Hollyhocks – summer’s flower

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“Hollyhocks are the epitome of cottage garden plants…
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Chances are you’ve seen them alongside a barn, in front of a cute cottage-style house, or gracing the front of a white picket fence. This old-fashioned pass-along plant has absolutely caught the hearts of many.” (/www.bhg.com)

 

hollyhocks Nantucket

Alcea rosea, the common hollyhock…was imported into Europe from southwestern China during, or possibly before, the 15th century…From Middle English holihoc (holy mallow).”  (Wikipedia)

As for marigolds, poppies, hollyhocks, and valorous sunflowers, we shall never have a garden without them, both for their own sake, and for the sake of the old-fashioned folks who used to love them. — Henry Ward Beecher

Certain flowers reappear in my book series, Christmastime, especially for scenes set on Kate’s farm in Illinois. Hollyhocks and lavender, in particular, make an appearance during Lillian’s visits to the farm. Below is an excerpt from the final book, which will be available later this year.

Excerpt from Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, from the “Epilogue: Summer 1948”

A beautiful summer day spread over Kate’s farm. A light breeze carried the fragrance of freshly mowed hay, honeysuckle, roses, and tiny green and floral scents released by the sun’s warmth. White butterflies flitted and landed among the flowers, along with a few dragonflies that briefly hovered and then disappeared. A perfect day, thought Lillian. She sat in the shade of the old oak tree, using her watercolors to capture the profusion of hollyhocks that grew alongside the barn.

hollyhocks 13

Lillian added a few more leaves to the hollyhocks, and then rinsed her brush. She saw Ursula strolling up the country road, returning from one of her solitary walks. Ursula paused to inhale the fragrance of the mass of honeysuckle covering the fence – then she picked one of the small yellow flowers, pinched the bottom off, and tasted the drop of nectar at its base. In her hand she held a bunch of wildflowers.

Ursula walked over to Lillian. “Hello, Aunt Lillian.” She tilted her head to study the painting. “How lovely.”

“I’ve tried to capture their charm,” said Lillian, standing back to view the canvas.

As always, Lillian was struck by Ursula’s beauty that only deepened with the years. Ursula wore a deep blue and purple floral dress that caught the color of her eyes and flowed around her slim figure. Her long hair blew in the summer breeze, revealing her amethyst earrings.

“Simple hollyhocks,” said Ursula. She offered to hold the painting as Lillian gathered her supplies and collapsed the easel. “You’ve captured them exactly – and yet added something. You’ve lifted them and made them even more beautiful. A piece of summer to be treasured.”

Lillian smiled at the comment. “I’ve always loved hollyhocks. An old-fashioned flower. Always leaning towards the sun and blooming in such happiness.” She looked again at the tall stalks abloom with color, tapering off to small buds not yet open. Rising from lush green leaves, flowers of pale pink with dark centers, soft yellow, deep purple, white, bright pink. “Quaint and lovely. Especially growing against the barn like this.”

pink hollyhocks barn

Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, the final book in the Christmastime Series, will be available in the fall.

Christmas_1945_6.28.2019 final

 

Spring on Kate’s farm (the Christmastime novels)

Though most of the scenes in the Christmastime series (WWII stories of love and family that take place on the home front) occur in the month of December, there are a few flashbacks to spring, summer, and fall. The final book in the series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, will have two scenes that take place in the previous spring.

I often imagine what the rural scenes might look like — sometimes drawing on the memories of growing up in small-town Illinois. (A few years ago I took the photo below of a farm outside of town. The tractor had plowed all around the dilapidated house, leaving the poignant patch of history.)

worn farmhouse

Other times I search for images on Pinterest that to help set the rural tone — a few early spring flowers that bloom along the fences and in the meadow,

or signs of spring in the barnyard and nearby trees.

And always, I imagine the interior scenes that take place with Kate and her daughters,  Ursula and Jessica —

warming up with a cup of tea in the farmhouse kitchen, a blanket reached for against the chill spring nights, a few notes plucked on the piano, the comforts of a hot bath and lavender-scented sheets after a long, hard day.

Life on the farm was hard, especially during the WWII years, but Kate and her daughters made sure to enrich their day-to-day living with small beauties and the comforts of home.

Amzaon Link: http://a.co/bZvcQIt

To be released later this year: Christmastime 1939: a prequel to the Christmastime series and Christmastime 1945: A Love Story.

 

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/)

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.

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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