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Traveling With Pomegranates

Traveling With Pomegranates
by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor.
(Penguin Books, 2009)
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans

A mother and daughter travel to Greece, Turkey, France and home to South Carolina and provide their respective perspectives on the experience. Sue Monk Kidd (the well-known author of The Secret Life of Bees) is reflecting about her life and turning 50, while her daughter Ann navigates periods of depression, self-doubt and uncertainty about her future, her career and sense of self-worth. The consistent and similar traits that hold the story together, as well as both authors (one to the other), are the love; respect and admiration each have for the other. Sue writes, “The laughter has cracked the heaviness that formed around us like tight, brittle skin, and even now delivers me peeled and fresh to this moment, to Ann, to myself.”

Traveling With Pomegranates is a combination of memoir, journal writing and travelogue, which takes readers to places that will be familiar (externally and internally) and others that seem to fit for the author’s reflections alone. There are times when the prose is engaging, such as when Sue is speaking about turning 50 and says, “The spiritual composition of the Old Woman, not through words, but through the wisdom of a journey” is an apt summation of how she is seeing herself at that time. Many may find it hard to think of 50 as “old”, but it is used in this context as a starting point to look at change, old age, death and birth. At other times, it seems as if the writing should have been left in a private journal or in letters shared between mother and daughter. Not because of any private content or big secrets, but because it had no weight or meaning for a larger audience.

Sue has long had a kinship with the Black Virgin and used it as metaphor and object throughout her novel The Mermaid Chair. She speaks of it in length once again, on their visit to see the statue of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in France. “As I look at her, my throat tightens and I dig through my bag for the travel-size Kleenex. Just in case. I’m not sure what moves me about her, only that she’s beautiful to me. Someone vacates a chair, and I sit down, staring at the flinty old Virgin until the tears really do start to leak. I rub them away and focus on the back of Ann’s brown hair. Ann’s fingers, I notice, are curled around the stubby piece of chain, and I wonder what she has decided about it. What I will decide about mine… I know suddenly what moves me about the Black Virgin of Rocamadour: She’s the Old Woman. It comes with some surprise, as if the bird on the altar has just pecked me on the forehead.”

While her mother is having the previous insights and feelings, Ann is writing about hers. “I glance over at my mother. Her eyes are closed, her fingers interlocked. I wonder what her prayers are about. Her novel? Her blood pressure? Peace on earth? The two of us praying like this to the Black Madonna suddenly washes over me, and I’m filled with love for my mother. The best gift she has given me is the constancy of her belief. Whatever I become, she loves me. To her, I am enough. I look up at Mary and concede what I am coming to know. I will become a writer.”

It is obvious that traveling together and writing about it were important for the author’s lives. Whether their reflections and insights are also of relevance for those outside their family will have to be left up to others to decide. This reader has mixed feelings about Traveling with Pomegranates, and doesn’t expect those feelings to be any less cloudy in the foreseeable future.

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How Old Are You?

It happened right before my eyes and I didn’t see it. How could I have missed it? How could I be so blind? My son, Brendon, had grown from a little boy into a man. It was his eighteenth birthday and we were flying to London, England; the land of Dickens and Shakespeare; the place he’d wanted to visit since junior high school.

It wasn’t their famous authors or history that he was interested in, it was the pull of a large, exciting, cosmopolitan city filled with nightlife, plays, clubs, art and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).

This was our trip; a father and son fulfilling a childhood dream, spending time together without any of his brothers, sisters or other parents. The journey ended up being more than a travel adventure. For me, it was a wake up call and reminder of life’s limits; of values and validation; of remembering what’s important and letting go of what isn’t.

Brendon ended up making a lot of decisions, deciding what to do, where to go and how to get there. He read the fine print on the train or bus schedules; the print I couldn’t read; the words that were a blur of small letters to my aging eyes.

“You need some new glasses,” he said. Imagine, my son telling ME what I need!

“It’s this way,” he’d say, referring to the right direction to visit a certain district or tour.

“No. No. It’s over here,” I’d insist.

Nine out of ten times he was right. Imagine, my son, the little boy I’d carried in my arms and on my back, telling ME which way to go! My son, walking longer and farther day by day, finding his way to a late night club by himself; not wanting me to come with him. Imagine that!

Not only did his independence and energy make me feel old, but it also instilled a new found respect and appreciation for who he is and how he lives in the world. He was kind and considerate to all those we met and responsible enough to have the courage to ask for help when needed. I was proud to be his father.

Being with my son outside the U.S also opened my eyes to the advantages and disadvantages of living in America. Though it’s still difficult and not everyone in The States is feeling financially stable, it was still a lot cheaper for food, rent, utilities and gas here, than it was in England. Petro in Great Britain costs the equivalent of five to six dollars per gallon (as it does throughout most of Europe) and groceries run about fifteen percent more. In general, there’s more space in America than in England. Houses and apartments are like little gingerbread boxes there and the toilets (rarely referred to as bathrooms) are just big enough to squeeze into and close the door.

On the other hand, the English seem to feel much more connected with a larger community, not as isolated as our country can be. Their coverage of the news was more diverse, including all the worlds’ peoples and countries, not just there own.

The Brits’ live IN history, surrounded by centuries of monuments, castles, museums and ruins. Their past seems more alive at times than the present, whereas we in the U.S. tend to view anything over two days old as ancient or irrelevant.

Best of all, the English seemed friendlier than I had remembered when I visited twenty-odd years before this trip. Everywhere we traveled, whether it was in the beautiful green countryside, small Elizabethan villages or in London, with its numerous historical sites and exhibits; people would say, “Lovely.” Giving us change for a purchase the clerk would say, “Lovely.” Opening a door for someone entering or leaving a building resulted in another “Lovely. Thank you.” When responding to a statement about an object, person or event, we’d hear another “Lovely, isn’t it?”

Much to Brendon’s embarrassment, lovely became my favorite word. I started repeating it, with the best British accent I could muster, day in and day out. For me, it implied an appreciation and acceptance of the momentary human interaction, an acknowledgment of the beauty and joy available at our fingertips. When people asked about our trip, it’s easy to sum up my love of Brendon and our time in England together in one simple word “Lovely”.

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