Category Archives: Family

Birthday Reflection

My father at age three and a half months, with his mother in December 1921.

Certain dates have acquired fixed meanings in my head. Family birthdays, for instance. September 3 is one of them — my dad’s.

He died five years ago this summer. He seems to have both vanished and to be as present as ever.

The physical presence is what’s gone, of course; that person about whom we worried, who often baffled and angered us, whom we loved and felt tender toward, was gone just like that. His ashes are in the same grave with our Mom’s — she died suddenly 14 years ago last week, and I still find myself saying “Oh, mom” out loud — and with the casket of our brother Mark, who died just before he turned two. There’s a whole story about that grave site, when and why it was purchased and how three family members wound up there. For another night, maybe. It must be said in the meantime that those remains in that spot were — are — the least of what those people were.

In that sense, in the sense of who Dad was and how he we saw him in life, he seems to be right here with me. I think about him every day. Still remembering a life of light and dark moments. Still trying to figure him out. Still trying to understand the gifts he gave all of us and those that he couldn’t give.

He lived to be nearly 91. If that’s a stake in the ground — I don’t presume much about my own future, but Dad lived nearly exactly as long, within about a week, as his mother — there are decades ahead to try to work all that out.

(The picture above is a favorite: Our grandmother, Otilia Sieversen Brekke, and my dad, at their home in Alvarado, Minnesota, in late December 1921. Dad was a little less than four months old. Grandma shows a warmth and attentiveness in this shot that doesn’t come out in other pictures.)

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Eclipse Road Trip, Days 8-10: Mountains and Motels and Stuff

Along Highway 487, north of Medicine Bow, Wyoming.


We witnessed the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, took our time packing up, had an early dinner downtown, and then headed out on an alternate route toward Denver, state highways 220 and 487, thinking to avoid the parking lot that Interstate 25 had become with the Eclipsed Masses heading back to their lives.

In fact, there was very, very little traffic along 487 — although probably a lot by that highway’s standards — and we didn’t see any signs of the masses until we hit the settlement of Medicine Bow, which I recall being the setting, sort of, for the old TV western (and perhaps the movie and novel that preceded it) “The Virginian.” In the dusk, a long line of cars waited to gas up at what looked like a two- or four-pump gas station; a large crowd milled around in the huge parking area outside the adjacent store.

We finally joined the main exodus when we got to Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, and had about 40 miles of stop-and-go traffic down to Loveland, where the first thing we saw when we got off the freeway was a couple fighting on the side of the road (yes, I stopped to see what was happening when the woman appeared to flag us down; seeing that alcohol appeared to be involved, that the parties didn’t appear in danger of doing each other any real physical harm, and that they didn’t want the services of local law enforcement, we went on our way. They turned out to be staying at our motel).

Along U.S. 285 near Fairplay, Colorado.

***

Anyway. I don’t have time this morning — Thursday, in Moab, Utah — to give a blow by blow of what took us from there to here. But Tuesday took us to Denver International Airport, where The Dog and I took leave of Kate, who flew back to the Bay Area so she could be at work on Wednesday.

Then The Dog and I — I did the driving — headed out of the Denver area on U.S. 285, through a couple of pretty vigorous mountain thunderstorms, across Kenosha Pass and South Park and eventually to U.S. 50, where we turned west and stayed the night at a mountain lodge. (My brief adventures trying to find the hotel, just below 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, and my hourlong radio appearance by phone from my Wi-Fi-less, cellphone-less hotel room on KQED’s “Forum” program are entertaining details perhaps to be expanded upon later.)

Along Colorado Highway 145, near Norwood.

Wednesday we crossed Monarch Pass on U.S. 50, then wound our way south and then west and then north from Montrose, Colorado, to Moab (U.S. 50, U.S. 550, Colorado highways 62, 145 and 90, Utah 46 and U.S. 191 were all encountered in this leg of the journey).

All I can say about this part of the world: It’s insanely beautiful, with virtually every turn revealing something I’m taken aback by. And what a varied landscape, from mountain crags to miles and miles and miles of red rock canyons and from dense conifer forests to oceans of sagebrush.

***

We’re about 900 miles from Berkeley at this point, and I was tempted to try and do it all in one go. But I won’t. Today we’re headed for Ely, Nevada, about 400 miles away. That will leave us with a long but eminently do-able drive tomorrow (I used to drive the 500 miles from Berkeley to Eugene at the drop of a suggestion; traveling solo with The Dog, however, is slower. Plus I’m always stopping to gawk at something or to read a roadside plaque).

More later.

Near the town of Bedrock — seriously — on Colorado Highway 90.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 7: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Eclipse Chaser

U.S. Post Office in Lodgepole, Nebraska.

Starting midday Saturday from Sidney, Nebraska — a town of 6,000 just off Interstate 80 in the southwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle — we drove east on U.S. 30 through the towns of Sunol and Lodgepole (or Lodge Pole, if you believe the lettering on the Post Office building there).

Lodgepole was one of my destinations on this trip. According to letters from one of my great-great-grandfathers, Timothy Jeremiah Hogan, his parents moved their family to this part of Nebraska in the mid-1860s to work on the Union Pacific railroad. Tim suggests they lived first in Lodgepole, then Sidney, 16 miles west, so the family would have the protection from hostile Indians in the area.

We hung around Lodgepole for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. I took pictures, naturally. We cruised by the most substantial building in town, the old brick public school — every small Nebraska town seems to have one. Then we were off again in the rain — we were caught in the beginning of a pretty persistent thunderstorm — and stayed west on Route 30, then turned north on Nebraska 27 to Oshkosh, on the North Platte River.

North of Oshkosh, the state blacktop ends and you begin a 60-mile stretch that begins with well-maintained dirt roads for roughly the first (southern) half of the drive and continues on a single lane of choppy asphalt for the second (northern) half.

The reason you take that road, which goes through the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, is that it’s crossing one of the more remote parts of Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills are a sweeping expanse of grass-covered dunes — about 20,000 square miles — said to have formed after the last ice age. And driving through on a road that twists and turns and somehow always seems to be climbing, it’s apparent you’re traveling through sand dunes being held in place by grasses and wildflowers (chief among the latter: black-eyed susans).

Anyway. I thought the Sand Hills would be the ideal place to watch the eclipse, and yesterday’s drive was to scout out the road. We saw a dozen, maybe 15 other cars, almost all with out-of-state plates, apparently doing the same. Passing ranches along the road, I had the same feeling of eclipse envy I experienced elsewhere on our trip — “Gee, these people live right here where the show is happening. Aren’t they lucky. I wish I could stay here.”

Near Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

We got off that Crescent Lake road a little before 6 p.m. — another product of our late start — and headed east on Nebraska Highway 2, which runs for about 125 miles or so right through the heart of the Sand Hills. Our destination was Valentine, on U.S. 20 right up at the top of the state, and adding in that we crossed into Central time and lost and hour, we didn’t get off the road until 10 (it was all beautiful, though — even the lightning show to our east at dusk.

We checked into our hostelry, which I’ll call the Sketchy Rest, walked the dog, and then began checking on the latest Monday morning forecasts for the Sand Hills.

I want to say here that I am an inveterate, if not a sophisticated, reader of weather forecasts of all kinds. As I pored over forecast discussions and graphical forecasts and meteorological whatnot, the consensus from those who study computer models to understand upcoming weather was that it was likely to be cloudy in the Sand Hills on Monday morning. Part of me simply doesn’t want to believe that and found it hard to picture after experiencing one beautifully sunny follow another all the way through our trip. That included Saturday, when the Sand Hills were framed by distant, rising thunderheads but were spectacularly clear along our road.

The forecasts hadn’t improved by this morning (Sunday), so we went looking for options.

The forecast for Casper, Wyoming, was for clear, clear, clear skies. Plus, it’s close to the center of the eclipse path. What if we could find a place there?

I checked motels. There were a few room on offer online — $2,000 for a single night. No.

Kate, whom I believe is both charming and lucky (she wound up with me, after all), started to call motels. She found some friendly innkeepers, but no room.

I checked Craigslist. There was a single listing for a sort of in-law unit near the south end of Casper. No price listed. I got in touch with the person who posted the place. We talked. A price was agreed on (he happened to name the figure that Kate and I had previously agreed would be our maximum; more than I’d pay in any other circumstances, I think, but not a killer — and not anything like $2,000).

So we hit the road to Casper from Valentine — 325 miles on top of the 2,000 from the previous six days — rolling west on U.S. 20 about 1 p.m. It was a fast trip, with the usual dog- and picture-related stops, and we pulled in here just after (we gained an hour traveling back into Mountain time).

The sky when we got here? Starting to cloud up. Thunder was rolling. The light and storm clouds were beautiful. The stars are out tonight, though, and the forecast is still for sunny (and smoky) skies in the morning. Except for this one note from the regional forecast office, which noted the likelihood of some smoke in the air:

“One other feature to watch is (a) thinning band of higher clouds that is forecast by some of the guidance to be between the Wind River Basin and Casper around totality time. It may be clearing the Wind River Basin/Riverton vicinity in time and then possibly affect the Casper area between 11 and noon. May be a rather narrow band then but there could be some concern for viewing in this narrow cloud feature.”

Kate just reminded me that the moon will start crossing the sun’s disk here at 10:22 a.m MDT. Totality will occur at 11:43 a.m. I wonder where that cloud will be.

Sky above Casper, Wyoming, Aug. 20, 2017.

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One of Those Nights

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.

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Key Biographical Date, With Consequent Thoughts

April 11, 1953: My parents, Steve Brekke and Mary Hogan, are married at St. Kilian’s Roman Catholic Church, at 87th and May streets on Chicago’s South Side.

There are many pictures of the day, though I don’t have immediate access to them. One I remember is my two grandmothers, Otilia Brekke and Anne Hogan, posing together.

They were both widows. My dad’s father died in April 1932 (age 55, Parkinson’s disease), my mom’s in 1941 (age 53, lung cancer). They had brought up their children (my dad was an only child, my mom one of six) largely by themselves.

What else did they have in common? They were both Chicago natives, both the first children born in the United States to immigrant families. Their fathers were both laboring men, their mothers both with large families (huge, by today’s standards) to see to.

But there were crucial points of divergence.

Mrs. Brekke was Norwegian through and through, her Sieverson clan coming from farming country south of Kristiania (now Oslo) and becoming founding members of a Lutheran parish on the near Northwest Side. Her late husband, Sjur Brekke, had been a minister in the Norwegian-American Hauge Synod. Judging from their early correspondence and what I remember of her, her entire life was bound up with the church.

Mrs. Hogan was Irish through and through, her family arriving from a little island off the west coast of County Mayo. Needless to say, they were Roman Catholics, and by the time my parents met, she was well on her way to having sent all four of her surviving sons into the priesthood.

In other words, my soon-to-be grandmothers were staring a mixed marriage in the face.

In order for the proposed union to receive the sanction of Rome, the parties involved needed to agree to a Catholic wedding and to baptize and raise their children as Catholics. I never heard her say a word to us kids about it in later years, but I’m sure this arrangement didn’t sit well with Mrs. Brekke.

So there they are, at the old Windermere Hotel on the Hyde Park lakefront, posing for their portrait together on my parents’ big day. They are smiling, but you can almost feel the chill: Grandma Brekke, who turned 69 that year, with the slightly unnatural stare that came from her glass eye, and Mrs. Hogan, three days shy of her 55th birthday, with a cordial look that’s betrayed by what my sister Ann has pointed out were her characteristically cold eyes.

But by then, the wedding was done and Mary and Steve had embarked on the saga that would lead to me and my siblings and all the attendant joy, grief, celebration and misadventure. Whether my grandmothers smiled or not, life was going to go on.

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Annals of Fine Writing: Craigslist Ads Remembered

Every once in a while, we have recourse to Craigslist to unencumber ourselves of some surplus piece of furniture (“What’s that futon still doing here?”) or other once-loved possession (“When’s the last time you rode that bike?”).

For me, the best part of the Craigslist experience is writing the ad. I’m not sure the writing really matters — I think an item’s three top characteristics are price, price and price — but it’s a challenge to try to turns something recently ruled to be terminally unwanted into an attractive must-have.

I’m getting ready to write an ad for a chicken coop and run we want to sell. In the process, I read a couple of my old ads. Here’s one that was fun to write. The item moved right quick, though the buyer failed to comment on the quality of my prose:

Ikea Henrik student desk, $60

An Ikea classic that may or may not have been named after a famous Scandinavian literary figure. This desk played a prominent role in a student’s career at Berkeley High School and may even be partly responsible for his successful completion of studies at the University of Oregon.

Features:

–Classic Ikea design: a Scandinavian thought this up. ‘Nuff said.
–Classic Ikea construction: manufacture of this item caused minimal rain forest destruction
–Conforms fully to U.S. and international safety standards, including Newton’s laws of motion

And check out these extras:
–Recently dusted
–Family friendly
–Desk chair may be comfortable for hours on end

Plus: We will consider delivering this item right to your home.

(And we’ll note one flaw in this stunning piece: The computer keyboard tray lacks a stop and may slide all the way out if you’re unwary.)

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Gleanings from a Parish Register

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Part of the family lore I absorbed long ago was the emigration of my mother’s mother’s family — the O’Malleys and Morans — from a place called Clare Island. I’ll call it a speck of rock standing at the very edge of the Atlantic on Ireland’s western coast, but with the stipulation it’s a good-size speck, maybe three miles wide at its widest point by five miles at its longest. The terrain is dramatic. Cliffs dominate much of the island’s coastline, and on the northwestern quarter of the island, a mountain rears up 1,500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

I went to the island once, long ago, and it seems hardly a day passes that I don’t think of it. Maybe that journey was left unfinished in some way. That’s another story for another day.

I have accessed my family’s story there another way, though, one that has involved scores if not hundreds of hours of looking at census returns and other genealogical records online. It’s been sort of thrilling to find the family I grew up hearing my mother describe in the census registers and to seize a few kernels of the family’s story.

Just one example: In 1894, my great-grandfathers Martin O’Malley arrived in the United States and settled with his in-laws, John and Bridget Moran, in a neighborhood just east of Chicago’s Union Stockyards. I’ve got the date of his emigration from his 1910 naturalization papers; and the address comes from the Morans’ longtime domicile on West 47th Place. In 1897, Martin’s wife, Anne Moran O’Malley, brought their eight children to Chicago.

The family shows up in the 1900 census on West 47th Street, about half a block from the Morans. Under “Occupation,” Martin and his two eldest sons, Patrick and John, are listed as “labor at yards.” The third eldest son, Mike, was listed as a “messenger boy,” and I’m guessing he worked in the yards, too (he later became a butcher and owned his own shop a couple miles south of the yards). So, we have documentary proof of the family’s existence, with enough specificity about ages — someone went through the ages of the O’Malley kids and “corrected” them at some point — to make you feel like your looking at something precise.

Well, maybe.

One thing I noticed looking at the various records for the O’Malleys — and the Morans, too, though I won’t go into that here — is how much their ages move around. Take Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran, for instance: In the 1900 census, he’s listed as having been born in July 1854, which made him 45 as of the 2nd of June, 1900, the day the O’Malley household was enumerated by someone named John P. Hughes. Anne Moran is listed as having been born in July 1864, which made her 35.

All fine. The problems — no, not problems; discrepancies — start the moment you look at any other record concerning the family. I haven’t found the 1910 census record for Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran and their clan. But there is a 1910 naturalization record for Martin, witnessed by two of his brothers-in-law, Anne’s brothers Edward and John. What does it say about Martin’s age? That he was born Nov. 9, 1856, more than two years after the date recorded in the 1900 census.

But let’s not get hung up on one tiny little difference. Turn to the 1920 census record, taken at the O’Malley home on South Yale Avenue on Jan. 6 by a Mrs. Grace Cawley. The birth month and year for household members are not recorded, but ages are. Martin is listed as 60 years old — meaning he was born in 1859 or 1860, a five- or six-year jump from the date listed in the earlier census and three or four years from the date listed on his naturalization. Meantime, Anne’s age had advanced a full 20 years, and she was listed as 55.

Martin died in June 1929, so he wasn’t around for the 1930 census, taken April 9 by a Marion Baker. But Anne was. She’s 67 — meaning her birth year has now shifted backward a couple years, to 1863 or even 1862. Most of her children, all well into single Irish Catholic adulthood by now, were living with her on Yale Avenue. The one daughter born in Ireland, Mary O’Malley, is listed as having been 35 — or born in 1894 or 1895; the 1900 census, which may even be accurate, gives her birth year as 1887.

In 1940, census enumerator Katherine Johnson visited the 6500 block of South Yale on April 6. She recorded Anne’s age as 78, which moves her birth another year back, to 1861 or 1862. Let it be noted that the 1950 census has not yet been released, and won’t be until 2022, so we don’t know what Anne or her household informants said her age was that year. But that is one more historical/actuarial data point to consult moving into the 1950s — the headstone on her grave in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, the big Catholic marble orchard — my dad’s term — out on 111th Street at Austin Avenue. There, her dates are listed as 1865-1952.

Well, the 1952 part is pretty reliable. But the 1865 part?

Anne was buried right next to Martin, and his dates are given as 1851-1929. Again, the later date is pretty well fixed. But remember that his explicit or implied birth year moved from 1854 to 1856 to 1860 in the census and naturalization documents. Where the heck did 1851 come from? And was he really 14 years older than his wife?

Now enter a parish baptismal register for Clare Island digitized sometime in the last few years by the National Library of Ireland. It’s hard to know how complete it is, but it does appear to contain birth and/or baptism information for Martin O’Malley — or Malley, as virtually all of the O’Malleys are listed in the book — and for Anne Moran and eight of her siblings.

Martin’s parents were said to be Patrick O’Malley and Alice O’Malley, and the book lists just one Martin with those parents. He was born, almost certainly, on June 20, 1852. So if you’re keeping track at home, I think we have five different dates for him from five different sources. Me, I’m inclined to go with the earliest dates, especially since there’s something like a contemporary record of his birth.

Now let’s look at Anne, whose birth has been hovering in the early 1860s. She was the first child recorded for John Moran and Bridget Prendergast. The parish register gives her date of birth and baptism as July 19, 1860. Again, virtually every later record gives a different actual or implied birth year for her.

I grew up with the notion that chronology was something that was definite, fixed and objective, or at least could be. I grew up with a web of family dates in my head — birth dates and anniversaries and dates of death, dates we moved from one place to the other — and I’ve always been the pain in the ass who remembers what date Lincoln was shot (April 14, 1865) and reams of other key historical moments. I can tell you that I was born one April morning at 9:21 a.m. — or at least that’s what the records say — and 9:21 a.m. therefore bears some significance for me.

So the floating dates with these not-so-distant ancestors throw me a little and make me wonder how it all happened. It must have been a combination of things: perhaps a lack of specific records; census interviews in which the informant had only a vague idea of everyone’s age, census enumerators and immigration clerks who were inattentive and sloppy or rushed, and interviewees who might have been a little vain or reluctant to give up personal information or just not too concerned with exactitude.

More gleanings to come.

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Air Blog: New York

Just to note: A high approach to JFK about 5:15 p.m. on a beautiful early autumn Thursday. We flew over Scranton, Pennsylvania, then just north of the Delaware Water Gap and the New Jersey Meadowlands, then did a long, slowly descending pass over upper Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and Queens again, finally looping back over the barrier islands and the western Long Island suburbs to the airport.

Oh, and by the way: It’s my brother John’s birthday today — the reason I was on the plane. Happy birthday, JPB.

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First of 2015

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We made it to another completely artificial and arbitrary dividing point in time, which by widely accepted convention we’re calling 2015 (or 2015 CE, if you want to get ecumenical about it). But what the heck: Happy New Year all, even, as is increasingly likely the case, we haven’t met or spoken in a long time or, thanks to Googlers landing here looking for something they may or may not find, ever.

Resolutions? I have none to announce. I’m looking forward to seeing what the world brings our way in the coming arbitrary slice of months, weeks, days (12/52/365) and to seeing what meaning there is to glean from their passing.

And to say goodbye to 2014, here’s a look at one of the last shots of the year, taken last night from the Seaview Trail in Tilden Park.

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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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