The Dreams of Youth

Longfellow sunset

The line above from Longfellow’s poem, My Lost Youth, in large part, inspired the writing of The Dreams of Youth. It’s a collection of six very short pieces that together tell the story of Maggie. Spanning over eighty-five years, the stories follow her from her youth in Depression-era Illinois to the time when she ventures forth to 1940’s Hollywood and coastal California, and her return to the rural Midwest

I used lines from the poem to head the sections, amazed each time that the words so closely conveyed the main idea of the piece.

The first section is called “A Girl’s Will.” Though Longfellow’s poem is about a boy, the line worked beautifully to capture Maggie’s spirit.

“A [girl’s] will is the wind’s will.” – Longfellow

(excerpts)

When her brothers and sisters staged a circus in the back yard for the entertainment of the neighborhood, it was eight-year-old Maggie who flew through the air on the handmade trapeze, her sense of adventure overriding any fear she might have had.

“One penny to see the Flying Wonder – Maggie!” they cried, drawing a sizable crowd.

Maggie loved the feeling of flying through the air and landing on the old mattress – the freedom, the thrill! It was the same feeling she had when she jumped from the hayloft onto the hay below, the same feeling she had when she rode her brother’s bike and coasted with her arms outstretched.

Maggie was four when her mother Eileen died after giving birth to twins, the last of ten children.rural cemetary

Summers at home were magical. The rest of the year was spent in the orphanage, along with the twins and her sisters. Maggie came to love the nuns. They taught her how to sew and read, and told wondrous stories about the lives of the saints.

All the same, she was happy when she finally reached high school and moved back home.

Madonna Alton orphanage

(Madonna of the orphanage)

Maggie has always loved the idea of airplanes and flying, and she decides to become an airline stewardess in order to finally see the ocean and far away places.

She took her savings and journeyed by bus to Kansas City for an interview with TWA. Her dreams were finally going to come true; she could feel them tingling at her fingertips.

From the bus window, she imagined the miles and miles of corn as the wideness of the ocean, curving into the horizon. The golden wheat became the golden sand where she would soon stand and let the waves lap over her bare feet. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the salt spray on her face!

As she waited in a long line with other hopefuls, eager for the interview, she heard the whispers.

“They don’t hire girls with glasses. You must have perfect vision.”  Maggie took off her glasses and slipped them into her pocket.

Back home, Maggie found a job working in the veteran’s hospital.

*

Maggie had not given up on her dreams of seeing the world. While she was working at the VA hospital, she learned that her vision was good enough to enlist in the Air Force Nurse Corps. She would become a military flight nurse.

nurse poster

When Maggie’s best friend from nursing school offered her the chance to go to California, the land of dreams, Maggie knew that the door to her future had opened at last.

ocean sunset

dreamsofyouth_kindle_hihttp://amzn.to/2rDiqfB

Irises of May

irises railing Canva

I love the irises I come across growing along old fences, or inside a garden, in different stages of unfurling: some still in tightly bound spears with tips of saturated color, others gracefully opened in full display. Like peonies and other spring flowers, their relatively brief  appearance creates a sort of urgency to appreciate them before they disappear with the season.

pix (554)

Irises always remind me of a visit to my hometown many years ago. On a walk through the side streets, I came upon a small house with a startling burst of color alongside a fence. From a thick row of slender green blades bloomed bunches and bunches of irises — tall and elegant, in colors of ethereal blue, dusky mauve, yellow, and combinations of royal purple and apricot, white and watercolor rose, lavender and deep gold. I had to step closer to marvel at the rich array, so casually crowded along the fence.

The owner of the house, an elderly woman with a warm smile, caught me admiring her flowers and offered to show me her garden in the back of the house. It was even more breath-taking — tucked away from view, full of winding brick paths and interesting details set among gorgeous flowers. It must have taken her years to create such a work of art. When I told her how much my mother would love the garden, she graciously welcomed us to stroll through it whenever we wanted, even if she wasn’t at home. I had the feeling that the woman’s generosity and kindness came from the same internal place as her desire to create the beautiful garden — a place that takes pleasure in life and wants to add to the world’s beauty. I brought my mom back later that day, and the delight she took in the garden remains etched in my mind long years since.

I’ve often thought of that May garden, and wondered how many other secret gardens there are in my town, and in the cities I have lived in, and the places I have visited. How many people create works of beauty for the sheer joy and pleasure they bring? How many so freely and graciously offer their efforts to passers-by in patches of flowers, or window boxes trailing with color, or in potted blooms in front of a house? Like the best parts of ourselves, flowers require tending to be coaxed into being, to be nourished with love and sunlight and weeding and watering. The result is a sort of two-way gift that is offered back to the world in a communication beyond words.

pale blue iris

Over the weekend, I took out my terracotta pots and planted them with rose and purple stock, pink geraniums, and scarlet carnations, and set them on my steps just outside the door.

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.

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.

SevenTalesOfLove_Kindle_hi_v2

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.