Awhile back, Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a pretty little song about a baby and a comet.
In Halley Came To Jackson, a father gazes at his daughter in the glow of Halley’s Comet when it appears in the sky above Mississippi in 1910. “He made a little wish while she slept so sound,” the song goes. “In 1986 that wish came ‘round,” when his daughter saw the comet again from her daddy’s porch.
My elder daughter was born a few months after Halley’s 1986 performance. She will be 75 when it next arrives, in the summer of 2061. My younger daughter will be 70. My niece, Mattie, the baby of our family, will be 59.
I would have to make it past my 103rd birthday to see it with them. Probably, like the man in the song, my one and only encounter with Halley was the one that marked my entry into fatherhood.
We all understand the hopes the father would have had for his little girl in that far-distant year of 1986. Most of all, he would have hoped that she would be there, healthy and happy, to mark Halley’s return.
He did not know that his child would need to survive two world wars, a Great Depression, a nuclear arms race and a Cold War to make it to 1986. He could not have foreseen a civil rights movement that would tear the social fabric of Mississippi, but would ultimately knit state and country more firmly together. The father would have known nothing of communism or fascism or terrorism.
But he would have known, from personal observation or from the stories his parents told, all about slavery and civil war, about reconstruction and segregation, about sickness and hardship and grief. Historical details change from generation to generation, but love and sorrow, struggle and loss, are universal experiences.
Soon, Mattie will be old enough to be my Facebook friend. By that time, I hope Facebook will let me store this note for delivery to her on a far-off night when Halley’s Comet shines again.
I want to tell her that I am glad she will be there for the experience, even if I cannot experience it with her.
I want to tell her that the troubles of her time will pass, just as those of my era will have passed in the 50-odd years since I wrote these words. I want to tell her not to resign herself to what seems inevitable, because the things we do can make a difference, but also not to fear the things she cannot change. We all address what we can, and adjust to the rest.
I want to say I’m sorry my generation is not leaving hers a more orderly, secure, self-assured society, or a thriftier one. I believe her cohort will be asked to make great sacrifices to redeem the promises mine improvidently made to itself. But I’m glad my generation gave hers a more just, inclusive, environmentally ethical world than the one we inherited.
I also want her to know that I am proud of how her generation is turning out. I give my peers a lot of credit. Call us helicopter parents if you want, but we raised a lot of terrific kids.
I want to tell Mattie to give her cousins, my daughters, a kiss and a hug from their father.
And, Mattie, when you’re done, I want you to take your cousins to a dark beach, look up at that comet in the black sky, and appreciate the one and only time you will see it.
Maybe you’ll think about what you want to say to your own kids and grandkids. If you write down those thoughts, please send my regards to those who will come after us when Halley returns, sometime around 2137.