Category Archives: Chicago

Road Blog: Chicago City Hall; Woman in the Waves

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Gamboling about downtown Chicago last Sunday night after the conclusion of the Third Coast audio festival, I walked up LaSalle Street past Chicago City Hall. I think I was inside once, back in the early 1970s, tracking down a copy of my birth certificate so I could get a passport. I don’t know the building well.

So I was struck, looking across LaSalle, at a series of four bas reliefs on the wall of the building. They are heroic renderings interpreting the life of the great city as it was understood a century ago, when City Hall was built. I found one of the panels arresting: It depicts what I saw as a woman in the waves, with a lighthouse nearby. Something about the sweep of the waves, the woman’s expression, the figure’s apparent passiveness in the midst of (what I see as) peril, the presence of the lighthouse, made me think this was about near-drowning and rescue — maybe depicting the city’s role as guardian of the shores. Or something.

Delving into the history of the City Hall figures a little, here’s what I can readily establish: The bas reliefs were designed (if not executed) by a well-known American sculptor and medalist named John Flanagan. Most Americans know one piece of Flanagan’s work: George Washington’s head on the quarter.

What are the bas reliefs meant to depict? Here’s some research by way of the April 25, 1956, editions of the Chicago Tribune. The piece was written to mark the beginning of sandblasting at City Hall to remove nearly a half-century’s accumulated grit and coal-smoke residue. The story makes it sound like that before sandblasting, it wasn’t even apparent that the “woman in the waves” relief was there. The writer takes up the figure shown in the waves:

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When the writer of this piece looked at the same bas relief I was viewing the other night, he saw it as an “Adonis like figure with long, wavy hair, and he is bathing in some extremely high surf.” He, not she.

Huh. If you look at the other three reliefs — here, here and here — the male figures are all, to my eye, unmistakably male. The few female figures are clearly female. So I’m wondering what the sculptor’s intent, as executed by construction workers, actually was.

But here’s something that I’m sure colors my viewing of the piece: When our mom was nine years old, she survived a near-drowning out at the Indiana Dunes. Four others in her family — a brother, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle — all died. So that image, to me, is anything but abstract. When I look at it, I see tragedy and loss.

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Passers-By

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Just remembering: It was two years ago today that our dad passed on. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t have some thought of him (and yes, of our mom, too — she died in August 2003, and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long).

Here’s a reading for them, two lifelong Chicagoans: Carl Sandburg’s “Passers-By,” from “Chicago Poems” (1916):

PASSERS-BY,
Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.

Passers-by,
I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,
Held long
And prayed and toiled for…

Yes,
Written on
Your mouths
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.

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Pop

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Dad passed away a year ago today. I miss him, as I know the whole family does. I miss his presence, his grasp of the past, his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his sense of fun. And of course there are a million questions I wish I could have asked about his life, about what he went through as a son, a father and husband, as a man. There’s a lot about him I have never understood and have spent countless hours examining, wondering at, and puzzling over. He was not an easy guy to sound out about what he’d gone through in his life.

The picture above is one from the archives. That’s Dad, Stephen Daniel Brekke, in the arms of his grandfather, Theodore Sieverson. The picture is dated July 30, 1922, and they’re standing outside the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Alvarado, Minnesota (the church, no longer standing, is out of the frame to the right; the brick building in the left distance is the town’s public school, which is still standing, though no longer used as a school). My father’s father, Sjur Brekke, was pastor there. Grandpa Sieverson was a carpenter from a town just outside Frederikstad, Norway, who with his wife, Maren Olesdatter, and six children emigrated to the United States in 1884. Dad’s mom, Otilia, was the first of five children Theodore and Maren had in Chicago.

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Illinois Road Trip: The Eternal Indian, and Other Stories

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Last September, our family gathered in Chicago for a memorial for my dad. It’s one of those events that seems like it happened both long ago and just yesterday; long ago in that I can’t believe that nearly nine months have passed, just yesterday in that some of the experiences of last summer seem so immediate.

Anyway, people came from all points of the compass. We had a short family gathering at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, just past the southern edge of Chicago, where Dad’s ashes were being placed in the same grave where Mark, our brother, who died in 1960, is buried and where Mom, who died in 2003, is also inurned. After our ceremony, we walked around and visited some of Mom’s family elsewhere in the cemetery, then we drove back up to my sister Ann’s house on the North Side for a memorial–a party, really–with other friends and family.

Early the next day, people started to head home: our older son Eamon and his wife Sakura to New York, my brother John, also to New York, and last Thom, our younger son, back to the Bay Area. That was on Monday, it was already mid-afternoon, traffic back into the city looked like it was backing up on the expressway outside O’Hare. As we left the airport I asked Kate whether she’d just like to go for a drive someplace instead of going back into the city. She was game.

We headed west with no particular destination in mind. But if you go west from Chicago, there’s one destination I automatically think of, and that’s the Mississippi River. That was one of Dad’s favorite trips, and I usually never hesitate to start out on a foolishly long drives, but as we tried to get free of the traffic in the northwestern suburbs, even I had to concede it didn’t seem realistic since we had to be back the next day to fly home ourselves.

So then I thought of another place that seemed more reachable: the Black Hawk statue on the Rock River, near the town of Oregon.

Dad took us there when we were kids–it might have been the time he took us on a drive out to White Pines State Park with his mother, a trip during which I remember him getting our new gold Chevy Impala station wagon, complete with a 327-cubic-inch V8, up to 90 miles an hour on Illinois Highway 64. I would have been 13, and what I remember is that we pulled over on Highway 2, which goes up the west bank Rock River from Oregon to Rockford, to look at this statue on a bluff across the water. It made a huge impression–an impassive , blanket-clad stone figure gazing out across the river and off to the west.

So, driving west last September on Illinois Highway 72, I told Kate I thought we could get there before dark and that it would be well worth the trip. Along the way, we stopped to check out a historical marker in a town called Stillman Valley. The site turned out to be the burial place of militia members killed in the first battle of the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Yes, I had heard of Black Hawk’s War, but remembered it mostly for the name of its last skirmish, the Battle of Bad Axe, and the fact the brief conflict marked Abraham Lincoln’s first and only military service).

Driving on, we hit the Rock River at Byron and turned south. We made a detour so I could take pictures of the big nuclear power plant between Byron and Oregon. And eventually, we made it to Lowden State Park, home of the Black Hawk statue (titled by its creator, sculptor Lorado Taft, “The Eternal Indian”). As we parked, we encountered an older woman sitting in her car and finishing up her dinner, from the McDonald’s in Oregon. She directed us to the statue and said she’d be over in a few minutes to tell us about it.

So: I had my camera with me, and I had an audio app on my iPhone that was good enough to record our guide, Betty Croft. That’s her picture up above. We talked to her for an hour, until well after dark. It took me until the past week to actually sit down and listen to the audio and figure out what to make of it. Here it is (edited down to four minutes or so):

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April 11, 1953

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Sixty years ago today: My future mom and dad smooch in full view of their wedding party at the Windermere Hotel, down on the South Side near the Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Chicago. The Windermere: My mom’s family, the Hogans, had a history there. I believe my mom’s parents, Edward Daniel Hogan and Anne Louise O’Malley, had their wedding reception there, back around 1925. My Uncle Dick’s ordination party was held there in 1965. I think I read that the U of C owns it now and has converted it to a residence for students.

Anyway, the picture: It’s one of a couple of color snapshots I’ve seen of the event. There are lots of formal black-and-white wedding pictures, too, showing the wedding party and important family members in various configurations. To me, Dad looks nervous in most of those pictures and Mom looks something I interpret as close to ecstatic. My dad’s mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke, a Norwegian Lutheran, shows a steady lack of warmth for the proceedings. After all, she’d been forced to endure attendance at the Hogans’ Irish Catholic parish, St. Kilian’s, at 87th and May streets.

On the left margin of this picture is Dad’s friend (and best man?) John Lacognata, a fellow musician. I know he and my dad and another guy–who was the other guy?–once drove out to the West Coast from Chicago in a Hudson my dad had bought. I remember Dad showing slides of that trip, complete with a shot showing the car with water bags slung across the front to aid the crossing of one of the Southern California deserts.

On the right of the picture is a woman named Kay, whose last name I can’t remember, but whom I think went to Loretto High School with Mom; they would have graduated about 1947. Kay and her husband, Norbert–again, I don’t recall a last name–lived out in the south suburbs when we were growing up there; I remember visiting them and not getting along with their kids.

In the center of the picture: Mary Alice Hogan and Stephen Daniel Brekke. She was all of 23; he was 31. What were they thinking? I never talked to them much about their courtship, and uncharacteristically, Mom didn’t give me the inside story during some long, wandering, late-night talk. My Dad volunteered after Mom died in 2003 that it was she who asked him out on their first date when they were both working at the Chicago Land Clearance Commission. They went to Schrafft’s downtown. There was also the story of how Steve took Mary on a date to Uno’s, the original location at Ohio and Wabash. Mary Alice reportedly told Steve she’d never been to Uno’s, a pizzeria that allowed patrons to scrawl their names on the walls. Anyway, they get there and are seated. On the wall adjacent to their table, “Mary Alice Hogan” is written in red lipstick. I don’t know how Mary Alice explained that.

Anyway, there they are: Norwegian minister’s son and the daughter of an Irish-American bank clerk and schoolteacher, getting ready to set sail into joys and sorrows unimaginable, right after they cut the cake.

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Portrait: Mom, 1964

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My sister Ann reminded me, by way of a Facebook post, that yesterday, the 26th, was Mom’s birthday. She would have been 83. That’s her in a shot my dad took in May 1964, when she was 34. She’s posing in our Park Forest living room, and I think the occasion was that Dad was trying out a camera he had bought recently, a Minolta twin-lens reflex model. There’s a series of other shots taken the same time; my brother Chris scanned them after Dad died earlier this years.

So much of this scene is evocative and immediate: The painting, by a family friend, was a fixture in every place we lived (and now hangs in Ann’s house). I know Mom was sitting on a slat bench that also made it from house to house through our infrequent relocations (it’s at Ann’s or Chris’s now). The vase of pussy willows over Mom’s right shoulder–I don’t know where that came from. But I can see the living room, with a black linoleum floor, half-paneled in redwood, a set of bookshelves Dad had installed, the closet where his stereo system resided, the Danish modern chairs and love seat and round coffee table, the doorway into the kitchen, the hallway back to our bedrooms, the picture window looking out onto the lawn, which sloped down to the street, bordered on the far side by a field and woods.

And part of this scene feels odd and distant, almost false: There’s a tension in Mom’s pose, for one thing. She had a way of putting on a face sometimes in a way that I don’t see in photos taken much earlier or much later in her life. I might be seeing something that’s not really there, but I know what she and my dad had been through at this point: raising five kids, for one thing, and the death of one of them, and other troubles that I feel are barely contained beneath this serene-looking scene.

And also I know what’s to come for her. She’s about to go into psychoanalysis, get a driver’s license, join Operation Head Start, move out to the woods into a new home, become a foster parent to untold numbers of stray dogs and cats, and help organize a campaign to save the forest from an ambitious local developer. She’s going to use her considerable intellect and talents as a newspaper reporter, go back to school, and work in several other challenging jobs. She’s also about to confront deep and lingering depression, the reality of a husband and brother sinking deep into alcoholism, several angry adolescent boys and a daughter who was pushed into the background by all of the above.

It feels like all that is hiding inside the frame here, somewhere behind that composed smile.

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An Election Day Tale: Dewey Defeats Truman

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Election Day, 1948, Chicago.

This was a few years before my dad met my mom–by his account, she asked him out to dinner at Schrafft’s when they were both working at a Chicago urban renewal agency. He was at home on Nashville Avenue, a business student at Northwestern, a year and a half or so after his short hitch with the Army was over. By his account, he was lying on the living-room couch in the dark, listening to election returns on the radio. It seemed the vote might be going for Truman over his Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey of New York. But an announcer mentioned the Chicago Tribune was already calling the race and that an early edition declaring Dewey the winner was on the street. Dad said he went out to a newsstand and bought a copy just as as a Tribune delivery driver was trying to retrieve the early edition. (That’s the copy pictured above.)

One of the things I noticed when I was a kid looking at that front page was how little evidence the Tribune had to declare a winner. Much of the South looked like a lock for States’ Rights candidate Strom Thurmond. The Trib’s front-page copy mentioned polls were still open in most of the country, and where voting was over, the count was so preliminary–well, you just have to admire the power of wishful thinking. Of course the Tribune had to be first with the news: its owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, was an arch-anti-Democrat and sworn foe of FDR and everything he stood for. A 1936 story on the Democratic National Convention was headlined, “The Soviets Gather at Philadelphia.” A subhead in this 1948 edition’s lead election story reads, “New Deal Repudiated.”

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What also got my attention, and still does, are signs the front page had been prepared in great haste. Several lines of type in the lead story’s second paragraph were inserted upside down. Also, the first three pages seem to be cast in a “typewriter” Courier typeface that appears slapdash and irregular, with some lines askew and poorly spaced; the type is different from the interior pages, which are set in what I assume was the paper’s regular type. (After some accidental research, the explanation for the appearance of those pages appears to be that the paper’s typesetters were on strike and that the copy in question was indeed typed, then cut and pasted somehow, then photographed for reproduction on the press. (See “Dewey Defeats Truman: The Rarely Told Story of Chicago Tribune’s Most Famous Issue” and “The Eleven Editions of the November 3, 1948, Chicago Tribune“–the latter a fascinating breakdown of what the paper published and when that day.)

Perhaps what I admire most about this journalistic exercise is the reporting on display in the lead story. In perhaps the only story he’s remembered for, the Trib’s Washington bureau chief, Arthur Sears Henning, declared the outcome of the vote:

“Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the Presidential election yesterday.

“The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty consistently in northern and western states. The indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the Presidency by an overwhelming majority of electoral votes.”

Since the numbers didn’t bear out the tale, what was the source of that intelligence? Herbert Brownell, Dewey’s campaign manager.

Brownell, wrote Henning, “claimed that on the basis of the complete returns ‘we will wind up sweeping two-thirds of the states for the Republican ticket.’ “

“As states definitely in the Republican column in the light of the fragmentary returns Brownell named Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Dakota. Four years ago the Republicans carried only five of these states.

” ‘At this moment,’ said Brownell, ‘the polls have closed in 12 of the 48 states outside the solid south. These states have a total of 120 votes in the electoral college.

” ‘On the basis of reports which I have been receiving from organization leaders thruout the country, I am confident that the Dewey-Warren ticket has already carried 10 of these 12 states with a total of 101 of the 120 electoral votes.

” ‘In the other two states–Kentucky and West Virginia–returns are not yet conclusive but the trend to the Dewey-Warren ticket is heartening.’ “

Brownell wasn’t completely off-base, though Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky all went for Truman. Still, the paper went out on that limb on the basis of 12 states and hearsay about “reports from organizers.”

Henning’s eventual successor as head of the Tribune Washington bureau, Walter Trohan, was in Chicago that night covering congressional elections for the paper. He recorded an account of parts of his bureau tenure for the Harry S Truman Library in 1970. He said an election evening phone call with Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who had lost the Republican nomination to Dewey, led him to believe the Trib’s story and banner headline were wrong. About the 72-year-old Henning’s insistence that Dewey was winning, Trohan said, “Why he became so stubborn I don’t know; I guess age.” Trohan was eventually called on to write a new version of the story for later editions, with Truman the victor. But before that happened, he was asked to appear on a local TV show to discuss the returns:

“… And that night it was terrible, about 10 o’clock, before — we were still carrying the headline, I was called to go on TV to discuss the congressional election. And I went up and there was Henning, and there was the wife of the publisher, and some very important people, a dozen people or so. The announcer was a fellow with a charming voice, but no sense, in a very nice pearl-shaped tone, said, ‘Well, Walter,’ and I had never met him before in my life, ‘how is Mr. Dewey going to get along with majority Congress?’

“I said, ‘He isn’t going to have a majority Congress, the Democrats have won the Congress.’

“He said, ‘You mean that Dewey will have to work with a hostile Congress?’

“And I said, ‘No, I don’t mean anything of the kind. Mr. Dewey ain’t going to be there either.’ ”

But Henning and the Trib were already committed to a different version not only of the story, but of history. Henning’s rather brief piece ended with this bit of context under the previously mentioned subhead, “New Deal Repudiated”:

“The Republican victory brought to a close the 16 year reign of the New Deal which began in the country’s most devastating depression, introduced a collectivist economy, produced a four-term President, embraced a disastrous war and left the nation a 250 billion dollar debt and heritage of foreign policy containing the seeds of another war.”

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Family Group

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When I was back in Chicago following my dad’s passing in late July, I went for a couple long walks from my sister Ann’s house to local cemeteries. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover six or seven or eight miles after you’ve set out for a stroll up there.

One day I wound up in Rosehill Cemetery, one of Chicago’s oldest, between Western and Ravenswood south of Peterson. Another day I walked up to Calvary Cemetery, a Roman Catholic establishment on the southern edge of Evanston that stretches between Lake Michigan on the east to Chicago Road on the west.

The Calvary visit was late in the day. On the way up there, I walked past a railroad viaduct that had some attractive sunlight shining through it. I stopped to see if I could get a picture that captured the light and shadows (I didn’t get anything worth keeping). What I didn’t spot when I first started shooting was a group of people on the sidewalk on the other side of the passage–two women, a man, and a girl of about 10. “You want to take my picture?” one of the women asked. I didn’t understand what she was saying and didn’t respond, so she repeated the question. “Sure, I’ll take your picture.” The man hung back, but the women and the girl posed briefly. I took a total of four or five shots.

I got an email address from one of the women; I sent these pictures there, though I never heard anything back. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any names, even first names.

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Journal of Airliner Seat Photography 2

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Further notes on my occasional hobby/obsession with snapping pictures while strapped into an airliner seat: The scene above shows the Byron Generating Station (a nuclear power plant) in Ogle County, Illinois, about 70 miles west of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The view here was taken July 26, 2012, from American Airlines Flight 1661, to San Francisco, about 12 and a half minutes after takeoff (we lifted off the runway at 6:43 p.m. CDT, about two hours late). The view here is north/northeast. The Rock River is at the left, and the town of Byron is at the upper right, about three miles from the plant; the town of Oregon, Illinois, is just out of the frame at the lower left.

As it happens, Kate and I were driving in this area last week, and when I saw the plant’s cooling towers in the distance I started looking for a place to stop and take a picture. We found Razorville Road, which runs north-south about a mile west of the plant, and pulled off. The roadside was studded with “No Trespassing” signs, and I was careful not to stray beyond them. I half expected armed guards to show up, but none did. I got my pictures, and we drove off to another local attraction, the Black Hawk statue at Lowden State Park.

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Dad: 2011-2012

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Since I always seem to be taking pictures, it seems natural that I started taking pictures of my dad on most of our visits the last few years. It wasn’t until late July, the week he died, that I looked back on what I had taken over the last year or so. I made several visits last summer, and then there was a long hiatus–from his 90th birthday weekend all the way until this past May. Over that time, his situation had changed. After a couple of episodes of pneumonia, his advancing dementia, loss of mobility, incontinence, and other issues, he needed round-the-clock nursing care. That meant he had to leave the home of my sister, Ann, and her husband, Dan, with whom he’d lived since the end of 2008, and enter a nursing home Evanston.

When he went into the facility, called Dobson Plaza, he was in pretty rough shape. He’d been there a couple of weeks by the time I visited in May and by then he seemed to have bounced back a little. I say a little: He was quite weak, confined to a wheelchair, and needed assistance for virtually every daily chore beyond feeding himself. He undertook that task with competence but little enthusiasm–maybe because his intake was reduced to pureed meals because he was having difficulty swallowing and was in danger of aspirating food and triggering another lung infection. There wasn’t much of a question that we–Dad, my siblings and I–were now waiting for the next turn, and the next turn would not be for the better.

He was losing weight, and by early July that prompted a discussion with his doctor of what kind of intervention might be appropriate (they could give him a drug of some kind to stimulate appetite). Before that conversation could reach a conclusion, I think, he suffered another bout of pneumonia and was taken up to Evanston Hospital (from my impression not a bad place to wind up if you’re in that part of the world and need medical attention). By coincidence, my brother John and I had arranged to visit at this time–he from New York, I from California–and got into town a couple days after he was hospitalized.

The news turned out to be worse than pneumonia. He was suffering congestive heart failure and tests detected the presence of fluid in the chest cavity around his lungs, signaling some other infection or even a malignancy. John and I got to Chicago late on a Saturday night, and Sunday we had a family meeting with Ann and our other brother, Chris. Since Dad had been suffering dementia, Ann had power of attorney, and among us we agreed that the course of action Dad would have pursued, or that our mom would have pursued if she’d been around, was hospice care. In essence, that meant ending aggressive attempts to fight the infections and other issues Dad was suffering from and focusing instead on taking what measures we could to make him comfortable in his remaining time. And that time? Well, he was about five weeks short of his 91st birthday and his body had kept going through a lot of hard stuff. We didn’t know whether we were looking at a day, a week, a month, or more.

Then Chris, John, and I went to see him in the hospital. Since I’d seen him in May, I felt I was prepared for what we’d see. And I wasn’t shocked to see that he was gaunter than he had been or that he looked really knocked out. But it also struck me for the first time that I was in the presence of someone who was dying, and that the death was not some abstract thing out there somewhere in the future. It was near.

Although you can fool yourself. You see someone that you’ve known your whole life, someone who has kept going through some pretty rough stuff, and anything positive–an alert look, a quick response to a question, a willingness to eat–becomes an encouraging sign. We spent about eight hours with Dad in his room, and I think we all were constantly aware of the monitors keeping track of his heart rate, his oxygen levels, his respiration. He dozed a lot, and a couple of times he seemed agitated as he started awake. His heart rate and breathing seemed to fluctuate, and I thought, “Is this it?” Then he ate a decent portion of the pureed chicken and mashed potato dinner that was on the lunch menu. I said after he finished, “It’s time to say ‘Takk for maten’ “–Norwegian for “thanks for the meal.” He glanced my way and said, “Not really.” It sounded like a dry Nordic reply.

The hospital sent him back to Dobson, the nursing home, for the hospice care we had set up. We visited each day, starting on the Monday he returned there. Dad seemed to be holding his own despite what we knew, or had been told, or suspected, was happening beneath the surface. He ate a little. He seemed to like his coffee. He seemed to like our being there. He seemed to respond when we played him some of what we remembered as his favorite classical recordings. He seemed absorbed when I began reading aloud a tale of the Norse in Greenland (I thought he’d identify with a Viking story).

And then, several days later, I headed back to California. I had an idea I’d ask for a leave to come back to Chicago and see out Dad’s last days. But things moved fast after I departed, and he died the next day. As I said several weeks ago, I missed him already. I still do. The best memory I have of that last week, though, is the time we all spent together as a family, and the best thing that happened was that we all worked together at least in those few days.

I only meant to write enough to provide some context for the pictures that follow, which in a small way record his passing. There’s still a lot left to say. Sometime. Soon.

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