For one glorious week each year, the rose and white-showered magnolia trees lining Main Street transformed the potholed, two-lane road into a processional as elegant in its own simple way as any gracing a medieval European or an ancient city. The town did festoon the street with flags and balloons for parades with the Mayor and town council, high school band, and Boy and Girl Scouts on special occasions. “But, it goes nowhere,” Mary reflected as she drove home on a Friday evening during that magnificent week one year, and, indeed, it ended in an empty concrete courtyard of buildings long since abandoned.
As the sun warmed her arm through the car window for the first time that spring, an unexpected memory came to her of summer Saturdays when she and her mother would gather in her grandmother’s kitchen to make jellies and jams from the fruits of her grandmother’s farm. The thought “I’m almost the age my mother was then. She had my grandmother and me. How did I get to be so old and end up so alone?” came into Mary’s mind unbidden.
Tucked into a strip mall at the corner where Mary waited for a green light was Demeter’s Supermarket, a small grocery that had been established by Greek immigrants decades ago when the neighborhood was mostly families who had immigrated from there. Their children had moved out a generation ago, but a few of the original businesses still served the surviving elders.
Mary’s arms turned the wheel and she was in the supermarket’s parking lot even before she had finished thinking, “that’s what I’ll do this weekend, I’ll make jelly. But I need some fruit.”
When Mary entered, only one other woman was in the market, the shopkeeper restocking some pomegranates from a wooden crate. Mary examined various fruits, some of which she had never seen before, and asked “Which would you choose for making jelly?”
“Have you ever tasted a truly fresh pomegranate?” replied the woman, holding out one sliced open with a mound of the seeds inside. “Just try some of the seeds, it’s on the house.” Curious, Mary picked out five or six of the seeds and ate them. She had expected them to be soft and very sweet, cherry-colored, tart and dessert-like, but the seeds were blood red, sweet enough to please but hearty and hard like a true seed, with all the nourishment inside that a plant would need to grow.
“They are different than I thought they would be, but I like them better,” Mary said to the woman.
“Did you know it’s the first day of spring today?” the woman asked. “Without pomegranates we would not have spring, or summer, fall, or winter. According to ancient Greek myth, Persephone went to the Underworld – some say she was kidnapped while others are sure she went willingly – while Demeter, Goddess of the Earth and Persephone’s mother, wailed as any mother would, unable to find her beloved daughter. Earth became barren in Demeter’s despair. Finally, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth’s surface, but only for a few months each year because she had eaten the pomegranate seeds, the food of the Underworld. When she is below, winter reigns, and when she rises to our realm, spring arrives, then summer, then fall and winter, when it is time for her to descend once again. Persephone and Demeter together make all life on Earth possible.”
Mary stood quietly, a bit stunned. What kind of a supermarket was this?
“You can make a delicious jelly out of the seeds,” the woman said. Mary filled a bag with several pomegranates and headed for the bread she would need to spread the jelly on when it was ready.
Just as she set off in search of the bread aisle, the lights went out, conjuring a darkness more absolute than any Mary had ever experienced. “That’s odd,” Mary thought. “Even if the power has gone out, light should still be coming in the picture window.” She thought she should go towards the window, but wasn’t sure of what she might stumble over, so she stayed in place.
“There go the lights again,” the woman said as she rounded the corner with a flashlight. “I don’t know why our lights go out so much more than anyone else’s, sometimes once or twice a day, always when there is a customer here who has never been here before. What must you think of us!”
Mary took the flashlight and thanked the shopkeeper, then shone it on the shelf in front of her, filled with bread of all kinds though she hadn’t remembered seeing it there before.
Some loaves were the usual brands, others were special Greek varieties, but two others especially caught her eye. One was in a cellophane wrapping with very old-fashioned writing that said “Our Daily Bread” while the other had a drawing of a housewife from the 1960s.
Mary said quietly to herself. “I don’t understand. These were made by local bakeries hundreds of miles from here that closed decades ago.” The “Our Daily Bread” brand was her grandmother’s favorite but because it was more expensive she served it only on Sundays when the entire family would gather for dinner. Her mother used to buy the 1960s bread for the family when Mary was a child. She had eaten it with peanut butter and grape jelly at school for lunch every day for years.
She held one loaf in each hand and stared at them, then thought of how small they seemed compared to how she remembered them. As she held them up to her face and gathered the scent into herself, a memory opened. She and her mother were sitting at her grandmother’s kitchen table an hour or so after they had held vigil by her bedside as she died. They were sharing slices of the “Our Daily Bread” intended for the Sunday dinner that would now be a funeral gathering.
“I asked her how she had the strength to keep fighting, to hold on until the last possible day when life could no longer stay in that poor broken body and she told me that she was afraid to die because she thought she might go to hell,” Mary’s mother had told her. “What could she have ever done to make her think she would go to hell? She must have heard that as a little girl. Who would have told an innocent child that?”
Mary then remembered of her own mother’s death, with Mary at her side, so peaceful, “like kicking off an old shoe that doesn’t fit anymore,” the hospice nurse had said. Her mother had only regretted not being able to do one thing after she became too ill to live her normal daily life. “All I want is to be able to walk into a supermarket and buy an orange, just get out of this wheelchair and pick up an orange, take it to the counter, buy it, and then eat it right there,” she had said. “Maybe that’s why I have liked oranges so much since then,” Mary thought, “maybe I’m enjoying them for my mother.”
The darkness veiled the tears that began to run down Mary’s face. She walked quickly to a restroom she had seen by the entrance. She set the flashlight down so that it lit only her face as she splashed water on her eyes. As she looked in the mirror, for the first time she saw both her grandmother’s and mother’s faces in her own. She stopped seeing herself as she thought she was and instead, in the dimness, saw herself as she really was, and there they both were.
“But the line stops here,” Mary thought to herself. “I have no daughter.”
The lights had come back on when Mary came out of the restroom. “I can check you out now if you like,” the woman said, heading over to the counter. “But no hurry. Browse around as much as you like.”
“No, I’m ready,” Mary said. She first put both loaves of bread back on the shelves, then changed her mind and added them to her cart.
”Do you make jelly often?” the woman asked Mary as she weighed the bag of pomegranates.
“No,” Mary said. “But still, I guess it makes me an old woman that I know how to do it.”
“Well, I think it’s too bad that people don’t pay attention to what older women did in the past. They might learn something,” the woman said. “In ancient Greece, when women were done raising children, they became doctors and midwives, they literally birthed the next generation just like Demeter and Persephone rebirth the whole world every year.”
“What exactly kind of supermarket is this?” Mary asked again at this astonishing information, this time out loud.
“It’s just like any other supermarket, with maybe a few more Greek foods for those in our neighborhood who enjoy them. Lamb, bread, pomegranates – nothing here you can’t find in any supermarket, or anywhere in daily life, if you just look. Why do you ask?” The woman replied.
“No reason, no reason,” Mary said as she took her bag of pomegranates and bread and headed for the supermarket’s door.
“You know,” the woman said, “even though Demeter and Persephone were goddesses, with all the fancy trappings that ancient Greece gave them, in the end it was their love for each other and their courage that saw beyond what they were born into that rebirthed the world, the simple love and courage of a mother and daughter, no thunderbolts, no chases across the heavens, just two people with love and courage.”
“She’s right,” Mary said to no one but herself as she drove out of the parking lot. “My grandmother rarely knew the sweetness of life, her own life was so hard. She was one of nine children in a family with never enough food on the table then living homeless through the Depression. No wonder she was worried about going to hell after she died, that’s what she must have thought her Creator had already given her.” She remembered a photo she had seen of her grandmother’s family, one child without shoes and everyone too thin.
“But she must have taught her own daughter something about rising out of the Underworld because my mother lived her life to the fullest, leaving home to find adventure when she was still a teenager, learning to fly her own airplane, finally finding happiness in her family for decades, even after her own poor childhood. And my mother must have taught me to fly in my own way, because I’ve made my own way in the world, doing what I want to do, living life the way I want. I may not have everything she had, but I have what I have chosen for myself. Maybe that’s what they were trying to tell me all those Saturdays making jelly, that with all its harshness, life is still sweet, life is still worth rebirthing, and how to do it.”
As she walked out the door, the sun hit the picture window just right and Mary saw a reflection of her face, this time exactly as she remembered it. It was only her face, but her face never alone, a face whose turn it is to love the next generation of women, maybe not her daughters, but all the next generation of women, and rebirth the world again.