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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Surprise

One frequently asked question at my recent talks about Annie’s Ghosts: Since the hardcover came out last year, have you learned anything more about your secret aunt Annie? Have you found anything new about her three decades at Eloise, the psychiatric institution outside Detroit where she spent almost all her adult life in anonymity?

For months, I shook my head. No, nothing beyond what I put in the book. No dramatic phone call or email, no surprise moment at a speaking event.

Until last Thursday.

“I think I met Annie at Eloise,” the woman said softly, almost in a whisper.

The woman had approached me just a few minutes before my scheduled talk at the West Bloomfield Library, in the northern suburbs of Detroit, about 20 miles from Eloise. I had just finished chatting with one of the other guests, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate our conversation into my opening comments.

Susan Matlas’s quiet statement yanked me out of my thoughts.

I mumbled something suitably unintelligent, and asked her to go on. Her story had the ring of truth, as well as logic, although there’s no way to know for certain that the Annie she met at Eloise was the Annie whose life I had painstakingly sought to reconstruct.

On my journey, I found others who knew Annie, but none from among the hundreds of people who lived or worked at Eloise. My mom had kept her sister a secret, and then my mom’s death in 1999 had inadvertently brought Annie’s existence to light.

During my talk, I turned the microphone over to Susan, telling the crowd to be prepared for a surprise. Here’s what Susan said:

Her parents worked at Eloise during the 1950s, just before and during her teenage years. She had two older sisters, and when they returned to the Eloise grounds after school, they would often head to the small soda shop for a late-afternoon snack. Patients would come into the store as well.

One day, a woman struck up a conversation with them. “I’m Annie,” she said. “I’m going to get married.” She held out her finger to show them a ring.

Susan told the crowd, “I was about 11 years old, but even at that age, I knew that the ring came from a Crackerjack box. I wondered why she was making up this story, but I didn’t say anything, of course.”

She asked her father, who was on the psychiatric staff, about the woman’s story. He told Susan that this Annie probably had a fantasy about getting married, but that it probably gave her some comfort to believe that. He told Susan not to say anything to undermine Annie’s belief that she getting married.

Susan says she saw Annie at the shop almost every day for about two months. Then Annie stopped coming. She didn’t think about her again until she read Annie’s Ghosts. As she got deeper int the book, Susan grew more and more excited as details of two Annies matched: Frizzy hair, not very tall, a social worker’s report that described how my Annie had expressed a strong desire to get married.

Then she called one of her sisters, and asked if she remembered the woman with frizzy hair at the Eloise shop. Her sister said, “Her name was Annie. She walked crooked.”

My Annie walked with a noticeable limp, the result of having a wooden leg, the result of an amputation at age 17.

As the detectives would say, this is still just circumstantial evidence. Yet it seems unlikely that two women at Eloise would have all these attributes in common. I’m inclined to believe that, for those two months at the soda shop, Susan did have episodic encounters with the aunt I never knew.

Susan wanted to tell me this story personally, she said, because “I wanted you to know that Annie seemed happy.”

That, of course, is the hardest truth to know. It may be wishful thinking, but it’s a nice wish.

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Anonymous Lea said...

That's wonderful! I am almost finished reading your book, and wish it was longer. I think your mother would be proud of you, and your aunt would be too.

December 26, 2010 at 9:15 PM  
Blogger Debbie said...

deborah says;....Steve, i see so much of myself in your book.neither my brother or my sister would have gone to the depth of investigating the life of the aunt you NEVER got to lay eyes on...or to SEE YOU!!!!But I so would have...and have done something similar to you quest.
We, the ones who have a detectives nature...we do not need to explain our motives for our behavior.....i am proud of your journey...the detination is not yet complete. And when you are seated at her right hand...her illness will be no more..and she will so love any aunt would.

March 2, 2011 at 8:28 AM  

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