- Written by Saralee Perel Saralee Perel
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, when they still had “whites only” signs at the swimming pools.
My best friend’s father owned a huge real estate agency. Once, I asked him why he didn’t sell houses to Black people.
He said, “I tell them, ‘You won’t be comfortable in a neighborhood where you’re different from all the others.’” I didn’t get it.
Last week I connected with my friend, Jill, who also grew up in Baltimore. She told me that her grandmother wouldn’t let her play on a seesaw if the other rider was Black. Jill didn’t get it back then.
I was raised by a Black American woman named Ellen Sullivan, who had her own (sort of) room in our 15-room red-brick house. After she served our dinners in our walnut-paneled dining room, she had to eat by herself in the kitchen.
She and I had a closer mother-daughter bond than I did with my mother. It was Ellen who’d put Mercurochrome on my bloody knees. It was Ellen I’d run to when kids made fun of me for being overweight. Nightmares had happy endings because I’d run to Ellen’s room in the night.
My parents were great to me, though. But I’d (perhaps unfairly) be accusatory toward them when it came to Ellen’s place in our family. Innocently, I expected her to be a guest at my bat mitzvah party, not a servant.
My mother would summon Ellen by ringing a brass bell. I loved that sound because the love of my life would soon be nearby.
That bell is displayed on my mantel. But I don’t know if it should be. You see, recently I’ve learned that the bell is a symbol of servitude.
At the very same time, though, Ellen’s bell is a symbol of our devotion to each other. In fact, we had an unspoken code. Whenever I’d want to burst with fury toward my mother, or snap back at my dad, all Ellen had to do was wink at me.
What do I do with her bell, now that I know it symbolizes oppression? Do I take it down like a Confederate statue?
When I was 14, we moved to a condominium. Ellen was then fired. I thought, “You can’t fire a family member.”
Dad wouldn’t allow Ellen to visit us at the all-white condominium. But I wouldn’t stop carping, so they gave in. She looked so fancy wearing a petticoat under a purple skirt with big yellow roses on it. She held a shiny patent-leather pocketbook in her lap. She stood out like car in the middle of a pond.
It was awful.
When I hugged her goodbye, she whispered something she had said many times, “You are beautiful, Saralee, just the way you are.”
I didn’t want her to leave. I knew it would be for the last time. And it was.
Twelve years later, on the eve of my wedding, I secretly went into my parents’ bedroom, where I found Ellen’s number and called her. When I said, “Ellen?” I could hear her crying as she whispered, remarkably, “Saralee.” She died shortly thereafter, 42 years ago.
If I could, I’d ask Ellen, “What should I do with our bell?”
I imagine her saying, “Any old bell would have meant your mom needed something. But ‘our’ bell is just between you and me.”
And so, I will honor the bell for the tender, loving bond it represents, but I don’t know where I’ll put it, or even if I’ll keep it at all.