Burt by Ryder Ziebarth

December 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

holidaypicssAnother holiday memory:

Christmas traditions come in many wrappings, but my childhood favorite was visiting the Willowbrook State School, an institution for the mentally impaired on Staten Island. My brother and I scanned the darkness for colored lights decorating houses as Dad drove us fifty miles from New Jersey to New York on Christmas Eve.

In 1955 when Mom gave birth to me she came down with postpartum depression, a disease barely understood then. The family doctor recommended she see a psychiatrist he knew who worked at Willowbrook. Dad drove her to her appointments — ninety-plus miles round trip — three times week for six months.

Part of Mom’s treatment was to help those less fortunate, and it was suggested she visit a permanent resident of the institution. She picked Burt.

Even after I was back in my mother’s arms, she continued visiting him, and eventually we all went with her.

Burt embodied joy. Elf-like in stature, when Burt smiled, his entire body beamed. He hopped on his diminutive feet, cocked his head side to side, bounced in excited circles. A savant with a removable glass eye and no teeth, he could repeat entire conversations from Christmases past. Our visits would light up his face like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. He took the ends of my blond braids and tickled his face with them saying,  “Kittykittykitty!”

He clapped as he opened our gifts of peppermint candies and clothing. When it was time to leave he clung to my mother. Taking Burt’s face in her hands, she kissed his cheeks where tears rolled down.

“Be good Burt, or Santa won’t come.”

He’d display his gummy grin, stroke her soft brown curls and whisper, ‘KittyKittykitty,” as he smiled through his tears and shuffled back to his room.


Ryder Ziebarth is an MFA  candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in N magazine, The New York Times, The Cape Cod Times, The Writer’s Circle Journal and a handful of great blogs and websites, including this one. She is also an advisor to the Nantucket Book Festival.

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