Rosetta Schwartz (later Rosetta Shifrin and finally Rosetta Lachman) was an ordinary woman with the extraordinary ability to make people believe in themselves.
She wrote this memoir in 1989 when she was 80 years old. Her daughter, author Morgan St. James, uncovered it and edited it in 2012, adding her own comments and those from some family members as Part II, along with a reprint of “Shopping For Dancing Shoes,” Morgan's short story about Rosetta that is the first story in "Chicken Soup for the Shopper’s Soul."
She was a shining light—an inspiration to all. Her smile never dimmed, as seen on the cover photo taken by her grandson Jason Pransky when Rosetta was 95 years old. She passed away in 2006, just before her 97th birthday. We invite you to come on in and laugh with her.
After High School
Times were very tough by the time I graduated from high school. The depression was on and I couldn't find a job. I went to a paying agency and they sent me out to a watch and jewelry supply company called Swartchild & Company in downtown Chicago on Madison and Wabash. I did get a job, but it wasn't the steno job I wanted.
Swartchild employed 200 people, and I was in the watch material department. My job was to order watch materials. To my surprise I discovered that I really liked the job. The employees were all young and we had a good time working with each other. Once a year we had a picnic in the summer and at the end of the year we had a dance at a well known hotel. I worked at Swartchild & Company for ten years. Not bad for a job I didn’t want in the first place.
As I said before, Edna was an excellent secretary and when she left a job she always wound up with a better one. Edna and I worked just a couple of blocks away from each other in the downtown section of Chicago. The work week was five and a half days and when we were finished on Saturday afternoon, we met at a cafeteria across the street from Swartchild. We had some lunch and then went shopping in the department stores.
With meager earnings, we couldn’t afford much of a wardrobe singularly, so we decided to buy our dresses together. Edna was five feet tall, and I am five foot-two. Edna was heavier than me, so what she took up in width I took up in height. She tried a dress on first and if it looked good on her, then I tried on the same dress. If it looked good on both of us, we split the cost. I earned all of eighteen dollars a week, and Edna earned more. I don't know how much more, but both of us contributed half of our pay to the household.
We couldn't go on wild shopping sprees, but little by little we managed to increase our wardrobe. We checked with each other in the evenings, figured out which dress each of us wanted to wear to work the next day, and that way there wasn’t any squabbling in the morning.
When Saturday evening came, we got together with our girlfriends and went dancing. We always went in a group. Since we all lived in the same area, it was safer that way. There were dances every weekend in the better hotels and the big bands sure played up a storm. We had lots of good times in those days. I guess we were pretty innocent, but we lived for those weekend dances. I became a champion Charleston dancer.
Let me look back for a moment. The year was 1918 and I was nine years old. That was the year World War I was declared. We were still living in the same apartment on Ogden Avenue. My brother Meyer was drafted into the army and was sent to France. He was an M.P. and was there about three years. He got really lonesome for home and wanted to get a furlough, so he invented an excuse and said that my mother was very sick and he wanted to see her before anything serious took place. He hinted that she could die.
It was a luxury to have a telephone back then and we knew they would send an inspector to check out his story in person. We didn't know when the inspector would come so we had to be ready to react at a moment’s notice to make sure our mother looked very sick.
One day the doorbell rang and sure enough it was the inspector. Thank God for the three flights of steps to climb. In the time it took him to make it to the top, we had enough time to prepare the scene.
My mother was in the kitchen cleaning a chicken. In my day when someone bought a chicken, it had to be cleaned from scratch, feathers and all, before you cut it up to cook. Now-a-days you go into the market and purchase a chicken, or parts of a chicken, and it's all ready for use. That’s progress.
The boys grabbed her just as she was, dress, apron, shoes and all, and dusted some flour on her face. Then they each grabbed one of her arms and hurried her down the hall to the bedroom. They practically threw her in the bed, clothes, shoes and all, and told her to groan and moan—above all they prompted her to act like she was on Death’s doorway. There was no electricity at that time and all of the fixtures were the gas light type. They turned the gas lights up and covered her right up to her neck so the inspector couldn't see she was fully dressed. The light from the fixtures cast a sickly greenish glow all over the whole room and between the flour and the green light she looked ghastly.
My brothers led the inspector into the room and said in hushed voices, “I hope Meyer can come home soon.” Hearing that, my mother took the cue and began to groan. She kept up a chant of "Oy Vey" the whole time the inspector was there. It was an award-winning performance, and I remember it to this day. The poor inspector took one look at Ma and said "Oh my, she is very sick, isn’t she?" He gave her a comforting pat on the arm and said, “We’ll bring him home to you as soon as possible. Don’t worry, Mrs. Schwartz. Just hang on.”
After he left, my mother got up and went back into the kitchen to finish cleaning the chicken!
And, as for Meyer? They granted him a two week furlough and he came home a week later.
Talking about food, in my generation food was boiled or roasted. Our stove in the kitchen was heated by coal. It had an oven and on the top were four burners. Under each burner there was a cavity that had to be filled with coal. The heat from those burners was used to keep the oven hot. Then when the coal became ashes, the ashes were removed and fresh coal was put in. So you see why we only had the two choices of boiling or roasting. We didn't have the ability to broil or barbeque food. It took many years before gas or electric stoves took over.
As for the vegetables, the basic standards were carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and beets. We had plenty of apples, pears, peaches, grapes, oranges, bananas, or whatever other fruit was in season, and my mother generally bought that fruit from the fruit vendors who drove horse-pulled wagons through our neighborhood.
Okay, let’s get back to life back then.
My brother Joe was drafted into the navy. He was a little more fortunate than Meyer and was stationed at Great Lake, Illinois which wasn't too far from Chicago. Being that he was stationed so close, he managed to come home about once a month, and he always brought at least one other sailor with him so his pal could enjoy our crazy family. Somehow we managed to put up his friends and they enjoyed my mother’s home cooking and some of Ma’s loving attention.