I was born and raised about a mile outside of town. In those days, mental illness was looked upon as a disgrace by most people. As a result, Mama rarely left the house except when she went to a state mental hospital for treatment. My aunt and uncle who had only one child took in two of us girls and one of our brothers. And although Daddy and our other brothers lived only about a mile from our aunt’s house, it seemed as though they lived miles away from us. We were never told exactly where Mama was except that she was in a hospital. The shame that our family felt was so great because of Mama’s illness that they kept the nature of her sickness hidden from us children.
I remember being so homesick for Mama and Daddy that one day when I was about ten, I ran away from school during recess and headed down the country road to my house. The teacher saw me and called my father. He met me halfway, wiped away my tears, and told me that Mama was going to be all right and that we would be together again soon. When I got back to school, a good friend was there to comfort me. She helped me a lot through those next few months.
We lived in a small house, and one of my brothers slept on a sofa bed in the living room. Often when we came home, the sofa bed would still be down, the sink would be full of dirty dishes, and Mama would still be asleep. I never brought any friends home with me because I never knew what condition Mama and the house would be in. Sometimes when I’d walk into the house, Mama would be sewing (she did beautiful handwork) and grumbling that she had to watch what she ate because someone was trying to poison her.
It was hard for me to understand why Mama was so different from other mothers. I tried to talk her out of her “crazy” thinking, but she’d yell at me and tell me that I didn’t have any idea what she was going through. When I was older, I learned that parents who are mentally ill often get so tied up in their “other” world that they seem incapable of being kind and compassionate, even to family members. I remember that the only time that I sat on Mama’s lap was when I was ill or just before she went to the hospital. I knew that Mama loved me, but she just didn’t have the ability to express it.
One day during a time when Mama wouldn’t get out of bed and I had come home dreading to open the front door, I was happily surprised to see that the house was clean and in perfect order. Our sweet Relief Society president had cleaned the house from top to bottom, and Mama was all cleaned up and sitting in her chair. Other ward members often helped our family too.
Christmas was a happy and sad occasion because Mama was too wrapped up in herself to pay much attention to holidays. And Daddy was often overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a home, us children, our sick mother, and his job. Yet even though he didn’t have enough money to buy us presents, he always brought us a nice tree the day before Christmas, and he made sure that on Christmas morning we had the biggest oranges and apples and the best candy and nuts in town in our stockings. Our uncles and aunts made sure that we had toys until we got into junior high school. I remember how excited I was when I was seven to find a beautiful walking doll and a carriage for me under the tree. In my excitement, I didn’t notice that my older brothers had received only one basketball between them to share.
One time just before Easter, my Primary teacher brought a large box to class. We were only eight, and we were very curious to see its contents. When class was over, the teacher reached into the box and gave each of us a tiny Easter basket filled with jelly beans and candy eggs. In my eyes, the beautiful basket was also filled with love. This same kind teacher gave me an angel figurine when I graduated from seminary. I still get a warm feeling whenever I see that little angel inside my china closet. It represented to me the hugs that I so desperately needed but seldom received.
My grandmother, a spiritual giant to me, taught me how to pray. She spent her winters with a daughter who lived a hundred miles away, so I saw her only in the summers. Sometimes I got to stay with her. I loved to climb between her sparkling white sheets and lay my head on her freshly ironed pillowcases. Her home was a house of order and love. And her homemade bread and Potawatomi plum jam was like a king’s dinner to me. She always kept a tin box of lemon drops and mints.
After biking to her house one day, I couldn’t find her in the kitchen, so I went into her bedroom. Through the window I noticed her out in her garden. Passing her dresser, I saw a new box of chocolates that someone had given her for Mother’s Day. The temptation was too great. I opened the box, picked out several pieces, and shoved them into my pocket before running outside to see Grandma.
The next day Grandma called and asked me to come over to her house. When I arrived, we visited for a while, then she offered me a chocolate. I cried and she cried, then we talked about what it means to be honest and about how disappointed Heavenly Father is when we steal. Grandma taught me other lessons that afternoon that helped strengthen my spirituality. She was the first one I called when I received my mission call. She died while I was in the mission home, and she was buried the day I arrived in New Zealand. I will always cherish the comfort and strength that she was to me.
When people are mentally ill, they sometimes have religious delusions, or strange ideas. Mama was either very religious—we said family prayers together three times a day—or she wouldn’t have anything at all to do with the Church. Because half of our small rural ward were relatives, the whole congregation knew about Mama’s illness. She never went to Church, but it was important to her that Daddy and the rest of us attend.
One year a girl moved into our ward whose parents smoked and drank. We became friends, and went everywhere together. Her name was Elaine, and she became active in the Church. Although her parents were inactive, they were very kind to me and welcomed me into their home. When we were in junior high school, Elaine became very popular. Some of the girls wanted to crowd me out of Elaine’s circle of friends, but she wouldn’t let them. Then one day our friendship crashed. I was without my best friend for two horrible years. It was especially hard for me because Mama was very ill then.
Mama’s family had taught me to love music, and two songs were very special to me: “I’ll Walk with God” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” When the loneliness at school and the rejection at home got to be too much for me, I would go walking in the wheat fields and sing them. As I sang, I was filled with hope and courage, and I could feel the Spirit of the Lord giving me guidance and comfort.
At the end of ninth grade, Mama started taking a medication that helped her to feel better. By the time I graduated from high school, she started getting out into the community a little, and life was easier for all of us.
I feel that the Lord helped me develop a compassion for other people’s feelings because of the experiences that I had because of my mother. I grew up to love the Lord and depend on Him. And I never felt that I was alone, because I knew that He was always there when I needed Him.