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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

“Your mind — your curiosity — will be your comfort.”*

I recently stumbled upon yet another “Lucky Day” pick from the La Grange Library – and lucky it was!

As often happens, I was drawn to a book by its cover. I slid it off of the “Lucky Day” shelf at the library, and wondered, for a brief moment or two, why the cover looked so familiar, then realized it was reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting,  Christina’s World. Was it written by Christina? Well, of course not, but the author’s first name compelled me to read the flap of the dust jacket and to peek inside. I walked out of the library with Christina Baker Kline’s fictional novel, “A Piece of the World” and was soon engrossed in Christina’s world on the coastal farm in Cushing, Maine. The farm was settled century’s earlier by ancestors who came to escape their name, Hathorne, and the taint of the Salem Witch Trials.

Christina’s life is confined primarily to the family home in Cushing. From the earliest childhood years of her illness, her debilitating condition molds her life. From her determination to keep moving and living and making the best of her circumstances, to her later years, she stoically strives to keep moving through life. As she eventually can no longer walk, she uses her arms, then her elbows to move above, do chores in a house that is old, rundown, without indoor plumbing or adequate heating.

Christina excels in her small, country school, is encouraged to continue her education and to eventually become the school’s teacher. It is the kindness and encouragement of her teacher that gives her hope of a future, and the stubbornness and viewpoint of her father that end those dreams, taking Christina out of the school and keeping her at home, taking over her mother’s chores and diminishing her contact the outside world.

The book follows Christina’s life, from her loving relationship with her grandmother, her mysterious illness, her staunch refusal for what seems like experimental treatment, and her relationship with her brothers, especially Alvaro, and her friendship with Betsy and Andy. Betsy’s family has a summer-house in Cushing, Andy meets and eventually marries Betsy, who brings him, as a young man, to the Hathorne, now called the Olson house. He is intrigued by the house and the light and the views and spends countless days in one of the upstairs rooms, painting the scenery as well as the two remaining inhabitants of the house; Christina and Al. When Al is introduced to Andy, he is told that he is the son of N.C. Wyeth. Al remembers N. C.’s illustrations and declares that “Treasure Island” is probably the only book he ever read to the end. The house is both a blessing and a curse; a monument to history that often hold Christina and her brothers back, yet, it is a house that fascinates Andy, and it is both the anchor and the chain that confines Christina.

I loved the lyrical prose, the attention to detail, the simplicity and sparseness of words at times along with the weight of those words. I loved Christina’s fondness and instinctive understanding of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. My heart ached at her naiveté and eventual heartbreak of a relationship she was led to believe would end in marriage. I was angered by her father, an immigrant and a sailor, who lacked compassion and understanding of his fragile, strong-willed daughter.

While the book is fictitious about the friendship of Christina and Andy (Andrew Wyeth) as well as Andy’s wife, Betsy, it is based on research and known facts. It imagines the restrictive edges of Christina’s life and how she endures the hardships that surround her. “A Piece of the World”  is a captivating novel that I not only enjoyed, but, a book that led me to further exploration of the life and the illness of Christina Olson, her relationship of the Wyeths, and her family’s ancestry.

As I closed the pages of “A Piece of the World”, I remembered a trip Tom and I took to Philadelphia where we saw a retrospective exhibit of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While Christina’s World was not part of the exhibit, there were other paintings of the Olson farmhouse, and its inhabitants. It was a remarkable trip to Philly, prompted by the exhibit. I then fired up the laptop and was greeted with a discovery that had me heading to the post office as I returned “A Piece of the World”. How opportune that the USPS released these Andrew Wyeth stamps just as I closed Christina Baker Kline’s compelling novel.

 

This quote is the parting words of Christina’s teacher when Christina leaves school for the last time. *

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At the end of a rather busy day. I impulsively pulled into the parking lot in Elmhurst’s Wilder Park. I had not been to the Conservatory in a long while, so, thought I would take a few minutes to see what was flowering and to bask in the calm, rejuvenating presence of place. As I pulled into a parking spot, my breath was caught by the kiss of a breeze on the wave of rows of flags. Memorial Day was but a few days away.

My steps took me toward a direction I had not planned. I bypassed the conservatory and ascended the steep steps of the historic Wilder Mansion. The Mansion was closed, but, I took the advantage that the elevated steps would afford me of a different view of the flags.

The flags are placed in remembrance of those who died while in service to their country. They called Elmhurst home; a home that honors them in this park and in other locations on Memorial Day. I was moved by the flags; by what they represent and the sacrifices made by each life and by their loved ones. I said a silent prayer. A young woman, camera in hand, passed by, looked up at me, and climbed the flight of stairs as well.

As I looked out across the landscape, I could see what looked like a large marker just beyond the flags, and decided to walk the small distance of grass, past the flags, to have a closer look. As I walked, the breeze touched the flags, revealing cards which held the names of those who had died. Two children ran between the rows and I thought it about how the sacrifices of those these flags represent gave us a country where children could frolic free and happy on a warm spring day.

The monument I saw in the background was one that had eluded me for several years. I knew it was in Wilder Park,  I just wasn’t successful in finding it. The flags on the lawn and my perch on the steps revealed it to me.

This monument is to honor those from Elmhurst who lost their lives in Vietnam and commemorating the Moving Wall that stood in this park in 1988.

Visiting the Moving Wall in Wilder Park in 1988 was a humbling experience and, I think, a somewhat healing experience for many. It was there that I found the name of a boy from school days; elementary school and high school. It was there we witnessed a friend, head bowed, tears in his eyes. We had not known that he served in Vietnam, nor that most of his squadron had died. His wife had not known he had come to the Moving Wall – alone. It was there I saw a prominent member of the community bow his head and stand. His fraternity brother was named on that wall. It was there that I brought some work friends during our lunch hour, and there one of the principles of the company we worked for went. A few minutes late getting back from lunch, he heard mention of the Moving Wall. He asked me for directions and left. Returning later, he came up to my desk and quietly thanked me. I had not known until that moment that he had served in Vietnam.

I walked from the monument, past the flags and on to the permanent veterans’ memorial in another section of the park. It is here that the annual Elmhurst Memorial Day parade ends and it is here where a military ceremony is held after the parade. It is here where white crosses have been placed in honor and memory of those who gave their lives.

It is not just in Elmhurst, nor just in the United States where memorials are held for fallen military, but, it was here, in this park, where I was, yet again, humbled by the service and the loss of those for whom we take a this Monday at the end of May to honor.

May we always remember.

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My thoughts, it seems, have been like these wispy clouds afloat in the deep blue sky. My words catch on the tail of the wind and flit around without landing on a sentence. Here it is, more than a week since my last post and I really cannot say why.

I could blame it on the Queen. Not Elizabeth, who just celebrated a historic milestone. No, it is another English queen who ascended the throne of England at the age of 18 and has captured my attention for the past few weeks.

Victoria.

We are just now viewing this delicious historical drama here in the States. My friends from across the pond, or via other televised means, have already seen this lush period piece. For  those among us who await such treasures on PBS’s Masterpiece, we are just now four or five episodes into the first season of Victoria.

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What drama and  maneuvering and courtly demands led to Victoria and Albert’s wedding – replete with a break in tradition. A white wedding gown! Of course, there is much more to this series, but, I do love a wedding.

Have you been watching Victoria?

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I have also been listening to the audio book of Kate Morton’s “The Secret Keeper”,

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and taking my time lost among the leafy pages of “Meetings With Remarkable Trees” by Thomas Pakenham. This volume first came to my attention at L. Marie’s always fascinating blog, El Space.  Her post on trees and this book can be found here.

The arboreal photographs and elegant essays have been welcome companions during the gloomy days and long nights of this winter and they have left me longing for my   wanderings among the forests and preserves around me. I was at last able to satisfy that longing and take a long walk walk around Lake Katherine and . . .

. . . where I found myself under the surveillance of a goosenecked spy!

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Such things happen when one has her head in the clouds.

Thank you, dear friend and readers, for being so patient with me.

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img_1406Navigating the rough, tumultuous afterlife waters, rails, and hidden corners of Nowhere is, well, it is complicated. Nowhere: a place where suspenseful characters, who have died under questionable circumstances, must complete an assignment in order pass through to the world of the truly dead. So it is in Andra Watkin’s riveting “Hard to Die”, a sequel to her first journey to Nowhere, “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, where Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, finds herself seeking her assignment while circumventing characters even more notorious in the afterlife as they were in real life.

A mix of historical fiction, after-life exploration and spy thriller – this novel is as hard to put down as it for the protagonist, Theo, to die, and it is as riveting as “To Live Forever. . . “ where Meriwether Lewis first appeared. Merry, as he was known by in his time and place, is featured again in this sequel.

Set in the spy and counter-spy intrigue of the 1950’s, Theo becomes entangled with Richard Cox, a former spy turned West Point Cadet, along with a host of other characters, some spies, some otherworldly agents, all who help to keep the pace of this book moving.

The Christmas season is a perfect time for readers to visit ghosts of the past and present – and Andra Watkin’s book is just the book to read as we drift into the longest nights of the year, and it just might be the perfect gift to give or receive.

(Theodosia Burr Alston was the daughter of Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton. Theodosia died at sea. )

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img_1495On a recent November morning, members of the Elmhurst Garden Club gathered in one of the meeting rooms of the Elmhurst Public Library for a viewing of a cautionary tale; From Billions to None.

This is the story of the passenger pigeon, which once blanketed the skies from Canada to Florida, breeding, nesting, and passing through more than half of North America. These pigeons were revered by indigenous Americans for their beauty and an abundant source of food. Early settlers, ornithologists, keen observers, and notables documented the billions of passenger pigeons that swarmed the skies in such large numbers that they would block out the sun for two or three days. The fluttering of so many wings would cause drops in temperature. The tons of excrement left on the fields enriched the soil. Their iridescent feathers adorned hats and they became a seasonal commodity in markets throughout the continent.

Until September 1, 1914 – and then there were none!

From Billions to None is the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, with the documented death of Martha, the last of her species, who died on that sad September day at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is a fable about the passenger pigeon and what happens when greed, disrespect for nature, what we today might call over harvesting, and how, in the end, there is nothing left. It is the documentation and, hopefully, illumination, of what and how fast extermination of a species can happen. It brings to mind the near demise of the buffalo and the American eagle, and our over harvesting of fish and fowl, and the cause massive outcomes of deforestation.

Joel Greenburg, who is central to this film, went on to write “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”. The image at the top of this post is from Greenburg’s book, which goes further in the documentation of this event. The book can be found here.

We watched the film, at times with a collective, audible gasp at photos of enormous hills of dead passenger pigeons, and how business manipulated political sentiment to continue the practices of killing thousands upon thousands of these birds. Some of you may have seen this documentary on your public television stations. I would like to encourage you to watch this short trailer, and consider asking your local library to purchase From Billion to None as well as  “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”.

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safe_image-phpIt was a hot time in our old town last night (and today, and tomorrow . . . )

Thank you, Chicago Cubs!

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Once upon a time, in land not so far away, a man with a goat invoked a curse of some renown.

Like many tales, in the telling of the details, words were lost and words were gained, but, the essence of the story remains the same.

In 1945, during the fourth game of the World Series, Billy Sianis’ goat was ejected from Wrigley Field. Insulted at his goat’s harsh treatment, Mr. Sianis uttered a curse. “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,”

What actually happened is lost over the span of seven decades, but, the legend of the Curse of the Billy Goat lingered. For 71 years, the Chicago Cubs have never won the National League Pennant, and never advanced to baseball’s World Series, in spite of many efforts to break the curse.

Whether you believe in curses or fairy tales, for 71 years avid Cubs fans, some two or three generations deep, would hoot and shout and get their hopes up, only to have them quelled at season’s end. Loyal to the core, they waited – and waited and waited – until next year!

Like the magical moments in fairy tales, next year finally came, and with it something special happened – the curse of the Billy goat was broken.

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After 71 cursed years, the Chicago Cubs won the National League Division and are now in the World Series, which they have not won since 1908. Cubs fans the world over are elated, with shirts and caps and big “W” flags flying on pillars and posts and prominent buildings. There are Chicago Cubs caps on the venerable lions guarding the Art Institute of Chicago, and extra-large Cubbie t-shirts on the Field Museum dinosaurs.

These expressions of appreciation, encouragement and hope are important, but, something more meaningful, more magical, more wondrous has happened and it is coming from the hearts and souls and reminisces of people. It started to show, then to grow, on social media, in newspapers, on television and radio and has gathered fans and their ancestors together like a mother bear leading her cubs home.

Whether calling in or writing, texting or phoning – the stories of Cubs fans past or present are pouring forth. A common theme seems to have arisen. While fans of the Chicago Cubs have been on Cloud 9, it is their mothers and fathers, uncles and cousins, great-grandmothers, aunts and uncles whose memories are invoked with the hue and cry of

    ”           is celebrating in heaven!”.

A local television station, WGN, has encouraged everyone to send in their stories of loved ones who have passed on and their relationship with the Chicago Cubs. The stories keep growing and filling the air with a wholesomeness that is sincere and welcome in these otherwise uncertain times. There is no barrier, it seems, to who a Cubs fan is; no matter the gender, skin color, religion, ethnicity, political affiliations age, or education – there is no box to check off on the roster of rooters as so many people reveal their heartwarming stories of the decades of fans; fans that continued to wait until next year.

Whether or not the Cubs win the World Series is yet to be determined, but, in my humble view, they have already won the World Series of Human Spirit.

I have shared a story in the past of Tom and Ron Santo, which you can read here.

Championship sign is from the Cubs.

Goat photo is mine. 🙂

 

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