Childhood in Dedham, Massachusetts
Jane Roberts was born in Dedham Massachusetts, outside Boston on December 29, 1923 to her father George Roberts and her mother Caroline Glaser Roberts. Her father had served in the US Navy in World War I on a submarine, was a talented tap dancer who performed in the Chautauqua Circuit but settled down to work in the jewelry business after marrying “Carrie” and starting a family. Her mother was a skilled executive secretary who also loved to have parties and entertain her guests playing the piano and singing. Jane’s brother John, who she has had a difficult relationship with all her life, was born two years later in 1925. Her best friend as a child was Margaret (Peggy) Early, the two of them used to explore the woods in their neighborhood, jump stumps and sled in the wintertime. Jane’s younger sister Patricia (Pat) was born when Jane was already 14 years old.
Jane spent summers with her favorite “Auntie Rose” at her aunt’s cottage in Manomet Massachusetts, about 40 miles south of Boston and just a mile from the ocean. Jane’s mom, her aunt Rose and the other sisters were all excellent swimmers and Jane learned to be a strong swimmer as well.
The Family Moves to Watkins Glen New York
George’s jewelry business finally succumbed to the Depression in 1932 when Jane was nine years old. Unable to find work in the Boston area, George was offered a job by his father (Jane’s grandfather) Lee in the Watkins Salt Company in Watkins Glen, on the southern tip of Seneca Lake in upstate New York. George and Carroline rented a big house on the main street of the town just across from the famous Glen that gave the town its name, which became one of Jane’s favorite places to play. She also enjoyed swimming in the lake and roller skating on the smooth slate sidewalks of the town. Caroline rented rooms in the house out to travelers coming through town.
Binghamton, IBM & Tennis
George did not like working for his tyrannical father, so after less than a year in Watkins Glen e found a job with IBM in nearby Binghamton New York, and moved his family there. They rented half of a duplex on Schiller Street not far from Recreation Park with its carousel and tennis courts. Caroline found a job as the executive secretary for Wendell P. Endicott, the co-founder of the Endicott Johnson shoe company, headquartered in Johnson City just east of Binghamton. She became very active in the PTA and served as president of the organization. Later she worked for the city of Binghamton in the social welfare department.
Jane taught herself to play tennis as a young teen watching others play and spending hours pounding the ball off the backboard with the cheap racket her father bought her. She became so good that in high school she began to enter and soon win local city and IBM country club tournaments. She was such a talented player that, given a good coach which she never had, she might have been able to become a professional tennis player, but lacking such a mentor, did not.
High School & Beyond
Jane graduated from Binghamton High School in 1941 and at her mother’s urging attended a teacher’s college not far from Binghamton. Jane attended classes there for less than a year before realizing that a career in teaching was not for her. Instead she enrolled in art school at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
During her teens Jane enjoyed an active circle of friends that loved to attend dance concerts by the great swing bands of her era, including Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. She and her friends would also take weekend trips to New York City on the train. Jane loved the music of that era and loved to dance.
In this circle of friends, she met, dated, and eventually became engaged to Jim Fischette, an up and coming law student who hoped to marry Jane and move with her to Florida to start his law practice. Jane’s mother Caroline did not like Jim and Jane eventually and reluctantly broke the engagement off, a decision that she regretted for many years.
Also during that time, she met and befriended Ed (Eric) Zale, a young sportswriter for a Binghamton newspaper who covered her tennis tournaments. Eric had been accepted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and suggested that he could help Jane get admitted as well. So she accompanied him to Ann Arbor, found a family to live with and work as a nanny and spent her first year establishing her residency in Michigan so she could apply the next year as an in-state student.
The next year Jane was admitted and went on to earn a bachelors degree in Sociology. Eric got his bachelors degree and went on to get a masters and finally a PhD in English. Jane and Eric married, and after graduation, Eric was hired as an English professor at nearby Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti Michigan. (See my piece “Jane & Eric Go to Ann Arbor”)
Jane and Eric’s son Cooper was born in 1955, and his brother Peter in 1958. They bought a small two-bedroom house on Prescott Street in Ann Arbor purposely next door to a park so their kids would be able to play there. The tiny house featured a full basement where Cooper and Peter played and Eric had an office. Later they moved across town and rented a house on Martin Place, again adjacent to another park.
They had a difficult marriage, and finally in 1967 after Jane found out Eric had an affair with another woman, Jane initiated a divorce. Cooper and Peter continued to live with her in the Martin Place house and Eric eventually moved from Ann Arbor to Xenia Ohio where he began teaching English at Wilberforce University. (See my piece “Jane & Eric Get Divorced”)
Before moving from New York to Michigan, Jane had sent two years in art school at Syracuse College, and was an accomplished painter, preferring to work with oil paint on canvass. With some notable exceptions, her work was generally abstract with no “content” in her paintings other than “form” set in “negative space”. Her canvasses hung in the various rooms of the family’s house. During the years after she and Eric divorced she focused a great deal on her art, often having a canvass set up in the living room with the smell of oil paint and turpentine in the air.
Years as a Single Parent
Jane went through very difficult years as a single mother with two kids living on a limited income. She had bouts of depression, spent time in therapy, but was a good parent to her now teenage sons. She applied her energy and creativity to art, doing mostly abstract paintings with oil paints on canvas. In 1970, she arranged a summer for her and her sons in England on the cheap by working it out to trade houses with a couple in Oxford who wanted to spend a summer in Ann Arbor. (See my pieces “Taking Out the Trash” and “Bills on the Bed”)
Politics & Feminism
Jane became very active in local Ann Arbor politics in the early 1970s, serving as a campaign manager for several men who successfully ran for Mayor and City Council. She spent several years as well as a Democratic party precinct chair. She became known for her great parties with all the key political players in town. Her political work eventually led her to the women’s movement and particularly the campaign by the National Organization for Women for the Equal Rights Amendment. For her work with NOW, Jane received an “Uppity Woman Award”. She also was the publicity coordinator for a very successful 1975 Year of the Woman Festival. (See my piece “Politics 101”)
Two of her dearest friends of that period were comrades in the feminist movement, Carol Crane and Mary Jane Shoultz. Carol, who died of cancer in the early 1980s, worked as an investigator for the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and pursued several successful gender discrimination cases against the Ford Motor Corporation in Detroit. Mary Jane was and still is a feminist activist and philosopher. Another good friend of Jane’s, Marsha Federbush, was a key person in the fight for Title 9 of the Education Act of 1972 and the inclusion of girls in Little League. (See my pieces “Profound Kitchen Conversations”, “My Feminist Aunts” and “Coming of Age at the Laundromat”)
Real Estate & Remarriage
In the middle 1970s Jane got into the real estate business. She finally reconciled with ex-husband Eric and the two remarried in 1977. She moved to Ohio with him and they eventually bought a condo in the Dayton suburb of Centerville Ohio. Eric continued to teach at Wilberforce University and other area schools and Jane continued in the real estate business, working for the best firm in town, Irongate Realtors. She developed a longtime friend in her Irongate colleague Stephan Brown, who continues to send her yearly letters.
Jane’s younger son Peter went off to college at the University of Chicago in 1976 and her older son Cooper, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1978, moved to Los Angeles.
Return to the East
In 1983, Eric developed pancreatic cancer and died in the spring of 1984. He taught his university classes just about up to the day he died. In 1984, after tying up his affairs, Jane moved back East to Wolfeboro New Hampshire, a small resort town on the beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee, in the southern part of the state, two hours from Boston. Her sister Patricia (Pat), 15 years younger than Jane, lived there as well with her husband Raymond (Ray) Merena. Ray and Pat were very successful as co-owners of a coin company, Bowers and Merena, headquartered in Wolfeboro. They built a big beautiful house in the woods on the shore of the lake that Jane admired very much.
Jane lived by herself for fifteen years in a charming upstairs apartment in Wolfeboro on her limited Social Security income. She had a big porch off her bedroom that she enjoyed very much. She was within walking distance or a short drive to the Post Office (where she picked up her mail) and the IGA grocery store. The highlight of the year in Wolfeboro was a quirky local 4th of July parade right by her house down Main Street.
Jane again involved herself in politics and community activism. She served on the Board of Harbor House, an organization that helped women and children who were victims of domestic violence. Jane had a number of letters published in the weekly Granite State News and the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s preeminent daily newspaper.
Jane’s Sons Start Families of Their Own
Jane’s son Cooper married Sally Rosloff in 1983 in Los Angeles. Jane’s grandson Eric was born in 1986 and her granddaughter Emma in 1989. Jane’s son Peter married Penelope (Penny) Christo in Cleveland in 1989. Jane’s granddaughter Elizabeth was born in 1993 and Charlotte in 1996.
Health Issues Emerge
In the late 1980s Jane developed an atrial fibrillation in her heart. For the next seven or eight years she was able to successfully control this condition through drug and electrical therapy. Eventually these therapies stopped working and her ailment began to affect the flow of blood to her brain, which slowly led to issues with the beginnings of dementia.
Jane Moves to Los Angeles
In 1999, Jane worked out a plan with her son Cooper and daughter-in-law Sally to move to Los Angeles. Cooper and Sally purchased a large house in Northridge with a guesthouse that Jane moved in to. She focused her first year in LA decorating her small house and organizing her affairs. She became a member of the Sepulveda Unitarian-Universalist Society, better known as “The Onion”.
Soon after her arrival in LA, she was officially diagnosed with mild diabetes, dementia, poor circulation, varicose veins and flat feet by her new physician, Dr. Michael Malamed. Though she had driven extensively up to the day she left the East, she was uncomfortable driving in the large urban environment of her new home. So her beloved Volvo sedan has sat unused the seven years she has been here. By 2005, though she still kept her furniture and other furnishings in it, she no longer felt comfortable sleeping alone in the guest house. Sally and Cooper moved her into a bedroom into the main house.
Jane longed to return to the life she remembered “back East”, before health issues, which came to the fore after her move to LA, severely limited her activities. To her continuing dismay, family circumstances kept her here in Los Angeles, in proximity to Cooper and Sally. Moving to Cleveland where Peter and Penny lived was explored but turned out to not be an option. (See my pieces “Cross Country Train” , “The D Word” and “My Mom’s Last Good Fight”)
Jane’s Last Days and Death
By the beginning of 2006, due to her increasing dementia and disorientation, Jane was beginning to require 24/7 care, which was beyond what Sally and Cooper could provide at home. With the financial assistance of her sister Pat, Jane was moved to a small group home about 20 minutes drive from the house and Cooper continued to visit her regularly, (See my piece “The Last of Jane Roberts”) including spending every Sunday together at the service at their Unitarian-Universalist congregation, followed by taking her to lunch and then for an afternoon at Balboa Park watching the tennis players and hitting a few balls herself.
In August 2006 Jane collapsed at her new residence and was taken to the hospital in a coma. Given the extent of her dementia, her doctors indicated that she had no hope of recovery, so after her younger son Peter arrived, all family members present agreed to take the breathing tube out and let her pass away.
Jane had two memorial services, one in Los Angeles at “The Onion” (the Sepulveda Unitarian-Universalist Society) where she was a member of the congregation and in Binghamton, immediately prior to burial of an urn with her ashes in Calvary Cemetary in Johnson City, just a couple miles west of where she spent her teenage years living on Westwood Court. To honor her egalitarian, participatory approach to life, her son Cooper led both services, done in a circle with all present invited to speak. Two “hymns” were sung by Jane’s favorite musical artist, Frank sinatra: “New York, New York” and “I Did It My Way”. Jane’s headstone reads…
1923 – 2006
Inspired Tennis Player,
Artist, Feminist and Mother