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Bittersweet Memories

by Mary Jo Shannon

One Saturday in early November as my granddaughter and I strolled through the Roanoke City market area, admiring the colorful display of fruits and vegetables, I noticed a booth with piles of bittersweet twigs. I hadn’t seen bittersweet for many years and the sight transported me to my childhood. I recall my mother clipping the wiry tendrils of this vine that grew abundantly along a fence near my childhood home. Bittersweet doesn’t stand out in summer when the tiny greenish-white blossoms appear, but in autumn its yellowed leaves drop and light-orange seed pods burst, revealing bright red-orange berries. These multicolored twigs are perfect for Thanksgiving decorations. I’m not sure why this aggressive vine was named “bittersweet,” but perhaps it’s because all parts of it are deadly poisonous. Nevertheless, bittersweet is a perfect metaphor for the memories that haunt me in late autumn.

Autumn was my mother’s favorite season. She loved the brisk chill of the air and the wind that ruffled our hair as we walked the country road on Sunday afternoons, gathering black walnuts and hickory nuts, or munching the spicy tartness of “rusty-coated apples” that grew on a scrawny tree along the fence row. She loved the purple wild asters, “Farewell Summer,” that grew along the road and we gathered an armload to bring autumn into her kitchen.

Mama loved the final harvest of the garden – the last of the tomatoes, corn, butterbeans and cabbage that simmered on the wood stove, becoming soup for supper on a chilly autumn evening. Throughout the summer she canned tomatoes, “soup mix,” with tomatoes, butterbeans and corn, snap beans, beet and cucumber pickles, and plenty of fruit jellies and jams for hot biscuits during the winter. The filled glass jars were placed on shelves in the cellar, their rich colors rivaling expensive jewels. Autumn brought feelings of thankfulness and joy. And sweet memories.

Bitter – perhaps bitter is too harsh a word for the sadness I felt in late autumn, even during childhood. The leaves fell, their brilliant hues disappeared and their crisp, brown bodies crackled beneath our feet. Trees lifted bare limbs toward the gray sky, surrendering to the season. Soon the days would grow colder and we could no longer go for long walks. Mama was also sad to see the season draw to a close, but her reminder that after winter, spring would renew the earth, and the cycle would begin again, gave me hope and diminished the sadness.

Mama grew older, was widowed. All five children married and established homes of their own, leaving her alone. We encouraged her to move to a retirement home where she would have more social interaction, but despite a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, she refused. She loved her neighbors – she would stay in her own home, although she could no longer work outside. I tried to think of something to interest her and fill the lonely hours.

In her youth, she had hoped someday to become a published author. But her busy life as the mother of five squelched that ambition. I yearned to help make her dream come true, to help her produce a book. Since her vision was deteriorating, I bought her a tape recorder to record the many stories she told us about her childhood. I planned to transcribe them and print a booklet for her children and grandchildren. She was eager to begin.

As I listened to the first tape, I knew she was reading. She confessed —  she “could not talk to that machine.” So her stories were recorded in pencil in a stenographer’s notebook, ready to be typed and copied. Her first and only book, When I Was a Little Girl, with her three-year-old picture in the front was distributed to each of her children and grandchildren. She was thrilled to become an author, now in the autumn of her life.

In September of 1981 we learned that Mama’s multiple myeloma was terminal. My sister and her husband and young daughter came from Richmond to live with her.  In late November, a chest X-Ray revealed a tumor in her lungs, which had been concealed it until it grew larger than her heart that covered it and could be detected. Too large for surgery.

That Thanksgiving was bittersweet. We were all thankful for the many years she was among us. We were sad knowing her days were few. But we had hope.

Mama survived until after the Christmas holidays. So autumn conjures up bittersweet memories as the vine of our family’s life continues to grow.

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