Krypton, More Than an Element
We shoot through a veil of murky clouds and descend into the darkness below. I press my face to the window, which is blurring from the bits of ice clinging to the glass. I see the airport runway, illuminated with colorful blinking lights and neon signs. Grandma tells me that those airport lights and weird glowing signs are made of an element called Krypton. (Stewrtka, 2002) “You come from chemists, Chlorissa, a whole line of Greek chemists.
My father was a chemist; my father’s father was one too. And your father is one too,” Grandma says, softly. “Was… He’s not anymore.” “Hey! Don’t say that child! He is dead, yes. But do not offend his spirit!” She throws her hands towards the heavens, murmuring some nonsense in Greek that sounds like gibberish to my French ears.
“Sorry, Grandma…” “We live in Greece now, Chlorissa!” She holds my shoulder firmly, looking me straight in the eyes. “You call me YaYa now.” “YaYa?” The word sounds strange on my tongue. Foreign. I glance out the window at the airport far below and watch us we glide past it.
“Grandm- YaYa. Why aren’t we landing? The airports right there!” YaYa shakes her head and glances towards the ceiling again. “We are not going to Athens! Do you know nothing of your homeland! What have your mother’s parents done to your poor Greek soul?” “YaYa where are we going?” “A little island off the mainland where your father lives. It is tiny, very hard to find by anyone who has not lived there. That’s why it is named Krypton, the Greek word for hidden!” (Winter, 1993).
I watch the tiny flickering lights of Athens fade into small specks behind me. I feel like civilization is waving goodbye to me. There is no turning back. We land soon enough, although not in the way I assume. The small ancient plane we fly in is, apparently, designed for water landings only, which makes for quite a surprise. After that nerve-wracking experience YaYa and I pile into a small motorboat and pay a man with three golden teeth and breath that smells of alcohol and fish to take us to Krypton.
“You ladies live there?” Golden-tooth-fish-breath asks us over the roar of the engine. “We do now. My son, my late son, just passed away.” “My apologies…” “He was a chemist you know,” she said proudly, drawing her bony hand over her heart. “He worked with Krypton. So talented my Damon…” She proceeds to tell golden-tooth-fish-breath that Krypton is a colorless, odorless, inert noble gas.
(Gagnon, 1990 and Stewrtka, 2002) “Not many people know this, but Krypton makes up .0001 % of our Earth’s atmosphere!” (Barbalace, 1995 and Winter, 1993) Golden-tooth-fish-breath did not know that, nor did he want to know that, but he still nods his oily head. I have to give him props for his unexpected display of manners. We arrive on the island of Krypton after half an hour of silence. YaYa slept and I pretended to as well for fear that golden-tooth-fish-breath would strike up a conversation with me.
I unload our luggage as YaYa pays for the ride. The sun is rising from the ocean in the distance, just a small speck, not even pinky-size, but the island is shimmering with light already. “Beautiful!” Again, YaYa throws her hands to the heavens to rejoice fully. Krypton is beautiful, though. The island looks like a giant rock jutting abnormally out of the ocean.
The harbor where we dock has stone staircases built into the cliffs above. Vibrantly colored houses precariously hang to the edges of the cliffs and seemingly un-navigable roads wind around them. As we climb the cliff’s staircases, two large mountains rise up before us, grassy with tall trees and fields dotted with yellow flowers. We carefully mount two donkeys being held for us. YaYa and I ride along the gravel paths up the mountain to a large white, stone house on the edge of the cliff. “This was your father’s house.
Yours and your mother’s house too a long time ago,” YaYa told me. My father’s house, my house now I guess, is in good shape. Hedges sit neatly clipped in front on either side of the stone walk way. Brightly colored flowers dot the small front yard, and a modest garden is erupting with zucchinis and Greek oregano. It is homey.
Inside is quite a different story. The first thing I’m struck by when I step inside is the light bulbs on cords that hang from every ceiling. Krypton is used as a filling gas for these energy-saving, fluorescent lights because of its electrical and thermal conductivity (Barbalace, 1995 and Gagnon, 1990). Another thing that is odd about my father’s house, besides the strange looking light bulbs, is the clutter. Every piece of furniture has chemistry books and articles strewn across it. Ripped-out magazine pictures are tacked onto walls, old beakers litter the countertops and the few that are in the fridge contain a strange glowing mixture.
I lug my suitcase down the hall following YaYa’s vague directions. I haven’t lived in my father’s house in ten years, but my father has left my room untouched. A small, wooden bed with pale pink sheets and a cream colored lamp sit in the corner. My old dollhouse is there too, dusty but the same. My father’s old periodic table still hangs above my bed.
That I did remember. I stroke the poster softly, imagining the last time I looked at it. “Chlorissa! You see this element? Right here?” Dad pointed to an element in the fourth period, group 18 (Gagnon, 1990). “Yes! Number 36 Daddy. That’s…that’s…Krypton, Kr! Atomic number 36,” I read, “atomic weight…83.
30 and…atomic volume is 38.9 cm^3/mol” (Barbalace, 1995 and Winter, 1993 and Stewrtka, 2002). “Very good darling. That one’s special. Your daddy and mummy work with Krypton, did you know that?” My father and mother were both chemists. They worked with Krypton difluoride (KrF2), the easiest Krypton compound to make (Winter, 1993).
They commercially obtained Krypton using a method of “fractional distillation of liquid air” and sell it for 33 American dollars per 100 grams (Barbalace, 1995 and Gagnon, 1990). They packaged the clear bottles of liquid into brown paper packages and mailed them to all sorts of places. Sometimes people would arrive at our house, usually grumpy old balding men, and argue with my parents in their laboratory in the basement. I’d watch them leave, eventually, with a bottle or two of the stuff. Our house was one of the only houses on Krypton that had a basement.
Although I was rarely permitted down there, I loved to brag about this to all my friends and the neighbor kids. When my father or mother allowed me to watch them conduct an experiment it was a very special occasion. They let me have my own plastic goggles and crisp, white lab coat and for days afterwards I refused to wear anything else. “Chlorissa pay attention,” I recall my mother saying sternly, drawing my attention away from the mirror where I had been gazing at myself in my lab coat and goggles, and back to my father who is in the middle of the room impatiently trying to give me a lesson. “Krypton is first discovered in the residue of remaining that had been fractionally distilled from oxygen and nitrogen, leaving only Krypton. You see?” (Gagnon, 1990).
“Are we going to light something on fire today? Will things explode?” I asked, adjusting my goggles excitedly. “No sweetie. We’re just working with Krypton today and that isn’t flammable (Stewrtka, 2002). But… look at this. You see those yellow spectral lines? That happens when air is distilled.
Isn’t it pretty” (Barbalace, 1995)? “Very pretty,” I nod. “Krypton’s melting point is 115.9 K, negative 157.3 degrees Celsius, and has a boiling point of 119.4 K, negative 153.
2 degrees Celsius” (Gagnon, 1990). “A negative boiling point? I thought things got hot when they were boiled. Like spaghetti!” “Well that’s just another reason why Krypton is super special, sweetie,” my mother laughed. My father gave me chemistry lessons almost every week. He conducted experiments with lots of elements, but I loved the ones about Krypton the best because both him and my mother worked with Krypton and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.
“Krypton,” he told me, motioning towards his large poster of the Periodic Table that takes up one entire wall in my parent’s laboratory, “is extremely unreactive, except when mixed with fluorine” (Winter, 1993). He pointed to a box labeled with an F. “Krypton,” he continued, “is a very rare gas, characterized by its exceptional green and orange spectral lines. See here,” he pointed at another poster (Winter, 1993 and Stewrtka, 2002). “Unlike what they tell you in those damn Superman comic books your mother’s parents send you, Krypton has no reaction with air (Gagnon, 1990) — meaning that Superman could not suffer from possibly fatal injuries simply by being in the same room with it. It is not toxic, and it does not glow!” So much for memories.
My mother died right before my sixth birthday. It didn’t come as a surprise because she had been sick for a long time. During her final few months she spent most of her time in the backyard, gazing out at the ocean and watching the sunsets and sunrises. I spent most of those months glued to her side. I didn’t understand what was happening to her, but even at six years old I had a feeling that my mother wouldn’t be by my side for much longer.
She usually told me stories, mostly about her childhood; about the adventures she’d had with her sister and brother growing up. One day, one of her last days, she slid her silver ring off of her bony finger and placed it in my hands. I cupped the ring carefully in my small six-year-old hands. It was the prettiest thing I had ever been allowed to touch. “Did I ever tell you how your father proposed?” I shook my head.
She smiled, cocking her head to one side reminiscently. “We were visiting your father’s mother, YaYa, on this island. It was the first time I had met her, or any of your father’s family. I had been seeing your father for about a year by then and we were madly in love.” “Aren’t you still in love?” “Of course we are sweetie!” she laughed. “Anyway.
We finished our dinner with YaYa and your father and I decided to go for a walk. We came to this spot right here, right where you and I are sitting, and sat down. It was nighttime and completely dark, and your father pointed out Mars in the sky and said, “Did you know that the atmosphere of Mars is 0.3 ppm Krypton?” (Winter, 1993). Before I can answer, and tell him that yes of course I knew that, he said “This ring is also Krypton,” and he pulled out this gorgeous ring, made of solid Kryptonite, which is white and crystalline, and asked me to marry him!” (Barbalace, 1995 and Stewrtka, 2002). “And you said yes!” I smiled, stroking the smooth edges of the Kryptonite ring in my small fingers.
“Yes, yes I did,” she smiled. I hand her the ring but she shakes her head. “No sweetie, I want you to have it.” “But mummy, it’s yours!” “It’s yours now honey. Take good care of it.
” The day my mom died we were reading a Superman comic together. I loved reading the comic because Superman’s greatest weakness is Krypton, which I knew to be totally incorrect. “That’s wrong! Krypton is non-toxicy!” (Winter, 1993). He can’t get weak when he’s near it!” I laugh mockingly, pointing out a picture of Superman crawling on the ground trying to get away from a piece of Krypton. “Non-toxic sweetie,” my mother laughed. “Oh…well they’re still wrong mummy.
Look! They drew Krypton gas as glowing! Krypton gas glows but only with a bazillion (a thousand) volts of electricity!” (Stewrtka, 2002) “Unbelievable!” My mother smiled. I turned the page and glanced up to see her head slump to the side coughing terribly. “Mummy! What’s wrong? I’ll get daddy!” I get my father and he raced to the backyard. He carried my mother to the car and YaYa arrived soon after. She baked me cookies but I was not hungry. She told me that whatever happens my mother will be watching my father and I from heaven.
I didn’t understand what she meant. I waited for my mother to return but she never did. My father returned the next morning alone with wrinkled clothes and blood shot eyes. With tears slowly trailing down his cheeks, he told me that my mother was gone. “It’s okay daddy,” I told him, hugging him tightly.
“YaYa says she’ll be watching us from heaven now, no matter what.” He sobs louder. After my mother died my father wasn’t the same. He spent all his time in his laboratory alone, always experimenting with Krypton. He never asked me down to the basement again for a lesson, or talked to me about chemistry, or argued with me about my Superman comic books. My mother’s parents arrived one day.
They told me to call them Grandma and Grandpa, not YaYa and Pappous as I called my father’s parents. They packed-up my clothes and my life in a tiny black suitcase and w left. My father wouldn’t say goodbye, although I shouted down to him pleading to him not to let Grandma and Grandpa, these strangers, kidnap me. He did not listen. He stayed planted in his laboratory, experimenting with Krypton and talking to the empty chair where my mother used to sit.
Grandma, Grandpa, and I boarded a plane to Paris, France and went to their townhouse in the center of the city. They spoke French, and I spoke Greek. The first sentence I spoke to them in French was about how Krypton contained six isotopes (Winter, 1993) and only five were stable. “How…nice,” Grandpa responded. “Very…interesting,” Grandma nodded, a pinched smile spread across her face. They changed the subject to baking and I could not understand.
They were nice people, but they were not my parents. But now I’m home, finally, after ten years. My parents are finally reunited and happy, conducting experiments with Krypton together. I still have my mother’s wedding ring and always wear it on my right hand. Krypton is not only an element, it is a symbol of those five blissful years I spent with my parents learning about chemistry and reading Superman comics with my mother.
Most importantly, it is a reminder that my mother and father are always watching over me from heaven, and I will join them, eventually, when the time is right.