In their joint memoir Traveling with Pomegranates, famed writer Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, take readers on an intricate journey through Greece, Turkey, and France, as they attempt to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Published in 2009, Traveling with Pomegranates documents the pair’s intimate dance through love and success, submission and acceptance, while embracing unexpected inspiration and divine intervention when immersing themselves in French and Turkish culture and ancient Greek mythology.
Readers will enjoy examining how varying cultures impact and reflect the ever-evolving maternal hierarchy of mother and daughter. At the beginning of the memoir as Kidd approaches her fiftieth birthday and Taylor celebrates recently completing her undergraduate degree, the duo travel to Greece on a celebratory voyage of culture exploration. However, the journey becomes rather one of self-rediscovery and redefining roles. As Kidd watches Taylor examine a sculpture of Demeter and Persephone at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Kidd is overwhelmed with the feeling that she has lost her daughter, who suddenly seems strange and alien to her (11). She feels a great divide in their relationship as she recognizes Taylor as no longer a child, but an adult navigating the world privately and separately from her. Just as Persephone is separated from Demeter when Persephone is sent to the Underworld in Greek mythology, Kidd does not know how to reconcile the loss of her daughter, who is right in front of her, yet worlds apart from her. Kidd is a modern day Demeter. What Kidd does not know is the depth of despair that Taylor feels after having been recently denied admittance to graduate school, where she had hoped to study ancient Greek history. Taylor reverts inward and tries to keep the depression to herself, yet Kidd can sense a barrier between them, and she can’t reconcile how to maneuver over it. The symbolism of Demeter/Persephone and Kidd/Taylor winds its way throughout the memoir on a beautiful path of redefining familial roles and shifting relationships between mother and daughter. Kidd yearns for a heuresis, a Greek term meaning “reunion” and attempts to create genuine opportunities to reunite with her daughter throughout the entirety of their journeys (73).
As Kidd is confronted with the unexpected disconnect from her daughter, she is forced to examine the roles of the relationship between her own mother and herself. She explains, “In what seems like a cruel trick of timing, women often find themselves letting go of their daughters around the same time they must let go of their identities as younger women” (69). Kidd, immersed in Greek and Turkish culture, begins to see herself in the legends, folklore, and myths such as The Virgin Mary, The Old Woman, Demeter, Persephone, and more, and she imagines that her own mother must have gone through a similar difficult transition when coming to terms with her initiation to adulthood and independence. The differences in the values she and her mother have previously placed on matriarchal, domestic, and feminine roles in American culture are the same issues she begins to struggle to resolve within herself later in life. Likewise, Taylor begins to see the connection among herself and Persephone, Athena, and—later on—Joan of Arc and is determined to chart her own route through depression and the disappointment of rejection (from both graduate school and her college sweetheart) and to a new path that leads to a fresh, different purpose for her life that she has not yet considered. Her new purpose, a phoenix rising from the ashes of her failures.
The memoir is steeped in folklores, myths, honors, and traditions of the Greeks and Turks. With particular attention to Demeter and Persephone while the two are in Greece, the focus shifts to the Turkish traditions when they visit the house of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. Kidd wrestles with her changing views on spirituality, yet she ultimately sees the humanity in the Virgin Mary in conjunction with identifying with Mary as a divine feminine deity. The Turkish and Greek legends of Mary meld together and become one of a Black Madonna wrapped in chains. A guide explains to Kidd:
Legend says she was kidnapped several times by the Turks from a convent on the island of Crete but always escaped back to her homeland. Finally the Turks chained her up. Undeterred, Mary broke free and returned home, wearing the chains. The Greek nuns left them on the icon as a reminder of what Mary was capable of. (125)
Inexplicably drawn to bees over the course of several years and not understanding their significance to her, it is in Turkey at Mary’s house that Kidd feels called upon to write a book about bees, and she proclaims her commission to her daughter. The influence of this place and its legends empowers Kidd to write The Secret Life of Bees, in which she includes the Black Madonna in chains, an idol of worship for some of the characters in her novel. The publication of The Secret Life of Bees solidifies Kidd’s place in the literary world, and the journey to Greece and Turkey helps to achieve this accomplishment for her.
The Secret Life of Bees helps Taylor to appreciate the connections in folklore, legend, and mythology in varying cultures as well. After her mother begins to write The Secret Life of Bees and Kidd and Taylor’s heuresis begins to occur, Taylor realizes that the Virgin Mary is just as important to her as she is to her mother, despite Taylor not yet being a mother herself. Mary represents something more to her than the matriarch with which her mother identifies. Taylor explains,
It does not escape my notice that Mary is becoming important to me. I tell myself that if Athena represents independence and self-belonging, and Joan of Arc a passionate sense of mission, the Mary represents the spiritual heart—my ability to love and be loved. Athena, Joan, Mary. It’s an unlikely combination, but I realize they’ve become my female triptych. (206-207)
On the heels of a break up and feeling lost to herself, Taylor has found new love with an old friend and is enjoying rediscovering herself as an independent individual, attached to nothing except to her own desires. She also values the intricacies of mother/daughter and the legends, folklores, and mythologies of these cultures as they become evident to her as being archetypes living within her. Taylor—and Kidd as well—end up finding themselves and their purposes through the experience and the journey; the places within themselves most often mirror their actual journeys.
Taylor references Isadora Duncan, a dancer, who once said that “a dance is a manifestation of the soul” (31). Taylor and Kidd dance their way around two different continents, two-step their way through redefining their feminine roles as individuals as well as mother and daughter, and waltz their way through finding new directions and purpose. Writers could benefit from reading this by examining how closely Taylor and Kidd knit their alternating stories together with the sense of place and embracing and honoring the traditions of different cultures. One simply cannot separate the place from their experiences because they are one in the same. But this memoir isn’t just for aspiring and accomplished writers; it’s also for anyone who enjoys an odyssey of the soul, a journey that is a beautiful and elaborate dance.