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There Shall Be No Darkness

· The Lede

Mikal Gilmore

It was on July 20, 1963, a little more than a year after my father had died in Seattle of colon cancer. A total eclipse fell on the earth.

My mother was superstitious—to the degree of being fearful—about many things, but none more so than eclipses, and no form of the myth of eclipses acted upon her more than that of a total eclipse. It was a force to be respected. On this day, she insisted that my brothers and I whole up with her for the daylight hours in the room that had been my father’s office—and that would later be my bedroom—in our home in Milwaukie, Oregon, to keep us safe from what she believed to be the likely damaging effect of the sun’s rays during this time. She drew the office’s blinds and then bound their edges to the window’s sills with masking tape. She also covered all the other windows nearby the office, and of the bathroom adjacent. She believed that if she filtered out all the day’s light, she would keep us safe.

She tried to make our gathering fun. The night before she had made turkey and cheese sandwiches, she had baked an apple pie and chocolate chip cookies, she had bought an ice box to hold ice cream. She brought a portable record player in, so we could listen to Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. She had a deck of cards, so my brothers could play poker, and she bought a new fancy wooden Monopoly box, with handcrafted metal pieces, so we could play the game as the afternoon wore on into the evening, because July’s day hours in Portland at that time of the year can last a long time. On that date, the sun wouldn’t set until 8:53 p.m. I still have that Monopoly set. I remember watching my brother Gaylen steal some pastel dollars from the game’s bank. He just couldn’t help himself. Stealing those fake dollars mattered more than winning the real game.

I was twelve, my brothers 18 and 22, and so we all knew that the momentousness my mother viewed this event with had no correspondence to real life. We knew that if the stray sunlight during a total eclipse should reach us it would have no effect. For that matter, we knew that the July 20, 1963, total eclipse wasn’t even visible in that part of the country, in Portland, Oregon. We knew that the idea that we should all be locked in close quarters for a day went against the grain of our true nature as a family. Still, we didn’t protest. My mother had lost her husband the year before. The family had lost its father. It wasn’t as if mourning overcame us at all. Rather, we knew the gravity had shifted. Now it was at the center of a small shaded room in the form of my mother, as she rolled Monopoly dice and handed out chocolate chip cookies.

I asked her once, a few years later, where her beliefs about the near-supernatural power of eclipses had come from. “I grew up a Mormon in Provo, Utah. We knew these things as far back as I remember. Eclipses have a big presence in the Book of Mormon.”

By the time she told me this, I had been a Mormon myself, and a good student of the Book of Mormon. I was on my way out of the faith by then, but I recalled some startling passages from a chapter of the book of Zarahemla—startling, that is, in the way that Joseph Smith’s constructs could be a mix of the awkwardly prosaic and the ornate, yet thoroughly consistent in their capacity of inventing and reading signs, in their work as odd prophesies that were visions of the past and the future moving in different directions yet in parallel motions, auguries in the same motion of hell and revelation, of a deliverance that always promised—that ultimately promised—devastation and apocalypse. Eclipses to the Nephites in the Americas were signs of the birth of the savior across oceans in Bethlehem, of his crucifixion across oceans in Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. Other religions and traditions and myths had found meanings both sublime and catastrophic in eclipses—eclipses were part of the shared human unconsciousness as old as that unconsciousness itself—but Joseph Smith made an inventive literature of eclipses that didn’t divide dread from miracle.

In Helaman, Smith wrote: “And it came to pass that in this year there was one Samuel, a Lamanite, came into the land of Zarahemla, and began to preach unto the people. And it came to pass that he did preach, many days, repentance unto the people, and they did cast him out, and he was about to return to his own land. And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name. And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day. Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born.”

A few verses later, he added: “But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.”

Later, in Third Nephi, the Book of Mormon brought Jesus to the Americas after his death and resurrection to testify to the truth of his miracle and promise. But his arrival was no simple rapture. It was preceded by an immense storm and earthquake. Cities burned and sank into the sea, mountains were brought down and valleys were raised up, and many people died. Then came the eclipse—a darkness that lasted for three days, during which a voice was heard among all the inhabitants of the earth, upon all the face of the land, crying: “Repent; for the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquities and abominations that they are fallen!" Yet make no mistake: It is Jesus who has killed all these people as a herald of his arrival. There was nothing like this resembling his entrance—his birth—in the New Testament, nothing so catastrophic attending his resurrection (though it’s not often mentioned that many others among the dead were said to come back after his restoration).

I looked over those passages years ago and I could see why a young woman could find the fear of God in eclipses. The darkness came, and in some ways, it didn’t lift. I was surprised to find that there are a handful of Mormons who are reading tomorrow’s eclipse as a sign of…something. The second coming, or a warning to a nation that has gone astray.

I never had any interest in witnessing an eclipse myself. I didn’t fear them, I didn’t see in them any mystic quality. Instead, it’s fair to say that my mother’s regard had eclipsed eclipses for me.

In her fear, though, was her own deepest prophecy.

My brother Frank later told me of the frustration of trying to take care of her in her last days, in 1981. “In the end,” he told me, “she wouldn’t accept any help, and the pressure was just too damn much for me. She used to say to me: ‘Why am I so sick? Why is this happening to me?’ I felt like saying: ‘You’re sick because you won’t be healthy. You’re sick because you want to die.’ But I couldn’t let go of that last bit of hope, and as angry as I got with her at times, I couldn’t bring myself to be that mean to her.”

One day it suddenly became apparent to Frank that things had reached a crisis point. For several days, my mother had been sick. She would lie on her bed for hours, then get up and make her way to her chair in the kitchen. She complained of being exhausted all the time, and she wouldn’t eat anything Frank put in front of her. After a couple of days, Frank said: “Mom, I’m getting an ambulance here.” She became horribly upset at the suggestion.

“I’d been patient for a long time,” Frank said. “Probably too long. It was agonizing to see what she was going through. Finally, after two or three days of her not eating anything, I decided, That’s it.”

Frank called the ambulance and Bessie Gilmore was taken to a hospital in Milwaukie, screaming that her son was trying to kill her. At the hospital, the doctors told her that her son had done the right thing and she should have come sooner. But she wasn’t having it. She took almost every dish the nurses brought her and threw it against the wall.

Frank went to see her two or three times every day. He saw the color coming back into her face, saw her becoming more cogent. After two days, the doctors said she was going to be okay.

“I was feeling so good,” Frank told me, “I walked all the way back home from the hospital. I got back and I was fixing dinner, and all of a sudden people started banging on the doors. Said, ‘They had to put your mother on this machine.’ They drove me over there, and when I get there, the doctors had her on a machine that’s breathing for her. I’d been there just a short time before and she was talking and looking better. I got upset and I talked to a doctor. He said, ‘Well, we put something in there to kill the infection that she has.’ She’d gotten some kind of infection from not keeping herself clean for so long. But her body rejected the antibiotic.

“She died at the end of July 1981, sometime in the afternoon. I remember it was a warm day and there was an eclipse going on. She had always been terrified of eclipses. She used to always say she would die during one. It turned out she did.”

No, I’ll let this eclipse slide. I’ll let them all slide.

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Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.

She Darked The Sun ::: Dillard & Clark

Eclipse ::: Joao Gilberto

The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore ::: The Walker Brothers

Eclipse ::: Royal Bonbon

Time Has Come Today ::: Coco Robicheaux

Children of Darkness ::: Richard & Mimi Farina

Darkness Darkness ::: Robert Plant

Beware of Darkness (live) ::: George Harrison

Fear of God ::: Brooke Ligertwood