My siblings and I were lucky to grow up in a place, just at the outer edge of Chicago’s southern suburbs, where nature was close by. For a crucial period of our growing-up years, we lived in a house my parents had built on a one-acre lot in the middle of a forest. During the summers, especially, we almost lived out there — camping, exploring and even learning a little about the life of the woods.
Until last weekend, I hadn’t taken a long walk in the woods in decades. Most of my visits to the area have involved checking out our old house and marveling at the fact that a good-sized house on a wooded acre could be on the market for the low six figures (or even less; the place sold for $99,000 about three years back).
But since my brother John and I are here on our long road trip, we had the rare circumstance of all four sibling being in town together. So we got together and drove down to the woods on Saturday afternoon. The immediate purpose: to do something to remember our mom, who had a significant hand in the campaign to stop the nearly one thousand acres of forest from being knocked down for tract housing in the late 1960s.
A lot has changed out there. Instead of walking out into the woods from our backyard, we accessed them by way of a trail that starts at a nature center just outside Park Forest. (The center building is an 1860-vintage Lutheran church that was moved about four miles in the mid-1960s to serve a new congregation, then later repurposed for the forest preserve.)
The woods themselves look different. Some areas are densely overgrown, others have little vegetation (but plenty of poison ivy) under the forest canopy. So ravines and gullies that used to be pretty much obscured by undergrowth are much more obvious.
A stand of fir trees that was apparently planted in the 1940s or ’50s has bolted. When we were kids, our neighbors and others used to go out and cut some of the firs for Christmas trees; now many of those trees appear to be seventy or eighty feet tall.
The Will County Forest Preserve District has installed wooden walkways through areas that are typically wet and put up a series of bridges over Thorn Creek. There are signs now marking trails through the trees. And a nice viewing platform on the edge of a seasonal wetland.
None of the improvements felt intrusive, and plenty of what we remember is intact. For instance, much of the gravel road that used to wind its way from just below our house to a Remington Arms plant on the other side of the woods is still there.
Probably the best measure of how satisfying it was to be back in the woods is that we continued walking and talking and exploring until it was nearly dark. Just as we did when we were kids.
One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.
My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.
As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.
My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries, I think, after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.
Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.
On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.
The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:
Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.
The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.
A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.
The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.
The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.
So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”
He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:
“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “
Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.
How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.
In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.
One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
It’s my sister Ann’s birthday today. And here’s the outline of a brief story I’ve often told on the occasion.
The year was 1962. I was nearly eight years old, and I’m not sure I grasped the import or meaning of anything that was going on around me, but yes, there was a build-up to a major family event: Our mother was expecting, and the big day was fast approaching.
I remember riding along as Dad drove Mom to her obstetrician appointments with a Dr. Kenwick — Anthony Kenwick, I think, who turns out to have been a fairly well-known practitioner. I remember her relating his reaction to her earlier childbearing history. My Norwegian father and Irish mother managed to have what you might call Norwegian-Irish quadruplets; four boys who arrived in less than four years — April 1954, September 1955, December 1956 and March 1958.
Mom said Dr. Kenwick took this in and asked, “No bundle from heaven in 1957?”
Back to our story. The morning of March 26th. Mom had started to have regular contractions. Dad was staying home from work. Every time Mom reported a contraction, he’d check the time on his watch and write it down on the back of an envelope. Did I understand why? I’m not sure I did. But I think both Mom and Dad said the new baby might arrive today.
My brothers and I went off to school, just a couple blocks up the street at St. Mary’s. I was in 3rd grade, John was in 2nd, Chris was in 1st. We went home for lunch. Mom and Dad were still there, and Dad was still writing down times on his envelope. We went back to school.
We got out of class about 3 o’clock and started for home. The walk was down Monee Road, at the southwestern corner of Park Forest, and the road had (and has) a pronounced right-hand bend as you headed from St. Mary’s to our place just the other side of Indianwood Boulevard.
Just past the bend, I looked up the block and saw our car, a red-and-white 1958 Ford station wagon (with a three-speed manual transmission), turn the corner up Indianwood. I figured that was Mom and Dad headed for the hospital — Ingalls, in Harvey, which through the magic of modern online maps I see was about 10 miles away.
When we got home, our neighbors, the Lehmans, were waiting for us. They told us what I’d already guessed — that our parents had left for the hospital. We were parked over at the Lehman place for several hours. As I recall it, they got a call about 6 o’clock that the baby — a sister! — had just been born.
Mom, no doubt, was enjoying her evening away from us and the peace and quiet of a busy maternity ward.
Dad came home later, probably fresh from trying to explain to his mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke, why the baby’s name was Ann — almost the same as Anne Hogan, Mom’s mom. (Ann’s middle name is Margaret, and I think Dad only half-jokingly insisted that she had been named after Ann-Margret, the Swedish-American actress. Grandma Brekke got over it, I think. I remember her referring to Ann as “Tuula,” a Norwegian girl’s name that she seemed to use as a fond reference for her only granddaughter.)
It’s 11 p.m., and the temperature is 71 here in Berkeley.
That late-night warmth in mid-June would not be news in Chicagoland, where I grew up (the current temperature at Midway Airport, recorded at midnight CDT, is 78) or most of the rest of the country outside of the Pacific Northwest.
But here, 71 degrees as we move toward midnight is unusual; and reminiscent, though we don’t have midwestern humidity, of growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Somehow, my parents grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have it, either, in our house on the edge of Park Forest. It seemed impossible to sleep on really warm, humid nights, though I’m probably forgetting that fans helped.
Our dad would go to bed early; our mom was a night owl and would have some late-night TV on. Johnny Carson, maybe, or “The Late Show” movie. She’d let us stay up if it was too hot to sleep. If the night was oppressive and sticky, she’d have us take a cold shower to cool off.
Thinking back, Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until after our last summer in Park Forest. The next June — 1966, when I was 12 — we moved out to a new house built on an acre lot in the middle of the woods we had lived across the street from. It was like a jungle out there in the summer — green and moist and full of mosquitoes and lots of other wildlife.
Things changed once we moved out there. We had air conditioning. One unit upstairs, one downstairs. Outside, it might be dripping. Inside, it was miraculously cool and dry — a different world. I imagine the electric bills were staggering compared to what they had been at our old place.
Then, too, Mom had her license. Every once in a while, she’d invite us out on a late-evening jaunt — to the grocery store, or just to drive.
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:
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.
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):
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.
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,
And prayed and toiled for…
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.
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.
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):
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.
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.