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The Christmastime stories — rural and small-town Midwest

The Christmastime books, stories of love and family on the home front during the World War II years, portray an America with one foot firmly in the past and the other poised on the threshold of change. The setting for these stories, for the most part, is New York City. However, a few storylines are set in the rural Midwest.

I was born and raised in small-town Illinois and the beauty of the landscape there — old farm houses set among fields and pastures, trains running to and from the small towns, the  woods and orchards that change with the time of year — has always had a strong pull on me. The seasons are rich and distinctive, and the snowy winter setting perfect for the Christmastime stories.

In the first book of the series, Christmastime 1940, we find that Charles Drooms’ past is deeply rooted in rural Illinois, and there are a few flashbacks to his boyhood and life on the farm that explain many of his decisions later in life.

In a later book, there’s a scene where Lillian works on a series of illustrations depicting the role of women on the farm. With so many men enlisted, women had to step into the workforce and fill jobs that had recently been held by men. Lillian draws on her memories of visiting Kate’s farm in the summer of 1941.

postere farm woman

Beginning in Christmastime 1943, a key storyline takes place on Kate’s farm involving her daughters, Ursula and Jessica, and the German POWs who work on the farm while Kate’s sons are away at war. The scenes depict the connection of living close to the land with the rhythms of the seasons, and the rigor and back-breaking work required by farm life.

The farm scenes help to portray a period when time moved more slowly, and a place where most foods were locally grown and cooking was done from scratch.

A time when the home arts played an important role in day-to-day living,

and small-town life offered simple charm and the opportunity for visiting and shopping.

The tension between the beauty and bleakness of the Midwestern winter landscape also serves to reflect the complexities in Ursula, a young woman often driven by opposing impulses.

And on a larger scale, the small town and farm scenes offer a counterpoint to the New York City scenes. The tranquility and wholesomeness of the countryside serve as a reminder of how much was at stake in the war.

The rural setting also represents the tens of thousands of young men, such as Kate’s four sons, who left their small towns and farms to fight in Europe and the Pacific. For many of them, it was the first time ever leaving home. For them, the very idea of “home,” and everything it symbolized, became a deeply cherished and protected ideal.

pie and chair

(For more images evocative of the world of Christmastime, please visit my Pinterest boards at http://www.pinterest.com/lindamahkovec/)

London

St. Jpark 2

London is a labyrinth of parks and avenues, winding streets and narrow alleys that lead you from one beautiful neighborhood to another. A quick trip over Thanksgiving impressed me anew with the loveliness of London.

St. Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster was the perfect place to stay. It’s a beautiful Victorian building close to St. James Park and Buckingham Palace and just a block away from the Tube. They were just beginning to decorate for Christmas while we were there.

Hotle night

It had been many years since I last visited London, and for the most part, it was like seeing it through fresh eyes. The skyline had changed greatly — the London Eye alone transformed the feel of the skyline, as did the Shard.

While we were visiting the Tower of London,

Tower 3

I was struck by the architectural layering of history: a row of Tudor-styled buildings stood behind the thousand-year-old crumbling walls of the fortress, and behind them both rose the Shard. All over London, the historical and the modern are intertwined.

Tower and Shard

For the most part, my husband and I played tourists, going from one historical site to another: The Tower of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Trafalgar Square, the Westminster area (we were disappointed to find Big Ben covered in scaffolding). But Buckingham Palace was beautiful, especially at the end of day when the lights came on.

Buckingham closeup night

This was the first time I visited Notting Hill, and I was immediately taken with its charm. I would love to see it in the spring when the wisteria is in bloom.

NH window

Another afternoon we spent in the ever-changing Brick Lane neighborhood, full of wonderful Bangladeshi restaurants.

Brick Lane

Also new on this trip was a visit to the Leighton House, home of the artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. I fell in love with the exotic tiles and lamps, and the colors he surrounded himself with — rich peacock blue, muted gold, and dark woodwork.

Leighton House tiles

I’m glad we visited London in the late fall. Dusk came early, and by 4:30 the corner pubs and restaurants dotted the evening with golden light and a feeling of coziness and cheer spilled outside onto the sidewalks.

W pub night

Buildings that were beautiful by day took on a deeper beauty by night.

Ian night 3

The shopping areas of Oxford and Bond Streets, and Picadilly Circus glittered with tiny lights and holiday decorations, and were bustling with red double-decker buses and crowds of happy shoppers. A stroll through Selfridges offered a glimpse of the glamour depicted in the Masterpiece period drama Mr. Selfridge.

Stores like Harrods and Selfridges brought to mind the wonderful scene from Howard’s End where Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel do their Christmas shopping.

howards-end-christmas-scene

Scenes from movies and books are everywhere. We took a train to the Baker Street Station and above ground saw the Sherlock Holmes Museum (with a long line outside).

Baker Street crop

At King’s Cross station there is Platform 9 and 3/4 from Harry Potter (with an even longer line of children waiting to get their photo taken). Though my list of things to see included the Charles Dickens Museum, the Samuel Johnson House, a stroll through Bloomsbury, and several other sites and parks, five days didn’t allow it.

So I’m already working on another list for my next visit.

Ian night white flowers

 

 

 

 

The Plaza Hotel – book cover

All the book covers in the Christmastime series feature an old-looking photograph set in winter. They to help establish a sense of place and give the impression of peering back in time. The images also portray places that are still in existence in Manhattan, so that the reader can feel it’s possible to step into the world of Christmastime by strolling through New York City, whether literally or imaginatively. Hence, the snowy photographs of a brownstone and several scenes from Central Park.

The covers must also reflect the content and tone of the books. I chose increasingly lonesome images and darker colors as the war years wore on, especially for Christmastime 1942 and Christmastime 1943.

Though 1944 was another terrible year, the Allies were clearly gaining the upper hand, and many people believed that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas. (The mid-December surprise count-offensive by the Germans, resulting in the Battle of the Bulge, quashed that hope, and the war raged on.)

But when December arrived, hope was in the air. For the cover of Christmastime 1944, I wanted an image that was lighter, brighter, and more hopeful. When I came across the image of the Plaza Hotel lit up at night, I thought it would be perfect for the story – especially since the hotel figures into one of the plots.

cover Christmastime 1944

If you’re ever in Manhattan, stop by the Plaza Hotel for lunch or tea. Stroll through the lobby to look at the beautiful bouquets of seasonal flowers, the mosaic floors, and the stained-glass ceiling in the Palm Court.

 

And if you’re in the Christmastime frame of mind, you just might catch a glimpse of a lovely woman in a 1940’s satin and chiffon green dress.

Plaza PP mosaic

The autumn leaves are falling like rain…

autumn mist and leaves

There’s a poem I’ve come across over the years that is simple, beautiful, and lyrical. It seems to find expression in different times, in slightly different wording. All the versions are evocative, stirring up rich images and emotions.

The autumn leaves are falling like rain,
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table.   – Tang Dynasty poem

In this version, most likely translated from the original, I imagine a rugged landscape,

rugged autumn

 

 

 

 

 

 

perhaps the Great Wall of China,

GW China autumn

and a cup of tea.

Chinese teacup

A quick search reveals a few remarkable facts about the period the poem was written in: “China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907, is often considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. During this period, poetry was an important part of social life at all levels of society. Scholars were required to master poetry for the civil service exams, but the art was theoretically available to everyone. Tang poetry has had an ongoing influence on world literature.” (Wikipedia)

However, there are other, similar versions of the poem. Perhaps the poem has been been translated in various ways throughout the years, or perhaps different poets were moved by the universality of the poem and reworked it for their time and place.

For example, this later version about an earlier period, is said to describe the far reaches of Britannia under Roman rule:

Here at the frontier 
There are fallen gods 
And my neighbours 
Are all barbarians 
Although you 
Are thousands of miles away 
There will always be on my table 
Your cup.

Different imagery comes to mind: the wall morphs to Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape shifts to bleak highlands. I imagine damp cloaks, stomping horses, tents pitched next to a sputtering campfire.

And more recently, these lines, close to the original, appear in John Fowles’ The Magus:

“Here at the frontier there are falling leaves; although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, You are a thousand miles away. There are always two cups at my table.”

rainy leaves window

All the versions suggest forced separation – perhaps by war, conquest, travel of some sort – contrasted with the memory of friendship, the comforts of home, civility.  They speak of longing, memory, and the hope for future togetherness. And most of all, they express that it’s the simple things in life that have the greatest pull on us.

 

 

 

 

October

autumn lake

There’s an old green-covered book I open this time of year. The spine is split in some parts, the lettering on the cover is faded. It’s a book of poems by Robert Frost that my mother gave to me in high school. It was already worn back then. I don’t know if she bought it used somewhere around town or if someone made a gift of it to her years before. It wasn’t a formal presentation or given to mark a special occasion. It was like the other things she gave to us – a sort of “here’s something you might enjoy,” or “take a look at this.” Items that would simply appear on our dressers without any note at all – Classic Comics for my brothers, a porcelain bluebird for my sister’s collection, a red maple leaf, an exotic stamp off a letter from her brother who traveled widely. Things that would delight, pique our curiosity, entertain, or answer to inner longings.

The book of poems resonated deeply with me, especially the ones in the beginning of the book from the section “A Boy’s Will.” The autumn poems in particular became the ones that most spoke to me. “October” might have been the first poem I ever memorized, outside of school assignments. I memorized it because I wanted the words inside me, I wanted to walk through an autumn day and have the words at the ready: “O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall, Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”

CP autumn bridge

These many years later, the words are still there. As I walk through the neighborhood or cut through Central Park, a solitary leaf might float down from a tree on a mild autumn day, and I hear the words: “Release one leaf at break of day, At noon release another leaf.” The birds in the autumn sky might caw and without any prompting my heart recites: “The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go.”

CP yellow elms

The simple book of poems remains the touchstone of autumn for me – it embodies the solitary, the nostalgia and memories of other Octobers, and the deep connection of inner yearning with outer seasonal beauty.

book with leaves

(Thank goodness Robert Frost didn’t stop at October. His poem “My November Guest” soon became my favorite.)

yellow leaf on bench

Autumn Orchards

red apples

A trip to the orchard always feels like stepping back in time, especially at this time of year. There is something quaint and old-fashioned about the crates of red, green, and yellow apples, the rows of trees and pumpkin fields under an open sky, the warm colors of autumn’s harvest all around.

Even the things you can buy at an orchard are wholesome and picturesque. Besides bags of apples, there are rows of jams and honey, pumpkins and gourds, and ears of Indian corn in those gorgeous colors that always surprise.

And who can pass up the apple cider, the caramel apples, and the apple cider donuts?

There were several orchards around the small town in Illinois where I grew up. But there was one we went to every fall, making almost weekly trips to buy apples. We’d also buy jars of apple butter, homemade peanut brittle, and containers of popping corn. Once I was visiting home during the Fall Festival and was lucky enough to find beautiful bunches of bittersweet for sale. They were tied in thick clusters, vibrant in color. I bought several bunches and they decorated my NYC apartment for many years.

The old-fashioned, romantic allure of the orchard  found its way into my WWII era Christmastime series. The main character, Lillian, was raised in upstate New York where the seasonal beauty of the orchards and fields influenced her as an artist. She moves to the city, but her sister, Annette, runs an orchard with her husband. Lillian is grateful to have that haven to return to, where she can reconnect with her girlhood and enjoy the pleasures of country living. And her two boys, Tommy and Gabriel, love the freedom of running through the orchard and playing in the cider house. And sometimes, they celebrate Christmas there.

orchard apples on ground

This time of year is all too brief — the harvest season, apples and pumpkins, the colors of fall, sweater weather. Soon the trees will soon lose their leaves, the temperatures will drop, and the orchards will close their doors.

orchard yellow leaved tree

Before that happens, make a trip to an orchard — crunch into a juicy apple, take some cider home with you, treat yourself to a caramel apple. Or just stroll around the earthy charm of the orchard, and savor this beautiful time of year.

orchard path fall

 

Late September — Central Park

1 trees yellow

Yellow. The color of late September. Faded gold, gilded green, amber. In Central Park today, even the air appeared yellow as sunlight filtered through the thinning leaves. Throughout the park, yellow leaves lay scattered beneath the trees, on the roads, sidewalks, and grass. The day was unusually warm and the bright sun brought out the golden hues.

blog header September CP

I strolled through one of my favorite walkways, a short path alongside a fence covered in a tangle of morning glories. The vines still showed pink and purple, with yellowed leaves mixed among the green.

yellow lane

Something caught my attention in the distance, and I had to stop and stare, puzzling out what I was seeing. A patch of air glittered among the yellow trees. I realized it was a shaft of sunlight shining on a spray of water from a sprinkler. Shadows boxed it in so that it looked like a square patch of sparkles hovering in the air.

Straggly clusters of flowers still showed a bit of color, as in the clouds of white that surrounded the elms.

flowers elms

And though most flowers now have woody stems and drooping leaves, there are still vibrant patches of color to be found, soaking up the warmth of late September.

colored flowers

The weather will change soon and cooler temperatures will bring about the more dramatic colors of autumn. Who knows? By next week touches of orange and red might tinge the trees. And September’s soft yellow will shift to the sharper, more vibrant yellow of October.

leaf

 

Autumn and Poetry

 

leaves on steps

Autumn and poetry go hand in hand. There is something inherently nostalgic and meditative about this time of year that points the mind to introspection. End-of-year wistfulness mixes with the excitement of going back to school, crisper weather, and the coming holidays.

Some poems set this emotionally rich time of year against the splendor of fall, as in John Keats’s “To Autumn” — “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

Sept pond w bridge

and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

a yellow wood

Other poems capture the elegiac melancholy of autumn, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall”  to a young child:

goldengrove

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

stone stairs

On these beautiful fall days, curl up with a good book on a mild September afternoon, or in the evenings that now descend earlier. Find a good poem and let the lines run through your head as you kick through the autumn leaves and take in this season of nostalgia, excitement, and beauty.

colored leaves

September

2 -By all these lovely tokensSeptember days are here.--- Helen Hunt Jackson

Back to school. Yellow leaves. Sunny days and chill nights.

back to school

Apples and cider. Sweaters and boots. Chrysanthemums, dahlias, and asters.

Frosty mornings. Acorns and buckeyes. Leisurely walks. The last of the garden tomatoes.

autumn walk

Curling up with a good book. Hot chocolate. Tartans and flannel. Shawls.

autumn cocoa and book

 Curling up with a good book.

book autumn leaf

 

Travel – Bangladesh

winter-morning-rice field

In the mornings, I stood on the bedroom balcony, and closed my eyes as I listened to the sounds of Bangladesh: bells from the bicycle rickshaws, short beeps from the motorbikes, the alluring call of the muezzin from the nearby mosque. Small birds chirped from trees that rose up past the balcony, and geese squawked and flapped their wings in the neighboring yard.

rickshaw

One day,  as I was writing, I heard music coming from the street, and I ran downstairs to the front veranda to see what it was. I was delighted to find an enchanting procession passing by on the dirt road outside the house. But then I was told that it was a Hindu funeral and they were on their way to the cremation. Carried on the shoulders of six men was a wicker bier on which the body was laid, its head rocking back and forth with the movement of their walking. The men held burning sticks of incense, and the group that followed made rhythmic sounds from bells and tiny brass instruments. It was a day-to-day event, and the other people on the street took little notice.

A group of giggling schoolgirls in uniforms of pale blue and white passed by, their black hair neatly arranged in buns or in braids. Vendors passed the procession, bent only on selling their wares: a stick-thin man with a bamboo pole across his shoulders with baskets of vegetables on either end, the bangle lady enticing the women in the houses with her cries of “churi, churi!” and a man carrying a colorful stack of cloth on his head. Life and death were in easy company on the busy, dusty street.

Folk_Art_Museum_Sonargaon