USUALLY, I WRITE STORIES ON our kitchen table — the one so rickety that milk spills from the kids’ cups if you bump it and causes everyone else to eye it with contempt as campfire kindling.
It came from Grandma and Grandpa Mellskog’s home and symbolizes for me the bravery, hope, and hard work they flexed to make it in this country as Swedish immigrants.
It is a “can do” kinda table, and I can’t part with it.
But recent news of a man confessing to crimes carried out against an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota nearly 27 years ago drove me upstairs to write instead where my three boys sleep.
I am sitting with a pillow between my back and the wall by Andy and Ray’s open bedroom window. Nearby, a stuffed Spider-Man slumps in a desk chair, and a white cardboard box holds a jumble of electric train track sections.
How many times did Jacob Wetterling’s mother sit as I am in her boy’s forever empty room?
A masked man abducted her son on Oct. 22, 1989, as he biked home from renting a video at a Tom Thumb convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., with his younger brother and his best friend.
Images of 200 National Guardsmen vainly combing the fields and woods for Jacob near the family’s rural home about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where I lived at the time, stick with me.
But mostly I remember the boy’s class picture — one of him smiling in a canary yellow cable knit sweater — because he literally became the poster child for all missing children.
As time went by, the Wetterling family through the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center founded in 1990 to promote child safety distributed the poster with that color photo next to an age progression adjusted color image of their boy as a man.
They also turned on their porch light every night as a symbolic gesture of their hope for his safe homecoming.
“…For us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, told reporters after she and her family attended Danny Heinrich’s Sept. 6 plea hearing.
There, the killer confessed details of his crime in federal court as part of a plea bargain related to his arrest last year on federal child pornography charges.
She now knows that the masked man held a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson Special to abduct Jacob.
She knows her son asked, “What did I do wrong?” as Heinrich, now 53, handcuffed and stuffed him in a car before driving about 30 miles southwest of St. Joseph to molest him near a deserted gravel pit on Hwy. 23 near Paynesville, Minn.
He shot the boy within about an hour of abducting him and on Sept. 1 led investigators to the grave to prove it as part of the deal that protects him from prosecution in the Wetterling case.
Knowing this caused me to think more deeply about the hope Patty Wetterling first held out at 39 until this month, when she, as a 66-year-old grandmother, learned the truth.
Are all those years of hoping worthless or, worse, foolish to the Wetterlings now?
Well, here is what we know.
We know that it was hope — not fear or dismay or blind loathing — that inspired Patty Wetterling to lobby for The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act.
Enacted in 1994, the federal legislation requires all states to keep a registry of those convicted of sexually violent offenses or offenses against children. States also must verify the addresses of sex offenders annually for at least 10 years. Offenders classified as sexually violent predators must verify their addresses for life.
Patty Wetterling’s porch light shines over America in this way. And though Jacob never again walked through their front door, her message of hope and advocacy on behalf of missing children reached around the world.
Thousands posted photos of their porch lights on Facebook in support of the Wetterlings when the case closed.
Meanwhile, shopkeepers along the main drag in St. Joseph responded with more hope, not less, through sidewalk sandwich board messages.
One read, “If light is in your heart you will always find a way home.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303-746-0942.