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Of NORMAN MORRISON Thirty years ago a Baltimore Quaker set himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Did it make a difference?


July 30, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

Anne Morrison Welsh has remarried twice since the event that bisected her life into a Before and After. Still an active member of the Society of Friends, she lives now in a small community in western North Carolina. A Duke University graduate with a degree in psychology, she works part time with the developmentally disabled. She also writes a human-interest column for a local paper.

The "great weight" of her husband's death was not the only test of Anne Morrison's faith. Five years later, Ben Morrison, the eldest child and only son, 6 years old when his father died, was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Ben died at 16.

His mother remembers him as a strong little boy -- at the age of 2 or so, he amazed her by picking up a whole crate of Coca-Cola bottles -- who often helped his father in the garden and around the house. The two were very close.

On the morning after Norman's death, they found Ben sitting alone in the garage, sitting alone in his grief.

"He was a very private person," Anne says of Ben. "And while I think we all internalized our grief, I think Ben may have internalized it more than most of us."

She says she wishes the family had talked more about Norman's death at the time.

"We did talk about it -- the kids would ask questions -- but if I had to do it over I would have made time every day to talk about it. But I was so caught up in the public demands following his death that I had to divide my time between meeting those demands and the family. In hindsight, if I could have obtained it, I would have had all of us go for family counseling."

Christina Morrison was just 5 -- they called her "Tina" then -- when her father without warning turned her world upside down, changing her, she writes now, "from being a very happy and outgoing person to a relatively numb and repressed person. Fortunately, I have learned to express my feelings and am returning to my happier self." Today she lives on a 90-acre farm and nature preserve near Austin, Texas, where she, along with a few friends, runs a retreat center. Only in the last five years, she says, have she and her mother and Emily been able to express with one another their feelings and their pain about Norman.

"I actually don't think I even felt my sadness, anger or fear, because I never let myself think about how I felt," she says. "This was relatively easy since no one ever asked how I felt until I got to high school. We were too busy trying to figure it out and explain it to others on intellectual, political and spiritual levels. We were also denying or hiding our feelings.

"I have often felt that, in a sense, my father sacrificed all five of us in hopes of saving the people of another country. As a child, I wondered if they were more important to him than we were. I still wonder if he had any idea how much his action would hurt us and would he have done it if he had known.

"I wonder if he gave any thought to Ben and me as he drove to Washington. Did he think we wouldn't miss him? That we wouldn't care? . . . Did he think we'd be just fine without a father or even a farewell? How often I have wished I could tell him to his face just how much we cared. That to have had one word of love and farewell scratched on a napkin would have changed my whole life. It would have become my most precious possession."

But Christina, a certified massage therapist and rebirther who describes herself as "a healer of others," also says this of Norman: "I now know that he loved me and that we will always be connected. I am very proud of my father. He was an extremely empathetic, sincere, intelligent, caring person with very high ideals. . . . My father gave the greatest gift -- himself -- in a way that very few people would ever have the courage or conviction to do."


And what of Emily, the one who was there with Norman?

Emily Morrison Welsh (she assumed her adoptive father's name years ago) is 30 now, almost the age of her father on their last day together. She is a professional actress -- has been since the age of 14 -- and after graduating from New York University with a degree in theater, worked in New York and Los Angeles.

She's gotten some good reviews for her work but writes that she is "not interested in fame," had "enough of it at age one to last a lifetime." What she wants instead is to do "conscious, responsible and inspirational projects in which [she] shares her gifts as an artist and firstly, her heart."

Unlike her older sister, Emily has never questioned her father's devotion to his own family: "He did what he believed he must do, to be true to his heart, to be a light in the midst of our darkness. And I love him for that as he loved all of us completely."

And unlike her mother, Emily questions the depth of Robert McNamara's Vietnam mea culpa.

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