January 24, 1925.
My Aunt Yetta stands elbow to elbow with the throng. Though the Ferris wheels circles, the crowd at Coney Island stands still. The hot dog hawkers are quiet. A dirigible–plump and plodding–moves across the sky. Then at 8 a.m., with dawn still hovering over the horizon, darkness descends once more. The temperature lingers near zero and as the sun is swallowed by the moon, a chill courses through each spine. Some are wearing tinted glasses. Others are holding shards of broken glass. Yetta squints with her naked eye, trusting and not trusting, believing and not believing, hoping and not hoping.
She’s seventeen, her life still full of promises, the road ahead a runway to the stars. Only when she thinks about the boy in Cleveland does she blink. Because out of the entire universe, out of all the possibilities and permutations, she’s picked a person who can’t be picked. They’re as star-crossed as Shakespearean lovers, as doomed as the Aztec captives who watched the moon devour the sun and were sacrificed to set things right.
Truth, like the tides, ebbs and flows. It changes shape to suit circumstance. My father, the youngest of seven siblings, barely knew his oldest sister. But there’s no denying that she and the boy were first cousins, that the family did everything they could to split them apart, and that afterwards– after that morning in Coney Island– she was never the same.
Two years later, Yetta was sent to Belluvue. They say she had been the brightest, the prettiest, a ray of sunshine in their everyday lives. But for the next forty years, she was a sliver of her former self. Drugged, electro-shocked, lobotomized. She soon became a footnote, an afterthought, the subject of whispers and side-glances, a family secret until the day she died.
Throughout history, eclipses have always been both feared and worshipped. The ancient Chinese banged pots and pans to ward off celestial dragons. The Chippewa shot flaming arrows trying to relight the moon. Hindus believed that the demon Rahu gulped the sun only to regurgitate it moments later. Inuits upended bowls and cups to avoid any tainted dew.
But for me, it is Yetta’s story that remains the true mystery. In a famous photo from that January morning, the illusion of a diamond ring sparkles in the sky. Looking up, did my aunt consider it a cosmic sign? Some people, after all, see haloes while others just the black holes inside.
The first cousin, I’m told, never married, outliving Yetta by a mere two months. While his body is buried in Cleveland, her headstone stands alone in the Bronx.