Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series
"Charming, heartwarming...whimsical and pleasingly old-fashioned throughout." —Kirkus
Christmastime 1939 introduces the reader to the Christmastime series. Set in Brooklyn, we meet the young widow Lillian Hapsey and her two sons, Tommy and Gabriel. Even though the Christmas season is just around the corner, Lillian has no Christmas spirit. Alone, unhappy with her job, and plagued by financial concerns, Christmas has become a burden to her.
Overshadowing everything is the war in Europe. Despite the setbacks, Lillian is determined to give her sons a happy Christmas. Can she rekindle her girlhood love for the holiday season? Rediscovering her touchstone just might be the key to unlocking the excitement and magic of Christmas.
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Linda Mahkovec is the author of World War II historical fiction, short stories, and contemporary novels.
Themes of love, family, and home dominate her stories, and though they may be set against the backdrop of war or deal with the disappointments in life, the overarching feel is uplifting and hopeful. Threads that run through her work are the search for beauty and meaning, and the artistic female character—whether she is a painter, a gardener, or simply someone who lives creatively and seeks connection.
Mahkovec was born and raised in a small town in Illinois. She then spent several years in the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle, and for the past thirty years has lived in New York City. She has a PhD in English, specializing in Victorian literature. She has previously published as Agnes Irene.
Home. Almost a week since Lillian Hapsey returned from her sister’s house upstate, and things were exactly the same. The inspiration or revelation or solution she had hoped for hadn’t happened. She hadn’t thought her plans through. Instead, she had trusted that everything would fall into place, and now here it was—Christmas was almost upon her, and she had no Christmas spirit at all.
She let Tommy and Gabriel splash in the bathtub a little longer than usual. It gave her a chance to sort her thoughts, and to enjoy the hot water bottle on her lower back without the boys asking too many questions. She rested her feet on the small embroidered footstool and rubbed her legs.
A pile of clothing to be mended sat next to her, but she had no desire to get started on it. She frowned at her fatigue—it can’t have anything to do with age, surely, she told herself. Thirty-four isn’t exactly old. It must be the extra hours I’ve been putting in at work.
The small sketchbook she carried with her everywhere lay open on her lap. She paged through the drawings she had made from the visit to her sister’s—rows of trees in the orchard with a few old apples and leaves clinging to the branches, her sister Annette knitting by the fireplace, a swing that hung from an old oak tree, another of Annette kissing her sleeping baby. Lillian’s face softened at the memories. It had been a good trip.
She moved the hot water bottle to her lap and savored the stillness of the moment—a contrast to the busy week. It had begun with the train ride home from upstate, then back to her routine of scheduling babysitters for Tommy and Gabriel, and keeping up with her work at the department store. Now that Thanksgiving was behind them, the Christmas season had begun in earnest.
She leaned her head back against the couch and closed her eyes, wondering how she would muster up the energy and enthusiasm to get her through the season. The radiator rattled and whistled with coming steam. A soothing warmth began to fill the living room, chasing the cold away. She sank deeper into the couch, giving in to her weariness. The hissing and shshing of the radiator grew louder and louder, accompanied by the gurgling in the pipes. A peaceful oblivion overtook her.
After several minutes, the radiator sounds lowered to a sputter. Then a whisper. Then a soft, warm silence filled the small room. Broken by sounds of laughter and splashing from the boys.
Lillian opened her eyes and realized that she had dozed off. That won’t do, she thought.
She sat up straight and looked about her. She couldn’t help but compare her tiny Brooklyn apartment to her sister’s rambling old house on the orchard with a lovely view out of every window—the flower beds and vegetable garden in the back that still showed a bit of color, the charming old cider house, the country road leading into town. From the upstairs bedroom window, the view was like stepping into a painting—softly undulating farmland dotted with red barns and white farmhouses, the orchard stretching out to the west, and in the distance, patches of woods and a small stream that sparkled in the sunlight.
And the sunsets! The golden light over the orchard swelled her heart each time she saw it. She often ran upstairs as the day was fading in order to catch it, making excuses as she suddenly left the room. “Just getting something from upstairs,” or “I think I’ll fetch my sweater.” Not that she had to hide anything, she simply wanted those few minutes all to herself, to better take in the powerful stirring of beauty and longing. It was a reminder of girlhood dreams and all the things she was going to do with her life. She and Annette were raised in a town not far from the orchard and being upstate always plunged her into the past when she was young and full of dreams, before she and Annette had married and moved away.
Lillian shook away her thoughts and lifted a few items from the pile of clothes—three pairs of trousers, a few dresses, and a skirt.
“Tommy, Gabriel! Time to finish up!”
She threaded a needle and draped the first pair of trousers over her lap. Mrs. Harrison from the dry cleaner down the street was kind enough to throw a little business her way. It wasn’t much, but it helped to supplement her earnings from the department store.
She pushed the needle through the woolen hem, trying to recapture the glimmer of Christmas excitement she had felt up at her sister’s. A few days after Thanksgiving, Annette had begun to unpack some of her decorations. The children had caught her enthusiasm as they pulled out garlands and the crèche set and red ribbons.
Lillian smiled in memory of the afternoon they sat at the kitchen table with the children and prepared sliced oranges to dry for ornaments, and made clove and orange pomander balls. The scent of fresh citrus and cloves filled the kitchen while the kids sang Christmas songs and laughed when they made up the words they couldn’t remember. And the evening when they sat in front of the fire, the kids sprawled on the floor, cutting pictures out of the catalogs—until Annette’s husband, Bernie, sent them all running and squealing when he crawled into the room growling and pawing like a bear.
Her smile deepened at the memory of rocking Annette’s youngest, five-month-old Abigail. Was there any greater sweetness than holding a baby as it smiled up at you and kicked its legs and shook its tiny fists in joy?
She set her sewing down. Is that what was making her sad? Knowing that she would never have another child? Or was it the nostalgia of being at Annette’s? Or was she just tired?
Spending Thanksgiving this year with Annette and Bernie, rather than Christmas as she usually did, had seemed like a good idea at the time. But now Lillian felt a stab of dread at the mere thought of facing the Christmas holiday alone.
No need to fear Christmas, she thought, picking up her sewing again. She would simply follow Annette’s advice, and start with their mother’s Christmas recipes. That would put her in the holiday spirit. And then hang the stockings, and get a tree, and…
She glanced over at the time.
“Hurry up boys! Your show will be on soon.”
The bathtub was soon gurgling as the plug was pulled and the water drained. She heard Tommy and Gabriel opening and shutting drawers as they pulled out their pajamas.
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth!”
Lillian cast another glance at the living room. There wasn’t a single sign of Christmas. She would have to get started.
Oddly enough, it would be their first Christmas together in Brooklyn. They had always celebrated the holiday upstate. Especially after Tom died, Annette had insisted that Lillian and the boys spend Christmas with her and Bernie and their growing family. With Tommy eight years old now, and Gabriel five, all their Christmas memories were from the orchard.
Lillian set her sewing down and brought the hot water bottle to the kitchen. This would be an important Christmas, and instead of preparing for it, she had spent these past few days filled with worry—missing Annette, hoping the landlord wouldn’t raise the rent, and fretting about the new manager at work, Mr. Hinkley. He had never liked her, and when Mrs. Klein finally retired and he was promoted, he made his feelings abundantly clear. He still resented the older manager’s preference for Lillian.
No need to ruin her evening thinking about him, she thought, sitting back down. The trip to Annette’s was supposed to be a prelude to Christmas. But Lillian felt no surge of excitement. She wasn’t in the mood for Christmas and would be glad when it was over. Everything felt wrong.
And of course, underlying everything, was the dark shadow cast by the war in Europe. The news reports grew more frightening with each passing day. She had believed that war would be averted. That Hitler would be appeased. But when he invaded Poland in the fall, England and France had declared war. Where would it all end?
She stared out and worried about a world controlled by Nazis and Fascists. Worried that the U.S. would be pulled into the war—or worse, that they would be attacked by Nazis. First bombed, then invaded, then…