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Jacqueline Sessa, 70, remembered as face of Birchwood, family’s driving force

Well before they both finally said yes, there were a whole lot of nos.

Frank Sessa Jr. recounted the first time he met his future wife, Jacqueline, at a Brooklyn nightclub:

“That first night I met her, if we had boxing gloves, we would probably have beat each other. She was a typical Brooklyn girl and I was a typical Brooklyn guy dressed in a three-piece suit, and she was dressed in a beautiful dress. We were at a really nice place. I said to her, I said, ‘Hello,’ because my friends and I always had a table in this place. It was like our place to hang out. And I said to her, ‘My name is Frank. Would you like a drink?’

“So, she looked at me and she said, ‘No!’

“I waited a little bit while longer and I said, ‘Would you like to sit down while you’re waiting for whoever you’re waiting for?’ I said, ‘You could sit down.’

“ ‘No!’

“And then I said to her, ‘Would you like to dance?’ and I got that same snappy ‘No!’

“After I got about five or six of those, I’m like scratching my head. And then I look over and I saw the way she was dressed and I said, ‘You know, are you related to Roe, to Rosemary?’ And she looked at me and gave me that famous ‘No!’

“OK. I give up. That’s it.’ ”

Then, as the story goes, the woman named Roe walked off the dance floor and said, “Jacqueline, Jacqueline, this is that guy Frank I was telling you about!”

Mr. Sessa recalled: “So she looked at me and I looked at her and I go, ‘No!’ Then I started laughing and we started talking and we started dancing, and our relationship grew.”

It blossomed into a marriage of 46 years and eight months. That ended with Ms. Sessa’s recent death. Surrounded by her husband and their three children at her home, she drew her final breath Feb. 11. She was 70. The cause of death was cancer, family members said.

Ms. Sessa was the face and matriarch of The Birchwood of Polish Town, the Riverhead restaurant the family purchased in 2014. But she is remembered for much more, including her role as the focal point of her family, her advocacy for special needs children, her charitable acts and love for cooking.

“She was the main part of the wheel that kept the rest of us turning,” Mr. Sessa said. “We wouldn’t be who we are today if it wasn’t for her, and that’s a fact. I was married to her for 46 years and eight months, and my life wouldn’t be half as good as it is right now if it weren’t for her.”

Ms. Sessa’s dream job might have been as an assistant buyer for women’s clothing for Sears. “She loved that job,” Mr. Sessa said. “That’s all she ever wanted to be was in the fashion industry.”

But when Sears moved its main office from New York City to Chicago and Mr. Sessa was laid off as a New York City housing cop, the couple moved to Wading River in 1975. They bought a bar in Wading River and named it Jacqueline’s, which they operated for about 10 years.

“I taught her how to tend bar one night,” Mr. Sessa said. “She tended bar in high heels the first night. I said, ‘You’re not going to do this any more in high heels.’ She goes, ‘I want to look good.’ By the second night she had flats on and jeans.”

They began raising a family. Danielle was born in 1981. Angelica was born in 1985. Frank Anthony was born in 1994.

Ms. Sessa took an active part in the education of Angelica, who has Down Syndrome. She started a special needs teen recreation program for the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District at Briarcliff Elementary School.

“That was her real forte,” said Mr. Sessa.

Then, of course, there was Ms. Sessa’s talent for cooking. She was hailed as an excellent cook and baker. Whether it was homemade manicotti, stuffed shrimp, lasagna, cheesecake, sauce, it didn’t matter. It was all good, relatives said.

“There was nothing she couldn’t make,” said Danielle.

That skill helped Birchwood offer a wide-ranging menu that covers five pages.

“We followed her lead, but we were all partners,” Mr. Sessa said. “We were a family operation. We were all involved in it, but Danielle was the person who was in charge, and my wife used to say we were the supporting cast.”

Mr. Sessa spoke of how his late wife greeted guests at the restaurant, made them feel welcome and got to know them on a first-name basis, yet at the same time knew to excuse herself when the food arrived so their meals wouldn’t get cold.

“She didn’t act like an owner,” he said. “She acted like, you know, maybe a manager would act or a head waiter. She did anything and everything to make people feel like this is your place; you should be comfortable here.”

Ms. Sessa was also known for her giving spirit and tradition of shopping year-round for toys and clothing for needy children.

The tight bond she built with her family is evident in the pain they express with her loss.

“She was our rock, our nucleus,” Danielle said. She continued: “Even though I have this heartache and my soul hurts, I wouldn’t change any of the memories because I love her so much. I will be lost without her.”

Recalling that night many years ago in that nightclub when he first spotted the sassy, 5-foot-1 woman wearing five-inch heels, Mr. Sessa recognizes what an amusing story it is.

“You couldn’t even make it up,” he said. “After two or three nos the average guy would have walked away.”

He’s glad he didn’t.