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Journal entries

Below I’ve included some excerpts from the published book, as well as an unpublished entry from October 15, 1939, after World War II had begun in Europe.

September 14, 1938, Age 15

There’s war in the air. Czechoslovakia and Germany are having it out over the Sudeten people etc. Britain, France, Russia with Czechoslovakia and Germany with her new conquest Austria (did I tell you about that?—Germany invaded Austria and now it belongs to her). Unfortunately, very much like World War. I hope it doesn’t come to anything but the newsstands are full of extras. And there was fighting on the border today.

Monday September 19, 1938, Age 15

…Well, world news goeth on too…see this—“Allies (Britain and France) give in to Germany—leave Czechoslovakia flat!” Czechoslovakia says she’ll fight and Germany says it will be a “real” War. I wonder what Hitler said to Chamberlain that made Britain side step so neatly.

 Newspaper clipping pasted into Joan’s journal with headline “Chamberlain Back in London; Await Action by Cabinet.” In the photo are Chamberlain and Hitler.  She has written, “This is Hitler and Chamberlain conferring–doesn’t Hitler look tired?”

This was a crucial event in the development towards World War II.  Read about the “Munich Agreement” here.  Click here for lesson from the National Archives in the United Kingdom.

3:00 Sunday December 18, 1938, two days before she turns 16

Oh, I’ve been the Virgin, sitting in blue gauze with a veil on my head, watching the manger. And the little white angels with their candles were surrounding us and I cannot tell you how it was. Joseph behind me with his impassive face and strong arms, and the shepherds and the Wise Men coming with gifts for the empty manger (there was only a flashlight and some straw in the manger).

            But I cannot tell you how happy I am….

            It’s so wonderful to be the Virgin Mary and almost sixteen and so awfully happy on the same day…But oh how wonderful to be the Virgin and almost sixteen on a cold bright winter day….

December 1938. Joan (center), age (almost) 16, as the Virgin Mary.  See under “Joan’s Doodles” for another journal entry and several drawings of her in costume.

Sunday June 25, 1939, Age 16

Nothing is going to change or has ever changed. There have been wars and they shall continue to be—like unemployment and slavery and frustrated love and death. Why should we think that just because this is our almighty present that now, almost 1940 A.D., is the last war—or the first of anything?

Joan goes to Camp Oronoko the summer of 1939 where she is a Nature Study Counselor.  The first month there are boy campers, the second month girl campers. Some counselors, like Joan, stay the entire summer; she is the designated Nature Study counselor for both groups of campers. Many of the male counselors leave after the first month, when girl counselors arrive. It was run by St Chrysotom’s Episcopal Church and the parish supported poor children to attend.

July 3, 1939, Age 16

Hi—boy am I mad! Boy, could I bop him one—wait’ll I tell you! Wow—Grrrr!—Well here goes.

            Mr. A. (whom Phyllis and I refer to as my No. 1 because he is first in the heart of one countryman—), well, he was just in here, and guess what! Boy, am I mad! —I remind him of his girlfriend! Well—! After all—he even showed me a picture of her! I shall herewith bop him one! He was in here quite a while this afternoon and now 7:40, he’s just left again. We have been discussing: meals, careers, promises, wood ticks—and (grrr!) his girlfriend. Well—as I said! Well!

            Anyhow—stunt night tonight.

Joan age 16 at Camp Oronoko in 1939. “Trying to look philosophical.”

9-11-39, Age 16

I think children are our only real immortality. In them, some part of us has continuity. Shakespeare in one of his sonnets implies this…. I remember when I wished to die a virgin; perhaps that would have assured me of complete mortality. That was only a little more than a year ago. Perhaps a year. Before I took Bi[ological] Sci[ience]. Mr. Mayfield said, I remember, that only the cells with [certain] chromosomes are even potentially immortal. Though I believe in a physical immortality—if it is only the conservation of matter. Perhaps the spirit hovers over the matter it inhabited. Or is broken up and distributed and never wholly reassembled identically again? Who knows? Qui Sabit. 1,000 years is a short time. Give Cicero a chance.


Joan, autumn 1939.

October 15, 1939, Age 16      

Of Sept 28-1939:  “I Remember”

            I got off the car and walked the two blocks to the west side street where I used to live….

            It was two minutes past three when I reached the dingy red brick building that had held me 6 hours a day, from the time I was learning my table of threes till I could recite “Columbus.”  The children were already pouring out and I stood silent at the edge of the schoolyard.  Almost always, in those old days, I had arrived late to that building and now, again, I was too late.   The teacher I had meant to see had probably left already.   I stood aside from the ruthless crowd of children, hoping to meet her as she left.

            They jostled me and pushed me out of their way with not so much cruelty as an unawareness of me; I was only a young woman in a smart grey tweed coat and rakish black hat.  I shrunk from them, afraid, idiotically afraid that one of them would see me, point at me, saying, “I know her, she went here once; take off her paint and powder and she is only a west side child who lives in a rooming house.”  The years might come as easily off as the paint, I thought.  I was afraid of the children.

             I looked again for Miss Karnin, who had first encouraged me to write poetry. The schoolyard was emptying and I remembered it as I used to run to it, a little late, in those quick winter mornings.  I hated to come late.  It always looked so great and imposing….  so empty the yard.  Now I was surprised at how small it was.  Or perhaps I had grown big and was a woman seeing how small her old doll-house really was….

            The last crowd jostled me and a few boys were beginning a ball game in the yard, the girls were skipping rope, I heard them “Rouge, powder, lipstick,” “M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.”  I might never have left.  I began to walk slowly…. Two girls passed me, how small they were, physically….  Had I been that small?  To be sure, I had not grown very tall ever, but I remember I felt myself rather complete when, in 4th grade, I asked my father, “What more have we to learn?”  The years have brought change to the thin little girl in bangs who recited poetry so glibly and never learned her table of fours.  (I still stumble over them).

            The girls passed, their dull hair frizzy in the sun.  I walked on, almost sauntering, hands in pockets, feeling slightly superior and remote from that tanned west side girl.  My own thought, however, was proved wrong by the unconscious action of habit.  Instead of stopping at the bus stop, to ride out of this long removed world, I walked on, unthinking, the way I had used to go, as a little girl in brown bangs and red coat….Passing an alley I thought:  Gracie and I used to walk home there in the snow and recite our poems to each other.  Little Gracie Stoneking who used to be my best friend.  Then I saw I was going the old way, and faintly curious to see if the old neighborhood was still the same I walked on.

            Passing a machine shop, I remembered.  I stopped to see if the old statue of the Discobolus was still in the window.  Even then, when I knew nothing of Greek art, of line, of thought, of beauty, I used to linger, even on late mornings, to marvel at the sweep and the curve of the tiny white stone man. I was a little embarrassed at his nudeness and would only stop when I was alone.  Sometimes now, the thought that the little untaught nine-year-old could recognize beauty encourages me; I get a faint pride in myself.  Passing there, though, I only noted that the little man was gone now.  The big full-length mirror in the doorway was still there though; I paused and adjusted my hat by it now.  It had held my image as a thin straight haired girl.  Beneath the glossy curls and the artful red lips, could it still find the straight bangs and the tan-gold child?

            I walked on, now eager to see the street I had lived on.  Another block.  There was the truck yard where Leta Barnes and I used to play.  Thin straight Leta with the wonderful glowing eyes and the strange name.  I passed her house.  The imitation lace curtains might have been the same ones we had played behind.  I wonder if she still lives there?  She and her sister with the baby and her husband gone God knows where?  And her brother, Cecil, he could be walking past me now.  What if I should go up to the door, knock and say, “I’m Joan Wehlen, do you remember me, Leta?”  That was a long time ago.  But they owned the house.  No doubt they still are there.  I remember the big glass globe with the stuffed birds in it that her mother had, and the tinkling glass light chain in the dining room.  Are they yet behind those curtains?  I pass on.

            Now I am turning on familiar ground.  Here is the house we lived in last.  We had the back flat and I can only see the porch of it now.  A woman is hanging out washing.  Can that be Mrs. Bishop—  the widow with private means and the one “gentleman boarder.”  I don’t recognize her.  Next to the house is the lumberyard we used to play in — up and down among the piles of wood.  It was a child’s paradise to play in – with the little caves hidden away among the long boards and the sunlight streaming through in raveled ribbons.  There is the gate where I last saw my dog, her front paws on the edge, looking goodbye at me.  I almost see her again.  Goodbye, oh, goodbye, Poochie!

            Past the alley and I turn down the old street.  There is the yard where the marble blocks used to be—  long rectangles of pink granite that we used to race upon.  I still have the scar on my knee where I fell there. Our gang built the clubhouse there and held meetings by glorious candlelight in broad daylight till the Fire Department made us tear it down.  I can remember our mute rebellion against civil authority even then, but we tore it down obediently, standing and looking with quiet eyes after it was gone.  We had built it with our hands and they had made us destroy it.  But there was a bitter satisfaction in the fact that we had destroyed it.  I looked back at the house where I had read Jules Verne in the evenings.  I still love The Journey to the Centre of the Earth and I remember desperately reading the Mysterious Island.

            Now I turned down Adams St.  Rooming house people move often and we had lived in three houses there.  There is where I first came, seven years old from the hospital where I’d had my tonsils out, to the tiny third floor room in Olsen’s house.  I remember my Mother had fruit on the table, red apples and yellow bananas and rosy pears.  The tiny room looked like home to me and then, after the impersonal hospital, I remember Daddy brought me home in a cab, though we could not afford it.   There is the tree where my dog died.  Then I passed the yellow group of houses.  There is Mrs. Austin’s where my mother went to stay when she left my Dad for a few days.  Kathryn and Earl were her children and my playmates.  Are they still in that dingy basement that was so plutocratic to me then because it had a parlor set and radio in a real living room?  I wonder if that lady still has the big sunflowers in her backyard.   I walked on.  Now I came to Shaunnery’s houses.  Here was where the Shaunnerys themselves live.  The impressive brick with what I remembered as a big green yard and an arched driveway.  The driveway was still there, but the yard looked somehow dingy and smaller.  Again, perhaps it was I that had grown…..

            Paulie and Dickie and I used to play on the scooter.  Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers and I daresay a little of Knights in Armor.  Paulie was a year older than I and Dickie a year younger.  I remember their green backyard with the tiny rock garden and the neat grandmother.  They were different from the other children about.  It was their own house and they spoke with easier language than the others.  Their grandmother was careful whom they played with.  Once she told my mother she liked them to play with me because I spoke such good English.  I do not say this with pride.  It was not to my credit.  I remember racing in that yard with them and hiding with Paulie in the cement basement.   Their house was big and cool-looking but the grandmother never asked me in.  I wonder what would happen if I should knock at that door and say to the grandmother in the fresh cotton who I am sure would open it, “I’m Joan — may I see Paulie and Dickie?” She would not remember me.  Would they?  I don’t know, a long time has passed.

            Behind Shaunnery’s big yard is the garage over which the Blairs lived.  It used to be a stable and still has the look of bygone days about it.  I used to play with Bernice Blair and I remember her older sister Jessie who had three babies by different fathers, all illegitimate. And old mustached Mr. Blair who died of a hemorrhage.  And the sweet other sister – blonde, thin Lorraine with the dark thin husband on relief.

            And here is the house we lived in for most of our time in that neighborhood.  It is almost as I remembered it.  Of respectable red brick with a carved steel railing up the stone stairs and a big bay window on the first floor front where we used to live. Even now you can tell it was a home once in the [18]90’s — when red brick was fashionable and before people lived in apartment houses.  I remember that big front room.  There was an open fireplace we all loved…  We used to pop corn in front of it and read by it and on Christmas day we pulled the table from the tiny kitchen out in front of it and ate by its rosy glow.  I used to love to lie on my stomach before it, hands in chin, watching the red glow and re-living some ancient life that fire awakens.  I still get dreamy before an open fire.  We used to dress by it in the cold winter mornings, and sometimes after we were all in bed I would watch it glow in the darkness till I fell asleep.  I used to be very afraid in the dark in those days I am sure, reading the Examiner Sunday supplement.  I used to pray to go to sleep.  Never tried counting….   When I look back we had some horrid times there —  constant quarreling and uncertainty — but I am grateful for the big bay windows and the open fire.

2 responses »

  1. “I think children are our only real immortality. In them, some part of us has continuity.” I love how you have proven this by publishing her words. Wow.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind observation!


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