Demeter and Persephone in the Heartland
There is a landscape of fact, and there is a landscape of memory. My daughter and I drove across the fact of the Flint Hills of Kansas—an ocean of wintered grasses, mustard and dun and russet, bare trees planted as wind brakes, their trunks and openwork branches against the clear sky reminding me of sea fan coral. Like Wallace Stevens’s Snow Man, I saw nothing that was not there and the nothing that is.
But when we pulled into Lawrence, Kansas, the site of my daughter’s birth nearly sixteen years before, the actual landscape I looked upon seemed overlaid with the immaterial, so that I saw the tangible with my eyes and remembered the departed past with my mind simultaneously. I wondered what the world would look like if memory were a visible thing—spirit made manifest, incarnate.
On how slight a thread hangs fate. Thread being the operative word, if we are to trust the ancient Greeks. For them, the three remorseless Moirae, the Apportioners, the Fates, controlled the destinies of all mortals. Clotho spun the thread of life on her spindle; Lachesis measured it out with her rod; and Atropos—literally the “unturning one”—cut it with her shears, irrevocably ending each earthly existence.
How slight a thread. I applied to the University of Kansas in Lawrence because a guy I lifeguarded with one summer went there, and he told me about it as we sat behind the front desk checking passes, and when I looked it up a few days later in the directory of colleges in the public library of our suburb north of the city of Houston, I realized there was no application fee, and so I applied, and got in, and packed up, and drove north the following fall.
But that isn’t the thread, the fragile thread, I’m thinking of when I think of the fate that was spun out from my passing encounter at the swimming pool. Or rather, that’s only its beginning. In Kansas, in French class, I sat by a sweet-faced boy, who introduced me to his brother, Steve, who had green eyes and liked Twin Peaks and jazz. And this boy, the one with the green eyes, was a first-year law student, who lived in an apartment in an old subdivided house on Tennessee Street, just a few blocks from my apartment in a subdivided house, and we spent most of a school year and a summer in one place or the other, discussing the cases he was studying, making stir-fries, listening to music, and falling asleep together in a narrow twin bed. By the following fall, we were bickering and restless. It was only after we broke up that I realized I was pregnant. And it was only after I told him that I wanted to have the baby—how slight a thread—that I realized I actually did. I named her Elvina, after my grandmother. Ellie for short.
And still, this isn’t the story of those years, though of course I carry those years with me the way the nautilus does its coiling chambered shell, each cavity left gradually behind for more spacious quarters as it grows, past and present held together in a corporeal whole. I found, once, in reading about the chambered nautilus, that it is one of the finest naturally-occurring examples of a logarithmic spiral—one in which the distances between its curves increase geometrically with each turning. Other examples: the approach of a hawk towards its prey; hurricanes; the arms of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way. The seventeenth-century Swiss mathematician, Jakob Bernoulli, called the logarithmic spiral the spira mirabilis, the miraculous spiral, because, though the size of the spiral increases, the shape of each successive segment remains unaltered. If you were to diagram it, the effect would be of coiling a string of polygons of exactly the same shape around and around, beginning with the most minute, each polygon growing a little larger with every turn. Once I had Ellie, I saw myself as a segment in another sort of spira mirabilis, a spiral widening out to enfold her, then receding backwards towards my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother….
The past is borne, as the chambered nautilus attests, by the present. But this isn’t, as I said, the story of my past. It is a consideration, rather, of a pilgrimage my daughter and I made to a place incised with memories of that past. And of how returning to that place, after a great separation between us, helped bind her to me, even as she readied herself to leave.
The trip to Lawrence had been Ellie’s idea. Her father, Steve, now lives in Kansas City with the family he’s gone on to make. Ellie had been visiting him every six weeks or so, ever since I left Kansas to marry, coincidentally (how slight a thread), the brother of my fellow lifeguard, the one who had told me about KU as we checked pool passes. Terry, my husband, was a first lieutenant in the army back then, stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and we would drive northeast two-hundred miles with Ellie, and Steve would drive southwest two-hundred miles alone, and we would all meet at the McDonald’s just off the highway in Blackwell, Oklahoma near the Kansas border to exchange our daughter in a transaction that the grubby McDonaldland playground made seem just shy of clandestine. Later, once Terry left the army for civilian life, and with a newborn in my arms and another in utero, we moved back to Houston to be near our families. Then, Ellie would take a plane to Kansas City to see her father.
Now she was in high school and receiving shiny brochures from colleges and universities nearly every day in the mail. Discover Your Interests. Challenge Yourself, they tempted. Who Will You Become? Ellie was reaching the age I’d been when I left home to meet my fate, which, as it happens, hinged on having her. Perhaps, as my daughter’s own future rushed toward her, she had begun to realize that she needed to understand her past before she could move forward. Or perhaps she had begun to sense our impending separation, and she wanted reassurance that there had once been a time when I had loved her best of all. I, too, felt compelled to return to this place that had hitched me to her and where I’d left all those other selves I might have become behind. We both had personal business to transact. So Ellie made a couple of mix tapes, I packed a bag of clementine tangerines, and we drove north, away from the perpetual green of the Gulf Coast, towards the heartland, barren and gray and cold.
The story of parenthood is the story of loss. Before we can even hold our newborn babies in our arms, they must first be cut away. And ever after, they are always leaving us, our children, in small ways at first, and then later, more and more irrevocably.
When she was young and fancy free, Demeter, goddess of the grains, bore a daughter, Persephone, to Zeus, king of the gods. One day, Persephone, a young woman by now, is gathering flowers with some friends in a meadow near a lake—crocus and iris, lilies and narcissus and hyacinth—the wide Aegean sky overhead. “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl,’” goes an early passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with its suggestion of some sort of sexual initiation.
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
In early Greek versions of the ancient myth, a deal has been struck—without Demeter’s consent—between Zeus and Hades, god of the underworld, whereby Hades is given permission to take Persephone for a wife. In Ovid’s later adaptation, Venus, the Roman goddess of love, desiring to increase her empire, urges her son, Cupid, to get the virginal Proserpine (Persephone’s Latin name) married off, so Cupid takes an arrow from his quiver and springs a shaft into the heart of “Death.”
Riding in his chariot drawn by black steeds across fields heavy with grain, through fragrant woodlands, Hades sees Persephone and sweeps her up, her gathered flowers scattering and trampled. The girl shrieks for help, “A prayer to mother,” as Ovid tells it, “echoing through her cries.” But mother is nowhere to be found. Neither do her companions hear Persephone. When Hades stamps his spear into the ground and the earth opens up, they disappear into the dark embrace of the underworld.
In the oldest written account of this story, that found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter dating from about the seventh century BCE, after Persephone’s abduction, “The peaks of the mountains resounded, as did the depths of the sea, / with her immortal voice.” Demeter hears this voice and is filled with a foreboding grief. She wanders over the earth and sea, searching, a dark cloak thrown across her shoulders, neither eating nor drinking nor bathing. When she finally learns what has happened to her daughter from the sun god, Helios, who sees all things, Demeter is enraged. In her anguish and anger, she wastes away, holding the land hostage to her desolation. She keeps the seeds buried so that no grain can sprout. The earth grows barren. As famine spreads, the sacrifices, which sustain the gods, dry up. They grow desperate. Zeus sends messengers to plead with Demeter to relent, but she refuses until she can see “with her own eyes her daughter, the one with the beautiful looks.” Finally, Zeus sends Hermes to the underworld, dank and dark, where Persephone has been made wife and queen to the lord of that realm, though in most accounts, she appears despondent. I could not speak, Eliot’s hyacinth girl had said, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing. Hermes gives Hades the message that he must allow Persephone to travel back up to the light of the world so that her mother may be consoled—as long as Persephone has eaten nothing while in the realm of the dead. Hades agrees to this, but just as she leaves, he deviously gives to his bride the “honey-sweet berry of the pomegranate to eat.”
Persephone travels in the steed-drawn chariot to the place where Demeter mourns for her. When they are reunited, Persephone confesses to eating the sweet pomegranate seeds. Demeter declares then that, if she must relinquish her daughter, she will not renounce her curse upon the land. So Zeus orchestrates a compromise, commanding that Persephone return to Hades for a portion of every year—some versions say three months, some say six or seven—while allowing her to stay with Demeter for the remainder. The story ends during those warm summer days in which mother and daughter are together again. Happy in Persephone’s presence, the goddess allows the green growth, the bright grain to flourish. But we know that when Persephone leaves Demeter to return to Hades like a seed buried in a fallow field beneath the soil, the land will turn bare and the skies gray. It will be winter once more.
I don’t want to tell about the darkness that separated Ellie and me. Don’t want to tell about how, when I got married and Steve got married and I had one daughter and he had step-children and I had another daughter and he had a son of his own, when we moved and he moved and then we moved again, my child of three, then four, then five years old became consumed with anger whose source she felt but could not fathom. I don’t want to tell about the tantrums at every family gathering, about how she never had any friends at school. I don’t want to tell how my mother told me, when she would look into Ellie’s eyes, it was like she’d disappeared. Don’t want to tell how she would run off, behind neighbor’s houses and onto busy streets. Or how once, when she was seven or eight, she grabbed a paring knife from the kitchen drawer and told me she didn’t want to live. I don’t want to tell how she would begin every diary she kept with “My name is Ellie Rose Meyer. My parents are divorced”—which technically wasn’t true, since Steve and I had never married, but was revealing nevertheless. I don’t want to tell about the stealing, about the lying, about the cutting, the cutting, the cutting, so deep, one night, that she needed stitches, her sisters inconsolable until she returned. I don’t want to tell about the black clothes, the black eyeliner, the black nail polish, the black boots, the black belt with the skull and cross bones buckle. Nor about the day she rode her bike to the house of a boy, who forced on her the honey-sweet seeds, about how after that, she was neither living nor dead, and knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Don’t want to tell that for months and months I didn’t know how ashamed she felt. Don’t want to tell that if a prayer to mother echoed through her cries, I hadn’t heard it. That instead all I heard was hatred and vitriol. I would like to say something about the dark cloak I wore, about how desperate I became to see again with my own eyes my daughter, the one with the beautiful looks. That I searched for a messenger to bring her back to me. I don’t want to tell how my love for my daughter in those years was sometimes like a desolate field in winter that lies beneath a gray sky, not knowing if there will ever be another spring.
As we drove north now, color drained slowly from the earth and trees with every passing degree of latitude. I asked Ellie what memories she had, what emotional connection she felt to the place we were heading, the place where she’d entered the world. “I don’t know if what I have in my mind are actual memories,” she told me, “or if they were put there by other people’s stories.” Then, after a pause, “Maybe I have emotions without memories.”
What ache, I sometimes wonder, must my daughter have felt all her life and not had the words to name? What emotion without memory? Though I had long prided myself on the genial relations Steve and I maintained, on my excellent choice of a good and decent man for a husband, on the parity with which we treated all our children, still, at the center, Ellie had long felt separate from all of us, despite my good intentions. One of her earliest memories is from the days after the birth of my middle daughter, when all our relatives drove up to Oklahoma to see the new baby. Ellie says she has a picture in her mind of a circle of people, all standing around her newborn sister, but that she is on the outside of the circle, unable to break through. For years now, because she felt separated—from the father she adored, from the mother she could not get to because of all the interlopers in the way—Ellie had estranged herself, without understanding why she was doing so. When she rode her bike to the house of that boy one summer afternoon, what was she seeking if not connection?
We bring our children into a world that inevitably makes them suffer. What compensation can we offer for their grief? In thinking about this question, and in seeing myself and my daughter refracted in the story of Demeter and Persephone, I realize now that I have left out a crucial episode in that myth—a part that had always seemed to me an irrelevant appendix, some vestigial remnant whose meaning was lost to antiquity. In the Homeric Hymn, when Demeter hears from Helios that Persephone has been carried off to the underworld, she is enraged, but her rage is saturated with a savage grief. For the Greeks, an inexorable line divides Hades’ empire of the dead from the rest of existence, and once entered, no one—neither god nor human—can escape. Only Hermes, messenger of the gods, can move between these realms. Knowing the futility of her cause and infuriated with Zeus, rather than returning to Olympos, Demeter wanders among the cities of men and their fields of barley, amber waves of grain. At Eleusis, she disguises herself as an old crone, withered and barren and forsaken, a reflection of the goddess’s grief. The daughters of Keleos, lord of Eleusis, find her at the roadside well and invite her into their household, commiserating with her: “Dear mother, we mortals endure the gifts of the gods by necessity, / even though we are grieved, for indeed they are much stronger.”
The girls’ mother, Metaneira, welcomes the disguised Demeter into their home with the same message of resignation, telling the goddess, “we mortals endure the gifts of the gods by necessity / even though we are grieved, for a yoke lies on our neck.” Metaneira then hands over her infant son, Demophoön, to the old woman, who will serve as nursemaid to the child. Under Demeter’s care, the boy grows like a god. But unbeknownst to Metaneira, at night Demeter buries Demophoön in the hearth fire, attempting to burn off his mortality and make him immortal. Perhaps she is seeking revenge against Zeus, by blurring the rigid line of demarcation between human and divine that he always wants to maintain. Perhaps she seeks revenge against Hades, by stealing a soul destined, inescapably, for his realm. But one night, Metaneira sees this bewildering ritual and is afraid for the life of her child. She rushes in to try to foil Demeter’s plan. “Humans are foolish and without the sense to know their destiny ahead of time, when good comes, or evil,” the goddess tells Metaneira in this moment of epiphany, “and you too were hopelessly blinded by your own folly.” And Demeter snatches Demophoön from the fire and thrusts him away from her, placing him in the mortal dust of the earth. Then she demands a temple with an altar be built in her honor beneath the sheer wall of the acropolis at Eleusis.
What compensation can be offered for our grief? What solace for the yoke of suffering that lies around our necks? The Homeric Hymn to Demeter does not end with the reunion of Persephone and Demeter, but continues on after that happy moment in order to offer what some scholars think is the entire point of the Hymn: the sacred Eleusinain Mysteries. The Hymn closes with Demeter teaching those holy rites to the humans at Eleusis who had taken her in and, in her grief over the seemingly eternal separation she must suffer from her daughter, had taught her resignation to those “gifts of the gods.” In her interactions with mortals and her life among them, Demeter had seen the yoke they suffer under, in large measure because of that fundamental separation that exists between humans and gods, between the underworld and the rest of existence. And those rituals Demeter proffers, for those who become initiates in the Mysteries, bring connection with both goddesses, bring the love of mother and daughter, and blessings in this life and in the life beyond.
In the end, maybe it wasn’t me, though, who could offer Ellie compensation for her grief, who could mitigate her suffering and bring her back from the underworld. At least not at first. I think it began with Sister Carmel O’Malley, her Theology teacher at the Academy of the Incarnate Word. Sister Carmel, according to Ellie, is ancient, “like, sixty.” She’s all soft curves and muted colors—hair dove gray, eyes powdery blue. She speaks in the palest brogue, as if the accent with which she’d come to this country was an old quilt that had faded from its many washings over the years. Once, in class, during a discussion about pre-marital sex, the girls were having a difficult time, understandably perhaps, sharing their thoughts on the subject with a nun. Sister Carmel told them, “Hey girls, you can talk about it and know about it without doing it. Look at me.” One of the girls asked if people who had sex before they were married would go to hell. Sister Carmel said no and then added, reassuringly, “God knows what the heart intends.” After the bell rang, Ellie lingered until all the other students left. Then she went up to Sister Carmel’s desk and told her, part defensively, part, I think—God knows what the heart intends—seeking absolution, that her parents hadn’t been married when she was born. “Oh, but that’s okay, Ellie,” Sister Carmel soothed. “It’s obvious that you were made with love.”
As we drove now through the muted winter world, I think I hoped somehow to show Ellie this.
There is a landscape of fact and a landscape of memory. When we pulled into Lawrence in the late afternoon, as I said, the actual landscape I looked out on seemed overlaid with the immaterial. Unlike Ellie, for whom this place conjured up emotion without memory, for me, this was a place of emotion and memory, the two so inextricably intertwined that everything seemed lit up from within, alive with what was remembered. We passed Student Family Housing where Ellie and I lived after I’d begun a graduate program in literature—brick rectangles of eight apartments each, four up and four down. We’d lived upstairs. On one side of us was a young Pakistani couple, who had shown me colorful photos from their wedding, a marriage arranged by their parents. On the other side, a couple from Ghana, who had left their young son in Africa so they could continue their studies. At the far end, an extended family from India squeezed into a one-bedroom unit. Sometimes when I would walk with Ellie along the balcony onto which all our apartments opened, their door stood ajar to catch the afternoon breeze and we would say hello to the ancient grandmother sitting on her pallet in a nook of the living room, all of us smiling and nodding, none of us able to understand a word each other said.
As we drove slowly through the parking lot of Student Family Housing, I pointed out to Ellie the small park where I would take her to play. I didn’t tell her about the despair I felt there once, one cold Sunday in spring, when I had no classes to attend, when her nap was hours off, and the bright blue day stretched out in front of me like an endless prairie, with no spouse on the horizon to ease the burden or share the pleasure of caring for a small child alone.
Friday afternoons were usually better than Sundays. After my last class, I would strap Ellie into her bike seat and we would ride to Massachusetts Street with its nineteenth-century brick storefronts and I would treat myself to a coffee and Ellie to a cookie at one of the cafés. Then maybe we’d wander into the used bookstore, or Waxman Candles, or The Casbah, with its trinkets from around the world. It didn’t matter where we went, just as long as there were people around and I didn’t have to be alone in my apartment with a toddler on a Friday afternoon.
On this trip, Ellie and I parked at the base of Mount Oread, atop which the university campus sits. I showed her the old subdivided house in which I’d lived and where I’d first brought her home and laid her on my bed beneath a sunny window and thought to myself what a perfect creature she was. Then we walked to campus, up the same hill I’d trudged every day to class my senior year, pregnant. “I have a newfound appreciation for you, Mom,” Ellie told me, as she struggled to catch her breath when we reached the top. “That’s the whole point of this trip,” I replied, only partly joking.
I showed her the library where I would often stand at the card catalog with her in a back carrier as I tried to do research, waiting nervously for the moment when she would grow tired of the plastic key chain I’d brought to amuse her and begin to fuss. I pointed out the building that housed the English Department, where I spent a great deal of time in those years reading and writing about the archetype of the fallen woman in literature—the careless or naïve or defenseless girl seduced into an illicit affair which results in a pregnancy, the baby and the mother ostracized and then killed off in one way or another. A cautionary tale that warned readers: Do not have sex outside the confines of marriage or you will die, poor and miserable and alone! No Sister Carmel there to soothe those fears and to tell them that God knows what the heart intends. In my research, I looked with a vested interest I understood even then for revisions to this parable and found them in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, in Willa Cather’s Ántonia Shimerda. Women who were not ruined when they bore a child out of wedlock. Women who openly and proudly displayed the babies that their communities thought should be concealed. Women who were, in some way, saved by the children others warned would destroy them, though I think that perhaps there, too, I was projecting.
The next morning we drove out to Sander’s Mound at Clinton Lake, which spans the Wakarusa Valley just outside of Lawrence. Before I had Ellie, when I was feeling restless or blue, I’d drive out to the lake and through the farmland surrounding it listening to Nick Drake or Van Morrison—the saddest music I could find. On summer days, too, when we were still together, Steve and I would sometimes head to the beach on an inlet there, windows rolled down, sun warm on our arms. Later, I took Ellie back to that beach by myself, to splash around in the shallow muddy waters. Afterwards I’d wash her feet in the outdoor shower, and buy her slushy drinks from the Clinton Store, with its aged gas pump out front and its screen door and sandy floors. Now here we were again in this place that had been the axis of my life, where what was to become of me happened. Humans are foolish and without the sense to know their destiny ahead of time, when good comes, or evil, Demeter had told Metaneira, voicing the tragic blindness of all humans, of which I was one. I wondered what would become of my daughter, who stood at the verge of the precipice now. I had not saved her from suffering before—had in fact been the cause of much of it. What fate, good or evil, would befall her now?
The sky that morning was matte gray and we walked through dried gamma grass and yarrow and milkweed and clover, making little bouquets of the seed heads left behind. At the top of Sander’s Mound, we sat and looked out over the lake, geese bobbing on the surface. The cold pressed down on the land, silencing and stilling it. Only, from far off, the caw of a black bird and, when we listened close, the purled ice near the shore, creaking. “I’m so sorry that life has been difficult for you,” I told Ellie. But that was only partly what I meant to say. I meant to tell her something to lighten the yoke of the gift of the gods. I meant to tell her that I was sorry that the life I’d chosen, which had made me happy, had caused her so much pain. I meant to tell her that when I used to bring her here, carrying her on my hip down the path through the summer flowers, she had been like a treasure that belonged only to me, this slight and dear and costly gift which I was sure the remorseless Fates themselves, in a rare moment of mercy, had placed in my arms.
We stood and walked down towards the water’s edge. “Mom, didn’t you say you wanted to be cremated when you die?” Ellie asked rather abruptly. I told her that I supposed I did. “Would you want your ashes to be spread here?” I thought about the temple with the altar at Eleusis, and I thought about what the religious historian, Mircea Eliade says—that into profane space, at particular places, the sacred erupts, and that spot, which is a kind of center, becomes hallowed ground. I thought, too, about how he says that beyond these centers, sacred to entire groups of people, there exist “privileged places, qualitatively different from all others—a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” “Definitely I would want some of my ashes spread here,” I told Ellie. “And maybe some in all the other places I’ve loved. And hopefully there are still places I’ll love that I haven’t even seen.” She was quiet for a moment, and then she continued, “Did you know that dust from Africa can blow all the way to Florida?” “I didn’t know that, Ellie,” I replied. “That way,” she went on, “if you have your ashes scattered after you die, your spirit can visit places that your body has never been before.” Strange, the comfort that my daughter saying this brought to me.
For perhaps two thousand years, every autumn before the fall plowing, initiates of the Greater Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone would make a kind of pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis. Though much of what occurred during these Mysteries remains, well, mysterious, like all ritual, this journey too must have reconnected humans to the divine. In reminding themselves of the story of the grieving mother and the child lost to death because she ate the pomegranate seeds, the pilgrims traversed a sacred landscape, both actual and imagined, and found again the hope offered to them in life and after death.
In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence hangs the Madonna of the Pomegranate, painted by Botticelli in 1487. In this portrait, Mary holds the infant Christ who holds a halved pomegranate, its rich profusion of seeds offering the promise of rebirth. Just a few years before Botticelli painted this image, in 1483, a Dominican friar from Ulm, Germany traveled on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, sacred landscape of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection, and wrote an account of his travels there. In it, this Friar Felix Fabri notes the tradition, recorded by the Church Fathers, which held that after her son’s death and resurrection, the Virgin Mary would return, every day, to all those places “wherein our redemption was wrought. Though she was in the spirit,” Fabri elaborates, “yet as long as she lived in the flesh she was moved by fleshly feelings, and therefore was refreshed by visiting those places, and was daily inflamed with fresh feelings of love, all the more powerfully the more she was illuminated within by divine visitations.” The Virgin Mary lived fourteen years after her son’s ascension, “which years,” says Fabri, “she passed as a pilgrim, moving actually in the body from place to place.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not the devotion of Mary extended this far beyond that of even the most constant of mothers (Fabri also maintains that she made a monthly pilgrimage to Bethlehem and a yearly pilgrimage to Nazareth), I adore this story, adore imagining pilgrim Mary trudging from site to site every day in her blue robe and white veil, stopping here for a drink of water from a well, stopping there at a wayside church to say a prayer. Because what this story recognizes, what my daughter recognized when she asked of the lake bordered by flowers and grasses through which I had once carried her on my hip, “Would you want your ashes to be spread here?,” is that a place where one has been altered by trial is itself altered upon our returning to it. Whether the memories are of loss or of reward, a place becomes holy and can bring solace through what we remember when we make our pilgrimages there.
In mid-July 1483, just before he departed Jerusalem, Friar Felix Fabri and his pilgrim band traveled to Bethlehem. There they paid homage at the stone on which the Blessed Virgin was said to have sat to recover her breath when pregnant, and the ruins of the inn where the Magi were said to have lodged. They visited the Church of the Nativity, erected over the spot where the stable was believed to have stood, a polished white marble slab marking the spot where Mary wrapped her newborn in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. They peered down the well into which the Magi’s star supposedly fell, then passed into a grotto where Mary, legend had it, sat nursing her holy babe. “From hence,” Friar Felix continues,
we went down hill, through olive-yards, and came into a wide valley full of ploughed fields and meadows. In the midst of this valley we saw great ruined walls, and the remnants of ancient buildings, towards which we turned ourselves. When we came to the place, we found a church, ruined and cast down, yet with its front part still remaining. Now, the precentor began in a loud voice the angels’ hymn, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’…. This church stands on the spot where the shepherds were together at the hour of Christ’s nativity, and here the angel of the Lord appeared, and stood beside them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and he said: ‘I bring you good tidings of great joy.’
This church, in the valley of ploughed fields and meadows, was also the burial-place of those shepherds, who could not bear, it was said, to be buried anywhere save the place of the appearance to them of the angel of God. Would you want your ashes to be spread here?, my daughter, in the place of her birth, had asked of me.
That cold February, Ellie and I were the only pilgrims to attend the scenes of my pregnancy and her birth, our early years together. No Magi had come bearing gifts back then. No angels sang of her arrival. And yet, for me, she was a savior nevertheless. For what mother is her child not? “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on, envious,” says Sylvia Plath in “Nick and the Candlestick,” a poem addressed to her son. “You are the baby in the barn.”
The babies are our consolation, the gift the gods give us to help bear the inevitable pain. Sometimes they are the pain itself. Like Persephone, Eve, too, is tempted to eat the sweet fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, deviously offered to her by the serpent. Because she eats, she must leave the garden, where it is always spring, to roam a land of thorn and thistle. And yet, it is only by eating the fruit that Eve comes to bring forth children. Perhaps this is God’s consolation to her, paradise lost, but children gained. A saving grace. Did He know, being a father himself, that despite the sorrow which would attend Eve in childbirth, despite the sweat by which Adam would earn his bread, the children she would bear would be worth the suffering? Did He know that, because of the children, Eve would never regret the first sweet bite?