In spring, it is hard for me to stay home and tend to my computer. “Celebrate with me,” the world says. “Forget the cooking, the cleaning, your endless projects. Play. Your springs are numbered. How many more times will you witness my awakening?”
Every year for the past half century, I have greeted spring in Fort Tryon Park, located on a spit of land perched high on a rocky outcropping above the Hudson River, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Here the river has cut a deep chasm into the flesh of the earth. Not far off, a boulder marks the site where, a mere 300 years ago, the Indians sold Manhattan Island to Peter Stuyvesant for $24.
For more than 40 years I used to live close by this park and visited often: first with my Turkish boyfriend, then with my husband, and then with my children. In summer we came to cool off and picnic; in fall we gloried in the oranges and reds; in winter we braced against the wind and watched sheets of ice slide down the river. Now that I live in Brooklyn, my visits are more of an expedition, but I still come to celebrate the seasons.
Today the daffodils dominate the landscape. Thousands of yellow and white flowers waft their slender trumpets in the gentle breeze. Some are all yellow, some all white; some have white coronas with yellow trumpets, some are the reverse; some are small and clustered and others are filled. Then there are the narcissus, whose white petals surround a shorter, deep orange trumpet. All in all, the encyclopedia tells me, there are more than 150 variants of the genus narcissus. They bear the name of the Greek youth who fell in love with his reflection. As punishment he was transformed into the flower now bearing his name.
Clusters of blue grape hyacinths, purple heather, Christmas roses, a few early tulips, and dark, low-growing evergreen shrubs enhance the spectacle of the daffodils. The aristocratic beeches of the park still show their bones, though a hint of color presages their dense summer foliage. The fruit trees don their bridal veils. A salmon azalea is “burning” amidst this peaceful Monet-landscape. Its color is so strident that I glimpse God in his righteous fury talking to Moses through a burning bush.
I think of my two children, the one who lived and the one who died. I see them turning the very same bench on which I sit into a house. I hear them ring the make-believe front doorbell, go shopping, walk an imaginary dog. I used to join them in their small games, conjuring up some fictitious catastrophe; then as now, temporarily forgetting life’s real problems.
Unbidden, my mind turns to Demeter, the so very human Greek goddess of the earth. Feminists would have been appalled by her fate. Both Poseidon, the ruler of the sea, and Zeus, the master of Olympus, tricked her into bearing them a child. Demeter worshiped her daughter Persephone, the goddess of Spring, fathered by Zeus. But Zeus had promised their daughter to his brother, Hades, the lord of the underworld. One day, as Persephone was in a meadow picking flowers, she noticed a narcissus of striking beauty. As she reached out to pluck it, the earth opened and Hades appeared, dragging her into the deep shadows of his realm. Demeter heard her child’s cry for help. According to the Homeric tale, “bitter sorrow seized Demeter’s heart…she threw a somber veil over her shoulders, and flew like a bird over land and sea, seeking here and there…”
Demeter willed the earth to be barren. Humankind was surely going to perish. One by one the gods came and pleaded with Demeter, but she refused to let the earth bear fruit unless she was to be with her daughter again. Eventually Zeus relented. A bargain was struck. Persephone, by then married to Hades, was to spend two-thirds of the year with her mother, and the remaining four months with her husband.
Ever since, as soon as Persephone emerges from the underworld, the earth becomes covered with leaves, flowers and fruit. When she returns to the underworld, the earth is wrapped in sadness and mourning. While she is gone, deep within the earth, seeds and bulbs await her return.
On my bench I luxuriate in Persephone’s presence. So do my fellow humans. Just now, two aging joggers schlep by. Mothers and nannies push strollers; the elderly amble past with their canes. Three teenage girls carry bouquets of flowers. Like Persephone, they could not resist picking flowers. A woman stops nearby, her eyes caressing the snow-like blossoms of a drooping Japanese cherry tree. “This makes all your problems disappear,” she tells me.
I do not share Demeter’s power. I cannot bring anyone back from the underworld. But in a mysterious way, the magic of the Greek gods is at work. We are never quite separated from those we love.
Still one of my favorite essays you have ever written. Love you, Nana.
Thanks for re-sharing this wonderful piece, Naomi. I agree with you.