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

3D-Christmastime_books_ALL_3

 

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 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

World War II Veterans

Tinton Falls 1

I traveled to Tinton Falls, New Jersey over the weekend in order to interview my friend’s father, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific from 1943 to 1946. I wanted some details for the next book in my WWII series, Christmastime 1944.

Tom had a modest, understated manner when describing his time in the war, a trait so common in that generation: you did your duty to the best of your ability, and didn’t complain about it. (He also talked a bit about his years as a NYC policeman – which included delivering four babies!)

With an occasional reference to the album on his lap, full of photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and mementos, he described boot camp and then leaving from the Brooklyn Naval Yard on the U.S.S. Bennington, an aircraft carrier.

Bennington (1)

They sailed through Panama and stopped at Hawaii. In the album were the now classic WWII images of Hawaii: women in grass skirts dancing the hula, sailors with leis around

their necks posing against a tropical backdrop – just young boys, seemingly far too young to be in uniform. Then on to the Pacific.

Tom described being stationed at the gunnery, and how the kamikazes would often attack four at a time, two flying low, just above the water, two up high; one came so close that they saw the pilot’s face. “He came out of the clouds. If he had emerged another fifteen or twenty feet closer, I wouldn’t be here today.” And there were photographs in his album of night time kamikazes taking fire.

He described the typhoon off Okinawa in June, 1945 that snapped off the prow of their aircraft carrier, “bent it like a pretzel.”

typhoon final (1)

Miraculously, no lives were lost. Besides the euphoria of having survived the typhoon, a surge of happiness filled the seamen– surely the battered ship meant they were going home!

But no. The ship was patched in the Philippines and continued on towards Japan.

After about two hours of reminiscing, it was time to let Tom take a rest. We would come back later to take a closer look at the photo albums.

close-up-tom

At dinner that night, overlooking beautiful Tinton Falls,  my friend and I wondered: what was it about WWII that so defined our parents’ generation? Why was that the topic of conversation they always wanted to talk about? After all, three years out of ninety-one years in her father’s long life seems a very short time.

For my father, it was his time in the Army Airforce, as it was called back then, that was his favorite storytelling topic. We grew up with his tales of WWII, and now that I think of it, I don’t really have a clear idea of his life before or after the war. As with Tom, it’s as if those war years remained in color and sharp focus, fresh in detail and charged with emotion.

Was it because it was a pivotal point in their lives, the transition between boyhood and manhood? The jarring experience of being a 17- or 18-year old boy with his eye on the future, college, the girl next door, suddenly pulled into a cause larger than his dreams, into a world-wide conflict? Was it the strong camaraderie in life and death situations? The pride of having served a purpose higher than the one they might have chosen for themselves? An unspoken: I was there. I was part of something great. In a war of values, I fought on the side of good. And won.

Before leaving Tom and the assisted living place, my friend and I stopped by its library libraryto drop off a set of my books. We noticed that there were several shelves reserved for books about WWII.

My friend recognized one of her father’s dining buddies, Eric, and introduced me to him. There he was, well into his nineties, with an atlas opened before him, the seat of his walker serving as a table. He was intently poring over a map of Italy, his finger slowly traveling up the map. He was British and I thought perhaps he had vacationed there, or maybe he was checking a fact from a book or conversation. We asked about his interest in Italy.

With a twinkle of pride in his eye, he looked up and smiled. “I was stationed in Italy, during the war.”

Of course.