Tonight was the harvest moon — what the Vietnamese celebrate as Tết Trung Tu.  When I was young, the signs of Tết Trung Tu were unmistakable:  the invasion of mooncake containers at Asian supermarkets, gold foil banners hung across doorways, increased visits to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple.  When my family had our post-temple bowl of phở, out past the lot crammed with awkward Vietnamese parking jobs, the lion dancers (mostly students from a nearby tae kwon do academy) did their thing, undulating, thrusting, flicking the switch to make the lion’s Tammy Faye Baker-like eyes blink.

My sister told me about celebrating Tết Trung Tu back in Vietnam:  she and my brother made their own paper lanterns.  There were none of these pre-made ones, she said.  After dark, they paraded with the other children, lanterns tied to the end of a stick, a little piece of captured fire.

Last year, Matthew and I bought our lanterns (not home-made, alas) from two eager young girls fundraising for some Asian community center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown — I’m not sure which, since I’m a bad Asian.  The lanterns were mounted to chopsticks, and each had a tealight taped to its interior.  They were cheap, of course, but as they dangled off the edge of our porch, they insisted on their own beauty.

By 7:30, the moon’s glow had spread behind the houses across the street, a soft phosphorescence, like a jellyfish’s.  We sat on the brick stoop.  I made tea.  Matthew reviewed notes for tomorrow’s class.  Neighbors returned home and parallel parked.  We waved to them, and Matthew called to them by name, but if they saw our lanterns, they said nothing; maybe from where they were, the lanterns’ colorful aureoles couldn’t compete with the devouring streetlamp in front of our house.

As we sat, we shared a mooncake.  Buying them was almost a Pavlovian response:  Oh, look, September.  Mooncake time.  We bought two boxes:  one was a tin with the picture of what looked like a fancy hotel lobby; the other was a box lined with cloth, each mooncake in its own tin adorned with a kitschy portrait of a Chinese courtesan.  We skipped the green tea flavor, the mixed nuts, the pumpkin paste, and the red bean in favor of pure lotus paste.  (No salted egg yolks, however; Matthew finds them gross.)

And then we saw the moon.  We may have missed its low-to-the-horizon ruddiness, but when it appeared, full and bright, it seemed to have sprung from nothingness.  We blew out the lanterns and carried in our teacups.  I went upstairs to watch Autumn Sonata.

It’s said that Tết Trung Tu is a celebration for children.  Parents who have been too busy harvesting crops to play with their children use the festivities as proof of their affection.  Maybe Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman could have used some mooncake time:  tea; glowing lights; a warm, silent evening; a stray gray cat, strutting along the porch, demanding nothing more than a little attention.

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