Virginia Barton

Autumn leaves, taking our goodbyes


Catholic Herald, 26 August 1988


Some people are autumnal by nature. The predictable weather at the fall of the year suits their personality and they face the winter with an enviable calm and equanimity. Personally, I find the high drama of a yo-yo barometer in March and April more stimulating. Mists and mellow-fruitfulness fill me with a lethargic melancholy and an envy of all small hibernating creatures. It takes the shortest day (December 21) to wind me up to that sense of purpose so necessary for a New Year.

Autumn implies a series of farewells. Leaves, butterflies and foreign visitors scatter to the four winds. Our swifts flew off from the front eaves, and the house-martins from the back, some weeks ago. It takes an act of will to summon the optimism that they’ll be back next year.

From inside the house the last fledgling has also departed, back to her college for another year of Higher Education. (Fun and games occasionally interrupted by bouts of work). Getting her off was the usual traumatic affair. Too much luggage to carry on the bus, half her laundry still dampish, sudden regrets at leaving home, and, of course, penniless.


Purchase this image at will never get used to saying goodbye to my offspring and it’s worst in the autumn. Points of departure, bus and railway stations, assume Tolstoyan dimensions, prematurely darkened and hung over with a gentle clinging sadness.

Tears are inevitable. So are the hurried, last minute reminders: “Be sure to bolt your door at night . . .for goodness’ sake wrap up properly. . . write to me.”

I daresay all parents bark out these commands at the eleventh hour. They also share the same doubts and terrors, even when the fledgling has grown into a full-sized bird. This is because parents know what a naughty old world it is. Their child looks absurdly vulnerable and ill-equipped, a scrap of flotsam at the mercy of the cynical, the world-weary and the ill-intentioned.

A parent is deluged with regrets – for not having warned against this or that, but mostly by the horrid realisation that if the young person has left home ill-prepared it’s too late anyway.

Of course one made sure one’s daughter has plenty of warm clothes, stamps and a medical card. But her spiritual equipment suddenly looks rather inadequate, knowing the temptations she’s likely to come up against.


The greatest of these is not, usually, the marauding male bent on her virtue. Far more likely are the 1,001 good reasons for not going to Mass on Sunday. The distractions attendant on higher education (or a new job in a strange town away from the parental gaze) offer temptations of the subtlest variety. Clever, popular contemporaries can persuade that young person, still finding her feet, out of practices hitherto quite acceptable and realistic.

It takes a robust character to swim against the tide. The devil and his minions assume many seductive guises – lack of time is the most effective. The student, or new job starter, never had so little time at his/her disposal. “There simply wasn’t time to go to Mass. . .”

The parent, gloomily wiping a furtive tear as the bus bowls away into the autumn mist, knows that time is like spring weather, an unpredictable commodity. One can’t bank on there being time in the future to make up. Suddenly this thought seems more important than clean socks.


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