(Note: This week's Star Courier column is on a variety of local events and probably not of much interest to remote readers. So, here's an older column from the archives posted here by request.)
My mother loved fall. She loved the change of seasons, "sweater weather" and the sudden burst of color on the flat, green landscape of Illinois. But I think, most of all, she loved the yearly affirmation of the quiet romance that existed between her and my father.
"Let's go for a ride," she'd say. And they would. My father, probably dreaming of some couch time after a six-day week at the family store, would leave the remains of his Sunday dinner. He'd leave his beloved arm chair, the Chicago Bears, his garden and all his Sunday leisure dreams, and off they'd go on a search for the one thing that meant fall more than colored leaves, pumpkin patches and southbound geese: Bittersweet.
Those rides took them to and through the cornfields and red oak groves and muddy, cat-tailed shores of hidden farm ponds. Those rides went past used-car lots, 'round small-town squares and across ancient, creaking one-lane bridges. They wanted to do something…and to do nothing. So they'd ride, and look around, and look for their own precious sign of the season.
"Look, I think I see some," my mother would say. My father would dutifully stop the car, pulling to the side of some deep-ditched country road. Sometimes, she'd be wrong, fooled by another kind of red-colored berry. But, on those most jubilant of occasions, she'd be right and, springing from the car like a girl, she'd plunge into the underbrush to claim her prize.
I think she loved bittersweet because it was hard to find and beautiful and a reason to be out and about with my father on an autumn day. And I think she just loved the name and the way it reminded her of love and dreams and memories and life itself.
Every year they'd try to remember the good spots where those red-orange beauties had burst forth before. More often than not, they'd fail to find those out-of-the-way places and the search would continue.
She would bring the little red-orange berries, bursting from their pods, home to rest on the mantle and on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Home to brighten the soon-to-come gloomy days of late autumn and early winter. After a while, they'd disappear, to be replaced by Christmas greens. I never knew what became of them, whether they were thrown away or tucked away in a special hiding place.
When my mother died, it did not seem to me to be, as they say, "a blessing." She was much too young. I was, too.
We buried her on a cold early-spring day. I stood by her casket in confused misery, waiting for what would happen next. My brother stepped up to me. He was holding something gently in his hand.
"Here, give this to mom."
It was bittersweet.
I don't know where he found those delicate berries. It was spring, so they were entirely out of season. But, there they were. Tiny, red-orange berries that looked like they had just been plucked from the thorny underbrush.
Were they hers, discovered in that special place? Where--and how--had he found them?
I never knew. I never asked.
I laid them there.
And I knew a season had surely ended.