RSS Feed

Tag Archives: university of chicago

The Nostalgia of Libraries: A Reflection on Mother’s Day

Oh, the libraries I’ve taken shelter in — both physically and emotionally!  Those who love to read learn to delve into the stacks of book-laden shelves in libraries at an early age.  For many, the library is an oasis of salvation–where new worlds can be discovered, sometimes safer and more joyous than the quotidian one hovering about:  boring, normal, menacing, or stressful.  I’ve always associated many of the libraries I love with my mom.

Happily, I’m scheduled to give a talk in my hometown library where I have spent many, many days, and where my mother, Joan, would pick me up after I had Girls’ Choir practice at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown, New Jersey.

The Morristown and Morris Township Public Library

The Morristown and Morris Township Public Library

I’ll speak on Thursday October 10, 1:30-3:30 p.m. at The Morristown and Morris Township Public Library, Morristown, New Jersey–courtesy of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters and its President, Judy Martorelli.  This was also Joan’s library since she lived in Morristown for over 50 years!

For Joan, in the 1930s and early 1940s when she wrote her diary, now published as Home Front Girl, the library plays a key role in Joan’s emotional and intellectual development.  When she is 14 [May 29, 1937], Joan writes about how she walked downtown to the Art Institute in Chicago–and back!  Over 8 miles.


Then to the library—Kipling—then walked home along [the] lovely lake with elongated purple shadows thrown along the sands. Still bright-haired children playing—still flowers no less vivid or sky less blue—sun like blood in the West. Oh I felt the glory and the spring of Kipling’s poem—

But as the faithful years return

And hearts undaunted sing again.[1]

Isn’t that a lovely thought—“hearts undaunted sing again”—though ever the years are long and hard—the Spring will always come and our hearts can sing again—oh how beautiful!!!

[1] From Kipling’s “Merrow Down”; Joan changes “unwounded” to “undaunted.”  You can read it here.

In January 1938, when she has just turned 15, Joan reads the Nibelungenlied:  “[A]lmost two months it took, and I owed 33¢ at the library by the time I had finished, but now I’ve read one book very few people I know have read—which is something.”  I have not owed as little as 33 cents for years!

Lewis Institute, now part of Illinois Institute of Technology

Lewis Institute, now part of Illinois Institute of Technology

A few months later, Joan visits “Lewis Institute[1] Library. Saw historic doors where Mom and Dad met—(oh evil day!) . . .”  Ha ha!  While it is true her parents did not have the best of relationships, Joan was the product of their union — and all thanks to a library!

[1] It eventually became part of Illinois Institute of Technology.

Another library plays a role in her life:  the famous Newberry Library.

Newberry Library

Newberry Library

Tuesday, June 7, 1938

. . . Sunday night Daddy and I went to Bughouse Square.[1] Not many talkers there and those not as good as they could have been. One of them was talking anti-everything and while he talked, I saw Venus shining over his shoulder. They say she is blue, but that night she was quite golden. And the man talked, sharply silhouetted against the street lamp, standing on his soapbox, the crowd like some dark elemental mass crowded below him and the great golden orb of Venus over his shoulder. The church spire in the East pierced the sky like a black rapier and the Newberry Library was a gloomy disapproving bulb in the night. It was a picture to take with you, unreal with the insects buzzing in the light and the trees moving like shadows in the warm night. Rain fell for a minute like a canvas over an unreal picture. Grant that I may know more unreal nights like that, when one can half-close one’s eyes and seem not to exist at all save as a watcher.

[1] A nickname for Washington Square Park. Anyone could speak to crowds there, generally on soap boxes.

Joan writes about how June 12th has always meant something to her.

Sunday, June 12, 1938

…You know, June 12 is a sort of anniversary for me. Three years ago the Jolies Amies[1] (remember them—us) gave the great production of Naughty Marietta.

Here's a library card belonging to Gloria Gumbinger for the Chicago Public Library.  Notice how it says "Juvenile Card."  Courtesy of

Here’s a library card belonging to Gloria Gumbinger for the Chicago Public Library. Notice how it says “Juvenile Card.” Courtesy of

Two years ago today I graduated. A year ago today I got my orange library card saying “Adult” on it.

So each year June 12 has meant something to me.

[1] A club Joan and her pals started. They thought jolies amies meant “jolly friends.” Of course, it means “pretty friends.”

But libraries do not always have such a happy appearance in Joan’s life.  Shortly after World War II began, when she is almost 17, Joan visits a library near Lake Michigan on the south side of Chicago.

Blackstone Library

Blackstone Library

Friday, November 3, 1939

It was the day after we repealed the arms embargo. I had gone to the Blackstone library to exchange a few books. With the Wild Swans at Coole[1] in my hand I walked up to the great globe that stands in the window. Ferns stood about on the floor in great pots. I turned the globe to Europe and noted that the ocean was grey-green, not blue as in the newer terrispheres. Europe fell crosswise under my fingers and, tip-toeing, I traced the worldly boundaries. I could see France and Germany on either side of the line and realized that my finger was placed on the tingling western front. That was the border when Caesar wrote his Commentaries. My eyes went upward and I saw in black letters—“Prussia”—this must be an old globe, I thought. Then I saw “Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.” There is a name I have not seen upon a map before. I was born after the redivision of 1921.

Map of Prussia

Map of Prussia

The borders of old Prussia  look much like the borders of Greater Germany today. I see the Danube and—remember we have just been studying the barbarian invasions—I see “German East Africa.”

They are beginning to turn out the lights in the library. Reflected in the window, I could see the interior of the room. The great globe, the tall ferns, the man reading, the shelves of books, myself on tiptoe. A sort of realization of changelessness pierces me. I am magnetized by the globe, I cannot draw my hand from the Danube. I seem to see a million people standing on the shining terrisphere, shouting to me that nothing changes. All the people who ever lived are telling me. Black specks on the globe.

Map of German East Africa

Map of German East Africa

We have just repealed the arms embargo. Of course we have—nothing ever changes. I draw my hand from the globe and it turns slowly. I watch it in the window.

I check my books and walk out between the pillars. The light from the street lamp slants through them. In the windless air, I can feel the stagnation of eternity. I can hear my footsteps beneath me and see the dry red leaves on the ground. A dog barks as I turn in at my door.

[1] By William Butler Yeats.

And libraries play a role in her love life once she enters the University of Chicago. Here she is at age 18:

Thursday, January 9, 1941

Harper Library postcard, 1928

Harper Library postcard, 1928

I was sitting in Harper Library where you get the books, waiting for Madame Bovary and listlessly looking at “Wissen, weiss, gewissen,”[1] or something of the sort. And an overcoat went by about 11:25. It looked a bit familiar. What was in the overcoat, I mean. I said softly, “Larry.”  And he turned. “Joan.”

I was sitting on the little table there and had my gold sweater on that matches my eyes. My hair was swirled up and my bangs were soft and fluffy. He came over and leaned on the table beside me. “How are you?” he asked. My heart was pounding like African tom-toms and I was sure he could hear it. It was hitting the side of my chest with tremendous force. It seemed like everyone in the room must be watching us because of our dramatic greeting. His eyes were brown today. . . . You know, after that night on the roof this was the way I imagined we’d meet some day. . . . In Harpers, suddenly, “Larry . . . Joan.” Of course, since then there’s been our social drama interlude and all . . .

This passage from January 3, 1939 shows Joan's doodle of the sweater she describes in the passage.

This passage from January 3, 1939 shows Joan’s doodle of the sweater she describes in the passage.

Anyhow Betty saw me peering up over my German and said, “What are you looking at” and I babbled on and she almost died. Everyone in the library must have noticed. And then he came back. Betty and I were together and he nodded and went on. Would it have been different if I were alone? Of course not. Oh, Joan. Stop being foolish. He went down the stairs with someone else and kept turning his head to look back, Betty told me, till she thought he’d fall down. I couldn’t look. Then we ran into the monk’s place to watch him—running into the little one on the way. . . . I collapsed and sighed and wheezed away. We reenacted it the way you do, you know. We really enter into things. . .

[1] German principle parts.

A few months later, she has another romantic trauma–this time with a boy named Hugh.

Cobb Hall, University of Chicago

Cobb Hall, University of Chicago

Wednesday, May 7, 1941

Arrived at Cobb and went upstairs to return Hitler and Hume.[1] Was just dumping them into the slot … when I heard a voice, “Let me put it in the slot for you, little girl.” And a bony hand reached over and grabbed Hume. I almost collapsed and began to giggle. What had he been running for? He seemed rather silly and expecting me to go into the library, but I turned around and departed to Sociology, leaving him still panting from his run, his Adam’s apple wiggling up and down. Well, it was good for his health—his hump.

[1] They had to read a translation of Mein Kampf for a class.  David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and historian.

A short while later, Joan goes to a different library.

Disciples Divinity House, University of Chicago

Disciples Divinity House, University of Chicago

Friday, May 30, 1941

Aside from Plato, I’ve been studying pretty well these last two days . . . in Divinity [Library] too! I feel there’s less distraction there, which is no lie. . . . It’s rather pleasant there too. These last days have been so hot and to sit in the cool, high-ceiling room with the wooden painted angels on the rafters and the heavy curtains blowing with the hot wind is quite pleasant. . . . The floor is tile and, looking out the narrow, many-paned open windows at the exotic-looking locust trees outside, one can almost imagine he is in Egypt, or some such faraway place. The trees, with their tiny leaves on the long fronds might indeed grow under the sea, they are so foreign in appearance. The blue sky, the grey stone and the green trees, it makes a pretty picture as one looks out. Indeed, it might be a panel on the wall. As you can see, even in Divinity Library I get distracted. . .

Cobb Gate, University of Chicago

Cobb Gate, University of Chicago

It’s almost the time of Pearl Harbor.  But not yet.  Beauty can still infuse Joan’s world.

Monday, October 13, 1941

Blue Monday, it rained, etc. . . . Maroon newspaper meeting, class at hospital. To Cobb [Library] in the downpour to study. All the sudden, I looked up and everyone was looking up. . . . It had cleared, suddenly miraculously, a brilliant sky lay before us purple and blue and all lovely colours. The green leaves hung on the trees alight with diamond raindrops and the yellow and red elm leaves burnt into the eyes. . . . The very grey stone of the buildings seemed alive with colour. And all this we saw through the rain-sequined windowpanes of Cobb. Beauty just about kills you sometimes. Then I went back to my Phy Sci problems.

Rainbow over Rockerfeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus.  Joan and Bob were married there on June 19, 1943. Photo courtesy of

Rainbow over Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. Joan and Bob were married there on June 19, 1943.
Photo courtesy of

Once the war begins, a library provides a kind of security–there life continues as before.

Wednesday, December 10, 1941

The Jap paratroops have captured Luzon in the Philippines and sunk two British ships, the Repulse and another near Singapore. Hitler speaks to Reichstag tomorrow. We just heard the first casualty lists over the radio. . . . Lots of boys from Michigan and Illinois. Oh my God! . . .

Life goes on though. We read our books in the library and eat lunch, bridge, etc. Phy Sci and Calculus. Darn Descartes. Reading Walt Whitman now.

Morristown and Morris Township Library about 100 years ago.

Morristown and Morris Township Library about 100 years ago.

I’ll be thinking of my mom as I give my talk of her book in the library she and I so often went –where we discovered new worlds together.

Joan and Susie, about 2003

Joan and Susie, about 2003

“Isn’t life strange?” Meteors, Calamities, and Memories

The meteor striking the atmosphere over Siberia on February 15, 2013, was, of course, not the first such disaster to strike the region. In 1908, an asteroid struck Tunguska, Siberia, ramming into the earth with power 1,000 times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, saw that explosion when he was twelve years old on his parents’ farm near Sundsvall, Sweden.  Only when he was 83 years old, after he had immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest, did he learn what it was he had witnessed that summer day 70 years before.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

As he told his story in his lilting accent, “Last week I went to a lecture given at the University of Chicago given by a famous astronomer from Harvard.  He told about a new theory they have now; that a tiny particle of antimatter–something very dense but very small–passed right through the earth in 1908. It left a big circle of wreckage in Siberia and it came out somewhere in the South Atlantic.  There was a flash of light seen over northern Europe at the time that it was supposed to have hit.  As he was talking, I remembered seeing such a flash, sitting in my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy.  It was so bright it took the color out of everything, even though it was daytime when I saw it.

“After the lecture, I raised my hand and told the astronomer I had seen that light.  He became very excited and asked me where I was when I saw it and what year it was.  I was able to date it pretty exactly, because it happened at about the time of the death of a cousin of mine.  The astronomer wrote down my name and the place I lived in Sweden.  Then he told me I was lucky, because I was probably the only person in the room to have seen that flash.  In fact, I was the only person he had ever met who had seen it.  Most of the other people in the lecture room were young students, and the astronomer himself was only about forty years old.

“Just think. I had seen that flash from my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy, and I had to wait till I was eighty-three to learn what it was.  Isn’t life strange?”

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

For my grandfather’s generation, waiting a lifetime to find out about a scientific or environmental calamity, would not be unusual.  Now, videos of catastrophes are uploaded on YouTube filmed by dashboard cameras and shared with the world almost instantaneously.  Isn’t life strange?

Sometimes stories don’t have an ending for decades, as my grandfather sensed with this event, tying his youth to his old age.  His story was recorded for American Mosaic, a book co-written by my mother Joan Wehlen Morrison.  My mother felt that everyone has a story, one that may not yet be apparent. As she writes at age 18 on October 19, 1941, “to understand one’s story is to weep with pity.”

Joan also writes about the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity.  On Thursday, January 26, 1939, at age 16, she writes about the death of her best friend’s father.

“Gee, I came home and Mom told me. I used to play cards with him and tell jokes and I saw him last Saturday and today he is dead and the Spanish Civil War is over and the Chinese War is going on and 8,000 people died in the Chile Earthquake and people all over the world are eating their suppers and doing their homework (as I shall) and laughing and reading and moving about in lighted rooms and a man I know is dead.

"El Mirador Alemán", in Concepción, after the earthquake.
“El Mirador Alemán”, in Concepción, after the earthquake.

It’s funny . . . coming home on the elevated train tonight I made an equation—a geometric equation to prove that Life cannot be cancelled.

Matter + Energy + X = Life

Matter and Energy cannot be cancelled.

Therefore: you cannot cancel Life.

But I don’t know. I will not be speaking to my friend’s father any more.

I feel low to be eating and writing in here and doing my homework when someone is dead . . . but someone is always dead. . . . 8,000 people that other people knew are dead in Chile. Barcelona fell to the Rebels and a war is over and I talk thus.”

The actual death toll in Chile was much higher, estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000.

50th anniversary  of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

50th anniversary of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

My grandfather, on learning what he had seen in the “old country,” asked, “Isn’t life strange?”  Now we know that an object half the size of a football field narrowly missed the earth on the same day that another object –thankfully, much smaller – slammed debris into it.  Life is strange—and precious.  All we have—the dashboard cameras, the YouTube videos, the farmyards, the diaries, the memories—could disappear in a flash.

A flash that may be remembered by someone decades hence.

%d bloggers like this: