The snow crunched under my feet as my brother and I marched out to the field behind our house in Birch Run, MI. It was January and too cold for children without boots or mittens. At least I had a hood on the scruffy old coat I wore. We had been sent out by our oldest brother to find our mother who had left in the late afternoon to take a walk. Evening was falling and she hadn’t returned. My brother and I followed my mother’s foot-prints in the snow. The sky was overcast with the gloom of winter and foreboding was in the air. I knew which way she went because I had started the journey with her.
I saw her through the kitchen window heading out to field behind our house. Where the corn once grew, now lay fields with snow-covered soil that had been turned up and laid to rest for the winter. Everything was black and white like an old family photo. I ran to my mother and asked her where she was going. She told me she was going for a walk. I didn’t think it strange as we all walked wherever we wanted to go. We hadn’t had a car in a very long time. She agreed to let me come along. I had only walked beside her for a couple of minutes when she turned toward me with frightful eyes. I had never seen my mother afraid. She was very brave and I had relied on her bravery for all of my ten years. She told me to go back to the house and watch the baby. My youngest sister was six years old and hardly a baby, but we all babied her. I reluctantly left my mother there in the farmer’s field. It was strange that she headed toward the woods. She had never gone that way before. As I walked back home, a neighbor girl my age asked, “Bonnie, is that your mother?” She asked in a way that let me know she had thought it strange, too.
A sense of mystery came over me as I marched through the snow in my penniless loafers. I looked down at my mother’s footprints in the snow and I remembered when she took me to Cookie’s shoe store on Main Street to buy me some new shoes. When we walked into the store I heard the jingle of a bell that hung at the top of the old door. Out of nowhere Cookie appeared to assist my mother in finding me just the right shoes. We followed Cookie as she strolled down the massive aisle with her heels clicking on the ancient wood floor. There were shoes on either side of us and soon enough with the help of a shoe horn and Cookie, I had a pair of penny loafers on my feet. My mother put two pennies in their slots and I proudly clicked my way out of Cookie’s store. We went next door to the ice cream shop where my mother bought me a Blue Moon ice cream cone and told me not to tell my siblings. We occasionally had ice cream at home, but never Blue Moon! It truly was our special day and one I never forgot. Of course I told my siblings several years later only to find that they each had their special day with my mother, as well.
I noticed there were tracks over my mother’s foot-prints. Snowmobile tracks! My brother and I couldn’t figure out who would be following our mother on a snowmobile. With uncertainty my brother and I crossed over the small creek and the ice beneath my feet felt as unstable as I. My mother’s footprints were so confusing. She followed the trail into the woods and then she took a few steps into the trees only to back out and return to the trail. In the midst of the trees there was an oil pump with an iron stairway and platform next to it. It was painted caution yellow, but weathered. My mother left the trail and climbed the stairway and stood on the platform. I wondered how long she had stood there and what she was looking for.
My siblings and I had spent the previous ten days on Christmas break from school. There were some events that took place during that time and in my faded memory, that Christmas break seems like one big, long day. One day, I stood by my mother while she sat on the davenport. She gently pushed me away and appeared to be reading something on the wall. I looked at the wall and could plainly see there was nothing there. But, I loved and trusted my mother so much that I wanted to believe in her. So I asked, ‘What does it say?’ She didn’t answer me. This was my moment of truth. I knew there was something wrong.
One night my mother told me we were having a party and that my father was coming. I put my coat on and stood by the door waiting until I woke up late in the night lying on the floor in the dark. I went upstairs and got into bed with my sisters, covering myself with my coat. There were no sheets or blankets on our beds anymore. Often, I could hear my mother sobbing at night in the living room where she slept. If I went downstairs to use the bathroom I could hear the hush of her voice and see the glow of her cigarette. I never wondered who she was talking to. I thought this is what mothers do at night. I felt helpless and sad when she cried.
Christmas Day was like the rest of the days. We didn’t have a tree and we didn’t have any presents. In the past we were usually given a box of food by our church, but this time there was no box given. We hadn’t been going church. Some of the girls in Sunday School had teased my sister and me because of our clothes so we never went back. My mother quit going long before we did. We didn’t have any food because my mother had run out of food stamps. She had a hard time making them last a whole month. My aunt came over with presents which distracted us from our hunger. My mother was too proud to ask for help. She was good at pretending that all was well. There is despondence among children with no Christmas. It sets a tone of unworthiness.
The pipes in the utility room broke forming a frozen geyser along side of the mountain of dirty clothes. My mother took an old enamel pan outside and filled it with snow. She placed the pan on top of the fuel oil furnace in the dining room. She ripped a bed sheet into little squares and dipped one into the snow-water to wash my dirty face. She held my face as she washed it with a far away look in her eyes. With the coolness of the rag I thought of the many times she had washed my face. Sometimes she’d wet a Kleenex with her spit and wipe the grime from my face before taking me into the doctor’s office. My mother wasn’t always gentle because she had so many little faces to contend with, but, this maternal duty instilled in me the need for a mother to have a clean child even when life gets messy.
I climbed the steps and stood on that yellow platform. I looked as far as my eyes could see, but my mother was nowhere in sight. My brother and I continued our treck until we came to a clearing where the flashing lights of a police car reflected upon a house. A police officer walked toward us and asked, “are you looking for your mother?” He led us to her. She was sitting in the back seat of the police car with the door open. I climbed in and sat next to her. Her hands shook as she tried to smoke a cigarette, barely able to bring it to her mouth. ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’ I asked. It was as though she hadn’t heard me or even knew I was there. She had the most frightened look in her eyes. Apparently, my mother happened upon this house in her wandering, and she broke into the back door. The home-owner came home to find her there, in the kitchen sweeping the floor. When the police arrived, my mother told them that she needed this house for her children. Two police men took my mother, brother and me back to our house. Without a word, my mother went in and took a small case which held all of her family photos. The policemen went across the street to the IGA store and bought Hostess Snowballs for us hungry children. Being in a police car was very exciting to my brother and me as we loved the television show, One Adam-12. We asked the policemen if they watched the show. With my mother and siblings tightly squeezed into the police car, we were taken to the State Police Post in Bridgeport, MI.
When I was young, I couldn’t understand why my mother’s family hadn’t done something. They had to have seen her symptoms. I understand now, that there was nothing they could do, except wait. Waiting for someone to completely lose their mind leaves one helpless. My mother’s family had to have been very worried about her. When it all came to an abrupt end, they were there to pick up the children. My brother overheard the police officers talking about arresting my mother for breaking and entering. In that moment, everything became real. We didn’t care about One Adam-12 anymore.
My grandfather and my aunt came to the police post. Each took three children. How they chose, I have no idea, but my fate was set that night. My oldest brother and youngest sister and I went with my aunt and were subsequently placed with other aunts and uncles and their families. My three siblings who went with my grandfather were placed in fostercare within three days. My uncle and his wife and children picked me up late that night. My aunt took me to my room and gave me one of her nightgowns to put on. I crawled into a nicely made bed with sheets and blankets tucked just so. My uncle came in to say a bed-time prayer about if I should die before I wake. I knew it well.
I had no idea how much time would pass before I saw my mother again. All I knew was that already I missed her. I yearned for her to take me into her arms and comfort me. The separation cut deep and my heart mourned her as though she had died. I enjoyed the softness and warmth of the sheets and blankets and my hunger was satisfied beyond belief. But, if I could have gone back home with my mother and hugged her tightly with her soft skin against mine, gladly, I would have. For it was there, that I belonged.
I had no idea when I was ten years old that I would never live with my mother again. But, that one day, she would live with me. I had no idea that even though my mother was mentally ill, she was still herself. I had no idea that although she had been my strong-tower and protector my whole life, eventually, I would become hers. I started my journey with my mother. I followed her footsteps through life which wasn’t always pleasant. But, what I found in her, I found within myself. All the best parts.