Long before I knew any other meaning of the word, bittersweet was the type of solid chocolate I used to make brownies. As a child, I found the taste more bitter than sweet, as did my siblings, and my mother never worried that one of us would eat the baking chocolate. In high school I remember coming across an essay by the prolific John Leonard in Life Magazine musing on the word bittersweet in relation to feelings. (I actually tried to find the essay today, but had no success.)
The word captivated me and I vividly remember realizing that it was the perfect word to describe some of the feeling I had had but been unable to express. Perhaps you can recall your own experience of a happy feeling tinged with sadness. Leonard said that after childhood with its more clearly delineated sad and happy, we need a new word for this complex emotion.
Lately I feel it most strongly around my grandchildren. Somehow I failed to realize that they, like my own children, grow up. I delight in their growing maturity, their expressive vocabularies, their distinct developing personalities. At the same time I miss their eager toddler selves, ready to plop onto my lap and just snuggle. I realize that it is time to once more pack up the Fisher Price little people, used by my daughter, then stored and brought back out for the grandchildren. Sturdy toys, bought used in 1977, they will still be useful for any eventual great grandchildren. But I may not still be alive to watch their play. A bittersweet thought, for sure.
So take a minute and ponder the word for yourself. It isn’t exactly nostalgia, nor is it melancholy. It is its own perfect self: bittersweet.