Archives for category: history

My mother was a beautiful young woman. These photos are evidence of that. She looked like a super model, before there were super models. I think these were taken when she was in her late teens and/or early twenties.

I recently came across this one. I kept looking at it, not entirely sure it was really her, in spite of the fact that she’d written her name and 40s on the back. Most of the hundreds of pictures she left for me to enjoy showed her beauty staying with her throughout her nearly century of life. I think this may be the worst of them all.

I just couldn’t understand how she could look so bad. Almost like a walking cadaver. Skin stretched across prominent facial bones, hollow eyes, accompanied by a haunted gaze. She looked as if she’d walked through hell.

Eventually I realized she had. The 1940s. That was the answer. She was living through World War II. This must be several years after the lovely, carefree images. She’s standing in Aunt Pearl’s yard, which means it was likely when she lived with Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick, while the sisters worked at a nearby arsenal, making bombs. Risking their lives every day. A bus came to get them for the ride to what might have been the last day of their lives. One accident is all it would take. Living with that alone, though with such strength and courage, was enough to take a toll.

Even if it was before she worked at the arsenal, the general wartime was nightmarish. She told me that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were terrified that the Japanese would bomb even so far inland. So she was already accustomed to living in a state of high fear. 

Add the deprivation of food scarcity. Meat, butter, and sugar were rationed. They had to adjust to the butter substitute margarine, adding the yellow coloring that came with it to make it resemble real butter better than it did without it. They learned to make butterless, sugarless, eggless cakes and “apple” pies out of crackers, sacrificing every way they could think of to help the war effort. That would explain her newfound gaunt look. She didn’t eat a lot anyway, so paring down her natural diet would have been drastic.

Even her vibrant smile was different. The phrase “Carrying the weight of the world.” comes to mind. It’s said that the people who lived through World War II are a remarkable generation. They were. A few remain and still are. They always will be, preserved forever, I hope, in the amber of historical memory and generational family stories.

I’m happy to say that with her innate resillience she was regaining her natural beauty, by the time my parents were married several years after the war. This picture captured them in a solemn moment, perhaps trying to portray the importance of the occasion. They look strong and healthy, with a new layer of maturity brought to them by surviving such hardship, as they embark on their new life together 

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I saw Playing for Time on TV so long ago that I don’t remember exactly when it was. Decades, I’m sure. I wanted to see it again for all that time, but the nearly $70 price of the eventual DVD was way beyond affordable for even such an excellent movie. It recently became available on Blu Ray and I finally have it in my movie library.

When I first saw it, I hadn’t even really started having favorite actors yet, but I did notice extraordinary talent. The entire cast was outstanding. Yet, Vanessa Redgrave stood out as someone special. Her acting and singing we’re heart-rending and inspiring at the same time. The beautiful Aria from Madama Butterfly stands out as a glorious jewel, juxtaposed against the horrors of Auschwitz.

I had forgotten all but impressions, images, and sounds from the first time I saw it, but the full impact came back to me as I watched it so much later on Blu Ray. Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Fania Fenelon has an impact on viewers that screams with quiet dignity of courage, strength, and perseverance that will not be forgotten. 

Should never be forgotten. 

Playing for Time TV Promo

A paraphrasing of the old saying that eloquently sums up the elusive nature of dreams one knows are impossible, my above title aptly conveys the feelings with which some writers and most fans of the Bronte sisters are all to familiar. I suffered from Emily Bronte envy long before I was privileged to walk on some of her beloved ground in Haworth. Once I stood gazing at the Parsonage and walked along a well worn public path, with its bright green grass, stone wall, and tantalizing vistas across a wide, wild stretch of moor, I longed to travel back into her all too brief lifetime to experience it for myself. Briefly, of course, since the Brontes lived lives that were tinged, then deluged with pain, heartbreak, and tragedy.

This Atlas Obscura article dangles the past right before Bronte lovers’ eyes, in the form of a farmhouse the Bronte family visited. They partook of the bookly feast contained in the home’s impressive library. Perhaps, perchance…possibly…Emily based a part of her novel Wuthering Heights on this centuries old property. Even without the Bronte connection, it would still be an amazing piece of English history. 

There’s the problem of the wishes part, though. Ponden Hall is for sale, but for more money than most of us can afford to do more than dream about. This article provides pictures and descriptions that make the dreaming enjoyable, even in its sheer impossibility. One can only hope that the eventual buyers are thrilled by their new connection to literary greatness and get unending pleasure from their new home.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/wuthering-heights-farmhouse-inspiration?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=atlas-page

The Greatest Showman is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time. Granted, I’m a bit late to be just discovering it, but the concept of better late than never certainly applies. The best thing about this movie is that I loved the story, and then the music wouldn’t let go to the point that I went straight to YouTube and watched videos of my favorite songs that also happened to be favorite moments. Fortunately, I recently got an unlimited data plan. Somehow, these songs work best when watching the actors’ performances while listening.

The one that lingered so intensely that it drove me to YouTube initially was Jenny Lind singing Never Enough. An incredibly beautiful song, it also tells a powerful story of momentary intimacy and the extended longing it can bring. Rebecca Ferguson’s performance was remarkable. I usually skim comments, because I pick up information that way. Of course, what’s read there may be true or not, but what I found out about Never Enough was fascinating. First, that she was lip synching. Astonishing. Such emotion and grace and intensity…impossible to fake, one would think. Ah ha! It turns out that the actual gorgeous voice belongs to Loren Allred. According to bits of information scattered throughout the comments, Rebecca Ferguson was filmed actually singing the song with a recording of Allred, then sound and visual were seamlessly merged to create such an unforgettable moment. Rebecca Ferguson’s talent and selfless dedication to her craft made what might seem impossible to a layman come vividly alive on that magical, and now more and more metaphorical, silver screen. I prefer a clip that was edited like a music video that tells the story behind the song. Oddly, someone commented on her neck looking scary as she sings. I hadn’t noticed, but then I couldn’t not notice it looking as if she was about to transform into an alien creature. Eventually, it just becomes part of the viewing experience and not so prominent. It even adds an extra bit of cool factor over time.

I do mean over time.

The word obsession comes into play when music hits me just right. I watched Never Enough videos enough for it to qualify as both ear worm and eye worm! And This Is Me, as well. Keala Settle was amazing as the Bearded Lady. She carried that role like a second skin and sang fearlessly, with great beauty. She evoked empathy, admiration, and acceptance, with an anthem for those who are different in the world. A march for the downtrodden, This Is Me was choreographed like an marvelous music video from decades past. When the ensemble of characters joins her as a perfectly synced dance crew, it’s Thriller meets Beauty and the Beast. I love the fierce, joyous nature of it, accompanied by the percussion of hands and feet. This song too tells its own story and won’t be dislodged from its place in the soundtrack’s glorious irresistibility.

It took me a while to remember the beautiful Rewrite the Stars, sung by Zendaya and Zac Efron. Another masterpiece; this one more subtle and understated, thoughtful and outright romantic. Once I tracked down the video, I was again captivated by both the song and performance. The way it blends not only the danger of the trapeze work but also the grace and elegance of the ropes makes it seem magical, though the magic is underlaid with a rich patina of dispair and tragedy. Beautiful performances, by more incredibly talented actors.

The Greatest Showman as a whole would have always interested me, with its bigger than life story based on real life, particularly in the historical period in which it happened. It was made more fascinating to me, however, by the fact that I had watched the PBS documentary Circus last year. I was enthralled by the great spectacle of P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, as well as awed by the myriad of tragedies and setbacks he endured. That he still succeeded as stunningly as he did seems almost miraculous. Multiple fires and mishaps destroyed his dream time after time, yet he always rebuilt, reimagined, and was reborn as a man who could entertain the world and scatter joy among even common folks wherever he traveled. When he lost his venue, the tents he used to replace it were mindbogglingly huge, seating tens of thousands of people desperate for the rare escape from mundane life. The logistics of the travel alone, when he took his massive show on the road, seemed impossible. P. T. Barnum apparently did not recognize the very idea of impossibility and the world at large was the better for it.

Never Enough:

This Is Me:

Rewrite the Stars:

​My mom’s only surviving sister was 10 years older than she was. Charming and fun loving to the point of being goofy at times, Aunt Pearl was also beautiful.

She had long, coal black hair that she coaxed into ringlets with a curling iron. Unlike our modern day ease of curling irons that plug into any convenient outlet to heat with electricity, Aunt Pearl’s curling iron was heated by putting it down the chimney of a coal oil lamp! This feat could be iffy, as it involved metal, a flammable substance, and uncontrolled heat…not to mention lighting those lamps was essentially setting a small piece of fabric (the wick) on fire, then the light was constantly fed by the flame that burned until it was put out. There was also the fun prospect of singed hair and soot getting in the hair as well. In that instance Aunt Pearl was fortunate that since her hair was already as black as it could be, it hid the worst of any damage that was the price of wanting nice curls. Later on she set it into marcel waves that looked wonderful. Eventually, she wore it in a Roaring Twenties super short bob. Add the drop-waisted dresses that were all the rage, topped by a cloche hat, and she looked as if she’d stepped straight out of a talkie, the newfangled motion pictures that took the flapper set by storm.

During this era my mom was a small child, who adored her big sister. Aunt Pearl was wonderful with children, as I discovered for myself. People back then, early in the twentieth century, had more family members than beds, and sisters often shared a big four poster, piled high with a feather bed and several hand made quilts. The quilts were composed of fabric pieces salvaged from worn out dresses and blouses, so that a pointing finger could trace the story of each piece through remembered occasions from  the time before its original form was worn out. 

Aunt Pearl liked to tell stories, particularly of the ghost variety. When I was little and she’d come to visit, I would sleep with her and be deliciously thrilled by whatever story she wanted to tell me in the wee small hours of the night. One in particular that I’ve never forgotten was about two elderly sisters, who shared a bed as girls. Every night there would be terrifying knocking sounds, eerily seeming very near to them, though there was nobody else in the room. It was only when they were old and any day could be their last that one sister finally confessed to the other that she had been the mysterious knocker who kept the hoax going on for so very long, and utterly convincingly. It turned out that she had double jointed toes that she would carefully crack against the wooden footboard to make the terrible knocking sounds. Aunt Pearl had read about it in a magazine or book and did a very effective retelling in the dark.

My mom and her beloved sister were as close as a child and young woman could be.  There came a time when my mom started to notice whispered conversations and furtive activities between Aunt Pearl and their mother. Eventually, when she saw Aunt Pearl packing up her things, my mom asked Grandmother what was happening. They had dreaded that moment and Grandmother so hated to cause pain to her little daughter that she pursed her lips for as long as she could bear her own silence and then reluctantly answered the question “Where’s Pearl going?” with the puzzling “She’s going to M.” A bit of explanation followed, and my mom finally understood that her near constant companion and always game playmate was getting married. It must have been heart rending to watch the wonderful presence she took for granted as being hers always leave their home for a new one of her own. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick got married by a Justice of the Peace, while seated in their buggy. That seems to have been a thing at the time, though I think not overly common. I imagine it was quite the ice breaker at parties and such. 

My mom and Aunt Pearl remained very close the rest of their lives. They relied on each other in times of trouble and celebrated together during every eventful moment. They took care of each other in bad health, cooked together for holiday celebrations, and were sources of joy for each other just by spending time together. The only time I can remember ever seeing them argue was the moment the check arrived when we were eating out. They would snatch it out of each other’s hands, the bit of paper like a flat, rectangular shuttlecock in a never ending match of restaurant bill badminton. Aunt Pearl usually persisted until she emerged the victor, since she didn’t drive and wanted to repay my parents any way she could for their unending willingness to take her wherever she needed or wanted to go. I’m not sure how she managed it, since I was usually elbow deep in a banana split by the time the check came. All I know is that while she was getting out money to pay, a couple of dollars or a fistful of change would find its way into my pocket, along with a wink and a smile from the person who was to me the same wonderful, beloved companion and always willing playmate that my mom had known in her own childhood.

As she grew old in that remarkable way indomitable spirits have of never quite really seeming to reach true old age, even poor health couldn’t suppress her twinkle or the smile that lit up so many hearts she touched throughout her life. Aunt Pearl was one of those people you never forget. One of a kind. Her memory is indelible. As is the legacy she left me of joy in telling stories. Her dream of being a published author was never realized. That mine has been is in part thanks to her. Dreams can be contagious. Their enthusiasm. Their hope. And their twinkle that burns like a pilot light for my muse. Quite the legacy from a woman who never had children of her own.

Anything about World War I catches my eye. My long time interest in The Great War began with the movie In Love and War, starting Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock. It was about Ernest Hemmingway’s experiences during the war and showcased the era in a captivating way.

When I followed the link to this article on Twitter, it lead to amazing colorized photographs of scenes of wartime Europe. Since it occurred at a time when photography was still finding its feet, the war had been displayed for us historically in black and white. It’s how we’ve been used to seeing it, which is why the colorized images are so startling now.   

In the grand scheme of this bigger-than-life collective life, the World War I era was not really a great long time ago. Its importance as the first mechanized war, with tank warfare and aerial dogfights marked a new chapter in several areas…warfare, technology, man on man inflicted suffering, yet it seems anything but modern, when viewed exclusively in black and white or sepia tones. Our 21st century gaze peruses the colorized versions with a more visceral reaction that helps merge the time not far from the turn of the 20th century with our current age of technological awe.

Of course the fact that images are in color neither lessens or makes more important the content. It does draw our attention in a new way, allowing us to see history with fresh eyes and perception. It makes it more real somehow, more our war, as well as the long, hard endured experience of generations lost.
In Love and War Trailer

This Brain Pickings article reminds me how much I love Rainer Maria Rilke. Not only for his formal works, with their distinct rhythms and striking imagery, but also his deep and still timely thoughts on creativity. I read Letters To A Young Poet when I was first learning the ways of my own creative life. It’s different for everyone, but Rilke’s wisdom is timeless and universal.

I struggled to make my way through a maze of combined exhilaration and self doubt, and found the passage quoted here about patience and “ripening like the tree which does not force its sap” more helpful, comforting, and reassuring than anything I’d encountered in the modern world. I have to think. Written words rarely come, until I’ve thought long enough. Sometimes it’s a conscious thinking process, but often it’s spontaneous and lives in the back of my head until it’s ready to become fiction. Poems are different. They tend to burst forth and free, before I even know I’ll be writing a poem. Fiction stays inside my brain, quietly building and forming, and then when it’s ready it commences to be written. This is my way, but when it first started to develop it felt weird and wrong. As if there was a way the words were supposed to come out and I had never been given the key to that way. 

It took me a long time to understand that writers I’d read about had their process and it was perfectly alright that mine was different. As I read Rilke’s letters to that enviable young poet, I felt a calm settle over me. I began to understand that finding and accepting my own, individual creative path would be the start of something wonderful. And it was. Once I became one with Rilke’s concept of the nature and exquisite timing of a tree, its indelible patience and unknowing wisdom, writing became a joy that has sustained me ever since.

Through those letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke became my mentor across time. In answer to the ubiquitous question about what one would wish to do if time travel were possible, I always think traveling to sun dappled, long ago Paris to sit beside Rilke in Rodin’s garden, absorbing the glorious light of his thoughtful words, would be a glimmering treasure captured by time itself. If only….

Until time travel becomes reality, his letters will suffice.