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