When I was a young girl, my grandfather would take every opportunity to encourage me to get an education.

He said, “You might end up with a deadbeat and you need to be able to take care of yourself.”

And then he told me about his mother.

Rosa Jacobs Brenne
Nellie’s mother, Rosa, in an undated photo.

Nellie was born in 1895 to Louis and Rosa (née Jacobs) Brenne. They were living in Cleveland, in the German neighborhood within a few blocks of the Frohmbergs, though there is no documentation their paths crossed until World War I.

By all accounts it was a happy marriage, but Rosa fell ill. Grandpa told me that Rosa, Louis, and Nellie sought cures in Europe, that it was rare for immigrant families to do so. Rosa hailed from Switzerland, Louis from Germany.

I am under the impression that Louis was not especially wealthy; however, I’ve learned that Rosa’s sister Anna Martin (more about this fascinating woman later!) was. Perhaps it was she who funded this spa treatment?

Alas, the treatments were to no avail. Rosa died in 1905 back in Cleveland. Her husband successfully sued Rosa’s American doctor for wrongful death and won $187.00.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 11.27.01 PM
Louis Brenne with his second wife Emma (right) and his daughter Nellie.

Two years later, Louis married his housekeeper, Emma Rosenberger, a young woman only eight years older than his daughter.

The three are pictured left, possibly Emma and Louis’s wedding photo.

I don’t know if the marriage was a happy one, but it was definitely not a positive development for Nellie.

Family lore says that Emma resented her step daughter and did everything in her power to get her out of the house. Later, when Nellie had children of her own, Emma went out of her way to ensure that Nellie’s children felt ostracized, as well.

Nellie went to college and became a bookkeeper. No one knows when she met Paul Frohmberg, but when he returned from his World War I service in France, it was with a beautiful embroidered silk shawl that he gave to Nellie as a wedding present. They were married in 1918 and had two sons: Richard (born 1920) and Clifford (born 1921).

At some point Paul revealed his true colors (or perhaps Nellie was at least marginally aware of them from the beginning?) and they divorced in 1929. My grandfather, Richard, said he did not remember any animosity between his parents; Clifford said that he remembered his father choking his mother at least once.

3670 E 108th Street, Cleveland. Aunt Anna Martin's house, shared with Nellie and her sons.
3670 E 108th Street, Cleveland: Anna Martin’s house, shared with Nellie and her sons.

Grandpa said that his mother’s aunts and uncle (Rosa’s siblings) ensured that Nellie got an education and had housing before and after her divorce.

He also said that his mother made a point to make sure her ex-husband was invited and felt welcome at family gatherings. He was often without a vehicle or the funds to travel, so she would regularly pick him up herself so that he wouldn’t have to miss a birthday party or holiday.

Nellie and Paul in California, late 1960s.
Nellie and Paul in California, late 1960s.

Remarkably, he never heard his mother say a single bad thing about his father, though there were many character flaws to choose from: Paul definitely was an alcoholic and he had significant difficulty holding a job. He preferred hanging out at the bar, playing games and shooting the breeze. He apparently was not particularly honest and engaged in at least a few petty larcenies.

Grandpa credited Nellie’s choice to respect her ex-husband as one of the many reasons he remembered his childhood fondly.

Close to her retirement from Miller-Becker Co., her son Clifford’s wife asked Nellie why she never remarried. Without any malice and perhaps with a smidgen of self-depreciating humor, Nellie responded, “I can’t afford another!”