Regaining time with lost mother Return: A Westminster man visits the grave of the woman taken from his life 60 years ago.


All William B. Rau Jr. has of his mother is an aging photo of a small child in a white linen suit, nestled beside a neatly dressed, smiling woman. The son, now 68, has no memories of his mother's embrace, no one to tell him the woman in that photo loved him.

When he was a child, his father always told him his mother was dead. Rau was 28 before he knew his mother had spent most of her life at Springfield, a state mental hospital in Sykesville.

"My mother was a patient there, and I never knew," said Rau. "She was alive the whole time I was growing up, and I never knew. If I had known, I would have tried to see her."

Ever since he found out, he has visited her grave on the hospital grounds several times a year, every year for 40 years.

Rau and his son were at Springfield yesterday for the annual memorial service the hospital conducts for the 905 patients who are buried at the hospital cemetery. He placed a bouquet of pink daisies and irises, gathered from his yard in Westminster, before a granite monument at the foot of the cemetery.

The Raus prayed quietly with about 15 members of the hospital staff gathered before the rows of markers covering the grassy hill.

"Think about the stones and how they cry out to us," said the Rev. Clayton Briley, hospital chaplain. "Many of these people had no one to keep their name in remembrance. We assemble here to show we care. We remember them as we work with each patient who is here now."

Patients whose bodies were unclaimed were interred at the cemetery, called Sunny Side, from 1899 until the hospital discontinued the practice in 1961. Springfield, which often cared for as many as 3,000 patients, had little money to bury the many who had no family.

The deceased were not afforded caskets but were wrapped in coroner's bags. Small stones -- with numbers, not names -- hug the ground, marking each grave. Bertie Naomi Feidler Rau is No. 2.

Schizophrenia diagnosed

Bertie Rau entered Springfield Hospital in 1932, committed there by her husband and her sister. They said she had acted strangely since the birth of her son, hospital records show. She died at the hospital 26 years later and never saw her only child again.

She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder characterized by withdrawal from reality. Acute symptoms of the illness often occur in early adulthood, precipitated by typical stresses such as pregnancy, said Dr. Anthony F. Lehman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"The standard treatment for schizophrenia 60 years ago was long-term institutionalization," said Lehman. "There was a great sense of hopelessness about the illness."

'Got pretty good care'

The few records that remain of Bertie Rau's years at the hospital say she was a quiet patient who became so withdrawn that she rarely left her bed in cottage F1.

"They told me she didn't know anyone or even the time of the week," Rau said. "But from what I have learned, I think she got good care for the time period."

A change in thinking

In the 1950s, Maryland began putting money into its mental health facilities. Crowding eased as construction of buildings increased, and Springfield began its turnaround, becoming a respected hospital with strong ties to the community.

About that time, several medicines became available for patients with schizophrenia, but it was too late for Bertie Rau. She had long since curled into the fetal position, her extremities stiffened into disuse, hospital records said.

"Today, this woman would probably be on medication and living with her family," Lehman said. "There are no cures, but most patients are not put into institutions.

"The treatment was as humane as they could make it, but this was a typical story all over the country," he said. "Hospitals were severely overcrowded with so few on staff that it was difficult to care for patients. There was little money for care."

Family told after burial

A ward nurse William Rau met years ago remembered caring for his mother, and she confirmed the details he has read in hospital records, he said. He also met a volunteer who had worked in his mother's cottage and assured him that all of the patients received good care.

Several months after Bertie Rau died of cancer, state police found her son and visited him at his home.

"They told me she had died at the hospital and that no one had claimed her body," he said. "They told me she was buried in a field along Route 32."

Illnesses blamed on families

Complicating the task of finding Bertie Rau's other relatives was the 1944 divorce from her husband. The name Rau was dropped from her records. But Rau always refers to his mother by her married name.

"I think they were embarrassed to have someone mentally ill in the family," said Rau. "People thought she was mentally unbalanced. In those days, nobody talked about stuff like that. They kept it secret."

That was understandable given the climate of that era, said Lehman. "There were theories that families caused the illness and that the patient was better off away from the family and community," he said. "Hospitals were often in the countryside with a heavy emphasis on work."

The hospital might have advised families "to have little contact with the patient and to get on with their own lives," said Lehman. "It is important to understand the times. This was not a terrible family that deserted a woman."

Father never told son

Rau grew up in Baltimore with his paternal grandparents. His father eventually remarried, but he never revealed the family secret to his son.

After the state police visit late in 1958, Rau and his wife, Lillian, drove to Sykesville and found the cemetery. He has made the trip every year since, he said. William B. Rau III, 39, frequently accompanies his father.

The senior Rau keeps careful files. Everything he knows of his mother, every letter he has written or received about the cemetery, is in folders. He has the 1978 letter from Clyde R. Springer, assistant superintendent, telling him the number of Bertie Rau's grave and offering to show him its exact location in the cemetery.

And he has the photo. The picture of his mother turned up 10 years ago, when Rau, a retired postal worker, was dismantling his late father's household. No one had to tell him who the smiling pair were. He framed it and placed it in a prominent place in his home.

He said he has no regrets, but he is wistful as he talks about his teen-age years volunteering with the Woodlawn Fire Department and participating in the annual firefighters parade in Sykesville. The marchers and fire engines always lined up at the gates to Springfield hospital.

"My mother was there then, but I didn't know she was alive," he said.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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