August 21, 2013

Song of life


PLATTSBURGH — Jacqueline “Jackie” Nisoff starts a new chapter in her life by crossing Lake Champlain to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Heather and John Bullock, in North Bennington, Vt. 

“My daughter in Bennington built an apartment on the back of her house for me,” said Nisoff, 90, of the Town of Plattsburgh.

“It has all big windows looking over her big back yard, French doors leading onto a deck. I can sit out in the summer. She’s got everything there for me. She wanted me down here.”

For two years before the death of her late husband, David, Nisoff took care of him.

“Not knowing I was sick,” she said. “I had two bleeding ulcers. So, they had to ship me off to the hospital for quite awhile. After he died, I started going down. Right now, I’m fine. I’m fairly healthy except I broke my hip, and that was stupid. I get these terrible headaches, and no one seems to know what to do. They’re excruciating.”


She was born May 19, 1923, in Brisbane, Australia. Her parents were John Herbert James and Dorothy Florence Radcliffe.

“He was 39 when he got married, and my mother was 22. They was married until they died,” she said.

Nisoff’s parents met when her mother was engaged to a man whose parents owned the Henslars Hotel in Goodwindie. Radcliffe was visiting, and James was a guest.

“She happened to be walking across the property. And Dad saw her and just looked at her, and he said, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ Just like that. My mother was disgusted by the way he was looking at her. She was married six weeks later to my father. He knew she was the one.”

James was a horse trainer.

“He used to go to India to buy horses and train them for the circus. I think they were Arabian horses. He was very good at breaking the horses and trick riding,” Nisoff said. 

“Then after he got married, they lived on what we call a station, which is a ranch here. It wasn’t what my mother liked. She was city girl. So, it ended up they moved into the city. My dad took a job with the electric-light company. Eventually, he became an electrical engineer.”

Her father built a pre-Depression home in a Brisbane suburb.

“They lived there a couple of years, I guess, not too long. My mother had three of us little girls. I was the oldest. She was pregnant for the fourth one. She had the fourth one in the front bedroom of that house,” Nisoff said.

“At that time, it was 1929-30, and the Depression started. My dad lost his job. He had got bursitis of the shoulder. He was in the hospital. Mum tried to make ends meet with four little girls. She did what she could. She took in washing, sewing and all the rest of it. Finally, my father did get a job in a town about 25 miles away. Well, in Australia at that time, 25 miles was a long way. We didn’t have a car. So, we moved to this place called Ipswich. So, there were four of us little girls. Dad was in the same line of work. He was a lineman. He worked there for a few years.”


The James family lived near the Wintergarden Theater in Ipswich.

“Mum used to try to look at the movies to see if we could go on Saturday afternoon,” Nisoff said. “There were two movies with a break in between. At the break in between, they would put local talent on, and I used to sing.” 

The discovery of Nisoff’s singing talent coincided with her sisters’ measles episode.

“My mother shipped me off to my grandmother’s so I wouldn’t get it. While I was there, she had an old phonograph, and I used to play it and sing to it. So when mum came up to get me to take me home, my grandmother said, ‘Do you know Jackie can sing?’ My mum said, ‘No.’ She was too busy looking after all of us. She (grandmother) said, ‘Well, she can. She has a nice little voice.’”

Nisoff sang regularly at the Wintergarden.

“I can’t say I ever won anything. I can’t remember. At one point, I was ready to go on stage, and my leg went through a broken board. But anyhow, I went on and I sang, and everybody remarked afterward they thought I was stage fright,” Nisoff said.


Her siblings were Thelma; Betty; Marlene, also a singer; and Douglas. Faye, 82, lives in Australia. Nisoff attended Catholic schools but did not attend high school.

“We went north of Townsville because the doctor said my mother should be on the ocean because she had rheumatoid arthritis. They didn’t know what to do with her at that time. So, we went up north about 1,100 miles to the tropics, there on the Pacific Ocean, about a mile from it,” she said.

Nisoff became the caretaker of her younger siblings.

“My mother was an invalid. She couldn’t walk after the age of 40 because of the rheumatoid arthritis. She was very crippled. I came home to take care of everybody. I got my dad off to work, and I got all the kids off to school … curl their hair and braid it, and all the rest of it,” she said.


In Australia, wash day was a process.

“We had a copper boiler outside in a brick stove, put the fire under it and boil the clothes,” Nisoff said. “After they boil with soap and stuff in it, we take them out on a draining board with like a broomstick and let them drain. Then, we take them into the wash shed where we had two full of clean water and one with bluing. We rinse the two clean and then put them in the bluing and put them on the line. The bluing makes them whiter. We always did it, never thought about it.”

In 10 minutes, the clothes were dry.

“They were dazzling white because of the sun,” Nisoff said. “I used to take them in. We always used white tablecloths every day for the table. I used to wash them, hang them on the line, bring them in and damp them down to iron, and forget about them and then let them go mildew in the tropics. I mildewed more white tablecloths. It’s terrible. We managed all of us. We always used to have our little fights, but we always loved each other.”

Email Robin


This is the first installment of a three-part series on Jacqueline "Jackie" Nisoff's life in Australia and the United States. Read Part II in next Wednesday's Press-Republican.