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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Invictus: Uncovering my grandparents’ grave markers–in the snow!

In March 2013, my family and I visited Chicago.  This is where my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, grew up and where she met my father, Bob Morrison, when they both studied at the University of Chicago in the early 1940s.  As a girl, we children visited the Windy City about twice a year to visit my grandparents, Werner Wehlen and Neva [Levish] Wehlen.

Werner immigrated from Sweden at the age of 16 in 1913.  He never went back.  In fact, he never met his youngest brother who was born after he had left!  But that brother, Nils-Erik, had a number of children–all of whom we have met and continue to meet!  Such is the miracle of life.

My children, Sarah and John, had never visited Chicago before.  Nor had they seen their great-grandparents’ gravesites.  I insisted that we go pay our respects at Rosehill Cemetary, just north of the Swedish part of Chicago–Andersonville.  Very charming people at the cemetery helped us with two maps.

Plan of Rosehill Cemetary, Chicago, Illinois

Plan of Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

My grandparents are buried in Section 9, Block Sub. 1, Lot 18, Graves 4 and 5.

My grandparents were somewhere in the yellowed in area!!!

My grandparents were somewhere in the yellowed in area!!!

Now was the hard part:  we got to Section 9 and even this little area marked in yellow above.  But my grandparents did not have gravestones that stood up vertically; they had grave markers that lie flat.  How would we ever find them in beautiful but snow-covered lawn!!!  And it is fitting that they are buried under snow.  Both stem from ancestors used to snow.  My mother, Joan, writes on January 30, 1939, about her best friend’s father, Mr. Love, who has just died and been buried on a frosty Chicago day,  “Mr. Love has a warm blanket now above him. I’m glad the snow is clean and fluffy.”

You’ll notice Werner’s grave marker has the word “Invictus” at the top.  It means “unconquered” and is the title of one of Werner’s favorite poems by William Earnest Henley.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

This poem epitomizes Werner’s philosophy of life.  And my pure coincidence (?), John studied the poem in Social Studies class after our Chicago trip.

After we paid our respects, we headed for Andersonville and the Swedish part of Chicago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ann Sather is where we used to eat a delicious Swedish smorgasbord.


We drank a toast to Neva and Werner at a bar he used to take us to:  Simon’s.  It’s no longer quite the dive it was, but everyone was so friendly and it’s a great place for a drink!


Simon's Tavern is at 5210 N. Clark Street.  A great place for a drink and a toast!

Simon’s Tavern is at 5210 N. Clark Street. A great place for a drink and a toast!

Skol to everyone!

A Visit to Joan’s High School: U-High (Chicago Laboratory Schools)

Not only did I get to meet my publishers at Chicago Review Press in Chicago, but I also got to visit and teach at my mother’s high school:  the place she calls “U-High” in her diaries — the place now usually referred to as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (K-12).

I first got to teach two classes of U. S. History.  The teacher and head of the History Department, Charles Branham, was so gracious and fun.  I imagine his classes are filled with wonderment and pizzazz!  They assured me that Joan’s $300 scholarship, that enabled her to attend the school in the fall of 1938, would have to be much larger today!

Here is lovely U-High!

Here is lovely U-High!

Then I spoke to a huge lunch crowd.  It seemed that in addition to the principal, Chris Janus, there were at least 50 students there!  They were good sports and laughed at all of my mom’s jokes.  And they asked good questions.

Finally I had a wonderful time in the classes of a kindred spirit, Cindy Jurisson.  The first class we focused on Medieval Women (one of my teaching specialties). Cindy had trained her students to take excellent, thorough notes and they had already covered a lot of ancient women writers and women’s history.  The next class focused on Home Front Girl.

Students were very happy to join in the spirit of Joan’s hi-jinks.  There is one fun “dialogue” in the diary that seems almost like a play. A male friend, Frazier, and Joan are walking down the hall together in early 1939.

He: “Do you believe in heaven and hell, Joan?”

I (overcome by conservation of matter): “No, I’m afraid I don’t. I suppose that disagrees with you?”

He: “No, it doesn’t. That’s good. I don’t either. What do you believe in?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t know—conservation of matter right now. It’s awfully compelling.”

He: “Yes, it is. I guess I believe in that, too. But doesn’t that disprove immortality?”

I: “Oh, I don’t know. It means we’ll live again in flowers, doesn’t it?”

He: “Yes . . . Mr. Mayfield (Bio Sci teacher) makes it all so personal, doesn’t he? . . . You know—I wanted to be cremated.”

I: “Oh, do you? I used to want to, too, but now it seems as though I’d be cheating the Earth . . . you know.”

He: “Yes, I know.”

I: “I did want to be cremated, but now I feel a sort of duty toward the Earth . . . Of course it seems awful to rot away in the . . .”

He: “Yes . . . but I suppose . . . I saw a cremation once!”

Me: “Oh—what was it like?” (I wanted to asked how it smelled, but he thinks I’m crude as it is.)

He: “Oh, it was behind a glass wall and it shriveled up and . . .”

I: “Oh—Oh!” (thinking rotting in the cool sweet earth is more natural)

He: “And then . . ..”

And so we reached the locker room and I staggered to Modern Dance.

Here I am with one of the wonderful students–he was willing to play “Frazier” and I was “Joan.”  It was really funny!

Here we are as Frazier and Joan.

Here we are as Frazier and Joan.

More hi-jinks!

More hi-jinks!

I hope we can have an encore performance!

A Visit to my Publishers

In March 2013, my family and I had the great pleasure of visiting Chicago, the Windy City!  It is also the home of my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison.  And her diaries, now published as Home Front Girl, are set mainly in this wonderfully vibrant city.

Chicago Review Press is in Chicago.  I first made contact with my editor, Lisa Reardon, in November 2011.  And so for almost 1 1/2 years, she and I have emailed.  But we had never met each other!  Nor had I met the publicity folks, Mary Kravenas and Caitlin Eck.  But finally, I have!

Here I am in front of my publishers on a sunny but chilly day.

There is nothing like putting a face and a tone of voice to the people you’ve only corresponded with via email!  And what a pleasure it was to meet with kindred spirits!  I hope we’ll meet again!

By the door of Chicago Review Press.

By the door of Chicago Review Press.

Curriculum Guide and Book Club Discussion Questions

Now the Curriculum Guide and the Book Club Discussion Questions sheet for Home Front Girl are available for download.  home-front-girl.jpgPlease use and share them with teachers, students, and other interested parties.  I hope you find them food for thought!

Click Discussion Questions_Guide_website sheet to download it.

Click HFGCurriculumGuide to download it.

I had fun writing both these pedagogical materials.  And I hope they will help readers, students, and teachers as they explore World War II and the events that lead up to that time.

Each Chapter Guide includes:

  • Vocabulary

  • Discussion Starters

  • The guide facilitates the deepening of curriculum standards and objectives.

There are also:

Curriculum Connections

Culminating Activities

And a Q & A with Susan Signe Morrison (me!), Joan’s daughter and the editor of the book.  I hope you enjoy these supplements to Home Front Girl and that they make your class or Book Club discussions more focused and enjoyable!

World War II Documents Found Recently

It seems there is no end to documents being recently discovered about World War II.  There is my mother’s diary, of course, now published as Home Front Girl:  A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America.  I found it after her death in a file cabinet long ignored. And it enables us to see what a real-life American teenager felt and thought in the lead up to World War II.

The New York Times recently reported how a transcript was found of the Bretton Woods conference.  At this 1944 conference, 44 Allied nations gathered together in the town of Bretton Woods in  New Hampshire.

Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, standing at center, and representatives of 28 Allied nations met in Washington in 1945 to sign the pact reached at the Bretton Woods conference. From The New York Times article by Anni Lowrey, Oct. 26, 2012.

At this conference, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created.  So the impact of this conference is huge down to today.

John Maynard Keynes addressed the Bretton Woods conference, where the International Monetary Fund was created. From The New York Times article by Annie Lowrey, Oct. 26, 2012

You’d think that in this modern age such a transcript would have easily been retained.  But that wasn’t the case.  The writer of the article, Annie Lowrey, quotes a historian from the University of California, Davis, as saying, ““It’s as if someone handed us Madison’s notes on the debate over the Constitution.”  That’s similar to how I felt on finding my mom’s diaries–as though I were handed a key to her teenage years.

Hindenburg Explosion from 1937: New Scientific Theory and Joan’s Reaction

There is news about the Hindenburg disaster from 1937.  A news report tells us a theory just devised which argues for the true cause of the accident:  static electricity.  Read about the theory here and see a video from the catastrophe.

Joan often mentions events of the day in her journals. She writes about hearing about the burning up of the famous zeppelin.

Thursday 5/6/37, Age 14

Hello!  The German zeppelin Von Hindenburg crashed not three hours ago at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  That great new sister ship to the Graf Zeppelin!! Just burnt up like that.  The radio announcer said it was ‘cause the lightening set fire to the explosive hydrogen in the ship and then it exploded.  Airships seem to have a curse or something – to everyone except the Graf Something disaster has happened.  Now the Graf is the only one left.  The Herald Examiner said 100 people were killed, but as it’s a Hearst paper, 50 is a safer guess. They always exaggerate!  Ho-hum—must read about Renaissance art now— um—um.

Good Night!

The announcer’s eyewitness report is heartbreaking and famous.  Listen to the report Joan heard on the radio here.

Yang and Yin — and Serendipity

Life often has strange coincidences!  I’m currently reading writings by my mother, Joan, from Thursday Sept. 29, 1938 when she was 15 years old.  This passage, not in Home Front Girl, begins with Joan taking a walk after fighting with her parents.  She’s soon cured of her anger.  

Passing the houses, it seemed that they were all part of my dream, the people and lights and voices in them—the man pausing to light a pipe under a street lamp — the boy on his bicycle through the friendly night, the woman humming as she passed me with her bundles—all these part of a dream of mine, I thought.  Passing courts where the lights made clean shadows—clear cut shadows on the cement—grass, only a colourless dark mass in the night—trees, the strange shapes of them silhouetted against the dark sky.  All, all was a dream.

When Brahma ceases to dream

Say the people of India, heaven

And Earth shall pass away.[1]

            But this was my own dream—personal—yet not of me—by me, perhaps.  So I walked home through the night and reaching our court, paused, breathless, seeing the stone seat framed like a part of a dream under the unearthly lantern lights.   The light was such that it fell nowhere, yet enabled you to see clearly. I entered the dream of the light and sat on the stone ledge….

            I watched the people go by and somehow they were far outside of me—they did not seem to see me.  The shadows lay like long, grey dreams on the street, crooked and moving with the wind.  The shadows of the leaves were large enough for me to lie upon, so the light magnified them.  I watch my own indistinct shadow upon the wall.  Then my eyes fell on the dark bush beside me.  It, too, was part of the dream. I remembered when I had dreamed it in the spring when the scent of the young grass was still on the air.  The leaves on the bush had been many and moved lightly in the fragrant air.  Now the bush was dark and all but leafless.  It moved a little in the hazy-half-light.  It looked real—perhaps it had a dream of its own.  It came over me that only the things that were real were in my dream, and that the minute I acknowledge them as real, they became a dream, unreal.  And yet all things were seeming to fit into my dream. 

            A car pierced the night.  Some people passed, a dog barked.  I got up to go in—Looking back, I could see the hazy circle of light wherein I had sat.  It looked complete without me.  I went into the house convinced that all was a dream.  (Incidentally, I’ve been reading Yang and Yinil_75x75.369214797_py8jnot that this could influence my train of thought.)  I went to bed and lay looking at the black night….

I’d never heard of a book named Yang and Yin so I googled it.  And it popped up on an Etsy website:  Jen’s Closet with cool vintage stuff.  You can check Jen’s site here.

Jen has [well, had; I bought it!] a first edition of Yang and Yin, a book by Alice Tisdale Hobart, about an American doctor in China.  It turns out Alice Tisdale Hobart went to China as early as 1908 and later as well as the wife of an oil executive.  And she went to (but never graduated from) the University of Chicago, where my mother studied!


I let Jen know why I was buying the book and she’s written beautifully about our conversation.  Please read her blogspot here.  She writes, “Yes, one of the reasons I have my Etsy shops is to make money, of course, but it goes deeper than that.  At least once a week I hear a story from one of my customers about why they have purchased a certain item.  Often I hear from my customers that the item brings back special memories from their childhood.  I love that!”FotoFlexer_Photo2

Is it serendipity?  Coincidence?  Who knows…..

[1] Paraphrase from Kipling’s The Bridge-Builders.

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