Dad: The Archive


We will be some time going through the archive of pictures and other effects our dad left behind. There’s a lot there I don’t remember having seen before. For instance, my brother Chris brought out a binder of transparencies last night that included some stunning shots of our mom during their engagement and of my dad in the years before that. I’m posting a couple of my favorites from other times here.

Above is a shot that surfaced in the last decade or so. That’s Dad, at almost four months old, on December 26, 1921, which happened to be his saint’s day. His parents lived in Alvarado, Minnesota, a village just up the Red River of the North from Grand Forks, North Dakota. There’s something in the way my grandmother is bent over him, showing him that little ball, that seems almost profoundly gentle, attentive, and caring. (I think this is partly because she’s the one in focus here, not my dad). That short northern Minnesota winter daylight that just barely plays across her forehead also gives a feeling of a fleeting moment captured.

The picture below is one of Dad with my son Eamon, his first grandchild. I think Eamon was about eight months old when my brother Chris took this during a brief visit. I’ve always been struck by how serious they both look. It’s a beautiful picture of the two of them.


For Dad: Three Readings

“…When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me. …”

Stanley Kunitz

* * *

“I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”

John Muir

* * *
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

Walt Whitman



That’s me and my dad and namesake, Stephen Daniel Brekke, back in 1955, when I was about a year or so old and he was 33 or 34. He was not a bad-looking guy, and he could rock a bow tie, as the young people say today. When my parents had this picture developed, they saw something they hadn’t noticed before — that something was amiss with my eyes. They took me to an ophthalmologist, and I was in glasses by the age of 18 months. But that’s another story.

Today’s story is that Dad died about 5 this afternoon, Chicago time. My sister, Ann, and my brothers, John and Chris, were with him when he went. Some of his grandkids had just visited. Chris’s wife, Patty, was there. A Lutheran minister, a fellow Norwegian-American, came in to say a prayer. John says his passing was as quiet, as peaceful, and as gentle as it could have been.

If this were a news story, we’d want to be getting to the cause of death. I think I hit upon the right description the other day: the weight of his ninety-plus years finally bore down on him. He’d had pneumonia. And emphysema. And crippling arthritis that virtually froze his knee joints and robbed him of his mobility. And a form of dementia that denied him the ability to communicate freely. And finally, congestive heart failure. Ann’s husband, Dan–the two of them were my dad’s primary caretakers for the last three years or so of his life and his main lifeline since our mom died nine years ago–reminded me that my dad never complained.

And he didn’t. If you asked him if he was in pain or uncomfortable, he’d come out with some formulation like, “I can’t say that I am.” It wasn’t until a month or so ago that Ann asked him if he was hurting after suffering an arm abrasion and he said, “I hurt all over.”

Bye, Pop. We miss you already. But we’re glad you’re not hurting any longer.

Chicago and Midwest Weather: Condition Orange


My brief stay in Chicago has included a couple of Summer of 2012 heat spikes, interspersed with less radical summer weather, as a frontal boundary oscillates across this part of the Midwest. Today’s National Weather Service forecast map for the Chicago region is orange in every direction, indicating a heat advisory. Temperatures in the city are expected to hit 100. Outside the city, up to 105. (I note that the forecast high in San Francisco today is … 63.)

Tom Skilling, the dean of Chicagoland TV weather forecasters, and a meteorologist who is unfailingly informative first and entertaining second, sums up today’s torrid conditions on the WGN/Tribune Chicago Weather Center blog:

“The blisteringly hot air mass responsible for 100-degree or hotter temperatures across sections of 19 states Tuesday re-expands into the Chicago area Wednesday. It’s on track to bring Chicago its fifth triple-digit high temperature of 2012—the most official 100+degree readings here of any year since 1988.

“Temperatures surge past 90-degrees for a 34th time this year at O’Hare and 35th time at Midway—extraordinary when you consider the average since weather records began in 1871 has been only 17 such days at O’Hare and 23 at Midway!

“…This summer’s warmth has been nothing if not persistent. If you needed any additional evidence this weather pattern has been unusual, WGN weather producer Bill Snyder, in surveying the city’s official temperature records, finds Chicago is to log an unprecedented 29th consecutive day of above normal temperatures—making this the most back-to-back days to post a surplus in the 5.5 years since a Dec. 10, 2006 through Jan. 14, 2007 mild spell in which above normal temperatures were recorded over 36 consecutive days.”

Runaway Sun

A subject I haven’t broached much in the past and one that’s become central part of my daily consciousness over the last couple of years: my dad’s decline and dire condition as the weight of ninety-plus years settles upon him. He’s up in a hospital in Evanston fighting his third bout with pneumonia in about four months. That’s just the current crisis. I could run through the full list of conditions besieging him and the disasters and indignities that have grown from them, but I know I’m only discovering what many, many other children of aged parents have already learned. The truth is that the poor guy is dying and beyond the power of science to heal or restore. But he is not beyond the power of love and caring, and the best thing that has happened during the last couple days is that my brothers and sister and I have been together to remember Dad, to talk about what we need to do for him, to talk to him, to let him know we’re here.

That’s all, for now. It’s a lot to take in. I’ll be reporting back. In the meantime, I’m thinking of this line:

“I depart as air–I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.”

Red Tails, Berkeley Hills Edition


We went for an afternoon hike up on the Seaview Trail in the Berkeley Hills. It was hot up there for the dog, but it was apparently perfect flying weather for red-tailed hawks. We saw a couple of them as we got up onto the ridge, apparently young one without the darker adult plumage. At the top of the ridge, another one appeared–that’s the picture above. And when we were lower down, returning to the car on the Quarry Trail, what appeared to me to be an adult began circling close by. The pictures aren’t National Geographic quality, but they give an idea of the intricacy of the plumage, and I love the translucence of the feathers. What beautiful birds.

Yellow Bay, Blue Bay

There is also a sort of natural-colored bay, but I couldn’t find it after processing some Berkeley waterfront pictures from this afternoon.



A Round Thing Out There in Space


KTVU (“There’s Only One 2”) News is very excited about NASA’s upcoming landing attempt on Mars. It did a little item on the Curiosity mission a couple nights ago. The graphic accompanying the piece was attention-getting. Never has the Red Planet looked so … moon-like. That’s because instead of using an image of Mars, whoever produced the graphic used a picture of Earth’s moon during an eclipse. Hey–it’s a round thing out there in space, and it looks red. Isn’t that close enough? (See this image for a comparison to the one in the graphic. Below is a 2001 Hubble Space Telescope picture of Mars, one of thousands of Mars images available from NASA. And yes–you’re allowed to ask whether I don’t have anything better to do with my time.)




Growing just up the block, at the edge of a neighbor’s yard. I’m sure it’s noxious, non-native, invasive. For today, anyway, it’s both severe and beautiful, something to steer clear of and wonder at. (And yes, whenever I see a thistle part of my brain zips back to the lobby of the Holiday Theater in Park Forest, which sold hard butterscotch candies by Callard & Bowser. Their trademark includes a flowering thistle.

Mom and Dad, Flags, the Fourth of July


That’s my mom, Mary Alice Hogan, posing with Old Glory. There’s no date on the picture, but I would guess this was the 4th of July and that she was about 16. That would place the picture in 1945 or ’46. A further guess: The picture was taken at her O’Malley-Moran grandparents’ place at 6524 South Yale Avenue in Chicago’s Engelwood district (the family moved there from their Stockyards neighborhood sometime between 1900 and 1910 and stayed through the early 1960s. The house was torn down sometime in the past 15 or 20 years, and there’s a vacant lot there now).

Below is my dad. The picture is actually dated September 30, 1928, when he would have been seven years old (and 14 months before Mom was born). I have no idea why he’s wearing the funny lady’s hat or carrying an American flag or wearing whatever that is around his neck. This would have been about three years after his family moved back to the city from Alvarado, Minnesota, where his dad was a Lutheran pastor for several parishes in town and the surrounding area. They lived on the South Side through 1930, at West 71st and South Ada streets. One other thing I take note of after staring hard at this picture: the suit that my dad’s wearing. That is some serious-looking fabric.