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Under the moons spell

It is Thursday, Jan. 21, 2000, the night of the total eclipse of the moon.

I have worked late, missed a meeting I was supposed to attend, frantically ordered and picked up take-out dinner for my sons and rushed past downtown construction barriers, over cracked pavement and potholes in a mad dash for home.

The boys are plopped in front of the television, looking typically bored, but the arrival of food perks them up. We eat hastily, in the kitchen. I demand that we watch the eclipse together, prepared mentally for their protests. But they surprise me -- they are willing. Their teachers have promised them extra credit in science if they watch.

At eight, we gather a mountain of quilts and blankets, pull on our coats and head to the back yard. We lie down on a wide pallet, spread across the hard, frozen ground. The huge full moon illuminates our efforts as we shift and struggle and finally turn our four faces to the sky. My oldest son goes in for pillows. When he comes back and comforts our stiff necks, we all settle in to wait.

We begin to sing every song we can recall with the word moon in it. Blue moon ... You saw me standing alone ... Without a dream in my heart ... Without a love of my own ... The boys know this one and half-heartedly sing along. I start Moon River, but they think the words are stupid, and on second thought I concur they are. Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky ... I ain't had no lovin' since January, February, June and July ... We like this one and notice that moon songs are mournful and sad.

Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon ... The little dog laughed to see such sport and the dish ran away with the spoon. Our theory is quashed.

The sky is darkening, the moon pulling away as its light source is gradually obscured by the very earth on which we rest.

We sing Bad Moon Risin', the boys' favorite of our impromptu concert. Next to me, one of the twins turns Jimi Hendrix up loud on his Discman and we sing some more dark tunes, the crash of Jimi's guitar wafting lonely and metallic into the thin, cold night air.

I ask the other twin, the one who always knows everything and has a remarkable gift for explaining complicated phenomena in the simplest terms, to tell me what makes the eclipse occur. I am admittedly fuzzy on anything remotely resembling scientific data. He talks about rotations and revolutions and arcs and alignments and I am satisfied and amazed. I tell my sons that when I first learned the Earth was constantly in motion, I had nightmares about the giant globe stopping suddenly, and me and everything else perched on it flying off into darkest space. One of them explains how he used to think the wind was the result of the earth rotating too fast, like when you're on a swing or a carnival ride, or in a car, and your motion forward slams the air against your face.

"When will the next total eclipse occur?" I ask my son.

"In forty years," he says. I don't know if he is right, but I believe him and shakily realize that I will be 85 years old then.

"If I'm alive then, will you come to wherever I live and watch the eclipse with me?" I ask my sons. They casually answer yes. I press them, tell them I want them to promise, no matter where they live. We make a pact. It makes me feel foolishly confident that I will survive 40 more years.

We are silent now, because the moon is completely darkened and it is too amazing a sight for words. My face is stiff and frozen, but I am warm beneath the covers, squashed between two of my sons who have suddenly, in the last year, grown as tall as me.

When I am 85, they will be 53, 53 and 55. I know they are calculating quietly, as I always did when I was younger and history was revealed to me as the passage of time. I remember being 10 and trying to figure out how old I would be when the century changed in the year 2000. Forty-six years old was the comfortable nugget of a fact; but it was as inconceivable to me as 53 must be to them.

We lie there until the first sliver of reflected light begins to reappear, imagining ourselves warming, like meat on a rotisserie, as the moon's dependable glow returns.

-- First published in January 2000, just after the last total eclipse of the moon visible in the Western hemisphere.

  • Under the moons spell

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