Saralee Perel

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at 

Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on

Ellen's Bell

Turning thirteen was lousy. We moved from a fourteen room sprawling house to a senior citizens condominium where the closest person to my age was sixty-seven. But the worst part of that year was that my mother didn’t think I needed Ellen to take care of me anymore. So she fired her.

I didn’t understand how anyone could just fire a member of the family, the woman who raised me since I was a baby. My mother took care of outwardly parental things, like driving me to Hebrew School, but Ellen did the nuts-and-bolts nurturing.

I need to defend my mother. She was depressed. Plus, things were different then and women had a harder time taking control of their lives and being good to themselves and their children  . . .  didn’t they?

Against my father’s protests, I invited Ellen to visit us at the condo. It wasn’t officially labeled “whites only”, but it didn’t need to be. She came wearing a red crinoline party dress which stood out as much as her dark skin. It was odd seeing her in something other than her maid’s uniform. We had very little to say. It was painfully awkward. That was the last time I saw her.

My childhood was salvaged by this wonderful soul. I remember so clearly how my parents used to summon her with a brass bell. “Coming, Missus Perel,” I’d hear all day. I loved the sound of her bell. Especially at five o’clock. That’s when she’d need to start dinner and I could keep her company while my parents had cocktails. After serving our supper, she’d eat by herself in the kitchen while we ate in the dining room.

In my young mind, calling Ellen by her bell wasn’t demeaning. When I’d hear it, I knew that the love of my life would be near by soon.

Her room, the maid’s room, became my sanctuary. I felt wanted there. My mother, too caught up in her depression, didn’t have much to do with me. I try not to blame her.

I had nightmares.

In the night, I’d softly knock on Ellen’s door. She’d turn on the light and pat the bed. “Tell me about your dream.”

“I was swimming at the club and a drain opened in the bottom of the pool and I was being sucked down.” This was actually a recurrent dream I had for years.

“And you didn’t get sucked down, did you?”

“No. I woke up.”

“You know, baby, that God gave us dreams so that he’d have a place to talk to us.”

I looked at her with wide eyes, enchanted by her wisdom.

“And God was telling you that you are never going to get sucked down that drain. That’s why he makes you dream that so much, to remind you it won’t happen.”

She had a lovely, smiling face and when she’d look at me, I’d feel safe.

In addition to having bad dreams, I was a bedwetter. This was handled pretty poorly back then. I had to sleep on a flat piece of metal. When I’d start to urinate, it would trigger a blaring alarm that could be heard throughout the house.

I felt humiliated. I was scared to go to sleep, so I stopped sleeping. Eventually, my mother put a cot in my room and had Ellen sleep beside me. That worked.

We gossiped and giggled like sisters. But it was Ellen’s nourishment that helped me get through typical childhood traumas, such as the bike accident I had when I was six.

Speeding down a hill, I hit some pebbles and my bike landed on top of me, with the kick stand in my thigh. “Your lip’s dripping blood!” my girlfriend said. She helped me get home. I rushed to the bathroom before my mother could see me. But with injuries that would later that day require a visit to a surgeon, I couldn’t stem the bleeding. Ellen cleaned me up.

Mother was livid.

“I didn’t mean it, Mommy!” The pain of upsetting her was far worse than the physical pain.

Ellen carefully took the pebbles out of the skin above my lip and put Mercurochrome on the skin. “It hurts,” I whispered. Droplets of blood stained the sleeve of her uniform. She winked at me. She and I had a code of silence around my mother. This enhanced our alliance.

I still try to forgive my mother. She was just too miserable to think outside of herself. Is depression really an excuse? Some would say yes. Others would say no. I think it’s not so black and white.

Her main undoing was her internal decision that she was powerless to change. Not too long ago, she combined enough sleeping pills and alcohol to kill herself.

Approaching fifty this year, I often feel like a little girl when I think of my mom. And in a child’s made-up fantasy way, I imagine that had she not been so depressed, she would have liked, and maybe even loved having me as her daughter.

Twenty-three years ago, on the eve of my wedding, I spoke with Ellen once again. And what happened then, I still can’t explain.

I was at my parents’ condo, looking through old photos and feeling nostalgic. I came across several of Ellen and me and thought, “What if I could reach her?” But it had been thirteen years.

I went to the bedroom and shut the door so no one would hear me. And I called the number in my folk’s address book. 

An old woman answered, “Hello?”

All I could say was, “Ellen?”

And I swear as solidly as the ground I am standing on, she didn’t have a question in her voice. Instead, she stated with a heavy breath, “Saralee  . . .  it’s you.”

As I write this, my eyes are brimming so that I find it hard to type.

I think of her every day. Especially when I look at my mantle. On it is a treasure that guards the hearth of my home  . . .  Ellen’s bell.

She used to call me her angel.

I know she was, and will always be mine.