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Sue Bruns: A night underneath the stars

At midnight, Jessica grabs a sleeping bag: I bring the flashlight. Big Dog follows us, eager for a late-night adventure.

No wind ripples the lake tonight. No moon lights the sky, which is clear of clouds and peppered with stars.

I flash the light toward the edge of the woods, then across the open hill to the trees on the other side. No reflective eyes catch the beam. I am glad for this. We are not here to find night creatures; we are pursuing falling stars. The beam guides us down the big grassy hill to the dock.

It is Aug. 11, a prime night for meteor showers. When we reach the bottom of the hill, we walk to the end of the dock and spread the sleeping bag. Big Dog is too excited to lie still beside us, and after a few attempts at settling her, I tell her to go lie down. She sulks back toward the house, disappointed. To her, falling stars are not nearly so interesting as night creatures.

Chilled by the night air, Jessica slides under her half of the sleeping bag; I lie atop mine, and we stare up into the star-studded night sky. The Milky Way stretches east to west above us, a cloudy swath of stardust.

Where had I read about the velvety curtain of heaven and the stars, like pin holes that let dots of light come through? Shakespeare, I think. It is easy to see tonight's sky in that way but difficult to imagine anyone or anything poking so many tiny pin holes into the black dome overhead.

Before long we are pointing up, over, left, right.

"Did you see that one?"

"Yes. It had a tail."

Most of the falling stars are tiny bursts of light. Some flicker and slide but fizzle before a tail really forms. Some are visible for such a short time that we're not even sure we saw them move. I see some that she doesn't; she sees some I miss, but collectively we see dozens within minutes.

And what do mother and daughter do when they lie on their backs in the middle of the night, staring up at the sky, watching stars fall?

Sometimes we do nothing but watch. Sometimes we talk softly, reflecting on the vastness of the universe, on the incomprehensibility of black holes and infinity, on our own smallness and the insignificance of little annoyances we too often allow to consume our finite time.

Tonight, Jessica and I reminisce on other star-gazing nights we've spent together, camping under the stars or lying on our backs on the dock or on the grassy hill in our own backyard.

"Remember that time when we were camping in Glacier?'

"What about the time in the Badlands? Such a wide-open sky!"

For an hour and a half, we watch the meteor shower. A lonesome loon wails from across the lake and an occasional splash interrupts the still water just beneath us. Two barred owls converse in the distance: "Who cooks for you—u-u-u-u-u?"

Finally, exhaustion catches up to us. We try to stifle our yawns but we cannot ignore the chill night air. We rise, pick up the sleeping bag and let the flashlight's beam guide us up the hill to the house.

I try to remember how many times we've done this, wishing it had been a better established tradition. I recall some years when clouds or rain interfered -- or life's obligations or laziness or sleep.

Now that my children are grown, I am glad for the times we did (and still do) special things like this or for little traditions we established -- like raising monarch butterflies in our porch in the summers, watching snapping turtles lay their eggs each June, and visiting Paul Bunyan Animal Land every year to feed the deer and monkeys. Small things, but our things. Still, I wish we'd done even more. I think of opportunities missed.

"How many times do you recall watching the meteor showers together?" I ask my grown-up daughter as we climb the hill.

"Four, I think," she says. "Five, counting tonight."

"Not enough," I say.