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My Mother Died a Cherokee
By Paul Boler
My mother died on January 1, 1999, at 3:05 a.m. in San Francisco, California. She was 89 years, five months, and one day old. She had suffered a massive stroke on December 29, and was found by her caregiver when the woman arrived at Mother's apartment to begin her duties, which involved cleaning, shopping, and doing my mother's laundry.
For the last 20 years of her life, Mother had been plagued by lupus, and she had been heard to mutter on more than one occasion, "I had always wanted to live a long time, but this is ridiculous." After she had reached her 88th year, she had begun to grow frailer and frailer and more and more absent-minded.
She had also expressed the wish to be cremated after her death, but since she had never voluntarily embraced any orthodox religion, I personally had no clear idea of how the aftermath of her death should be dealt with. My three daughters and two nieces were of immense help in this regard, however.
What we decided to do was have a memorial gathering for her at the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park, and then to keep her ashes until the summer, at which time we planned to take them to her elder brother's farm in Lewis County, Washington. We got permission from his son Daniel to scatter some of her ashes on the hill overlooking the valley, with a very pleasant view of the mountains to the south. I later put the rest of the ashes into the Chehalis River at the small bridge in Pe Ell, Washington, so that the current would carry them out to sea.
Whether these were the right things to do I leave to those wiser than me to decide, but I think that most of us who loved her and miss her felt at ease with what we had done.
My mother was born in Caldwell, Idaho, raised to adolescence near Paonia, Colorado, and moved with her family to Washington State when she was 14. She was mainly of Scottish, Irish, and German descent, but copies of family records she showed me once said that there was also a Cherokee princess mixed in somewhere a couple of generations back. I asked my maternal grandmother's youngest sister, Fanny, about the Cherokee princess a year or so before Fanny died, and she said it was true, but that we were mostly Irish.
Mother came to San Francisco in 1948 and lived here off and on until her death. (Her last residence was Mercy Terrace on Baker Street.) She was a rover like her own mother, and lived and worked in Idaho for a time. She was working at the College of Idaho while R. C. Owens was a student there, and got to know him fairly well, as it is a small college. Owens, along with Y. A. Tittle, developed the "alley-oop" pass when they played for the 49ers (195761).
Mother also shuttled back and forth between San Francisco and Cape Cod, where her brother Phillip Roeber lived and worked as a painter. Some of Phil's paintings, by the way, are most likely parked in storage at the De Young Museum. A couple of others may still be a part of Robert Motherwell's estate.
Mother also married a college classmate of mine named Jim Forstner, who at the time was a juvenile probation officer in San Francisco. They lived on Diamond Street for several years with a little Italian waiter from northern Italy named Johnny Valente. Jim had a wide range of talents, although none of them had much to do with juvenile probation. Some older readers may recall that Jim was fired from his job for growing a beard, which he steadfastly refused to shave off. His three-year legal action against the city made Time magazine, and he eventually got his job back. He was, however, out of work during most of the time he was married to my mother.
Undeterred, he pursued other interests. He had been, since childhood, consumed with the desire to capture and raise wild creatures, all of whom died, most fairly speedily. While he and Mother were living on Diamond Street, he had both a raven, whose name was Corby, and a great horned owl, whose name escapes me. Except for his eternal croaking, Corby was a fairly mellow bird, but the owl made no distinction between his food and your finger, should you be foolish enough to stick a finger near his beak. Both birds produced prodigious amounts of waste. The owl in particular, which was immense, could turn a 10-ounce rat into nearly two pounds of excrement. If the bird had ever gotten loose, he could have spray-painted all of Noe Valley and had plenty left over for Twin Peaks.
Jim was five years older than I am and 15 years younger than my mother, so the math was against the relationship before it even got started. They bickered constantly after the first few months. I recall my mother complaining that she had no space--that nothing there was hers. She did have a point, because the owl had its own room. Jim took up with younger women from then on, and my sister-in-law remarked that this was called a "reaction formation." It looked like a divorce to me.
Anyway, all that aside, the manner and timing of my mother's death came as an immense relief to the family. My continuing nightmare had been that she would lapse into some sort of vegetative state and wither away in a hospital or convalescent home, losing all semblance of dignity or humanity. As it turned out, none of that happened, and there was nothing extraordinary about the actual circumstances of her death.
However, there was a small, albeit interesting (and possibly far-reaching) circumstance that did occur in connection with the arrangements for my mother's cremation. During the three days between my mother's stroke and her death, I had gotten in touch with the Neptune Society. All the people I talked to there were helpful and nice. I was, of course, very upset and depressed, which if you have gone through such an experience with your own parent or parents, I am sure you will immediately understand.
In any event, the day after my mother's death, I received a call from the hospital saying that she had to be removed at once, as they had no room for her body in their morgue. I contacted the Neptune Society, and they told me exactly what steps to take so that they could pick up my mother and take her to the crematorium. They also made an appointment for me (and one of my daughters) to come by their office that afternoon to do the necessary paperwork and to choose a small casket for my mother's ashes.
When we had chosen a suitable receptacle, the woman who was conducting the interview said, "Now, I have to ask you some questions." After several standard queries--when and where had my mother been born, what had been her maiden name, when and where had she died, etc.--the woman suddenly asked, "Does your mother have any Native American blood?"
"Yes," I said. "She does."
"Oh," said the woman. "Do you know which tribe she belonged to?"
"Yes," I said. "She is either one-eighth or one-sixteenth Cherokee."
"The government is very interested in this type of information," said the woman.
I mumbled something to the effect that I could understand that. The interview concluded shortly thereafter, and I gave that part of the exchange no further immediate thought. In fact, I might never have lingered on it again except that in winding up my mother's affairs, I needed her death certificate to verify the reason I was closing her bank account, and it was then that I noticed that as far as the government of this country is concerned, Bertha Jane Allebaugh (Boler Carmichael Forstner) died as a full-blooded Cherokee Indian!
My first reaction upon reading that information was a deep sense of regret that Mother--in this life, at least--was never to know about it. Oh, how it would have amused her! But my second thought was: I wonder how many other citizens' birth and death records are 88 to 94 percent fiction. When you encounter a "mistake" such as this, it certainly makes you feel queasy about the data our government collects, which is used to allocate funding for social programs.
On a brighter note, Jim Forstner's stubborn insistence upon keeping his beard resulted in what proved to be a landmark civil rights case, which worked its way through the court system and wound up allowing more personal freedom for each of us in the workplace. Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the civil rights era was that a small branch had its roots in Noe Valley.
Paul Boler's fiction has appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Cavalier, as well as in Transfer. He lived in San Francisco from 1948 to 1999, with a three-year hiatus in Petaluma. Boler retired in 1993 after teaching 27 years at the Chinatown Campus of City College, specializing in English as a Second Language. He now lives in Sacramento.
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