Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Grandmother of My Grandmother

 This is all true. Or if it isn't true, I'm remembering incorrectly. Or someone told it to me wrong. You get the idea. I am not sure this will interest anyone besides my brother and me, but here it goes.

My great, great maternal grandmother Ellen Jane Stewart was born in Londonderry, NI in 1847. Escaping the constant mid-nineteenth century potato famines, she came to the US. circa 1870 where she earned a modest living as a lace-maker. The idea was that at some later date, her two younger brothers would follow her overseas. (And I understand they did and opened a tavern somewhere in New Jersey eventually.)  

Between 1871 and 1891, 55,690 Irish women emigrated to the U.S. compared to 55,215 men for the same time period. Immigrants coming from other countries were overwhelmingly male. This female-dominated migration stream was unique to the Irish and reflected their cultural values and the impact of the years of famine. Fewer than 50% of Irish women were able to find husbands after the potato famines and marriage was their only avenue out of poverty. (There are several good books and articles about this phenomena).

Soon after her arrival, Ellen married Thomas Alexander Morrison (1846), a coal miner, who came to the US from either Ireland or Wales. The sole story passed down about Ellen is that the first time she saw a streetcar, she fainted at the sight. Or ran after it. One or the other. (The first streetcars in the region, running on steel rails and pulled by horses, began operating on the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company on January 20, 1858). They didn't appear in NI until the 1890s.

The young couple had three children: Margaret (1876), John Alexander (1878) and Thomas Wilson (1881). Sadly in 1886, Thomas died from black lung disease, leaving his widow with three children to raise. 

And now we come to the story of Girard College and its impact on the life of my great grandfather, Tom Morrison. Stephen Girard (1750 –1831) was a Philadelphia philanthropist. Using, his fortune, Stephen Girard personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812, and became one of the wealthiest people in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. He was a virulent atheist. He worked hard nursing people who contracted yellow fever in 1793, fearlessly staying to help when he could easily have fled.

He bequeathed nearly his entire fortune to charitable and municipal institutions of Philadelphia and New Orleans, including an endowment for establishing a boarding school for "poor, male, white orphans" in Philadelphia, primarily those who were the children of coal miners. Girard College (130 acres) opened in 1848. It took that long to build it according to his detailed instructions. His will dictated everything from the school’s curriculum to its precise architecture, and even the lunches provided for students and staff. If accepted at Girard College, boys would spend their school years getting a first-rate education, being clothed, fed, and taken care of at the school. Discipline was strict. At one time over 1800 boys lived at the school. 

Ellen Jane Morrison was only able to visit her boys on Sunday afternoons (currently boys go home for the weekend) and a huge wall sequestered the boys from city distractions. No clergy man would be permitted to enter the premises as Girard believed them to be a weakening influence. Ellen's boys were eight and five when their father died. I am not sure if they went to live at Girard College immediately, but the school took first graders. Of course, Margaret, the older daughter, was excluded. And it wasn't until the 1960s, that black students were admitted. Today almost all of the students are black, reflecting the current population. 

Tom Morrison completed his education there and was admitted to Temple University and then Temple Law School. He had a successful career as an attorney, eventually working as Deputy City Controller for the city of Philadelphia. In 1932, just as the Depression began, he opened a diner with a Mr. Struhm called the Morrison and Struhm Diner, which still exists in Philly today as the Mayfair Diner. He died in 1933, age 52, probably a victim of the downturn.

Pics are a painting of Stephen Girard and his male orphans, the ten-foot walls that surround Girard College, Ellen Jane Stewart and her daughter, Margaret, and my grandmother, Dorothy Morrison with her brothers Tom and John and her parents, Edith and Tom.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy

Rewatched THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) and was knocked out by the sophisticated movies Hollywood was putting out thirty years ago. Sensual, political, artistic, full of feeling. This film would only come out of Europe now.

Also saw the National Theater's streamed play ALL MY SONS with Bill Pullman, Sally Field and other fine actors. You probably have access to this series in your neighborhood.. Next up PRESENT LAUGHTER (Noel Coward) with the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) for those who love Fleabag. 

Also saw the Agnes Varda doc at our Detroit Film Theater. Bit of a snooze. She is too full of herself for my taste. Caught a photography exhibit of the Great Lakes before the show.

Tomorrow would be my 53rd anniversary. Is it still my anniversary now or does that go away in widowhood? Nine months a widow.

Reading THE ACORN MAN, which is very good if very dark.

Finally got a snowfall of significance. Could do without it. 

What about you?

Friday, January 17, 2020



FFB-BILOXI, Mary Miller

This was just published in May so it is more a neglected book than a forgotten one. I enjoyed it and found the protagonist a familiar character among people I know. Men of a certain age seem more cast in stone than either women or younger men. In his early sixties, Louis has lost his wife, his father, quit his job, and is teetering on estrangement from his daughter and granddaughter. He is waiting to find out what his inheritance from his father will be, believing the money will rescue him from his stasis, when a dog is thrust upon him.

For a dog to change a life, you'd expect to see some super-dog behavior, but Layla is just an ordinary dog. What she does succeed in doing for Louis is to give him someone to care for, to wonder about, to draw him out of his shell. The world seldom allows someone with a dog on a leash to pass by without comment.

Louis can be frustrating as a character. For instance, I never really understood his issues with his daughter. But we will not always understand either people in our life or people in a good book. Miller never leans too hard on the idea of a dog rescuing this man and that light touch and the excellent writing is what made this novel work for me.

Recommended for those who enjoy superb character studies with not a lot of action. Which is me.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

More of my life

Just now I  googled the name of my childhood nemesis. His name is unusual enough that when an obit came up, I was sure it was Louis. Plus the picture bears more than a slight resemblance to the boy I knew in second grade. He grew up in Philly, served in Vietnam, and the weight he already carried at seven, grew. If I go to the website on Facebook for my elementary school, his name is treated with awe and shock. Read Jean Sheppard for the story of similar bullies in Indiana.

My elementary school, Samuel Pennypacker, was a good one.  My teachers were fine women, who a generation later, would be lawyers, doctors, accountants, professors. Coming from the generation before mine (at least) my teachers were secondary school teachers. They assumed we needed to know how to diagram a sentence, read novels like David Copperfield, and understand how to calculate distance, and interest and such.

In second grade, my teacher was Mrs. Birch. She was a fearsome woman who needed a few students to torture in class. Louis M. put me in that category by terrorizing me. Not too far into the semester, I began to suffer the insomnia that still plagues me today. His antics were dull, witless but effective. Following me home from school, letting doors slam in my face, tripping me, stealing my books were part of his game. I never understood why.

The school psychologist (and aren't you surprised they had one in 1955) suggested I read poetry. My parents dutifully bought a book of Poems for Children and I read them before trying to go to sleep each night. Still Mom and Dad would find me perched at the top of the steps when they climbed up. A second visit to the shrink netted the idea I would tell myself a story and this idea worked better than the first.  Perhaps it even made my years as a fiction writer possible.

After second grade, Louis and I parted ways. My fears would change to stray dogs, nuclear war, heights, girls who made fun of me for various reasons. But few of these things would ever have the power over me that Louis M. had. I wonder if he realized the power he wielded.

Was there a bully in your childhood? 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy

 1917 was more notable (to me) for its technical achievement than for its story telling, but that technical achievement was amazing. It very much seemed like the entire film was one long take with constant movement through the trenches of World War 1. A very fine lead performance too.
Also went to the DSO in the neighborhood program where Steling Elliott (above) played a cello piece by Lali. Also the music of Bizet's Carmen and Franck. I am ambivalent about this program, which was foisted onto the musicians after their last strike. But the very aging crowd at the synagogue that hosted them would have trouble getting downtown in January, I think.
Am enjoying the very strange novel, BILOXI by Mary Miller, which is mostly about a man and a dog.
After rewatching MY BRILLIAN CAREER, from the eighties, I caught up with Judy Davis on MYSTERY ROAD, on Acorn. It seems very stretched out and I believe it was a movie first. But seeing Australia not in the throes of fires was nice.
The weather here is odd. I am not sure the ground have yet been fully frozen and it's mid-January. Troubling.
What's happening with you?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Notes on my life-Daddy

As a girl, I was probably more interested in my mother's childhood than my father's. I wanted to know if she shared my love of dolls (no) and candy (no). Additionally, my dad wasn't around as much. He worked long hours at a low-paying job, and when he was home he was often occupied with household tasks, grocery shopping (he did this chore for some reason), church, etc. But certainly he was not as reticent as my mother about his past. Although his memories tended to focus on areas of deprivation.
He was the sixteenth of nineteen children. His oldest brother, Vincent served and died in World War 1 and my father in the second World War. His mother, Laura Nase, died when he was twelve.

Ralph E. Nase started selling pretzels after school at six (could this be true?) and a series of jobs followed that one. The Nases (in a town filled with Nases and Naces-you wouldn't believe the phone book. This was no uncommon:Herbert S. Nace was born and reared in Sellersville. He married in 1891, Addie M. Nase, daughter of Peter and .. ) lived in a three-bedroom house. The boys, of which only four survived war, birth or early childhood illness, slept in the attic. The girls, I believe there were eight or nine surviving childhood, shared two bedrooms. 
They grew most of their own food. Pigs were slaughtered in their cellar, in fact. 

Herman Nase supported his family working in a cigar family. In the second half of the 19th century, cigar, textile, and other industries established companies in Sellersville. Cigar-making seemed to dominate the small country town.

My father was athletic and played sports, especially tennis. He loved to skate and sled. His great hobby was raising and racing homing pigeons. He inherited this hobby from an older brother. (The only other pigeon raiser, I can think of was Rocky). It is hard for me to picture Dad with his pigeons because he couldn't stand to have his hands dirty. 

Approximately once a year, we would journey to Sellersville, which seemed like a long trip then but was only 25 miles, for a family reunion. We were the outsiders amidst a group that spent their free time fishing and hunting. My father fit in little better than my mother who especially dreaded these days. The reunions always numbered more than one-hundred people and I have vague memories of three-legged races, but that may have been our church picnic. Once in a great while, my uncle Nick (born Noah) would turn up in Philly, with pants too short, white socks, poor grammar and lots of gold teeth. My mother was on pins and needles during his visit. It would seem that she had the upper hand with this kindly, timid man, but it didn't seem to calm her. Stories about poor Nick to come later.

Dad went to a two-year business college (following the example of Uncle Nick) and began his career as an office manager in the mid-thirties. He worked at Oak Terrace Country Club where he met my mother.

Hereafter I am going to try to relate incidents rather than biographical information. I think it will be more fun to write and to read.