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

Summer — in The Christmastime Series

5 Kate's farm summer trees fence.jpg!d - Copy

Summer. A languid time of year that seems to move more slowly than the other seasons. Perhaps because the days are longer, or perhaps because many people are on vacation and the children are out of school, or perhaps because more time is spent outside, it is a rich time of year that creates indelible memories.

 

Memories of summer occasionally surface for some of the characters in my WWII Christmastime series, where most of the action is set in the cold and snow of December.

 

Though the stories take place on the home front, mostly in New York City, the events of the war shape the characters’ lives, making them fearful, anxious, and dreading the unknown. Adding to the tension are the attacks that take place in December — Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the surprise German counter-offensive in December 1944 that began the Battle of the Bulge.

For these characters, summer memories of a gentler and safer time soften the harsh realities of  war-time living. They remember bike rides along country roads, gathering garden flowers to place on the kitchen table and in bedrooms, afternoon picnics, a moonlit swim.

 

One memory in particular evokes the beauty and longing of late summer. In Christmastime 1941, Charles takes Lillian and her two sons to visit his sister Kate, who lives on a farm in Illinois. Lillian and Kate sit on the farmhouse porch in the late afternoon.

Lillian helped Kate finish the laundry, and then sat with her on the front porch, shucking corn for dinner.

 

A beautiful August day surrounded them in all its fullness and simple charm. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves high in the pin oaks, and fluttered the laundry on the clothes line, causing the white billowing sheets to snap softly now and then. The wide porch surrounded them with views of the corn and soybean fields stretching to the horizon. To the east stood a cluster of tall trees, their leaves a dark, dusty, late-summer green, with some leaves already edged in brown. And before them, Kate’s flowers along the lane – a tall tangle of orange, yellow, white, and blues – tiger lilies and daisies, cornflowers and asters.

 

Lillian lifted her face to catch the afternoon breeze, and caught the scent of honeysuckle that covered the fence along the lane. 

 

The wind alternately muffled and then sharpened the sounds of Tommy and Gabriel playing horseshoes with Kate’s sons: dull thuds as the horseshoes fell on the earth, clinks of metal as they hit their mark or landed on each other, mixed with clapping, laughing, good-natured disputing. Lillian had felt suffused with a sense of well-being, surrounded by an earthy loveliness.

2 clover in sunlight

Afternoon picnics, gardens in bloom, ripe fruits and vegetables, lush trees and fields — summer is the time of year when some of our strongest memories are born.

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

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.

Image (483)

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.

Image (477)

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

 

 

 

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 End of April

2 blossoming trees

Do schoolchildren still sing the song “April Showers”? I think every year since I was a girl, some line, if not the whole song, runs through my mind in April. In an involuntary response, part of the melody just pops into my head when someone laments the rain, or when I come across a patch daffodils or violets.

daffodils for blog

A quick online search shows that the song was written in 1921 (in a period of post-war, pre-Depression optimism), and was introduced by Al Jolson in a Broadway musical. As can only be expected, the song’s  relentless optimism inspired parodies: “When April showers, she never closes the curtain…,” and a skit where a bucket of water is thrown on the far too cheerful performer. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_Showers] (Some versions of the song, as with Judy Garland’s, begin with “When” rather than “Though.”)

April showers lyrics

Such sentimentality lingered on in the optimism of the 1960’s schoolroom, at least in small-town Illinois. On an old upright piano, our music teacher played from a repertoire that ranged from war songs to the flowers of spring, and the over-sized class of baby-boomers belted out tunes about violets, caissons rolling along, and flowers that bloom when the fairies sing.

I love the rain of April and the color it brings. On such days the air itself seems tinged with green, so lush are the leaves and grass.

2 bridge

Green, rainy places have always held the most allure for me. On a trip years ago, I fell in love with Ireland and the Lake District in England — and very much want to go back. And a trip to Bangladesh had me gasping at such luxuriant green everywhere.

I actually moved to Seattle when I was young because I had heard that it was beautiful and hilly and green — and rainy. A soft rain was common enough, but dramatic storms with thunder and lightning, like Midwestern storms, were rare. Still, the soft rains kept Seattle blooming in flowers nearly all year long, and it lived up to its reputation as a beautiful, hilly, green city. (They call it the Emerald City and the last time I was there, they even had a yellow brick road to prove it.)

New York, like the Midwest, has seasons of intense green — April through June, for the most part. So when April showers come my way, I take my umbrella and indulge in the wealth of green.

2 post iris

 

2 tulips Columbus Circle