It was just an ordinary shoe box to begin with. A little tiny box, purple patterns on brown cardboard that once held a pair of bright pink shoes with lights in the heels now scuffed and battered and tucked away at the back of a drawer. But as we sat eating pancakes for a circle-themed breakfast on Friday morning H cut and cut again, carving little squares out of the side with a stanley knife and adding tin foil and white card to the ends. When that was done he turned his attention to an empty beer box rescued from our recycling and before we knew it, and before half past eight, Kitty and Elma were the proud owners of two pinhole cameras.
I spent all of last week stalking at least three different weather forecasts desperately hoping it would be clear and sunny on Friday morning, getting my hopes up when the 9am symbol showed pure sunshine and having them dashed again when it turned back to cloudy an hour or so later. The day itself dawned misty, but hanging out of the bedroom window and peering upwards it did seem like there was some blue sky behind the fuzzy white.
If willpower alone could burn of early morning haze it would have been gone in seconds but slowly and surely the cloud did seem to be lifting. We headed out into the garden with our boxes and pointed them at the sun. H found the sun first and then I found the angle and there on the inside of a shoe box, was a tiny white circle, with a tiny dark bite missing from the bottom left hand corner. The start of the very first eclipse I’ve ever seen.
(this picture was taken shooting into the pinhole camera just before we got to 90% cover)
I was 19 in 1999, and H and I and some of our friends were all at my parents house so excited for the chance to see a total eclipse on British shores. And on the day itself the cloud rolled in and a very English sort of an August day presented itself for inspection. I witnessed a total eclipse, I have been under a total eclipse but I have not seen one with my own eyes, all we saw was the sky getting darker from the wrong direction and as the moment of totality came, the navigation lights on the hundreds and hundreds of boats in the bay below sparkling like jewels in a bowl of water as camera flashes twinkled as far as we could see, and out on the far horizon the band of light that marked the edge of the moon’s shadow.
I wanted to watch it for me because we missed out last time, and I wanted the children to see it, to get even the tiniest understanding of an eclipse, of how the sun works, and of just how important it is to our existence. In all honesty I think Kitty was the only one who had some awareness of what was going on, Elma dutifully looked in the pinhole camera and she saw the crescent shrinking as the sun became more obscured but she was mostly just excited to be out in the garden playing with everyone and thrilled when a huge hot air balloon appeared almost out of nowhere and floated right over our heads. And Pip, my lovely boy if you’re reading this in years to come, for the record we held up the shoebox so you could see, you looked, you nuzzled your head into my shoulder, and you tried very hard to capture and eat the box.
But Kitty got it. We spend a bit of time on Thursday making a mock up of first the sun and the planets and then the sun, moon and earth and acting out all of the rotations and then mocking up an eclipse hiding under a quilt and using the light on my phone as the sun and some of it sank in; when H came home she asked him what our planet was called,
“Earth” he said,
“No that’s not it – what are the other ones?”
“Umm, Venus, Mercury, Mars?”
“Mercury! That’s it!”
Which is admittedly a significant improvement on her answer to me earlier in the afternoon which was “cervix” (I have no idea!!).
And it was Kitty who kept coming back for another look, and Kitty who was captivated by the diamond ring and the total eclipse when we nipped inside to watch it on the telly after our darkest point had passed. She noticed that the sun was getting darker, but like bedtime, not like a rainy day, and that it got colder as we got nearer and nearer to our 90% ish cover.
Watching the moon cover our sun, our source of warmth and light and all things that make life possible makes you feel very little, so very very tiny compared to these giant orbiting spheres.
And when you sit and think about that scale, the fact that I can show just a little of that mystery to my daughter with the aid of a shoebox becomes really rather remarkable, a privilege and something I hope she will remember, at least until 2026 when we can set H going with the stanley knife again.