Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps. Their canonization was celebrated in Paris on the 1st and 2nd of May 2004 at the cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky.

The essay that follows serves as the introduction to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books.

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

by Jim Forest

“No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions.”

Those who know the details of her life tend to regard Mother Maria Skobtsova as one of the great saints of the twentieth century: a brilliant theologian who lived her faith bravely in nightmarish times, finally dying a martyr’s death at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany in 1945.

Elizaveta Pilenko, the future Mother Maria, was born in 1891 in the Latvian city of Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, and grew up in the south of Russia on a family estate near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. In her family she was known as Liza. For a time her father was mayor of Anapa. Later he was director of a botanical garden and school at Yalta. On her mother’s side, Liza was descended from the last governor of the Bastille, the Parisian prison destroyed during the French Revolution.

Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter’s values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon that would be part of a new church in Anapa. At seven she asked her mother if she was old enough to become a nun, while a year later she sought permission to become a pilgrim who spends her life walking from shrine to shrine. (As late as 1940, when living in German-occupied Paris, thoughts of one day being a wandering pilgrim and missionary in Siberia again filled her imagination.)

When she was fourteen, her father died, an event which seemed to her meaningless and unjust and led her to atheism. “If there is no justice,” she said, “there is no God.” She decided God’s nonexistence was well known to adults but kept secret from children. For her, childhood was over.

When her widowed mother moved the family to St. Petersburg in 1906, she found herself in the country’s political and cultural center — also a hotbed of radical ideas and groups.

She became part of radical literary circles that gathered around such symbolist poets as Alexander Blok, whom she first met at age fifteen. Blok responded to their unexpected meeting — Liza had come to visit unannounced — with a poem that included the lines:

Only someone who is in love
Has the right to call himself a human being.

In a note that came with the poem, Blok told Liza that many people were dying where they stood. The world-weary poet urged her “to run, run from us, the dying ones.” She replied with a vow fight “against death and against wickedness.”

Like so many of her contemporaries, she was drawn to the left, but was often disappointed that the radicals she encountered. Though regarding themselves as revolutionaries, they seemed to do nothing but talk. “My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world,” she recalled. Yet no one she knew was actually laying down his life for others. Should her friends hear of someone dying for the Revolution, she noted, “they will value it, approve or not approve, show understanding on a very high level, and discuss the night away till the sun rises and it’s time for fried eggs. But they will not understand at all that to die for the Revolution means to feel a rope around one’s neck.”

Liza began teaching evening courses to workers at the Poutilov Plant, but later gave it up in disillusionment when one of her students told her that he and his classmates weren’t interested in learning as such, but saw classes as a necessary path to becoming clerks and bureaucrats. The teen-age Liza wanted her workers to be every bit as idealistic as she was.

In 1910, Liza married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a member of Social Democrat Party, better known as the Bolsheviks. She was eighteen, he was twenty-one. It was a marriage born “more of pity than of love,” she later commented. Dimitri had spent a short time in prison several years before, but by the time of their marriage was part of a community of poets, artists and writers in which it was normal to rise at three in the afternoon and talk the night through until dawn.

She not only knew poets but wrote poems in the symbolist mode. In 1912 her first collection of poetry, Scythian Shards, was published.

Like many other Russian intellectuals, she later reflected, she was a participant in the revolution before the Revolution that was “so deeply, pitilessly and fatally laid over the soil of old traditions” only to destroy far more than it created. “Such courageous bridges we erected to the future! At the same time, this depth and courage were combined with a kind of decay, with the spirit of dying, of ghostliness, ephemerality. We were in the last act of the tragedy, the rupture between the people and the intelligentsia.”

She and her friends also talked theology, but just as their political ideas had no connection at all to the lives of ordinary people, their theology floated far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from “any old beggar woman hard at her Sunday prostrations in church.” For many intellectuals, the Church was an idea or a set of abstract values, not a community in which one actually lives.

Though still regarding herself as an atheist, little by little her earlier attraction to Christ revived and deepened, not yet Christ as God incarnate but Christ as heroic man. “Not for God, for He does not exist, but for the Christ,” she said. “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck His face … [while] we pass by and touch His wounds and yet are not burned by His blood.”

One door opened to another. Liza found herself drawn toward the religious faith she had jettisoned after her father’s death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. It seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Blok in a letter written in 1916. The same year her second collection of poems, Ruth, appeared in St. Petersburg.

Deciding to study theology, she applied for entrance at the Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, in those days an entirely male school whose students were preparing for ordination as priests. As surprising as her wanting to study there was the rector’s decision that she could be admitted.

By 1913, Liza’s marriage collapsed. (Later in his life Dimitri became a Christian, joined the Catholic Church, and later lived and worked among Jesuits in western Europe.) That October her first child, Gaiana, was born.

Just as World War I was beginning, Liza returned with her daughter to her family’s country home near Anapa in Russia’s deep south. Her religious life became more intense. For a time she secretly wore lead weights sewn into a hidden belt as a way of reminding herself both “that Christ exists” and also to be more aware that minute-by-minute many people were suffering and dying in the war. She realized, however, that the primary Christian asceticism was not self-mortification, but caring response to the needs of other people while at the same time trying to create better social structures. She joined the ill-fated Social Revolutionary Party, a movement that, despite the contrast in names, was far more democratic than Lenin’s Social Democratic Party.

On a return visit to St. Petersburg, Liza spent hours visiting a small chapel best known for a healing icon in which small coins had been embedded when lightning struck the poor box that stood near by — it was called the Mother of God, Joy of the Sorrowful, with Kopeks. Here she prayed in a dark corner, reviewing her life as one might prepare for confession, finally feeling God’s overwhelming presence. “God is over all,” she knew with certainty, “unique and expiating everything.”

In October 1917, Liza was present in St. Petersburg when Russia’s Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Taking part in the All-Russian Soviet Congress, she heard Lenin’s lieutenant, Leon Trotsky, dismiss people from her party with the words, “Your role is played out. Go where you belong, into history’s garbage can!”

On the way home, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife. It was on that difficult journey of many train rides and long waits at train stations that she began to see the scale of the catastrophe Russia was now facing: terror, random murder, massacres, destroyed villages, the rule of hooligans and thugs, hunger and massive dislocation. How hideously different actual revolution was from the dreams of revolution that had once filled the imagination of so many Russians, not least the intellectuals!

In February 1918, in the early days of Russia’s Civil War, Liza was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. She hoped she could keep the town’s essential services working and protect anyone in danger of the firing squad. “The fact of having a female mayor,” she noted, “was seen as something obviously revolutionary.” Thus they put up with “views that would not have been tolerated from any male.”

She became acting mayor after the town’s Bolshevik mayor fled when the White Army took control of the region. Again her life was in danger. To the White forces, Liza looked as Red as any Bolshevik. She was arrested, jailed, and put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. In court, she rose and spoke in her own defense: “My loyalty was not to any imagined government as such, but to those whose need of justice was greatest, the people. Red or White, my position is the same — I will act for justice and for the relief of suffering. I will try to love my neighbor.”

It was thanks to Daniel Skobtsov, a former schoolmaster who was now her judge, that Liza avoided execution. After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. They fell in love and within days were married. Before long Liza found herself once again pregnant.

The tide of the civil war was now turning in favor of the Bolsheviks. Both Liza and her husband were in peril, as well as her daughter and unborn child. They made the decision many thousands were making: it was safest to go abroad. Liza’s mother, Sophia, came with them.

Their journey took them across the Black Sea to Georgia in the putrid hold of a storm-beaten steamer. Liza’s son Yura was born in Tbilisi in 1920. A year later they left for Istanbul and from there traveled to Yugoslavia where Liza gave birth to Anastasia, or Nastia as she was called in the family. Their long journey finally ended final in France. They arrived in Paris in 1923. Friends gave them use of a room. Daniel found work as a part-timer teacher, though the job paid too little to cover expanses. To supplement their income, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves, often working ten or twelve hours a day.

A friend introduced her to the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association founded in 1923. Liza began attending lectures and taking part in other activities of the group. She felt herself coming back to life spiritually and intellectually.

In the hard winter of 1926, each person in the family came down with influenza. All recovered except Nastia, who became thinner with each passing day. At last a doctor diagnosed meningitis. The Pasteur Institute accepted Nastia as a patient, also giving permission to Liza to stay day and night to help care for her daughter.

Liza’s vigil was to no avail. After a month in the hospital, Nastia died. Even then, for a day and night, her grief-stricken mother sat by Nastia’s side, unable to leave the room. During those desolate hours, she came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance …. I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”

The death of someone you love, she wrote, “throws open the gates into eternity, while the whole of natural existence has lost its stability and its coherence. Yesterday’s laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaninglessness has displaced meaning, and a different, albeit incomprehensible Meaning, has caused wings to sprout on one’s back …. Before the dark pit of the grave, everything must be reexamined, measured against falsehood and corruption.”

After her daughter’s burial, Liza became “aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

Liza devoted herself more and more to social work and theological writing with a social emphasis. In 1927 two volumes, Harvest of the Spirit, were published in which she retold the lives of many saints.

In the same period, her husband began driving a taxi, a job which provided a better income than part-time teaching. By now Gaiana was living at a boarding school in Belgium, thanks to help from her father. But Liza and Daniel’s marriage was dying, perhaps a casualty of Nastia’s death.

Feeling driven to devote herself as fully as possible to social service, Liza, with her mother, moved to central Paris, thus closer to her work. It was agreed that Yura would remain with his father until he was fourteen, though always free to visit and stay with his mother until he was fourteen, when he would decide for himself with which parent he would live. (In fact Yura, found to be in the early stages of tuberculosis, was to spend a lengthy period in a sanatarium apart from both parents.)

In 1930, the same year her third book of poetry was published, Liza was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France and sometimes in neighboring countries.

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris
After completing a lecture in some provincial center, Liza might afterward find herself involved in confessional conversations with those who had come to hear her and who sensed that she was something more than an intellectual with a suitcase full of ideas and theories. “We would embark on frank conversations about émigré life or else about the past …. A queue would form by the door as if outside a confessional. There would be people wanting to pour out their hearts, to tell of some terrible grief which had burdened them for years, of pangs of conscience which gave them no peace.”

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. “Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own,” she wrote. “Christian love teaches us to give our fellows material as well as spiritual gifts. We should give them our last shirt and our last piece of bread. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are both equally justified and needed.”

“If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who later became Russian Orthodox bishop in London, was then a layman in Paris where he was studying to become a physician. He recalls a story about Mother Maria her from this period that he heard from a friend:

[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, the question was still unsettled in her life what her true vocation was. She began to envision a new type on community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Father Sergei Bulgakov, her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement. He had been a Marxist economist before his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. In 1918 he was ordained to the priesthood in Moscow, then five years later was expelled from the USSR. He settled in Paris and became dean at the newly-founded St. Sergius Theological Institute. A spiritual father to many people, he was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating.

She also had a supportive bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy Georgievsky. He was responsible from 1921 to 1946 for the many thousands of Russian expatriates scattered across Europe, with the greatest number in France. “Everyone had access to him,” recalled Father Lev Gillet, “and placed on his shoulders all the spiritual or material burdens . . . . He wanted to give everyone the possibility of following his or her own call.” Metropolitan Eulogy had become aware of Liza through her social work and was the first one to suggest to her the possibility of becoming a nun.

Assured she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” Liza said she was willing to take such a step, but there was the obvious problem of her being married, even if now living alone. For a time it seemed the obstacles were insurmountable, as Daniel Skobtsov did not approve of his estranged wife taking monastic vows, but he changed his mind after Metropolitan Eulogy came to meet him. An ecclesiastical divorce was issued on March 7, 1932. A few weeks later, in the chapel at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Liza was professed as a nun. She was given the name Maria.

She made her monastic profession, Metropolitan Eulogy recognized, “in order to give herself unreservedly to social service.” Mother Maria called it simply “monasticism in the world.”

Here is an impression by Metropolitan Anthony of what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

From the beginning Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but exactly how she would do that wasn’t yet clear to her. She lived in room made available to her by Lev and Valentina Zander as she contemplated the next step in her life.

That summer she set out to visit Estonia and Latvia on behalf of the Russian SCM where, in contrast to Soviet Russia, convents and monasteries still flourished. Here she had a first hand experience of traditional monastic life. The experience strengthened her conviction that her own vocation must follow a different path. It seemed to her that no one in the monasteries she visited was aware that “the world is on fire” or sensed that the times cried out for a new form of monasticism. In a time of massive social disruption, she wrote, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opened its gates to the desperate people living outside and in so doing participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the cross.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

Mother Maria had a particular devotion to saints who were classed as Holy Fools: people who behaved outrageously and yet revealed Christ in a remarkable way — such Holy Fools as St. Basil the Blessed, whose feast on August 2nd she kept with special attentiveness. An icon she painted contains scenes from his life. The Holy Fools were, she wrote, saints of freedom. “Freedom calls us to act the Fool for Christ’s sake, at variance with enemies and even friends, to develop the life of the Church in just that way in which it is most difficult. And we shall live as Fools, since we know not only the difficulty of this way of life, but also the exaltation of sensing God’s hand on our work.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to travel on was a vocation of welcoming and caring for those in desperate need. She began to look for a house of hospitality and found it at 9 villa de Saxe in Paris.

Metropolitan Eulogy remained deeply committed to Mother Maria’s activities. When she had to sign the lease and had found no other donors, he paid the required 5000 francs. On another occasion, riding in the Paris Metro with the bishop, she voiced her discouragement about problems she was then facing. At that exact moment the Metro exited a tunnel and was bathed in the light of day. “You see,” said Metropolitan Eulogy, “it is the answer to your question.”

The house was completely unfurnished. The first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on a narrow iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel, its icon screen painted by Mother Maria, while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and dialogues.

In time the house soon proved too small. Two years later a new location was found — a derelict house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. The house had the additional advantage of having stables in back which were now made into a small church. Again the decoration was chiefly her own work, many of its icons made by embroidery, an art in which Mother Maria was skilled. The new property as a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here her guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

Her credo was: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in her brothers and sisters.

As the work evolved she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day, normally soup plus a main course that included meat plus plenty of bread supplied gratis by a sympathetic baker.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not be donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

On rue de Lourmel she had a room beneath the stairs next to the kitchen. Here on one occasion a visitor found her collapsed in an arm chair in a state of exhaustion. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. “I can’t take anything in. I’m tired, I’m really tired. There have been about 40 people here today, each with his own sorrow and needs. I can’t chase them away!”

She would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

She enjoyed a legend concerning two fourth-century saints, Nicholas of Myra and John Cassian, who returned to earth to see how things were going. They came upon a peasant, his cart mired in the mud, who begged their help. John Cassian regretfully declined, explaining that he was soon due back in heaven and therefore must keep his robes spotless. Meanwhile Nicholas was already up to his hips in the mud, freeing the cart. When the Ruler of All discovered why Nicholas was caked in mud and John Cassian immaculate, it was decided that Nicholas’ feast day would henceforth be celebrated twice each year — May 9 and December 6 — while John Cassian’s would occur only once every four years, on February 29.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise…”

It was no virtue of her own that could account for her activities, she insisted. “There is no hardship in it, since all the relief comes my way. God having given me a compassionate nature, how else could I live?”

In addition to help from volunteers, in 1937 another nun came to help: Mother Evdokia Meshcheriakova. Later Mother Blandina Obelenskaya entered the community. There was also Father Lev Gillet, thanks to whom the Liturgy was celebrated frequently. Father Lev lived in an outbuilding near the stable until his departure to London in 1938.

Yet life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Evdokia, who had begun her monastic life in a more traditional context, was she not as experimental by temperament as Mother Maria. As the community had no abbess, there was no one to arbitrate between the two. For Mother Evdokia, though always in awe of Mother Maria’s endurance and prophetic passion, the house at rue de Lourmel was too much an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” (In 1938 Mother Evdokia and Mother Blandina departed to establish a more traditional monastery at Moisenay-le-Grand.)

Mother Maria clung to her experiment. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression with in her mother country.

“What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.”

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. Of paramount importance, “We must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Mother Maria’s difficulties at times made her feel a terrifying loneliness. “I get very depressed,” she admitted. “I could desist, if only I could be convinced that I stand for a truth that is relative.”

She was sustained chiefly by those she served — themselves beaten down, people in despair, cripples, alcoholics, the sick, survivors of many tragedies. But not all responded to trust with trust. Theft was not uncommon. On one occasion a guest stole 25 francs. Everyone guessed who the culprit was, a drug addict, but Mother Maria refused to accuse her. Instead she announced at the dinner table that the money had not been stolen, only misplaced, and she had found it. “You see how dangerous it is to make accusations,” she commented. At once the girl who stole the money burst into tears.

“It is not enough to give,” Mother Maria might say. “We must have a heart that gives.” If mistakes were made, if people betrayed a trust, the cure was not to limit giving. “The only ones who make no mistakes,” she said, “are those who do nothing.”

Mother Maria and her collaborators would not simply open the door when those in need knocked, but would actively seek out the homeless. One place to find them was an all-night café at Les Halles where those with nowhere else to go could sit as long as they liked for the price of a glass of wine. Children were also cared for. A part-time school was opened at several locations.

Fortunately for the community, their prudent business manager, Fedor Pianov, formerly general secretary of the Russian Christian Student Movement, at times intervened in cases where a trusted person was systematically violating the confidence placed in him, as sometimes happened.

Turning her attention toward Russian refugees who had been classified insane, Mother Maria began a series of visits to mental hospitals. In each hospital five to ten percent of the Russian patients turned out to be sane and, thanks to her intervention, were released. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings had kept them in the asylum.

An inquiry into the needs of impoverished Russians suffering from tuberculosis resulted in the opening in 1935 of a sanatorium in Noisy-le-Grand. Its church was a former hen house. Her efforts bore the unexpected additional fruit of other French TB sanatoria opening their doors to Russian refugees. The house at Noisy, no longer having to serve its original function, then became a rest home. It was here that Mother Maria’s mother Sophia ended her days in 1962. She was a century old.

Another landmark was the foundation in September 1935 of a group christened Orthodox Action, a name proposed by her friend, the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. In addition to Mother Maria and Berdyaev, the co-founders included the theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the scholar Constantine Mochulsky, the publisher Ilya Fondaminsky, and her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov. Metropolitan Evgoly was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. With financial support coming not only from supporters within France but from other parts of Europe as well as America, a wider range of projects and centers were made possible: hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, publication of books and pamphlets, etc.

Mother Maria’s driving concern throughout the expansion of work was that it should never lose either its personal or communal character: “We should make every effort to ensure that each of our initiatives is the common work of all those who stand in need of it,” she wrote, “and not [simply part of] some charitable organization, where some perform charitable actions and are accountable for it to their superiors while others receive the charity, make way for those who are next in line, and disappear from view. We must cultivate a communal organization rather than set up a mechanical organization, Our concept of sobornost [conciliarity] commits us to this. At the same time we are committed to the personal principle in the sense that absolutely no one can become for us a routine cipher, whose role in to swell statistical tables. I would say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us.”

She was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, theory always had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote in 1939, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

Yet time was also given to abstract inquiry. Sunday afternoons were normally a time for lectures and discussions at rue de Lourmel. Berdyaev, Bulgakov and Fedotov were frequent speakers. In addition there were courses set up during the week, including sessions of the Religious-Philosophical Academy that Berdyaev had founded.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising to the duty of hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.” Those on the left also saw no point in efforts to relieve individual cases of suffering, still less in time given to prayer. One must rather devote all one’s efforts to bringing about radical social change. There were also supportive friends, Berdyaev among them, who had little understanding of her monastic vocation, though for Mother Maria this remained at the core of her identity. “Thanks to my being clothed as a nun,” she commented, “many things are simpler and within my reach.”

Fr Dimitri KlepininIn October 1939, Metropolitan Eulogy send a new priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov, who had also been one of his teachers. A man of few words and great modesty, Father Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria. [photo of Fr Dimitri at right]

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing toward the city, or even to leave the country to go to America. Her decision was not to budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about the Nazi threat. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

“We are entering eschatological times,” she wrote. “Do you not feel that the end is already near?

Death seemed to rule the world. “Now, at this very minute, I know that hundreds of people have encountered death, while thousands upon thousands more await their turn,” she wrote at Easter in 1940. “I know that mothers wait for the postman and tremble when a letter is delayed by more than a day.” But she saw one gain in all this: “Everything is clearly in its place. Everyone must make their choice. There is nothing disguised or hypocritical in the enemy’s approach.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point — Cantine Municipale No. 9. Here volunteers sold at cost price whatever food Mother Maria had bought that morning at Les Halles.

Paris was now a great prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends and collaborators of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, their registration now underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, with Jews being specially identified, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star Jews must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

She wrote a poem reflecting on the symbol Jews were required to wear:

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to the Velodrome d’Hiver sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant, while ten latrines were supposed to serve them all. From there the captives were to be sent via Drancy to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape, from Lourmel to Noisy-le-Grand and from there to other, safer destinations in the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

On February 8, 1943, while Mother Maria was traveling, Nazi security police entered the house on rue de Lourmel and found a letter in her son Yura’s pocket in which Father Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yura, now actively a part of his mother’s work, was taken to the office of Orthodox Action, soon after followed by his distraught grandmother, Sophia Pilenko. The interrogator, Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer who spoke Russian, ordered her to bring Father Dimitri. Once the priest was there, Hoffman said, they would let Yura go. His grandmother Sophia was allowed to embrace Yura and give him a blessing, making the sign of the cross on his body. It was last time she saw him in this world.

The following morning Father Dimitri served the Liturgy in a side chapel at rue de Lourmel dedicated to St. Philip, a bishop who had paid with his life for protesting the crimes of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Fortified by communion he set off for the Gestapo office on rue des Saussies. Interrogated for four hours, he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. A fragment of their exchange survives:

Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?

Klepinin: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must. (Hoffman struck Klepinin across the face.)

Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!

(Klepinin, recovering his balance, held up the cross from his cassock.)

Klepinin: Do you know this Jew?

(For this, Father Dimitri was struck on the face.)

“Your priest did himself in,” Hoffman said afterward to Sophia Pilenko. “He insists that if he were to be freed, he would act exactly as before.”

The next day, February 10, Mother Maria was back in Paris and was also arrested by Hoffman, who brought her back to Lourmel while he searched her room. Several others were called for questioning and then held by the Gestapo, including a visitor to the home of Father Dimitri. His wife, Tamara, sensing the danger she was in and aware that she was powerless to free her husband, left Paris with their two young children, one four, the other six months old. The three survived.

Arrested a week later at rue de Lourmel, Mother Maria saw her mother for the last time. “We embraced,” he mother recalled. “I blessed her. He had lived all our life together, in friendship, hardly ever apart. She bade me farewell and said, as she always did at the most difficult moments, ‘Mother, be strong’.”

Mother Maria was confined with 34 other woman at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Her son Yura, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held in the same building. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS began to prod and beat him while Yura stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri “began to console him, saying the Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April the prisoners were transferred to Compiegne, and here Mother Maria was blessed with a final meeting with Yura, who crawled through a window in order to see her. In a letter Yura sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother “was in a remarkable state of mind and told me … that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Father Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.” Hours after their meeting,Mother Maria was transported to Germany.

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” another letter from Yura reported, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Father Dimitri] and I speak to each other as tu [the intimate form of ‘you’] and he is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

In a letter Father Dimitri sent to his wife, he reported that their church was “a very good one.” It was a barrack room transformed, as many other unlikely structures had been in the past. They even managed to make an icon screen and reading stand.

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiegne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor…”

On December 16, Yura and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yura — now in striped prison uniforms and with shaved heads — were sent to another camp, Dora, 40 kilometers away, where parts for V-1and V-2 rockets were being manufactured in underground factories. Within ten days of arrival, Yura contracted furunculosis, a condition in which large areas of the skin are covered in boils. On the 6th of February, he was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for sentenced to death. Four days later Father Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

A final letter from Yura, written at Compiegne, was discovered in a suitcase of his possessions returned from the camp to rue de Lourmel:

My dears, Dima [Father Dimitri] blesses you, my most beloved ones. I am to go to Germany with Dima, Father Andrei [who also died in a concentration camp] and Anatoly [Vishkovsky]. I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer. . . . I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!

Mother Maria, prisoner 19,263, was sent in a sealed cattle truck from Compiegne to the Ravensbruck camp in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. She was assigned to Block 27 in the large camp’s southwest corner. Not far away was Block 31, full of Russian prisoners, many of whom she managed to befriend.

Unable to correspond with friends, little testimony in her own words has come down to us, but prisoners who survived the war remembered her. One of them, Solange Perichon, recalls:

“She was never downcast, never. She never complained…. She was full of good cheer, really good cheer. We had roll calls which lasted a great deal of time. We were woken at three in the morning and we had to stand out in the open in the middle of winter until the barracks [population] was counted. She took all this calmly and she would say, ‘Well that’s that. Yet another day completed. And tomorrow it will be the same all over again. But one fine day the time will come for all of this to end.’ … She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

Another prisoner, Rosane Lascroux, recalled:

“She exercised an enormous influence on us all. No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”

In a memoir, Jacqueline Pery stressed the importance of the talks Mother Maria gave and the discussion groups she led:

“She used to organize real discussion circles … and I had the good fortune to participate in them. Here was an oasis at the end of the day. She would tell us about her social work, about how she conceived the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. We would question her about the history of Russia, about its future, about Communism, about her frequent contacts with young women from the Soviet army with whom she liked to surround herself. These discussion, whatever their subject matter, provided an escape from the hell in which we lived. They allowed us to restore our depleted morale, they rekindled in us the flame of thought, which barely flickered beneath the heavy burden of horror.”

Often, Pery wrote, she would refer to passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

Yet, as was recalled by another prisoner, Sophia Nosovich, Mother Maria “never preached but rather discussed religion simply with those who sought it, causing them to understand it and to exercise their minds, not merely their feelings. Whatever and however she could, she would sustain the as yet incompletely extinguished flame of humanity, no matter what form it took.”

The same former prisoner wrote that “it was not submissiveness which gave [Mother Maria] strength to bear the suffering, but the integrity and wealth of her interior life.”

And all this happened in what Mother Maria described not as a prison but as hell itself, nothing less, a bestial place in which obscenity, contempt and hatred were normal and where hunger, illness and death was a daily event. In such a climate, many opted for the numbing of all feeling and withdrawal as a survival strategy while others, in their despair, looked forward only to death.

“I once said to Mother Maria,” wrote Sophia Nosovich, “that it was more than a question of my ceasing to feel anything whatsoever. My very thought processes were numbed and had ground to a halt. ‘No, no,’ Mother Maria responded, ‘whatever you do, continue to think. In the conflict with doubt, cast your thought wider and deeper. Let it transcend the conditions and the limitations of this earth’.”

One prisoner even recalled how Mother Maria had used the ever-smoking chimney’s the camps several crematoria as a metaphor of hope rather than being seen as the only exit point from the camp. “But it is only here, immediately above the chimneys, that the billows of smoke are oppressive,” Mother Maria said. “When they rise higher, they turn into light clouds before being dispersed in limitless space. In the same way, our souls, once they have torn themselves away from this sinful earth, move by means of an effortless unearthly flight into eternity, where there is life full of joy.”

Anticipating her own exit point from the camp might be via the crematoria chimneys, she asked a fellow prisoner whom she hoped would survive to memorize a message to be given at last to Father Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Eulogy and her mother: “My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high.”

In a postcard she was allowed to send friends in Paris in the fall of 1944, she said she remained strong and healthy but had “altogether become an old woman.”

Her work in the camp varied. There was a period when she was part of a team of women dragging a heavy iron roller about the roads and pathways of the camp for 12 hours a day. In another period she worked in a knitwear workshop.

Her legs began to give way. At roll call another prisoner, Inna Webster, would act as her crutches. As her health declined, friends no longer allowed her to give away portions of her own food, as she had done in the past to help keep others alive.

Friends who survived recalled that Mother Maria wrote two poems while at Ravensbruck, but sadly neither survive. However a kerchief she embroidered for Rosane Lascroux, made with a needle and thread stolen from the tailoring workshop at last came out of the camp intact. In the style of the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, it was a depiction of the Allies’ Normandy Landing in June 1944. Her final embroidered icon, purchased with the price of her precious bread ration, was of the Mother of God holding the infant Jesus, her child already marked with the wounds of the cross.

With the Red Army approaching from the East, the concentration camp administrators further reduced food rations while greatly increasing the population of each block from 800 to 2,500. “People slept three to a bunk,” a survivor recalls. “Lice devoured us. Typhus and dysentery became a common scourge and decimated our ranks.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, as Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemane.”

In November-December 1944, she accepted a pink card that was freely issued to any prisoner who wished to be excused from labor because of age or ill health. On January all who had received such cards were rounded up and transferred to what was called the Jugendlager — the “youth camp” — where the camp authorities said each person would have her own bed and abundant food. Mother Maria’s transfer was on January 31. Here the food ration was further reduced and the hours spent standing for roll calls increased. Though it was mid-winter, blankets, coats and jackets were confiscated, and then even shoes and stockings. The death rate was at least fifty per day. Next all medical supplies were withdrawn. Those who still persisted in surviving now faced death by shootings and gas, the latter made possible by the construction of a gas chamber in March 1945. In this 150 were executed per day.

It is astonishing that Mother Maria lasted five weeks in the “youth camp,” and was finally sent back to the Jugendlager to the main camp on March 3. Though emaciated and infested with lice, with her eyes festering, she began to think she might actually live to return to Paris, or even go back to Russia.

That same month the camp commander received an order from Reichsfuhrer Himmler that anyone who could no longer walk should be killed. While such orders had been anticipated and many already killed, the decree accelerated the process. With the help of Inna Webster and others to lean on, Mother Maria managed to continue standing at roll calls, but this became far more difficult when groups of prisoners were ordered into ranks of five for purposes of selecting those to be killed that day. Within her block, Mother Maria was sometimes hidden in a small space between roof and ceiling in expectation of raids in which additional “selections” were made.

On the 30th of March Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers — Good Friday as it happened. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Accounts are at odds about what happened. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew, who had been chosen. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Although perishing in the gas chamber, she did not perish in the Church’s memory. Survivors of the war who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the maverick nun who had spent so many years coming to the aid of people in desperate straights. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing, in French and Russia. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. There have been two biographies in English and little by little the translation and publication in English of her most notable essays. A 22-page bibliography of Mother Maria-related writings has been assembled by Dr. Kristi Groberg.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which explained the slowness of the Orthodox Church in adding her to the calendar of saints. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians.

At last, in 2004 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator, Ilya Fondaminsky. Their canonization was celebrated in Paris on the 1st and 2nd of May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky.

Mother Maria — now St. Maria of Paris — remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

* * *

The main part of this essay is the introduction to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books. The principal source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s book, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Todd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion, international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and author of various books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell.

Other pages relating to St. Maria Skobtsova texts and photos.

text as updated July 8, 2004

Hospitality and Marriage

Joachim & Anne
Saints Anne & Joachim, parents of the Mother of God

by Nancy Forest

When I was growing up, in the fifties and in the suburbs, hospitality was something that had a definite ring of social class to it. It suggested entertaining at home, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and leisure wear — a lifestyle of “gracious living” that my parents, who were shy people of modest means, did not share. Even today, we tend to think of money and charm when we think of hospitality, or the “cordial and generous treatment of guests,” as the dictionary still puts it. (Google “hospitality industry” and you’ll come up with millions of hits for hotels, restaurants, fashion and home decorating.)

So when my husband and I married and Jim suggested we try to “practice hospitality,” I wondered what on earth was in store for me. But Jim had been educated in what might be called the Dorothy Day School of Hospitality, which has nothing to do with affluence.

After more than three decades of welcoming people into our home and our lives — from friends to strangers, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming, from the friends of our children to my 90-year-old mother — my own understanding of hospitality has grown, deepened, and endured testing.

Far from an optional pastime, hospitality, I’ve learned, is an essential part of the Christian life. Indeed, hospitality is the Christian life. We can no more do without hospitality than we can do without prayer and the Eucharist. It’s that important.

This kind of hospitality, of course, is a far cry from the leisure class idea of popular culture. For Christians, hospitality is not the acquisition of elegance but the decision, made in freedom, to open your heart and your life to whomever God brings to you, and to welcome them with joy and gratitude. Hospitality is the constant effort to break through the various walls we build to protect ourselves, and to approach the Other in love.

For some people hospitality comes easy. For others it takes a lifetime of prayer and ascetic exercise, and even then it may only manifest itself in a kind word to your next-door neighbor. Hospitality, like Christianity itself, is not a “place” but a “way.” It’s the determination to get beyond the fear, or the distrust, or the distaste for the Other and to get beyond the desire to look out for Number One (which our culture holds up as the meaning and purpose of life). And not only because being open to others is a moral good, although surely it is, but also because it is the key to salvation, the key to true freedom. It is the sole content of the Last Judgment.

In Matthew 25, the great Gospel chapter on the Last Judgment, Christ says that to practice hospitality is to enter into the Kingdom “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” As St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris wrote,

At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.

Having dedicated our marriage to the practice of hospitality, Jim and I have discovered that hospitality is really at the heart of Christian marriage. It isn’t just something we decided to do as a Christian couple; it is the sacrament of marriage itself made manifest in everyday life.

Marriage is a sacrament, Fr. John Meyendorff explains in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, because to be married is to participate in the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage is the prototype of breaking through the walls of our selves and fully accepting another person in love. In St. Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians, the text read at every Orthodox wedding service, the mystery — the sacrament — of marriage reflects the sacrifice of Christ. As Fr. John writes, “The husband becomes one single being, one single ‘flesh’ with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e. God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body.” The mystery of marriage is that the door through which I welcome another into my life is the same door by which I enter into the Kingdom. By its very nature marriage is a denial of self. Husband and wife offer hospitality first to one other, turning from the exclusive pursuit of their own personal concerns and deferring to each other in self-giving love. Yet at the heart of their mutual submission is the Eucharist.

Fr. John also points out the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of married Christians. “When in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh,’ and if both are members of the Body of Christ, their union is being sealed by the Holy Spirit living in each of them. Now the Eucharist is what makes them members of the Body of Christ.” The early Church, he explains, did not have the kind of wedding rite it has today. Until the ninth century, the normal practice was for a Christian couple to enter into a civil marriage, then partake of the Eucharist together. Communion was considered the seal of the marriage.

So the Eucharist forms the model of hospitality — of sacrifice, self-giving love and submission — upon which Christian marriage is based. Just look at what we do when we approach the chalice, and see how true this is. After preparing for the reception of Christ through fasting, prayer and confession — like a young couple making their wedding preparations, making their bodies ready for each other — we approach the chalice with our arms folded on our chests, literally disarmed, putting up no defense whatsoever to protect our selves. Christ the bridegroom, whose love is unconditional, open and ever-sacrificial, bursts forth from the Royal Doors and receives us into His Kingdom. And we, in turn, humbly take Him into our bodies in a stunningly physical way that is beyond rationality and analysis. We pray for Christ to receive us: “Receive, therefore, O Christ who lovest all men, even me, as the Harlot, as the Thief, as the Publican, as the Prodigal.”

If we understand ourselves to be the “worst of sinners,” we understand that true Christian hospitality knows no limits, for if I — the worst — can be received, then no one can be excluded. And we pray that despite our wretchedness we may be deemed worthy to receive Christ — “so now take it upon thee to enter into the manger of my dumb soul and my soiled body.”

Hospitality in marriage begins there, but it doesn’t end there. As Fr. John put it, the “Great Mystery” (in St. Paul’s words) of marriage is “the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their ‘agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom.” Hospitality in marriage opens out like a series of concentric circles, and the responsibility given to married people to “transfigure ‘their agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom” involves a real effort to move further and further outward. At the center of the circles is Christ in the Eucharist. Then beyond that are the couple themselves, loving and supporting each other. Within this context, the wedding reading from Ephesians (which continues to trouble so many people) makes perfect sense: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

We don’t happen to live in a world that looks favorably on submission and sacrifice. Ours is a more rights-based world, where we’re encouraged to demand what’s coming to us, to make sure we don’t get cheated, to exert an enormous amount of energy protecting our precious selves from what we regard as the injustice of others. Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at each other, and our neighbors, in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my husband, my wife, my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated?

In his journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison — the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976)

Marriages that operate on this principle are doomed. If a married couple are unwilling to disarm themselves and to receive each other, based on the model of the Eucharist, there’s no hope at all for living a life of hospitality. And if hospitality is the key to our salvation, this is a very serious problem indeed.

The next circle beyond the couple themselves are the children with which they may be blessed. It may seem odd to speak of practicing hospitality towards one’s own children, but in a sense they really are strangers, and very demanding strangers at that. They come into your life fully convinced that you have been put on earth to tend to their every need, and they’re right. But as they grow you’ve got to help them become selfless and hospitable themselves, without withdrawing too much of your active support and care. It’s not an easy balance to strike. We found that one of the best ways to do this is simply by your own good example.

When our children were small, due to Jim’s work with an international organization, we often had guests come to dinner or stay overnight. These were the next concentric circles in the life of hospitality: family and friends, and even total strangers. They came from all over the world. We kept a world globe next to the dinner table (it’s still there) so our guests could show the kids where they came from. They loved having such interesting people in the house. One evening when we were about to have a rare dinner without guests, our disappointed daughter asked if we “couldn’t call the office and have them send someone over?”

Not everyone has the opportunity — or the inclination — to practice this kind of heavy-duty hospitality. But children don’t need the world at their table every night to learn what it means to open your door to strangers. Hospitality, as I said before, is not just a particular way of running a household. It’s simply the Christian life. It doesn’t take much to show children, by your example, that the world is not full of threatening strangers, and that your mission in life is not to protect yourself from them. You may have little money, or time, or room; you may be terribly shy; you may have disabilities and other kinds of special difficulties to deal with. But none of these should prevent you from being determined to open your heart, and your life, to the people God puts in your path.

* * *

Nancy Forest is a translator, editor and writer living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. An earlier version of this essay was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of In Communion.

The icon is of Saints Anne and Joachim, parents of the Mother of God. It is often given to couples on the day of their marriage.

* * *

 

Marguerite Hendrickson Forest: ‘Nothing can stop that lady!’

born in Jersey City, NJ on May 26, 1912; died in Tinton Falls, NJ on December 8, 2001

By Jim Forest

Marguerite Hendrickson Forest in 1996

The older I get, the more aware I am that my mother was my primary mentor.

One of her lessons was that you do your children a huge favor by never speaking ill of an ex-spouse. For mother that had to be a major achievement. From conversations with her later in life I learned that it took years for her to work through the grief that followed the collapse of her marriage. There must have been anger too, but I never saw it. Somehow she communicated to my brother and me respect for dad. Perhaps due to lessons learned as a social worker, she felt it was essential for us to feel proud of him. “Your father might some day be president of the United States,” she said when it was still possible for her to be imagine America shifting toward a Marxist economic model. She worked out occasional visits from him that occurred once or twice yearly. By the time of the first visit, Dad was living in St. Louis, half-a-continent away. His visits seemed like major holidays to me.

Despite being a “red-diaper baby,” during my childhood I couldn’t have explained to anyone what a Communist was, except that it meant occasionally walking with my mother for an hour or two on Saturday afternoons as she went door-to-door trying, with no success that I recall, to enlist subscribers to The Daily Worker, the paper published by the Communist Party from its headquarters near Union Square in New York. For lack of a baby-sitter, my brother and I were also sometimes brought along to the monthly meetings of her Communist “cell” group, made up of six or seven local people. Their discussions, to my young ears, sounded very dull indeed. These gathering occurred in very ordinary living rooms. Looking back, my informed guess is that at least one of the participants in these meetings was on the FBI payroll.

That mother would turn out to be a radical was certainly not what her parents had intended or imagined. Her father, Charles Hendrickson, was a Princeton graduate who had become a successful lawyer with offices in Jersey City. His father’s father, another Princeton alumnus, had been a judge on the New Jersey Supreme Court. For at least several generations the Hendricksons had been devout Methodists, a church that had been strong in its opposition to slavery in the nineteenth century and, in the twentieth century, was strongly identified with the prohibition movement. (Their avoidance of alcohol rubbed off on Mother. I have the impression of the same bottle of wine being in our pantry throughout my childhood, its contents going down inch-by-inch as I grew up inch-by-inch.)

Mother had grown up in a home in which there was a maid, a cook and, during her early childhood, a nanny. The maid was Libby, a wiry woman nearly black as coal. Not just old but ancient when I knew her, she had been born in Tennessee in slavery days. Libby had come north from Memphis with my grandmother, Janet Collier Estes, when she married my grandfather. By the time I knew her, she was long retired. She lived with younger members of her family not far from our house where, in warm weather, she spent much of the day in a rocking chair on the porch. She and my mother adored each other. Libby also had nothing but good things to say about my grandparents, both dead by the time of mother’s return to Red Bank. “Your grandmother was a real Christian lady,” Libby told me. “She never looked down on anyone — and neither did your grandfather. How I wish you might have known them.” Libby took pride in my mother’s achievements. “Your mother shows what a woman can be,” she said.

Mother as a child with her dog Nipper

Mother loved school. In her teens she aimed not for marriage but for higher education and a career, far from a common choice for women in those days. More than once she proudly told my brother and me that the news of her acceptance by Smith College in Massachusetts had been front-page news in The Red Bank Register. (Searching the web, I recently found the front page she had described; it was dated 18 September 1929.) Mother graduated “summa cum laude” in the class of 1933 and later got a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University in New York, but it was her undergraduate years at Smith that pleased her most. In one of my favorite photos of her, taken when she was in her eighties, she is proudly wearing a Smith College tee-shirt.

It was at Smith that Mother took a leftward turn, as did so many people, not all of them working class, during the Depression years. Soon after graduation, she signed up as a Communist and remained in the Communist Party for more than two decades.

Communism is dense with ideology, yet I never experienced mother as an ideology-centered person. I can’t recall her ever trying to convince my brother or me of any Marxist dogma. For her, Communism boiled down to doing whatever she could to protect people from being treated like rubbish. She accepted the doctrine of atheism simply because it was part of the radical package. Marxist doctrine was based on materialism — the view that nothing exists that isn’t tangible; hence the rejection of belief in an intangible God or the possibility of a life after death. But in my experience neither she nor my father were at war with God. Mother was a Methodist atheist — and Dad, I discovered as I got to know him, was a Catholic atheist. I think in both cases, but certainly in mother’s, the adjective was more important than the noun.

As a child I once asked Mother, “Is there a God?” She paused and then replied, “I don’t think so.” What struck me more than her words was the sadness in her voice. I cannot think of another occasion in childhood when the emotional climate of an answer impressed me so deeply. “The only thing wrong with Communism was that there was no religion in it,” my mother explained to me many years after she had given up membership in the Communist Party. “‘From each according to his ability,’ as Saint Paul said, ‘to each according to his needs.’ That’s also the Communist ideal — only we’re not ready for that yet. But I’ve never changed my mind that we should aspire to this.”

Still more revealing of her not-completely-lost religious faith was her taking Dick and me to the Methodist Church in Red Bank from time to time and never missing Christmas and Easter services. Once there, she was not a passive participant. She sang the hymns with feeling and knew most of them by heart.

It happened that the Methodist minister, Roger Squire, and his wife were people with a social conscience. In 1952, two Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki seven years earlier, arrived in Red Bank as their house guests. A national peace group had arranged with plastic surgeons to treat some of the people who had been disfigured by the blasts. Thanks to our occasional attendance at church services, I saw those two very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring.

Roger Squire sometimes dropped by at our house, always a delightful event for my brother and me as he had a talent for connecting with kids. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was, given the Cold War, that he would from time to time make a pastoral call on a Communist and her two sons.

It wasn’t only the Methodist church that I visited. Mother never objected to my going to other churches in the area when friends invited me, but I found sermon-centered Protestant services too classroom-like and wasn’t inspired to return. However, again at a school friend’s invitation, early in 1952 I started going to the Episcopal Church in Shrewsbury on a regular basis. Its Eucharist-centered worship connected with me with magnetic force. Here the altar rather than the pulpit was the center point. The church was not a classroom in disguise. The big event was actual worship rather than sermons and Bible study. At my own request, I was baptized there on July 27. Mother enjoyed the day of my baptism as much as I did. (Eight years later, in 1960, Mother found her own way back to the religious faith she had abandoned while in college. Reader that she was, it’s not surprising that the door opener for her was a book — Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had loaned her my copy in response to her bewildered question about what had led me to become a Catholic. Somehow Merton’s account of his own religious pilgrimage was able to help free her from the idea that Christianity was based on wishful thinking and attractive myths. From that point on, mother was in the Methodist church every Sunday and was often engaged in adult study groups on weekday evenings.)

Probably because she had grown up in a home without economic worries, mother’s adaptation to ascetic Communist ideals wasn’t a hundred percent successful. While we lived in a small house of only three rooms plus kitchen and bathroom in an underclass neighborhood and had no car, not every economic choice she made suggested voluntary poverty. Although Mother spent money carefully most of the time, it wasn’t because there was no money to spend. In fact, in addition to having a good job, mother had inherited a substantial investment portfolio from her parents. Along with The Daily Worker, dividend checks and stock reports came steadily into the mailbox on our porch. Checking the financial pages of the Herald Tribune, mother kept an eye on the value of shares in ATT, Bell Telephone and Standard Oil. One of her bywords, inherited from her father, was “never touch the principal, spend only the interest,” not a Marxist maxim. Thanks to the inheritance, our house had been purchased for cash — not a penny was owed the bank nor did Mother buy anything on credit. She was dead set against debt.

Sometimes Mother spent money so cautiously that one would have thought we were in danger of the poor house. At other times spent money as if we were Rockefellers. Christmas presents for Dick and me, though few, were often bought at F.A.O. Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which we visited annually around Thanksgiving. Our clothing was purchased at the better stores in Red Bank, with jackets and trousers tailored before delivery. On visits to New York, we might eat a very economical lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, where food was dispensed from coin-operated slots, then dine at an up-market restaurant if we stayed in the city for supper. One Thanksgiving, to give Dick and me a better and warmer view of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mother reserved a window table at Schrafft’s, putting the huge balloons being tower down Sixth Avenue at eye level. Going to Broadway shows or seeing a new film in one of New York’s truly elegant cinemas happened several times a year. When mother spent money in a incautious way, she did it with enthusiasm, often saying, “What is money to a Forest?”

On occasions when she went to the movies in Red Bank, she brought Dick and me with her rather than arrange a baby sitter. At times we were the only children in the audience, as was the case with “The Moon is Blue,” a controversial comedy about two playboys, each attempting to coax a young woman into bed, but both unable to overcome their target’s anthracite determination to remain a virgin until her wedding night. It was 1953 — I was not yet twelve. Though the story left virtue triumphant, the film industry’s censor, the Breen Office, judged the script as having “an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity.” Director Otto Preminger went ahead with the film anyway. It was banned in three states, I learned only recently, but that only enlarged audiences wherever it was shown. At the time I was unaware of the controversy, though I knew there were no matinee showings and that I was the only kid in my class who had seen it. What I remember best about the film is not its story but mother’s laughter. Afterward I asked her what the word “virgin” meant. “A woman who always sleeps alone,” she said, then adding a joke. “Do you remember those huge stone lions that guard the main entrance to the New York City Public Library?” “Sure,” I responded. We had walked by them many times on day trips to the city. “Those lions,” she said while trying not to laugh, “roar whenever a virgin walks by.”

Mother’s laughter, at its most extreme, seemed to me life-threatening and, when in public, embarrassing. It was at its most extreme when we went to see Jacques Tati’s “Mister Hulot’s Holiday,” a French comedy and therefore probably not screened in many U.S. theaters. Mother must have read about it in The New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper she liked not only for the quality of its news reporting but for its film, TV and book reviews and for being “less pompous than The New York Times.” Jacques Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot is a long-legged, long-nosed man whose pipe is an extension of his jaw, who tips his hat as often as he puffs his pipe, a man more amiable than the friendliest dog but as awkward as a duck on dry land. “Mister Hulot’s Holiday” bordered on being a silent movie, in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, one sight gag after another, mainly about the social complexities of people relating to each other — the labor-intensive rituals of courtesy. My attention was torn between Jacques Tati on the screen and mother’s almost continuous laughter.

The laughter was needed. Outside the theater, the Cold War and the McCarthy Era meant that people like my parents were living in very unfunny times. Dad was one of a number of leading Communists who had been arrested in September 1952. We had gotten the news the same day he was arrested by FBI agents from my Uncle Charles, Mother’s only brother, a man whose job was with the federal government. He parked his black Buick in front of our house, knocked on the front door as if with a hammer, refused to come in when Mother opened the door, instead waving a page-one headline in her face: TEN TOP REDS ARRESTED. Of the five arrested in St Louis, the principal “Red” was my father, shown in a photo wearing handcuffs. My uncle shouted out his rage at the scandal of his being linked to such people, even if he was an ex-husband, then stormed off the porch and drove away. I don’t recall Mother having managed to say a single word. I watched the scene from an adjacent window. Often part of our life until that day, I never saw Uncle Charles again.

That evening, after getting her own newspaper, mother explained to my bother and me that dad was in jail, charged with “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence.” It sounded awful but she pointed out that he was not charged with any act of violence or even charged with advocating violence but with “conspiring to advocate,” and that even that prefatory word wasn’t true. “Your father hates violence and doesn’t own a gun — he hates guns.” I understood the last sentence but still had no idea at all what “conspiring to advocate” meant. (After five months in prison, Dad was freed on bail. It had not been easy raising the required $40,000, a fortune at the time, an amount that would normally have been required of a murderer. Several years later, when the case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department dropped all charges.)

I’m not sure when Mother resigned from the Communist Party — it wasn’t something she talked about at the time. At the latest it would have been in 1956. I recall how shocked and disgusted she was by the Soviet Union’s suppression of the uprising in Hungary, an intervention slavishly supported by the Communist Party in the U.S. But it may be that her resignation occurred earlier. In the early fifties the FBI was systematically informing employers if someone on their payroll was a Communist or even was regarded as “a Communist sympathizer.” The result in most cases was that the employee was fired. Thousands lost not only their jobs but, unable to meet mortgage payments, their homes as well. I know Mother worried about what would happen if she, a single parent with two children, were suddenly unemployed. It was the reason that she never took a sick day off or did anything that might give her employer, the State of New Jersey, an excuse for dismissing her.

“But why do we have no car?” I asked her when I was old enough to be puzzled that we depended so much on getting around by foot and bus. “Everyone else has a car,” I pointed out. She explained, “I don’t want us getting used to having something we couldn’t afford to keep if I was fired.”

In that period we became aware that two FBI agents had been assigned to interview not only mother’s employer and co-workers but all our immediate neighbors. One weekday afternoon, while mother was still work, the agents knocked on our front door and, displaying their badges, walked in. They then proceeded to fingerprint my brother and me. “Tell your mother we dropped by,” one of them said before leaving.

One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain U.S. atomic secrets. Mother was convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crime was being Communists — I doubt it ever crossed Mother’s mind that either of them might in fact be guilty. Their conviction, she felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with anyone even slightly to the left. The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their two sons from prison were published from time to time in The Daily Worker and these Mother shared with my brother and me. How we wept that morning in June 1953 as she read aloud the newspaper accounts of their last minutes of life.

Mother’s social values never changed. Though no longer a member of Communist Party, she battled local politicians for many years over all sorts of issues — roads, water mains, zoning issues, transportation for the old and handicapped, food banks, housing for the poor, racial integration of the local all-white volunteer fire department, etc., with many a walk in the neighborhood collecting signatures for petitions.

When she was in her mid-seventies I took her out to lunch at a particularly nice restaurant in Nyack, New York, where I was working at the time. A few nights before Nancy and I had seen the film “Reds,” a vivid portrait of American radicals in the early years of the Twentieth Century. I was trying to remember the lyrics of the socialist anthem, “The Internationale,” which she had often sung when Dick and I were children and which had been sung in Russian in the movie. I asked, “Do you remember the words?” Though the restaurant was crowded and in any event wasn’t a place where anyone but my mother would burst into song, without hesitation she sang “The Internationale” straight through: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better world’s in birth…” At the end — tears glistening on her cheeks and me still scribbling away on a napkin — she said, “With a hymn like that, how could you not be a Communist?”

Perhaps because of her work with the mentally ill, she was remarkable calm in situations in which many others would be overwhelmed with fear. One night mother, then about seventy, was awoken by a young man standing over her bed with a flashlight in his hand. She asked him what she could do for him, put on her bathrobe, took him to the kitchen where she sat down and talked with him, then said good night. Afterward she was more attentive about locking the doors at bedtime.

It wasn’t easy to interest mother in family history. Once when Nancy and I were visiting I suggested the three of us go out to see the Hendrickson House, an eighteenth-century farmhouse in nearby Holmdel that had belonged to some of our Dutch-rooted ancestors and in my lifetime had become a museum in the care of the Monmouth County Historical Society. Mother hadn’t the slightest interest in such an outing — “Who would want to see anything like that? How about a walk through downtown Red Bank?” At last she surrendered and we drove out to the Hendrickson House. Once there, Mother was as happy as a kid at the circus.

She was an avid reader from childhood till well into her eighties. After retiring from social work at age 65, she become a student at nearby Brookdale (now Monmouth) College and took classes there on wide-ranging subjects for about twenty years, until she was too weak to continue. Conversations with her during those two decades would inevitably turn to what she was studying at the time and what book she was reading, which might be history, theology or law. Even when she lost all but her peripheral vision and had become legally blind, she was undeterred, reading with the help of a scanning device that hugely magnified letters on a TV screen. A word of more than four of five letters would often overflow the screen area, but mother doggedly read on, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, word by word, sentence by sentence. For nearly ten years she used this machine in the college library for hours at a time, often five days per week. Finally the college, when upgrading library equipment, gave her the older machine to have at home where it afterward resided on the dining room table.

Until even big type was too small, for years she subscribed to a large type edition of The New York Times, though still lamenting the demise of The Herald Tribune. There was also a steady flow of books on record and tape coming into the house from a state library for the blind in Trenton. At least once a week, even when she could hardly see anything on the screen, she went to see a movie with my aunt. (The last film I took her to see was “Chicken Run,” a story about chickens escaping from a factory farm. She loved it — it was, she said, “a parable about revolution.”)

Though she had purchased a car in her later life, finally giving it up only when her eyes made driving dangerous, in many ways her life style was little different in her old age then it had been when Dick and I were kids. She followed local, national and world news closely. She never became an avid consumer — I don’t think she ever had a credit card. The place the Communist Party had once had in her life was filled by the Methodist Church.

She loved her neighbors and would do anything for them, but talking with behind-the-counter staff in stores one would often be reminded that she had grown up in a well-to-do family and expected Service with a capital S. When she had a complaint, it was delivered with hurricane force. I didn’t envy the powerless sales people who were her target on those occasions.

In the summer of 1997, after doing some errands with Mother, I stopped at a free food kitchen called The Lunch Break in the middle of the black neighborhood on the west side of Red Bank to drop off a box full of light bulbs that Mother had found in the cellar. One woman at the Lunch Break asked me, “Is Marguerite still going door to door?” This was a reference to my mother’s frequent efforts to gather signatures for petitions. I assured her this was still going on. “You sure got yourself some mother. Nothing can stop that lady!”

During that visit I was struck by Mother’s “one day at a time” way of life. She had never been nostalgic. She had little interest in either past or future but a tremendous engagement with the present. Her opinions hadn’t mellowed or her values faded. Over lunch she expressed her pleasure about a letter-to-the editor my aunt had sent to a local paper — a protest against capital punishment. Aunt’s main point was that we should leave the taking of life to God.

The next summer I found mother still in surprisingly good shape and spirits. She couldn’t get around quickly but you would hardly notice that she was almost totally blind. Her hearing was good. She was very alert, though when tired she couldn’t quite remember if I was Jim or my oldest son, Ben. She was slower in doing things and used her four-footed cane inside the house. I found her dismayed that the text-magnifying device the college had given her was broken — I discovered it had become unplugged. The book she was reading on screen at the time was about life in Israel/Palestine at the time of Christ.

In old age, the ideals of her youth and young-adulthood sprang back to life with renewed vigor. Despite being an ex-Communist, once again she often spoke of Communism in glowing terms. When I told her the ideals were fine but that in practice every country that had tried Communism quickly ended up being a hellish place to live, she was resistant to hearing it, though when I described visiting a forest near Minsk where, in the Stalin years, truckloads of people were shot and killed each and every day for years, their bodies filling pit after pit, she was horrified. But the next day what I had told her about Stalin’s atrocities was forgotten.

In her last years, after decades riveted to the present tense, she began talking a good deal about her early memories. One summer day, while having a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake at a coffee shop in Red Bank, she recalled how when she was very small her mother had taken her for a walk on Broad Street, the very street where we were that day. Walks with her mother was rare — normally she went out with Hanna Fuelling, the nanny who cared for her. Mother enjoyed the walk until they went past a bakery without stopping. To my grandmother’s dismay, instantly she started howling “finger!” Back at home Hanna explained to my grandmother what “finger” meant — it was Hanna’s custom to always stop at the bakery to get her infant charge a freshly-baked “lady finger.” Mother also recalled, on another walk with her mother at about the same age, dashing under a horse to cross the street. “My Mother was alarmed!”

After coffee I drove her across the river to Middletown, going east along the road closest to the Navesink River past huge houses belonging to the ultra-rich, then crossing the river to get to Rumson, another bastion of wealth, and finally back to Red Bank. Mother loved the ride. Far from lamenting her crippled vision, there were many exclamations about what a splendid Fall it was, the trees exploding with such wonderful colors.

During her last months one could see that Mother was much less able to get around, much quicker to tire. The television was on most of the time — she often watched programs on Discovery Channel. Her once-large world had shrunk to about the size of the house. In October 2001, when I mentioned the events of September 11, she knew what I was talking about and was distressed, but recent news wasn’t in her thoughts except during those moments when they are mentioned. She was amazed to be told how many great-grandchildren she has. “Goodness! Imagine that!”

Aunt Douglas had died that August, age 94. Face-to-face visits between them had become infrequent because of the distance separating their two homes, but they had kept in touch with each other by phone several times a day. Though she had been battling a failing body for years, her sister’s death this was a signal that it was time to let go of life.

Mother died the night of December 8, 2001. Earlier in the evening she repeatedly asked Norma, the live-in Jamaican woman who was caring for her, to leave the front door unlocked “because my sister is coming to get me.” My son Ben, who lived nearby, was with he when mother exhaled her last breath.

I doubt I have lived through a week of my life since childhood without recalling some word or proverb of mother’s. She had an extensive collection of stock phrases that she used in various contexts.

One of them was, “Time, time, said old King Tut, is somethin’ I ain’t not nothin’ else but.” This meant we need not hurry. She often said, “Everyone his own taste said the old lady as she kissed the cow.” This meant there was room for disagreement. Another oft-repeated saying was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” In theory, at least, she was in favor of reigning in criticism. She would sometimes say, especially to me, “If your head wasn’t attached to your body, you would lose it.” Similarly, “You don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.” If someone had not dressed appropriately: “He was sent for but couldn’t come.” That too would often be me. Another favorite was “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Truly, Mother never did anything by halves. Anything that offended her eyes was a “hideosity.” Its antonym was “adorability,” as would be the case with any of the stray cats she adopted. She was fond of a four-line poem by Edna St. Vincent Millet and recited it frequently: “I burn my candle at both ends, / it shall not last the night, / but ah my friends / and oh my foes, / it makes a lovely light.”

Because Nancy and I live in Holland, visits were infrequent, but in the last months of her life, we would call her at least once a week. These were brief conversations in which Mother would invariably express the hope that we would visit soon. She would say over and over again, “I love you.”

I once told Mother that her granddaughter Anne took great pride in having “so adventurous a grandmother.” She responded, “Yes, I am adventurous.” It struck me that even then, when she could hardly move without becoming exhausted, she put it in the present tense.

* * *

Memories of Marguerite

by Nancy Forest

People are always asking me if I miss America, and I usually say no. But if there’s one thing I do miss, and indeed regret about living in Europe, it’s not having lived closer to Marguerite and having gotten to know her better. She was a model for me of a strong woman — strong but not rigid or brittle, no-nonsense but kind, serious and principled but with a fabulous sense of humor. She was one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met.

The first time I met her was around 1977. Jim had just moved to Holland and was on one of his trips back to the States, and he came over to visit us (my former husband and myself) and our daughter Caitlan, Jim’s god-daughter. He brought Marguerite with him. I was living in a very humble apartment in Nyack at the time, and they came for dinner. Marguerite was bursting with enthusiasm about our “wonderful” apartment and the “beautiful” dinner plates, which, as I recall, were a sort of drab green. So my first impression was a woman of non-stop enthusiasm.

When Jim and I decided to get married he came to the States again, in 1981, for Christmas. This time I went down to Red Bank for the first time, and really met Marguerite in her home and as my future mother-in-law. I brought a freshly-baked pecan pie along as a house gift, which made a big impression. A few days later, she and Aunt Douglas came up to Nyack for dinner with me and Jim. I was living in a much nicer apartment at the time. While Jim stepped outside for a few minutes to park their car, she and Aunt Douglas had me alone for the first time. Aunt Douglas took me by the hand and said, very clearly, “Listen, dear, you do whatever you think is right for you!” They didn’t want me rushing into anything.

Later that spring, all the Forests came up to Nyack to have what I guess was an official welcome for me. They took me out to lunch at a very nice restaurant in town. Marguerite and Aunt were both there, and Dick came, too. Dick was wonderful. A real brother-in-law. I remember feeling so warmly welcomed. I felt like part of the family.

I moved to Holland in 1982. When Jim and I were preparing to get married we had trouble with the Dutch authorities because they wouldn’t accept my New Jersey birth certificate, which contains very little information. So finally Marguerite went to Trenton herself and dug up a special birth certificate that even my parents had never seen — something the New Jersey Health Department keeps in its secret files — with every scrap of information about my birth. The Dutch authorities were pleased, and Jim and I were able to get married.

In 1987 I was able to return to the States for a two-week trip. I spent one week at a conference in North Carolina and then flew up to New Jersey to spend several days with both Marguerite and Aunt Douglas. It was then that I really got to know them both better. I’m so glad I was able at least to spend those few days with her then. Aunt was still driving, and she took us to Brookdale so that Marguerite could give me a full tour of “her” campus. We spent a wonderful day in Princeton, too. But what I remember most was the incident with the keys. Marguerite had recently returned from a trip to Atlantic City with some local people, and she had lost her duplicate house keys on the way. So Aunt Douglas drove us into Red Bank to the locksmith for new duplicates to be made. Aunt Douglas parked the car and started reading the newspaper she had brought with her, which I thought was odd. But she didn’t get out of the car. I went into the locksmith’s with Marguerite. The unfortunate young man behind the counter asked if he could help her. She pulled out her main set of keys — a huge bunch on a ring — and explained that she needed duplicates, but she needed two duplicates for some, and which one was the key to the garage door? And when the young man said he didn’t know, she seemed surprised and a bit annoyed. This went on and on, with the young man trying to maintain his composure. Finally I went out to the car, where Aunt Douglas was still reading the paper. She looked up at me and smiled. She knew exactly what was going on in the locksmith’s shop.

Jim and I visited together in 1994 and were able to go to church with Marguerite, where we discovered that the Methodist minister and his wife were graduates of my alma mater. That was a nice connection. During that trip Jim expressed interest in visiting the Hendrickson House, the 17th-century country house located near Red Bank that had belonged to Marguerite’s Hendrickson ancestors and had become a museum of the Monmouth County Historical Society. Jim wanted to see it again himself and to show it to me and Anne. At first Marguerite was completely disinterested. Who would want to see anything like that? She seemed so un-nostalgic on the one hand, yet she liked to walk through Red Bank and talk about what it used to be like, and where they used to live, and tell stories about her parents. Anyway, we did end up going to Hendrickson House, which Marguerite ended up enjoying immensely.

On that particular trip she had just been to the movies to see “Forrest Gump”, a film she loved so much that she wanted us all to see it. So she took us all to the movies. Anne had never been to an American movie theater (complete with the smell of buttered popcorn, which Dutch theaters didn’t have at the time). She sat there and laughed all the way through.

I remember the joy she took in her pets. She called her cats “adorabilities”. She had great respect for people who were enthusiastic, strong, decent and hard-working. She had nothing but disdain for people who felt sorry for themselves and didn’t seem to be able to get a grip on life. I have the sense, from having met her and from things I’ve heard from Jim, that despite the difficulties she had had to deal with — physical disability (very limited use of her right hand since birth), having been ditched by her husband and having to raise her sons alone, blindness in later life — she was filled with appreciation for the good things around her. The love she lavished on her sons and her grandson Ben came back to her in spades. She was an amazing balance of generosity and tough expectations. For a strict non-romantic, she had more love than anyone I know. It was a grace and privilege and blessing to have known her, and to be her daughter-in-law.

* * *

In her own words…

In the summer of 1996, when Anne and I were in America for Ben and Amy’s wedding, I was able to get Mother to talk about her life. These are my notes. She started by recalling how animals had been in her life from early childhood:

We had ducks, of course! And chickens — two kinds. When it was very cold out we had the baby chicks in the house. We always had a dog. I can remember Nipper from my earliest childhood. When I went to college I was given $25 to buy things. What I did was to buy a collie puppy, Flipper the First. There’s his picture on the wall. Flip!

We had a cow, Bessie — we kept it in grandma’s side yard on 103 East Front Street. I remember for a time sharing my room with our maid — Hannah Jackson — and even sharing the same bed. On Front Street we shared the house with my grandmother, then later had our own house on Wallace Street.

We had a canary — of course! Dickie was his name, naturally. After Dickie we had another canary that escaped from the house. I was hysterical. Mother wasn’t. Then we got a phone call from grandmother — he had flown down the street to her house and flew right in the dining room window. And there he stayed until we came to get him.

We had cats, though they came a little bit later. Douglas was afraid of cats when we got the first one. You can see she got over it!

We had pigeons. Dad used to take them to shows — and he took the chickens to chicken shows. Dad was called “Chicken Charlie” by his friends. Naturally we wouldn’t eat our own chickens — only Dad would eat them. Finally Dad and Uncle George stopped duck hunting because we wouldn’t eat them.

We had a hobby horse by the fireplace. Big! To me at least. It had stirrups and everything.

At Aunt Uytendale’s marriage, I was a reluctant flower girl, not at first but at the actual event. We wore fancy dresses — I think they came from Paris. Not that this meant much to me at the time! Cousin Catherine Nesbitt from Memphis was the maid of honor. She finally succeeded in leading me down toward the altar by having a donut on her finger which I followed. I was probably five.

Mother came from Memphis. Her father had a wholesale grocery business, not the most respectable business, but he was prosperous at the time. Later he went broke. Mother was named Janet Douglas Estes. The Douglas was for the Douglas clan in Scotland. Estes is an Italian name. Probably there was some French ancestor too, which is why I was named Marguerite.

Bobbin came with Mother from Memphis and was with us until she died. She was an Afro-American. She died of gall stones. Mother had the funeral right in our home. In those days that wasn’t what happened with servants, having the funeral in the home of a white family. The Afro-American residents of Red Bank must have been astonished. They all came to our house to view the body. Our white neighbors must have been even more astonished. But they would never have disapproved of anything Dad did. She was buried in the little church that is now the Russian Orthodox Church. In those days it was the church Count Basie went to.

Mother was different. Though she came from the south, she wasn’t at all a racist. Her brother, my Uncle Collier, would walk out of the opera if he were sharing a box with an Afro-American. She was the oldest in her family and I suppose she had her own relationship with the Afro-Americans who raised her. She was different! She was the unusual member of her family. Her youngest brother, my Uncle Newton, once slapped a member of the Supreme Court when he gave a lecture in Salt Lake City. This had to do with the Supreme Court not ending segregation. Uncle Newton had run in Memphis for the Board of Education but lost and later moved out to Utah because he knew the Mormon religion was racist.

At Mother’s finishing school they spoke French every day except Sunday. It was Ely Court. Then it was in New York — now it’s in Connecticut. The only French she remembered when I was little meant, “I love you, I adore you, what more can you desire?” At the time the school was considered “the fastest school in the east.” Fast meant going out on a date without a chaperon, which I doubt ever happened at Ely Court. The school was directed by Mrs. Parsons. She loved Mother and Dad — they had been married out of her school. She sometimes came to visit us. When she was old enough, Douglas went to the same school. By that time there were children of movie actors from Hollywood boarding there. When she graduated we were all pleased that she got a special award but finally we noticed that everyone got a prize!

Dad had a wonderful garden. There was also a grape arbor — I used to give the grape skins to the chickens, who just loved them. Naturally we had eggs, Mother sold some of them and gave the money to Dad. She was very proud of that money.

Dad’s father — also Charles Elvin Hendrickson — was one of the founders of Island Heights. It was all Methodist in those days with a Camp Meeting place in the middle.

My grandfather looked like a movie version of a judge — handsome, with a beard. He was Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He was buried in his judicial robes. Aunt Uytendale lifted me up so I could see him in his coffin. And I remember.

Dad loved to go to funerals. He was always the happiest man at the funeral.

When he went to Aunt Uytendale’s funeral, they had a closed coffin. Dad insisted they take the lid off. And they did.

Dad’s first clients were Jewish. They were our friends. They gave us our silverware. Dad once stopped Uncle George from telling an anti-Semitic joke by saying, “I don’t want to hear it. I am a direct descendent of Solomon, King of the Jews.” Uncle George hated that kind of teasing.

Grandmother’s name was Sarah. She married when she was about sixteen. She probably came from the same town — a town with a biblical name in South Jersey. I can’t remember the name. Ask Douglas. Then they moved to Mount Holly and later to Red Bank.

My brother was Charles Elvin Hendrickson the Third — you can see he was supposed to be an exact copy of his father. Dad was wonderful with Douglas and me, but not with our brother Elvin. He wouldn’t get Elvin an electric train and that was when Elvin started to hate him. Dad wanted Elvin to be just like him. Elvin flunked out of Brown because he played football — he never got a law degree. Every man in the family had been a lawyer for generations. Finally he graduated from the University of Alabama.

Mother went to a finishing school in New York City and she shared a room with Aunt Uytendale. So Dad met Mother through his sister.

Mother went to the movies almost every afternoon, or at least whenever there was a new movie. When you have a cook, you can do that. We all loved Mary Pickford. Movies in those days were as pure as could be. It was the Strand, on the corner of Broad and Linden Place. Larry somebody was the organist. He committed suicide after they stopped having live music. He was a handsome man. I guess he just loved playing for the movies.

We never bought new clothes at Easter time. Mother said only people who don’t have proper attire the rest of the year needed to buy a new dress for Easter. I was very disappointed.

I remember the first time mother took me to Childs Bakery on the west side of Broad Street. She had no idea that I was always given a lady’s finger when Hannah [Jackson] took me there. Of course she didn’t buy one. I had very few words. We left Childs with me crying, “Finger, finger, finger.” I cried all the way home. Mother was humiliated. Hannah succeeded Bobbin after Bobbin died. Hannah was white, Bobbin was black.

There was the day I decided to run away and announced this to the whole family. They were teasing me for some reason or another. I was told that I could go whenever ready. I sat in the porch for a long time. Dad brought me a little suitcase, but by then I decided not to run away after all. I’m not sure how old I was, I was still wearing rompers.

There was the time that I was put in the corner for pulling another girl’s hair and of course that was the day Mother came to visit the school. She was humiliated! Her daughter in the corner.

Then there was the time, the only time, I cheated. I put the word list on the seat and just copied the words. Miss Bailey, who was a horror, exposed me to the whole class. Mother came to school to talk to Miss Bailey. “We will not discuss the past. We will discuss the future,” she said.

In those days people came to the house, like the dress maker, Mrs. Stout. She would do any repairs or adjustments to our clothes — lowering hems, that sort of thing. She came regularly from her house in Little Silver.

Libby came every Monday and Tuesday to do the laundry. She had been born before the end of the Civil War. I loved Libby. She was one of the early baby sitters for you and Dick.

But Libby didn’t do Dad’s shirts. There was a Chinese laundry that did those stiff collars.

Our only prejudice was against Catholics. I was really scared whenever I walked by the Catholic church, St. James. I think I was afraid of being kidnapped into the church. We had a Catholic nurse named Margaret Dugan. Dad liked her, Mother didn’t. Mother thought Margaret had taken Elvin to be baptized at the Catholic Church. There was a difference of opinion between Mother and Father when children should be baptized. Mother had grown up in the Presbyterian Church. So we were baptized in the Methodist Church when we were four or five — I was very embarrassed. I remember that.

[In response to a question about relatives:]

There was Uncle George who put off marriage for a long time though he had a series of girl friends. Of course.

Then there was Uncle Jim who went into a mental hospital. When his mind was going he started sending strange postcards — pictures of the rear end of a horse — to local people — usually prominent people. They didn’t care for these. When he began to turn violent, they put him in Trenton State Hospital. The shock of landing in a hospital cured him, though “he never fulfilled the promise of his youth.” He used to say the Jews own New York, the Irish run New York, and the Christians live in New York. He stayed in bed for years.

All three brothers were lawyers. And we had one aunt — Aunt Uytendale. It must have been a Dutch name. Isn’t that a beautiful name? She was beautiful and had a magnificent, operatic voice. She married someone she met at Princeton but who drank up all the money. She finally divorced him. He also had a beautiful voice. His name was Bill Baird — not the puppeteer. He drank like a fish. His family built train engines. He had a brother named Charles. Both left college to join the army during World War I and both survived.

[I asked whether her father took part in the First World War:]

Dad managed not to go into the army. He said, “If you have guns, you’ll use them.” He got an exemption. Mother was shocked. She thought Dad wasn’t patriotic. She believed all the stories about the Germans cutting off the hands of Belgian children. Dad didn’t believe it for a minute. He said wars were fought for economic reasons. Douglas wanted to be a nurse and Dad was very kind to her about that hope. He said, “Don’t worry — the war may last long enough to be one.” But it didn’t.

Douglas and I used to smoke in the bungalow in Island Heights — we regarded ourselves as very up-to-date. Dad was usually down at what he called “the shack” — a little house by the boatyard. He knew we were smoking and we knew we weren’t supposed to. He would always knock on the door and wait long enough for us to rush to the bathroom and flush the cigarettes down the toilet. Of course he could smell the smoke but he never said a word. He would just tell us what we were supposed to do and never say another word.

Mother said something else I don’t think I’ve told you — “Love spells sacrifice.”

And Dad put a cheap sign on my desk — just a piece of wood — that had just one word on it: “Perseverance.” He never explained it. He just put it there. And it had its effect.

I didn’t do well in grammar school. Mother and Dad never said a word about study and home work. But in high school I discovered it was nice to gets A’s and then I began to study.

It got in the paper [The Red Bank Register] when I passed the college board examination and was accepted by Smith. It had never before happened to anyone graduating from Red Bank High School. It was front-page news.

We had a Progressive Club at Smith — and we were allowed to stay up till 10 p.m. when we attended its meetings. Mike Gold spoke more than once. All the big names of the time came up. First I joined the Socialists and then decided they didn’t mean business like the Communists.

I took a course in religion. The professor said you lower your head to get in a religious mood. After that I didn’t lower my head in church. But I got a lower grade because I told my professor that her course wasn’t helpful to me. Dick [her second son] told me I was a fool to tell her so, that of course she would give me a lower grade, but I never thought of a teacher being dishonorable.

I didn’t go to one of the graduation events because I went on a picket line at a factory in North Hampton.

When I first met your father, he was in the army, “burrowing from within.” I wrote a letter to the Communist Party after graduating from college, apologizing for not coming from the working class and asking to be a member. They wrote to your father at Fort Monmouth — his work was in the Signal Corps I think — and he came to our house in Red Bank, knocked on the door and asked to meet me.

Our first apartment in New York City was on 14th Street on the top floor. Next door was the first gay person I had ever encountered. He was always going after your father. We had one room — it cost $14 a month. When it was very hot we slept on the roof. Across the street was a Chinese restaurant where we often ate. Your father was working full-time for the Communist Party — I’m not sure that he got any money for it. Probably not. Then I got a job in the City Welfare Department — I got it through someone in the Communist Party working in the department. The woman was very relieved when she found out that I had actually graduated from Smith and was certified in social work. I was paid $29.50 a week. As a result we were able to move to an apartment near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village — I think it was on Thompson Street and cost $30 a month. It had a fireplace — very luxurious.

I had no understanding of money. I asked your father if we could live on $29.50 a week and he said, “Of course.” He was shocked at how little understanding I had of money! What is money to a Forest?

We went to a lot of meetings, and to plays and movies.

When we were in New York, I did a degree in social work at Columbia, which was just like a trade school — you learn something so you could make a living. Later on I went to the University of Denver, another trade school, but I liked it. By then my political ideas were all formed.

Working for the Department of Welfare in New York City, I always did what I thought was right. In those days you either worked for the Welfare Department or you were on welfare.

Later we moved to Salt Lake City because your father was assigned as Communist Party organizer for the State of Utah. I loved Utah. I had good friends.

When we moved back to New Jersey, I bought this house because I wanted you and Dick to grow up in a [mainly Afro-American] neighborhood that would be like the world would be when you grew up. I wanted a good cross section of the population. So I moved into this section of the town.

I remember being asked to sign a petition for a local fire house and recall hearing soon afterward that there were to be no Afro-American members of the fire department. I demanded that the mayor take my name off the petition and he wouldn’t do it. The explanation for it being all white was that the fire department “sometimes had dances.”

I recall dancing with a black man before I was married — he was a wonderful dancer.

The only thing wrong with Communism was that there was no religion in it. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Only we’re not ready for that yet. But I’ve never changed my mind that we should aspire to this.

One of my heroes was Paul Robeson. I respect and honor him. He went to Russia and loved it because it was the first time he had been treated as an equal.

Sometime in the mid-fifties I stopped getting The Daily Worker — it was too dangerous. I had to think of my responsibilities as a mother. You were still children. When the FBI came to interview me — they were two Catholic boys — I played the part of the loving mother to the hilt. Which was easy because I was.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need — that’s the Communist ideal, which they got from Saint Paul. The reason it didn’t work was because of human beings not being decent, but I think Communism was less indecent than what we have. I despise capitalism. [This was said while she patting Tony, an immense gray striped cat. “Come, darling! Tony doesn’t despise capitalism.”]

If we become Nazi [in the United States], I’m coming over to Holland. I’m not going to become a hero. I will use my age as an excuse.

* * *

In her late years, after retirement, she was woken up one night by a burglar standing over her bed. Far from being terrified, she asked him what she could do for him. She put on her bathrobe and took him into the kitchen and sat down and talked with this troubled young man. No harm was done. She was a devout Methodist and also a psychiatric social worker who had worked for many years at a state mental hospital in New Jersey, so both her faith and her long experience working with disturbed (and disturbing) people came to her assistance — plus her fearless character.

James Frederick Forest: Leaving Things Better than He Found Them

born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 8, 1910; died in Santa Rosa, California May 7, 1990

at the circus in Alkmaar, spring 1985: left to right, Wendy, Lucy, Tom, Dad and Daniel

“Always leave things better than you found them.” — advice Dad frequently gave his children

My father never discovered what his family name would have been had his parents been married. The name he was known by as an adult, James Frederick Forest, was two-thirds made up years after birth. Only James was there from the start.

He was born on August 8, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother was an auburn-haired, brown-eyed, impoverished Irish immigrant who, as best Dad could discover, had worked as a seamstress, maid and artist’s model. It was only as an adult that he learned her name was Rose Murray and realized Murray had once been his own last name. The source of that desperately sought information was Catherine Smith, a social worker who had been a vital source of encouragement and practical support during his childhood. She also told him that there was some evidence that his father was a Jewish wool merchant, name unknown, who had immigrated to the United States from Russia. If as much as that was known of him, how odd that he was nameless. Perhaps Smith knew but for some reason thought it best not to reveal that particular detail.

When Dad spoke of his mother, there was grief in voice. He had no memory of living with her. “Sometime in my first few years she arranged for me to stay with a family — a good family, very kind — who were living on he upper floor up in a Boston tenement.”

“Why didn’t you live with her?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

What was unsaid, as I wouldn’t have understood what it meant, was that perhaps her poverty had driven her to become a prostitute.

“But I saw her often and felt her sadness that we were living apart.”

Dad’s stay in the tenement ended abruptly when the building caught fire. “I was lifted by a fireman through a window on the top floor and carried down a long ladder to safety. I remember the fireman holding me over his shoulder. There was fire and smoke and it was nighttime. I was terrified.” Afterward his mother arranged for him to board with another family.

Dad’s last memory of his mother was her taking him to an amusement park near Boston. “I sensed she was saying goodbye. I was four. I never saw her again.” Later in life he succeeded in finding her death certificate. Rose Murray died by drowning. Suicide? It’s not certain but Dad thought so.

Following her death in 1915, Dad became a ward of the state of Massachusetts. It was at this point in his life that he was given Frederick as a last name. “Perhaps that week they were giving out last names that started with an F. I was a state kid with a state name.”

“As soon as I became a state kid, I was put in the care of a man and woman, an older couple, who made their living providing care for orphans, up to six at a time. Supposedly they were seeing after our basic needs but in fact they spent as little as possible on our needs and kept as much as possible for themselves. The two of them could have stepped out of the pages of Oliver Twist. The soup we were give was hardly more than water — soup flavored by the shadow of pigeons. The six of us had one room to sleep in, two to a mattress, and a single swing to share in the tiny back yard.”

Luckily his social worker, Catherine Smith, came to visit, saw how undernourished he was, and for a brief period took him into her own home while she made arrangements for him to be placed with an honest, attentive family. In 1916 she put him into foster care with the Drown family in East Pepperell, Massachusetts, a town 45 miles northwest of Boston near the New Hampshire border.

“The head of the family,” Dad recalled, “was Fred Allen Drown, a Yankee with deep roots in New England born in Vermont in 1868. He worked at a local paper mill. His wife was Margaret Loretta Drown, an Irish immigrant with a strong Irish accent who also spoke Gaelic. The Gaelic songs I know were learned from her. The family received three dollars a week for each state ward they took in; the state also paid for our clothing and medical expenses.”

“My foster parents were shocked by my malnourished condition when I arrived. ‘Look at him, just skin and bones!’ I wasn’t their only state kid. There were other foster children in the household for shorter or longer stays, but I was the only state kid who remained with the Drown household throughout my childhood. I gradually became part of the family, at least up to a point. I never felt loved but I did feel valued.”

One of his first memories after coming to live with the Drown family was walking into the small barn on their property and discovering the cover of a popular weekly magazine — possibly Collier’s — tacked up on the wall. “Here was a painting of a beautiful woman on the cover. I had not a moment’s doubt it was my mother. I was overwhelmed with joy. I think the painting gave me the idea that perhaps she was still alive. I ran into house and told my foster parents, but Mr. Drown was far from pleased. The cover was immediately taken off the wall and I never saw it again.”

For years fear was a constant in Dad’s life. “I was terrified of being sent to an orphanage, which my foster parents reminded me could easily happen and which sounded like being sent to prison. My solution from early on was to become the ‘can-do kid,’ always looking for ways to be helpful, assisting with every aspect of household work as well as with the garden. The older I got, the more I took on. We had a cow and a horse and I took care of them as well. With my two paper routes and the chores I did for neighbors, mowing lawns in summer and shoveling snow in winter, I was able to contribute to family finances. When I got to high school, I also made a little money working as assistant janitor.”

In 1925, after nine years with the Drown family, Dad — now fifteen — was legally adopted, a goal he had long sought. In fact he had worked so hard to make himself adoptable that, once the goal was achieved, he never felt sure whether the Drowns loved him as a son or as a hard worker who did more than his share, bringing in more income than the state was paying them for his care so long as he was legally an orphan.

Living in a largely Catholic neighborhood, the Catholic Church became important his life. He was active in the local parish, serving as an altar boy. Mass was important to him as were the Gospel stories and parables. Inspired by an admirable pastor, in his early teens Dad decided that, once he had finished high school, he would go to seminary and become a priest.

The Boy Scouts were an equally serious interest. He had started hanging around with the local troop when he was ten and officially joined the day he turned twelve. He loved camping and accumulated numerous merit badges, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout. His only oddity as a Boy Scout was that he never owned or desired a Boy Scout uniform, only borrowing one occasionally when it was essential, as when he was appointed to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the town’s annual Memorial Day celebration.

It was his link to the Scouts that triggered his break with the Catholic Church. The parish priest Dad had so greatly admired was reassigned; his successor was a recently-ordained man with rigid views on many topics. In those days of religious cold war, the new priest had an ice-hard objection to Catholics being involved in anything remotely Protestant; the local Boy Scout troop, as it was Protestant-sponsored, was declared off limits. An announcement was made at Mass one Sunday. Dad, then age fifteen, walked out of the church and never attended another Mass until half-a-century later. “It was a bitter moment in my life, changing my thoughts about the future and my ideas about religion,” he told me. “If churches could be so narrow, if Christians could be so set against each other, I didn’t want to be part of it.”

With his ideas about his future up in the air, he focused on the here-and-now, drawing strength and inspiration from friendships. “My friends were of varied types. My closest friend, who built one of the first crystal radios in town, came from a wealthy family. His father, Jay Walter, was a correspondent for The London Times.” Another friend was a black foster child living in town. “We were both ‘state kids’ and felt a bond.” There were other friends from “Polack Hill,” as the Polish neighborhood was known, and still others who were “Canucks,” people who had come across the border from Canada. “Thanks to my paper routes, I got to know a Jewish family. I also had a job working with a plumber for whom I used to pick up books at the library — he was the town ‘reprobate,’ a man drawn to the bottle but a great reader and very outward looking.”

Dad was paying close attention to the world beyond East Pepperell. “I did a lot of reading, including books on utopian societies that, for a time in the nineteenth century, had flourished in America, and also about the recent revolution in Russia. I knew about various social protests going on and had read about the Communist Party in the newspapers. I was aware of the controversy that was raging over the convictions for robbery and murder of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists who were executed despite many appeals and much doubt about their guilt.”

High school was a great adventure for him. “I was a champion debater and also played a good game of chess, my mentor in that regard being the high school janitor. I was active in the high school band, playing the French horn and the tuba. Theater was a major passion — for several years I must have been in every play in town. I was also an avid member of the local 4H Club — my garden won a first prize which brought me to a college campus for three days.” His high school principal saw Dad as a promising student. “He encouraged me to think about getting out of the town and made me think beyond the options of ‘monkhood’ and factory work.”

Though he graduated second in his senior class at high school, Dad wasn’t able to enter college after his graduation. While his principal had succeeded in getting him a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard, no grant for living expenses was provided. This placed Harvard out of reach. Instead, in the Fall of 1928, he began a course at the Bartlett School of Tree Surgery. As an apprentice tree surgeon, his school arranged for him to be part of a team working on Long Island. The assignment brought him to the Phipps estate in Westbury, one of the most palatial properties on Long Island’s “gold coast,” then known as “the richest square mile in he world.”

“Never in my life had I seen such wealth,” Dad told me. “A mansion with cooks, maids, butlers, gardeners, mechanics and chauffeurs! But I also learned about the advantages of not chasing money. One of my fellow tree surgeons introduced me to Thoreau and Emerson.”

While on Long Island, living in a rented-room in Westbury, Dad devoted some of his spare time to being Assistant Scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop.

In the late summer of 1929 Dad moved to New York City to pick up credits at Columbia University with the intention of entering the New York Forestry School. In the meantime he supported himself as an usher and bouncer at a movie house in the Bronx. “I remember chasing a big guy out of the theater — lucky for me he didn’t decide to turn around and fight!”

His plans to study at Columbia evaporated with the Wall Street Crash that had begun on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. The following day, Black Friday, he went down to Wall Street to witness what was happening and was only a block away when one of the men who had seen his fortune go up in smoke jumped to his death from a window ledge.

With the Depression now underway and his foster father not well, he returned to the Drown home in Pepperell where he got a job as foreman of the shipping crew at a paper mill, working the night shift: thirteen hours a night, six days a week. After three months hard labor and the loss of twenty-five pounds, he quit in order to set up his own tree surgery business. “In February 1930, I had some business cards printed. I got jobs working around Pepperell during the winter and in other seasons for the State of Rhode Island. It was while in Rhode Island, through my girl friend’s family, that I became acquainted with the terrible conditions of factory workers. With income from tree surgery, I was one of the lucky ones. I even enjoyed what I was doing.”

In the fall of 1931 he joined some friends, one of whom had a car, in driving to Maine to pick potatoes in the Aroostock Valley. “I stayed with the family I was working for, an old pioneer family that had actually cleared the land, and during this time saw the extent of bank control. The family was mortgaged to the hilt and hardly better off than the men picking potatoes. There were thousands of acres of potatoes lying unharvested in the ground because the farmers couldn’t afford to dig them out — the buyers weren’t buying — despite the fact that there were many thousands of hungry people in the country at that moment.”

Heading back to New York City, Dad decided it was time to make contact with “the revolutionary movement.” The U.S. was, he felt, approaching a time of dramatic change. “Revolution was in the air,” he recalled. “In Maine not only workers but farmers spoke openly of the need for systemic change.”

“Once in Manhattan, I slept in 35-cents-a-night flop-houses on the Bowery and ate at Bowery restaurants that served soup at five cents a bowl which I paid for with income from short-term odd jobs. Then in late November I saw a poster in Battery Park advertising a talk by a woman, Nina Davis, who had just returned from a trip to the Soviet Union. I attended, was impressed by what she had to say, and afterward talked with her about joining the Communist Party. She signed me up at her office the following morning and gave me several dollars so I could buy a few basic Communist books at the shop downstairs. I sure needed those books! At the time I knew almost nothing about Marxism but I was convinced that the solution to America’s economic and social problems — the way to a more equitable society — was socialism, with the people owning the means of production. I saw in the Communist Party people taking up the challenge of Depression and fighting for the immediate improvement of the needs of the people.”

In those days one got a “Party name” when joining the Communist Party. Dad chose “Forest” as a new last name, soon dropping Drown altogether. “I no longer felt a connection with the Drown family and hadn’t yet discovered my mother’s name,” he explained. “I was also aware that in earlier times names were based on what you did. I was a tree surgeon and always felt at home in the forest. It seemed the perfect name for me.”

Bright, highly motivated and with a gift for public speaking, his talents were noticed. He quickly got involved with a Party-supported Unemployed Council based at a center on the Lower East Side. His sleeping place was a couch in a vacant office. Then, when the couch was no longer available, his night-time shelter was the back of a derelict truck. Hard up for nickels, he ate his meals at soup kitchens. Even with the occasional banana or apple as a supplement, it was a far from adequate diet. Speaking at a rally on Union Square one day, he passed out from hunger, after which distressed friends took him to a nearby Russian restaurant for what might have been the best meal in his life so far.

In the spring of 1932, age 21, Dad was asked to join the leading body of the City Unemployed Council and also was appointed editor of the Council publication, The Hunger Fighter. “I was well suited for the job,” he told me. “God knows I had plenty of experience being hungry!”

One of his responsibilities was to help organize a demonstration at City Hall. Thousands turned out for what they hoped would be a peaceful event. Instead there was a police attack complete with a horse charge. One of the horse’s hooves landed on one of Dad’s feet. “I limped for months afterward but counted myself lucky that no permanent damage was done. I had narrowly escaped a blow with a police baton that was the size of a baseball bat. It would have crushed my skull.”

For all his fast-developing political passions and his rapid rise as a Communist, the idea of travel still haunted him. Later that year, after being offered a place in a military band that was going overseas, Dad joined the Army. “I was still dreaming about seeing the world, but once I had signed up it turned out that there were no vacancies in the band. Instead — thanks to a merit badge in telegraphy I had gotten as a Boy Scout — I spent two years in the Army Signal Corps, stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, not far from Red Bank. So much for travel to faraway places!”

Had he been stationed anywhere else, this text and its author would not be.

“Your mother had just graduated from Smith,” Dad told me. “One of the first things she did once she returned to her parents’ home in Red Bank was send a letter to the Communist Party headquarters in New York asking to become a member. As the Party knew I was based nearby, I got a letter asking me to meet this Marguerite Hendrickson and see if she was suited to Party membership. Not only did I find her well suited but I fell in love with her.”

Despite the reservations of Mother’s parents — Dad was not the son-in-law they envisioned — the two were married in November 1934, shortly before Dad’s discharge from the Army. “Our honeymoon was a lengthy hike along the Appalachian Trail.” (For the rest of his life, Dad’s holidays were almost always spent camping in wilderness areas and national parks. Getting quite close to animals in the wild, he acquired a reputation for being, as he was pleased to say, “a dead shot — but only with a camera.”)

Out Dad was out of the army and married, my parents settled in Manhattan, first in a closet-like four-by-eight-foot room on West 14th Street, then a roomier apartment on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. Dad was now working full-time for “the Party,” which meant long hours and very little money. Mother, the real bread winner, first got a job with Macy’s bookshop, then was hired by the city as a social worker based in Harlem. She loved the job. In the process, she helped organize a local branch of the Municipal Employees Union.

In 1937, after several months training at the National Party School, Dad was appointed state organizer of Utah, based in Salt Lake City. The work included operation of the Jefferson Book Shop. As his Party salary was not enough to live on, he continued as a self-employed tree surgeon while Mother found work as a social worker.

It is while they were living in Utah that I enter the story: a small item with a long name: James Hendrickson Forest, born the 2nd of November 1941.

The following month, just after the US entered into the Second World War, Dad attended the Communist Party’s National Convention in New York. The following August he was assigned as the Party’s Mid-West Educational Director, based in Chicago. In 1943 the three of us moved to Denver, where Dad was now District Secretary for the Party’s Western Region. It was in Denver, on January 24, 1943, my brother, Richard Douglas Forest, was born.

In the summer of 1944 Dad was assigned to Party work in St. Louis, Missouri. By then he was in the early months of a new marriage, having been (as he told me years later) “swept off his feet” by Dorothy Baskin, a co-worker in Denver. Dorothy gave birth to his third child, Rosanne, on November 30, 1944.

Drafted in January 1944, he was initially stationed in Texas, then sent to Hawaii where he was a radio operator for the 238th Military Police Company. He remained in service until demobilization in December 1945, after which he returned to Party work, first as Educational Director in Los Angeles. Objecting to the lack of collective leadership in the local Party organization, he resigned his educational responsibility in April, 1948.

Re-assigned to St. Louis, he was elected Chairman of the Missouri Communist Party. Local Party work at that time was concentrated on a campaign to end the war in Korea and on various projects to promote racial justice. Party members in St. Louis were opposing police brutality, much of which had a racial dimension, and campaigning for the integration of public swimming pools.

With the Cold War and McCarthy Era moving into high gear, Dad was one of five Missouri Communists (another was his wife, Dorothy) arrested in September 1952 under the Smith Act, charged with conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. (Note that they were not charged with any actual acts of violence or even with advocating the use of violence but with “conspiring to advocate.”) Initially the court set $40,000 bail for him, a huge sum at the time and the highest figure for the group. He was in the city jail from the end of September 1952 until early February 1953. He insisted on being the last to be bailed out.

The trial in Federal District Court, St. Louis, began in January 1954. Dad made the unusual decision of acting as his own lawyer. In his opening statement he told the jurors that he wanted to speak for himself in court so that he could personally explain what he believed and what the Communist Party stood for. Describing his youth, he said, “The ideals of the American Revolution were my ideals and still are and will remain so — the ideals of fighting for freedom, fighting for the liberation of a people from oppression, of having the courage to stand up for one’s ideas, the ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence with their forthright words about how a person should believe and act toward his fellow man.” The immediate concern of the Party, he said, was to work to end racism, to hasten the end the war in Korea, to improve the condition of workers, and to prevent the emergence of an American form of fascism. The Communist Party in the U.S., he insisted, was opposed to violence as a method of achieving change in America. “In our country, as I and my co-defendants see it, [socialism] should be achieved by peaceful transition and we will continue to strive to bring that about…”

On June 4, 1954, the “St. Louis Five” were convicted. Dorothy got a three-year sentence, shorter because of her maternal responsibilities; Dad and the others were sentenced to five years.

“I’m happy to have been placed in this rather peculiar circumstance of history,” he told the court before sentencing. “Though a relatively inconsequential person, I was able to stand up for what I believe. Maybe some other people will get the idea of standing up for what they believe.” Again he insisted that neither he nor any of his co-defendants sought the violent overthrow of the government. He pointed out that the Communist Party Constitution, which had been read into the court record, expressly opposed the use of violence to achieve political aims.

The judge ordered defendants, then out on bail, be sent back to prison while their conviction was appealed. Dad remained there from June to mid-August, a long, hot summer, until once again freed on bail. He again insisted on being the last one out. (In April 1958, the Yates Smith Act case was reversed by the Federal Court of Appeals. In October 1958 the U.S. Department of Justice, anticipating defeat at the Supreme Court, abandoned the prosecution of all such cases, moving to dismiss more than a hundred similar convictions, including that of my father.)

While locked up, Dad wrote letters to his children. I’ve lost those he sent to Dick and me, but here is an extract from one he sent to Rosanne in September 1954: “You see, a body can be put in jail but a mind can’t. It can travel anywhere and with its imagination see anything…. The secret is not to let our minds be imprisoned, even though sometimes we are not strong enough to keep our bodies out of jail. That’s what is happening to so many people today. They are letting their minds be jailed while their bodies are free. Don’t you ever be afraid to think, or to fight, for what you think is right, dear Rosanne.”

After his release, Dad moved to Los Angeles and began to work in the building trades, while working part-time as the Educational Director for the Communist Party in Southern California. This mainly involved teachings the basics of Marxism at evening classes.

The marriage with Dorothy ended in 1960 after Dorothy fell in love with Hugh De Lacy. Dad went through a period of severe depression. In 1963, Dad moved to San Francisco where he supported himself through independent building and repair work. In 1964 he married Carla Altman. Tragically, three years later, on her way home from work, she was shot and killed by two young thieves.

On February 9, 1969, Dad married Lucy Cushing Brooks, a longtime friend. It was a marriage that proved happy and enduring. Despite the demands of full-time work, he was active in the San Francisco Communist Party and was intensely involved in the local peace movement and its many activities opposing the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he became Educational Director for the Communist Party in Northern California.

In 1969, Dad was appointed a Secretary of the World Peace Council, a pro-Moscow group based in Helsinki, Finland. During his five years with the WPC, he traveled (often with Lucy) in the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Egypt and other countries. World Peace Council activities in that period focused mainly on the Vietnam War and setting up East-West conferences. While in North Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s first question to Dad was a request for information about me, as I was at the time serving a two-year sentence for being one of the Milwaukee Fourteen, a group that burned draft records in Milwaukee in 1968 as a protest against the Vietnam War. He also met with Salvador Allende in Chile, who talked with Dad about the military coup he anticipated would bring about the downfall of Chile’s democratic government, and result in his own murder — events which soon followed.

Returning to San Francisco in 1974, Dad’s life seems to have gradually taken distance from the Communist Party; in any event he had no organizing roles in it. Low- and middle-income housing became his major concern. For the next five years Dad was manager of Saint Francis Square, a housing project with 298 units, a project funded by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. Saint Francis Square was a highly successful cooperative as well as a model for building integrated neighborhoods.

In 1977 he and Lucy moved to Santa Rosa where they were among the founders of a low and middle-income housing cooperative, the Santa Rosa Creek Commons. After its opening in 1982, the cooperative was singled for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Commons was Dad’s home for the rest of his life, and remains Lucy’s home to this day.

While joking that he “believed, at most, in one God,” in 1980, he ad Lucy joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, where he also became a member of the choir. He was active in the Santa Rosa Seniors Center and often played in productions of its theatrical group, the Footlighters. In “My Fair Lady” he had the role of Henry Higgins. He also was active with the Santa Rosa Players, appearing in “Our Town” and “The Mikado.” He was part of a singing group called The Mellowairs.

Dad became a member of the Advisory Council of Area Agency on Housing in Sonoma County and active with the Burbank Housing Development Corporation. On October 31, 1989, the Board of Supervisors of Sonoma County, California, presented him with a resolution commending him for ten years of “exemplary service” with the Burbank Housing Development Corporation, a program for low- and middle-income housing. The citation noted his involvement in nearly every aspect of the Burbank Corporation’s work, as a member of the Administration Committee, Education and Training Committee, Project Committee and Community Relations and Media Committee.

In 1987 Rosanne taped an interview with him in which he discussed, among other things, the effects of aging.

“While I notice less adequacy, less energy and less intellectual responsiveness,” he told her, “and slower learning, socially I don’t see much difference. I have a quieter social life and I am more limited in what I can do and where I can go.”

She asked what he thought about his eventual death. “I don’t think about it with worry or concern. I accept it as part of life. It happens. I hope greatly for no period of Alzheimer’s or other major incapacity. I definitely don’t want to be a burden to anyone because of an incapable body.”

Rosanne asked how he evaluated his life. “I had some successes in trying to do something about what I think is wrong. I wish that I had been better in the work. I regret that I didn’t manage to find more time for relaxation — dancing, music, hiking and camping. I regret the tumultuousness of the transition between my first two marriages. On the positive side, I have been most satisfied by participation in efforts to change attitudes on social problems and helping develop better understanding.”

It is an evaluation those who have had the privilege of knowing him are bound to consider amazingly, but also characteristically, modest. He was one of those people who impressed and influenced not only his friends but his opponents.

In his later years, beyond the circle of close friends, Dad rarely confided his many years of activity in the Communist Party. “What I did for housing would have been impossible if I had been labeled in that way,” he explained to me. “The stigma of the word ‘Communist’ still remains, even in these days of Gorbachev! Of course it isn’t easy to explain it. The sad thing is that most people know much more about the wrongs committed by Communists — and they were numerous! — and not very much about our good qualities, but these are numerous too. For me the Party was the best ball game in town.” It struck me that the last sentence was put in the past tense.

It had always been hard for Dad to see the crimes that had been committed by Lenin, Stalin and countless other Communists in positions of power. I had first encountered that side of Dad while I was in high school and living with him, Rosanne and Dorothy in Hollywood. He was distressed to see me reading Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago. “Have you read it, Dad?” I asked. “No, but I have read about it. It misrepresents Soviet history.” I suggested he borrow my copy, but for Dad to read it would have violated “party discipline.” It was, for any obedient Communist, a banned book.

“There are things your father just doesn’t see,” as Lucy once put it to me in a conversation in which Dad had just denied there was anti-Semitism in Russia. Taking off the rose-colored glasses through which he had viewed the Soviet Union was for him a long and painful struggle that was still uncompleted at the end of his life.

He took life as it came. When he discovered he had cancer, he said to Lucy, “This should be an interesting journey.”

Lucy had called at the end of April 1990, urging me to come without delay. I stayed in Santa Rosa for a week.

Even in those final days his sense of humor was still often in evidence, and his Boston accent still strong. He slid over most r’s, so that important became impawtent, partisan became pahtisen, part became paht, father became fawthe, car became kah. There was also the faint shadow of a second-generation Irish accent.

Until stopped in his tracks by illness, Dad had been a builder, a fixer, an inventor and improviser who couldn’t get through a single day, as long as he had the strength to lift a hammer or turn a screwdriver, without improving or repairing something. “I was always fascinated,” he said when he was hardly able to raise his head, “with how things worked and how to fix them when they didn’t work.”

At his initiative, Dad and I talked several times about heaven. I told him that God does not erase what he has made, least of all those who have loved creation and cared for it day by day. He reached out with his right hand, gripped my hand with intensity, and said a heartfelt yes, with tears in his eyes. I said that he would at last see his dear mother, who died when he was a child. “I will be so astonished,” he said. These are things we never talked of earlier in life, though I had several times told him that he was a love-centered rather than ideologically-driven person, which he always appreciated hearing.

When I arrived at his bedside Dad had immediately noticed the cross that I was wearing — silver, very solid, done in a Romanesque style. I explained it was the work of a Serbian artist who lives in Holland and had been given to me when I was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He was curious about the Slavonic words on the back. They meant, I explained, “Save and protect.” The next morning, Dad asked if he could borrow it. I told him I would give it to him as a gift. “No, just to borrow,” he responded. “I won’t need it very long.” Lucy was out of the room at that moment — he asked me not to tell her he was dying. (Of course she knew.) We talked about what the cross meant: the link between his suffering and the suffering of Christ, and the connection of the cross with the resurrection. From that moment on, the crucifix was next to him, hanging from the railing at the side of his bed as his skin was too sensitive to wear it. He sometimes told visitors it was from me, other times said it had been given him by a priest. Lucy told me the crucifix was in his hands when he died. It was mid-morning May 7, 1990. Lucy and several close friends were with him. He would have been 80 on August 8.

While with him that last week, I wrote a biographical text about him, voicing it in the third person. When it was nearly complete, I read it aloud to him. He was alert all the time, the longest stretch of being fully awake during the week that I was there. He was deeply moved by it, tears running down his face. Time and again he said, “Did I really do that?” “Yes, you did.” “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” he replied each time.

At times he didn’t know where he was, though generally he knew everyone came to visit. Each day I was impressed how caring he was about the people who came to see him — friends, the home hospice nurse who came daily, an ambulance driver. No matter how much pain he was struggling with, he wanted to know how each person was, how their children were doing and about past adventures in their lives.

There are those on both the Left and Right who are better at ideas about improving society than enjoying people. While Dad had many ideas about how to improve the world, how to make it better than it is, most of all he enjoyed people. Ideology didn’t come first. His amazing decency and kindness had its deep roots in empathy and love.

One of my most treasured memories of Dad goes back to when I was thirteen. My mother had arranged for me to spend part of my summer vacation with him. After traveling on my own by train from New York to St. Louis, where Dad was then living, we drove together to Los Angeles. Along the way, the first day, we stopped at a roadside restaurant in the Ozarks and walked up to the front door. I don’t know if I would have noticed the small sign attached to the door if Dad hadn’t pointed it out. It said, “Colored people served in back.” Dad asked, “Do you think we ought to go in?” I was hungry and the food inside smelled inviting. On the other hand, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to eat in a place that only welcomed white people. I said, “No.” “Neither do I,” he said. So we got back in the car and drove on. My perception of the world and myself was never quite the same after that. Dad hadn’t told me what to do or given me a lecture about racism, but had allowed me to share in a decision and, in doing so, made me more aware of what was around me and what doors to go through — and which ones to leave unopened — from now on

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text as revised and expanded 18 June 2014

note: I am profoundly grateful to Ed Kehoe for use of the taped interviews he did with my father in the 1980s.

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