Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Memory and Its Codas

In 1985:

I stand in the kitchen of my father’s apartment at Carriage Hill. I am about six years old, my sister impossibly older at nine. Dad has bought a treat for us. A strange red fruit that cannot be eaten in your hands like an apple or a peach.

“Pomegranates are ancient,” Dad tells me as he cuts into the fruit, staining his hands with the purplish-scarlet juice. “They’re the reason we have winter every year.”

He plucks a handful of seeds from the center and hands some to me. I suck out the sweet/tart juice, then roll the seeds around my mouth.

“No way,” Tracie says around her own seeds. She is used to Dad’s stories. He once told us that there were cockroaches in Texas that were big enough for a toddler with a saddle to ride on, and he promised to build a kite with a seat that Tracie could fly on. She has earned some skepticism.

“Well, that’s what the Greeks said,” Dad says, pulling apart the rest of the pomegranate. “The goddess Demeter, who was in charge of the harvest, had a beautiful daughter named Persephone. Hades, the god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and stole her away one day while she was picking flowers. Demeter was so sad that she made it winter all the time.”

I look down at the juice stains on my fingertips and wonder if Persphone’s flowers were the same color. I imagine beautiful pomegranate-colored flowers growing out of the snow.

Dad continues, “Zeus, the king of the gods, convinced Hades to give Persephone back, but Hades had tricked her. You see, if you taste food while you’re in the underworld, you have to stay. Persephone had been so sad she didn’t want to eat. But Hades convinced her to eat three pomegranate seeds. That was enough to ensure that she had to go back to the underworld for three months every year. Guess when those three months are?” Dad asks.

“Winter!” I shout excitedly.

Dad nods, his smile crinkling the sides of his face. “While Persephone is in the underworld every year, Demeter pines for her daughter and makes it winter.”

I reach for more seeds from Dad’s hands. Now I know that this fruit is magical. I suck out the juice from the tiny seeds, marveling that something so small could imprison a goddess.

In 2008:

I am teaching high school English at an insular little school in Central Ohio. The kids can be tough and I am always stressed. But I love teaching Greek mythology to my 9th graders.

I have assigned each student a different god or goddess. In my third period class, the girl who was assigned Persephone (or perhaps it was Demeter) brings in a pomegranate to share with the class while she tells the story of her goddess. We have a difficult time cutting open the fruit with the only implement I have on hand—a plastic butter knife. I get juice all over my hands and on my shirt. The stain will not come out.

That evening, I call my father.

“Dad, do you remember the first time you gave us a pomegranate? You told us the story of Persephone.”

He doesn’t recall. One of the many parent/child interactions that simply disappear from the memory of one or the other or both. It reminds me that you can never tell what will stick in a child’s mind, which is why you have to try to always be the person you want your kids to remember.

He does have an opinion, though. “I think there is something about how dramatic it is to open up a pomegranate for the first time. It looks like a fruit from an alien planet. Maybe that’s why you remember."

I think back on the sawn-in-half pomegranate on my desk at school and agree with him, even though I know it was the story that stuck with me.

In 2014:

I see a display of pomegranates in the grocery store. I stop to look at them, wondering if each and every one represents someone's grief. Each seed a month without someone they love. Each prolific fruit representing years and years of loss.

I pass by the display without putting any of the fruits in my cart.

Pomegranate image courtesy of Fir0002 from Flagstaffotos


  1. This was absolutely lovely. The Kid and I have some (I think) very special moments pulling seeds out of pomegranates, and I hope the tradition is one of the things that knits us together. Maybe because Persephone is a special story here, too.

    Your dad was a great person.