Lilacs — Sweet Scent, Sweet Memories


Syringa josikaea, Source: Sten Porse

“A lilac tree, I said. It bloomed every May around the time of Mama’s birthday. Papa was a romantic, he would stand under the tree and sing songs of lilacs and love to her. The memory is so vivid in my mind. I can almost smell the lilacs now.”     

                                                        —Laura Hillman, i will plant you a lilac tree

May is a marvelous month.  Not just because Charles’ birthday is on the 11th, but because lilacs are in bloom all over the world! The name “lilac” comes from the Persian word meaning bluish.

The dark green and shiny leaves, pale violet/blue blooms and fragrant scent are forever in my memory and always bring me good cheer.

The first spring Charles and I travelled to his home region in Slovakia (formerly part of Austria-Hungary), we inhaled the aroma of lilacs as we drove through the countryside.

Charles told me how his mother Maria was an admirer of a much-loved lilac species native to the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary, Romania, and western Ukraine.

She told him shepherds carried the lilacs with them along the silk route to Istanbul.


Syringa josikaea

Charles recalled his mother said this lilac was named after a member of the aristocracy, but didn’t give a name. In my research I discovered the species Syringa josikaea. It was named around 1830, for Rosalia, Baroness von Josika, a botanist who had found the plant growing in Transylvania and brought it to the attention of the scientific community.  It is known as the Hungarian lilac and has bluish-purple fragrant flowers. I believe this may be the species Maria liked.

I have many favorite lilacs, but don’t know their origin or species. Many of the lilacs are not even alive. They are song titles, book covers and titles, subjects of paintings and perfume fragrances, postage stamps, colors of paint or in wallpaper and even the last name of a male classmate in high school:

AERIN Beauty “Lilac Path” Eau de Parfum

“Green Grow the Lilacs”- a play about homosexuality on the frontier and a folk song of Irish origin recorded by such people as Fess Parker/Disney’s Davy Crockett, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Tex Ritter, The Originals (recorded for Motown) and Harry Belafonte.

House on Prague Street by Hana Demetz – An autobiographical novel based on the author’s wartime girlhood in WW II Czechoslovakia. The book cover is a house surrounded by  lilac trees.

i will plant you a lilac tree: a memoir of a Schindler’s list survivor by Laura Hillman – A lilac in every garden. . . the world over!

“Lilacs in a Window,” a painting by Mary Cassatt (1880)

mysteryatlilacinnThe Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene – Nancy Drew mystery #4

Rochester, New York – Lilac Capital of the World


What are your memories of lilacs? Please share them!

Lifelong Learning + Freedom of Expression: Art + Book in a Detroit Neighborhood

University of Michigan 2015 Semester in Detroit

University of Michigan 2015 Semester in Detroit students (SID) students. Source: SID Facebook page

“Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right, necessary to self-government, vital to the resistance of oppression, and crucial to the course of justice.                      —American Library Association Policy 53.1.12 

Two of the great lifelong learning resources in the Detroit “Cass Corridor” neighborhood where my late husband Charles lived (and I still do,) are Source Booksellers, a local indie bookstore and the University of Michigan Detroit Center, a satellite of the University’s Ann Arbor campus.

Last week for the third time I had a great experience in the neighborhood with students in U of M Detroit’s “Semester in Detroit” (SID) program.  SID is a program for students that participate by living in Detroit for a semester, take classes  and complete an internship with a nonprofit organization in the city.

Janet Jones, Source Booksellers

Janet Jones, Owner, Source Booksellers with Charles Novacek’s award-winning book. Source: American Express, Detroit: Making the Most of Small Business Saturday

I was one of three speakers invited by Janet Jones, Source Booksellers owner, to speak to the students at her store about the history, people and changes in my neighborhood where I was actually born decades ago.

Since it was the opening day of Midtown Detroit’s “Art X,” a 3 week festival celebrating the arts, I talked with the students about the importance of the FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION through art, literature, etc., and how as a child Charles wanted to be an artist and go to art school but during World War II Hitler closed all the art schools in Czechoslovakia and his dream was extinguished.

"Still Life at 13" by Charles Novacek

“Still Life at 13″ by Charles Novacek

I showed them an original still life painting of tulips in a vase Charles had painted at age 13. I told them how almost 50 years later after retirement at age 65 he finally realized his dream and received a MFA in painting from Eastern Michigan University. This was just a few years after he had received a BGS from the University of Michigan in Dearborn. He took many writing classes there to prepare him for his goal of writing a book about his life under totalitarian oppression in Europe during World War II and the Cold War.

Charles Started writing his memoir at home in the neighborhood in 2000. He died in July 2007 a few months after he completed it.  I independently published the book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance in 2012 and it is now on the shelves of Charles’ and my neighborhood bookstore and at some of the greatest local lifelong learning resources, the University of Michigan and Detroit Public libraries where the freedom of expression is paramount.

Art, Writing & Poetry Create Comfort, Meaning & Humanity

Collage by Mark Strand. Source: The cover of "Mystery and Solitude in Topeka"

Collage by Mark Strand, artist and poet. Source: The cover of “Mystery and Solitude in Topeka” by Mark Strand, published by Monk Books.

April is “National Poetry Month,” the largest literary celebration in the world!

And today, April 11 is the birthday of Mark Strand (1934-2014), best known as a Pulitzer Prize winning writer/poet and U.S. poet laureate.

As a young man Strand wanted, however, to become an artist and studied under color theorist/painter Josef Albers at the Yale School of Architecture.

Ultimately, during Strand’s time at Yale “he decided that his talent lay in his writing, not painting.”  He eventually received a master’s degree from the University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop.

My late husband Charles liked to discuss a person’s ability and/or interest to be both painter and writer. He paraphrased one of his favorite writers Charlotte Brontë who said something like, “if one can paint it, one should be able to write it.”

Hitler’s closing of the art schools in Czechoslovakia during World War II interfered with Charles’ desire to “become an artist.” He established himself as a mechanical and civil engineer, but like Strand was “always an artist” painting and sculpting throughout his life and in retirement graduating with an MFA in painting from art school at the age of 65 and writing his memoir from ages 72 to 79.

I’ve read that Strand (like Charles) throughout his life, found comfort in art and that Strand enjoyed creating collages as Charles enjoyed painting. After her father’s death Strand’s daughter Jessica said “We weren’t religious people, but we worshipped at the foot of culture. He was always an artist.”

Strand even took a break from writing poetry in 1980 and wrote children’s books and a book of short stories.

I have never seen Strand’s collages in person or read his children’s books or short stories, but I have read his poetry and find meaning and humor in it.

Strand saw poetry as a humanizing influence in an increasingly inhumane world. In an interview with Inscape Magazine in September 2013, Strand spoke about the function of poetry in today’s society:

“It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. . .

When we read poems from the past we realize that human beings have always been the way we are. We have technological advancements undreamt of a couple thousand years ago, but the way people felt then is pretty much the way people feel now. We can read those poems with pleasure because we recognize ourselves in them.

Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. I wish more politicians and heads of state would begin to imagine what it’s like to be human. They’ve forgotten, and it leads to bad things. If you can’t empathize, it’s hard to be decent; it’s hard to know what the other guy’s feeling. They talk from such a distance that they don’t see differences; they don’t see the little things that make up a life. They see numbers; they see generalities. They deal in sound bytes and vacuous speeches; when you read them again, they don’t mean anything.”

From Cornfield to Library: Still an Amazing Place!


Source: Public Domain

When I was young my family left the sidewalks and streetlights of Detroit for the wide open spaces of Southfield. Our home was nestled in an idyllic neighborhood with gravel roads and at night dark skies filled with stars we could actually see.  A woods for exploration and building forts stood across the street and beyond that grew a cornfield where we played hide-and-seek.

The cornfield was part of the Thompson family farm since the 1870s. Mary Thompson and her brother James, both in their eighties, lived on the southern end of the nearly 200 acre farm where they had a garden and tended a flock of sheep. Their residence was a big, white, two-story wood frame farmhouse heated by a fireplace and stoves. A working windmill stood close by.

The cornfield was amazing! Nearly sixty years have passed and I can still remember running breathlessly through it from the middle of July until harvest time. Its towering green and golden stalks seemed to go on for miles. They reached above my head and I could feel the enormity of their size and number as I’d look up and see nothing but corn tassels and patches of blue sky.

Most memorable of all was the terror of getting lost in the maze of cornstalks and finding no way out. Wandering in circles losing all sense of time and place and sometimes (the scariest of all) coming FACE to FACE with Miss Thompson and her brother!

I thought Miss Thompson was stern and authoritarian like my first grade teacher. I later found out she was a teacher and a school administrator, and graduate of Columbia with a M.A. in Education and New York University with a Ph.D in Education.  I’ve read she said educating and bettering the community were her primary goals. In 1959, she and her brother sold 166 acres, at half their value, to the City of Southfield for a civic center.

soutfieldlibrarybookcrOn March 25, 2015, I will be returning to the “cornfield” to present an illustrated talk on my late husband Charles Novacek’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance. Of course, the cornfield is long gone, but on its site is the amazing three-story, 127,000 square foot Southfield Public Library with 250,000 volumes, 190 public computers, a career and business center, a glass tower and public art throughout.

Close by the original Thompson farmhouse still stands surrounded by 20 acres of land, a garden and the windmill.

At the age of 96, on October 21, 1967, Mary Thompson died in the fields tending her sheep. She willed her house and the 20 acres to the City of Southfield. At the time of her death, the following tribute was paid to her by the Southfield City Council: “Her agile mind and keen perception might well have earned her accolades in other fields, yet her duty to family and love for the simple life led her back to the land.”

I’m  looking forward to returning to this magical and amazing place!

On March 25, 2015 at 6:30 p.m., Sandra Novacek will be speaking at the Southfield Public Library in Southfield, MI about her late husband Charles Novacek’s memoir, a first person account of his life spent in the Czech Resistance during World War II and the Cold War. Mr. Novacek’s idyllic and “amazing” childhood in Czechoslovakia was interrupted by the occupation of his homeland  by the Nazis in March 1939. Many years later (after World War II) he escaped the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia,  emigrated to the United States and  became a proud United States citizen and resident of the City of Southfield with his family.  

If you want your child to be a reader, be one yourself.


Brad, a reading role model and busy Dad, takes time to read Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance with his daughter Alexa Faye close by.

Detroit Collaboration: Pages Bookshop, Always Brewing Detroit + Ten21 Press

pagesbookshoplogoalwaysbrewingdetroit400ten21presssnip                                                                        A Heartfelt + Thrilling Story Amidst Great Food and Drink with Friends

Pages Bookshop and Always Brewing Detroit are joining together to bring the second Taste Makers event to Detroit on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. The events combine literature, authors, great food and drink with friends.

9780985415105-JacketGray_novacek.inddFor this event, Chef Tim Schulte will bring fabulous hot appetizers and Sandra Novacek will present the story of her late husband Charles Novacek’s award-winning book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Detroit: Ten21 Press.

Published in Detroit and endorsed by Madeleine Albright, this firsthand account describes the impact of World War II and the Cold War on a Czechoslovakian boy (Charles) who participated in the Czech Resistance against the Nazis and the Communists, from age 11 to 20 during World War II and the Cold War. After escaping his homeland, Charles fled to Germany, then Venezuela and finally immigrated to the United States and Detroit.

Sandra will read excerpts from the memoir, share vintage photos and art work and tell of the dangers her husband faced in a time of turmoil. She’ll explain how art played an important role in the resistance and Charles’s life during wartime and how his dream of becoming an artist was shattered when Hitler closed Czechoslovakia’s art schools and how he realized that dream while living in Detroit.

Sandra continued with this story after Charles’ death in 2007 by publishing and promoting the book to make sure the story was told. Border Crossings has won 14 awards including the Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Award “Gold Medal” for memoir.

Please join us and get your ticket through Pages Bookshop for this event today. The ticket combines both and includes a beverage of your choice. Buy before the event and save! You can also pre-order the book through Pages Bookshop to make sure you get a signed copy.

 February 24, 2015, 6:30-8 p.m., Pages Bookshop @ Always Brewing Detroit               19180 Grand River Ave., Detroit, MI 48223, 313.473.7342 

For Love of Country, a Valentine, and a Stained Glass Window


Source: Lee Forman,

Today is Friday, the thirteenth of February, the day before Valentine’s Day. I should probably be writing about romantic love. But, I won’t.

Instead, I’ll write about a stunning symbol of peace and the love of country and American Regionalist painter Grant Wood (1891-1942) whose birthday is today. Wood was born near Anamosa, Iowa and moved with his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa when he was ten. 

Last September I visited Cedar Rapids. I was presenting an illustrated talk about my love and late husband Charles Novacek’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance at the extraordinary National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

I had limited free time and decided to use it to view Grant Wood art.  The world’s largest collection of works by Wood is at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Too overwhelming, I thought! I decided to save viewing that for my next trip especially since Wood’s legendary painting American Gothic (the iconic portrait of a farmer and his daughter) is not even there. It’s in Chicago’s Art Institute!

What I did visit was the Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island just west of the Cedar Rapids business district.  The lovely Beaux Arts style building houses a stunning stained glass memorial window – the only stained glass window designed by Grant Wood in 1927, one year before Charles was born during a time of peace.   The glass was stained in Munich, Germany, and brought back in about 10,000 pieces to be fitted together with lead and installed in 1928 as a memorial to veterans of all wars.

The window stands 24 feet high and 20 feet wide and consists of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead.  According to a 1928 article from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modeled for the heroic central figure of the work – a 16 foot woman wearing a Grecian robe and a blue mourning veil draped over her head.  She gives the spiritual effect of a Renaissance painting as she floats in the clouds. In her right hand she the palm branch of peace and in her left the laurel wreath of victory.”

The woman looks down upon six male life-size soldiers, outfitted in the uniform a Private would have worn from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I. Insignias of the Navy, Army, and U. S. Marines border the window.

Grants Wood’s impressive window is a shining reminder of the extraordinary courage, dedication and sacrifice made by so many for the love of their country.

Late Christmas Amaryllis Dazzle for Valentine’s Day

amaryllis02.12.15It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and my Christmas amaryllis have just started to bloom!

Anyone who knew my late husband Charles knew how much he loved colorful fresh flowers.

For our eleven years together Charles and I had a garden of dazzling red amaryllis atop our dining room table instead of a Christmas tree.

I’ve tried to keep the amaryllis tradition alive since Charles died, but for Christmas blooms the bulbs must be planted by November 1st. This year I was distracted and missed the deadline by four weeks.

So I was a little late. Who cares? I purchased Valentine’s Day red roses for my dining room table for Christmas instead.

And for Valentine’s Day I have a little comfort and joy!

Border Crossings: Above the Fold

gpnewsletterme400Last winter on Valentine’s Day 2014, I was overjoyed when a story on Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance (my late husband Charles Novacek’s posthumously-published memoir) appeared on the front page of the Detroit Free Press above the fold, “Ultimate valentine: Book of husband’s war-era stories became a project of love.

“Above the fold” has traditionally been used to describe the placement of content on a newspaper’s front page. The paper’s headline and lead stories are placed on the part of the front page that is most prominent when the paper is folded and displayed on stands.

The items “above the fold” are also those editors think are important and might invite readers to buy and/or read the newspaper.

This year I’m delighted to be featured on the back page “above the fold” in the winter 2015 issue of Library Pointes: the tri-annual newsletter of the Grosse Pointe Public Library, Know Your Librarians! Sandy Novacek.” Here I list five things readers might not know about me (with mention of Border Crossings) and my “Most Embarrassing Library Moment!”

Front page, back page “above the fold.” Does it really matter? It’s just great to be noticed!

Tales of the South Pacific with Love in Detroit

Tales_of_the_South_Pacific_Michener400Detroit, MI— It’s the month of love and the day February 3rd is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer James Michener (1907-1997), a favorite of my late husband Charles. Michener’s novels were detailed and researched extensively. He was known for making foreign lands accessible to Americans through his epic “fictional documentaries.”

One of Michener’s most famous stories was inspired by his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II when he served as a naval historian in the South Pacific. His fiction collection Tales of the South Pacific (1947) took place there and Michener won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for it. The Tales presented that part of the world as exotic and foreign and dealt with the issue of racism.

The collection was later adapted for the Rodgers and Hammerstein romantic Broadway musical South Pacific in 1949, a 1958 film adaptation and numerous revivals. It is considered to be one of the greatest musicals of the 20th century and is one of my personal favorites. My introduction to South Pacific was through my high school in suburban Detroit, Michigan where I saw the musical directed and performed quite professionally by teachers and students.

southpacificalbumcoverThe musical opens on a South Pacific island during World War II, where Ensign Nellie Forbush, a naïve young Navy nurse from Arkansas becomes romantically involved with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner. Nellie sings to Emile telling him she is “A Cockeyed Optimist.” And Emile later sings “Some Enchanted Evening” to Nellie tenderly  recalling their first meeting. Nellie struggles with her relationship with Emile – conflicted because of their different backgrounds and whether she should allow herself to fall in love with him.

The story of Nellie and Emile resonated with me when I met my husband Charles. He had a wonderful baritone voice and would often sing “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific to me. I loved that. “And somehow you know / You know even then / That somehow you’ll see her / Again and again.”

But like Nellie I was conflicted about our relationship. Charles was nearly 20 years older than me, we were “born on the opposite sides of the sea. . .” and we had only known each other a “few short weeks and yet. . .” That’s how I was feeling about Charles.

I reconsidered our relationship and thought of breaking it off, but soon realized I was in love with Charles and “ran to his side.” We had both discovered a need for each other in that stage of our lives and had the courage and sense of adventure to give it a try!

Happy Birthday, James Michener and thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein! I will never dream all alone. With Love in Detroit, Sandy