Murderer, or just a man who made Mom happy?
ALBANY, N.Y. — Donald was my mother's second husband. They married when Donald was 86 and my mother a "younger woman" of 75. My mother had met Donald in a restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. They flirted. He invited her to lunch. She told him she was a widow with five grown children, and that she loved movies and dancing. He told her that he lived on a farm, was married once, and that he'd been away for a long time. They dated for six months before he proposed.
Aftertheir marriage, my mother moved to Donald's farm. When I would call on Sunday mornings, they were often still in bed and laughed at my surprise. It was clear how happy they were and that my mother was in love. It was also clear that Donald loved my mother.
But I also knew how much he had loved his first wife, and that's what always scared me.
Before he proposed, Donald told my mother the difficult story of his first marriage. But my mother, fearing her children's reaction, waited until after the honeymoon to tell her kids about it.
What I learned from my mother was that Donald had married the first time in the early 1940s. He was a marine just home from China. In his tour of duty there, Donald had been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war. After his release, he'd come home to his small Pennsylvania town. He brought photos and souvenirs, but he also brought trauma. Donald was in pain, and no one knew. Not even Donald.
Donald married the young teacher who'd been his prewar sweetheart. Her widowed mother came to live with them. Donald's memories of China haunted him and, in his isolation, all he could focus on was how much he loved his wife and how bad the world seemed. One day Donald's fear closed in. Press clippings I looked up confirmed what my mother told me: Donald loaded a shotgun and killed his mother-in-law as she was making dinner. He reloaded the gun, and when his wife came home from school, he killed her. Donald then called the sheriff and waited until help arrived. He spent 30 years in Farview State Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane in eastern Pennsylvania. He received treatment, studied law, and earned a master's degree. When he was 70, Donald was released. And this was my mother's Donald.
At first, my brothers were outraged, and I was stunned. After years of a lonely widowhood, my mother was now happy. I also knew that Donald might have found a perfect woman. My mother was a deeply spiritual and quite practical woman.
When she said, "The past is the past," she meant it. She'd seen her children through bad relationships and even divorces.
Now we were going to judge her? And what of my liberal politics: I'd always believed that people who had done time deserved to be welcomed back to society and given full rights. But the right to marry my mother? I was afraid Donald was nuts, loony, a psycho case: All the words I'd never tolerate another person using about someone with mental illness.
My heart and intellect wrestled. My brothers thought they could engineer a breakup, while my choice, though difficult, was to let my mother trust her own heart and judgment.
It took time to have a relationship with Donald. I was stiff at first and too polite. I always hoped there'dbe no murder stories while we were watching news together. Behind the scenes, my brothers and I worried and even wished he'd change his mind and go away.
He didn't. Donald and my mother were married 10 years. She died first after an illness; Donald a year later. She told me it was a wonderful relationship even though, yes, he was a little eccentric. He'd been out of society a long time. She humored him through many a dark day.
But, because we let them have their life, two people had romance and love and delight for 10 years at the end of their days.
What do kids know? And just who is crazy?
• Diane Cameron is a writer and fundraiser.