For those aware that there is a thing called the sky, tonight will present those of us located on the continental United States with a “supermoon,” as newspaper headline writers love to call it.
The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle; it varies from 221,000 miles away to just over 252,000 miles away. Tonight, it will be at perigee, or its closest point in its orbit, and that will coincide with the full moon. Thus, tonight’s full moon will appear enormous: 14% larger than the average full moon and many times brighter than average. And then the Earth’s shadow took it away in an eclipse, because that’s what the Earth does.
Last September, there was a supermoon/full lunar eclipse combo platter. At sunset/moonrise that night, Jen and I were driving home and turned a bend in the highway and there it was: the moon but larger than anyone has seen it in a few years (the last time its perigee coincided with the full moon was in 2011). It looked like the Moon we always knew and loved but one that was coming in to dictate the terms of our surrender to it. Jen and I parked and gawped at it. (Well, I gawp at things. She exclaims things. Our board game nights are worth recording.)
We did not own a telescope when I was a child and I do not remember if either my sister or I ever expressed an interest in possessing one, but my parents considered each occasional celestial phenomena the cause of a family outing. I remember this family history with great fondness now, which I think was something our mother would predict for my sister and I when we were swaddled in the back of our station wagon, wondering why we were outside at this horrible hour just to stare at the sky.
“You will remember nights like this,” Mom would say with a smile. “You won’t remember whether you got a full night’s sleep tonight years from now, but you’ll remember seeing” whatever she and my father had brought us out to view. Sometimes it was the Perseids or the Leonids and sometimes it was a lunar eclipse, sometimes partial, sometimes total.
I think I remember the lunar eclipses particularly well because they are action-packed compared to patiently awaiting a shooting star and then another shooting star, and because eclipses end. There is no natural point of departing during a meteor shower, other than when the hot chocolate gets cold. (And then we would return home, and I would discover while lying in bed that I already missed being outside in the cold, already missed gawping at the sky.)
Our parents did not send us to bed expecting to be awakened a few hours later to drive into the country to look upwards, so each night-sky outing was its own event and seemed to be sprung on us as a new thing when they awoke us. My parents are not scientifically-inclined, so no explanations were offered, and whatever we were looking at and for was always mysterious, beautiful, an unexpected gift.
My dad would drive our station wagon to whatever local high point away from the lights that he could find, which is not an easy trick to accomplish in suburban Poughkeepsie. One of our local schools had a parking lot that sufficed, especially for the eclipses.
It was in adulthood that I discovered the appeal of wandering out into a field with a beloved someone and staring at the deep country sky and keeping warm together while the hot chocolate went cold.
I have told my girlfriend many times about these childhood drives into the night. She also did not grow up in a science-minded family, but hers did not look upwards at all, even when something attention-grabbing was taking place up there.
So there we were during last year’s “supermoon,” together. We looked at the sky, kept each other warm, and no explanations were offered, so everything was mysterious, beautiful, an unexpected gift.
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A couple paragraphs of this first appeared here almost three years ago, in November 2013.
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Tonight’s “supermoon” is the closest perigee the moon has made since 1948, and it is the closest it will come until November 25, 2034.
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