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.

Family Photo Odyssey: Sjur Ingebrigtsen Brekke

sjur1911.jpeg

We spent a couple hours scanning in some family pictures from albums that Kate and my mom put together from the big mountain of family snapshots that had accumulated for decades and decades. A lot of what we’re scanning is stuff from our own lives, scenes and experiences that the images recall vividly and instantly.

And then there’s the photo above. That’s my dad’s father, Sjur Ingebrigtsen Brekke. who passed on long before I was born. A note on the reverse in my grandmother’s handwriting says, “Lake Michigan, July 31, 1911.” (Maybe such inscriptions are passe, but if you want your own virtual mountain of digital snaps to be a little more intelligible to your posterity, leave some hint of who, what, when, where, etc.)

This man has always been an enigma. Here he is at age 35, ten years before my dad’s arrival in the world. He died a little more than ten years after that event, at age 55. I haven’t seen a picture in which he actually cracks a smile–at least not in any sense I’d recognize. Here he looks a bit put off by whoever it was talked him into coming out to the dunes in his suit. He was a Lutheran pastor in Muskegon at the time, and maybe that was the official beach uniform of his calling. (By all accounts, which means what my dad has told us, he was a kind and gentle soul and a reserved and quiet one, too.)

The photo’s composition is curious, too. Here we are in a picturesque stretch of the Michigan dunes, and the picture is framed in a way that directs attention to the smoke-emitting building in the background. (Later researches showed that the building in the background was the Muskegon waterworks. That building andthe dunes in the distance are no more.)

Below: A picture of Sjur at age 26, a little more relaxed looking, about the time he was completing his studies to become a minister.