Aunt Bett's Flowering Japanese Quince
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 27, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
She had very white hair that she wore in a fat bun on the back of her head. Her hair was wavy, and curls escaped in the heat of the day. She was bigger than I was, but then I was only about eight when we began our journeys up the mountain side. She was actually very tiny, I know that now, but I don't remember that she had wrinkles or any indication of age except for her white hair. She must have been in her mid-60s when we started our wanderings, but she never complained of any aches or pains. She wasted no energy with small talk, she was dead serious about her calling in life. I can remember her smile, but I don't remember her laugh. Unless we were climbing a mountain in search of bee balm, she always wore a skirt and blouse, or a long dress with long sleeves, and long stockings that were held up with elastic garters. Over her dress she wore an apron with pockets, and on her head she wore a handmade bonnet with a very large brim to shade her face. That bonnet brim was starched within an inch of its life, and I had visions of it cracking like glass if she ever bumped it into anything.
This was the Aunt Bett that I knew. She had been a widow for a long time, and she kept her house very dark inside, with her husband's hat and coat hanging beside the front door, just as if he would be back to get them. I never saw her cry, but I never heard her laugh out loud either. She simply lived the best she could, making her way through the days and nights in the mountains. She was a churchgoer, a member of the Baptist church, and her dressup clothes were sweet ginghams with a high collar trimmed in lace, long sleeves and a long slightly gathered skirt, or a tiny print of leaves or flowers made in the same design. My mother sewed for her, so most of her clothes were made from the same pattern. Her winter garb was usually navy blue or black, in the same style as the summer dresses, but without lace. I remember she wore a broach in the center of her collar. For Sunday morning church, she wore a hat, a white one with flowers for summer, and a black one with netting for winter.
I tell you all this because some of you asked for a description of Aunt Bett. I can easily tell you how she looked on the outside, it is difficult to explain to you her personality. She knew everyone in the moutains, because they came to her for the healing medicines she gave them. But her best friends were my Granny Ninna and my mother, and possibly my maternal grandmother who was Aunt Bett's sister in law. So now you know Aunt Bett, how she looked, her lot in life, and her purpose. Here is another little story that you might not know.
There were many flowering shrubs that grew wild in the mountains. Mountain laurel, which was white, and wild orange azalea were only two. There was another that I loved to see in bloom. It was called quince by my family. I know now that it is Chaenomeles Japonica. My mother had one growing in her front yard. Honeybees flocked to the early spring blooms, so I stayed pretty clear of it. I thought it was absolutely lovely though, and in the days of making use of everything, it was something that had no value except for its beauty.
Aunt Bett's yard was shady, so much so that grass didn't grow well there. Most of the yard was completely bare of anything except for the three or four huge old oaks that provided the shade. There was a front porch on her house that spread from one side to the other, and chairs sat on it just waiting for those folks who came for her medicines. No flowers or shrubs were in her front yard. I decided that Aunt Bett's front yard needed decorating, and even then, decorating was something that I could do very well. If someone's apron string was tied in a loop, I would untie it and make the loop into a very lovely bow. If a picture was crooked, I was the one who noticed, pulled up a chair to stand on, and straightened the picture on the wall. I am sure things like that became pretty annoying at times. I gathered flowers, even some that made my mother sneeze, for no other purpose than to make my little corner of the world beautiful with a vase of flowers on the table. I remember poking a fallen branch upright into the ground, gathering flowers and tying them onto the dead branch with their stems. Ah ha, Christmas in July!
So I decided Aunt Bett's yard must be decorated. The closest she ever came to adorning herself was the broach she wore pinned to her dress on Sunday morning. She simply did not decorate anything. Her furniture was functional, not decorative. My idea came over time, unlike a sudden awakening, and I decided I would surprise her with a flowering quince. Early one spring morning I raided my mother's quince bush. It was not in bloom, but I knew it would be soon, so I gathered four of the lower branches in my arms and carried them to Aunt Bett's house. Now if you are familiar with flowering quince, you know it is prickly, and even though it was only down the road and across the creek to Aunt Bett's house, my arms got a little scratched. But I was determined, so I hurried along; scratched arms weren't going to stop me. Aunt Bett was working in her garden behind her house. I had to pass her on the way and since the decorations were going to be a surprise for her, I held them behind me when I got close enough for her to see. I told her I would come help her in a little bit, but first I needed to get a drink of water at her house. She told me to hurry right along, and so I did.
In spring the ground is soft and moist in the mountains, so when I got to her front yard, I ran from one corner to the other of her porch and jabbed one of my quince branches down into the ground, leaving just a short branch sticking upright. I did the same thing on each of the far corners of her front yard. Aunt Bett was going to be surprised to see the red flowers blooming right in her very own yard. I just knew she would love them.
I ran back to the garden to help her plant beans. She asked why my arms were scratched, and I told her I had been playing with Kitty Fluff. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tin of salve, rubbed it on my arms, and all was well with my world. Well, I thought it was anyway.
Summer came and went and the sticks never bloomed, and Mom never missed the lower branches of her quince. Winter came and I forgot all about having decorated Aunt Bett's yard. The following spring Aunt Bett started coming up to our house again, to sit on the back porch and talk to my mother and Granny Ninna. One day we were on the back porch and Aunt Bett said to my mother: "Doris, I have some quince blooming in my front yard. Where do you reckon it come from?" Now quince grew fairly wild in the mountains, but I had never seen another quince in anyone else's yard except my Mother's. My heart fell flat into my tummy....Plop! My mother said she didn't have any idea how quince had popped up in Aunt Bett's yard, unless maybe a bird had dropped a seed. Aunt Bett piped up with: "It warn't no bird that planted that quince, not with one at each corner of the front porch and one at each corner of the front yard." Mom looked at me, Aunt Bett looked at me, and I looked at my feet. It seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds later that Aunt Bett said: "Well, I reckon it could have been a little bird that took it upon herself to decorate my yard. I guess I ort to say that little bird done herself a good job."
And that's the story of how four flowering quince found their way to Aunt Bett's front yard. They were still there the last time I looked.
Thanks to Kell, DaylilySLP, and Haighr for the use of their Plant File photos.
Chaenomeles japonica commonly known in the mountains of SE KY as flowering Japanese quince.
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