During the summer of 1998, Sue Monk Kidd, whose best-selling books include The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, found herself in a free fall toward her 50th birthday. As a consolation gift for herself and a college graduation present for her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, she whisked the two of them off to Greece. Thus begins Traveling With Pomegranates, a memoir of their journey together, literal and spiritual, written by both women. It was a journey that allowed them to discover and appreciate each other as adults, as well as mother and daughter.
Kidd and Taylor reconvened recently at Kidd’s home in Charleston, South Carolina, the city where both women live, to reflect on their unique joint project. According to Kidd, the most difficult aspect of the book was figuring out how to structure it.
“There was my story, there was Ann’s story, and then we had this third story which was about the two of us and our relationship. So really, there were three intersecting layers to this book,” Kidd recalls in an interview with BookPage. “It just got more and more complicated. The main thing was, we knew this had to be the narrative of our relationship. But trying to figure out how to make all these different layered stories work together and feel seamless and flow into one another was the biggest challenge.”
The title, Traveling With Pomegranates, resonates on several levels, beginning with the significance of the pomegranate. In Greek mythology, Hades, lord of the dead, kidnaps the young maiden, Persephone, and takes her with him to the underworld.
Persephone’s mother, the Earth goddess Demeter, goes into deep mourning, allowing crops to wither and turning fields and orchards into a wasteland. To save the Earth and its people, Zeus orders Persephone released, but she has eaten four pomegranate seeds while in captivity. Thus, she must return to the underworld four months of the year, while her mother again mourns her absence and the land sleeps in winter. Kidd and Taylor were going through some difficult life experiences of their own at the time of their trip to Greece. Kidd was coming to terms with aging, looking for the courage to try writing a novel (her first, which became The Secret Life of Bees), hoping to reconnect in a meaningful way with her daughter, and realizing that as a person with great drive and ambition, her life lacked the joy of just “being.”
“This reconciliation of the opposites, the reconciliation of these poles of polarity we’ve lived and experienced in life, it seems like they come home to roost as we get older,” Kidd says. “It became something about learning how to both ‘be’ and to accomplish and write andcreate and make a difference. That was a very hard reconciliation for me. It went right to my core.”
Taylor had just broken up with her fiancé and was struggling with the “what do I do with my life” issues young people often face. The shattered romance and lack of direction had put Taylor into a fairly severe depression. As she writes in the book, “Being in Greece did not resolve the big questions for me, but I did discover some things. I learned how easy it is to give up and become draperies while everyone else is dancing. I learned there is a name for how I feel—depression— and I had to face up to that. I learned that Persephone does eventually come back from the underworld and that maybe I would, too. That I could talk to my mother. That while I have no idea what to do with my life, I am not a total loser.”
Speaking from her mother’s home, Taylor says she sees special significance in the story of the pomegranate. “The pomegranate and the swallowing of the seeds, it’s such a perfect example of how a symbol can take on individual connotations. For my mom it was about Demeter’s loss. For me, it was about Persephone’s transformation and the return that she made back to the world from this naïve, untested girl to someone transformed.”
In fact, symbols and talismans form a huge subtext in the memoir. Kidd wears a small silver bee charm around her neck, hoping it will inspire her to write her novel. She buys two glass pomegranates for herself and her daughter while in Greece, to remind them of Demeter and Persephone. She carries a small statue of Mary, Jesus’ mother, on the trip. Kidd believes symbols and talismans can tell individuals a great deal about themselves. “Symbols take us to a world that is deeper than our conscious minds are usually operating with. They open the door to a world that’s often under the surface and that has larger meanings than the ones we are consciously, on the surface, dealing with on a day-today basis. So a pomegranate is not just a piece of nutritious fruit.” Laughing, she continues, “I was compelled by the pomegranate because of the myth, and when I explored that myth, I was amazed to discover a whole story about a mother’s necessary loss and finding reunion. That took me in a very moving and meaningful direction in my life. So I came through being open to symbols. They give me courage.”
It was almost 10 years after that first trip to Greece together (the book also chronicles a return trip to Greece and one to France) that Kidd and Taylor finished their memoir. The two women had kept detailed journals, which proved invaluable when writing their story. But Kidd believes memory is like a muscle—the more you flex it, the stronger it becomes.
“Memory can be very elusive, but I do think it’s almost like a living, breathing thing inside of us. It’s all there, somewhere inside. If we can learn how to tap it, it does come flooding back. ” An afterword to Traveling With Pomegranates closes with one of Kidd’s favorite quotes:
“‘We write to taste life twice,’ Anais Nin wrote, ‘in the moment and in retrospection.’ Living the experiences in this book and then writing them was a privilege and a gift, but what I savored most was doing so with Ann. Tasting life together. Twice.”
Rebecca Bain writes from her home in Nashville.
An excerpt from Traveling with Pomegranates:
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.