For all the times I’ve driven north on the Saw Mill River Parkway, seeing the large, green highway signs announcing the hamlet of Hawthorne, I never knew it was named for one of our country’s most cherished writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some have thought it was named for his daughter Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who in 1901 founded Rosary Hill Home, a home for incurable cancer patients that sits on top of the hill at 600 Linda Avenue. When it was proposed that Sherman Park, as it was known then, be renamed Hawthorne to honor Rose, she said no, that if it were to be named Hawthorne at all, it should be in memory of her beloved father.
The home (Rose emphasized it would always be a home, not a nursing facility or hospice) is owned and operated by the Catholic order of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, also founded by Rose after her husband, George Lathrop, died.
I learned this when my mother came to White Plains for a Christmas visit some years ago and was suddenly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I was stunned and unprepared as to what to do next. All I knew was that it was impossible for her to return to her home in Maryland. She would stay with me.
During that bleak winter, a neighbor suggested I look into Rosary Hill Home, in case, at some point, I could no longer care for my mother. I had never heard of it or of Rose.
My mother deteriorated quickly, faster than the doctor had predicted, but my family and I were holding our own. Still, I was curious about this home on the hill, so one day, I drove to Hawthorne to have a look. I made my way up Linda Avenue, to be rewarded at the top with the sight of a sprawling California-mission-style home, reached by an approach of expansive lawn and numerous trees.
In Rose’s day, it was believed that cancer was contagious, not unlike the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. If you were lucky enough to have means and a loving family —like Rose’s friend, the poet Emma Lazarus, who died of cancer in 1887 at age 38, surrounded by her family — you could remain at home. If not, family and friends often rejected the cancer patient, to be rounded up by city officials and deposited at Blackwell’s Island to suffer a miserable death.
Rose never thought cancer was contagious, and before moving to Hawthorne, she cared for the incurable cancerous poor in tenement houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One can only imagine what that must have been like. Cramped quarters, alternating stifling and frigid temperatures, airless rooms, and danger and crime on the streets below.
Of course, these accommodations were grossly inadequate, so when Rose heard of a property — 60 rooms on nine acres in Hawthorne — she jumped at it, and she and a couple of brave helpers moved patients to Hawthorne. The salubrious air, the vegetable gardens, and fruit trees were its own medicine.
My mother never made it to Rosary Hill — but I always knew it stood there on that hill, waiting for us.
Kathleen Maria is a White Plains resident and freelance writer who has taught composition at Manhattanville College and Pace University.