Mother feared no Pope or bear

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Photo above: Harriet Forkes (middle) surrounded by her three daughters:
Cheryl, Mary Lou and Elaine and Daughter-in-Law Allida (second from right).
Photo provided by Tim Forkes from the family archives.

It’s been over 23 years since my mother passed away: November 4, 1990. She was 69 and in such poor health, dying was a preferable option to living. On one hand — both hands maybe — I was glad her life was over. I didn’t hate her, didn’t dislike her; quite the opposite actually. The suffering she endured in her final months was terrible. It was an act of kindness that she didn’t survive her open-heart surgery.

Dad and Mom, Summer of 1979 Photo provided by Tim Forkes from the family archives
Dad and Mom, Summer of 1979
Photo provided by Tim Forkes from the family archives

The doctors told her she had zero chance of survival without the surgery and only a 10 percent chance with it. Mom was diabetic and the disease had ruined most of her cardiovascular system. Had she survived, Mom’s final years would have been as a cardiac invalid — not an enviable life at all.

Often I would “kid” that my spring breaks in college were spent in Northern Wisconsin with Mom, instead of Fort Lauderdale, Florida … j/k … but not really. Doing the traditional spring break ritual — just once — would have been great.

At the time I didn’t blame Mom, I blamed my seven siblings, none of who visited our mother enough to suit my expectations. Now, 23-plus years later there is no one to “blame,” because I made a choice: being with Mom was more important than hanging out with a bunch of drunk college students, most of whom had nothing in common with me.

Spending a week anywhere with hundreds of thousands of drunks six to ten years my junior would have been quite uncomfortable. There would have been a lot of fighting. I could have a short fuse at times.

As for my siblings: they visited as often as they could and Mom was always grateful they did.

Spending another week with Mom was always a good, relaxing break from the rigors of life, which included college classes and a budding career as a journalist. Always — every trip — Mom would have a Dutch oven full of her delicious beef stew waiting for me when I arrived. She would say, “I made it all for you.”

Really, she did so I would find the biggest soup bowl imaginable and fill it with her stew, grab the loaf of bread and start eating.

Then she would admonish me for eating too much. It was a fucking ritual, every time.

F Bombs and Other Lessons

The house we grew up in, Milwaukee, WI Photo by Tim Forkes
The house we grew up in, Milwaukee, WI
Photo by Tim Forkes

Speaking of F-bombs: on one of her trips to Milwaukee to visit my brother Rick and I — and more importantly, her friends Maxine VanOuwerkerk and her sister “Auntie Loraine,” Mom and I had dinner with Uncle George, one of Dad’s brothers. He treated us to a fine meal and we talked about many subjects, including homelessness and addiction.

Uncle George, the good Catholic he was — and a true example for the rest of us — decided to manage a homeless shelter once he retired from his career. The shelter management being a full time job mind you for which he received no salary. And he loved doing it; couldn’t wait to get to his new office every day to see to the needs of Milwaukee’s homeless.

We, Uncle George and myself, tried to explain many things to Mom that, for whatever reason she just couldn’t understand. I had been homeless for a while, rootless for a longer while and she was befuddled by it. Why hadn’t I ever gone to Uncle George for help? My good Uncle, a person I still hold in high regard as the kind of man I should and could be, jumped in to answer: nobody wants to ask for help! Especially veterans! Even with his explanation Mom didn’t get it.

But she did make one statement: “I hate the Marine Corps! It taught you how to drink and swear!”

My reply, which now, looking back on it 28 years later, might have been a little too … snotty. “No Mom, I was drinking every day before I got to the Marine Corps, but they did teach me a lot of new ways to use the fucking F-word.”

We finished dinner talking about the Catholic Church, going to college … and I didn’t drop another F-bomb in Mom’s presence again. But my point was made.

Visiting Milwaukee and Vatican City

She would often visit Milwaukee to see my brother Rick and I and her friends. When I was in the position to do so, I would land us tickets to the Milwaukee Pops Orchestra, especially when it featured one of her favorite musicians from her era. Henry Mancini was her favorite and really the most memorable of the few times I took Mom to a concert in her final years. At her funeral, her parish priest told me the concert and after concert visit with the composer was one of the biggest thrills of her life — apparently more thrilling than going to Vatican City in 1984.

Pope John Paul II Photo via Wikipedia
Pope John Paul II
Photo via Wikipedia

Which reminds me of this little vignette: Mom almost had an audience with Pope John Paul II. In September 1984 our mother went to Italy and Greece with her parish priest, Father John, another priest and his mother. Party of four: priests and moms.

Mom’s family was primarily from Greece and she had relatives in Athens so that was a big thrill for her, meeting them. Part of the itinerary included a visit to the Vatican. Because of their connections through the Catholic Church, the two priests and the moms were given the opportunity to wait in a vestibule of some sort on the off chance the Holy Father had a few minutes to spare to speak with them.

So, the four decided to wait and see what happened — how often does a person get a chance to have an intimate meeting with the pope — and talked about what they would say, if they had a chance to see the Holy See. Don’t want to be tongue-tied looking for a topic of conversation.

As Father John relayed it to me, Mom, the mother of eight, had but one topic of conversation on her mind — one burning issue which was the only bone she had to pick with the Catholic Church — the Vatican’s rules about birth control and having children.

The popes and priests hadn’t ever had children, let alone carried them to term and endured labor, so she was going to tell Pope John Paul II a thing or two about bearing and raising children because obviously the Holy Father didn’t have a clue. Nor does the current one, for that matter.

The good Fathers were horrified. Now, with the specter of actually meeting the Pope and knowing full well our mother had no fear of any man (or bear, but that’s another story), the thought of sitting through Mom lecturing the Pope himself on raising children and birth control scared the Hell out of them.

Luckily for them the Pope didn’t have time. What a grand story that would have been had they been given just a few minutes with Pope John Paul II.

Sandhill cranes in Crex Meadows, by Saibal Ghosh via Flickr
Sandhill cranes in Crex Meadows, by Saibal Ghosh via Flickr

Northern Wisconsin

The most prominent memories though are the trips to Webster, Wisconsin to visit Mom, in the years after Dad died. The visits always started with the beef stew, but we would go visit her Northern Wisconsin friends, do some “local” sight seeing and otherwise just hang out. We would make day trips into Minnesota to have a pancake — seriously, these pancakes were so big you could only eat one. The first time I was there Mom warned me: only get one. Being the rebellious fool I was I ordered three. Well, live and learn.

We would get out of the car at certain places and just revel in the wonders of nature. In that part of Wisconsin, the “Indianhead Area,” it’s swampy and thickly forested. One night my sister Cheryl and I were driving on one of those country roads, County Road FF if I’m not mistaken, after a rather heavy rain. We came to a spot where the road was under four feet of water and swimming in front of our headlights was a beaver. That was pretty cool.

Mother and I had many such encounters, especially in Crex Meadows, a nature preserve in Burnett County. We visited on many occasions in all four seasons, watching the ducks, Canada geese, bald eagles and Sandhill cranes.

It was on a trip to the Meadows one day that I stopped the car on County Road FF, in relatively the same spot Cheryl and I stopped, so I could watch two sandhill cranes glide gracefully along the water way. As they crossed over the car their combined shadow engulfed the station wagon. It was one of the most awe-inspiring sights I have witnessed in nature — with Mom, no less.

On our day trips we would often pick up Mom’s two best friends and go sight seeing, all sorts of places, stopping for lunch at these backwoods, tourists never see them restaurants. The kind of places where you actually get home cooking.

Canada and the Bear Story

Crex Meadows boardwalk by Tiffany Follett via Flickr
Crex Meadows boardwalk by Tiffany Follett via Flickr

In her last year Mom and I visited Canada, the area in and around Thunder Bay, Ontario. As it turns out, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is where our parents had their honeymoon. So we visited there for a day, with a hotel room in Thunder Bay waiting for us. And this is where the “bear story” comes in.

We found a picnic site with a table surrounded by relatively fresh bear tracks. Mom sat down and I decided to follow the bear tracks. After about 20 minutes in the water and mud, surrounded by tall grass, it suddenly occurred to me, “What will I do if I run into a bear?” You know, literally, run into a bear. The grass was that tall and thick.

So, being the reasonably-minded fool that I am I got back to Mom as quickly as possible to find her sitting peacefully where I had left her, with a serene smile on her face. I excitedly told Mom my tale of tracking the bear. She then relayed her tale of sitting there as the bear walked past her, stopping briefly to check out the old woman sitting at the picnic table.

That was so outlandish a story so I walked over to the spot where she said the bear was and — you gotta’ be shittin’ me! — there were absolutely fresh bear tracks. We got up and out of there and headed back to the hotel. Mom claims she wasn’t the least bit afraid and you know, I believe her. I, on the other hand, nearly shit my pants.

It’s always been my belief she knew her end was near and she wanted to visit that park one last time. We also visited the family farm in Rio, Wisconsin that summer, the place where our Dad, her husband had grown up.

We went on several other trips; to North Carolina to visit my brother Ken and his family. Can’t remember if Mom and I drove out to Colorado for Tony and Judy’s wedding. While there we drove on the highest paved road in the world in Elaine’s car with young, toddler Dan, who pooped all over himself, smiling the entire time. We made it to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Mom was one of a kind. Not always the nicest person, but for her church, whether it was St. Gregory the Great in Milwaukee or St. John’s in Webster, Wisconsin, she was a prodigy of service. But she carried with her a bitterness born from an upbringing filled with betrayal, rejection, abandonment and abuse. She never completely let go of it; I spoke with her just before she died. Something I learned from her example: don’t hold onto that bitterness; let it go.

She died peacefully in her sleep, still attached to the respirator and tubes.

Tim and Harriet, Summer of 1978. Photo provided by Tim Forkes from the family archives
Tim and Harriet, Summer of 1978.
Photo provided by Tim Forkes from the family archives

It’s hard to say whether I miss her or not, although I think of Mom and Dad often. It is natural for us to outlive our parents, to be there when they finally die. So in that sense, her passing is a part of life, not to be mourned or missed (too much), but to be fondly remembered.

If Mom and Dad were still alive they would be in their 90’s and maybe this would be a lot different. That’s actually a cringe-worthy thought.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom, wherever you are. If there truly is a God and a St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, I’m sure they don’t hold you responsible for my sins.

And Happy Mother’s Day to all my sisters, nieces and friends who are mothers. May you have a wonderful day.