The first time I walked the big meadow at Shenandoah National Park, flies circled my head and clapped their onion-skin wings against the air. Bess, my best friend since third grade, walked alongside me. Our husbands stood before us in two vertical lines against the smoke-blue sky, far off in a distance we would not reach that day. “What are they trying to prove?” I asked Bess, her pregnant belly protruding like a cocoon. Inside the waters of her womb, a daughter was beginning to take shape. Bess smiled, then moved her shoulders in a pointed shrug. “We’re just too slow.”
We came to the meadow on the weekend of her thirtieth birthday to welcome womanhood. My birthday had come three months earlier, and to calm Bess, I repeated, “Thirty is a threshold,” until the sentence became our mantra. We stooped alongside stalks of milkweed to scan the plant’s silken leaves for monarch butterfly chrysalises, the appointed symbol of our transformation from girls to women. While the law would place us firmly in womanhood at the age of 21 –– the legal drinking age that operates under the assumption that 21 heralds responsible adulthood in America, no matter when a person can vote or go off to war –– neither of us agreed with that idea. At 29, we still felt like teenagers, riddled with insecurities about zits that intersected with hairline wrinkles at our jaws, plagued by riots of giggles for no apparent reason. We knew that thirty would make us grown-ups, but neither of us could explain why.
That day in the meadow, Bess and I found no chrysalises. I tried not to read too much meaning into this absence as I returned to a memory of my mother’s body, bloated by renal failure, during my twenty-first birthday party that felt more like a wake. Six weeks later, I no longer had a mother. “My mother died when I was twenty-one. My father left when I was two,” became sentences that fell from my lips throughout my twenties each time I met a new person who asked after my parents, believing that such questions were innocent. People presumed that my mother had died from cancer, but type-one diabetes was what killed her.
Standing in a meadow, I could not help but notice that the landscape swarming with flies and open to the possibility of chrysalises, held birth and death. These binaries that bookend human life were inscribed on each blade of grass, each tree branch, each flower that swayed against the late May wind. Absorbed by this thought, my mind went straight to Demeter, Greek goddess of the corn, and to her daughter Persephone, whom Hades had plucked from a meadow like the one where I now contemplated my tenuous climb to womanhood.
As she grieves for her daughter, Demeter creates a world that embodies her sorrow. Snow lays thick upon the land and the buds of spring refuse to open their petals. Zeus fears the destruction of the mortal race and sends Hermes, his messenger, into the underworld to free Persephone. According to a Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the god finds Persephone sitting beside Hades, “yearning for her mother, and suffering from the unbearable things inflicted on her by the will of the blessed ones.”
Each time I read this story, I detest the gods of the Greek pantheon for perpetuating pain. Suffering, I had learned in my twenties, never happened for a reason. At 30 I could only concede that a side effect of suffering was that pain had opened my capacity to love. The word compassion suggests as much to me since pati, its Latin root, means suffering. Still, the etymological marriage of suffering and compassion feels wrong, as if this union represents the semantic equivalent of falling in love with an abuser.
I return to the Shenandoah meadow two months after Bess’s birthday and resume the search for chrysalises. This time I walk the meadow alone. The milkweed that came up to my ankles in May skims my calves in July. Two months ago, the meadow unfurled in a green carpet embroidered with Queen Anne’s Lace and clover. By July, mid-summer heat has scorched the land. Grass the color of straw skirts my hiking boots when I leave the road to wander the field. While I walk, an image of my mother’s coffin shakes loose from the muck of memory. As is the way with memory, I am transported through time and space to her funeral, where I stand behind a wooden podium and read Walt Whitman: “And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then? And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.”
Strange, I think, as these words return to me, that I can always be in two places at once. I am 30 and present to my life of vacuuming and grading and dog walking; I am 21 and terrified of a future that death has detonated with the force of a nuclear explosion. The road that divides the meadow in half mirrors this division of self that has defined my twenties –– a division I cannot scale. I may only traverse the road that runs alongside memories that bind me to my mother, to her body that formed my own out of a microscopic egg, and to her disease that my genes may harbor.
A doe bounds into the trees and splays her legs in a perfect golden arc. With the deer who retreats to the forest, Persephone and Demeter leave me. Alone, I contemplate the clover, the bees that dance along its snow-flake buds, the sun that descends the horizon to turn the sky into a slate screen. Night is coming. My mother’s voice transcends the grave to whisper in my ear, “It is not safe for women to walk alone in the dark.” She leaves as soon as she arrives, flowing toward the horizon and murmuring a song, just one word, repeating: Go..