Nelly Case holds up the cover of her book, ‘My Heart Goes Home’. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/ladailypost.com
By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
When Nelly Case cleared out her family home in Ohio in 2018, she found a treasure trove. She discovered photos and other memorabilia, and among them were her mother’s diaries and the love letters written by her father to his future wife, Case’s mother.
She wanted to tell their story, and the book that resulted, “My Heart Goes Home”, is part memoir and part biography. It’s a real-life love story, taking place from the 1920s to 1945. It captures what it was like to be young and in love in this turbulent time.
“Two things inspired me to write the book,” Case said. “For the sake of my children and future generations, I could not bear just to recycle all those documents penned by my parents, especially since the younger generations never had much time to get to know them. Secondly, after Stephen (her husband) and I retired to Los Alamos 2016, I quickly realized how much interest there still was in the history particularly of WWII, as reflected by the many people who come to visit Los Alamos year after year and the numerous books about the people and developments here. That realization set the groundwork for my own project.”
The first edition of the book was more of a family history and served as Christmas gifts for her relatives. The second, written with the general public in mind, focuses on the love story and paints a picture of the time.
Because the book was created from diaries and letters, readers get to experience the style of three excellent writers, Case and both her parents.
“We’re a family of writers,” Case said. “In fact, my daughter is a journalist and my son is a screenwriter. The title of the book comes from a poem my mother wrote to my father when they were apart during college.”
Althea Kay and John Case, Nelly’s parents, were high school sweethearts. Althea writes poignantly in her diary about her self-perceived flaws and worries she’s too plump.
It makes this girl from the 1920s seem like a best friend or a mirror of ourselves. But there are differences between now and then, too.
“The pressure on my mother to guard her ‘respectability’ was supposed to be balanced with her responsibility to get married. It was a contest between those aims for her,” Case said.
We learn what it was like to meet, court, fall in love and choose a future spouse when the two parties are seldom alone. Everyone expected Althea and John would eventually marry, but first, John would need to attend college and then law school. Althea wanted a college education, but she had to earn her way. With a year of training, she was sent to teach at a rural one-room school at the age of 19.
“She had no idea how to manage a classroom,” Case said. “The only way she knew how to control the class was corporal punishment and she hated that. She was very self-critical. When she later taught in the Akron schools she was able to learn from the more experienced teachers and things went better.”
The grown-up Nelly had no idea until she discovered the diaries, that her mother had been heavily influenced by the poverty of her students during the depression.
“She was something of a ‘closet socialist’ and continued to be a liberal later in life,” Case said. “I had no idea she wasn’t a Republican like my father.”
Even deeper secrets would be revealed. Althea and John continued to correspond and see each other when they could during the years they were apart, through spring of 1932. Then suddenly, in June, 1932 John married someone else.
“My aunt spilled the beans at a party when I was 19,” Case said. “I never knew there was a first wife before that.”
Althea’s heart was broken. There was no explanation from John and after that “she spoke of him as if he were dead,” Case said.
After John divorced in 1941, his father sent Althea’s father John’s address.
“My mother wrote to him that she’d like to visit,” Case said. “She basically proposed, and he wrote back, ‘Let’s get married’.
And so they did. But by then World War II was in full swing and John, now a young lawyer, enlisted in the Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army.
“He was spying on the spies at bases and facilities all around the U.S., but he was never sent to Los Alamos,” Case said.
John comes into focus during the years the couple was often apart, through his love letters to his new wife. What shines through is love and longing, but also a deep respect for Althea whom he not only loved, but admired.
“I don’t think my mother would mind me using her diaries,” Case said. “I think she’d be pleased I saw and appreciated the quality of her writing. I think my parents wouldn’t mind sharing their love story.”
The judge and the accomplished organist and teacher that Case’s parents became later in life were always in some ways, the young lovers they had been and their marriage was based on deep caring and deep respect for each other, Case said. Her parents were her model for family life done right.
Case would grow up to be a writer and a musician like her mother. She holds a Master of Music in piano from Yale University and a Ph.D. in musicology from Boston University and spent years teaching music at the university level. As a third generation church organist, she continues the tradition as choir director and organist for Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos. Case is the author of four other books. She is enjoying retirement in Los Alamos, she said.
“Besides all the wonderful new friends I’ve made here through bridge groups at both senior centers, the recorder group at the Los Alamos Senior Center, and playing in the Los Alamos Symphony Orchestra, my favorite thing about our community is its wealth of trees,” Case said. “I left a very big piece of my heart in the Northeast, but this place is now home.”
“My Heart Goes Home” is now available by “print-on-demand” at www.lulu.com in paperback. Case is working on getting copies placed in the local libraries and at the History Museum Shop.