The Stuff of Stars by Kim Steutermann Rogers

Your mom is the sun to your moon, all the more so the Christmas your parents give you a Celestron FirstScope with a 76 mm reflector optical tube. Mom explains how CHNOPS—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur—are the building blocks of stars and life. “Including humans, baby girl,” she says. You name your telescope Miss Mitchell after the first professional female astronomer in the United States. You can’t get enough of looking for life in the sky, staying up late, your Mom by your side pointing out constellations and sharing stories of far-away times. 

Then, Mom dies in a car accident when you’re in middle school, and you pack up Miss Mitchell and put her in the back of your closet. A year later, you come home to find Dad and a woman on the balcony off his bedroom, lights out. Her name is Jennifer, the woman who isn’t your mother, standing over Dad’s prized Celestron EdgeHD telescope, his pet, messing with the focus dial. When Jennifer says, “Oh, look, there’s a star,” you can’t keep quiet any longer.  “That’s not a star,” you say. “Planets don’t twinkle. That’s Venus.” This is Astronomy 101.

Later, in graduate school, you select a field station in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where the skies are unpolluted by the lights of civilization. You study endangered petrels nesting in underground burrows threatened by sea level rise. These crepuscular birds return to land at dusk, so you stay up all night studying their parenting behavior, how their daily foraging bouts take them miles out to sea, but they diligently arrive back at their burrow at nearly the same time every night to feed their young. There’s a portable Celestron Nester 6SE at the field station. During the one night of the year when Venus attains its greatest brilliance, outshining its neighbor Mars, you set up the telescope, an infinite number of stars overpopulating the sky, their reflection sizzling the lagoon, and you train the scope opposite the setting sun, peering through the viewfinder, asking, as you do every night, “Are you there, Mom?”

Kim Steutermann Rogers spent a month in Alaska as the inaugural fellow at Storyknife Writers Retreat in 2016. She was recognized for “Notable Travel Writing 2019” in Best American Travel Writing. Her science journalism has been published in National Geographic, Audubon, and Smithsonian; and her prose in Bending Genres, Emerge Literary Journal, and Hawaii Pacific Review. She lives with her husband and dog in Hawaii. Read more of her work at and follow her on social media at @kimsrogers.