Jennifer One – Part 2
October 12, 2009 in Jennifer One
In 1946, a family named Ecker was living across the street from Nana and her husband. This first Ecker family consisted of Alice Ecker-née Alice Kelly-her husband Irving, and their only son, Irving Jr., recently returned from four years service as a pilot in World War II. It doesn’t require much imagination to figure out that Irving Jr. met the pretty widow living across the street with her parents and her son. By late 1947, Irving Jr. and Evalyn were married and had moved to another part of Los Angeles.
Four children were born during what must have been a stressful seven-year marriage while Irving was a full-time medical student at the University of Southern California. He graduated from medical school in 1953 and in 1954, for the second time in her life, Evalyn moved back home with her now-widowed mother, this time bringing five children, including baby Jennifer. (The oldest son by her first husband was already a teenager and would stay only a couple of years.)
Whatever “terrible thing” Irving Ecker did to his wife cannot be discovered, nor can its severity. However, about ten years later he remarried: a woman with a son from a previous marriage; they had no children together.
As for his parents, Jennifer’s other grandparents, Alice and Irving Sr. remained across the street from their former daughter in-law and four grandchildren. Neither of them spoke to Evalyn or to Nana or the children. There were no visits, birthday cards, or family dinners. Most egregious of all, both were living there on that heartbreaking day when their youngest grandchild fired a gun that drenched a room with her own blood and brain matter.
I am not sure why this was the most unbearable of all the facts I had uncovered. Looking back, I have to remember that people did not move as often as they do now, especially families that had survived the Depression. There was no MasterCard for things you wanted, but could not afford; there were no home equity loans. A family paid off a mortgage and stayed put, leaving both families stuck where they were. Jennifer’s mother (and Nana) may well have instituted the freeze-out as punishment for whatever Dr. Ecker had done and it is likely that his parents took the side of their only child in the divorce, but it just seemed so ridiculous, so passive-aggressive, that I needed help understanding the situation. I reached out to one of the top specialists in adolescent psychiatry – and to Robin. I had not seen Robin in more than 35 years, but through the wonders of e-mail, I hoped, Jennifer’s two closest friends and an expert in teen suicide might finally put the last pieces of this puzzle together.
I had been given Robin’s e-mail address from a mutual friend. We exchanged pleasantries and family photos a few years back, but I was hesitant to broach depressing topics with her, especially Jeff Ecker’s suicide. She had remained close to him and I had last seen Jeff sometime in the early 1970s, when she took me to visit him at a house he was renting with his brother in Santa Monica. Now I wrote and told her what I had been working on and asked if she knew about Jennifer’s grandparents living across the street, and if she wanted to hear the gruesome details I had uncovered in the shadows of California records. I also asked what she recalled about the funeral.
It took a while, but she responded saying that she thought she might have heard something about the other grandparents, but she wasn’t sure. In any case, she was positive there had been no communication between the two families. She wanted to know about Jeff – I warned her it was bad news — but she didn’t remember the old woman sitting behind us at Jennifer’s funeral, who I was now certain had been Alice Kelly Ecker.
I had sensed something off-kilter about her, which is why, I suppose, the memory stuck with me. It was a small funeral and no one seemed to know who she was. She never spoke to or looked at anyone, and she was sitting by herself near the last row, as if she had sneaked in. Then there were those unmistakable rosary beads at a Protestant funeral. Why was she the only person who refused to stand and walk past the body? Was it because she could not bear to see the dead child or because she might be noticed by the family, secluded in an alcove off to the right of the coffin?
I wondered if she had also been the woman in the market, crying out to strangers about “the little girl across the street.” Did she send flowers or a card to her former daughter-in-law? Did she try to talk to them or say anything to the family? I will never know, but I was now certain that Jennifer’s father was informed by his own mother-in either a phone call or a letter – that his youngest child had died. Moreover, some twenty-five years later, after Alice and Irving Sr. and Nana and Evalyn and Jennifer and Jeff Ecker were all dead, public records show that Dr. Ecker moved back to the house he inherited from his parents, the house he left after marrying the pretty widow across the street nearly fifty years earlier. There may be a tenable explanation for how he could do this, how he might ever be able to look out the front window or gaze across the street, but I cannot think of one.
Then, from Robin, came this e-mail:
…In 1978, I caught up with Jeff again. I can’t remember where he was living, but he had invited me over to his house for dinner. That’s when I realized that he was gay and his roommate was more than just sharing the rent. It sort of made me sad, but he seemed very happy and that was the last I saw of him. I’m sorry that things didn’t work out for him and it did bum me out for a while that he isn’t with us anymore. But I guess he has been gone for quite sometime and hopefully he has found the peace that he was always looking for.
Dr. David Brent is Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. He is also a co-founder and the director of Services for Teens at Risk (STAR). I asked him, via telephone, about the history of teen suicide.
“We did a study in Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) beginning in 1960 and the rate of teen suicide definitely accelerated during that decade,” he said. “But we attributed a lot of that to the beginning of the drug era and alcohol abuse.
“In families where one member has committed suicide, other family members have a risk two to ten times higher of following suit-on average about four times higher-than the general population does.” He reminded me that suicide, in general, is still “very rare” and not as prevalent as the word “epidemic” or the media might suggest – even in teenagers. I also asked him about gender issues and suicide. He said there have been “at least ten studies completed now showing a link between gender confusion and suicide attempts in adolescents,” but, he pointed out, “We can only ask those who survive. We can’t interview the successful suicide and ask them why they did it.”
A year or so after Jennifer’s funeral, on a Friday night in Westwood Village, I was with the brashest of all my high school girlfriends, Janice. By then we had our driver’s licenses and spending money from part-time jobs, but Janice cajoled a security guard nto letting us into the UCLA basketball game without paying. We accidentally walked into Pauley Pavilion behind the team – John Wooden’s golden boys at the height of their fame – as they were getting a huge round of applause and as I looked around for unoccupied seats, dying of embarrassment, I spotted two familiar women in the stands.
John Ecker played three seasons for the UCLA Bruins before going off to play basketball in Germany, and sitting close to center court were his mother and Nana. They had seen me walk in before I saw them.
“Oh, Lord,” Nana yelled, “Kim, ya got skinny!”
This was what she always said by way of a greeting. Since I was seven years old, when she would take us swimming at a neighbor’s house or to J.J. Newberry’s or for a walk to the bakery, she always said, “Ya got skinny” or “Ya got fat.” Only her baby, her darling “Jenni-fuh,” was spared this pronouncement because she was always the same: thin, pale and delicate.
“Nana,” I shouted, to be heard over the noise, “That’s all you ever say to me. Either I got fat or I got skinny!”
Mrs. Ecker smiled at my impertinence – something she would not have done when I was a child – and we waved to each other. Her expression was gentle and alive, but almost immediately, I think, she saw something in my face that reminded her of the afternoon after Jennifer’s death, when I sat with her in the living room listening to a stream of consciousness monologue and a litany of her regrets.
Many of those words are lost to me, but certain details linger. Jeff let me in – “Is it true?” I asked at the door, and he said it was before disappearing into the kitchen. Evalyn appeared disheveled and clearly in shock, sitting on the pull-out sofa that became her bed at night. I kissed her on the cheek and said how sorry I was. Nana wandered through the dining room and gasped in pain when she saw me before she too disappeared; Judy Ecker brought me a cup of coffee.
The school administrator arrived a few minutes after I did and spoke briefly with Jeff on the front porch. I recall the sound of children playing outside, Evalyn’s grandchildren by her oldest son, the one born during her first marriage. Their cheery voices echoed through the mournful house as I sat with her, saying nothing, asking nothing.
“They’re so sweet,” she said of the children. “It’s good they don’t know what’s going on.” I reminded her how proud Jennifer was when she became an aunt at the age of nine, how she told the whole class. Evalyn tried to smile.
There were long silences as I sipped my coffee, but then she started to talk. “I don’t know,” she said at one point. “I remember that time she wanted – what did she want? Something. And I couldn’t get it for her. I could never give her what she wanted.”
The how of Jennifer’s death had not occurred to me yet, and I wonder if I could have gone over there if I knew the horrors that lay just behind the living room. But I did not. All I knew was that when someone dies, you pay a call on the family because it was the right thing to do.
After a while – perhaps half an hour – I sensed some nearby activity. As Evalyn kept talking, first Jeff and then Judy reappeared, whispering to each other.
“She’s upsetting Mom,” one of them hissed, loudly enough for me to hear, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had never belonged in this house of wordless unease, with its frayed lace curtains and Victorian sensibilities. At my house everyone shouted too often, but at least we said what we really thought. Here I was the scrappy misfit: too tall and too smart for her own good.
I remembered the dinner without Jennifer, after A Hard Day’s Night, how Nana said to me, “Eat the pickled beets, they’re good for what ails ya,” as Jennifer lay in her bed, exhausted from screaming at the Fab Four all afternoon. “What if what ails you is not liking pickled beets?” I replied, and nobody at the table smiled.
I took my coffee cup to the kitchen in a rush, found Judy and apologized. I hugged her and as I left, Evalyn Ecker looked up from the sofa, only vaguely aware of my leaving as she had perhaps been only vaguely aware of my presence. But the thing is, I knew they were wrong: she wanted to talk to someone.
And that night at the basketball game, there was still something elusive about her, palpable even from a distance in a crowded sports arena. It was as if a veil sequestered her from the rest of the world, and she turned away from me, distracted by the appearance of the opposing team and the activity on the floor or possibly searching for her son, John. It was the last time I ever saw Jennifer’s mother, but I would see Nana once more.
It was yet another Sunday morning, on the day I left for college, and she was coming from the direction of the Congregational Church with an unfamiliar child. By then her walk had slowed to a creeping half step and her hair was hardly hair at all, just a bit of white gossamer atop her head, but I could see she was very happy. The little girl whose hand she held so tightly looked no more than seven years old: a pretty child with a pale complexion, wearing a party dress.
I sat at the intersection and watched them through the windshield of my old Ford, packed to the hilt and ready for me to drive to a freshman dorm where I would begin life away from home for the first time, and as I followed them with my eyes, I began to cry: for Jennifer, and perhaps for myself, but especially for the old woman and the child progressing ever so slowly, hand in hand, on a buckled sidewalk leading to the past.
Almost forty years after Jennifer’s death, there is no longer a question that suicide and depression run in families. There is also much scientific speculation about a gay gene, which may be inherited, but there is not enough evidence to pinpoint it or even say whether it exists-yet. Still, no one ever knows how deep the emotional wounds of others may go, not even those closest to us. The best we can do is love them and empathize.
When Jeff Ecker chose to die, he had apparently been “out” for over a decade. I have no idea what might have precipitated his suicide, but I do know he had buried his baby sister, his grandmother and his mother. His closest brother had moved halfway around the world and three weeks before his death, his only uncle passed away. I do not think it frivolous to suggest that whatever else was happening in his life, Jeff might have been sick of losing the people he loved and perhaps he simply couldn’t face one more funeral.
It is, of course, possible that Jennifer’s deepest secret was that she was not attracted to boys, which helped her decide in the end that she was just too different to live. Dr. Brent reiterates that “gender confusion” is quite common at that age and does not necessarily mean a person is gay. What her sexual preference might have been as an adult will forever remain a gray area. I certainly don’t know and I really don’t care to speculate; the only thing I am sure of is that gay or straight, she was my friend and I loved her.
I have dreamed of Jennifer many times over the years, but only once did I recall every detail the next day. This was a little over a year ago, and we were sitting in my old bedroom, with its twin beds, pink chintz curtains and an old-fashioned dressing table skirted in white dotted Swiss. She was a child again, sitting on the second bed, her face aglow in vivid silver light, so completely alive I could almost touch her.
“So, you’re not dead?” I said.
She shook her head. “No, I’m not,” she replied.
“Remember the slumber party at my house in seventh grade? We were all waiting for you and…”
“Oh, yeah. I was late ’cause nobody would give me a ride, and Nana took one look at me in my miniskirt and fishnets and said, ‘Ya look like a street walk-uh.’”
As we laughed together, the decades fell away like chalk dust off a blackboard, until her face began slowly morphing from a twelve year-old to a teenager to her early twenties-an age she never reached in life. Finally, she was the age she might have been then, looking as she might have looked at a class reunion; still thin, pale and delicate, though her freckled face and slender hands bore tiny wrinkles and she had a slight double chin like her mother’s.
“Wait,” I said. “Now, you are dead.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “I just didn’t want to grow up.”
With a clarity that is achieved only in dreams, I understood her perfectly. There was nothing else to ask. And I knew that she was safe, too.
A few weeks after that, I began to research her life, stopping for a while when I learned of Jeff Ecker’s death, but continuing until I was finally able to say goodbye to her – I’m saying goodbye right now – as a confused child whose brief life stands as a reminder of the fragility of circumstances: that so much depends on what we cannot control, on the time and place we are born, and our acceptance of such awful powerlessness.
This article first appeared in the 2008 Autumn/Winter edition of The Journal
(Part One here)