Spring is hard for me. It’s one of the most beautiful times of year, and now I’m experiencing it for the first time in California, where the weather is mild and the season comes early. Since the beginning of February, the trees and flowers have been in bloom, children are outside with their families, couples walking and holding hands. Everyone seems both restless and joyful. Spring is about youth, rebirth and renewal, a re-awakening after winter’s sleep.
Spring is also the season I mourn my mother, who died around this time four years ago. I remember what it felt like to be so sad when everyone else seemed happy, to be with someone who was dying when it seemed like the rest of the world was coming back to life. In some ways, it made sense that to me that death should occur in spring – the old dying to make way for the new. I felt like I was dying too, or at least a part of me was, and it was both painful and comforting to know that by going through this death I would be reborn a different person than I was before.
Now in my new life starting over as a grad student on the other side of the continent, I’ve had some trouble adjusting to the fact that this year in the Bay Area, the winter seemed so short and spring came so early. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the myth of Demeter and Persephone. I’ve known the story since childhood, but only recently has it occurred to me that to the Ancient Greeks, perhaps my feelings of grief during this season wouldn’t have seemed so strange—for them, the goddess of spring was also the queen of the dead.
As a young maiden, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades and dragged down into the underworld to be his wife. Her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain, crops, and all growing things, embarks on a long, exhausting search for her daughter, and after a series of negotiations with the gods, Persephone is allowed to spend part of the year in the upper world with her mother and the remainder in the underworld with her husband. When Persephone is separated from her, Demeter grieves and nothing grows—the fertile earth sleeps and we have winter. When Persephone returns, we have spring again.
I still wonder about this story. Who’s responsible for spring? Does Persephone bring it with her as she journeys? Does Demeter bring it about to make the world beautiful as she welcomes her daughter home? Or do they create it together—mother and daughter so happy to be reunited that their joy permeates the landscape and the world comes back to life?
I’d like to believe it’s the latter. That’s how I felt when I was with my mother. We were close, sometimes so close that I felt I had to move away to live my own life. When she was suddenly gripped by a degenerative condition that confined her to a nursing home, I would journey from New York City to rural Maryland twice a month to visit her. Because she couldn’t get out of bed and there wasn’t much to do, we talked a lot. She shared things with me that maybe she hadn’t been able to before and I got to know her in a different way. Our relationship deepened even as we both knew that this stage of it was ending.
She died the Thursday before Mothers’ Day. Ever since then, the first two weeks of May are especially difficult, when I relive the experience of being with her during her final days and watching her fade away. And through it all, I am surrounded by the holiday regalia, sales in stores, children making cards, families carrying bouquets of flowers and going out to eat on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I wish I could experience the same happiness they are, and other times I just want to stay in my grief and let myself feel it.
When someone dies, it’s easy for them to take on a mythic persona in your memory. I worry that I remember less of who my mother really was and more of this sainted image I have created of her; the boundary blurs between my mother and the image of the universal, archetypal mother. Yet I’m also finding that as I read and hear stories of the Great Mothers in mythology—Isis, Demeter, Mary, Tara—I do feel that I’m becoming closer to my own mother through them.
I’m also surprised that, since January, I’ve met six people who have lost a parent, most of them around my age. Not that it’s obvious—most of us carry our grief quietly, and it’s only in in-depth conversations that it comes out and we can share things that aren’t always easy to talk about with other people. This time of year is hard for me, but I’m not the only one mourning. For some of my friends, it’s Fathers’ Day, or other special holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries that trigger the grief.
It helps to know I’m not alone. It was with one of these new friends that I went hiking in the oak groves in the hills of Lafayette Reservoir a couple weeks ago. We walked among the trees growing together with their branches entwined, trying to figure out which tree was the oldest. Then we saw that the grove was actually an entire family of trees in a circle, with the older parents and grandparents on the outside and their younger children on the inside. My friend told me that the oaks get the gnarled and twisted shape of their branches through surviving droughts, fires, cold years, and storms. That it was their endurance through pain and suffering that made them so rugged and beautiful. And they are still alive.
As we were leaving, we paused and sat on the stump of a burned-out tree, wondering how the dead, hollow log was able to support so much life. Some woodland creature had a burrow inside, ants and spiders crawled on the bark, and mushrooms, lichen and fungus grew down the sides.
Then we noticed that there was new growth coming out at the top—a new tree was growing from the crest of the burned-out log with bright green leaves reaching out in spring. Only it wasn’t a new tree at all—it was the same tree or maybe one tree was the parent and one was the child or maybe they weren’t separated at all. Or maybe there’s a point where the distinctions don’t matter at all – it’s the same life continuing, that survived the lightning and the fire and the trial and emerged to bloom again in spring.
Happy Mothers’ Day.
Hannah Custis is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also a member of the Immanence Journal editorial team.