Today, Readers Unbound is pleased to host guest blogger Rona Simmons.
Rona Simmons is the author of The Quiet Room, a historical novel set in Evansville, Indiana, a town generations of her family called home. Her previous works include a ghostwritten biography of a prominent Atlanta businessman, a collection of short stories compiled from interviews of family and friends from the early to mid 1900s, articles for a local magazine and a horticultural journal, and flash fiction broadcast on internet radio.
Rona now lives with her husband and (she swears) the last member of a passel of cats outside Atlanta, Georgia, on eight pine-studded acres. Though still fascinated by her German-Midwest American heritage, Rona is busy exploring her father’s side of the family for a new novel set in Boston, Massachusetts.
Two weeks into December. Each year at this time, I wonder anew where Christmas is headed and fear that next year the season will start the day it ends. As usual, I launch another valiant attempt to guard the meaning of Christmas while speeding past blinking Happy Birthday, Jesus signs, changing the radio dial at the first chirp of chipmunks, and steering clear of discussions of whether I should greet friends with Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas or be politically correct and include a sentiment for each faith. Part of my strategy is to hold fast to the idea of gift giving, whether such gifts take the form of spending time with loved ones, reconnecting with old friends, or contributing to the support of those less fortunate.
And so it is perhaps appropriate that my novel The Quiet Room has been released in this season. The story has its genesis in a gift made close to a century ago.
I’ve yet to trace the origin of sweetheart scarves, but what I do know is as he departed Evansville, Indiana, for the front lines in Europe in 1918 at the height of the “war to end all wars,” my grandmother’s beau presented her with one. The scarf measures about a foot square, is trimmed in lace, and made of silk or a silk-like fabric that today has a wonderful sepia patina. I suppose in its day it was sparkling white. Across the top an eagle carries a banner in its beak emblazoned with the words, The Farewell. Beneath the banner, a soldier embraces his sweetheart complete with high-collared blouse and upswept hair.
My grandmother came to live with us when she was sixty-two and a widow. When she passed the scarf to me, she made no mention of its origin and I, callously, asked no questions, not what it was, not where she got it, not what it meant to her. She became an integral part of our lives, living with us for over twenty years. Even so, I don’t think I ever quite knew her.
She was from a generation that believed you grew up, married, had children, then died. And, if the husband passed before the wife, the widow mourned his death until she too died. Remarrying, even perhaps finding joy in her new life, was out of the question.
Three years ago, when I stumbled on the scarf, removing it from where it lay crumpled at the back of one of the drawers in my home, I could not help but wonder what her life had been like when she was young and in love. For days, I plundered boxes of old family photos—most, sepia toned, board-mounted portraits of men with spectacles and beards and ladies in black–and flipped through albums of string-bound, coarse black paper. I found a handful of shots of my grandmother, a few from her earliest days, and others more recent, where she sat in the background or hovered just outside the family circle. I encountered none where she was smiling.
Near the bottom of a drawer full of loose photos, one caught my eye, a creased and darkened image of a young man riding in a horse and buggy. On the reverse, in the handwriting I knew was my grandmother’s exacting script, were the man’s name and the inscription “my boyfriend.” After a brief online search, I discovered he had enlisted in the Army in September 1917 and had been killed in action during the assault on the Hindenburg line only months after arriving in Europe.
Until I pieced together the timeline, I did not realize the scarf was a gift from this young man and not, as I had presumed, the man my grandmother married in 1920. Here was a woman I had believed to be faithful to the memory of her husband for thirty years after his death, but learned she had clung to a gift and a photo of her first true love. I pictured the mementos secreted away in the back of a drawer of her own throughout her marriage.
This secret revealed my grandmother to be, not the cardboard caricature of her times, but a far more complex and even tragic figure than I had known. Though my grandmother was the inspiration for Anneliese Stephens, the central character in The Quiet Room, the events that take in the novel place are all pure fiction. All except for the gift.
The Quiet Room is available through Rona’s website www.ronasimmons.com, her publisher at www.deedspublishing.com or Amazon.com. Contact Rona by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through Twitter@SimmonsRona, or look for her on Facebook.
Artwork provided by Rona Simmons.
Can you recall a gift, one you gave or received, that you think might have a story worth exploring? Share it with me; I’d love to hear your tale.