Category Archives: Family

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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Road Blog: Chicagoland

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Chicagoland. Where did that name come from, anyway? I just submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City, which is a really interesting project if you haven’t heard it or seen it, so maybe they’ll investigate. I can tell from a brief scan of Google Books that my main assumption about the history — that it was the post-World War II brainchild of some advertising or marketing ace, is apparently incorrect. The name Chicagoland shows up at least as far back as the late 1920s. The favorite title I’ve found listed so far is 1938’s “Chicagoland Household Pests and How to Get Rid of Them.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and here were my day’s activities in Chicagoland: I breakfasted with my sister Ann’s family on the North Side. I watched it rain. I drove down to the South Side (and a little beyond) to meet my brother Chris and visit the various Brekke, Hogan, O’Malley and Morans graves at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. We went to lunch (Smashburger on 95th Street in Oak Lawn). Then I made a slow northward trek to Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of my dad’s family was buried.

I rounded out the excursion with a drive down Irving Park Road to the Dairy Queen near Central Avenue. I had a chocolate malted and actually said aloud, “Here’s to you, Pop.” He was a longtime DQ customer, and he and I visited that location many times in the last few years before he died.

It was cold out, in the 30s and windy, and after dark, but I wanted to check out a taxidermy place across the street from the Dairy Queen to see if I could get a decent shot of specimens in the windows. I don’t think I did. Then I walked west a couple blocks, cross Irving Park, then walk back east, just looking at what was happening in he storefronts along the way.

Dr. Charlemagne Guerrero, M.D. A music store advertising lessons in guitar and music theory. A dance studio with a kids’ ballet class going on. Several bars — Pub OK and The Martini Club and a couple I didn’t get the names of. A Polish antique store. Dr. M.A. Starsiak, general dentistry. A barber shop. A door bearing a sign reading “Emperor’s Headquarters.” Then I was back across the street from the taxidermy shop.

The warm car afterward was nice.

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Road Blog: Harvest

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Visiting Chicago for a few days, I drove down to the south suburbs this afternoon — late in the afternoon, as it turned out — to see my brother Chris and his wife, Patty. They live in Tinley Park, about 25 miles southwest of downtown, within sight of the junction of Interstate 57 and Interstate 80, but far enough away that the highways aren’t present as a constant roar.

I had left early to avoid the worst of the commute traffic and had some time to kill, so I drove on past Tinley Park and got off I-57 a little to the south. Then I wandered west and south, watching the last of the sunset and the dusk come on. Most of the suburban sprawl in the Chicago area over the last 40 years has been to the northwest, west and southwest. Comparatively little has been built due south of the city in the area where I grew up.

Which isn’t to say nothing’s happened out there. Chris and Patty have a big house in a subdivision that was probably mostly corn and soybean fields 15 years ago. As I drove this evening, I wandered through one subdivision in Matteson I’d never seen before, and as I moved on, through the western edge of Richton Park and the farms west of Monee, I kept passing big, newish homes planted in ones and twos on big patches of land — ranchettes, of a sort, I guess, for people who probably work in the city or away in the western suburbs and want to enjoy some relatively splendid isolation.

I needed to answer the call of nature on one of the roadsides, and before I got back in the car, I decided to check out corn planted right up to the bank of a creek. It looked ready to harvest and given the fact the soil looked dry and combines would probably have no problem in the field, I was a little surprised the corn was still standing.

I was surprised as I drove that my sense of the checkerboard geography, or road-ography, was mostly intact. Heading south from Vollmer Road, the first big intersection was U.S. 30. Then Sauk Trail, then Steger Road, where I turned west until I got to 80th Avenue (where the avenue is 80th from, I don’t know). Then south again, past Stuenkel Road and Dralle Road and Monee-Manhattan Road and, sure, a couple roads whose names I didn’t know. Driving this part of eastern Will County, you’re reminded that the country has some contours; 80th Avenue climbs one of the low ridges (glacial moraines, I’m guessing), west and south of Monee, with the terrain falling away in every direction. Some of the ranchettes out there are built in spots that afford long views across the prairie.

Then up ahead, I saw a combine and grain cart working in a cornfield just off the road to the west. I stopped, thinking I might get an iPhone picture in the dark (I didn’t get one worth saving). As I stood there, parked in the road in my Bay Area get-up (shorts and flannel shirt), a man approached me from a truck parked at the edge of the field.

I told him pretty much straight up what I was doing: Just driving aimlessly, taking in the landscape, that I had lived nearby, had been away from the area a while, and was taking a look. Then I asked about the harvest.

To make a long story short, the farmer, a guy named Ron Schubbe, was working with his brother and his brother’s son on a 35-acre cornfield. His own son had a day job nearby but would also be helping out. He said the grain had been too wet to harvest, but now, “We’re hitting it pretty hard.” I didn’t get other salient facts — how long it would take to harvest 35 acres, how big his entire acreage was (because I’m assuming nobody out there in corn and soybean country harvests just 35 acres of anything), how long it would take to harvest the field they were working, how late they’d be working, or what it felt like to be bringing in the crop.

But I did ask how long he’d lived out there. “I was born and raised right here,” he said. How long had his family been out there? He said his great-grandfather had begun farming in the area, north of the town of Peotone, since the 1880s.

So I did find that out, at least. Then I wandered around a little more, noticing a couple of other combines moving through the fields in the dark, and headed to Chris and Patty’s as the night finally fell.

(Conclusion of the foregoing.)

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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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No Tools Required

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We have a bathroom sink with a broken stopper — or at least a stopper I’ve been ineffective at fixing. So I followed up on a months-old resolution and bought an old-fashioned rubber stopper. To cover all bets, I got one that fits a range of drain sizes. And it works great. I run water into the sink, and the imperturbable stopper makes sure it just stays there.

I admit I thought the device was self-explanatory. But Kate pointed out after I’d removed the stopper and left the package just lying around on the kitchen counter that it came with installation instructions. Or “installation instructions,” since nothing there really tells you what you need to do with the drain plug to achieve total stopper satisfaction.

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