Ursula — the Christmastime series

The Christmastime series takes a turn beginning with Christmastime 1943, with the sub-plot set on Kate’s farm in Illinois. Kate, Charles’s sister, and her two teen-aged daughters, Ursula (17) and Jessica (15), run the farm while her four sons are away at war. With the workforce severely diminished, and the demand for food production greater than ever, Kate does what many farmers had to do – she uses German POWs to help with the farm work.

Her elder daughter Ursula is furious about it. Francis, the brother she was closest to, has recently been killed by the Nazi army and Ursula is filled with anguish and hatred of the German soldiers. She adamantly refuses to have anything to do with the POWs.

Below are a few excerpts from Christmastime 1943: A Love Story, along with images suggestive of scenes with Ursula during the seasons of 1943-1945. Ursula: beautiful, willful, dreamy, passionate. (All images are from my Pinterest board Ursula – the Christmastime series, 1943, 1944, 1945.)

U sunset sky

Our first introduction to Ursula comes from Lillian. She’s been working on a series of war posters with the theme of Women in the Workforce, and the next posters will be on women and farm work. Based on an earlier visit to Kate’s farm, Lillian sketches an image of a young girl on a tractor.

Lillian studied it and realized that she had largely based the girl on Jessica, the younger of Kate’s daughters – blonde, cheerful, wholesome. Lillian had first tried the sketch based on Ursula, but the look was all wrong.

Again, Lillian gazed out the window, tapping the pencil against her cheek. Both of Kate’s daughters were extremely pretty – but Ursula had that elusive quality of beauty. Though her features were striking, Lillian felt that her beauty had more to do with her expressions, her soft way of speaking, her behavior – she was both pensive and brisk – as if her mind pulled her in one direction, and her body in another. No, thought Lillian, Ursula was more difficult to imagine on a tractor than Jessica, even though Kate wrote that Ursula had really taken up the slack at the farm as one by one her brothers had left. It was easier to imagine Ursula as some kind of mythic heroine – Diana the huntress, perhaps, or a winged victory figure.

Lillian thought of Ursula as she was two years ago – setting out on one of her restless walks across the fields or along the country road, or tucked away poring over a book. Her heart was set on going to college, and that was the life that would best suit her. She was intelligent, curious, strong-willed. Kate had sent a photo in the summer, and Ursula was prettier than ever. Lillian began a sketch of such a girl – tall and slim, with wavy dark hair, and those exquisitely lovely eyes – deep blue, beneath eyebrows like angry wings, smooth and beautiful. An air of intensity surrounded her, as if a quiet fire burned within.

Another impression of Ursula comes from Ed, the old farmhand who has worked for the family for years. He has news for Kate regarding the arrival of the POWs, but on hearing Kate and Ursula arguing about it inside, he waits out on the porch, reminiscing about Ursula as a child.

Glancing back at the kitchen door, he thought how he loved them all – Kate and her sons and daughters. He was fond of each and every one of them, but he couldn’t help the soft spot he had for Ursula. Even as a curly-topped child, she had a way of winning people over with her wide-eyed wonder and her demand for answers – “But why? How? What would happen if…?”

He chuckled, remembering how she used to ride around with him on the tractor, how he helped her learn to ride a bike, how she and little Francy used to hold hands as they jumped from the hayloft. And how, after her father died, she had transferred much of the affection for her father onto him.

How quickly the years had passed. Now here she was, almost eighteen years old, and more headstrong than ever. Yet sweet as a summer day. A hard worker, and capable, yet he often caught her staring out at the sunsets, or wondering at the beauty of snowdrifts, or listening to a strain of music on the radio with a hand pressed to her chest. There was a poet inside her, he often thought – though he doubted it would have the chance to come out now. If only she could have gone on to school, like she wanted. Well, there’s still time, he thought. He gave another shake of his head at the memory of the little girl who used to romp around the farm. Ursula. Here she was, seventeen – a breathtaking beauty in overalls.

Now Jessica, he thought, giving a little nod. She had more chance for overall, everyday happiness. Was more practical, down to earth, did not set her expectations up there with the moon. And was dang pretty. But Ursula…

Ed rubbed his whiskers, and his tanned wrinkled face scrunched in worry. She had that kind of dark beauty that troubled the heart. He took off his hat, inspected the rim, and readjusted it on his head. Well, they’re still young. It’ll all work out, somehow – it always does.

U blue tres

Ursula, after the argument with her mother about having German POWs on the farm.

Ursula plopped down in a chair in her overalls, arms crossed, an angry fire burning in her eyes. The only adornment she allowed herself these days – and in Kate’s eyes, evidence of her contrariness – were the amethyst drop earrings her family had given her after she was accepted into the women’s college downstate. She wore them every day as a reminder that she would go to college. Some day. And though Ursula wouldn’t admit it, she was just as hungry for a bit of beauty as was Jessica – perhaps even more so. In the middle of milking the cows, or feeding the chickens, or hauling firewood into the house, she would lightly touch the earrings – as a reminder of her dreams.

autumn field

Jessica later attempts to give another point of view regarding the POWs — but to no avail.

“I was all ready to hate them. I really was. But it’s hard to do when they look like our neighbors. When they look like us.”

Ursula could listen to no more. “Listen to you. They’re brutal Nazis! They’re killing our men. Doing horrible things to the Poles and Jews. You’ve read the papers, seen the newsreels. Don’t be fooled by their appearance. They’re nothing like us. They’re cold-blooded murderers. Never forget that.”

She stuffed the remnants of the overalls into the rag basket, and then stood stiffly, sore from overdoing her chores.

“You look all done in, Ursula,” said Kate. “Why don’t you go soak in a hot bath? It’s been a long day.”

Ursula went upstairs and ran the bathwater, letting her clothes drop heavily to the linoleum floor. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, pushing aside her hair. She did look done in.

She touched the amethyst earrings. It had been so long since she felt pretty, since she had worn a dress, since she had gone to a dance. Everything now was bleak and grim. Her brothers, and most of the town boys, were gone. Everyone was having a hard time, having to adapt to all the changes. For the most part, she didn’t mind. She loved the farm, loved the fields at sunset, had even learned to love the backbreaking work. It kept her mind focused, prevented it from filling with daydreams. Foolish dreams of college and travel, of seeing the beautiful capitals of Europe. She wondered if those cities would even still be standing after this nightmarish war was over.

The steam gradually blurred her reflection – just as her dreams had blurred and faded, she thought. No matter. There wasn’t time for girlish daydreams. Her mother was right; she had behaved childishly today. Work needed to be done, and she would do it. 

U snowy road

 

Amazon link:  https://amzn.to/2paLyMt

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Summertime – Farms and the Country in the CHRISTMASTIME series

rolls of hay sunset

I was born and raised in small-town Illinois, and the countryside played an important role in shaping my idea of the world – the sense of openness and wide skies, the beauty of the changing seasons, the rhythms of the land.

Though I never lived on a farm, country life was an integral part of the area and its presence was felt in the farms and orchards surrounding the town, in my classmates who lived on farms, in the county fair with displays of livestock and ribbons won for home-baked goods, canning, and 4-H projects.

And though my family lived in town, the country and farms were still a part of our lives. We used to drive out into the country to buy eggs from one farmer, and honey from another old-timer who kept bees. Some of my brothers and sisters earned money over the summer by detasseling corn, and we all learned to drive on those long, straight country roads.

Once, my dad took us out to glean a cornfield. A picture of Millet’s The Gleaners hung in my friend’s living room, and I thought gleaning sounded like an old-fashioned, romantic thing to do –

framed Gleaners

though I imagine the purpose of our outing was to show us the value of a dollar, part of the Midwestern work ethic that was woven into everything back then. We piled into the back of my dad’s pickup and drove out to a farm. With bags and buckets in hand, we began gleaning the cornfield of ears of corn missed by the combine. There was something fun and adventuresome about it, like being on a treasure hunt. After several hours, we emptied our bags into the bed of the truck, and then took our harvest to the grain elevator – we each made $2.

Probably because I never lived on a farm, I’ve always romanticized about it (though I know farming is backbreaking work with long hours, and farmers are at the mercy of the weather). It is that romanticized version the country and farms that made its way into my Christmastime books in the storylines that take place on Kate’s farm in Illinois.

windmill

(images from Pinterest)

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The Christmastime series is available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, iTunes, and Google and in libraries by request, on Ingram and Overdrive

Amazon —  https://amzn.to/2xFgnt0

(Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, the final book in the series,

will be available in the fall.)

 

A Sense of Sky

I’ve lived in New York City for almost thirty years and love it as much now as I did when I first moved here. But one of the things I miss, something from my girlhood, is the sense of sky — the wide-open vistas of the Midwest.

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It’s a feeling of proportion you become aware of, driving along the Illinois fields, where the sky seems to take up a good two-thirds of the world. Here in New York I catch glimpses of sunsets or storm clouds between tall buildings, or over the rooftops. Beautiful, but without the sense that the sky dominates.

farmhouse Canva

I grew up with the drama of stormy skies over far-reaching fields, and the endless blue skies of summer with high, puffy white clouds, subtly changing, holding form just long enough for you to find an image before shape shifting again. To stand under such skies is humbling, and at the same time, makes you feel a part of something grand.

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That sense of sky has found its way into some of my stories. In Christmastime 1943: A Love Story (Book Four of Six), a secondary plot takes place on a farm in Illinois. At different times throughout the story, Ed, the old farmhand, Kate, the owner of the farm, Ursula, her beautiful daughter, and Friedrich, the German POW, all look to the winter sky and find solace and beauty, or a reflection of their internal state.

“[Ed] gazed out over the fields of corn stubble at the magnificent sunset. Bold streaks of orange and purple spanned the sky….Beautiful and strong – just like the women inside the farmhouse, he thought with a shake of his head.”sunset fields 1943.png

“[Ursula] stood at her window and gazed out over the late afternoon fields. The stubble of the corn fields shone a rosy gold in the setting sun. The sky filled with sweeping bands of deep blue and gray – at the horizon a shimmer of pink pulled at her heart. The sad beauty of the day filled her with longing.”

So I find that though I’ve moved away from Midwestern skies, they are still with me here, in New York City.

1943

 

 

 

Poppies

old books

Research can be a thread that starts in one place and leads in a labyrinthine wondering, often ending in a completely unintended destination. I was immersed in research for the next book in my Christmastime series (1944), and briefly stepped out of the WWII frame of mind to search out one tiny detail about WWI.

Many hours, many books, and many Google searches later, I was still reading about WWI. In particular, I was looking at which battles a soldier from the US might have fought in. And that lead me to asking what the boundaries were before and after WWI, and how far X is from Y, and what exactly is meant by Flanders vs Belgium – a trail that ultimately lead me to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915 by a Canadian military doctor.

In Flanders fields poem - edited FINAL

And that got me thinking about poppies.

And why poppies became associated with WWI (and Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day) and Flanders. I came across an interesting article in the Smithsonian Vintage-Flanders-Poppy-Posterstating that poppy seeds “can lay dormant for 80 years or even longer” until the soil is disturbed, which happened during WWI when “the soil was torn up by miles of trenches and pocked by bombs and artillery fire,” causing the buried seeds to germinate. All around the crosses of the fallen, amid the horror and destruction of war, bloomed the beautiful red poppies. A sort of miracle, a balm of nature to help assuage the pain of war. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-poppy-came-symbolize-world-war-i-180960836/

And that lead directly to another interesting article about an American impressionist, Robert Vonnoh, who painted a field of poppies in 1890 entitled “In Flanders Fields” which, though recognized as a masterpiece, failed to sell. But then, in 1919, after McCrea’s poem of the same name became widely popular, the painting was purchased by Joseph G. Butler, the founder of The Butler Institute of American Art. A beautiful painting it itself, its significance was deepened by the tragedy of war, and it came to represent a more gentle past whose ways were forever gone.

Robert_Vonnoh_-_Coquelicots

More searches on poppies. After getting further sidetracked by the language of flowers, and representation of poppies in art, then in Western art, then in Victorian art, I stopped – and simply tried to determine why I have always loved this flower, and where that love came from. I thought of popular cultural references – from opium and the drug trade, to the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where the Wicked Witch rubs her green hands over her smoke-filled crystal ball, cackling, “Poppies! Poppies will put them to sleep!”

Then I took a look at some of my vintage postcards, recalling that several of them had images of poppies. The pink and red flowers were on cards for everything, from Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, to birthday wishes and cards of remembrance.

 

My strongest association of poppies comes from my Victorian studies, where I often came across depictions of the flower: in the ornate wallpapers of William and Morris; in portraits by the Pre-Raphaelites, signifying sleep, remembrance, and imagination; in the outdoor qualities of light and air in the works by Van Gogh and Monet; in Mucha’s lush compositions, representing the exotic and luxurious allure of the Belle Époque.

Perhaps my love for these older periods explains why I used an old drawing of poppies for my business cards and why the poppy has made its way onto the cover of one of my books, Seven Tales of Love, its design based on an Art Nouveau-styled illustration. Maybe I’m drawn to the poppy because it seems like an old-fashioned flower, like violets and lily-of-the-valley, and evokes a whole different set of sensibilities.

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Or perhaps, as they say, all roads lead to home, and the association is deep rooted in a particular patch of red poppies in my hometown. There was a garden at the back of an old house on a corner, and in the spring long-stemmed poppies grew in profusion, spilling out of the garden and into the ditch alongside the road. I think it was there that I was first struck with their impossible beauty – so vibrant, and wild, and magical – paper-thin red petals with black centers, set against intense green leaves.

I have an etched-in memory of a little old lady who used to live there long years ago. She was always out in her garden, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat as she bent over to tend her flowers. The garden was particularly beautiful at the end of day, when the tangle of flowers became tinged with gold. Somehow, that image has stayed in my mind, and, in the odd ways the mind makes associations, that garden in the setting sun has come to represent a deep longing that I could never quite put into words, and that remains elusive.

My mom and I once took seeds from one of the poppies and planted them in her garden, hoping for the same burst of beauty the following spring. But they never took. Perhaps they belonged in the overgrown garden with the setting sun at close of day – flowers locked in a mystical forever.

poppies home 1

But enough of digressions that never really end. And back to writing my book.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, WWII. 1944. Winter.