June 6, 2012

postcards: Public Library Chicago, c.1908

When I was shopping for some of my object prompts, I came across SO many amazing vintage postcards, many of which have messages, addresses and postmarks. What a world of inspiration! And so, my next series of prompts: postcards! Similar to my "object" prompts, I will use the postcards as a jumping-off point for a story, as a way to challenge myself to imagine new characters, settings, and stories.
Thomas William Sheffield had cared for Miss Lavinia Watson for as long as he could remember, ever since their meeting at age nine. His mother’s deep ties to her English heritage took them back to Cambridgeshire at least once a year. They usually made their trip in the summertime, near the end of June, just before Chicago entered its two-month humid spell. 
One summer they had postponed their trip until the fall, due to the birth of his sister, whose very inconvenient arrival-timing indicated the issues he would take with her for the rest of her life. Tom remembered that summer well, even though he was only eight years old then. The cheery, gentle springtime patterns of playing outside for as long as the sun stayed high in the sky, and his daily walks to the parks or zoo, gave way to fewer adventures as the weather grew warmer, as his mother’s belly swelled so large he thought she might fall over. They had help, of course, from the servants, and his nursemaid, Alice. But all the help went to his mother and the baby. His sister’s coming seemed inextricably linked with the humidity that settled over the city that July: the new baby girl seemed to reach her way into every bit of his life and grab on tightly with her tiny hands, just as the heavy, humid air seemed to reach into every corner and crevice of their big stone home. 
The only place to escape the thick, wet air was in the basement of their home: the cool, stone foundation walls trapped in a different climate altogether. The air was wet here, too, but in a different way: cool and still and light, instead of swarming and heavy like a mass of flies or cloud of smoke. This space in the house was usually only meant for the servants, but they seemed to have more time for him anyway these days, and did not mind him playing down there as long as he stayed out of their way. He could pretend here, that he was back in England again, but in a castle instead of his Grandmother’s little country cottage. He put a small metal pail over his head as armor, and had his pick of whatever brooms or tools were not in use to make into whatever arms he liked. He learned to play alone, to keep to himself, to stay out of the way - he would file this talent away in years to come, for use only when absolutely necessary. 
The following year, they were back to their regular summer trips abroad. It was warm in Cambridgeshire, too, but it was a dry heat, steady and dependable. Grandmother’s cottage was cozy compared with their own home, but it was “chalk and cheese,” as she would always say, not enough in common to really compare at all. Her home was soft, all fabric and worn wood and brick, in light tones that seemed straight from the earth, while his home in Chicago was everything opposite: dark, hard, straight lines and smooth, new textures of metals and stone. In later years, Tom would wonder that the wealthy, urban society life in Chicago had ever appealed at all to his mother. She seemed so much happier here. 
Their summer in Littleport began as usual: a morning walk (“to wake the body properly”), an early, light lunch of fruits, cheese and bread, and then out to play while the ladies sat and visited for their needlework and tea. “Play” indicated a much broader range of possibility here. No chaperone was necessary as long as he stayed within the town limits, which included the cemetery and churchyard, and the winding wooded path down to the River Ouse. For the most part, his summer friends remained the same: a group of boys near enough his age, whose names he seemed to have to relearn each summer (often nicknames varied from one shared name, such as Jack and John and James). They played hopscotch and blind man's bluff, and hide-and-seek, which offered the most liberating play for Tom, compared with home, having a wild run of the town and a million different hiding places. Sometimes the boys tossed around a pig bladder in games of catch, but Tom had always detested the feel of it, and usually chose this moment as his exit from their play.  
One of these afternoons, when the boys began to form their teams for their game of catch, Tom decided to slip away and do some exploring on his own. He had become interested in plants during his summer spent in the stone basement, after trailing the gardener and watching the maids arrange the florals for the rooms upstairs. So many different types and names - he liked the challenge of remembering them all. It was a good game to play when he did find himself alone that quiet summer, walking round their garden to test how much he knew. It was the biggest change he noticed in his return to England this summer: the even greater variety and vastness of the gardens here. He liked the surprise of these gardens, that he could walk up to a cluster of rosebushes and find a small bunch of herbs growing right behind. His game presented an entirely new challenge here, and his Grandmother had seized upon his newfound passion by contributing her own wealth of knowledge of the countryside flora.
Here, on the winding path towards the river, was where he first laid eyes on Lavinia. She was sitting on a rock, set off a bit from the path, with her back to him, and she was speaking freely to no apparent listener. Her long, brown hair hugged her shoulders as her animated head bobbed forward and back again with conversation. She did not seem to notice him walking by, and so he felt his own sense of obligation to keep himself concealed, and found a tree to block his form from her range of sight as he listened. 
“You see, I don’t really believe in fairy tales. I have never seen a real princess, so how do I even know they exist? My mother says they do, but she has never been able to prove it for me. How do I know those pictures in the newspapers are real princesses?” 
He contorted his body to wrap closely to the tree and this gave him a glimpse of her face: her large, light eyes (he couldn’t tell what color) beneath a strong, smooth forehead, and her tiny, delicate point of a nose above an accordingly delicate mouth. He turned his face away and leaned his ear further in her direction.
“So really, I do believe I will be married someday, and I would like to have five children, because it sounds like a good number. But I am not sure I will ever love him so much as I love you.”
There was no way he could reveal himself now. This had gone too far and he wanted desperately to get away from this strange girl, who spoke boldly into the air in a way he had never heard anyone their age speak at all. He inched back the way he came and walked softly back to Grandmother’s house.
He met Lavinia properly later that summer at Sunday service, when her grandmother happened to approach his grandmother about something for the ladies guild. He smiled and nodded politely and she did the same in return - they both knew what was expected, and grandmothers were best when they were pleased. No further words were exchanged that day, but there was a kindness in her green eyes that kept him thinking of her throughout his days spent in play and gardens.
As summers passed, the play of boys turned into a society of mixed company, as the children again followed what was expected of them and began to see the other gender as their future and not their present. Lavinia and Tom were introduced again on more relaxed terms, and began to run into one another regularly. He had the advantage: this he always knew. He had glimpsed a private moment, that gave him an insight she could not match in knowing him only in their social exchanges. Summer after summer, they interacted trivially and learned casually about one another: that she had a passion for poetry (as he had imagined, despite her loathing of princesses), that he wished to go on to study plants in school, that she knew the best places in the woods for hard-to-find specimens of plants he sought. And they would travel in groups, innocent still in their not-yet eligible ages, children ambling over the countryside to sounds of laughter and teasing.

In the summer of 1907, when they were sixteen, Tom dared suggest to a few of the girls that it might be nice to keep in touch in their long absences surrounding their summers. Tom was quite popular, as the only American boy to regularly summer in Littleport, and every girl obliged his request for permission to keep in contact. He was good like this, in a crowd, able to keep up his confidence for a public eye, just not hers. Throughout that year, he sent one postcard to each of the four girls in their circle of friends. All responded, and he of course liked Lavinia's best: a simple view of Main Street Littleport, that reminded him of his early games of hide and seek. He did not write again, though - he was not yet ready to show his hand.
In the summer of 1908, they took a shorter summer trip abroad, since Tom would now be entering college at Northwestern University. His mother wanted him home and settled well before his classes would begin. They would be in Littleport only for a month this year, and Tom felt the pressure of this shortened time to make his connection. If only he could catch Lavinia on her own, for a conversation between just the two of them. But things were simply not set up that way. A man had to initiate his interest in order to gain a private audience at all. Lavinia shined and sparkled her way through their every interaction, but there was no good way to begin. And every time they spoke, he felt again as if he were outside the walls of her world. They laughed and spoke of future plans, of growing up and traveling to exotic places. And they pledged again, at the end of the summer, to keep in touch.
Tom returned home and prepared to begin his classes at Northwestern, first with a year of college courses, before he could enter the school of medicine. His parents had determined, with only the slightest input on his part, that the closest respectable field to his passion for botany would be to pursue a career as a doctor, or at least in medical science. He spent hours reviewing his old Biology and Chemistry textbooks, and studied often at the Public Library downtown. It was one of his favorite places in the city. He remembered visiting the site as a small boy, watching with his father as men moved sheets of brilliant granite up the steps through the grand entrance with its flanking limestone columns. And he would never forget the first time he saw the magnificent Tiffany dome: the soothing, peaceful pattern of its fish-scale design, the marbled, natural colors in the glass reminding him always of the English gardens he had explored in his summers.  And as he grew, the library’s charms only increased as he came to appreciate the building’s ornate halls and embellished ceilings. When he needed a break from studying, he cleared his mind with laps through all the building’s rooms. As he walked the halls and climbed the curving stairwells, he flashed back to his days in his basement castle, and he found comfort in these pilgrimages, alone once again.
On a warm August day, as he walked from the nearby El stop, he noticed a little stack of postcards on the counter of the newsstand by the library's main entrance. He had thought of Lavinia often, and wanted to write as he had promised, but he didn’t know where to begin. He bought the postcard, along with a two-cent stamp. He sat in the hall of study tables at the library’s center and thought of what he might say. He thought of the line between “not enough” and “too much,” the line he had been walking all these many years. He glanced around him and a flash of light caught his eye from across the room, where a young girl sat with an older man, working over her embroidery hoop as the man poured over a thick green volume. A small, jeweled brooch on her dress had caught the light. As his gaze lingered on her for a moment, he remembered a little rhyme he had seen on a needlepoint one of his cousins had been working over the summer. “What care we for rain or weather as long as we are together.” 

He decided that any beginning was better than no beginning. 
"What care we for rain or weather as long ______________ T.W.S."
A fun post-script on this piece: the former Chicago Public Library at Michigan and Randolph in Downtown Chicago is now the Chicago Cultural Center, and as a part of my writing adventure I decided to spend a little time there in order to get a better sense of my character. There was something absolutely incredible about being able to physically absorb the space I was using as one of my story's settings. I remember, too, visiting the building when I was small, while it was still used as a library, and my memories provided a lovely personal connection as I imagined this character from so long ago. 

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