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Persephone
by Melina/Melinda Heywood

A month before my first trip to Greece, I learned that Turkey was an actual country and not just a joke my dad and his girlfriend were playing on me.  At that time I was a seven year old Californian, and refused to believe that a place called Turkey existed until my dad opened up a world map before my eyes.  I marveled at the proof.  My very own mother had just visited this crazy-named country.

I studied the map, expecting the surrounding regions of Turkey to be named for poultry, but alas there was no Country of Duck, no Chickenland.  Instead I saw the other places my mom had recently gone to:  Egypt, Yugoslavia, and finally Greece, where she had taken up permanent residence.  While she wasnít coming back to America, she did want me to be with her in Greece, so now I was going on a plane from San Francisco to Athens, accompanied only by my favorite stuffed animal and pink-furred soul-mate, Frederic B. Bunny.

            There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about this travel arrangement, as it had ever been thus.  I had been shuttling back and forth between parents who were themselves nomadic since the age of two.  There was a slight difference, of course:  their wanderings had hitherto been restricted to within California state lines, and now I would not just be traveling by car over the Bay Bridge to Oakland, but on a plane from San Francisco to an entirely different country, and the separation from a parent would last for six months rather than the habitual three weeks. 

I had no idea at the time that I would come to identify with Persephone, the young goddess who was condemned to spend her life in half-year chunks between two vastly different worlds.  While I wasnít dividing my time between Hades and Mount Olympus, my existence did come to be ruled by the Law of Six Months:  six months in a place, pack, leave parent, get on plane, exit plane into arms of other parent.  Rinse.  Repeat.  Youíd think that with its rhythmic predictability Iíd have gotten used to it and calmly transcended the transitions.  Iíve since learned that being practiced at partings does not mean you ever master them.

            The day before my first flight my dad and I made identification tags out of shrinky dinks in a warm, woody Berkeley kitchen.  I loved shrinky dinks, loved drawing with colorful felt tip pens on thin, clear sheets of plastic, then cutting them into different shapes and baking them on cookie sheets in the oven, watching them rise, thicken and harden into personalized objets díart.  This time however, dad did most of the shrinky dink wizardry, carefully writing on plastic in purple, green, orange and blue letters:

 

Melinda Lou Marsh, age 7

Daughter of Phil Marsh

1805 Rose Street

Berkeley, California, U.S.A.

(415) 687-9378

 

By the end of the day, I was a shrine of shrinky dinks. 

My identity and genealogy were affixed to my person like a shimmering plastic halo.  Shiny translucent tags hung from my neck on ribbons, they were pinned to my shirt and looped on my belt and fastened to Frederic B. Bunny.  Any stranger looking at me would know that though I was traveling alone, I was nevertheless the very special daughter of a very caring father.  More importantly, I would not forget my identity as I made my first Odyssey to my motherís new foreign life in Greece. There was no way that I could forget I was Melinda Marsh, shrinky-dinked daughter of Phil Marsh of Berkeley, California, USA.

            The morning of my flight, my father threw up in the shower.  Ever the empathizer, I shortly followed suit.  This emotionally induced purging was to become a tradition with us over the next nine years.  In a way it was cathartic; I was emptying myself before filling so I could fill up with anticipation about the next universe I was to enter:  my motherís smoky world of late nights in Greek tavernas, blaring bouzoukis, belly dancing, and the beautiful Aegean sea.  It was so far from California, from my dadís laid-back Berkeley musician buddies, from the gentle strums of his guitar as he sang me folk songs to sleep every night. 

There was no perfect way to prepare for my displacement:  in its wrenching violence, barfing seemed as fitting a physical event as any to mark the abrupt bodily transition between one parent and another.  It was only until I had arrived at the other side, had carefully unpacked my suitcase, arranged my things around me, and soaked in the voice and quotidian rhythms of the new parent that I gradually allowed myself to unfurl my leaves and grow into the new setting.

My mother reacted differently to my departures.  Whenever I left Greece she would seize up internally, as if a phantom boa constrictor was squeezing her soul bloodless.  Her body would become a taut set of iron cables winding ever tighter about each other, her knuckles whitening as she gripped my shoulders and we inched forward to check in at the Athens airport.  Her eyes would be bone dry, mine were a flood.  When we parted at passport control, my stomach would cleave in two:  one half yearning to remain here with my mom, who was now looking white with pain as she waved goodbye, the other half anxious to return to dad, who would be waiting for me at the other end, ruddy and smiling and blond.  My stomach would violently reunite with itself and let loose its contents during take-off, and Iíd spend the rest of the flight gearing myself up for re-entry into my ďotherĒ world yet again.

            Even as a child I knew that my parents were only meant to come together to produce me in some provident cosmic confluence, then go their separate ways with me as the human thread knitting together the continents. 
 


Persephone, copyright 2000 by Melinda Heywood.
This piece is part of a series of essays based on Melinda's unconventional upbringing.