Once in a lifetime is a curious way to describe an event that happens roughly once every eighteen months. This phrase has been bandied about often enough to risk losing all meaning. Perhaps more specific, for my grandmother, is the phrase “last in a lifetime”. Our next American eclipse will come in 2024, but seven years in the future is less certain for my grandmother than it is for me. Her rational concerns about her future mobility meant she was determined to see one final eclipse.
What kind of experience something is often comes down to who we share it with. In this case, the eclipse was shared by all of North America. It is rare that we as a country have the ability to come together over something amazing, eclipse or otherwise.
The main event may have been the total eclipse, but the process of ritual migration to a precious, mathematically determined 70 mile band cannot be untangled from the phenomenon itself. I learned from an offhand comment I have family from Dillon, South Carolina. My grandmother talked about her parents in a way that was rare for me to hear; perhaps this was simply my first time genuinely talking to her for a lengthy period as an adult, or maybe farmland brings up memories that do not surface amongst the mundanities of everyday life.
After careful deliberations on where exactly four hours in the South Carolina sun would be the most comfortable, my grandmother and I loaded up the car with our lawn chairs, her wheelchair, bottle after bottle of water and, of course, extra cookies. She is my grandmother, after all. The Westbound Interstate 20 rest area at Mile Marker 93 was our destination of choice, and it did not disappoint.
Tucked just inside the zone of totality, this particular rest area was otherwise unremarkable. Still, its lawn was welcoming, the parking was easy and where else along an interstate has ample vending and well-kept restrooms? Satisfied with the remaining unoccupied patch of shade we found, we set up camp amongst dozens other families, making light conversation and passing around the gingersnaps. Like millions of Americans across the country, we tucked those dorky glasses over our ears and watched the sun disappear bite by bite.
Eclipses are, by their nature, cyclical. The stages of the eclipse were far from a surprise; the weeks of news coverage did not come with a spoiler alert, after all. We know what has happened before, and we feel very confident that it will happen again. Just as my grandmother told me the story of watching a prior eclipse with my mother on a trip to France, the only lasting souvenir I have is a story to tell future young folks, who will think 2017 was practically ancient history.
Why do these events feel so special? The sun was no different on Monday than it was on Sunday or Tuesday. It is only by chance that the moon happens to be in the right place and the right size to fit so perfectly. Beyond the oddity of one minute and one second of darkness in the middle of the day and the wonder of seeing the corona ringed around where the sun was seconds ago, I believe we are struck by these events because they remind us of how incredible and insignificant we are at the same time.
In the last moments before totality, when I could see almost nothing with my glasses on and our crowd waited with bated breath, I forgot for a moment that what I was watching was not a show put on only for a lucky girl and her grandmother. The final sliver of sun disappeared, though, and our crowd realized it was time. As a group, our glasses came off and we stood in darkness, watching the waves of the corona ring the moon like the stiff peaks of whipped cream that has been beaten for a minute too long.
Generations of humans have stared up at the sky, just as I did. NASA has a database of past, present and future eclipses over a 5,000 year period. My minute and one second of totality will one day become a sweet story my future daughter will tell her granddaughter as they set off to chase a convenient eclipse.