I have, in the years following that morning, wondered if I made it up, what my mother said that morning in her bedroom. It is not something my sisters I discussed afterward, then or now.

We slipped out of the bedroom and out of our school clothes and when no one from school turned up to tell us to return to school, weeks passed. By December our routines, such as they were, began to fray. Carrie grew increasingly fearful of driving on icy roads at night. She stocked up on groceries, filling our downstairs freezer with supplies. We took to eating cold cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, pizza for breakfast. We ran out of sunflower seeds for Tulip, so I dropped Cheerios into the cage and watched Tulip hold each circle to her ravenous mouth in tiny-clawed hands.

I grew sullen, missing school, missing Mrs. Cottom-Bottom, missing kids I’d previously hated, even Anne Marie Slink, nicknamed Anne Marie Stink in fifth grade not only because of her name but because when she’d broken her arm skiing, the sweat of her cast had created around her a halo of unpleasant odors. So I recreated a version of school for myself, hiding in books, anything I could get my hands on, first the Nancy Drew mysteries, her father an unhappy reminder that mine was gone, then all the books lining our game room that must have belonged to our father once upon a time. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Old Man and the Sea, The Crucible, The Haunting of Hill House, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

I stopped bathing but once a week (no one could tell me I had to) and when I did, I took Tulip with me, dunking her small surprised self into warm water, then wrapping her in a towel and watching the creature shiver. When we ran out of shavings for the bottom of Tulip’s cage, I did not ask my sisters for help. It did not occur to me to do so. Instead, I cut up the new outfits my mother had bought me the previous summer for the start of school—I wasn’t going to use them anyway—then lined the floor of the urine-soaked cage in small squares, a colorful mix of florals and plaids.

Carrie began inviting a boy over late at night. Gabe came in through the downstairs door after dark and left the same way before dawn. I knew because I was up at those hours too. I tracked Gabe’s late-night comings and goings in a small orange spiral notebook, the time of his arrivals, the hour and minutes of his departures, all carefully noted with a “G” and a date and a.m. or p.m. to follow each time. And I took to sleeping and waking in shifts, partly because this seemed to be the rhythm to which my body naturally attuned itself—it still does today—and partly because I liked to go to the living room in the middle of the night for the possibility of seeing my mother awake.

In memory, she wanders the house so quietly that it’s the light of the refrigerator opening and closing that wakes me, not the sound of her specifically, her feet on carpet or tiles. And then she’s standing at the closet next to our front door, removing her thick wool coat from the hanger, pulling on boots, wrapping a scarf around her neck, all without making a sound. She opens the front door.

She disappears.

The first time I wake and observe her from underneath a blanket on the couch—if she sees me, she never lets on—I worry. Will she fall and freeze to death out there in the snow? Will a car, not seeing her—because what is there to see? She is a figure wrapped in black in the dark of the night—hit her, leaving us orphaned?

When she returns, her face shines in the sliver of moonlight filtered through small triangles of glass at the top of the front door. Her body seems less frantic, her shoulders less tense. She moves with more ease now, even I can see that, removing her coat, taking off her boots.

This happens night after night. Sometimes she wears a scarf back to bed: her black cashmere scarf or my red-and-white striped one, a gift from Santa the previous Christmas, the last I was allowed to indulge in such a ridiculous belief.

Once, after one of her late-night walks, I wake to the sound of water running. I go to her bedroom but she isn’t there. I find her in the bathtub, fully clothed, that red-and-white scarf around her neck, her black coat ballooning up as water overflows from the tub, spilling steadily onto the bathroom floor.

"Oh no!" I say, as if it is an accident though I know it’s not. I turn the faucet off and reach for my mother to take my hand. I have in mind I can lift her up. But I am far too small for that. In any case, she does not move. Her eyes are wide open. I know she isn’t dead. But when I say, "Don’t you want to dry off?" she says nothing.

So I wait till all the water drains, then cover my mother in the largest bath towels I can find, the ones covered with dancing cats that we’d once used for trips to the Liberty Park swimming pool. Then I clean up the mess of water on the floor and because my mother still does not move, I lay out a bed of blankets fashioned from dry towels and position myself next to her in the bathtub and somehow, in the hours that follow, I fall asleep.

Hours later, when I wake, she is gone but her wet clothes—that heavy wool coat—has been discarded, a muddy trail of mad bread crumbs leading toward her bedroom. There I find her curled up and sleeping, nude.

I never told my sisters. I don’t know why. Maybe they, by then, had begun observing our mother’s secret life. Or maybe they were, like most of us—then and now—caught up in their own troubles.

Shelly began eating so much that her body began changing before our eyes, shifting from lush to matronly, a fact I observed as I floated in and out of our family room, a book in hand, and Shelly sat in front of the television, clipping her toenails and eating potato chips straight out of the bag.

Carrie spent large swaths of her nights holed up in her bedroom with Gabe.

When I asked Shelly what Carrie was doing with Gabe, Shelly laughed and said, “Calculus.”

By December we were three girls transformed, once lovely, now gone to seed.

Our parents met at a church dance. Our mother was living in Eugene by then and her friend, Vanita Baker, dragged her along to a dance my mother did not want to attend. Vanita, our mother told us, was angry afterward that the only girl who wasn’t Mormon at that dance snagged the sweet fighter pilot with the adorable strawberry blond hair. Our mother fell for our father instantly.                    

“Your father was the best person I’d ever met," our mother used to say. "I wanted to do whatever I could to stay close to that goodness.”

As a child, I could imagine the sweetness of the scene: the glossy wood floor of the church gymnasium, the taste of ginger ale in small paper cups, my mother in a belted black dress, her dark hair pulled back into a pony tail, red lipstick a contrast to her pale skin—like porcelain, my father said once, which seemed to me at the time the most glamorous description in the world because I had not yet heard every woman with pale skin described as having porcelain skin.

But that’s all I knew of my mother’s story. Because the facts of her life before she met my father were as bare as his were full. While he grew up in a large family of eight kids and extended relatives on a hazelnut farm outside Eugene, her family was small: just one sister, Marie, who we’d never met, and her mother, who died before any of us were born.

I asked my father once about my mother’s mother. He had picked me up from school that day because my mother, he said, wasn’t feeling well.

“What was she like? Did she have black hair?” Something at school had sparked my interest, some stray remark from a classmate who’d defended bratwurst in her lunchbox against a boy making fun, saying it was her grandmother who’d made her lunch that day, not her mother. Suddenly I wanted to know.

"I only met her once," my father said. "She’d been in an asylum by then for at least ten years."

In my mind, I heard "silo" for "asylum," perhaps because I’d just finished writing a report on Nebraska in school and had seen in the World Book Encyclopedia photographs of grain silos. It did not occur to me to wonder why my grandmother lived in a steel structure made for grain. Like many children, it did not occur to me to question or ask for more.

But my father must have read my mind. When he pulled into our driveway he said, "An asylum is a hospital. Outside Salem. I remember it was freezing. A very sad place."

It was Gabe—that skinny, pimply, improbable kid—who orchestrated change after the New Year. He must have told Mrs. Derrick, the history teacher at East High, something about what was going on at our house, because one evening, Mrs. Derrick dropped by and rang the bell and Carrie and Shelly and I ignored it, the way we’d ignored most everything.

Mrs. Derrick, though, didn’t take no for an answer and she came back the next evening and the evening after that and the evening after that and then, suddenly—who had left the door open? Carrie? on purpose?—she opened the unlocked door and shouted out in the most comforting voice you can imagine, "Hello there! Hello!"

When Carrie emerged from the basement, Shelly from the kitchen, and me from our mother’s bedroom—I was sitting in a chair in her bedroom, reading, watching her sleep—Mrs. Derrick hugged us one by one, as if she knew us well, though she did not. She told us she hoped Oregon had been good to us and she was so sorry about the passing of our father, but he would be so pleased to see us doing so well.

We obviously hadn’t gone to Oregon and even more obviously we weren’t doing well, but it felt good to have someone say otherwise, like a lie we might aspire to make true.

Mrs. Derrick sat down on the sofa and continued chattering pleasantly, filling us in on Carrie’s class in high school. She didn’t seem to notice the fact that the room was a disaster: wet bath towels hanging over a velvet green chair; the carpet covered in old newspapers still coiled in hardened elastic bands; and Tulip in her filthy cage on the coffee table, where I felt I could better keep an eye on her, her animal odor one of the dominant smells weaving its way through the room.         

As Mrs. Derrick talked, her words washed over us and we blinked like three girls who had just awakened from a long and dangerous sleep.

It was done now. Our days of isolation were done.

Once Mrs. Derrick called our Mutual President and Sister Newton called the Relief Society president and Sister Anderson called the bishopric, everything changed. Every night we had a new visitor and a new casserole waiting for us on our doorstep and our mother emerged slowly, tentatively at first, dressing a little more normally with each visit so that soon she was wearing full outfits in the daytime again, not summer nightgowns or robes.

I still slept in the dark on the couch in the front living room and sometimes saw my mother waking and meandering around the house, looking in the refrigerator, or pouring a glass of water. But I never saw her venture toward the closet or front door anymore to walk outside in the middle of the night.

My sisters and I returned to school. Our mother returned to making breakfast and wearing make-up. Her first attempts were awkward: she scrambled one egg in the frying pan and went to serve it before realizing one egg would not feed three growing girls. Or her lipstick would be lopsided and none of us dared to say a word. Still, she tried. Each week, there was progress. She signed our school papers again. She began making us lunches, though sometimes they revealed her oddball tastes: a peanut butter and cucumber sandwich, for instance, as if the notion of jelly on peanut butter had escaped her when my father died.

By the end of the following summer, she had found a job as a secretary at the university’s business school, courtesy of Sister Derrick’s husband whose brother was a professor, an inactive member of the church—what my mother would become—but kind, Sister Derrick said.

And if our mother, who remained detached, did not seem entirely fine? No one could tell after a while.

One night the new bishop of the ward stopped by with his wife, a stout German woman, who said, “Yah, yah, you surviving this beet-ee-full life?”

Our mother smiled vaguely. Said nothing.

I never knew if the bishop’s wife meant “beautiful” or “pitiful.”

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