the street. It is astonishing.
"It is the moon, my child," he says gently, "Esta la luna."
"Estalaluna..." she says it all in one breath, as though it were one word.
He notices me behind him. He smiles and gestures to it, as though he is giving it to me, just as his granddaughter had given it to him, just as wise old men have been giving the moon to beautiful young girls and foolish young men since we all first looked up.
"Esta la luna, esta la luna, esta la luna..." she sings and we laugh and I notice something else. The light has changed, the cars are waiting, but, none blow their horns or curse out their windows, in fact it is quiet and all eyes are on the strange scene we must present.
I point to the crossing signal and the old man realizes we are holding it all up. He laughs and nods toward me then looks toward the far curb. He pirouettes the singing girl with his one hand and grabs my elbow with the other and we head to the sidewalk. The cars rumble, the elevated clicks and clacks in the distance, air brakes pop, and time begins again.
"Gracias, thank you," he says, squeezing my shoulder as he looks me in the eye and deeper.
"No, no, thank you, I wouldn't have seen it if you hadn't been looking at it." I mean it.
"I didn't see it, it was mi hermosa nieta..."
Yes, his beautiful granddaughter. She showed us her moon. She opened our eyes and stopped time. We smile down at her, still humming her moonsong, and we wonder, with rivertears in our eyes, at how important it all seems.
I watch them as they stroll on down the street, a hear the tinkle of the bell in the bakery and I hope she gets a sweet, gooey cinnamon bun.
I'll never forget it.
I thought of them, Abuelo and his grandchild, last night as I watched the moonrise and then watched the shadow of the earth trace its crescent path across the blood orange moon. I thought about the story, which I've told many times, and how I thought it ended. When I told it in the past it was mostly about how fantastic the moon looked setting in the street, how other-worldly it was, how odd and juxtaposed the craters and shadows of it seemed against the buildings.
But last night I thought about that girl. I wondered how her life had been. I felt her sorrow when the old man passed on. I hoped she remembered that moment when they gave me the moon. It was a new perspective on an old story. Painted now with the brushes of parenthood I saw it so differently. I considered the many times I have shown the boys the moon - rising full reflecting in the golds of sunset; setting in the mornings straight down the east-west road we live on at solstice; a sliver of silver, tiny and pale above cirrus clouds in the blue of a summer's day.
One has a lot of time watching a lunar eclipse, it's a slow process, a slow, well crafted story savoring itself, listening to itself. When finally the corner crescent flickered out like a lamp run out of oil, I thought of the other times I'd seen an eclipse. On a hill in a pasture in Ohio. On a rooftop in Brooklyn. In a forest clearing I can't remember when or where.
I thought of conclusions. I thought that that was a helluva a show. And I waited to see it again. And I waited. There had been some haze and high clouds drifting through as I watched the eclipse, never obscuring but sometimes blurring the event. I figured it had clouded over and I decided to go back in. Just for fun though, I wondered back into the yard, further back, beyond the maples and the the dying locust tree and I looked up one more time.
Like the slit of a cat's eye opening the story was starting again. But then it hit me. This was the second act, this is the climax, this is the happy ending. And I got my chair and sat and watched the moon get big again and understood why we always watch the moon, why we show or sons and daughters the moon, why we've tracked this lunar orbit so carefully since the beginning of time - it is the ultimate story of redemption and hope and spirit and trust.
Just before the boys went to bed last night we trundled them out onto the driveway and showed them the beginning of the eclipse, just that part where the shadow first begins to nibble the edges of that round pie in the sky. Nick mentioned that it seemed a little creepy to him. He is right I think, but...
... sometimes you just gotta wait for the story to finish.
Here's a silly picture...
...because, sometimes you just need a silly picture to get your perspective back.
Nick: "You can't have a MEss without ME."
(there were chocolate frosted donuts at Donut Sunday)
Thanks, as always, for coming around. I like that you do. I like thinking these words land somewhere and I am glad it was with you.
Peace to you and yours.
(I wrote a song once called Nick and Zack Song. In the bridge there is a line that says, "I'll watch you watch the setting moon." I just now realized it is because of that little girl I knew I wanted to do that with, and for, my boys. I wanted, when they were just infants, to give them the moon which was given to me as is the way of all true stories.)