Persephone

Last Friday I was driving home from a springtime ritual near Athens – a sunny celebration of Persephone involving a spiral walk and various priestesses leading the group in joyful song – when I saw the Bojangles’ sign: “ORDER YOUR BISCUITS NOW FOR EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE.” Then damned if the McDonald’s next door didn’t try to one-up Bojangles’ by declaring, on their sign, that the Easter Bunny himself would be in attendance the next day, maybe to eat a Big Mac and sign autographs. Well, I don’t guess he’d sign autographs. He’d hold some kids on his lap and make happy hoppy gestures without saying two words about like he does every year in Winterton, Georgia.

Suddenly, even though I was just a few minutes from my little house off Main Street, I got a bad craving for either a biscuit or a Cadbury crème egg. Not the fancy kind with caramel or fudge, but the original egg with the white and yellow sugary substance inside; it was hard to find it with all the other new-and-improved versions out, though. I decided I’d have better luck with an egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s so I turned around and headed for the drive-thru.

The parking lot where I sat eating my biscuit overlooked the Methodist church. Children were playing outside on a grassy field between church and cemetery, the cool wind wild and troublesome. The weatherman was calling for frost over the weekend and I worried about my daffodils, white and yellow like the crème eggs, fighting their way up through the depths of winter like Persephone risen from the underworld to the earth, finally, finally, her mama Demeter says, finally.

A lone woman supervising the church kids stood beside a cross with a black cloth draped carefully over its wooden arms. She was there but not really there, which put me in mind of a story my own mother told me some time back. As I crinkled up the biscuit wrapper and tossed it in the paper bag, I pictured the scene in my mind: in 1952 Mama was a little over ten years old, playing outside on Good Friday with the Methodist youth group. (Mama’s family was Baptist but the Baptists went to the Methodist kids’ programs, and the Methodists went to the Baptists’ programs, and on it went so that all Winterton children were thoroughly infused with the horrors of the crucifixion by at least age 12.)

Mama said that while she played with a jump rope her eye was drawn to one of the houses nearby. On the back porch steps sat a high school girl who had done a shameful thing – gotten pregnant without a husband – and there she was in deep sorrow, sitting stooped on her mama’s steps watching the kids play, knowing that in a few days she’d be sent off out west somewhere, or so the talk went, to spare her family any, well, public embarrassment.

“What happened to her, Mama, after she left Georgia?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but after that Easter I never saw her again. To this day I can’t forget that poor girl just sitting there, by herself, watching us kids. I wanted to go over and see if she’d jump rope with me but Miss Hanson said, when I walked toward the house, ‘Come on back, now, Pansy.’” Mama looked thoughtful. “She was one of the Collinses but I can’t recall her first name. Her mama was Inez. I used to hear your Gran whisper with Aunt Lil about how Inez and them was so tore up they didn’t know what to do.”

“So they just sent her off?”

Mama nodded. “It was different in those times. Gran said the girl wound up dying fairly young of cancer, maybe in her fifties. They printed the obituary in the Winterton paper but wasn’t a thing mentioned about where she’d lived or what she’d done in the meantime. It was like nothing had ever happened, which maybe was true for all anybody around here knows.”

The sound of the train whistle brought me back to the McDonald’s parking lot. I cradled my belly, feeling the life inside. My first child, a daughter named May, was due in a month. I had no husband to speak of, didn’t want one, and even though Daddy grumbled some about me breaking off with Donnie and spending time with pagans, of all things, Mama never said a word. Maybe it was because she felt haunted over the years by the Collins girl who disappeared like Persephone to an underworld of small-town Georgia’s own choosing, somewhere as far away as Hades and maybe twice as lonely as those back porch steps.

I called Mama when I got home.

“I won’t ask you how that service or whatever was because it upsets your daddy too much,” Mama said. “Lord have mercy. What in the world? I wish you’d read the book of John – the Gospel John, not the ‘I John’ in Revelation that you got all fussy about that time. At least come to Easter Sunday sunrise service with us. Preacher Ed’s going to talk on resurrection and eternal life.”

“I don’t care to hear Preacher Ed but I’ll take y’all to lunch after.” I looked out my kitchen window, watching the wind jostle the new buds. “You know, Donnie wanted to cut down my Bradford pear tree,” I told her, probably for the tenth time. “Just said he didn’t like it. And there it is blooming so pretty.”

“I know, and he was funny about those daffodils you planted too.”

“You reckon they’ll make it through the frost?” I asked.

“Yeah, your daddy says they will,” Mama said. “They’re tough little things.”

“Ok. Oh, don’t forget to order your Easter biscuits from Bojangles.”

Mama laughed. “Has Hector got that sign up again?”

We both giggled and I felt my girl move. She wasn’t due until Beltane but kicked like she wanted to bust on out into the world with us right then.

“Hold on, now,” I said to May after hanging up with Mama. “I’ve got to have a little more time to work on your room, all this yellow and green and white.” I reached for a paintbrush in the hall closet and tied my hair back. “Soon enough you’ll be Queen of the May, little springtime miss, soon enough. It’s all in the timing.”

Late into the night I finished painting my daughter’s room with the Collins girl – nameless, faceless, dejected – in my mind. Had her “illegitimate” child been born? Was the Collins girl a good mother, if so? Did Inez ever write her daughter a letter, and did they ever make peace? Had she longed for home? The saddest truth, I realized, was that had the Collins family lived now, in the 21st century, not too many folks except maybe Preacher Ed would bat an eye about the pregnancy. “Everything happens for a reason,” Mama says but I don’t know. It’s mostly just luck and chance, seems to me. All in the timing.

May kicked again. Or was it her elbow? Either way, I felt a sharp jab and I winced to think about all the mothers and daughters down through time, starting with Demeter and Persephone and ending up with Mama and me, and now me and May, and millions of others in between, and it was all I could do to take a breath. I felt terrified and hopeful at the same time. Is it time?

Finally, finally, May . . . you will be among women free to dance around the Maypole like goddesses.