talks to Bess Swedlove
and to members of her family
as the pianist, who donated
her beloved piano to the SJCC, prepares to celebrate
her 100th birthday.
The gorgeous baby grand piano that Bess Swedlove lovingly played in her family home for more than four decades now sits on the stage in the social hall of the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (JCC) where it is now being enjoyed by community members who gather there for concerts and other musical events.
Bess, who turns 100 on March 2, recently donated her treasured piano to the Soloway JCC and was in the front row with members of her family on January 22 to hear pianist Katherine Addleman inaugurate the piano at its new home with a concert of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.
“The piano was my baby – doing what comes naturally,” she said in an interview at Hillel Lodge, where she has lived for the past two-and-a-half years. “My family stood by me with the piano, encouraging me.”
The piano arrived at the house about 45 years ago as a gift from her husband, Casey, who died in December 2006, just after their 66th wedding anniversary. The new piano replaced a previous piano that was not as grand, and her daughter, Carol-Sue and husband Jack Shapiro, still remember the excitement on the day the piano arrived at their Crescent Heights home.
The longstanding Swedlove family home overlooking Dow’s Lake was sold this past summer when Jack and Carol-Sue downsized to a condo.
Bess – née Bess Jack – grew up in London, Ontario, one of five children, and it was only by default that she received the piano lessons that would help define her life.
“My late aunt had a habit of tapping on the table,” said Carol-Sue. “My grandparents thought that she would be a perfect candidate for the piano and so they bought one. Once it was in the house, my aunt refused to take lessons. Having made this huge expense, Max and Dora Jack needed a child of theirs to learn how to play the piano. Their daughter Bess was the logical choice, as her brothers had already chosen their instruments.”
Once the lessons were registered for, Dora and young Bess’s trips to the Royal Conservatory began. Bess eventually became a piano teacher herself charging 25 cents a lesson.
“There was talk of mom teaching Guy Lombardo,” said Carol-Sue, “but, in fact, Guy Lombardo taught Bess’s brother Nathan how to play the violin.”
Bess excelled at piano in her teens and early 20s and then, at a Jewish youth event in Toronto, she met Casey Swedlove.
“She came in from London, Ontario; he came in from Ottawa and they started courting.”
They married and lived in Kemptville for a while and then moved to Ottawa. Casey had a family theatre business and a furniture and general store in Kemptville called Swedlove’s. In Ottawa, they owned the Rialto Theatre, the Linden Theatre in New Edinburgh, as well as some theatres in the Ottawa Valley.
Then came the twins – Carol-Sue, and Alan, who died in 2003 – and Bess had her hands full. Nevertheless, she continued to give piano lessons as often as she could.
They lived in the Fisher Park area before moving to the Dow’s Lake house when the twins were 16.
Grandchildren Tracy and Michael Shapiro grew up with Bess singing and playing the piano for them. She knew all the popular songs. Later on, when she was in her 90s, she was still creating memories by playing the piano for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“It was always so special to see her play for them and at family dinners, so warm and special,” said Nikki Shapiro, Michael’s wife.
“A piano was always part of our family’s life,” agreed Carol-Sue. “Many a Saturday night the piano could be surrounded by Bess and Casey’s friends belting out all the old songs. Mom volunteered to accompany the musicals at Agudath Israel Congregation for approximately 22 years, always staying behind the stage curtain, never taking a bow.”
For more than 50 years, Bess volunteered at the Civic Hospital’s gift shop, their longest standing volunteer ever. She only stopped doing that when she was 93.
Over the years, the Swedloves often took in boarders suggested by family and friends to help them get a start in the city.
“No questions asked,” said Nikki.
An avid cook and baker, Bess was skilled at Jewish cooking, hosting large groups for Shabbat dinners and other occasions.
“There was a social event every Saturday night, always a party, right up until Grandpa passed away,” she added.
Still sociable and friendly, Bess Swedlove is happily greeting visitors at 100 years of age.
“It’s amazing how I got around to this,” she smiles, gazing out at Hillel Lodge. She says she cares about her family and is eager to see what they have planned for her birthday.