Daddy's Christmas Angel

Friday, September 4, 2020

Importance of Childhood

Walkway at Mary Washington

When I was a young child, I had no idea how important childhood would be for the rest of my life. I just wanted to hurry through it, so I could be in control. Now, I am grateful for the religious background my mother gave to me. I am glad she put me on the church cradle role. I appreciate the big words that she used with me when I was a toddler and that she took me with her everywhere. That background has enriched my career as a writer.

Growing up in an historic city was an advantage, I think. There were museums and antique buildings everywhere. At the time, I didn’t appreciate playing on the grounds of Kenmore, but being there and listening to the guides describe the ceilings and the walls of the old mansion and tell about its history was an amazing gift. I lingered in the separate building that served as the colonial kitchen and watched the maids make gingerbread.

 We lived for a few years in a house just below Sunken Road. That historic road was where a terrible battle was fought during the Civil War and thousands of lives were lost, mostly those of Union soldiers. When walking along that black tar-surfaced street, you struggled with a heavy heart in the darkness left by those bloody times. Somehow, I mostly avoided playing near that street.

 Even the floors of the school I attended, located on the banks of the Rappahannock River, possessed dark memories of tragic times. Used as a hospital during the war, the blood stains were still there, embedded in the wooden floors of the elementary school classrooms. It was a dingy old building, located 12 blocks from my home—a long walk for a young child.

 Living just beyond the entrance gate to Mary Washington College had its advantages. Many of the college professors were our neighbors, and most of my friends were their children. I loved spending my days playing in their yards and learning from them. A music professor lived nearby, and I remember watching, through an open door, college students practicing on the beautiful golden concert harp he had in his home.

My uncle owned the horse stables used by the college. Sometimes when I visited my cousin, we would walk to the stables and watch the handsome thoroughbreds train.

 In late childhood, when my family moved away from the city to a small town, located on three rivers, it was difficult for me. I missed my friends, the horses, and all the historic places. For a long time, I corresponded weekly with my best friend, the daughter of a chemistry professor at the college.

 Mine was the tale of two childhoods—one very different from the other.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The End of an Era

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Gail and Baylor Nichols arrived in our little town. I'm not very good remembering dates, but I do recall the sensation of change. And it was change they brought. An unique energy surrounded them, and there was always lots of art. Art everywhere.

Inside our little town, Gail and Baylor created an artists colony. Over the years, their home became the center for many meetings that brought together artists from all over the region, including New Kent, King William, King and Queen, Lancaster counties, the cities of Richmond, Williamsburg, and more. It was an exciting time. Color abounded, and energy glowed in and around their home.

Arts Alive was born and, often with a push from Gail and Baylor, the visual arts program grew. Our little town vibrated with excitement, especially on the day each month when a workshop brought special focus to the arts.

At first, those workshops, many of which were presentations sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, were held at the West Point Branch Library. Later, most took place at the local YMCA. All were well-attended, and regional artists became friends.

It was a sad time for the artists and the town when Baylor suffered a short illness and died. Her heart heavy, Gail continued their artist mission, created shows of his work and more.

When a club in our little town held its 2019 Christmas dinner in Gail's art-filled home, I had no idea it would be our last meeting there. Their house was a center for the arts for many years. The artistic camaraderie there all through the years will be missed. 
Gail has moved to Florida to be closer to her children, and we are left with memories. We remember Baylor standing on a ladder, patiently hanging art works outside the auditorium at the Art Center. We think of Gail, fluttering about like a cheerful butterfly, keeping everything from show hangings to art workshops organized and moving. 
So many memories. It's hard to witness the end of an era. Thank you, Gail Nichols for the many memories and for beginning our little Art Colony.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Legend of the White Witch of Rose Hall Sparks a Novel

"Rose Hall Great House" pastel painting ©Mary Montague Sikes
During our first trip to Jamaica, my husband and I decided to take a side-trip that the resort offered to visit Rose Hall Plantation and Great House. We wanted to get to know Jamaica and its people better, and we thought this trip would give us more knowledge of the island nation.

As the tour bus approached the massive Great House, we were not disappointed. The impressive old building, constructed in 1770-80, stood vigilant like a mighty sentinel overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Immediately, we understood why travelers along the highway from Montego Bay could imagine the ghostly form of the “white witch” staring through a dark second floor window.  As we advanced closer to the iconic mansion, I even conjured up images of people from long ago, dressed in period attire, dancing on the portico or perhaps beneath the elegant stone archways. At that moment, the seeds of a novel were planted in my mind.

When the bus pulled to a stop on the grounds, two pretty, young Jamaican women came out to guide
Rose Hall tour guides ©Mary Montague Sikes
our group through the house and the gardens that surrounded it. As we entered the bedroom of the notorious Annie Palmer, one of them began the tale of the “white witch”, said to have murdered three husbands and mistreated her plantation slaves with acts of brutality that resulted in the deaths of many of them. As we gazed at Annie’s canopied bed, I visualized the cruel mistress that the guide explained grew up in Haiti in the care of a high voodoo priestess who taught her black magic. More ideas grew inside my mind. The legend of Annie Palmer would be part of my book.

The old home was dark inside which added to the mystery of this future setting. What if a young woman came from America to work in a hotel resort like the one we where we were staying? What if she came to visit Rose Hall and began having visions like those I imagined as we toured the rooms furnished as they had been all those many years ago?

When I took a deep breath, the visions grew more vivid. Perhaps my heroine could start to wonder if she once lived in this setting. Years earlier, I had read Dr. Ian Stevenson’s book about reincarnation. When my heroine yearned to learn more, she would search for an expert like Dr. Stevenson. I would model a character after him.

The book I was conceiving would be a romance, I decided, as the tour guide told us more of the legend. I needed a hero in my story, someone who lived during the same long-ago time as my heroine. My thoughts grew ever more complicated. The hero would have a lifestyle that permitted him to visit Jamaica for extended periods of time. He would have dreams and memories.

The background for my story grew ever more real, especially when we returned to the Caribbean island again and again. Each time we visited, we learned more about the people, their ways, and the interest of some in obeah. This method of spiritual healing and ritual practices would add depth to my story and to the characterization now blossoming inside my head.

The legend of the white witch, true or embellished, it didn’t matter. That tale and the beautiful tropical island of Jamaica would become a perfect fit for my novel, Hearts Across Forever. Eventually, all the words came to me, and it was written. Imagination, fantasy, reincarnation, danger all brought together in a love story that is now available on Amazon.