Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Tales from Demeter
For those of you who need a Greek mythology refresher: When Hades, Lord of the Underworld, abducted Persephone, her mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, was so distraught that the growing season came to an abrupt halt and life on earth was in peril. Zeus, the head honcho Greek god, ordered Hades to return Persephone, but she had eaten six pomegranate seeds while in Hades, so now she returns to Demeter for only half the year and we get winter for the other half (sometimes even longer in Ottawa).
It seems appropriate somehow that my mother's birthday is just past the middle of winter, the "cross-quarter day" of Candlemas, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Wiarton Willie, our official Ontario groundhog, has decreed that winter will last another six weeks, but the school crossing guard pointed out that that was going to happen anyway, besides, the snow often hangs around well into April. On the other side of the continent, Demeter will start making plans for our annual summer visit to Victoria, where, since mid-January, the snowdrops are out, and the first cherry blossoms will soon be glowing along certain streets.
Here in Hades, I look out at the flash-frozen streets and think of Africa. My mother was born in Wolverhampton, but her sister and brother were born in Kenya. My grandfather was studying the tsetse fly at the East Africa Trypanosomiasis Research Organization, and moved his family out to Kabete, just outside of Nairobi when my mum was two. Her stories of growing up in Kenya were a bedtime staple for my sister and me: "Ragbags" the houseboy (the children couldn't pronounce his real name), who would sneak meals up to my mother when she had been sent to bed without supper; a pet giraffe, clearing out of the house to let the ants march through (an effective cleaning, as it turns out), and one of my favourites, the story of Galoomph.
Galoomph was the nickname of one of my mother's high school teachers. She wasn't called that to her face, of course. She had very large feet (galoomph, galoomph, galoomph...). Every now and then, in the middle of a lesson, she would stop dead, staring off unseeing into the distance. Her face would go very white and her eyes seemed to go black as her pupils dilated. The students simply sat quietly until she returned to herself.
Galoomph had been living in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. She was on one of the evacuation ships, but boats were being torpedoed all around. Galoomph had been a champion swimmer, and in she dove, again and again, trying to rescue the people struggling in the water. Finally, they had to tie her to a bed to save her from her own desperation and exhaustion.
There were less bleak stories too. We always asked to hear about how the girls in the science laboratory would deliberately mix chemicals to drive the students out in a cloud of stench. The teacher would calmly herd them to a lawn outside and read to them from a textbook, while selected girls would wriggle off on their bellies to raid the pomegranate tree. How many pomegranate seeds did Demeter eat, I wonder? Were the seeds of our separation sown even then?