This has been one challenging task I assigned myself— writing about Jane’s mother. Frankly, things I’ve read or heard about Marie have been, umm, unflattering to say the least. We know about the difficult childhood Jane had due to her being, from an early age, caretaker for her invalid mother. A mother with a temperamental personality who at times bordered on being abusive. Because of that, when I started this post, my heart was not completely into learning more about Marie. Also, due to her being housebound for much of her adult life, there are few old newspaper articles about her. But while lacking in society articles, there were enough old journals, manuscripts, emails and letters that allowed me to turn this into another monster of a post.
Phew, glad that’s said. Now I can share what I’ve learned. You can enlarge the photos by clicking them.
A Saratogian article dated November 4, 1905 announced Marie Beatrice Burdo’s birth in Saratoga Hospital to “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Burdo of No. 41 Catherine Street.” Four years later Marie’s sister, Gertrude Minerva Burdo, was born. Gert’s son, George Pilotte (Jane’s cousin), sent Mary family photos and I’ll be including some of them here. Mary shared them in her presentations.
When Marie and Gert were little, the Burdos lived in a cottage on a large estate. Joseph had taken a job as a carriage chauffeur for the rich owner, Mrs. Dawson. Minnie worked as the housekeeper.
But that unfortunately ended when Mrs. Dawson gave Joseph money for driving lessons—automobiles were becoming the new mode of transportation. Joseph secretly spent the money on gambling, thinking motorcars would never catch on.
When Mrs. Dawson bought her first automobile and Joseph was not able to drive it, the secret was out. The family was banished from what Minnie called their “Garden of Eden.” They ended up in the two story, two bedroom duplex at 92 Middle Avenue in Saratoga Springs. This was the same house in which Jane grew up.
Marie’s childhood seemed pretty normal—she was active in school plays, choir and piano recitals, would attend birthday parties, went to school and church, participated in charity events such as making scarves for those in need. One thing I thought was unique is that when Marie was ten, and this was during WWI, she started a local fundraiser for a new battleship as part of the Marjorie Battleship Fund begun by another little girl named Marjorie Sterrett.
A Saratogian article dated February 2, 1919 titled “Battleship Girl Under Knife” stated that “Little Miss Marie Burdo, of this city, by whom efforts funds are being raised toward a battleship for the United States Navy, underwent an operation for appendicitis at the Saratoga Hospital yesterday. Miss Burdo’s first questions [upon regaining consciousness] were in regard to her battleship fund and she expressed hope that friends would continue to contribute during her illness.” Marie was able to raise $51.58 ($1,486.29 in today’s money). This Letter to the Editor of the NY Tribune reappeared in the April 7, 1916 Saratogian. If you click the thumbnail you’ll be able to see the entire article.
When Marie and Gert were a little older, Joseph started a dog breeding business. Minnie would dress the girls in their Sunday best and send them downtown to show off the dogs. They would prance around with the pups on fancy leashes in front of expensive hotels so the residents would see them. Apparently they sold a lot of them this way.
In 1925 Marie was training at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Albany to become a nurse. She and Delmer married in 1928 at the age of twenty three and they moved from state to state for Del’s employment. His mother also owned properties in various states and they’d all move from one to another location on apparently his mother’s whims.
Jane was born in 1929. She was named after Marie’s maternal grandmother, Jane Conway, who died in childbirth on her way to America from Ireland. In 1932 the Roberts family of three lived in the Tampa/St. Pete, Florida area for a while. Not long after that Del and Marie separated and soon after divorced. At that point they were back in NY. Del paid child support and there was a bulk settlement in the divorce, but Marie spent it in an unspecified “splurge.” She had no real income and so Jane and Marie moved in with Joseph and Minnie at the Middle Avenue duplex.
Marie worked as a practical nurse for a while and would be gone for weeks at a time, with Minnie taking care of Jane. According to Jane, Marie was twenty six when she started showing signs of rheumatoid arthritis. That would have been 1931 or so.
Then came that terrible night: On December 1, 1936, Minnie asked Jane, now seven, what she wanted for dinner. Jane said shredded wheat. There was none in the house so Minnie said she would walk to the nearby market. It was getting dark out and snowing and Minnie was hit by a car. She died in the hospital on December 20, 1936. According to Jane, Marie blamed her for Minnie’s death.
The March after Minnie died, Joseph tried to move Marie and Jane out of the duplex—he felt the place was unhealthy for them. Joseph and Marie had a huge fight because she didn’t want to move. The next day, in cold and snow, Joseph arranged for a truck to come and collect all of the furniture. He also had the utilities turned off. He felt he was doing it for the good of Marie and Jane. At this point Marie’s rheumatoid arthritis was getting worse. She and Jane were taken in by a neighbor for a while.
Marie was eventually able to borrow what they needed to move back into the duplex and had the utilities turned back on. For a while she was able to get around the house by leaning on furniture, later progressed to a wheelchair, then was eventually completely bedridden and had a bed moved downstairs. Jane had the two upstairs bedrooms to herself. Marie had to give up her nursing job and went on welfare. A friend of Jane’s from the neighborhood, Eddie Briscoe, started doing chores for them. As Marie’s condition worsened, welfare provided part-time housekeepers.
In early grade school Jane would help Marie into the kitchen before school so she could wash her face and brush her teeth. Jane would help her dress, braid her hair and go off to school. Jane had to tend to the oil heater in the middle of the night and would have to give Marie a bed pan whenever needed.
By the time Jane finished 4th grade, Marie’s arthritis had reached a peak and welfare sent her to an orthopedic hospital. Aunt Gert who was in New York City offered to take Jane. Del also offered to take Jane. But Marie didn’t feel either home was a good place for her. So Jane was sent to St. Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum. She spent a year and a half there. An article in the Saratogian dated December 21, 1939 notes “Friends will be happy to hear that Mrs. Marie Burdo Roberts, who has been undergoing treatment at the Mary McClellan Hospital, Cambridge, since summer, is now able to take a few steps. Mrs. Roberts has been sitting in a wheel chair and just recently was able to take the first steps she has taken in two or more years.”
Jane returned home in time to begin 7th grade. Marie was getting around in a wheel chair. Welfare provided a part-time housekeeper. Jane would get Marie up in the morning and washed and dressed before the housekeeper came.
Like Jane, Marie had a psychic side to her. According to Jane she was always having premonitions of one kind or another and read cards for neighbors. Even the “welfare lady” would ask Marie for readings. Marie finally stopped, saying she didn’t like what she saw in the cards.
She also enjoyed writing short stories and poetry. She had Jane, who was in grade school, take an adult creative writing class so Jane could share the lessons with her. Marie would do the writing assignments and Jane would read them in class. Marie was also known for her knitting and crocheting projects.
On Sundays Father Treanor from St. Clements Church would come to the house for dinner. For these special visits Jane would have to bathe Marie, braid her hair, dress her in a new nightgown and bed jacket and change the bedding of her downstairs bed. Marie would put on some makeup herself. Dinner with Father Treanor was always his favorite meal: steak, mashed potatoes, two vegetables and chocolate pudding. Jane of course had to do all the cooking, shopping and cleaning up. Father Treanor would read poetry to them and coach Jane on hers.
Trying to get off Welfare, Marie started a telephone answering service for doctors and Alcoholics Anonymous when Jane was in high school. Here’s a 1939 article about her and her business from a Saratogian clipping. Welfare was a constant concern because welfare workers would visit recipients’ homes and keep a close eye on their income and spending habits. They would then report to the welfare office which would cut down benefits if someone was earning money.
While Jane was a senior in high school, Marie’s pain had become so unbearable again that she spent weeks in the hospital. When home, she’d wake Jane at all hours of the night to fluff her pillow, roll her over, give her the bed pan. Because she was in so much pain she would yell and cry and complain, and it was later discovered that she’d also been over-medicated which Jane speculated may have contributed to the behavior issues. Jane took it upon herself to supervise her medications.
In 1947 Jane won a National Scholastic scholarship to Skidmore College. The Welfare Department wanted to cut off Marie’s support if Jane went to college. After a month of frantic negotiations with the welfare lady, it was agreed that Marie would be able to stay on welfare as long as Jane worked while in college to pay for any other school expenses.
This brings us to Jane being in college (1947-50) and meeting her first husband Walter Zeh (see my post on Walt here). Joseph Burdo died of tuberculosis on March 14, 1948 at the age of 68 in the Homestead Sanatorium in Providence. When Jane’s scholarship was revoked in 1950, Marie went into a nursing home and Jane and Walt took their famous motorcycle ride to California to visit Del. From then on Marie lived in various nursing homes. The only news articles were when she was moved from one home to another until she was placed in an infirmary in 1962.
Mary came across several letters written to Jane by both Marie and Del. Jane and Marie would send each other holiday gifts through the mail and Marie had friends and Gert and the family visit often. And if you were wondering, Marie DID know about Seth and Jane’s classes. From a letter Marie sent to Jane in 1969 from the Homestead Infirmary: “How is the book coming along? We are all waiting to read it. Is it all about the “Seth” material. If so it is a little over our heads. I wish I could talk to you about it. I read your other book [ESP] twice. I thought I would never get it back from Helen Casey. They liked the book very much.” From August 1970: “I just finished reading your book [The Seth Material] and it is fabulous. I was fascinated by it. I do not know how you ever did it. I am so proud of it. The pictures of you are very good… What a beautiful job of editing the editor did… I just loved it. It was plain and easy to understand.” In her last letter from February 11, 1972, “I wish you would write another story like the Chestnut Beads. To me, that is the best thing you have done. I would call it a Gothic Suspense novel.”
I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from two other people who knew Marie to some degree and paint a different picture of her from other people’s opinions. Being acquainted with someone is certainly different than living with and knowing them through and through, but I thought these were an interesting contrast to everything else I’ve read about Marie. She was definitely a complex person.
One is from Walter Zeh, Jane’s first husband, in a late 1984 letter he wrote to Rob about his days with Jane. Ellipses are mine to indicate skipped text.
Sitting on a porch rail was the same blue-eyed, dark-haired girl I had met a week or so before at the picnic. For one solid hour, I stood talking to Jane as she sat on the rail, completely forgetting that I had set out for the store to get some beer for my friend and myself. Finally, I tore myself loose, went to the store, and completed my errand. As I passed Jane’s house on the return, Jane said to me, “why don’t you come over some time and meet my mother. She’s in bed with rheumatoid arthritis and would be glad to meet new people, particularly one of my fellow students.” I told her that I might just do that.
…I do recall that it was not long before I became a constant visitor to her home, where I was not unwelcome because I was a pianist and able to entertain Marie with music which she admired…. I shall start with a characterization of Marie Burdo Roberts, a queen in every respect – her dependence on the Roman Catholic priesthood which was in almost constant attendance at Jane’s home in her early years, and the effects of years of dependence on the charities of county relief, on which Jane and her mother subsisted from Jane’s earliest years.
Marie Roberts was, by testimony of those who had known her in her earlier years, a beautiful, glamorous, and extremely compelling personality. It was not difficult to see where Jane had gotten her looks and intelligence…. In any event, Marie was 26 years old when she became afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, the most debilitating form of the disease, and went to bed for the last time because of it. In the years that followed, she became “comfortable” with the syndrome of dependency, having a young daughter who, from the earliest year of capability, was able to wait on her, give her the bedpan, and look after her other bodily needs. You can imagine what life must have been like for Jane, having physically to look out for her mother’s body, cater to her needs for food (they did not have any help when I first went to Jane’s home) and later to assist her when Marie, to give her all credit, decided to take on a doctor’s answering service which, as many crippled people do, she learned to handle with her badly swollen wrists and almost insensate fingers. I can see her picking up those telephones yet on the bed – an amazing study in personal determination – no doubt the basis for Jane’s inner drive. How any young person could go on for years in such a morbid atmosphere, and still keep her sanity, is beyond me. It is no wonder that Jane eventually revolted. Our trip to California on the motorcycle, in October 1950, was an act of rebellion on Jane’s part.
Another quote comes from a childhood neighbor of Jane’s, Agnes Hamberger. You can read her full “essay” about Jane in Speaking of Jane Roberts by Susan Watkins.
Marie was a beautiful woman who was confined to bed because of a very debilitating form of rheumatoid arthritis. She was well loved by Janie and because she was admired for her spirit and loving nature gained support from her doctors and Catholic priests who visited her regularly.
… Marie was given the job of answering several doctors’ after-hours phones. I visited Marie with my mother once in a while in the evening after supper and saw her answer those calls. Her hands ravaged by arthritis were more like claws but she managed to pick up the receiver and answer the calls with great efficiency, and write a message legibly; she had the sweetest voice you’d ever want to hear. On those visits Marie was always in a perfectly lovely bed jacket—usually a pale pink or peach colored satin—gifts from her friends of which she seemed to have had many. I’m sure that Janie’s mother was recipient of what we nowadays would call welfare. I don’t know how else they could have survived.
Rest in peace Marie.