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