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Bruce McFarland: Remembering my mother, the activist

Democratic Voices

Posted: October 19, 2009 10:53 p.m.
Updated: October 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Where do activists come from? Are they just born, or are children sent to training camps and returned to their families versed in the ways of the movement?

On Sept. 30, my mother Jeannette McFarland died.

She was 98, and until a month prior in relatively good health.

She was a remarkable woman who lived a remarkable life.

It’s almost as if she lived two lives.

Jeannette’s life wasn’t easy, but she never complained or thought of herself as deprived.

Both her parents emigrated to the United States — specifically, Coney Island — from Eastern Europe.

She was the oldest and last remaining of three children.

When she was 10 her father died, and when she was 20 her mother died.

Because Grandmother Dora had heart disease, Mom and her siblings spent some time in an orphanage.

“It’s how things were at that time,” she would tell me.

After high school, Mom started college but couldn’t finish.

Instead she went to business school and  worked as a legal secretary to help support her family.

Although Jeannette’s mom died young, many of her passions stayed with Jeannette.

Dora loved being outdoors and everything about nature. For as long as I can remember, our family had at least one dog and several cats. Many of our vacations were camping vacations.

Dora and Mom were both activists. Dora would take Jeannette out on the street corners of Manhattan and distribute “worker’s rights” and pro-union literature.

This was in the ’20s, and anyone supporting workers were accused of being socialists or communists — interesting how things haven’t changed much in 90 years.

In 1940, Jeannette and family headed for California.

Mom was pregnant with my sister when they made what she described as the “Grapes of Wrath” drive out West.

They landed in Oakland, followed by North Hollywood and then to Acton, where I was born.

Acton was a very small town in the ’50s.

There was one gas station, one general store and one post office, all in a building smaller than a 7-Eleven.

 Both of my parents believed in being involved in the community.

They even started a local newspaper. Well, it was more of a weekly bulletin they printed on a mimeograph machine.

In 1956, we moved to Newhall. Jeannette lived there until last Christmas, when she moved to an assisted living home in Glendale.

While living in Newhall, they started a Democratic club, hoping to elect some Democrats. The group was very active.

Along with Ruth Newhall, they stood down some rallying Ku Klux Klan members.

They were also part of an early Newhall cityhood movement.

My mom was elected to County Committee (me too) and went to LBJ’s inauguration (For me: Clinton’s, and with my nephew and sister, Obama’s.) See a pattern?

After graduating Hart High School in 1966, I left the valley for greener pastures.

Mom decided it was time to take care of some things she’d been putting off.

Although she minimized her political activism, she became a model for an older woman’s right to pursue her dreams.

Dora’s passion for education and Jeannette’s dream of going to college never died.

At age 52, she went back to college, and as a balance, took up snow skiing.

Ten years later, she graduated with honors from California State University, Northridge, and became a marriage, family and child counselor.

She started a private practice and worked in a halfway house for drug and alcohol addicted men in Pasadena.

She was fired at 91.

That’s at 91 years old, not in 1991.

Skiing was even more successful, and some of her world travels were in search of the best double black diamond runs.

Her favorite place was Mammoth. She would go up there five or six times a year.

As she aged, we at home prayed that she (and others) would survive the drive up Highway 395. Everyone did.

She skied the Cornice at 91 and stopped skiing at 93.

She was driving her car, without accidents or tickets until she was 96. She was smart and loving and funny until the end.
She will be missed.

Thank you for letting me share some recollections about my, D(d)emocratic mother’s remarkable life.

If you knew Jeannette and are interested in reminiscing about her, you are invited to attend a private memorial in West Hollywood on Nov. 8. Let me know by phone at (661) 297-1999, by email at or on Facebook at Jeannette McFarland Memorial.

Bruce McFarland represents the 17th Senatorial District in the California and Los Angeles County Democratic Party. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays in The Signal and rotates among several local Democratic activists.


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