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)

header 2 The Cx Series (1)

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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.)

 

Summer Evenings in the Garden

GH eve 12

Long summer days mean that we can spend more time out of doors. And one of the best places to linger in the summer twilight is in a lovely garden. There’s something about candlelight and dinner in the garden that is absolutely magical.

GH table 1b

Though I can count such dinners I’ve experienced on one hand, they stand out in my mind. Some memories shine more than others, like tiny jewels in an inner treasure chest — clearer, sharper, more durable.

One such memory is of an impromptu dinner I once had with friends in Seattle. A guest was visiting from Switzerland and we decided to have our dinner outside, just beside the flower garden.

We pulled out the kitchen table, draped it in a lace tablecloth, and added details to make the dinner even more special — fresh flowers from the garden, antique water goblets and an Art Deco silverware set that belonged to my grandparents, and a tiny salt and pepper set — green and white enamel owls. One of my roommates, who was attending a culinary arts school, created a sumptuous meal full of summer freshness — I remember a cold blueberry soup with creme fraiche swirled on top and a salad with orange nasturtiums from the garden.

I never made the connection before, but surely that evening found its way into my novel The Garden House, which is set in Seattle. There’s a scene where the main character, Miranda, sets a beautiful table on the garden deck and enjoys a lovely summer evening with her husband and a few friends.

The Italian poet and author Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those words came to him as he sat in a summer garden at evening.

GH eve book

Amazon Link: http://a.co/hsncwXs

 

 

 

Mother’s Day — and the story behind my story

Some thoughts and lovely vintage images for Mother’s Day from Pinterest:

“A mother is the one who fills your heart in the first place.” – Amy Tan

MD 4

“Mothers and their children are in a category all their own. There’s no bond so strong in the entire world. No love so instantaneous and forgiving.”  – Gail Tsukiyama

mother daughters

MD 6

“I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”  – E.M. Forster

mother baby porch

“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dates all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.” – Agatha Christie

mother fishing

“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.” – Maya Angelou

MD 2

“Because even if the whole world was throwing rocks at you, if you had your mother at your back, you’d be okay. Some deep-rooted part of you would know you were loved. That you deserved to be loved.” ―Jojo Moyes

mother teaching

Mother and kids

“But behind all your stories is your mother’s story, for hers is where yours begins.” – Mitch Albom

This last quote really resonates with me. Our mom’s “story” became our story: Life is an adventure to be celebrated. You go forth into the world, against the odds, and spread your wings, and follow your dreams. Her story was to live life fully — to do good where you can, to love and protect others — especially children, to laugh often, to remain curious and to read widely, and to always do good where you can. To smile through adversity, and take delight in the small beauties of every day.  All this was taught to us by example and was embedded in the details of her life. I tried to capture my mom’s story in my first book, The Dreams of Youth.  It is the story behind my story.

Amazon Link: http://a.co/8WKiB33

dreamsofyouth_kindle_hi

The Garden House – a novel

A story of love, family, and home set among the lush summer evenings of Seattle. When Miranda rents out her garden house to a mysterious new tenant, she begins to have disturbing dreams that someone is in danger. Is it mid-life crisis? Empty-nest syndrome? Or is something sinister lurking right outside in her beloved garden? There’s only one way to find out.

“Enchanting, beautiful and heartwarming.” – Amazon review

“I was completely swept away by this tale.” – NetGalley review

“A thoughtful narrative with a mystery at its heart.” – Goodreads review

“Inspiring, romantic and suspenseful.” – Amazon review

GH 8

Passages from The Garden House

Clara had loved the profusion of forget-me-nots that surrounded the garden house, and decided to christen the cottage the Forget-Me-Not House.

GH forget-me-nots

[Miranda] loved every section of her garden, but this shadier and damper part always stirred in her a feeling of tenderness. It grew thick with hosta and ferns, and perennials that didn’t need much care – patches of bleeding hearts and shy lily-of-the-valley.

Paula stood and held up a potted flower. “Just look at this clematis – it’s as big as a saucer.”  Miranda reached out to touch the pale purple flower. “It’s beautiful.”

A sigh released from deep inside. Home. She was home and everything would be all right.

Filling her arms and basket, Miranda carried the flowers and greenery into the house, and spread them out on the kitchen table. Then she began arranging the flowers in vases and jars, and floating them in glasses and bowls.

Miranda led the way to the lower garden, where the tree-like rhododendrons and lower azaleas formed a sort of double wall.

GH Miranda 1

Amazon Link: http://a.co/6NUjTZI

GH with link

(All images are from my Pinterest boards)

 

 

The Garden House — in winter (images from Pinterest)

gardenhouse_kindle_hiThough the story of The Garden House opens in late spring and closes in the fall, I made a Pinterest board called “The Garden House – winter.” The main character, Miranda, lives in Seattle and has a beautiful garden that’s an integral part of her life. I imagine her loving her garden in all seasons, including the rain and occasional snow of winter.

In The Garden House, Miranda’s garden becomes a  metaphor for life, with themes of family, change, memories, home, and the search for meaning. When all else goes wrong, Miranda retreats to her garden, with a cup of tea in hand, and finds solace.

Surrounded by the beauty of her garden, she allows herself to be captivated and inspired by the mysteries of life.

I imagine Miranda enjoying her garden in January, curled up in her window seat and watching the falling snow cover the birdhouses, birdbaths, and terra cotta pots.

I see her strolling through her garden, delighting in the vestiges of summer and fall — frost-covered roses, hydrangeas, and Queen Anne’s Lace.

In every season, Miranda fills her home with cuttings from her garden. I imagine her gathering branches of winter berries and greenery to make bouquets for her dining table and to set among the plants of the greenhouse window in her kitchen.

Perhaps she even brushes off the snow from a deck chair, and sipping a cup of hot chocolate, enjoys the tranquility and quiet of her winter garden.

table deck snow

 

 

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 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

 

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