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When a mother vanishes

Eight years later, daughter still hopes

HINGHAM -- Her mother has been missing for eight summers now, more than half of her childhood in this picture-perfect subdivision of skateboards and swing sets. Time, she thought, would lessen the yearning. Instead, Brett Minassian, 15, finds herself thinking more, not less, about the woman everyone says she is starting to resemble.

As Patricia Minassian's only daughter, Brett couldn't help but think of her mother when she dressed for her first high school dance. Or when she had to pick a research topic for school, and she chose "depression." Or sometimes when she picks up the phone.

Two months ago, a telemarketer called and asked: "Is Patricia Minassian there?"

When Brett replied that her mother wasn't home, the caller asked: "When will she be back?"

Brett held the receiver of the kitchen phone.

"I don't have a clue," she replied.

Another summer is almost over now, and the mystery of her mother's disappearance is still entangled in the thick brush and sand dunes of the Cape Cod shoreline. The law says that a person missing for seven years can be deemed legally dead. But there are no laws that govern exactly when, or if, a child decides that Mom is not coming back.

On a June evening in 1996 Patricia Minassian, 37, and her family began what seemed an ordinary summer vacation at her in-laws' cottage in Bourne. After bathing her 2-year-old son, Kevin, Patricia Minassian told her husband's parents she was taking the maroon minivan to the car wash. Her husband, Ronald, was at a nearby baseball field with Brett, then 7, and Jay, 6.

Minassian drove off -- and has not been seen since.

A day later, the minivan was found about 50 miles away at the parking lot of Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, with its doors locked. There was no note.

Overnight, Minassian was transformed from being a busy suburban mother, juggling work and family, to one of the state's most-sought-after "missing persons." National and local television programs showed pictures of Patricia Minassian's smiling face and reported the confounding facts. While she had been treated for depression, the Hingham mother had never tried to kill herself. Tips came pouring in from across the country reporting sightings of a 5-foot-2-inch woman with short brown hair and hazel eyes that seemed to match the photo. But the leads went nowhere.

Without any evidence of her death and no sign of foul play, Minassian was listed, in the State Police barracks on Cape Cod, as a missing-person case.

Brett doesn't talk a lot in her quiet neighborhood of classic Colonials about being the daughter of a missing mother. She'll start weeping now and then, "at random times," she said, but she doesn't make a big deal out of this empty part of her life, and neither do her friends. Most days, Brett blends into the crowd of teenagers in this South Shore town, listening to CDs, working on their tans, and trading instant messages.

A few years ago Brett began to question the explanation of her mother's absence that she had clung to: that Mom was simply away on a long break.

"I was wondering more about what happened," said Brett, sitting alongside her father in the kitchen of the home her parents bought when she was 4.

Brett began studying videos of old television news shows about Patricia Minassian's disappearance, footage she had previously refused to watch. In the privacy of her bedroom, she reads pages from "A Mother's Memory Book," a journal that her mother gave her two days before her disappearance. In the journal, Patricia wrote about her childhood and about Brett as a child.

Two years ago, Brett asked her father whether she could make more frequent visits to Barbara Green, a Hingham therapist who has counseled the family since Patricia Minassian's disappearance.

The girl whom Green saw entering her office was an adolescent struggling to grow into womanhood, trying to form a clearer vision of her mother. The timing could have been predicted, Green said, "as if someone set an alarm clock."

"For a girl, it's a time when a relationship with a mother is closely examined," Green said.

Green said Brett's father had done a "heroic job" providing stability for the children. Still, she said, as Brett matured, she needed additional help to cope with the fading image of her mother, and understand the "ambiguous loss" generated by her mother's disappearance.

"As a teenage girl, she is trying to come to grips with questions that will never be answered," Green said.

Unlike her brothers, Brett has always avoided the word "dead" to describe her mother. The boys had an easier time letting go, she said, perhaps because they were younger when their mother left.

Early on, when her father suggested they move to a different home in Hingham, to escape the memories, she refused: "How will Mommy find us?"

But in gradual steps, Brett began opening her mind to different scenarios to explain her mother's fate.

First, she dropped certain comforting routines that had helped her as a young girl. Around fourth grade, she stopped saying "Good night, Mommy!" while blowing kisses in the air at bedtime. And she stopped putting report cards, photographs, and Red Sox ticket stubs in the "memory box," a container her father had set up for her and her brothers as a way for the children to stay connected to their mother.

Over time, Brett abandoned the theory she had thought up as a second-grader, that she and her two younger brothers had somehow caused her mother to leave because they fought too much.

No one talked to Brett back then about the depression that was a powerful undertow in her mother's life in the few years before she left. Nobody told Brett that her mother had been hospitalized at least once for her condition.

Brett did not know then, as she does now, that a day after her mother's disappearance, her father found some letters addressed to him and some other family members. They were stuffed in Patricia Minassian's pocketbook, which was found in the second family car.

"I've tried so hard to fill the various roles in my life. . . . wife, mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, friend, and employee," read one note. "However, I'm not doing any of them well right now . . . I'm sorry that I can't be all that I need to be."

The family was reluctant to interpret that as a suicide note. They saw it as a possible explanation of an extended absence.

Ronald Minassian was so convinced that his wife was still alive that he hired a California psychic to help him try to track her down, even as he kept up his job as an investment counselor at a Wellesley firm. He made frequent trips, tracking down clues that never panned out.

Brett, now old enough to put together the sum of the evidence, has learned that her mother has not used any credit cards or her Social Security number since her disappearance. She left behind her wedding band and all her identification cards.

Tips continue to come in now and then to the police, reporting sightings of a woman who resembles Patricia Minassian at shopping malls, homeless shelters, and even at one wedding. While police still consider her a missing person, investigators now favor the explanation that Patricia Minassian took her own life, perhaps by walking into the ocean, and that, for some reason, her body has never washed ashore.

Last year, Brett wrote a research paper on depression. She said she learned about the chemical imbalance that can make depression feel like "a black hole" that seems impossible to leave. She learned about other causes of depression, and treatments.

Brett said she wants to be a psychologist who helps people to cope with emotional pain and to recognize that there is no shame to mental illness.

Brett said she now thinks that her mother tried hard to be "seen as a happy person." Patricia Minassian had always been the spark plug of the neighborhood, the one who organized holiday get-togethers. Even her job as an occupational therapist was aimed at helping people overcome their physical limitations.

Brett now believes her mother was trying to keep up appearances: "She didn't want people to treat her differently."

She said she has begun to realize that she has much in common with a close friend who recently lost her mother to breast cancer. She and her friend spent a lot of time supporting each other, and this caused Brett to see how her loss was different -- and similar.

Brett has begun to take pride in the ways she is starting to share her mother's traits. She and her mother both enjoyed writing, and friends say she has her mother's high cheekbones, thick brown hair, and petite size.

"My friend says my mom and I are twins," Brett said with a smile.

She sees her mother in the three photographs in her bedroom, a room recently painted a bright red with the help of her father's girlfriend, a former high school classmate of his. The two got together at a class reunion about a year ago. He said Brett wasn't used to seeing him in the company of another woman, though she is adjusting to the new realities.

Recently, the girl who once refused to move from her mother's home suggested to her father that the family move closer to downtown Hingham, where Brett and her friends like to hang out.

Several times each year, the family honors Patricia Minassian -- on June 30, when she disappeared, as well as at Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. They often go to a granite memorial bench that was placed at the Church of the Resurrection in Hingham. They still spend vacations at the cottage in Bourne where they last saw her.

When Brett hears her fellow teenage friends say, "I hate my mom!," she has a private response that she rarely utters aloud. "I think about how all these people take their mothers for granted," Brett said.

Brett still refuses to give up hope that her mother will return until she has physical proof that she will not. When school starts this fall, she knows she will be asked to fill out forms asking for her parents' names. As always, she refuses to leave out her mother.

"I always write, 'Ronald and Patricia Minassian,' " she said.

In private moments, Brett sometimes recalls the words her mother wrote her on the first page of the memory book, her last gift to her daughter. As a young girl, she saw it as a nice note, a comforting greeting. Now, she sees it as her mother's guiding wisdom, perhaps intended to last a lifetime.

"Dearest Brett, Treasure each moment. Find joy in the simple things. Take time to love and be loved. Be good to others. Always have faith in yourself and be good to yourself. Remember how much I love you. XOXOXO, Mom."

Patricia Wen can be reached at

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