Young Ellen Brodsky seeks the support of a loving grandmother to shield her from a dysfunctional family. But who is this dead grandmother, and why is their relationship so critical to the salvation of three generations of women?
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Lissa Brown Writes
Family Secrets: Three Generations is a coming-of-age story about Ellen Brodsky set in post-WWII Newark, New Jersey.
Ellen's mother doesn't know how to be an effective parent and longs for someone to take the place of her own long-dead mother. Ellen is the reluctant substitute who fills that role.
A series of family crises that would test any young girl makes Ellen's pre-adolescent years more difficult than usual. Her support comes from the transformative relationship she has established with her dead grandmother.
The biggest secret of all is the one Grandma Hannah holds, and when she reveals it, questions that puzzled Ellen during her first fifteen years are finally answered.
The dynamics of a highly dysfunctional family are examined with sensitivity and compassion in Family Secrets: Three Generations.
Ellen Brodsky opened one brown eye warily and sniffed the air in her dark, cramped bedroom. A strange, sweet aroma tickled her nose. No way could that good smell possibly be coming from the junk she had piled all around the room. Maybe it came from the Hostess chocolate cupcakes she’d stashed under her bed. No, she remembered she’d crammed one in her mouth and offered the other to her little brother as a bribe to buy his silence before leaving for school that morning.
At nine, she wasn’t allowed to wear perfume so the scent couldn’t be coming from her. She’d already lost an argument with her mother over wearing cologne and as usual, it ended up with her mother screaming at her and Ellen tuning her out.
She didn’t think there was anybody else in the room besides her brother so she mashed her face into the hollow she’d punched in her pillow and drifted back to sleep.
A few minutes later she heard, “Ellen, wake up,” and felt someone sitting on her bed rubbing her back. Not sure if she was dreaming or awake, she kept her eyes closed trying to prolong the sensation. Nobody had rubbed her back like that for a long time.
Then an unfamiliar voice said, “Ellen, mommele, please wake up. It’s Grandma Hannah.” Startled, Ellen opened her eyes and tried to turn over, but she couldn’t. She felt warmth from the woman’s leg and realized the blanket was pinned beneath her. She twisted her wiry body around to get a better look, and Grandma Hannah got up.
The old woman’s face was eerily familiar with soft brown eyes and a slightly crooked nose. She had the kind of skin that reflected too much time spent indoors, pale and slightly wrinkled around the mouth and eyes. Ellen bit back her fear and studied her more closely. Finally it clicked; this was the image she’d seen in faded photos in her mother’s album. She stifled the urge to scream.
“Don’t be frightened, honey. I came to talk to you.”
Freed from the restricting covers, Ellen turned over. She finger-combed her dark unruly curls and pushed them away from her eyes.
“Can I turn on the light so I can see you better?”
“OK, if you want to. Go ahead.”
Ellen sat up, bumping her head against the slanted attic wall over her bed. She kept forgetting how fast she was growing and as a result, whacked her head like that nearly every time she sat up in bed. She turned on the small lamp on her painted milk crate night table. The light was barely strong enough to illuminate the cut-out magazine photos of Roy Rogers and Doris Day on the wall next to her bed.
“But, but, they said you were dead. Are you a ghost? How did you get here?” Ellen lowered her voice so she wouldn’t awaken her five-year old brother, David, who slept on the other side of the room.
The woman sat down on the bed again and two thoughts struck Ellen; she wasn’t much taller than Ellen was, and that sweet smell was coming from her.
Ellen swung her skinny legs over the side of the bed and looked her grandmother in the eye. She noticed they had the same brown eyes. The idea of actually meeting her dead grandmother in her bedroom in the middle of the night filled her with a mixture of fear and excitement. Curiosity about this woman who claimed to be her dead grandmother held the fear in check.
Ellen’s mind kicked into gear and spit out questions faster than she could put them into words.
“How did you get here? You’re supposed to be dead. My friend Sheila says dead people rot in the ground and worms crawl over them, but you look pretty good.”
“Thanks for the compliment, I think. To answer your question, I am dead and I’m not.” She took one of Ellen’s hands in hers. “Can you feel my hand?” she asked the confused child.
“Yes, it doesn’t feel all wormy and rotten. It feels normal. Am I dreaming?”
“No, darling, you’re not dreaming. It’s really me. If you can feel my hand you know it’s not a dream. Look, your eyes are open. You’re not asleep. You’ve been wishing for me, and your wish has come true.”
“Oh, I get it. You’re like a fairy godmother. You sure don’t look like one, though. Fairy godmothers are very beautiful and wear fancy dresses. You’re all right, but that dress is ugly.” Ellen hadn’t seen a drab faded brown silk garment like that except on an old doll that someone gave her once.
Her grandmother laughed. “Well thank you for that, dear. In my day I looked pretty good, I want you to know. I used to be nice and slim like you. I wasn’t always this plump.” Grandma Hannah self-consciously smoothed her hair, tucking in a few errant strands that escaped the braids that wound around her head.
“I always wanted a real grandmother like Sheila and Lynn have, but I never thought I’d have one. I’m not sure I can believe this. Can you answer a question for me?”
“I’ll try, honey. What do you want to know?”
“Did you come to take Mom away with you?” She searched her grandmother’s face for clues and held her breath, waiting for her answer.
“Is that what’s bothering you, Ellen? Let me assure you,” Grandma Hannah said as she patted the child’s hand, “you have nothing to worry about. It’s not time for your mom to die.”
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“I can’t explain it. I just know. Stop worrying, sweetheart. Any more questions?”
“What took you so long? I’ve wanted you to come back since I was born.”
“Well, in a way I did. I’ve been here all along. It just wasn’t the right time for us to meet.”
“Wow, this is really weird. Wait ‘til I tell Mom. She misses you a lot. Sometimes she cries because you’re dead, but now I can tell her you’re not really, are you?”
Grandma Hannah’s slightly wrinkled face grew serious. “Ellen, it’s very important that you don’t tell people about this, not even your mother. If you tell anyone I might not be able to visit you anymore. Can I count on you to keep a secret?”
Ellen thought for a moment. “I’m a good secret keeper, but why can’t I tell Mom?”
“It’s complicated. When you’re a little older I’ll explain it, but for now you have to promise me to keep our secret. Will you promise?”
“Well, I guess so. I promise not to tell anybody. It’s going to be really hard, though, because I want everybody to know I have a grandmother, and I want Mom not to be sad anymore.”
“I understand, dear. But I know you can do it. Now, tell me about yourself, Ellen. I want to know everything.”
“Well, I’m in fourth grade at Bragaw Avenue School. I like school, and I have lots of friends. My best friend is Carol Ann. She lives down the street. I have a little brother, David. He’s over there,” she said and pointed across the room.
“I like to read and I do acrobatics and play stick ball with my friends. I like to watch cowboy movies.” She paused because her grandmother looked like she wanted to say something.
“What is it, Grandma?”
“I’m so happy to finally meet you like this. I’ve waited a long time. You and I have a special bond, Ellen. I wish I could explain it better to you. I feel so close to you that I can feel in my heart what you feel in yours.”
“Huh?” Ellen asked. “I don’t get it.” She continued to think about it, but couldn’t grasp her grandmother’s meaning.
“You’ll understand one day,” Grandma Hannah answered, and left it at that.
Before she could ask any more questions, Ellen felt her grandmother’s warm lips on her forehead. Grandma Hannah gently pushed her down on the bed and prepared to leave. She placed a finger in front of her lips.
“Shh. Go back to sleep, Ellen. You have to get up early to go to school. I’ll be back soon. Close your eyes, sweetheart.”
Ellen closed her eyes for just a minute, and when she opened them her grandmother was gone. Bewildered but happy, she slept soundly for the rest of the night.
When she got up the next morning to get ready for school her thoughts jumped instantly to her nighttime visitor. She wasn’t sure if she had dreamed about Grandma Hannah or if her grandmother had really been in her room. She wondered about it as she brushed her teeth, cleaned her ears and washed her face and hands.
Back in her half of the room, she called to her brother, “Your turn, David.” He threw aside the covers and leapt out of bed.
“It took you long enough. I almost wet the bed,” he called as he dashed to the bathroom.
“Did you sleep naked?” Ellen saw his skinny naked body with prominent ribs streak by. We’ve gotta put some fat on him; he looks like he’s being starved to death.
“No,” David called from the bathroom. “I took my pajamas off in case I had an accident.”
“Oh, great idea. So you could pee in the bed again?”
“No, I was gonna pee in your bed since you were taking so long.”
Ellen heard her mother fixing breakfast in the kitchen and smelled the first of many pots of coffee that would percolate in the Brodsky kitchen that day. She couldn’t understand why people drank such stinky stuff. To her, it had always smelled like the stale cigarettes her mother left in ashtrays all over the flat.
Coffee and cigarettes were her mother’s secret weapons for maintaining a striking figure. Brenda Brodsky was one of the vainest people Ellen knew. More than once she’d seen her mother throw a tantrum if her scale registered an iota above 115 pounds.
While Ellen struggled to get a brush through her unruly hair, she reviewed the conversation with Grandma Hannah. Still unsure whether her imagination was playing tricks on her, she took clean socks and underpants out of the dresser drawer and quickly started to get dressed while David was in the bathroom. She was beginning to feel embarrassed if anyone saw her naked.
She sat down on the bed to put her socks on and caught a whiff of Grandma Hannah’s powder on her covers. She lifted the blanket to her nose and inhaled deeply, experiencing again the pleasant sensation of the previous night. Reassured by that comforting scent, Ellen realized it wasn’t a dream.