the archivist March 12, 2012
silhouette photo of aurora borealis

Everyone was talking about seeing the aurora borealis this past week. It was a reminder that this thing I love and obsess about is something many other people love and obsess about as well.

I saw the northern lights when I was 6 years old, and I have never recovered. I will never rest until I see them again.

The circumstances which led me to them were far from ideal. How can one put this delicately…. one can’t. My father’s parents were horrible people. Had they lived in different times, they probably would have ended up on the news for how they abused their children, and/or on reality TV for how they drank, fought, and struggled with one another. But the downside of the fabulous, stylish, future-loving 50s was that tendency to look the other way on things that really shouldn’t have been tolerated.

An ugly digression about a topic so beautiful. Can’t be helped, I’m afraid.

Fast forward many years. My father had always tried to maintain a relationship with his parents, even as he became a miserable, violent alcoholic himself. There were some wild family barbeques, let me tell you. Anyway, my father’s father had a stroke when I was five, becoming paralyzed on one side and causing a kind of forced détente, at least temporarily. My father’s mother still wanted to go out to bars and bingo on weekend nights, so my father would take care of his father every Friday or Saturday evening. We didn’t have a washing machine in our tiny rental Cape Cod, so my mother would usually schlep the dirty laundry and me to spend the evening there as well. She often drove separately because my grandmother tended not to come home before one or two a.m., at which point my father could leave.

So it was on a winter night in 1989 that my mother and I were heading home from Zilwaukee to Midland along country roads unpolluted by light, and we saw them.

The Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis. A pink-and-green light show across the sky.

It was one of those moments where everything you sense becomes tied together. Belinda Carlisle on the radio. The aftertaste of root beer still in my mouth. The way our Mercury Capri (with its big bubble rear window) was always a little drafty and always smelled faintly of antifreeze. I couldn’t forget one part of it without forgetting them all, and that was impossible.

Pink and green. I was obsessed with them. Of course, being that it was 1989, so was everyone else. About a year and a half later, I found some cheap, extra smelly nail polish at Meijer in those two colors, and tried to reflect my soul’s new color scheme with them. It never worked, but I was always trying to do something like this:

Eventually, of course, I moved on to other colors. Royal purple and turquoise. Hunter green and burgundy. Navy and silver. Forest green and brown. Teal and coral.

But I never forgot, and neither did my mother. She saw an overpriced framed photo of the Northern Lights in a Coldwater Creek catalog, and bought it for me.

No photo can capture them, of course. The framed piece wasn’t really my taste, and I have hung it in a less-than-prominent place in every apartment, probably to my roommates’ chagrin to hang it at all. Yet it meant so much to me that my mother wanted to remember that night every bit as hard as I did. It’s on the wall above the stairs at my current place. It will be packed carefully and moved to a new place soon, where it will again be hung somewhere to remind me to look up.

It took me a long time to warm to Ann Arbor in my college years, including its music scene. The Original Brother and Sisters of Love hadn’t been a favorite right away, and when they reconvened as Great Lakes Myth Society, I listened to their first CD with some skepticism toward all the local hype. Track 3 was good. Track 9 was about the area in which I grew up, and was spot-on. And then track 11 came along.

When the cold starts/To work overtime/ To impress you/ And the Northern Lights/ Get into your marrow/ And pull your jawbone slack…

That was it exactly. They were in my marrow, and they couldn’t be extracted. The whole song hovers between a rollicking pub song and a religious chorus. It was the most perfect expression of the aurora borealis. And, perhaps, my family.

So many years have passed now. “Love Story” has become one of my all-time-favorite, desert-island songs. “Isabella County, 1992” still makes me smile, and “The Northern Lights Over Atlanta, Michigan” remains the best song about the aurora borealis to date. Of course, the list is not long (Flock of Seagulls, anyone?).

I haven’t seen them again, although I looked last Friday, with all the talk of celestial storms. Though perhaps that wouldn’t have been the same as the surprise sighting on the way home that night, so long ago. And even if I never saw them again, I think, perhaps, it will have been enough.