What success I have as a novelist has come about because I’m known to write Gothic mysteries. And please don’t get me wrong – I like writing them. And I like reading them. I like suspense and ghosts and supernatural events and cold, drafty English estates and heroines on the edge and all the elements that make up the category.

But, I had a story nagging at me: I kept thinking of it as a love-letter to the senior generation and to all the people who made/make up that group.

Background:  I was born and raised in South Philadelphia and grew up listening to the parents and grandparents and neighbors tell endless stories about how they “came to America” and what they did to survive and how serious they were about how to be good citizens.

On hot summer evenings, after dinner, after the dishes were washed and dried and the kitchen straightened, neighbors would gather outside on their porches and on the steps and then the stories would begin. About their day, their work, who they met and spoke to … and then, inevitably about World War II. They spoke endlessly about “those times.” The men told about “the war years” – what they did while serving their country either in the military or on the home front, where they were stationed, what they saw. And their voices always dropped to a near-whisper when they spoke of their comrades who fought beside them but never made it back home. There would be quiet for a moment and those who were Catholics made the Sign of the Cross while the other neighbors gently bowed their heads. It was an image to be remembered.

Then the women would try to lift the memory and tell how they “made do” with rationing, the improvised meals made without hard-to-get items, and they spoke of blackouts and curfews and mended clothes and all the little facts that were important to them. These were minute bits of information about another time, and to me and the rest of the children who sat and listened, this was “real” history and I was fascinated by it and I was fascinated by those who spoke.

I listened and I remembered and every once in a while, after I became a writer, I’d think about them and the thought kept popping up -- as though something/someone was saying, “write their stories, write their stories.”  I knew, then, that I had to go out-of-genre. I had to take the chance that other people would remember the seniors in their own lives and want to hear their stories. And so, STORYTIME AT THE VILLA MARIA came into existence and, while none of the characters in the novel are real, they all have attributes of people I once knew…once cared about. These were proud people – of themselves, of how they achieved, and how they served their country.

I’m back to writing Gothics now – I’m half way through a new one already -- but I hope you’ll like to read about the Villa Maria residents and I hope you like them.
Why I went out-of-genre?  I listened and I remembered.


Dominick, who married “the most beautiful woman in the world”…

Sophie, who is haunted by terrifying memories of the Holocaust…

Ella, who made “sweet apple pies” for her war veteran husband…

Tom, whose music lured women into his arms…

Artie, who is plagued by the ghosts of long-dead soldiers…

Frank, who can't let go of his yesterdays, though a better tomorrow beckons…

Join them and others as they gather every Monday night in the library at the Villa Maria Senior Citizens Apartment House to share their memories, their fears, and their dreams.
                                                              * * *


South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1939

 South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1939

The tuxedoed emcee pointed to the last couple on the dance floor and motioned them forward. “And your winners of tonight’s Pavilion Dance Hall contest – Miss Mae Agnes Adams and Mr. Dominick Ricci.”   Dominick and Mae Agnes accepted the envelope containing the two one-dollar bills and bowed first to the other dancers and then to the audience and then Dominick’s eyes searched and found the table where the beautiful redheaded girl was sitting. “I wish I had won you, instead,” he thought. The redhead looked at him with her sad brown eyes as if she heard the words and then quickly looked down at the table.
“And now everyone on the dance floor,” the master of ceremonies said and the girl’s face disappeared behind the crowd of eager dancers.

                                                 *  *  *
Warsaw, Poland, 1934
             “Hurry, Sophie. Show the new boy where the matches are so that he can light the stove on Shabbos.”   Sophie, impatiently looking forward to her eighth birthday the next week, couldn’t help staring – he was the cutest boy she had ever seen. She grinned at him and then closed her mouth quickly because she didn’t want him to see where the tooth in front had not quite grown in. The young, almost 12-year old schoolboy shyly smiled back and clutched his woolen cap even more tightly.
            “Here,” she said pointing to the box of wooden matches. “Here is where we keep them.”
            Sophie’s father came into the kitchen and handed the boy a coin.
“Thank you,” the boy said. “I’ll be here tomorrow right after church school.”
“Ah,” thought Sophie, “he’s really, really not one of us.”  But he was so handsome that she had to tell Yetta Leah, her sister, about him and how he had smiled at her.
* * *
County Cavan, Ireland, 1938
            “Tommy, Tommy, me boy, that there saxophone’s surely going to be the key to your success when you get to America. You’ll see, mark my words, they’ll be lining up on those gold paved streets just awaitin’ to hear you play. You’re going to be rich, me boy. Positively rich.”
            “You think so?”  It had to be true. Tom’s cousin who once studied for the priesthood, said it was so. He’d make a lot of money and send it back to his Da and Mum so they could buy a nice house near Castlekeiran, near Da’s sister’s grand house.
            He fingered the shiny saxophone. Yeah, he’d make lots of money and make the whole family proud. “America, here I come. “
* * *
Wilmington, Delaware, 1935
            He could hear his father coming up the steps – tripping and then cursing and getting angrier and angrier.
            “Wait til I get my hands on you, Woman, I’ll show you who’s boss.” 
            His father was drunk again and Karl hid under his bed so that his old man wouldn’t find him. He heard his mother’s cries and the crack of the belt and Karl cowered in fear hoping that his father, the person he most hated in the world even though Reverend Bernard of the Lutheran Church said not to, would exhaust himself from hitting his mother and then fall asleep before the parent started on the children.
            The muffled cries stopped and he heard the thud of his bully father as he stumbled into bed. The ten-year-old Karl was safe for another night.
* * *
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1940
            Miss Mamie surely had a fine looking man sitting next to her. Ella adjusted the purple felt hat with the purple plaid band on her head and wondered who he was. Miss Mamie didn’t have any children and none of her boarders were that young. Let’s see – he must be about 20-21. No matter that he was darker than her own skin color -- she liked the look of him and the way he sat up real straight while the preacher spoke. And the way he stood up and sang out the hymns in that deep voice that she could hear even though she was across the aisle and one row in back of him.
            “Maybe I can just sidle by and take a good look at him after the service. Maybe Miss Mamie will introduce us. I think I would like that.”
* * *
Paris, France, 1942
            “Eleni, come away from the window – the cold comes in too much and you’ll get sick.”  Eleni’s mother patted the bare floor in front of the fire where she sat with her other children. “Quick, the fire will die soon. Come and get warm while you can.”
            The twelve-year-old very thin girl rubbed at the cold outside ice-crusted window with her sweatered elbow and shivered. Someday when this war was over she was going to be able to look out of all the windows she wanted to and she would be warm and she would have lots of heavy sweaters and dresses and shoes and socks. And she would be able to see a beautiful world through the windowpanes and she would smell like lavender and eat as much as she wanted to and most of all, she would never ever be afraid again.
* * *
Camden, New Jersey, 1944
            “Hail Mary, full of grace,” she kept repeating to the little statue on her bureau. “Forgive me. Please, I beg of you, forgive me. I can’t help it. I love him so much.”  She gently touched the blessed-by-the-priest statue of the Virgin. Maybe if she prayed every day and hard enough she could get Mary to understand. Mary was a woman. She would know how much she loved him. How much she needed him. If it was a sin then why did God introduce her to him?  Why did God put temptation in her way?  “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
* * *
STORYTIME AT THE VILLA MARIA—the unforgettable book about life lived and still to be lived, and about the mysterious threads of joy and heartache and love that are woven into every life—including your own!  

A charming novel of senior citizens, storytelling, nostalgia, and a world gone by but not forgotten."
                                                      * * *

                                                      * * *    

BIO:  Constance Walker is the author of THE SHIMMERING STONES OF WINTER'S LIGHT, LOST ROSES OF GANYMEDE HOUSE, IN TIME, and WARM WINTER LOVE among other works of Gothic and contemporary fiction.


Barbara Brett said…
I read this wonderful book and fell in love with its fascinating characters. Now that I know the story behind it, it is even more meaningful. Thank you, Constance Walker, for a beautiful book. I love your Gothics, too, and am looking forward to the next one. I also hope you'll write more books like this!

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