Chances are, if you’ve had a meal at Polish Town’s iconic Birchwood restaurant during the last six years, you’ve met Jacqueline Sessa. And if you’ve been there more than once, you probably consider her a friend.
From the day Jacqueline’s daughter, Danielle, brought the shuttered Pulaski Street restaurant back to life in November 2014 until the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, Jacqueline was a fixture at the Birchwood every day.
She made the rounds of the tables, saying hello to diners, chatting with them briefly, getting to know them. Jacqueline also oversaw events in the catering room. She had welcoming way that made people feel like more like guests in her own home than patrons at a restaurant.
“She was the matriarch of the Birchwood,” Danielle said today.
Jaqueline Sessa died Thursday at age 70.
She leaves behind her husband of nearly 47 years, Frank, and her three children, Danielle, Angelica and Frank Jr.
“She touched so many lives,” her husband recalled today.
After the birth of their second child, Angelica, who has Down’s Syndrome, Jaqueline became an advocate for special needs children. She learned everything there was to know about available resources and shared her knowledge with all who needed help, Frank said.
“Our phone used to ring at lease once a week with someone seeking advice or assistance,” he said. “Jackie would explain everything — what was available, where to go, how to get help.”
The family used to drive to Sachem school district for a recreation program for special needs youngsters. After six months or so, Frank said, Jackie was talking to officials at Shoreham-Wading River School District about starting a program locally, which she spear-headed. It was established at Briarcliff Elementary School and Jackie ran it every Friday night for 10 years. Children would be able to play games and parents got a chance to meet other parents.
“She loved those kids,” Frank said. “Actually she loved all kids.” She’d spend her free time shopping for kids in need, stocking up all year and donating toys and clothes to children at emergency housing shelters for Christmas, he said. “She made me dress up as Santa.”
Jackie relished “the simple joys in life,” he said. And she was a hard worker who put her all into everything she did.
In the early 1970s, the couple moved from Brooklyn to Wading River, where Jackie’s parents had a summer home for many years. In 1976, they decided to buy a bar that was for sale on the corner of Hulse Landing Road and North Wading River Road. Jackie rolled up her sleeves and the two of them fixed it up and she ran the bar — called Jacqueline’s — while Frank worked as a police officer in New York City.
The family always did everything together. “We were always a very, very tight family,” Frank said. “She was the nucleus.”
And that’s how it worked at the Birchwood. It was always Danielle’s dream to own her own restaurant, but the whole family works in it together.
When Danielle took the Birchwood over, Jaqueline rolled up her sleeves and worked to clean the place up and redecorate it, removing wallpaper from the catering room, cleaning out the attic, cleaning the kitchen.
After it opened, she kept a watchful eye over everything and everyone. “She was my eyes and ears for everything,” Danielle said.
“She did all the catering with me,” Danielle said.
“She’d help me run all the events. She made sure everything was perfect and that everyone felt at home. She ran all the Sunday brunches. She really enjoyed talking with people, especially the children. She loved working at the ice cream bar, scooping out the ice cream and putting on all the toppings. She enjoyed the kids’ excitement.”
Danielle says her mother instilled her with a very strong work ethic. “You give it 110%. No half-assing, she used to say. You go full throttle. You do your best. You work hard — you work till you get it done and you get it done right,” she said.
“My mom taught me independence and how to be a strong woman
I’m in a business dominated by males. My mom raised me to be strong and not back down. She always said you have to be strong in this life because the world is going to throw a lot at you.”
Losing her mom is the hardest thing the world has thrown at Danielle so far.
“It’s going to be so hard doing my first party without her,” Danielle said. “Everything we did, we always did together.”
Jackie was so proud of what the Birchwood became, Frank said. “It brought her so much happiness.”
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