Visits with Bessie

Dec. 5, 2001  First meeting

I meet JP(a LBFE staff member, initials only) to meet Bessie at her apartment. Bessie does not have a phone so you can’t phone ahead to make arrangements ahead of time.  She’s hard of hearing, so a phone wouldn’t really do much good, JP says.

This is the second attempt we have made to see her, and she’s pretty sure we will have luck this time.  According to JP, Bessie is legendary in the neighborhood, particularly at the thrift stores.

At Bessie’s door, it’s slightly open. JP calls in. She knows that Bessie won’t come to the door because she can’t hear that well. We push the door open and walk in the small hallway, continuing to call her name, but she doesn’t realize that we’re there until we are about 5 or 6 feet in front of her. She tells us to come sit and to grab an apple out of the fridge.

Introductions were made and we start making small talk. The conversation starts out with Bessie asking what day it is. It’s Wednesday and she says she thinks something is supposed to happen on Wednesday. Bessie starts talking about her tchockes and and how so many people throw things out that are still good.

JP  got Bessie to start talking about her hat-making days. Apparently, she sewed for a company that made hats for a department stores. She said that no one ever helped her but maybe if she had a little help she could have been a good designer.

She mentions  how lonely she is and that no one comes to visit. At 101, she’s outlived everyone. “Make sure you get married and have a family,” she says.

After about an hour, JP and I decide to head out. It’s incredibly warm in the apartment  and I really need some fresh air. But I decide that I like Bessie and ask JP where we go from here.

Dec. 12, 2001

This is my first visit to Bessie alone. I’m a little nervous.

I get to her door and call in, but the television is on quite loud.  I keep calling her name until I am about five feet in front of her and I wave. She tells me to sit in the chair next to her, which is a wicker chair with a hole in it. “Someone was climbing on it,” she says. Before I do, I turn the television off.

I mention that I visited the week before with JP. She responds that she’s over 100 and doesn’t remember these things.  I’m not offended, of course.

I ask her how she’s doing and she responds that she’s crippled and can’t get around. Actually, for 101, she’s doing better than you’d expect, using only a cane to walk around. As with the last visit, Bessie is not wearing pants nor a skirt. On the first visit she was wearing pantyhose and on this visit she is wearing gray tights.

We talked about the tchockes and she mentions that she’s been robbed several times. It’s very easy to fathom since her door is unlocked most of the time. There’s a box on the table with various papers and I ask if she has any pictures in there. I finally have her attention diverted to something.

She brings me into the living room where we look at some old pictures of her and her family.  We look at about 15 pictures and go through them several times.  Pictures of her as young child, with her brothers, ice skating, and some other random pictures. She had a couple of pictures from her time in Cleveland when she was in an orphanage. I’m still not clear on why she was an orphanage.

She told me that there was a man who she was related to who knew where she was, knew her family, but didn’t tell them how to contact her. This makes her angry. She is very bitter about being alone. And then she tells me (as she did the last time) to make sure I get married and have a family because it is terrible to be alone.

I leave her looking at some pictures.

December 19, 2001

I’m more confident this time because I feel like I can ask her things that happened recently.  Did she go to the Chanukah party at Ezra? Is she going to LB for Christmas? I’d like to ask her some questions about what she is doing now as well as about her past.

I knock at the door, call her name, and push the suitcase that she uses to hold the door closed. It’s a little bit later than my last two visits and so I miss the bread, cheese and milk eating that I experienced the last time. I wave hello and she tells me to sit down next to her. There’s a tall round laundry basket full to the rim and I can’t figure out whether it is clean laundry or dirty laundry. I ask. It turns out that she’s going to give this stuff away to someone who needs them . This turns out to be what she says about a lot of things in her apartment.

In the basket are t-shirts from the gap, sweaters, pantyhose, and even a pair of sneakers. “Perfectly good shoes,” she says. She asks me what’s going on with me. I tell her that I’ve been Christmas shopping and that I’ve had several dates. She asks me how many boyfriends I have and I truthfully tell her two; I can’t make up my mind. She says I can only have one. I know, I know, I say. She again tells me to find someone and get married because it is sad to be old and lonely. No one comes to visit, she says. I explain that’s why I wanted to visit.

I ask her about her dinners at Ezra. Doesn’t she see people there? I’m not quite sure how the Ezra operation works and so I ask what she does there. She explains that yes, she gets taken there, but that she goes there and sits like a bump on a log. She doesn’t talk to anyone. You have to get there early to get a seat, although they do serve a good meal.

We somehow got on the topic of travel and Bessie tells me how she liked to travel and traveled by bus. “You see more that way,” she says, and during the conversation mentioned California and Canada in particular.  She mentioned going to a place “where California started” and I had no idea what she meant.

She recalled seeing four great men in stone and how every time she sees it on television she thinks , “Yes, at one time I stood right below it.”

I asked her if she took any pictures on these trips. She said not too many, if at all. I decided to ask if she wants to see my pictures. Using the magnifying glass, she looks at pictures from my sister’s wedding. She compliments me and says I come from a good looking family. I share a picture of my Aunt Tina, who is 82 years old.  With enthusiasm, she comments that Aunt Tina is beautiful.

I ask her about her pictures and we go into the living room. Sitting in an old green lounge chair, she starts to show me pictures. She has boxful, but we only look at a handful. Bessie says that she hasn’t looked at these in a long time. Many of the pictures she didn’t know everyone, but in some she could tell if it was her brother in the picture.

The first time she showed me a few pictures, there were very few markings.  A formal picture of her brother had something that was crossed out: “Kindly return if not interested.” I found it funny in a “that’s odd”  kind of way and wondered in what circumstances this was sent and returned. Another picture had “Cousin Rebecca, Bess, and I.”

I asked her if the brother in the picture was named Al, because when I walked into the apartment this night, I found her reading something addressed to “Bessie Rotter – Al Rotter.” It was from the Department of Revenue in Wisconsin.  Apparently she used to have land in Wisconsin, but she said that she hadn’t paid the taxes so the government had probably taken it by now. But if that were the case, why would she be getting these notices? The plot thickens.

More plot thickening: Bessie had a series of pictures of small children, one saying, “Wondering where Aunt Bessie is.”

I told Bessie I had to go but that I wanted to see more pictures next time. Before I left, she asked “When are you coming to visit again?”

December 22, 2001

I picked up some inexpensive flowers and a card and dropped it off at her apartment. Bessie’s door was unlocked, but she was sleeping. I left it on the chair. In order to go in the building, I’d buzzed management and introduced myself. They told me that she was in Chicago magazine last year for turning 100.

December 26, 2001

After a few days out of town for the holidays, I was pretty wiped out but intent on seeing Bessie today.

When I went to her door, I heard the television blaring. I also smelled something burning. Once in the apartment, I looked to see if something was cooking but the only thing out was the toaster and it was unplugged. I think it was just the space heater on high, but that burning smell bothered me.

During this two hour visit we talked about family and she blurted out her brothers names which she previously said that she could not remember.

I was laughing inside when she told me that she goes to the laundry room and takes money if people leave it behind.  She says she waits to see if it belongs to someone.

Upon getting ready to leave, Bessie asked if I was taking the bus. Well! When I told her I’d driven that day, she popped her eyes wide open and said, “You have a car? We could drive to Wisconsin! Can we take a trip to Wisconsin? We should go to the fair…. We can drive by the land I used to have…” It was an amazing thing to see her excited as a little kid.

December  28, 2001

After just these few visits, Bessie has given enough information about her to know about her background, but there are some things that she has mentioned that have made me quite curious.  For example, she said she grew up in an asylum in Cleveland. A little research made this much clearer.  She didn’t mean an asylum as we know it in 2001 – she meant an orphanage.  Specifically, the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum.


2 Responses to Visits with Bessie

  1. Pingback: The First Visit | She was 108

  2. Jennifer Pretzeus says:

    What an amazing tribute you’ve put together for an amazing woman!!! She was so lucky to have you as a friend. What a difference you made in her life in her final years–although it was a difference only in the present moment, that is really the most important moment of all.

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