National Archeological Museum- Athens
Sitting on a bench in the National Archeological Museum in Greece, I watch my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ann, angle her camera before a marble bas-relief of Demeter and Persephone unaware of the small ballet she’s performing– her slow, precise steps forward, the tilt of her head, the way she dips to one knee as she turns her torso, leaning into the sharp afternoon light. The scene reminds me of something, a memory maybe, but I can’t recall what. I only know she looks beautiful and impossibly grown, and that for reasons not clear to me I’m possessed by an acute feeling of loss.
It’s the summer of 1998, a few days before my fiftieth birthday. Ann and I have been in Athens a whole twenty-seven hours, a good portion of which I’ve spent lying awake in a room in the Hotel Grande Bretagne, waiting for blessed daylight. I tell myself the bereft feeling that washed over me means nothing– I’m jet-lagged, that’s all. But that doesn’t feel particularly convincing.
I close my eyes and even in the tumult of the museum where there seems to be ten tourists per square inch, I know the feeling is actually everything. It is the undisclosed reason I’ve come to the other side of the world with my daughter. Because in a way which makes no sense, she seems lost to me now. Because she is grown and a stranger. And I miss her almost violently.
Our trip to Greece began as a birthday present to myself and a college graduation gift to Ann. The extravagant idea popped into my head six months earlier as the realization of turning fifty set in and I felt for the first time the overtures of an ending.
Those were the days I stood before the bathroom mirror, examining new lines and sags around my eyes and mouth like a seismologist studying unstable tectonic plates. The days I dug through photo albums in search of images of my mother and grandmother at fifty, scrutinizing their faces and comparing them to my own.
Surely I’m above this sort of thing. I could not be one of those women who clings to the facades of youth. I didn’t understand why I was responding to the prospect of aging with such shallowness and dread, only that there had to be more to it than the etchings of time on my skin Was I dabbling in the politics of vanity or did I obsess on my face to avoid my soul?
Furthermore, whatever room I happened to be in seemed unnaturally overheated. During the nights I wandered in long, sleepless corridors. At forty-nine my body was engaged in vague, mutinous behaviors.
These weren’t the only hints that I was about to emigrate to a new universe. At the same time I was observing the goings-on in the mirror, I came down with an irrepressible need to leave my old geography– a small town in upstate South Carolina where we’d lived for twenty-two years– and move to an unfamiliar landscape. I envisioned a place tucked away somewhere, quiet and untamed, near water, marsh grass and tidal rhythms. In an act of boldness or recklessness, or some perfect combination thereof, my husband, Sandy, and I put our house on the market and moved to Charleston, where we subsisted in a minuscule one-bedroom apartment while searching for this magical and necessary place. I never said out loud that I thought it was mandatory for my soul and my creative life (how could I explain that?), but I assure you, I was thinking it.
I felt like my writing had gone to seed. A strange fallowness had set in. I could not seem to write in the same way. I felt I’d come to some conclusion in my creative life and now something new wanted to break through. I had crazy intimations about writing a novel, about which I knew more or less nothing. Frankly, the whole thing terrified me.
After being crammed in the tiny apartment for so long I began to think we’d lost our minds by tossing over our comfortable, old life, I was driving alone one day when I took a wrong turn that led to a salt marsh. I stopped the car by a For Sale sign on an empty lot, climbed out and gazed at an expanse of waving Spartina grass with a tidal creek curling through it. It was low tide. The mud flats glinted with oyster shells and egrets floated down to them like plumes of smoke. My heart tumbled wildly. I belong to this place. Perhaps living here, my creative life would crack open like one of those oyster shells. Or sweep in like the tides, brimming and amniotic. In those moments, the longing I felt to bring forth a new voice, some new substance in myself almost knocked me down.
I called Sandy. “I’m standing on the spot we need to live.”
To his everlasting credit he did not say, “Don’t you think I need to see it first?” Or, “What do you mean you don’t know the price?” He heard the conviction and hunger in my words. After a pause, a fairly long one, he said, “Well okay, if we really need to.”
Later I went to the store and bought a red leather journal. I carried it, blank and unchristened, to the lot beside the salt marsh where we now planned to build our house. Construction hadn’t started, wouldn’t start for a few months. I sat on a faded beach towel beneath a palmetto palm and began making a list of 100 Things To Do Before I Die. It started off with a 10K race and riding a hot-air balloon over Tuscany. I didn’t like running and really had no desire to travel by balloon. I turned the page.
Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman and the trepidation it stirred. The small, telling “betrayals” of my body. The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an ache for some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelings coursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge to radically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning. And why, I asked myself, had I begun to think for the first time about my own mortality? Some days, the thought of dying gouged into my heart to the point I filled up with tears at the sight of the small, ordinary things I would miss.
Finally, I wrote a series of questions: Is there an odyssey the female soul longs to make at the approach of fifty– one that has been blurred and lost within a culture awesomely alienated from soul? If so, what sort of journey would that be? Where would it take me?
The impulse to go to Greece emerged out of those questions. It seized me before I got back to the minuscule apartment. Greece. That would be the portal. I would make a pilgrimage in search of an initiation.
A few days later, flipping through a small anthology, I stumbled upon four lines in May Sarton’s poem, “When a Woman Feels Alone:”
Old Woman I meet you deep inside myself.
There in the rootbed of fertility,
World without end, as the legend tells it.
Under the words you are my silence.
I read it a half dozen times. I became entranced with the verse, which attached itself to the side of my heart something like a limpet on a rock. The image of the Old Woman haunted me, this idea there was an encounter that needed to take place at the “rootbed” of a new fertility. Who was this Old Woman who had to be met deep inside oneself? Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night thinking about her. About her dark fertility. About the silence beneath the words.
When I made my first trip to Greece in 1993, I’d inscribed a quotation on the first page of my travel diary– words by theologian, Richard Niebuhr: “Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.” Recalling this, I recopied the words in the new red journal. What I wanted– at least what I was trying hard to want– was to create in myself a new poetry: the spiritual composition of the Old Woman, not through words, but through the wisdom of a journey.
I imagined the trip as a pilgrimage for Ann, too. She had come to Greece almost a year and a half ago on an academic trip and fallen in love with the place. Returning would be the graduation gift of gifts for her, but I also wondered if it might become an initiation for her, as well. She was officially exiting the precincts of girlhood and stepping into young womanhood– another threshold that wasn’t all that defined and acknowledged– and she did seem daunted lately. Not that we talked about it. When I inquired, she said she was fine. But on the flight over, during the hours she sat next to me, she stared out the oval window, at the Sky Mall catalog, at the movie playing on the monitor over our heads, and there was an emission of sadness around her, like the faint dots and dashes of Morse Code blinking secret distress.
I realized it was conceivable that Ann and I both, in our own way, were experiencing a crisis, which according to its definition is: (1) a crucial stage or turning point, and (2) an unstable or precarious situation. At the very least, Ann was struggling to figure out the beginning of being a woman and I, the beginning of the ending of it.
Now, though, I sit on the museum bench and consider this new epiphany, how surprising it is that for all these months I’ve thought traveling to Greece was basically a pilgrimage about crossing borders into foreign regions of the soul. About meeting the Old Woman. I haven’t considered it has anything to do with mothers and daughters. With Ann and me. With us.
I watch Ann hone in with her telephoto lens on Persephone’s face, the nose of which is partially missing. If you asked me to describe Ann, the first thing I would say is: smart. Her intelligence was never just scholastic, though; it has always had a creative, inventive bent. When other eight year olds were busy with lemonade stands, Ann set up a booth for dispensing “Advice for People with Problems”– minor problems cost a nickel; major ones, a dime. She made a killing.
On the other hand, it must be said that Ann’s defining quality is kindness. I don’t mean politeness so much as tender-heartedness. Growing up, she railed against animal abuse and was unable to bear even the thought of a squashed bug, insisting we carry all insects from the house in dustpans. Indeed, whatever her sensitive and fiery heart attached itself to, she was passionate about it: Bugs, dogs, horses, books, dolls, comic strips, Save-the-Earth, movies, Hello Kitty, Star Wars.
The list of attachments revolved continually. Her constant testaments to these passions were the poems and stories she wrote throughout her childhood, filling one composition book after another.
The only thing that seemed to curb her fervency was the other predominate thing about Ann– her natural diffidence and the way it often veered off into self-consciousness.
I wrap my arms across my abdomen and look away from her toward the room we just left, which like this one is a cluttered bone yard of sculptures and myths. I have the most absurd impulse to cry.
I’ve had intimations of this feeling of loss before, but it was a shadow passing in the peripheries, then gone. After Ann left home, I would wander into her room and catch the scent of dried prom corsages in the closet, or turn over an old photograph of our beagles and find myself staring at her handwriting– Caesar and Brutus 1990– or come upon her poem “Ode to a Teddy Bear,” or open a cookbook to her perfected horse head sketch in the margin, and I would feel it, the momentary eclipse.
I tell myself it’s natural for the feeling to surface now with the two of us captive in each other’s presence, brought together in a way we haven’t experienced in… well, forever. Once, when Ann was twelve, we’d traveled– just the two of us– to San Francisco, but that was hardly comparable to this. At twelve, Ann had not been away for four years during which time she transformed into a young woman I barely know.
Her backpack is plopped open between her feet while she copies something from the sign beside the bas-relief into a blue spiral notebook. It has not escaped me that Demeter and Persephone have captured her attention.
We have by this point tromped by a few thousand antiquities at least– frescoes from Santorini, gold from Mycenae, bronzes from Attica, pottery from every nook and cranny of ancient Greece– but this is the spot where I tell Ann my feet are in abject misery and I need to take a break: before Demeter and Persephone. At the intersection of mothers and daughters.