Who knew that a basic grasp of astronomy was a requirement for being a good parent?
It started, as it so often does in this house, with a new fear. One day, out of the blue, MJ decided she was afraid of night. Understandable, but a little challenging nonetheless. Bedtime grew more prolonged. Sleep more interrupted. And discussions about night grew as common as, well, stars in the sky.
“What is night?” Myra-Jean queried. “When will night time come?” But my personal favorite was: “Why is there night?” It’s an excellent question. And, knowledge being power, I felt it was best to try to answer her clearly, so that there would be no mystery, and therefore — hopefully — no consternation.
I waited for an opportunity. It came soon enough. One night at dinner, as I tried to get MJ to hurry up and finish, she dodged the green bean I was attempting to feed her, held up a finger, and said:
“Mama, why is there night?”
I took a breath. I wanted the meal to be done, so we could start bath time. But this was important. I had wanted an opportunity…
“You know what, sweetie?” I said, slapping my hands on my thighs. “I’m going to show you.
I rose from the table and grabbed two onions off of the counter. One red, one white.
“What are those?” my daughter asked.
“These,” I said with a flourish, “are the solar system!”
If a two-year-old can stare blankly at you, my daughter did. Undaunted, I held up the white onion.
“Here’s the sun,” I said. “And this reddish guy? He’s the earth.” I began moving the white onion in a circle around the red one. “The sun circles the earth, and everything turns, and when the earth turns away from the sun, there’s night.”
I know. I know! Galileo was rolling in his grave. And shouting — in Italian — “For this I went through an Inquisition?”
It only took me a day to relaize I had steered MJ all wrong. How embarrassing. Fortunately for me, the same question came up at lunch again the next day.
“Why is there night, Mama?” Myra-Jean asked plaintively, pushing chicken bits around her plate with one finger.
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “Mama made a mistake the other night. I’d like to set it straight.”
She looked up hopefully. “The onions again?” her eyes seemed to say.
Yup. The onions again. This time I gave MJ the heliocentric version. The correct one, that is. The red onion circled the white one. I did my best to simultaneously turn it on its axis, although the human wrist is clearly not designed to perform such an exercise.
There was a produce sticker on the “earth.” I informed MJ that that was California. “When the sticker turns away from the sun –” I swivelled the onion — “it’s night. When it turns back, it’s day.” Finally I rested my hands on the table. “Do you understand?”
MJ stared at both onions. She picked at “California.” Then she smiled.
“Do it again, Mama!”
So I did. And again, and again. Finally the questions ceased. I assumed the issue was resolved.
Until one evening recently, when MJ and I sat on our front steps “watching the world go by.” The garden had been watered, Mina sat happily on the walk behind us, and we were doing what we loved to do at this time of day: a whole lot of nothing. Finches caused a pleasant ruckus in the feeder above our heads. Everything else was still.
Then Myra Jean reached for a piece of sidewalk chalk lying nearby. Handing it to me with a glint in her eye she said: “Mama, why is there night?”
I did the best I could. Avoiding the leek family completely, I drew a simple sun, a blue earth, and once again described the rotations that occur to make night and day transpire. When I was done, we had this:
MJ seemed pleased. But not enough. “Do another one!” she demanded.
I moved up a step to give myself a clean canvas.
This time I wrote the words. God knows why. It’s not like she can read. I changed the earth to yellow and white, too. Probably more accurate, considering all the pollution.
When MJ asked me to “do it again” I told her it was her turn to try. It’s not that I minded that I was doing the drawing instead of her. I’m over that. I was just curious to see what she’d come up with.
She got to work.
Personally, I thought it was a masterpiece. And it showed some basic understanding. Those pink spots are California, by the way. It’s grown. Or maybe the earth has shrunk.
At that point we moved up a step and commenced to draw together. For quite a spell there was silence again. Except for those finches. They clearly preferred the animal sciences.
The result of our final collaboration? Chaos. Which is fitting. Isn’t that what the universe comes from anyway? I think this was my favorite step of all.
Thank God I didn’t have to replicate it in onions, though.