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Annie's ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

The secret emerged, without warning or provocation, on an
ordinary April afternoon in 1995. Secrets, I’ve discovered,
have a way of working themselves free of their keepers.

I don’t remember what I was doing when I first heard about
it. If I had been thinking as a journalist rather than as a son, I
might have made a few notes. As it is, I’m stuck with
half-memories and what I later told my wife, my friends, my
newsroom colleagues --- and what they recall about what I told

Just as secrets have a way of breaking loose, memories often
have a way of breaking down. They elude us, or aren’t quite
sharp enough, or fool us into remembering things that didn’t
quite happen that way. Yet much as a family inhabits a house,
memories inhabit our stories, make them breathe, give them life. So
we learn to live with the reality that what we remember is an
imperfect version of what we know to be true.

What I know for certain is this: On that spring afternoon in
1995, I picked up the phone and heard my sister Sashie say
something like, “You’re never going to believe this.
Did you know that Mom had a sister?”

Of course I didn’t know. My mother was an only child. Even
now, I can hear her soft voice saying just those words.
“I’m an only child.” She told that to
nearly everyone she met, sometimes within minutes of introduction.
She treated her singular birth status as a kind of special
birthright, as if she belonged to an exclusive society whose
members possessed an esoteric knowledge beyond the comprehension of

She suggested as much to my wife Mary Jo during their first
getting-to-know-you conversation. That was 1976, four years before
Mary Jo and I were married. The two of them, girlfriend and mother,
were sharing a motel room while I recuperated from an emergency
appendectomy that had abruptly ended a weekend camping trip. (I
still wince at the memory, and I’m not referring just to the
surgery.) As soon as Mom learned of my plight, she hustled to the
Detroit airport and found her way to rural West Virginia. During
their evenings together in the motel, Mom made a big point about
how she felt an unusual connection to Mary Jo, her fellow traveler
in the only-children club. “I understand what it’s
like,” Mom assured her. “I know how it is to grow up
without brothers and sisters.”

It never occurred to me that it was a little odd how often Mom
worked those “only child” references into her
conversations. I simply accepted it as fact, a part of her
autobiography, just as I knew that her name was Beth, that she was
born in Detroit in 1917, that she had no middle name, that she
hated her job selling shoes after graduating from high school, that
she would have married a guy named Joe if only he had been Jewish,
that she was the envy of her friends because of her wildly romantic
love affair with my Clark Gable look-alike father, that she was
kind and generous and told us growing up to, above all else, always
tell the truth.

A sister?

“Where did you hear that?” I asked Sashie.

Sash and I are close, although she is 12 years older. When I
first learned to talk, I couldn’t say her name, Marsha. What
came off my untrained tongue sounded something like
“Sashie.” The mangled pronunciation stuck. She is
Sashie, or Sash, even to her husband and some of her friends.

As Sash would say, Mom was not in a good place in the spring of
1995. Her health, and her state of mind, were often topic A in the
long-distance phone calls among her children. (Our family, like
many, is a complicated one. My parents, Beth and Jack, married in
1942 and had three sons. I’m the middle one; Mike is seven
years older, and Jeff is three years younger. Sash and her older
sister, Evie, were my father’s children from a first marriage
that lasted seven years. The girls lived with my parents for a
large chunk of their childhood, particularly Sash, who thinks of
herself as having grown up with two families and two mothers ---
and double the worry when both Moms began having health problems as
they aged. Evie moved out just before I was born, so I never knew
her nearly as well as I knew Sash, my “big sister;”
Sash married and left the house when I was about eight, but our
relationship remained close as we managed that tricky conversion
from childhood to adulthood.)

My mom was still working at 78 years old, still getting herself
up every morning and tooling down one of Detroit’s many
expressways to her bookkeeping job at a tiny company that sold
gravestones, a job she had been doing for more than 30 years. But
her emphysema, the payoff from a two-pack-a-day smoking habit that
began in her teens, had gotten worse. So had her hearing; she
fiddled constantly with her hearing aid, frustrated that she could
no longer understand the quick mumbles that punctuate everyday
conversation, but also frantic to avoid the sharp whines that burst
forth from the tiny device whenever it picked up a sudden loud
noise, such as the shrieks of happy grandchildren.

On top of Mom’s periodic trips to the ER for shortness of
breath, her doctors believed that she was suffering from anxiety
attacks. It was a chicken-and-egg problem: The shortness of breath
made her anxious, and her anxiety triggered the feeling that she
couldn’t breathe. She emerged from a February hospitalization
with a fistful of prescriptions and a fear that her days of good
health were behind her. The Xanax made her less anxious at first,
but within a few weeks, she was fingering the medication as the
cause of her insomnia and jitters. “It makes me want to crawl
out of my skin,” she said.

As if that wasn’t enough of a roller coaster ride, she was
following doctors’ orders to quit smoking. She called
cigarettes her “best friends” in times of stress, and
these were certainly stressful times, for her and for us. There was
so much going on with her --- the nicotine withdrawal, the reaction
to Xanax, the shortness of breath, the sleepless nights --- that it
seemed impossible to find a way back to the equilibrium that had
once ruled our lives.  We bounced back and forth, thinking one
minute that everything would work out if she would just give the
medication a chance, and the next, thinking that, no, this was
crazy, the medication was the problem, maybe everything depended on
getting her doctors to switch her to some other magic pill.

She had been feeling so lousy that she didn’t even want to
drive. That was a bad sign. Henry Ford himself would have smiled to
hear her talk about driving with my father during their courtship
days, the feeling of flying along on the open road, your hair free
in the wind, the sense that the world was yours for the taking as
long as you had wheels. Not even Dad’s sudden death in 1980,
which sent Mom reeling like nothing else I had ever seen, had
slowed her down. Her Chevrolet Beretta wasn’t just a car; it
symbolized her independence, her vitality, her youth and her

But for several months now, Mom had left her car at home,
relying instead on a counselor at Jewish Family Service, social
worker Rozanne Sedler, to take her to various doctors’
appointments. Rozanne had gotten to know Mom pretty well during
their car rides and counseling sessions, and had urged her to visit
a psychiatrist. Mom, who had always disdained psychiatrists and
psychiatry, consented to go --- another sign that she was not in a
good place.

When I heard Sash’s voice on the phone, I assumed Mom had
landed back in the hospital. But a sister?

Looking back, it’s startling to me that I can sum up all
we learned initially about Mom’s secret in just a few
sentences. Mom had mentioned, at a medical visit, that she had a
disabled sister. She said she didn’t know what had happened
to this younger sibling --- the girl had gone away to an
institution when she was just two years old and Mom was four.
Rozanne was confused when she heard this; Mom had already informed
her, during their many times together, that she was an only child.
So Rozanne called Sash to resolve the contradiction.

That was it. So little information, so many questions.
Institutionalized? For what? Was Mom’s sister severely
disabled? Mentally ill? A quick calculation: If Mom was four, then
her sister went away in 1921. What sort of institutions existed in
Michigan during that time? I had no clue. Was it possible that her
sister --- my aunt --- was still alive? What was her name? Could we
find her? Would Mom want us to find her?

Sash and I had long conversations about what to do. The dominant
word in our discussions, as I remember them now, was
“maybe.” Maybe it wasn’t so odd that Mom
hadn’t mentioned it. Maybe Mom called herself an only child
because she never knew her sister. Maybe it wasn’t our place
to ask her about it. Maybe we should let her tell us.

So we decided not to press Mom about it. After all, we reasoned,
Mom had chosen to hide her sister’s existence all these
years. She hadn’t told any of us before, and even now, she
hadn’t told us directly. We weren’t even sure that Mom
knew that we knew. In fact, we were pretty sure that she
didn’t. Rozanne had only brought it up because she was
perplexed by the discrepancy. She couldn’t know that her
simple query would land like a bombshell.

Besides, this wasn’t the best time to probe Mom’s
psyche. Her anxiety level had reached a point of incapacitation.
Mom’s psychiatrist, Toby Hazan, had concluded that
depression, not anxiety, was at the root of her problems. He wanted
to take her off Xanax and treat her with an antidepressant that, in
rare cases, could lead to respiratory arrest. Mom’s emphysema
increased the risk. Hazan didn’t feel comfortable putting her
on the medication at home; he recommended that Mom voluntarily
enter a psych ward for a two-week treatment regimen, which would
allow him to monitor her closely for any adverse side effects.

Naturally, Mom resisted. Whenever I called her, as my siblings
and I were doing almost daily, concern about her health trumped any
curiosity about an unknown sister. It didn’t seem fair to ask
her now, when she was so vulnerable. Best to wait, I thought, for
her return to the strong, self-sufficient woman we had always

Besides, she was as much in the dark about her sister as we
were. It seemed pointless to ask her a lot of questions. She might
feel betrayed if we revealed that we knew, and to what end?

THAT QUESTION HUNG in the air when Sash went to visit Mom
several weeks later. Her report wasn’t good. “I just
spent the worst night of my life,” Sash told me during an
early morning phone call. Mom had sat on the side of her bed most
of the night, moaning and groaning, Sash said, and yet didn’t
seem physically sick. She wasn’t eating well, and she was too
jittery to keep up with the cleaning, so the apartment wasn’t
in its usual spit-spot condition.

“You want me to come out there, don’t you?” I


Sash has no trouble being straightforward; that’s been her
modus operandi most of her life. I learned long ago to deal with
her no-nonsense style, and even to appreciate it. If nothing else,
it simplifies decision-making that otherwise might drag on, to no
one’s gain. By early evening, I was sitting in Mom’s

That night was a rerun of the previous one. Moans, groans, no
sleeping for Mom, or for us. The following afternoon, in a hastily
arranged meeting in Dr. Hazan’s office, Mom reluctantly
agreed to sign herself into the geriatric psych ward at Botsford
Hospital so she could get off the Xanax and start taking the

It seemed the best of the options, and we needed to do
something. We took Mom there the next day around 5 p.m., as soon as
a bed became available, and left her there for the night. At 7:30
a.m., the phone rang. “Steven,” she said, panic evident
in her voice, “you have to come take me home. I can’t
stay here, Steven. You don’t understand. This is not the
right place for me. I made a mistake coming here.”

I stalled for time to think, unwilling to say anything I might
regret. Inside, though, I had plenty of sympathy for her reaction.
I had seen the other patients on the ward; everyone was suffering
from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Grim was not too
strong a word for what she was facing.

“Mom, we’ll be there soon,” I said. “We
can talk about it then.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “They
took away my pencils. I can’t even do a crossword
puzzle.” That was bad. Finishing the daily crossword, she
often said, was her way of proving to herself that she still had
all her marbles.

“We’ll be there soon, Mom.”

If that earlier night had been the worst of Sash’s life,
then that Friday was the worst day of mine. On the way to the
hospital, Sash warned me that Mom would put on a full-court press,
begging to go home. Sash had already concluded that Mom needed to
stay, but I was ambivalent. “If you decide to take her
home,” Sash said, with her usual directness, “I
can’t be a party to it.” So the pressure was on me.

Mom wasted no time making her case. She was unrelenting. I can
still remember sitting tensely in a chair, in the ward’s
bright and airy day room, with Mom draping herself over my back,
cajoling, coaxing, crying, sweet-talking. “I can’t stay
here,” she pleaded. “Steven, please, please. I’ll
do anything you say, if you just take me home.” Our roles had
reversed: She was the child, employing every manipulative trick to
get her way. I was the adult, resisting, observing, comforting her
as I tried to figure out the right thing --- or at least the best
thing --- to do.

It took all my strength not to give in. I tried not to cry, and
I failed. If seismographs could measure tremors in the human voice,
I’m sure that mine registered a slight earthquake on the
Richter scale. As gently as I could manage, I told her that we
couldn’t just go home, that she wasn’t really able to
take care of herself, that the hospital was the best alternative. I
had no idea what else to say, and no idea that her obvious terror
came from some place other than watching the demented patients
around her. “I can’t stay here,” she repeated,
like a mantra. “Please don’t leave me here

“It’s two weeks, Mom, that’s all,” I
said. “You’ll be home in two weeks. We’ll talk to
you every day. You won’t be alone.”

I took a good, long look around, and what I saw depressed me,
too: patients who couldn’t feed themselves, patients
muttering unintelligibly, patients exhibiting every form of
senility I could imagine. Mom was the healthiest person there, by
far, and it made me cringe to think that I would be leaving and
that she would be staying. That vision of Mom, surrounded by
dementia patients, trying to get a pencil so she could do her damn
crossword puzzle, stayed in my head. I retreated to a nearby room
to make some phone calls to other facilities, hoping to find
something better. I found one with a much younger clientele,
primarily teenagers who had tried or were threatening to kill
themselves. What a choice: Suicide or senility. Take your pick.

As soon as I returned to the day room, Mom resumed her campaign.
“Please, Steven, please. I can’t stay here.” It
went on for what seemed like hours. Late in the afternoon, the
three of us --- Sash, Mom and I --- met with Hazan in one last
attempt to settle her down. Hazan’s notes on the meeting are
part of Mom’s hospital record.

If you leave the hospital, Hazan asked her, what will you

“I have no plan, I just want to go out,” Mom said
angrily. “I don’t think this is the right place for me.
This is not home.”

Home, Hazan bluntly reminded her, had become hell --- sleepless
nights, moaning, groaning.

“My mind tells me I should stay here,” Mom conceded.
“Rationally, I know I should stay here.” Then,
desperately, she turned to me. “Please, I just can’t
take it.”

Sash couldn’t take it either. She left the room. I looked
at Mom. The sight was not pleasant. Her glasses magnified the tears
in her round, expressive eyes. Her face, so striking when she
smiled, sagged under the pressure of the long day and the
exhaustion of several sleepless nights. Her blouse hung loosely on
her bony shoulders. She had lost 25 pounds from her 5 foot, 6 inch
frame over the past two years, so she now weighed less than 100. My
heart went out to her, but my head told me that it would be a
mistake to take her home.

“Mom, I think you should stay for a few days. As Dr. Hazan
said, the law allows him to keep you for three. If you want to
leave after that, even though he’s saying that it’s
against his best judgment, you can sign yourself out.”

I had abandoned her cause. Her son, her own flesh and blood, had
gone over to the other side. Out of options, she gave up the
battle, at least for that moment. The look of pure fear remained in
her eyes, though --- a fear that I wouldn’t truly understand
until much later, when I learn the truth about Mom’s sister
--- and that’s the image that stayed with me long after Sash
and I exited the hospital and drove away in May’s cool night

TWO WEEKS LATER, her new medication working well, Mom went home.
My older brother Mike flew in from Seattle to help her for a few
days. A month later, she told Hazan she felt
“fantastic.” She had survived the ordeal; so had

While she was sick, it never seemed like the right time to ask
her about her sister. Now that she was doing better, Sash and I
thought she might reveal the secret on her own. But she never did.
So we let it rest. Hard as it is for me to fathom this now, we
never asked her about it; since she didn’t know anything
about her sister’s fate, I guess I didn’t see much

 Mom went back to work, back to driving herself, back to
the independent life that had once seemed gone forever. We cheered,
even as we kept trying to persuade her that she might be better off
moving closer to one of us. Then, catastrophe: On the afternoon
before her grandson’s wedding in September 1998, while
smoking a cigarette outside the entrance to a non-smoking Seattle
hotel, she was knocked off her feet by the automatic sliding door,
breaking her pelvis and sending her into months of painful
rehabilitation. Exhausted, she never quite recovered.

She died in August 1999, her secret intact, as far as she knew
--- until six months later, when it surfaced once more, unforeseen,
uninvited, nearly forgotten.

This time, though, the secret had a name.

Excerpted from ANNIE'S GHOSTS: A Journey into a Family
Secret © Copyright 2010 by Steve Luxenberg. Reprinted with
permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.

Annie's ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
by by Steve Luxenberg

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401310192
  • ISBN-13: 9781401310196