The Night the Stars Fell

One summer night in a seaside cottage, a small boy felt himself lifted from bed. Dazed with sleep, he heard his mother murmur about the lateness of the hour, heard his father laugh. Then he was borne in his father's arms, with the swiftness of a dream, down the porch steps, out onto the beach. . .

One summer night in a seaside cottage, a small boy felt himself lifted from bed. Dazed with sleep, he heard his mother murmur about the lateness of the hour, heard his father laugh. Then he was borne in his father's arms, with the swiftness of a dream, down the porch steps, out onto the beach.

Overhead the sky blazed with stars. "Watch!" his father said. And in credibly, as he spoke, one of the stars moved. In a streak of golden fire, it flashed across the astonished heavens. And before the wonder of this could fade, another star leaped from its place, and then another, plunging toward the restless sea. "What is it?" the child whispered. "Shooting stars," his father said. "They come every year on certain nights in August. I thought you'd like to see the show."

That was all: just an unexpected glimpse of something haunting and mysterious and beautiful. But, back in bed, the child stared for a long time into the dark, rapt with the knowledge that all around the quiet house the night was full of the silent music of the falling stars.

Decades have passed, but I remember that night still, because I was the fortunate seven-year-old whose father believed that a new experience was more important for a small boy than an unbroken night's sleep. No doubt in my childhood I had the usual quota of playthings, but these are forgotten now. What I remember is the night the stars fell, the day we rode in a caboose, the time we tried to skin the alligator, the telegraph we made that really worked. I remember the "trophy table" in the hall where we children were encouraged to exhibit things we had found—snake skins, seashells, flowers, arrowheads, anything unusual or beautiful.

I remember the books left by my bed that pushed back my horizons and sometimes actually changed my life. Once my father gave me Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm's classic story of undergraduate life at Oxford. I liked it, and told him so. "Why don't you think about going there yourself?" he said casually. A few years later, with luck and a scholarship, I did.

My father had, to a marvelous degree, the gift of opening doors for his children, of leading them into areas of splendid newness. This subtle art of adding dimensions to a child's world doesn't necessarily require a great deal of time. It simply involves doing things more often with our children instead of for them or to them. One woman I know keeps what she calls a "Why not?" notebook, and in it she scribbles all sorts of offbeat and fascinating proposals: "Why not take kids police headquarters get them fingerprinted?" "Why not visit farm attempt milk cow?" "Why not arrange ride tugboat?" "Why not follow river dredge and hunt for fossilized shark's teeth?" And so they do.

One day I asked her where she got her ideas. "Oh," she said, "I don't know. But when I was a child, I had this wonderful old ne'er-do-well uncle who——" Who used to open doors for her, just as she is opening them now for her own children.

Aside from our father, we had a remarkable aunt who was a genius at suggesting spur-of-the-moment plots to blow away the dust of daily drudgeries. Once, I remember she arranged for us to ride a pony that was a bit skittish. After being thrown three times, my brother protested tearfully that riding this particular animal was too difficult. "If it were too easy," our aunt said serenely, "it wouldn't be any fun." Just a casual phrase, but it sticks in my memory.

The easiest door to open for a child, usually, is one that leads to something you love yourself. All good teachers know this. And all good teachers know the ultimate reward: the marvelous moment when the spark you are breathing on bursts into a flame that henceforth will burn brightly on its own. At a United States Golf Association tournament a few years ago, a pigtailed ten-year-old played creditably in the junior girls' championship. "How long have you been interested in golf?" someone asked her. "I got it for my ninth birthday," she said. "You mean your father gave you a set of clubs?" "No," she said patiently, "he gave me golf."

The possessor of a wonderful realm had wanted his child to share the magic kingdom. No doubt it took some time and effort, some patience, some mystical transference of enthusiasm. But what a reward for both of them! And it might just as well have been music or astronomy or chemistry or collecting butterflies — any world at all.

Children are naturally inquisitive and love to try new things. But they cannot find these things by themselves; someone must offer them the choices. Years ago, when the Quiz Kids were astonishing American radio audiences with their brilliance, a writer set out to discover what common denominators there were in the backgrounds of these extraordinary children. He found that some were from poor families, some from rich; some had been to superior schools, some had not.

But, in every case investigated, there was one parent, sometimes two, who shared enthusiasms with the child, who watched for areas of interest, who gave encouragement and praise for achievement, who made a game of searching out the answers to questions, who went out of his way to supply the tools of learning. No doubt the capacity for outstanding performance was already there, but it took the love and interest and companionship of a parent to bring it out.

Recently a neighbor of ours took his two small children to the mountains for a vacation. The very first morning the children woke him at daybreak, clamoring to go exploring. Stifling an impulse to send them back to bed, he struggled into his clothes and took them for a walk. At the edge of a pond they stopped to rest and while they were sitting there quietly a doe and her fawn came down to drink.

"I watched my youngsters' faces," he said, "and suddenly it was as if I were seeing and feeling everything for the first time: the hush of the woods, the mist over the water, the grace and gentleness of those lovely creatures, the kinship of all living things. It only lasted a few seconds, but the thought came to me that happiness isn't some thing you have to strive and struggle for. It's simply an awareness of the beauty and harmony of existence. And I said to myself: remember this moment, put it away carefully in your mind—because you may need to draw strength and comfort from it some day." Giving his children a new experience, that man also opened a door for himself.

I have a friend, a psychiatrist, who says that basically there are two types of human beings: those who think of life as a privilege and those who think of it as a problem. The first type is enthusiastic, energetic, resistant to shock, responsive to challenge. The other type is suspicious, hesitant, withholding, self-centered. To the first group, life is hopeful, exciting. To the second, it's a potential ambush. And he adds, "Tell me what sort of child hood you had and I can tell you which type you are likely to be."

The real purpose, then, of trying to open doors for children is not to divert them or amuse ourselves; it is to build eager, outgoing attitudes toward the demanding and complicated business of living. This, surely, is the most valuable legacy we can pass on to the next generation: not money, not houses or heirlooms, but a capacity for wonder and gratitude, a sense of aliveness and joy. Why don't we work harder at it? Probably because, as Thoreau said, our lives are frittered away in detail. Because there are times when we don't have the awareness or the selflessness or the energy.

And yet, for those of us who care what becomes of our children, the challenge is always there. None of us meets it fully, but the opportunities come again and again. Many years have passed since that night in my life when the stars fell, but the earth still turns, the sun still sets, night still sweeps over the changeless sea. And next year, when August comes with its shooting stars, my son will be seven.


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November 1975

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