Saturday, August 26, 2017

Remembering Totality

Here is a story full of sweet memories and miracles. 

During the long drive to our viewing site, my mind had plenty of time to wander, and I found my thoughts turning time and again to my last eclipse experience. 

I was a very little girl, just four years old, and it was summer time. My mom told me that the sun was going to hide behind the moon, and the sky would get dark. My dad, who was still around at the time and wildly enthusiastic about astronomical events, cautioned me to not look at the sun. 

I vaguely remembered that he had built some kind of a viewer and instructed us to observe the phenomenon there instead. This was only a partial eclipse, so  when I tiptoed up to look at his device, I saw the funny little partial circle of the sun and not much else. The partial circle was indeed changing, but oh so slowly. 

What I mostly remember is that the entire afternoon made me feel inexplicably strange and uncomfortable. 

* * * * *

Those memories were still rattling around in my mind as we settled in to watch the 2017 eclipse, and as the moon slowly began to hide the sun, I understood my childish impatience. 

When the moon had covered about half of the sun, the remaining sunlight gradually took on a harsh, diminished tone. The air darkened, the shadows gained a strange quality that felt metallic and shiny to me. Suddenly, in a snap, I realized that I remembered this phenomenon from my childhood eclipse. The weird silvery light from the faded sun is what had made me feel so disoriented and uncomfortable, and my memories of that day suddenly made perfect sense. 

* * * * *

After our two-day journey home from Wyoming, we rolled into our driveway and hauled our weary selves into the house. All still in a state of shock and awe from what we had seen, my husband decided to take the practical step of sorting out the mail. "Here," he pushed a green envelope in my hand. "This has an eclipse stamp on it. Open it first."

I admired the stamp and then looked at the return address. 

No. No way. It couldn't be. 

But it was. 

This was a letter from my long-lost early-childhood friend, Marilyn. I had not heard from her since her family moved away when I was ten years old. 

In a new state of shock, I ripped open the envelope, unfolded the paper, and read  her opening sentence:

Dear Diane, 

The United States lies in the path of a total solar eclipse this year, and I remember watching the progress of one in your backyard on a white viewer your dad built. 

No. No way! I had not remembered her being there at all

And in a snap, I suddenly remembered this too. Marilyn and her family had indeed spent the afternoon at my house on that day and now another huge piece of my childhood eclipse memories fell into place. 

My reunion with Marilyn has been delightful. How can it be that so much time has passed since we were two little girls playing in the woods? And how can it be that once we catch up on the biographical details, we discover that we are simply those two little girls grown up?

But when it came to our childhood eclipse, Marilyn still held one more surprise for me. 

No. No possible way. But it was true. 

Impossibly, miraculously, Marilyn sent me a photo of my dad's eclipse-watching contraption. And in yet another snap, I feel the cool grass on my toes as I stretched up to look at the funny little partial circle on the viewing board. I smell the blossoms of the Bird of Paradise tree in our backyard, and I hear the creak of the swings on our swing set as we played and waited for something more interesting to happen. 

What had recently been nothing but a vague and hazy memory is now a day that comes alive in my mind. Thanks to my recent experience of totality, and the magic of Marilyn's memories, I can now reconnect with exactly what my four-year-old self saw and felt and understood during that partial eclipse, all those many years ago.

This photo was taken in my backyard on July 20, 1963. 
And that funny little shape you see on the white board is a partial eclipse of the sun

I cannot explain how all of these miracles have come to be. But I find myself wondering if those moments I spent gazing up at that impossibly beautiful total solar eclipse might just have filled my life with magic. 

* * * * *

Here's the full story of my odyssey to the Great American Solar Eclipse

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