Christmas in July (and seeking book reviewers)

 

 

I’ve always found the idea of Christmas in July a challenging one. After all, summer is the time for picnics on the grass, reading at the beach, backyard cookouts, vacations, lemonade, hammocks… 

However, I know there are many people who start to plan — and shop? — for Christmas in July — people who, though perhaps reluctant to admit it, feel a mild frisson to know that in a few short months, they will be wrapping presents, decorating a tree, and baking Christmas cookies. So for those people, I give you the opening paragraphs of the final book in my Christmastime series: Christmastime 1945: A Love Story (available this fall).

Christmas_1945_6.28.2019 final

Chapter 1

The snow fell softly over Manhattan as Lillian Drooms hurried home. She was still smiling from her meeting with Mrs. Huntington and the art director of children’s books. Her drawings had been well received and Mrs. Huntington hinted that Lillian had a good chance at being selected to illustrate a children’s adventure series – she would love nothing more! Happiness and Christmas were in the air, and wanting to catch even more of the holiday spirit, Lillian decided to walk up Fifth Avenue and then cross through Central Park on her way home.

The crowds thickened as she neared and then turned onto the Avenue. All around her the sense of excitement was palpable – in the carolers and newspaper boys, in the honking and braking of traffic, in the calls from the vendors: “Hot chestnuts! Pretzels!” Workers rushed from jobs, couples walked arm in arm, shoppers ducked in and out of stores, their arms laden with packages and shopping bags, and groups of servicemen explored Manhattan while they awaited their final train or bus ride home.

Lillian took a moment to look around her at the bustling city, so alive! And this was just one avenue. She knew the harbor and piers, and Grand Central and Penn Stations bustled with returning soldiers. The roads into and around New York City were crowded as never before – the city was bursting at its seams with life and happiness. At long last, the war was over! And this first Christmas after the war was sure to be a memorable one.

Bumped and jostled by the throng of people, Lillian tucked herself into a doorway to take in the post-war Christmas euphoria. The very air tingled with promise and future, and she smiled out at the swirl of commotion. She observed the faces passing by, all united by a sense of cheerfulness and gratitude. A soldier and a young woman passed by, briefly stopping to embrace and kiss. Across from her, a family, with the father in uniform, stopped to buy bags of roasted peanuts from a street vendor. An older couple laughed as they nearly collided with a ho-ho-hoing Santa Claus bell ringer. Down the block, a cluster of sailors pointed and gawked at the skyscrapers, and across the avenue, a group of WACs – such smart, confident women – chatted with a group of soldiers.

Lillian stepped back out into the stream of people but continued to look all about her. The signs of Christmas were everywhere – wreaths and decorations appeared in nearly all the windows and doors, along with red ribbons and garlands of shimmery tinsel. After the gray of war, everything seemed to be in color. Was it her imagination? Was it her own happiness coloring the world? No, indeed, the dresses in the department store windows boasted brighter shades, and young women sported bolder makeup, brighter lipstick that suited their flashing smiles. And the lights! Strings of colored bulbs shone everywhere – outlining windows and doorways and awnings. It was the first time Christmas lights were used freely since before the war and no one was holding back.

The war was over, Christmas was in the air, and Charles would be home soon! Lillian took a deep breath, checking herself, not trusting to such perfect happiness. She would muster the calm and pragmatism that had gotten her through the war years. Charles was not home yet – in fact, she hadn’t heard from him for several weeks. It could be January or February or later before his arrival. But he would be home – and he would never have to leave her again.

 

3D-Christmastime_books_ALL_3

https://amzn.to/2NYcA5a

I hope you enjoyed this bit of Christmas in July.

If there are any readers, book bloggers, or book clubs who would be interested in writing reviews for my series, please let me know (email me at Linda@LindaMahkovec.com) and I’ll send you a link to my ebooks. My goal this year is to increase my reviews, especially on Amazon. To those followers who have already left reviews, THANK YOU!! and let me know if you would like to review my other books — The Garden House, The Dreams of Youth, and Seven Tales of Love.

I hope the rest of your summer is lovely, relaxing, and filled with much happiness.

hammock white wine

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life — a Christmas classic (and an inspiration for indie writers)

crop It's A Wonderful Life (1)

People often ask me what movies or books my Christmastime series is most similar to. For many reasons, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life comes to mind. It’s set during and just after WWII, it’s a story about love and family, the importance of friends and neighbors, and it’s about transformation.

Clarence

I happened to catch it on TV the other night, and though I know the movie by heart, I found that I loved it as much as ever.

on phone

The story behind the movie is also “wonderful,” and offers an inspirational example for today’s independent writers. The movie is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900 – 1984), an American author, editor, and Civil War historian.

The story goes that in “February 1938, Stern awoke with the story in mind. Inspired by a dream that was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, Stern wrote a 4,000 word short story called The Greatest Gift. He began work on it in 1939 but didn’t finish until 1943.

Dickens

Unable to find a publisher for his story, he printed two hundred copies of the story and distributed them as Christmas cards in 1943. One of the original palm-sized booklets came to the attention of a producer at RKO Pictures who purchased the rights, and then sold them to Frank Capra in 1945.” (Wikipedia)

Frank Capra title

“From this humble beginning, a classic was born. Stern’s story captivated Capra, who said he ‘had been looking for [it] all [his] life.’ Capra’s beloved adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life, was released in 1946,” (Zoetrope – www.all-story.com) and has become part of the American Christmas tradition.

bell on tree

 

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

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

Memorial Day — Thank You

My WWII Christmastime series takes place on the home front, mostly in New York City, with a secondary plot occurring on a farm in Illinois, and a bit of action on an orchard in upstate New York. Though the focus is on family and love and Lillian’s journey as an artist, the impact of the war is felt on every page. The veterans who make an appearance are either recovering in hospital, or are home on leave. Some are getting ready to ship out for the first time.

My father was a WWII vet. He enlisted when he was barely eighteen, joining the Army Air Force as a tail gunner. My siblings and I grew up with war stories that took place decades earlier. Mostly humorous stories about the other young men (boys, really) in his crew. He flew twenty-five missions in 1945 and said he was given the last rites before every mission, and a shot of whiskey on his return. He said when he came home at war’s end, his mother broke into tears — of happiness to be sure, but also because of the wear and tear on his face. He said that ice always clung to his face at the high altitudes, and pulled on the skin below his eyes, giving him the look of a much older man.

But he came back, whole, happy to be alive, eager to begin his life.

Yank

I continue to do research for the last two books in the series, Christmastime 1944 and Christmastime 1945. And though I have my dad’s Yank magazines, a few letters, and his medals, I wish he were still here. There are so many questions I haven’t found answers to in my research, so many questions I still want to ask him. I wish I could get out a pen and paper to take notes as I listen to his stories — and to tell him: Thank you.

Nimitz quote

 

 

Our veterans are our gold, full of courage, sacrifice, and experience. To all who have given so much — thank you.

vets stars blue

 

 

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.

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.