Noe Valley Voice June 2000

Florence's Family Album: Remembering My Father

By Florence Holub

Every year when June rolls around, I cannot help but think about my father. First comes Father's Day (this year on June 18), and then the summer solstice on June 21. Then there's his birthday, June 22, which coincides with Midsummer Day, one of the most celebrated holidays in his native Finland. (Finland, by the way, was occupied by Sweden at his birth in 1888.)

When my two brothers and I were young, our father used to tell us, solemnly but tongue-in-cheek, that this holiday was held to honor his birth. Of course, we soon learned that the Scandinavian people had other cause for joy -- the summer solstice brought the sunshine that lasted throughout the day and night. Our father came from a latitude where everyone rejoiced at the return of the light (and especially the fast-growing crops) by singing and dancing for weeks. He was born to the happy sounds of music and dancing feet.

I suspect that most children have to become adults before they can appreciate the challenges their parents faced. But I was in my 30s and raising three boys of my own before I fully realized the special talents and wisdom of my father.

True to his culture, my father was the authority figure in the family. He sought to keep his three high-spirited children in line and out of trouble. Our mother, meanwhile, provided the gentle guidance and encouragement that all children need. Sadly, she died too young, of cancer at age 43. So our father had to assume both roles in dealing with three rambunctious teenagers. And he performed these roles nobly!

Although he was lonely, he did not go searching for female companionship after our mother died, but filled his life with music instead. He always loved music and could play numerous instruments -- piano, violin, accordion, and later the guitar. And he sang, performing with two exceptionally fine Swedish choral groups. They all wore black jackets, white pants, a black tie, and a white cap with black brim and gold insignia. They performed at various Nordic churches, at the Swedish-American Hall on Market Street, and at Finn Hall (later Latvian Hall) on Hoffman Avenue in Noe Valley. I remember a performance at the Concourse in Golden Gate Park where he received thunderous applause.

It was in the early 1940s when my father decided that we had matured enough to allow him to relax his parenting a bit, so he told us to henceforth refer to him not as "Pa," but by his given name, John. And he found a new interest: he joined an amateur cowboy band, playing his guitar, wearing cowboy garb, and singing sad songs that often brought tears to his eyes. (We found out what a softy he really was at that time.) His name in the band was Tumbleweed John. I recall going to sleep at night to the sound of a strumming guitar and his voice singing, in a slight Swedish accent, "the vind in the walley...," from a western ballad.

When the band broke up, he moved straight from his cowboy period into his dancing period. In those days, there were dance halls all over the Bay Area. John Mickelson was an excellent dancer, and there was such a bounty of widows, he was extremely popular as a partner. He began going out dancing almost every night. Not many women drove automobiles then, so he often took a carload of widows home from the dance. Sometimes when he was giving me a ride, he would point out the homes of his many lady-friends in the neighborhood.

Occasionally he became attached to a particular dance partner and brought her home to meet us. They were always lovely ladies, but soon he would be escorting another one. He never remarried, although I assure you his married daughter (and sons) would not have objected.

As a building contractor, John helped each of us obtain our own homes. And since my brothers worked days but I was usually at home tending to the children, he visited my home often. We developed a wonderful relationship, especially after he retired. He also got along well with "my man" Leo, whose many accomplishments and sense of humor he greatly admired.

After years of patching up our house on 21st Street, John had every right to consider it his second home. He would often drop by in the afternoon, saying it was foggy over at his place in the Sunnyside and he needed our real Noe Valley sunshine to help him rest up for an evening of dancing.

First he would have a glass of home brew, then stretch out on the deck for a nap. One day while he was sleeping, a repairman came to fix our broken refrigerator. The man was very talkative, so he went on as he worked, until he stopped cold in the middle of a sentence and said in a hushed voice, "Lady, there is a lifeless man lying out there on your porch!" He was relieved to learn that it was my very-much-alive father.

Another day, a newcomer to our street, misreading the situation, approached me and asked in a judgmental tone who the man was that came to see me after my husband went to work. My reply ensured no further suspicions.

My father continued to enjoy life to the fullest until 1973, when he turned 85. That was the year that he failed his eye test (because of cataracts) and lost his license to drive. He was heartbroken, and his self-confidence, as well as his social life, suffered terribly.

This spurred me to take driving lessons, and to buy an old Mustang so I could offer him a lift -- literally and figuratively. Once I got my driver's license, I would pick him up and take him to our house for dinner every Sunday. While I cooked, Leo would put on records that he knew John would enjoy. His favorite (remember, he was a carpenter!) was "If I Had a Hammer."

If he needed transportation someplace else, I could usually drive him. But one day he ventured out on foot, arriving at the intersection of Capp and 24th streets. As he crossed Capp Street, a speeding car turned the corner, knocked him down, and sped off, unidentified. John was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where they set his broken arm and sent him home with scrapes and bruises, and two black eyes.

When I took him back to the hospital for a followup, the doctor was so amazed and impressed with his overall good health and recuperative ability that he asked if he could observe him for a year. The physician, Dr. Verlenden, confessed that he wanted to find out what John had been doing so he could do it himself. This special attention from Dr. Verlenden gave quite a boost to my father. The experience also inspired the doctor, who said he rarely got the chance to treat such a healthy, active older patient.

John did well for the next year, but arthritic knees soon made walking difficult. After he suffered a few falls, Dr. Verlenden decided that he should not be alone, and recommended a nursing home.

When I told Leo, he said he couldn't allow his father-in-law to go to a nursing home; John would sleep on our livingroom couch, which opened up into a full-size bed. And so for the next three months, my father came home to live with us.

We took good care of him, but soon it became clear that his health was failing. The doctor noticed it too and asked John, "What's bothering you?" His answer was, "Doctor, I used to be able to dance all night, and now I can't, and dat is vat's killing me!"

At John's next checkup, tests revealed that his condition had worsened, so the doctor decided to keep him at the hospital overnight for evaluation.

In the morning when I arrived, my father was in good spirits but in the intensive-care unit. The next day we found him in a private room, but not feeling well, unable to eat. He did manage to swallow a couple of spoonfuls of broth, but only to please me, I'm sure.

At the end of the day, I went home to cook dinner for "my men" -- Leo and our son Eric. We had just finished dinner when the phone rang. A kind doctor on duty at the hospital informed us that if we wanted to see John again we had better come quick.

Leo, Eric, and I rushed to his hospital room. The minute he saw us, John smiled and tried to rise up, assuming he was going home. But his heart was too weak, and he fell back onto the pillow. A short time later, with the doctor, Leo, and Eric standing nearby and with me holding his hand, my father took his final breath. It was a tender last moment to a life well lived and much loved. He was 87.

Long ago, my father told me that he was proud of what his daughter had done with her life. But I know that if John had lived long enough to see Florence's Family Album appearing monthly in the "Noe Walley Woice," he would be on Cloud 9, singing and dancing and yumping for yoy.