Remembering Jean Forest

Jean serving soup at the Catholic Worker in 1961
Jean serving soup at the Catholic Worker in 1961

[the three eulogies given at the memorial service 17 January 2015 follow, plus an obituary]

By Jim Forest

I met Jean at the Catholic Worker in the spring of 1961. I had no premonition at the time that I was meeting someone I would marry the following year and who was to be the mother my first child, Benedict. While our marriage wasn’t a success — we were together less than four years — our friendship survived and flourished, lasting fifty-three years. My work took me to Holland in 1977 and there I have remained, but whenever my travels brought me to New Jersey, I visited her, most recently in the hospital here in Hoboken just weeks before her death.

We had both been drawn to the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Manhattan, then located at 175 Chrystie Street, below Second Avenue and just east of the Bowery. The leader of the community was Dorothy Day, now widely regarded as a saint but in those days seen more as a troublemaker who made headlines less for welcoming the indigent than for such acts of civil disobedience as refusing to take shelter during civil defense exercises.

Small as the Catholic Worker staff was, it was large enough to have its divisions. Jean, a rising poet, was part of a more literary circle that included several of the people who were inventing what was to become The Sixties, while I was more drawn to the theological/church-related issues that were an aspect of the Catholic Worker.

Life within the Catholic Worker community was not without tension. I recall one evening Jean giving me a poem in which she described me as “healthy” — in the context of the poem the word “healthy” really meaning too healthy. Jean, though only sixteen months my senior, made me feel quite young, naïve and embarrassingly innocent. For my part, I was impressed by her forthright, unjudgmental manner, her sense of humor, her laughter, her care with words, her vigorous poetry

Our lives overlapped and friendship gradually took root. We both were involved in the day-to-day work of the Catholic Worker, activities that included going to wholesale markets to beg food, helping cook and serve meals, wash dishes, and assist with the two clothing rooms. There were occasional smaller and larger social gatherings in the evenings at which both of us were often present. At one of these I got drunk for the first time in my life — I couldn’t tell you for sure, but perhaps Jean was one of those who helped navigate me back to my one-room apartment, a $25-a-month-cold-water flat on Spring Street.

Jean was a person of exceptional compassion. Let me read you a short article Jean wrote for The Catholic Worker that reveals her respect for the down-and-out and also reveals Jean’s character and her talent as a writer. It’s about Josephine, family name unknown, one of the homeless women in whom Jean took a special interest:

The first time I came across Josephine at the Catholic Worker was during one of her appearances at a Friday night meeting. She was wearing a low-cut, yellow evening dress which she told us she wore especially for weekends. I couldn’t believe my eyes — she looked like a grotesque, aged Ophelia or a caricature of a fairy queen. She was eventually shuffled from the meeting after causing some disturbance. Our next encounter was in the clothing room where I distributed clothes. Each week she would appear with a different and imaginative tale of what happened to the clothes we had given her the previous week. Very often, it was the tale of some interesting thief she had “entrusted” them with. It didn’t matter for I could never refuse her. I found, quite to my amazement, that I really liked and enjoyed her stories.

One can get “impersonal” to the people one serves. It’s the easiest way out on the nerves. Josephine never allowed anyone to treat her “impersonally.” With her it wasn’t “business” or a “hand-out”; it was a person-to-person encounter. She worked on you until you had to respond positively or negatively. When she asked you for a bandage (she was usually bruised either from falls or beatings), you knew better than to procrastinate for a minute. Her needs were immediate and she’d tolerate no delay. Not that she was a nag. It was never that way because of her fantastic sense of humor. Fantastic, in the face of living on the streets (she preferred their freedom and excitement). She was an alcoholic with an ailing liver, always bruised and abused, begging for the next meal and drink. How did she escape despair? The answer may be in the mystery of her humor. When feeling especially exuberant she serenaded the kitchen and office with her most prized possession, a harmonica. The Bowery was a way of life which she accepted and, you might say, made the most of. She would tell a variety of stories of how she got here. She claimed to have become an alcoholic while a nurse. She said she had a husband somewhere and a child. She could have been any age from fifty to eighty.

Jospehine’s last years were spent as music-maker and clown — harming no one and bringing laughter to some. She died in the hospital ward of the poor. It was a hard life which she managed to transcend—as though by magic.

And there that sketch ends. Josephine would have been pleased to be so affectionately remembered and so vividly described.

Despite being part of the Catholic Worker and close to Dorothy Day, Jean had a shaky relationship with the Catholic Church. However the thread of connection with Christianity never broke. It’s truly appropriate that she received Last Rites before her death and that this celebration of her life takes place in a Hoboken parish named in honor of All Saints. For years she had a close relationship with a Benedictine monastery, Regina Laudis in Connecticut. In fact in Christmas 1962 it seemed for a few hours that Ben had decided to be born there — thus the name we chose for him: Benedict. In one period of her life she was on the staff of Trinity Church, Wall Street. Later on Jean was closely associated with Emmaus House, a house of hospitality and social action center that was in those days located in East Harlem.

Jean - Mother's Day 2012
Jean – Mother’s Day 2012

I can think of no event in her life that pleased Jean more than becoming the grandmother first of Zackary and then of Kara. Her grandmotherly years were perhaps her happiest. It was at that stage of her life that the motherhood side of Jean fully kicked in. To play an active role as grandmother, she frequently traveled to Red Bank. She took enormous pride in what Ben was doing with his life, as a journalist, environmental activist, computer doctor, and now president of Red Bank’s Board of Education. She was in awe of Amy’s work and achievements as director of the New Jersey’s Clean Water Action.

One of the great hopes I had for Jean, indeed I still have it, was that her work as a poet might be better known. Perhaps those of us who knew her and have copies of some of her poems might share what we have with each other and publish them as a booklet. I was fortunate to find one of them just a few days ago. It was written during the period we lived on Staten Island, where Ben was born, and was published soon afterward in Liberation magazine. The title is “Staten Island Ferry — Spring.” Let me read it to you:

You could almost believe on a day like this
a gift from God
here, now
why we were born
here, now
the deck, the rail, the movement
surrounded by sheer blue

the city it comes
now the gift

the city becoming
all clear geometry
all clear the odor of green
the slight wind
the gift

never mind
what will happen in the city
never mind
what can happen
the great farewell
ugly lives unclean in oppression
never knowing the whole man
cracked in the geometry

now beautiful and lunging
toward the docks
becoming bigger
and the docks slamming the bulk
the old wood
screaming and splintering

now is the gift.

jean textJust six more words. I found these yesterday while looking through Jean’s notebooks:

“When all else fails, try gratitude.”

* * *

Reflection for Jean

by Carolyn Zablotny

Jean was the first friend I ever made in New York City where, fresh out of college, I arrived in 1970 to join that “radical Christian community” in East Harlem called Emmaus House. I don’t know when we first christened each other “best friend” but that’s what we became — and remained all these years.

Her loss is the great unimaginable. No one, certainly not me, anticipated it. And over Christmas — of all times! For no one loved Christmas more than Jean. It was a time in which she could totally indulge her natural generosity. I remember her parties in Hoboken where you would literally have to wade your way through her apartment, ankle-deep in presents. I remember how Kara was the designated elf who would have to set packages aflight, tossing them into outstretched hands, delivery by ground not an option. Remember?

Years earlier, I remember Chrismasses when we were roommates, sharing the top floor of an old brownstone in East Harlem. Space just at regular times of the year was more than tight. But at Christmas — and with Jean who only knew how to give gifts in multiples — we were particularly challenged. We solved it by transforming the ironing board, always open in the kitchen, into a kind of “holiday platform” from which to display — and exchange — our gifts, all carefully wrapped, ribboned and bowed. Over the ritual of coffee — endless coffee — we’d squeeze by the kitchen sink and gently lift off one package after another, sliding backward to the little kitchen table we had managed to shoehorn in, and proceed to open. Seeming hours vanished as we went back and forth, oohing and aahing with delight. If it doesn’t exactly evoke images of a Norman Rockwell Christmas, let me assure you: we wouldn’t have changed any of it.

And then there was that one infamous Christmas back in Hoboken when Jean tasked me with finding a replacement baby Jesus for her Nativity set. Somehow the original occupant was lost. Setting out on this sacred mission, I quickly learned that Nativities do not come in parts: it’s all or nothing. I decided my only option, in true 60’s fashion, was to “liberate” a baby Jesus.

I arrived triumphant on Jean’s doorstep. She swung the door wide open — as she always did -and I announced “Jean, I’ve brought the baby Jesus!” A shadow darkened her previously animated face, her hand shot up over her mouth. “Did I forget to tell you that I found it?” But then, in an almost immediate recovery, she adeptly took my illicit offering and placed it delicately in the crib stating, “How marvelous. Now we have a male baby Jesus…and a female baby Jesus.”

Not surprisingly, Jean was drawn to the “dialogue” of Gestalt therapy. She had a genius for recognizing and appreciating the contradictory impulses racing through each of us: selfish/self-less; creative/destructive; self-aggrandizing/humble. She had an acute ear for a false note: her honesty and directness could be daunting. But she always held a mirror up to herself first, owning courageously where she saw herself broken and striving arduously towards wholeness…which some call holiness.

Jean actually became a very skilled Gestalt therapist; I think it was the pinnacle of her many accomplishments. I remember her graduation from the Gestalt Institute and how she recalled her working class roots in Brooklyn. Her father, a member of the famous Fighting 69th, slept on firescapes as a boy growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen; her mother knew firsthand the sufferings of the Great Depression. She proudly called them “survivors” for whom the insights borne of therapy were an unaffordable luxury.

I’d like to suggest — I know this is risky — that no matter how much Jean loved Hoboken — and she did — and no matter how much she had the sophistication of a Manhattanite — and she had — that she was always at heart a working class girl from Brooklyn.

She couldn’t afford college so she went to a better university: the Catholic Worker. She cut quite an image, I’m told, working on the soupline, inadvertently spicing it with ashes dropping from her ever dangling cigarette. When I met her at Emmaus House, a kind of spiritual stepchild of the Catholic Worker, and learned that she had been at the REAL TRUE Worker, I was awed. In my Midwest, deadly earnest way, I beseeched her to tell me everything, everything!, she knew about the Worker’s pacifism, personalism, decentralism, anarchism. The list went on. Clearly but kindly amused, she waved me off. “I didn’t know anything about all those “ism’s” — I just liked the men on the line.”

But she tutored me in other things I needed to learn about, as least as much as all those “isms.” Like the Zen awareness that life was too serious to be taken so seriously. And most important perhaps, how to dance. We’d subway down into Yorkville, only a few stops but a world away from East Harlem, get money from the wall — her expression for newly introduced ATM’s, we half thought/hoped it was someone else’s money — and following one strobe light to the next, we’d hit every disco. Ever the student, it turned out I was a fast learner. But then all I really had to do was watch how Jean could move: effortlessly, gracefully, freely. Transcendence in motion!

It wasn’t, however, transcendence that Jean experienced a few years later when she was studying for the Episcopalian priesthood, newly opened to women. When asked by the ordination committee what was her understanding of God, she responded that, for her, God was community. I still contend that a more theologically orthodox response would have yielded a different outcome. When her candidacy was rejected, I consoled her by reminding her that the Franciscans had rejected Thomas Merton.

Ordination or not, Jean continued in her ministry to community — whether to workers on Wall Street, single women, poor women needing jobs, people with AIDS, victims of injustice in northern Ireland, and always, people suffering with mental illness. She became a full ledged member of my immediate family, and I was honored to become part of hers. When my brother who has struggled heroically for years with mental illness was consigned to a group home in Cleveland, my elderly mother now unable to care for him, Jean would send him little notes with a twenty dollar bill crumpled inside it. “Have a little fun,” she’d write. And she’d never make mention of it. I’d learn of it only from him. My friend Jean, the good Samaritan.

In these last months, I’ve begun to think that her lament – I want to go home – painful as it was to hear, may have been her last gift. She held that mirror up to herself once again — and by extension, to us. For who of has not wanted to go home? And who of us has not known the long loneliness? As Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day wrote, “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Besides being an artful poet, Jean was an artful letter writer. I found this little note, saved among many others. It was sent to me, now living in Massachusetts, for a Christmas not long ago. Very Jean: a romantic little Victorian sleigh ride scene, with women warmed by white muffs. She wrote, “Thanks for the ride. It goes on, God knows where. As the friendship.”

But Jeannie, Jeannie! How are we to go on now? How am I?

Oh, I know, I know. I will embrace you — and place onto the ironing board of my memory, spread across a lifetime of friendship, your many gifts: your humor, your passion, your sentiment, your fierce loyalty, your flamboyance, your playful whimsy, your astute judgment, your love of beauty, your intense pleasure over a good book, your capacity for fun, your uncanny ability to see through to the heart of the matter, and, always, your generosity.

And when I need one, I will squeeze by the world, and pick it up — and hold it up to the light. And I will marvel…that I ever, ever had a friend like you.

* * *

Remembering My Mom

Jean Forest & BenI am Benedict, Jean’s son. Great seeing everyone. I know Rev. Danny is going to mention this later but please stay here after the service and join us for coffee, desserts and lunch. Please also remember to sign-in and leave your phone and email. I do not have contact information on everyone.

The last six months were hard ones. In July, my mother Jean took a fall in her apartment — multiple-fracture shoulder break. It took months and a lot of physical therapy to recover. During the process, the nurses discovered a cancerous growth. Mom was told it had to be removed. It was explained that there were risks with removal, but there was a reasonable chance the procedure would be successful. Mom was afraid. We both discussed it. In the end she decided some chance is better than no chance.

Complications from the procedure led to her passing on December 22.

Mom had been pretty much lived at Hoboken University Hospital and the Harbor View Nursing in Jersey City since the end of July though she did manage to get home for two difficult weeks. I wish I could say she did not suffer. In fact she hated being in these facilities. Of great help were the visitors and phone calls from family and friends. Thank you, with an extra special mention to Rev. Danny Lennox here at All Saints.

Whenever I saw my mother of late, her number one question the minute I walked in was always “When am I going home.”

What my mom really wanted was her life back — to be that Hoboken woman about town. Getting her hair done. Walking at the waterfront. Visiting her grandchildren. Talking politics.

One of my favorite recent days with her was a quick get-away from the nursing home to Coach House Restaurant in Union City, her absolute favorite diner. She struggled to get in and out, but she loved every moment we were there. It was there that we took the selfie together that you see as part of the slideshow. She spoke about her life. “Back then (the sixties),” she said, “there were fewer options for woman. I was not encouraged to go to college. In many ways, I wish I had been starting out today, but that is not the way life works as you know.”

In the hospital, mom and I talked about a lot of things. What we would do when she got back home, like getting her on the internet. She’d always asked about the grandkids. Also my wife: “How is Amy?” And there were always current events — she watched CNN from bed and I usually brought in her The New York Times and The Hoboken Reporter. She was furious when she was missing family events. On one recent day — it was at a point when she was not able to get out of her bed — she got very excited when I read her a report about the thawing of relations between us and Cuba. “That is long overdue.”

We even spoke a few times about her runs for office, the first being her “Kitchen Campaign” run out of apartment. (Some of those flyers are on display in the back.) I so loved campaigning with her as part of Hoboken United. My wife Amy plus Zack joined in. Let me tell you there nothing like campaigning with a baby grandson. It was fun. Wow! The overall campaign was remarkably successful though my mom missed getting elected by 100 votes. I got to know a lot of the nooks and crannies of this town. Mom made friends and also enemies. Politics it a rough game here — I recall nearly getting into a massive brawl in mid-town! “You! Go back to Jersey City. We don’t want you paid campaign stooges here!” The guy and others yelled and started to push me and other Hoboken United campaigners.

“Actually I am Jean Forest’s son!”

“Oh. Jean Forest son. Ok then.” And they us alone.

Many of my mom’s friends are here today with us. I know she loved being a part of city politics. She would rather have won of course, but she was very happy with the overall outcome. She always spoke of Bernie, David, Tony, Angelo, Maurice and her manager Shelly. And of course the other man in her life, Governor Jim McGreevey. I do not know how they first connected but she put everything she had into supporting him. I had no idea who he was when she first introduced him to me. “He’s the mayor of Woodbridge.” I think I responded with; “Mom, I think you like it that he has an Irish name.”

On one visit she asked me what I thought happens when we die.

“Mom, I don’t know. I hope it’s not nothing.”

“I am not sure either. I fear this may be it,” she said.

“Mom, my hope is that it’s a big endless party and we get to hangout with everyone at their prime. Love to see grandpa tap-dancing.”

“Agreed. Me too.”

She had told me earlier that her father — John Morton — had won a tap-dancing contest in New York City back when he was a young man.

My mom felt she had not been a good mother. She brought it up a few times: “Ben, I am so sorry I was not a better mom. I hope you can forgive me. I do love you.”

“Mom, it’s fine, no need to ask to be forgiven. I’m 51 now and have no reason to lie. I’m going to tell from my heart how I feel. I never had a day when I felt unloved. I had an amazing childhood — I dare say better than most. Believe me — I know what a blessing that is. I got to see other parts of the world. People still don’t believe me when I say I got to know Thich Nhat Hanh. I got to know and live with our amazing family. You have been an advocate, ally and advisor my whole life. You have been a wonderful grandma. We may not have had the so-called conventional family thing, but I love you too and I am honored to be your son.”

* * *

Jean Forest, an Activist’s Life

A memorial service for Jean Forest (nee Morton) will take place on Saturday, January 17 at 11 AM at All Saints Episcopal Church, 707 Washington Street, Hoboken. She passed away surrounded by her family on December 22 at the Hoboken University Medical Center at the age of 75. Jean was born and raised in Brooklyn, lived in Manhattan and Staten Island for some years, and finally moved to Hoboken in 1980.

Jean spent her life fighting for social justice and a more compassionate society. She started her career in 1961 on the Catholic Worker staff in Manhattan. She worked closely with its founder and social activist Dorothy Day who is now being considered for sainthood. She later worked for the Community Service Society of Greater NY, the City of New York’s Office for Non-Traditional Employment for Woman and the North Hudson County of Regional Mayors Project Reach Out fighting the AIDS crisis. After many years as a patient advocate at the Greystone Psychiatric facility in Morris County NJ, she retired in 2009. In 2005, she received the Professional Recognition Award from the New Jersey Coalition of Mental Health Consumer Organizations.

In the mid-90s, she volunteered tirelessly for the Voice of the Innocent and Lawyers Alliance project seeking to reverse convictions of those wrongfully incarcerated in Northern Ireland. On several occasions, she was part of a U.S. delegation of “trial witnesses” in Ireland. Jean ran for Hoboken City Council twice, was active in the Democratic Party and was involved in many local community projects and causes.

She was a poet, an avid reader, moviegoer and shopper. In her 20’s and 30’s, she acted in small NY theater companies and won an award as best actress in an “off-off-off” Broadway play. During retirement she travelled to China and Alaska, but her favorite destination remained Ireland. She had a passion for socializing and loved throwing a party. Her ideal night was hanging out with family and friends at a fine restaurant.

“Like Dorothy Day,” she once remarked, “I wanted the abundant life, and wanted it for others too.”

Jean was a dedicated grandmother to her two grandchildren, Zackary (16) and Kara Forest (14). She is survived by her son Benedict J. Forest and his wife Amy Goldsmith of Red Bank NJ, as well as her sister Mary Corchia, nieces Anna and Vanessa Corchia, all of Far Rockaway NY, nephews George Jr. of Brooklyn NY and Victor Corchia of Virginia, and best friend Carolyn Zablotny of Mill River MA and former husband Jim Forest of Alkmaar, The Netherlands.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to: Hoboken Homeless Shelter at 300 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030. Tel. 201-656-5069.

— Ben Forest

* * *