This will seem like a sad story at first, but trust me, it is not.
In November of 1961, shortly after my 11th birthday and only days before Thanksgiving, my mother entered a mental institution outside Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t her first hospitalization of this kind, but it was the first for which I was old enough to understand what it meant. My mother heard voices. God spoke to her. She sometimes imagined that she was the Virgin Mary. In the weeks leading up to her hospitalization, she hadn’t really been with us. Her eyes had been vacant and she’d moved around the house like a wisp of cloud blown by the wind.
We were living then in a rented farmhouse near a small Mennonite community. Although we weren’t Mennonites ourselves, my two older brothers, my younger sister and I all attended school in that little town. Before that year, we’d lived in cities. Big cities. The farmhouse was my father’s idea. He believed his family would benefit greatly from the rural Midwest life, especially his children. My mother, when she was healthy, was a woman who enjoyed the company of others. Because she was attractive, articulate and rather artistic, she enjoyed their considerable attention, as well. On the farm, she was alone most days, and looking back now, I’m sure the isolation was a difficult challenge for her and no help at all as she battled her personal demons.
That November afternoon, when we climbed down from the school bus, my father stood waiting to greet us. Dad was never there when we came home from school. He had a job; he was always at work. Seeing him on the steps of the farmhouse as we walked up the long dirt lane, we knew something terrible was up. He sat us all down together and explained that he’d taken my mother 90 miles south to a sanitarium. He didn’t know how long she would have to stay there. We listened, my brothers, my sister and I, and in my recollection of this time, we didn’t say a word.
I remember clearly the emptiness in the farmhouse after that day. I also remember the relief. My mother hadn’t really been my mother for some time. Watching her drift through the rooms, or stand staring at nothing for a long while, or look at me as if she couldn’t quite understand who I was or what I was doing there, had been painful. There was another emotion at work in me, as well, one that caused me a good deal of guilt. Anger. I was angry with her, because I believed she’d lied to me.
My birthday is Nov. 16. That year, she’d ruined it. Her odd behavior had sucked out all the joy that special day should have held. I knew she was sick and couldn’t help herself, and, in retrospect, I can see how selfish my own behavior was, but I made it clear to her, in the churlish way of a child, exactly what she’d done. We were alone in the kitchen, where I’d found her gazing out a window at a line of trees that marked the creek running through the fields of the farm. When she turned to me, there was unbelievable sadness in her face, and pain. In a moment of rare clarity, she knelt and took my face in her hands and whispered, “I love you, and I’ll be better. I promise I won’t hurt you again.”
Then, only days later, she’d abandoned me. Abandoned us all. Was that something anyone did to someone they loved?
We were outsiders in that close-knit Mennonite community. But when word of my mother’s illness spread — and it spread rapidly — our neighbors became angels. I remember that Thanksgiving as I’ve remembered few since. Though it was colored darkly by my mother’s absence, it was blessed by the presence of more home-cooked food than we’d ever seen in our lives. Casseroles and side dishes and pies and breads appeared as if by magic, gifts from the women of the surrounding farms and from those in town.
My mother had an ethereal voice and had trained as an actress. I’m sure that she’d imagined a life for herself on stage somewhere, playing to an adoring audience. Instead, she’d become the mother of four children, the keeper of her husband’s house. She was, at best, a reluctant homemaker and was a legendarily bad cook. So the feast at Thanksgiving that year was like none we’d had before. We also learned that the congregation of the little Mennonite church was holding our family in their prayers. And even after the holiday, the dishes kept coming and the prayers continued.
• • •
December was cold but without snow. After harvest, the fields had been turned, and they lay bare all around us, the clodded soil as hard and black as chunks of coal. The trees had long ago been stripped bare of leaves. The world outside our little farmhouse seemed bleak and empty. We tried to muster our courage, to be as we’d been before. Every day after school, my brothers and sister and I had chores to do. We completed them with little complaint, which wasn’t the norm, but this was an odd time. In the evenings, we did our homework. On Fridays after dinner, we gathered around the television for “The Twilight Zone,” and on Saturday nights it was “Have Gun — Will Travel” and on Sundays “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” We didn’t talk much about Mom, yet we felt her absence.
My own feelings had become more complicated, even darker. In addition to my resentment and anger, I’d begun to be plagued with worry. My mother’s disappearance from our lives, its suddenness, was like an abyss looming before me. It had already swallowed one of our family. Maybe it could as easily swallow another, perhaps even our father. And where would that leave us?
The days crept by, and I began to look toward Christmas, but not with the usual glad anticipation. My father had told us there was no way Mom would be with us on that very special day. As Christmas approached, we did the things we always did as a family, the rituals. Bought the tree and decorated it while we listened to Christmas music on the stereo. Shopped in the small town for gifts. Watched the annual television broadcast of “The Littlest Angel.” Every night at bedtime, my father, who’d once taught high school English, read to us our favorite poems: “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Highwayman,” “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man.” In that season, he also often read the familiar Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
Christmas was on a Monday. On Saturday night, it finally snowed. I woke to a world that, in what seemed an instant of seasonal magic, had turned white and clean and beautiful. The frost on my bedroom window was a brilliant lacework of filament electrified by the morning sun. I could smell frying bacon and, oddly, could hear my father singing carols. He’d never had a good voice, but there was something wonderfully joyful in the way he sang. I had no idea what this sudden good cheer was about, and because of the terrible lie I believed my mother had told me, I wasn’t sure if it could be trusted. I was afraid that, like everything else in the past few weeks, it might be just another setup for disappointment. Another promise not kept.
• • •
He fed us pancakes with chocolate chips and bananas whipped into the batter. He put crisp bacon on our plates. He was happier than I’d seen him in weeks.
After breakfast, he told us to pack a change of clothing. We were going to take a trip. He didn’t say where. We were used to traveling. We’d come to Ohio from Texas and to Texas from Oklahoma and to Oklahoma from Wyoming. Picking up and going was something we knew how to do well, so we quickly readied ourselves.
We drove southeast toward the morning sun. The trees along the roadside wore thin shawls of white. Little icicles bejeweled the fences. The fields, bare and black for so long, lay under a soft blanket of snow. My father tuned the radio to a station playing nothing but Christmas tunes, and we sang along.
In an hour and a half, the farmland began to give way to the outskirts of a city. With a sudden sense of dread, I knew where we were going. I looked at my two older brothers and could see in their eyes that the same terrible knowledge had come to them. Only my little sister remained clueless, continuing to sing joyfully and off-key along with the carols on the radio.
For a year before we moved to the farmhouse, we’d lived in Worthington, a suburb, more or less, of Columbus. We all knew that the sanitarium to which my mother had been admitted was in Worthington. Eventually, even my sister stopped singing because she finally understood.
We stopped at a house we all knew, a quaint structure a century old. An old couple lived there. We’d played Monopoly with their grandchildren in the parlor. My father explained that the people were gone for the holidays and had generously opened their home to us. We’d be spending Christmas there. We took our bags inside. In the parlor, a Christmas tree stood, decorated and hung with tinsel, and to our great surprise, we saw that underneath were presents with our names on them.
Then Dad said, “Your mother is waiting.”
She’d been gone from our lives for nearly six weeks. My father had visited her as often as he could, but the rest of us hadn’t been allowed to see her. What I remembered of her was the empty shell of her body, which seemed to contain no life. The whisper of her voice, which often spoke of things that confused me. The vacant eyes almost always focused on something in the distance, something I couldn’t see. And I remembered what she’d told me before she vanished, those words I knew to be a lie.
I didn’t want to see her, but I had no choice.
The sanitarium grounds were large and lovely. We drove down a long winding road between snow-whitened oaks and maples and arrived at a structure surrounded by buildings that looked like small dormitories. My father parked the car and turned in his seat. He seemed baffled by our silence. “You guys OK?”
My oldest brother spoke for us. “Sure, Dad. Just, you know, excited.”
My father seemed satisfied with that.
• • •
We got out and followed him to the big building. Inside, the visiting area had been decorated for the season, with a tall Christmas tree at the center. Dad left us and went to the reception desk and spoke to a woman there. She looked at us, smiled kindly and picked up her phone. My father came back to where we stood.
“So you’ve probably already guessed,” he said, grinning broadly. “They’re letting your mother spend Christmas with us.”
He said it as if he were offering us the most wonderful of gifts. I could see the joy, the pure joy, on his face and the faces of the others, but I felt nothing except an icy anticipation of yet another disappointment, another lie.
And then there she was. Walking through a door beyond the big Christmas tree, wearing a red dress with a little white angel pinned near the collar. Her hair had been beautifully done, a dark halo. Her eyes were bright. There was nothing vacant in her lovely smile. It was obvious how happy she was to see us.
My brothers and my sister went to her immediately. But I held back. She took them in her arms, and her eyes filled with tears and she kissed them and told them they were the most beautiful things she’d ever seen.
Finally she looked at me. She left the others and came to where I stood. She knelt in her red dress, so that her eyes were level with mine. She reached out and cradled my face with her hands.
“I know,” she said as if she’d seen into my heart. “I know. But I’m back now. I’m really back. I promise I’ll never leave you again.”
I wanted that to be true. I wanted it with all my heart.
Looking back now, I understand what I did next, although it may seem inexplicable. But there is something about Christmas, especially for a child, that is clean and pure and, in its way, miraculous. For a child, for all of us, Christmas is really about hope.
I looked into those eyes, as clear and blue as the winter sky. I tried hard to hold onto my anger and my resentment and my hurt. But I couldn’t. I felt all the ice inside me melt. I threw my arms around my mother.
And I believed her. I believed her about everything.
William Kent Krueger is a bestselling novelist in St. Paul. He is the author of the Cork O’Connor mysteries and of “Ordinary Grace.”