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In fourth grade, our elementary school class from Bowling Green, Kentucky, made a field trip to Mammoth Cave, the national park located beneath quiet Kentucky forests and farms, winding underground for hundred of twisting miles. We rode in a bus to Cave City, then took the standard guided tour of the most visited and accessible sections of the cave, down damp steps into lighted caverns with slick stone walls where everyone shivered and huddled close together. I remember dripping sounds and the marvelous sight of sparkling stalagtites and stalagmites, but more than anything I remember the moment our guide turned out the lights so that we could experience pure darkness, complete absence of light beneath the earth’s surface. Some of the kids shrieked. I held tight to my best friend Lynn Fly with one hand and put the other hand up close to my face, trying to see it. Nothing, just blackness. Then the lights came back on and a cheer of relief went up.
This memory comes back to me on Easter week, when darkness and light duke it out for dominance. That haunting line from Mark’s gospel: “At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land.” On church lawns and altars, crosses draped in black. Good Friday, the day the lights went out and Jesus cried out in pure loss and abandonment.
Many years after the Mammoth Cave field trip, I read a pamphlet about the early explorers of the cave, many of the most important ones slaves or descendants of slaves. Some of the cave’s best known features — the Bottomless Pit, Fat Man’s Misery, and Mammoth Dome — were discovered by Stephen Bishop, a young African American slave brought to the area as a teenager in the late 1830s. It’s mind boggling to imagine going down into those massive caves with nothing but a grease oil lamp to light the way. I wonder if Bishop, who was known for his singing voice, and others like him might have experienced liberation in those black caves where they were free to walk in pure darkness to unknown places.
I remember Easter Sunday at the Glendale Baptist Church, the spectacle and the drama. “Hallelulah! He arose!” shouted Brother Richard and the congregation shouted “Amen!” And I remember the thrilling hymn that began with a rumbling bass line: Low in the grave he lay … I heard those words and the legend of the tomb and the rolling back of the stone, and I imagined Mammoth Cave, the only stone tomb I could fathom.
Last week, my son and I excavated a dusty storage space at a friend’s house where, for about eleven years, a truckload of boxes and bags have sat in the dark. These were my daughter’s things, packed hastily in her teenage bedroom, when I moved from a large house to a smaller one. She had already graduated college and lived far away, but wanted to save everything and here it all was — her Cabbage Patch doll, her stuffed panda, her Sassy magazine collection, school notebooks from second grade on, notes from girlfriends in sixth grade, love letters from high school boyfriends. My son pulled the crumbling boxes from deep inside the storage closet and I dusted and inspected them in the blinding, hot sun. We loaded them in our cars and cleared a storage area for them in our crowded basement, grumbling all the way.
“Does she really want to keep all this stuff?” my son complained. I said we’d just keep it until she could come home and look through it, to see what she wanted to save. She has lived in small apartments in New York City for a decade and has no room for any of it. But my daughter and all of us have become somewhat vigilant about what we keep and what we throw away after losing four loved ones — a brother, a cousin, an aunt, a father — over the last five years.
On our front porch, repacking some of the boxes, I came across a packet of letters my sons had sent their sister when she was abroad in India, Nepal and Tibet her junior year of college, 1997. She had written her brothers the month before about her adventure deep inside one of Nepal’s bat caves.
I unfold the crisp pages with their sweet messages of how much they miss her.
In a lumpy envelope, a note from her brother who died in a very dark place nearly five years ago, written in elegantly slanted sixth grade script. P.S., it says, here is a glow stick in case you get lost.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.