Downton Abbey — in Manhattan

bells

Recently, my sister-in-law was planning a visit to New York City and when I asked her if there was anything in particular that she wanted to do, she said she would love to see Downton Abbey: The Exhibition. I hadn’t even heard about it, but it sounded like a good idea so I booked our tickets. Though I had only caught a few episodes of the series, I found that I was really looking forward to seeing the exhibit. And in the late afternoon of a cold winter’s day, we stepped into the world of Downton Abbey.

Edith

I was surprised to find that the exhibit was in the recently closed Lee’s Art store on 57th Street, a place I had frequented over the years. The windows that once displayed painting supplies, glittering frames, and whimsical toys, now held an equally enchanting display: images, items, and gifts relating to Downton Abbey — including an exquisite 1920’s dress in peacock blue and gold.

The New York City street was reflected in the window — scaffolding and yellow cabs, parkas and mounds of snow — and seemed a sort of symbolic contrast to the elegance of another era.

window contrast

We strolled through the exhibit, laughing as we were greeted by holographic videos (?) of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes welcoming us to Downton Abbey, before they had to hurry away. We entered the “downstairs” area and worked our way up.  There was the kitchen with something simmering on the stove, the carton of eggs, the sounds of chopping and pots and pans being moved about. There was Carson’s pantry with the decanter, and there were those famous room bells.

And there was the dining room with the beautifully set table.

dining table

One room had video snippets of different scenes from the series: the explosions and trenches of WWI shifted to tranquil interior scenes of a fire burning brightly in the library.

fireplace video

Another area was dedicated to short film excerpts featuring the acerbic wit of Violet Crawley. And throughout the exhibit were reminders of the period’s codes of conduct and rules of civility.

The clothes were beautiful, and I found myself lingering over the details of trim and beading and lace: the Edwardian opulence of Violet’s clothing, the shimmering elegance of the 1920’s dresses,

and those beautiful necklaces and earrings that complemented the clothing.

On every floor, in every room was the sense of a time gone by and the societal upheavals of yesteryear. One quote posed the idea that perhaps that earlier period was not so unlike our own times, with technology rushing us ahead, creating some disturbing trends, while offering other compensations.

Since I had only caught an occasional episode, I never got to know the characters and plots in the way that many people did.

So, on these snowy January evenings, I’ve started to watch the series from the beginning — paying extra close attention to the buttons and jewelry, the silverware and bells.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life — a Christmas classic (and an inspiration for indie writers)

crop It's A Wonderful Life (1)

People often ask me what movies or books my Christmastime series is most similar to. For many reasons, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life comes to mind. It’s set during and just after WWII, it’s a story about love and family, the importance of friends and neighbors, and it’s about transformation.

Clarence

I happened to catch it on TV the other night, and though I know the movie by heart, I found that I loved it as much as ever.

on phone

The story behind the movie is also “wonderful,” and offers an inspirational example for today’s independent writers. The movie is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900 – 1984), an American author, editor, and Civil War historian.

The story goes that in “February 1938, Stern awoke with the story in mind. Inspired by a dream that was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, Stern wrote a 4,000 word short story called The Greatest Gift. He began work on it in 1939 but didn’t finish until 1943.

Dickens

Unable to find a publisher for his story, he printed two hundred copies of the story and distributed them as Christmas cards in 1943. One of the original palm-sized booklets came to the attention of a producer at RKO Pictures who purchased the rights, and then sold them to Frank Capra in 1945.” (Wikipedia)

Frank Capra title

“From this humble beginning, a classic was born. Stern’s story captivated Capra, who said he ‘had been looking for [it] all [his] life.’ Capra’s beloved adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life, was released in 1946,” (Zoetrope – www.all-story.com) and has become part of the American Christmas tradition.

bell on tree

 

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/)

The Comfort of Books

Evangeline book

The Comfort of Books

We all know people who insist that there is nothing like holding a good, old-fashioned book in their hands. They swear that nothing compares to the heft, the feel, the companionability, the smell of a real book. I tend to agree with them.

Milton

 

But I also see the advantages of digital books. My e-books have come to the rescue on numerous occasions: stalled subway trains, long delays at the dentist or doctor’s office, travelling by plane.

And yet – there is something special about a physical book, as there is about crowded bookshelves, and browsing through a bookstore. Books offer a kind of comfort in their sheer presence.

Like many people, I have a particular love of old books. I have a very small collection that my mother, over forty years ago, had the foresight to buy from an old drug store in town that was closing. She also bought several glass pharmaceutical bottles – Lycopodium, Acacia, Digitalis – and other treasures from a bygone era that used to fill the tall wooden cupboards and glass cabinets there. But the books – those were the real gems. The covers alone gave them value as objects of beauty, as with Longfellow’s Evangeline, Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue, and Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.

Poe book

 

 

 

lady of the Lake - crop

I’ve googled some of those books and found that they’re not worth much, and several of them are literally falling apart. And yet they continue to give pleasure.

Rip Van Winkle

And whether I’m at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, or at a garage sale in my home town, I’m always on the lookout for one of these books from another time.

Strand Plaza

And as I take out my wallet to make a purchase, I catch sight of my iphone and find comfort in the digital library that’s always at hand.

The Wake

swan heading crop

The Wake

A little death entered us when you went ahead.

So great was the love that tethered us to you,

we would have gladly followed;

Like little cygnets straining to keep up,

their eyes fixed on the beautiful white swan ahead.

The rippling wake, the path to you.

*

But you, nurturing mother,

Said no – the wake is the path you created for us;

The wondrous wake is life itself.

Your wish – for us to embrace it, as you did,

 with love and laughter and joy.

*

You, beautiful swan,

turned your head to us, as if gently saying,

this was not our time, but yours;

For us, now, to delight in the beauty around us,

to splash in the waters of life!

Time enough for the later journey.

*

Your gift to us, your legacy:

To live first fully in the wake.

 

swan sunset 2