Author finds a story in his quest for true love
By Lisa Kintish
“Love is to the soul what breath is to the body, and without either there is no life in us.” – Stephan James Gathings
Teen-age life in 1960s Lake Hiawatha was about the search for “True Love,” at least it was for Gathings. He says he “believed” in it and “actively sought after it.”
Gathings dreamed of his “perfect girl.” He called her Sue and pictured her “small, five-foot stature, her silken brown hair, her warm Spring-smile” and could hear her voice whispering in his ear. Most of all, he loved the elusive girl’s “chocolate-brown eyes full of love that left me breathless.”
When his family moved to Dover from Lake Hiawatha in 1968, not only did Gathings have to leave his home of eight years, he was also afraid he lost his chance of ever meeting his real-life Sue. In his new town, he did date a girl and married her after graduating from high school. However, the union did not last and he was left “empty, broken, and feeling betrayed.”
Gathings said, “I had no heart left to give it seemed. I began to doubt that true love actually existed and I felt like a fool for even believing in it.”
He spent his 20s roaming the country, “trying to find meaning to it all.” At 3 , with the realization that “True Love is not a prize to be won, but a gift to be given,” he found his “Sue” and they are now married with two sons. Her eyes, though, are green and not brown, but they “send love straight to my soul with but a glance.”
It turned out that she was never really very far from him after all; she grew up in Boonton, “one town away.”
Gathings’ journey to find true love inspired his novel, “Amidst the American Dreams,” a fictional tale of two teens in Lake Hiawatha who meet at Christmas in 1965. The book follows them for the next 41 years.
Gathings noted, “We watch how the innocence of this First Love evolves and grows to better understand the meaning of having been given ‘The Gift.’ The story progressively shows that life demands faith, sacrifice, and commitment if one wishes the joys of such a love. That along with the bliss there will be painful trials as well, but that real love endures forever. Here is a journey of a love perfected, a True Love.”
By setting the book in the Lake Hiawatha of his youth, Gathings was able to touch the time in his life when there was “innocence and stability.” As he said, “there were no grey areas, everything was either black or white, right or wrong. You easily could see how life worked. What was expected of you and how to act. What friendship meant and that it was earned and honored.”
He observed that back then, people in “this small town” were close and cared for community. Most everyone went to the same church and the children attended the same school.
As for romance at the time, he said, “I was taught to hold a girl in high regard, to treat her in a certain proper way and to dress and act nicely when on a date. In doing so, we both showed respect for each other. Yes there was puppy love and boys would still often try to see how far they could go, but we all knew the standard that was expected of us and affection was not something to be taken lightly. The songs of the times reflected this as well and it was customary to select a song of the month whenever you went steady with someone. It became Our Song and helped to remind us of why we were a couple. I always felt that small towns like this one were the backbone of our country’s strength.”
ParsippanyTroy-Hills High School and St. Peter’s Church are mentioned in the book along with places still around and those that are gone.
Gathings said, “I lived on a side street in lower section of town, down near the Hiawatha Pool. The island mentioned throughout the story is right there next to it. The wooden bridge is now gone that crossed over to it and the river has been drudged down to a small brook into the lake itself. The old iron rear bridge to the island off River Road is no longer accessible, but it could still be seen when last I visited. It was a two-blinker town when I lived there, now both are full lights. The Hiawatha Sunoco on the corner of North Beverwyck Road and Lake Shore Drive has been closed. I had worked there in the ‘70s as a mechanic. The building now sitting there had replaced the old one of years ago.
“The Spa luncheonette is still serving great food and drinks. The seating arrangements have changed slightly since I took my dates there and hung out with friends. As I sat there on my last visit with my eldest son for coffee, I watched as people were still being treated as guests and enjoying the cozy atmosphere. I had worked there as well as a dishwasher and the elderly couple who owned it and were friendly with all of us always welcomed the teenage crowd.”
He continued, “Out on Route 46 west once sat the Par-Troy drive-in, along with the batting cages and a golf driving range up closer to North Beverwyck Road. All are gone now. At the other end of town was the Knoll golf course. I would caddy there each summer with friends when I lived there. It is mentioned as well in the story but without the name. At the bottom of Lake Shore drive and River Road you will, as I said, find the Island and the lake.
“My brother and I had made make-shift rafts one fall day and launched them. Mine soon took on water and I had to swim for it. I almost drowned that day, as I began to sink from two layers of wet clothes on, but for my brother who grabbed me to hang onto his raft as he made for shore. Still, I loved that lake, island and river. I had enjoyed picnics there while on dates many times.”
Gathings learned how to write as a student at the County College of Morris in the late 1970s. He has written a short story and plays as well as poetry. The latter is incorporated into the book, written in what he likes to describe as “exploratory” style.
“Writing Amidst the American Dreams” was “like a form of madness” for Gathings.
He said, “It would not let go of me until it was finished. I took three months between jobs just to do a rough draft. I would work in my den for hours, then wake up in the middle of the night with a spark of insight, or just a piece of dialog that was just right and start working again. Often I had to wait for the characters to tell me what was going to happen next.”
He added, “During that time of quick light meal breaks, gallons of coffee and chain-smoking enough cigarettes to change the color of my wallpaper, I lost over thirty pounds, but had a near perfect rough draft. I spent the next year and a half polishing it, until one night I sat back and read it cover to cover. It was as if for the first time hearing the story and I was so moved by it that I gave it to my wife to read. She insisted that it should be sent out for consideration, so with much reluctance I did. I am still dazed that it has become a reality out there in the marketplace. I have received so much feedback on how it affected others that I felt humbled and so grateful to have been given a chance to share it. It has inspired me to work on my next one.”
With this book, Gathings hopes to “move the reader with emotion, make them laugh, or feel the pain and loss, to not just cry for the characters but to identify with them. And most of all, to love them as I do. In the end, I hope that the story has a major impact on the reader’s way of viewing his or her own life. That it motivates them to make the changes they may need to live a full and happy life.”
Amidst the American Dreams is available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, PublishAmerican.com, or by visiting Gathings’ website, http://www.noveltimes.webs.com.