Big Gazing

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Frederick Buechner, “Now and Then”

Grandpa Glasoe was a sturdy, self-assured, first generation Norwegian, carried to America in his mother’s womb and born two months after their arrival in Minnesota. He longed for respectability, which moved him to work toward and achieve a Ph.D, the first one in Chemistry given by the University of Minnesota in 1901. He became a professor of chemistry at St. Olaf College, where he spent his entire teaching career. He had earned respect, and he protected that carefully.

His grandchildren held him in awe, especially after about age 5, when we were no longer cute little toddlers that he could chuck under the chin and dandle on his knee. By age 5, it was time to mold us into respectable and obedient children, and Grandpa became the critical and frowning force that we dared not disobey. (When I visited the old homestead in my 60’s, I walked into his library, still full of majestic books, and I could not bring myself to speak out loud. One rarely entered Grandpa’s library anyway, and if we chanced to, we knew we were to be quiet. His frown was terrifying.)

I met up with a different side of my stern Nordic grandpa, though, one night when I was perhaps 8 years old.

My family had a cottage on a lake in northwestern Wisconsin, where we spent our summers away from our home in Ohio. Grandpa and Grandma would arrive once a summer for a visit. Grandpa seemed to relax more there, and perhaps that is why I saw him differently that one starry night.

He and my dad had discovered that the Northern Lights were out! As the eldest child, I was chosen to go out in our old flat-bottomed wooden boat with them, rowing out to the middle of our bay to get a good look. Being in that boat with the two men whom I looked up to the most in my life, I was delirious with joy at being The Chosen One for this singular moment.

Once we were far enough from shore and trees, using the Norwegian form of my name, Grandpa pointed his finger toward the dark sky and quietly said, “Marta, look!”

The heavens were black and millions of stars were twinkling, a sight that I’d seen many times. But I could not miss something new: the elegant, dazzling, bright greens of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, dancing overhead, formed into undulating curtains of shooting neon, moving on and on, endlessly waltzing across the vast expanse of the sky overhead.

“What is it?” I breathlessly asked. My teacher grandpa explained patiently. I was overcome with awe.

I moved down into the bottom of the boat so that I could look up more comfortably. I lay there, my heart about to burst with the glory of it all. It was the first time I’d ever seen them, and my little 8-year-old spirit was almost unable to take all that grandeur in. But it did.

Grandpa and Daddy sat quietly with me, all three of us, devotees of the earth’s incomparable beauty, knowing that words would be inadequate, so only sighing or uttering, “Ohhhhhhh!!!!!” over and over again. Gazing up at the gift being given to us all. One that would be forever etched on our hearts.

I saw the soft side of my Grandpa, and I never feared his gruffness again. We had had that most special kind of time together, and it became part of my spirit that endures to this day.

Perhaps that is why, Tuesday night, I was brought home to myself after 3 days of PTS – the post-traumatic stress that cancer patients can often feel after treatment is over. I had been tossed back into the tears of sadness and anger and flashbacks over the weekend, not sure what was going on. I was just bummed out that I’d had to go through that awful journey, and I was dismayed that I was still trying to break free of the clutches of it all.

I had begun to search for something to watch on t.v. when I came across a video of Joanna Lumley, going as far north in Norway as she could physically go to find the Northern Lights. I was immediately swept up in the primal wonder of this ancestral land and watched every moment with laser-sharp focus. Waiting. Waiting.

Mesmerized by all the scenery of Norway and the Norwegians that she was with, I was finally treated to the most spectacular Aurora Borealis I have ever seen!!! And now, the tears were tears of release, of pure joy, of letting go of the weekend’s upheaval on this night.

And I remembered: a little girl, her grandpa and her daddy. Captured for life by the lights of the North. And by the tenderness and grace of being together one magical summer night on the lake.