Bessie Hannah Roset - Andrew Sarewitz
I am named for my paternal grandmother, Annie. I know. My name is Andrew. Take that as you will.
In the Jewish tradition, you would only name a baby after a family member who is no longer alive. I have no memory of either of my father’s parents, but I presume Annie must have died before my arrival. Jake passed away when I was a toddler.
Though Annie was my father’s mom, and, according to my mother, a wonderful, kind and generous woman, she did not give birth to him. Nor did she bear any of Grandpa Jake’s children.
Their mother, Hannah, passed away when my father was age two. She was 39.
My father was the youngest of five, and the only boy. He would never know his birth mother. Grandpa Jake and his wife, Hannah, came to America — to Philadelphia to be specific — from somewhere in Russia in 1908. Jake was born in Vitebsk, Belarus (where Marc Chagall comes from), in 1883.
Once in Philadelphia, Hannah gave birth to four daughters. Chronologically: Sarah, Mary, Lily and Eva. More than four years after Eva’s birth, my father, Albert, was born in New Jersey on February 15, 1923.
I wear a ring that I never saw my father remove in his lifetime. It had been his father’s as well. I don’t know the exact year Grandpa Jake got the ring, but it holds a modest, square mine-cut diamond, mounted in an Art Deco setting of 14 karat gold.
While living in Philadelphia, Grandpa Jake worked a number of odd jobs. He didn’t want to answer to a boss, so he almost always ran his own businesses. The first was a laundry service. Not bringing in enough money to support his growing family, he occasionally sold jewelry. I have wondered whether my vintage men’s ring is from that time. Being extremely poor with a wife and children to feed, clothe and house, I don’t know how he could have purchased this extravagance. And with the setting being Deco, the time line doesn’t fit.
Decades after my grandfather’s death, I saw a photograph from what I believe was a Passover celebration sometime in the 1950’s. Magnified, I could see that Grandpa was wearing this ring on his wedding finger.
My father was born shortly after the family left Philadelphia. Jake, Hannah and their children moved to a wooden house in the rural town of Bridgeton, New Jersey. As Dad once told me, Bridgeton was practically south of the Mason Dixon Line. It was a farming community, but also had to have a substantial Jewish population, or my grandfather would not have moved there. A separate entrance on the ground floor to the house opened to an already established shoe repair shop. Having recently found success as a shoe maker in Philadelphia, this place was a prophetic find for Jake.
Before my dad was born, his mother began suffering from debilitating headaches. At the suggestion of her doctor, Hannah cut off her long, brown hair. Her headaches persisted.
Peripherally, her next door neighbor (a woman) spread a rumor through the town that Hannah sold her hair, a practice associated with prostitution. The neighbor not only started that rumor but suggested my grandmother be dragged through the streets, like a whore or societal pariah.
Hannah did not take that attack in silence. To her next door neighbor’s surprise, Hannah knocked on her door and confronted her directly. I don’t know if an apology was offered but it shut the woman up and put an end to the rumors.
Finding no relief from her suffering, Hannah visited the doctor again. Still having no answers, her doctor suggested that perhaps she consult a dentist. Maybe there was some infection in her teeth, causing the blinding headaches.
Following that advice, Hannah returned home with all of her teeth removed. Since this was not only an extreme act but didn’t do anything to allay the headaches, I can’t help but wonder if this dentist just made some inane and arrogant decision to pull all of her teeth without any evidence of decay or infection.
I can’t imagine what she must have looked like to her children. Short, chopped hair and a mouth now sunken and horribly misshapen.
Before my father had his first birthday, Hannah was correctly diagnosed by a different doctor. She had tuberculosis. In any situation, this would be devastating news, but having five young children made this reality even more frightening. It was decided that Hannah would go to a sanatarium in the Pennsylvania mountains. Though I don’t have any idea how my grandfather could afford it, I do know that he received the sum of $25 a week from their local synagogue’s
Ladies’ Aid Society, to assist in paying the bills.
Hannah never recovered.
My grandfather received a phone call from a sanatarium employee telling him that his wife was near death. Hannah wanted to be taken to a hospital in Philadelphia, a location closer to Bridgeton, New Jersey, so that her family would be able to see her.
In November of 1925, Bessie Hannah Roset was put on a stretcher and loaded onto the unheated baggage car of a train headed to Philadelphia. Hannah was found dead when the train reached its destination.
If there is any solace, the future for Hannah’s family found hope and stability when Grandma Annie came into their lives. I don’t know anything about Annie’s introduction to Jake, but she married my grandfather within the next couple of years. Annie didn’t have children of her own. She had a modest amount of money, though I don’t know from where. But she was able to put central heating in the house and she raised Jake’s five children as her own.
My parents had what I think of as having been a very happy marriage. In his adulthood, my father spun himself a great life with my mother. I credit Grandma Annie with raising Dad and his sisters with a lot of love. But it is Hannah who gave him life. I don’t want that to be forgotten.
Andrew Sarewitz has written and published more than 50 short stories (website: www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as having penned scripts for various media. Mr. Sarewitz is a recipient of the 2021 City Artists Corp Grant for Writing. His play, Madame Andrèe (based on the life of Nancy Wake, The “White Mouse”) garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA; produced with a multicultural cast and crew. Member: Dramatists Guild of America.