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Ellen Brown: the girl who lived

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Ellen Brown enjoying some time in her garden (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Ellen Brown and her dog Lucy enjoying the sunshine (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Tennis, water skiing, snow shoeing, ballet – you name it and Ellen Brown has tried it over the years.

She has challenges with coordination and speed due to cerebral palsy, a congenital condition, but was always determined to find something she could do, not just to improve her physical fitness, but also to prove something to the world.

“I failed at water-skiing,” the 65 year old Smith’s resident said. “I failed at rowing. Tennis was okay, but I was not fast enough when it came to running.”

The failures made her successes all the sweeter. Three decades ago, she learnt to ski, a major personal triumph.

“My father Warren Brown, took me to Telluride, Colorado,” she said. “I was always fearful of skiing. My father hired a person who trained people with disabilities.”

With some modifications to her skis, and a lot of determination on her part, she figured it out.

“It felt amazing, but I hated ski-lifts,” she said. “I would bury my head into my jacket and not look down. I would love to ski again, but again it would mean some special lessons as my left leg has now changed due to a hip replacement.”

But her hip challenges have not stopped her from swimming, her favourite sport. In the warmer months, she swims at the Bermuda National Sports Centre in Devonshire, several times a week.

“It really helps,” she said. “It is buoyancy without the stress on my joints.”

Looking back, she wishes she had loved herself a little more while trying all those different things.

“I think internally I did not really like or accept myself,” she said. “My downfall is that I felt that I had to prove myself to people. That was something that sometimes got me in trouble. I ruined friendships by overstepping boundaries in wanting to be accepted.”

She has overcome many hurdles in her life.

Her mother, Ann Brown, caught rubella, while pregnant. Rubella, also called German measles, is a viral illness. Most people who catch it have mild symptoms such as fever and sore throat, but in pregnant women, it can cause stillbirths, miscarriages, or severe birth defects and health complications in the unborn child. Today, children are routinely vaccinated against rubella, but in 1957, when Ms Brown was born, rubella vaccinations were still years away.

Before she came into the world, doctors predicted that if Ms Brown survived birth she would be a vegetable, blind and deaf.

She did live, but was very sick in infancy and was found to have cerebral palsy, a disorder affecting a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

Again the doctor’s verdict was dire. She would not survive babyhood. They advised her mother to get pregnant again right away, so she would be distracted from the loss.

“As a result, my mother did not bond with me when I was a baby,” Ms Brown said. “But I fooled them, because I did live, and I am still here!”

Her sister Margot was born 11 months after she was, and the two were raised almost like twins.

“We were dressed alike, and because our birthdays were close, would have one birthday party,” she said. “Eventually, we got old enough to tell my parents we did not want to wear the same clothing. But we have always been very close.”

She is the middle child of five.

“My siblings and I fight sometimes,” she said. “But we are all very close.”

Ms Brown can laugh now at a lot of her early struggles.

“When I was little, I had physical therapy in the morning, during the day and then at night with my parents,” she said. “I had to wear leg braces, which I hated. One day I got really mad and threw them onto the roof of the neighbour’s house. My mother said, this is your issue to sort out.”

So little Ms Brown had to go over to the neighbours, knock on the door and ask for her braces back. The neighbours never asked any questions, just got the ladder out and retrieved them from the roof.

Then one day her legs were finally strong enough that she did not need the braces any more. But she still needed speech therapy for a long time. It was only in her 40s that she discovered she had an undiagnosed hearing issue.

“I had only 50 per cent of my hearing in either ear,” she said. “That was probably the cause of my speech problems. I spoke like a deaf person.”

Now she has hearing aids, which have made the world of difference for her.

But as a student at the Bermuda High School for Girls in Pembroke, she had a hard time academically.

“Sometimes I was bored in class, because I could not hear what the teacher was saying,” she said.

All the doctors appointments and speech therapy meant she missed a lot of class. She also had dyslexia.

The inflexibility of some teachers at the school in the 1960s, did not help either.

“I remember I was just full of fear of this one teacher,” Ms Brown said. “For some reason I had this mental block and could not do long division.”

As a psychological punishment the teacher ordered her to stand in front of her older sister’s classroom.

“I freaked and ran to BAA and hid under the boxing stadium they had outside,” she said. “One of the teacher’s daughters found me there and dragged me back to BHS. I thought I would be yelled at by my parents.”

But her parents were shocked by the teacher’s behaviour. Her father spoke to the school the next day, and she was moved to a different class.

“Nothing was ever said about it again,” she said.

After BHS, she went away to boarding school for a few years, then to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where she majored in psychology of women in feminist literature.

Back in Bermuda, she worked for her father at Archie Brown & Son, then in 1987 started the The Body Shop, a global chain that specialised in cruelty-free beauty products.

“My father said I think this business, the Body Shop would be great for you,” she said. “At the time Bermuda did not allow franchises, so we had to partner with someone. Eventually, we bought him out.”

But in 1990 she handed the reins of the store to her friend Diana Antonition, while she took some time out to go back to school. She dreamt of becoming a professional chef.

“My early inspiration was my grandmother Francis Burton,” Ms Brown said. “I used to watch her cook. We would eat often at her house and she always made the most amazing things like fire and ice tomatoes or lemon snow.”

In 1992 Ms Brown earned a culinary arts degree from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

“But then, after I graduated, it was discovered that I lost all the cartilage in my left ankle joint which would have made it impossible for me to be on my feet all the time.”

She had to go through extensive surgeries on her leg and then recuperation.

She went back to running The Body Shop. She sold it in 2011 when she started to lose foot traffic.

She never lost her passion for cooking.

“Instead, I did entertaining for friends and helped people with their parties.”

Right now, she is working on a book of recipes for her family.

Her passion now is family history, and she is working to become a certified genealogist through the New England Genealogical Society in Boston.

“I feel like I am coming into my own skin now, at the ripe age of 65,” she said. “Dang that took a long time!”

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published April 13, 2022 at 7:46 am (Updated April 14, 2022 at 7:57 am)

Ellen Brown: the girl who lived

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