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A Mother's Promise
By K.D. Alden
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The United States in the 1920s was caught up in a mania: the drive to use newly discovered scientific laws of heredity to perfect humanity.
—Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
Dr. Price wore a three-piece suit with lots of authority and a kind smile.
As superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, he looked like God, or at least Ruth Ann Riley’s idea of God. She imagined He would wear a fine-cut, hand-stitched three-piece suit like the good doctor’s, with a white coat over it, and have pale, narrow blue eyes, thin, refined lips with neatly trimmed whiskers and a beard. He’d smell nice, too, of shaving cream and cigar smoke and heavy volumes of learning.
Doc checked his gold pocket watch and wrote down the time. Time seemed important to him, not so much to her. Ruth Ann told time by how many peas she got shelled, or by how many shirtwaists, nightdresses, petticoats and overskirts she’d hung on the line.
Doc seemed to want more time, but she wished she had less, because it stretched and stretched and it wasn’t ever over with. Not ’til she went to sleep. Then it started up all over again when the cock crowed.
She didn’t want to be here, the focus of attention. Attention was guaranteed to be a bad thing. Better to be invisible. She tried her best to evaporate, like water into air.
But Doc Price wanted to talk to her again for some reason. He picked up a pen. And a file folder. Then he walked around his monster of a desk to sit down.
She eyed it with awe. That desk is bigger than my bed.
Ruth Ann knew he must be very smart, because he had read all those books that climbed his shelves to the very ceiling. She loved books herself—fiction that she snuck out of the Colony library. Not these tomes. How he remembered all the facts in these defied logic. But she was a working girl—what did she know? She didn’t even know why she’d been called to his office.
Outside, the wind had picked up, torpedoing poor Clarence’s carefully raked piles of leaves and ruining the handyman’s work. Ruth Ann thought uneasily of what a storm might do to the mountains of laundry she’d wrung out until her arms ached. It all hung on the lines. She peered out the window. In the distance, beyond the neatly landscaped terrace outside of Doc Price’s office, she spied a pair of long johns kicking, skirts flying up indecently, sheets billowing.
“Sit down,” Doc Price said, waving his hand toward a chair on Ruth Ann’s side of the desk.
She limped to the seat, gritting her teeth and sweating with the pain. She’d dropped an iron on her big toe in the laundry. Gotten screeched at by Mother Jenkins for burning her shoe, and the son of a gun still stunk of fried hide.
Doc Price didn’t seem to notice the smell; his nose was buried in some scribbles in the file.
Ruth Ann wondered if she could ask him to examine her toe. But he looked very busy. And what can he do? Tell me to go barefoot? Can’t do that when you work in the laundry and the kitchen.
Doc asked her questions he’d asked her before. This time he wrote down her answers, though, while she went halfway to somewhere else in her head. She did that a lot.
What’s your name?
Ruth Ann Riley.
How old are you?
Who is your father?
Where is he now?
Who’s your mother?
Where does she live?
Do you know where you are?
Yes, sir. At the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
Do you know why your mother is here?
Yes, sir. She don’t have no other place to live. Ruth Ann winced. She should’ve said “doesn’t.” But Doc didn’t seem to notice.
Do you know why you’re here?
Her face heated. She looked down at her lap, at her red, raw hands with their gnawed nails. She just nodded.
Why are you here?
You know that, sir.
Yes, Ruth Ann. But I need to ascertain whether you know it.
Ascertain. Doc did drop some fancy words. Sounds like a cross between a donkey and entertain—like why you go to the county fair.
Ruth Ann? His voice was sharper. Like the butcher knife in Mrs. Dade’s kitchen. The one I couldn’t get to in time.
Do you understand why you’re here?
Pressure built behind her nose, tingling. It pushed unwilling tears into her eyes. She blinked. “Wasn’t my fault.” She couldn’t look at him. Write that down, mister.
“You’ve said so before.” Doc tapped his pen. “It’s all right. It’s not important.”
The hell it ain’t. Her anger startled Ruth Ann. It was usually like a toothache, a dull pain—not fierce, like this. It blew away her mental fog. All of her was present now, in this chair in front of Doc.
“Ruth Ann. Why are you here?”
“Can I just see her?” she blurted. She forced her chin up, her eyes to his. “Please? Can I just see my baby?”
Ruth Ann had been an open wound when they took her infant, bundled up and howling. Wasn’t allowed to touch her. Barely allowed to see her. But she could still remember how she smelled. Raw and new. Coppery, a freshly minted penny.
For someone else to spend.
Ruth Ann pushed her swollen big toe hard against the top of her shoe, and agony shrieked through her nervous system, ricocheted through her brain, streaked back down to the injury. She did it again and again. Something was wrong with her; normal people didn’t do stuff like this. But the pain in her toe felt better than the pain in her heart.
Doc packed soothing into his voice on purpose, like gauze into a wound. “Little Annabel is with Mr. and Mrs. Dade. You know that.”
That’s supposed to make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. So close but so far away. Safe, but for how long? Cared for, but only until she’s old enough to care for them.
“Can’t I hold her…just one time?” Meh, meh, meh. She hated the way her voice sounded. Like a goat’s. Bleating.
Doc looked down, shuffled his notes. He sighed. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
Why? She didn’t say it aloud. She knew it was against the rules. He’d told her before.
But who made the dang rules? An’ if he’s good as God here at the Colony, cain’t he break ’em if he wants? She felt heavy and dark and tight, like her ugly lace-up shoes. Smudged, mud-crusted, burned out and smelly.
“Ruth Ann. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.”
Right. My matter don’t matter. His does.
“I’m here,” she said slowly, “because I ain’t married and I had a baby. And that’s bad.”
Doc nodded. “And why else are you here?”
She stared blankly at him. Then she remembered. “Because…they say I’m feebleminded.” News to her.
“And what does that mean, Ruth Ann?”
She looked over at the diplomas. She could easily read the letters that said where he’d studied, even the Latin ones. Mrs. Hawkins had taught her some Latin in fifth grade. She’d finished sixth before she’d gone to work for the Dade family. “Feebleminded means that I ain’t smart.” She winced again. But who cared if she said “ain’t”…if she was a moron, like they said.
He stroked his beard. “Well, these things are relative.”
What did that mean? My only relative—here, anyways—is my momma, and I stay away from her. She’s crazy. And when she ain’t crazy, she’s drunk. And they don’t know where she gets the hooch. I know where: it’s from any man on staff who wants a piece. But they don’t really want those answers.
Doc Price got up from his desk. He walked around it and folded his arms, looking down at her. “Ruth Ann, we’re going to do an operation on you.”
He’s not asking me. He’s telling me. She fixed her gaze on the third button of his waistcoat: shiny and brass, etched with a proud eagle in flight. “An operation?” She didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yes. It’s…for the greater good.”
She dropped her gaze from his button to her lap. But then she didn’t feel comfortable looking there, because that was where the baby came from. So she looked back at Doc Price’s diplomas, at the curly handwriting that said how smart he was. Harvard said so. And so did somebody named John Hopkins—though there seemed to be two of him.
She liked to do good. I’m a good girl. Well, I was. Until Mrs. Dade’s nephew Patrick held me down and climbed on me and put the baby in me even though I said no. He just laughed at me, and I couldn’t get to the knife. Because of him, I’m no longer a good girl.
Doc Price snapped his fingers in front of her face.
She looked up, startled; afraid she’d made him mad. But he looked almost pleased at her wandering attention. Pleased with himself, though, not her.
“What kind of operation?” she asked.
“It’s complicated, Ruth Ann,” he said, dropping a hand onto her shoulder. He squeezed it.
Ruth Ann flinched, couldn’t help it. She wasn’t used to anyone touching her. And it ain’t never a good thing when they do.
“You’ll just have to trust me,” Doc said. “All right?”
Doc took out his pocket watch again and checked it. “Our time is up, my dear. I have to see another patient now.”
Another one? But you don’t really see me.
He smiled like a very kind uncle and gestured toward the door. The sunlight bounced off that third button of his waistcoat again, glinting on the eagle. It looked so graceful and free.
Ruth Ann got up, still feeling heavy and dark and even tighter. Dirtier. Her toe screamed under the scab of burned leather. She didn’t kick off the shoe, or ask Doc to look at it, or even scream back.
“For the greater good,” he said, nodding and stroking his beard again, as if he were trying to convince himself.
She used to be a good girl. And maybe Doc was offering her the chance to be that girl again. Slip backward in time, wash off the filth and the sin.
She searched his eyes for what Pastor Miller called absolution, for redemption. Fancy words that meant God forgave a soul for being bad. Doc was saying she could do something for others? Everybody should. So even though it felt wrong, she nodded.
“We’ll do the surgery soon, Ruth Ann.”
Her breath hitched as her pulse kicked up. “Wait.” She wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her gray work dress. “What…what is it that you—”
“My dear, you’ve nothing to fear,” he said in tones that were overly reassuring. “It will be over before you know it.”
“What kind of surgery?” She hated the word. It started with a hiss and meant scalpels and slicing and scariness…pain. Pain much worse than the steady throb in her stupid toe.
“I’ll give you a drug that makes you sleep,” Doc Price continued, as if he hadn’t even heard her words.
“But what are you going to do to me?” Her voice had risen. She knew she was supposed to be more respectful because he was a doctor and all, but now she was scared.
He sighed and walked to the window, gazing at anything rather than her. “This is an operation of a rather…delicate…nature.”
She shook her head. “What’s that mean?”
“It involves your, ah, female organs.” He stroked his beard again, as if it were a small animal.
Ruth Ann clenched her hands. “But…there’s nothing wrong with them.”
A sigh reached her from the window. “Just so.” His expulsion of breath clouded her view of the darkening sky outside and the now madly writhing silhouettes of laundry pinned to the lines. They looked desperate to escape, like tortured souls.
“Doc, there’s nothing wrong with my parts. I’m fine since I had the baby. I get my monthly courses again and all.” Ruth Ann’s face heated in shame at the topic. But he brought it up first. He’s the one who wants to fix something that ain’t broke.
“Correct,” he said, as if she needed him to agree with her on what she already knew about her own body. “That’s rather the issue, Ruth Ann.”
“My dear.” He gestured toward the other buildings and grounds of the Colony. “Given the facts of your life here, given your broken family history and your mental, ah, capacity…”
Why doesn’t the man just use plain English and say what the heck he means?
“It is best that we curtail your ability to breed.”
“What?” She had no idea what curtail meant. “I can breed. I just had a ba—”
Doc checked his watch again. “But you shouldn’t,” he said gently. “That’s the whole point, Ruth Ann. It’s in no way your fault, my girl, but you’re the daughter of a drunken, defective, debauched…derelict. You live in an institution, and given that circumstance, it’s highly unlikely you will ever wed. And”—he cleared his throat—“you’re certainly no intellectual. So we have decided that it’s best for all concerned that we sterilize you.”
“Sterilize,” she repeated. “Like boiling jars before canning vegetables?”
He chuckled. “Well, not exactly. But somewhat. That sort of sterilization does also reduce the risk of…toxic growth.”
She blinked, unsure what he was talking about.
“Ruth Ann, I intend to simply cut your fallopian tubes and then neatly tie them. Sew you back up. And you’ll be good as new.”
“Fallopian tubes…think of them as pipes through which a fertilized egg travels on its way to your uterus—your tummy. Where the egg grows into a baby.”
Ruth Ann absorbed this. Eggs. From there it was a short hop to chickens. Another of her tasks sometimes was to fetch the eggs from the chicken coop. An’ what happens to hens when they stop layin’? They become soup.
A cramp seized her from deep inside, snatching her breath and twisting some nameless part of her listed in Doc’s books. Clamping down viciously, wringing it like a hot, wet sheet. Ruth Ann pressed down hard on her belly with her clasped hands to make it stop.
They’d taken her baby, but she would find a way to see her and get Annabel back. Raise her: that was a promise. And one day, she’d have another. She would.
Doc snapped his fingers again in front of her face. “All right, Ruth Ann?”
“No,” she said, surprising them both. “I don’t want this.”
He peered at her over his steel spectacles. Down his nose. “My dear girl, I regret to inform you that the choice is not yours.”
Her mouth dropped open as he seated himself again behind his desk.
He didn’t sound like he regretted anything except the time he was spending in discussion with her. He pulled out his watch yet again. She wanted to shove it down his throat. Or somewhere darker. “But you can’t just…you can’t do that.”
Dr. Price steepled his hands upon his blotter, his thin-lipped mouth downturned. His gaze was gentle but firm. “I’m afraid I can.”
“It’s my body.” Her voice was louder than she meant it to be.
“Indeed? Forgive me, but your body, as you say, is fed, clothed and housed by the government of Virginia. Therefore, the state takes an interest in it.”
So I’m just an alley cat, living on scraps and shame? “I work for that food, these clothes that I sweat through every day and the leaky roof over my head,” she said, as the sky rumbled in agreement. She pointed at the army of laundry trying to flee the coming storm. “I work.”
“No.” Doc sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
No? Whatever did the man mean by no? Was he feebleminded?
His pale blue eyes honed in on her. “You defray the costs of your upkeep, which the state should not have to bear in the first place. So perhaps, young lady,” Doc suggested, “you may wish to cultivate some gratitude.”
“Gratitude?” Her voice rose involuntarily. “Is that right.” Man’s clearly never worked a day in a laundry.
“You need to calm down, Miss Riley.”
“I am calm!” But she realized, too late, that she’d shouted. And at a doctor, of all people. Who was she to snap at a doctor?
He eyed her severely. “You’re nothing of the sort.”
Ruth Ann blew out a breath. She dug her fingers into her eyeballs to relieve the rising pressure there. She inhaled, counted to three. “I’m sorry. I ’pologize. I’m calm now. I promise. It’s just that—”
Doc Price got to his feet. “Good. I trust you will remain so. Our interview is now completed.”
In less than five seconds, Ruth Ann and her disrespect were outside his door, dismissed.
The bruised sky began to spit on her as the laundry flung itself desperately toward freedom—with no luck. It was well pinned.
No time to feel sorry for herself; she had to rescue the laundry before it got soaked. As Ruth Ann ran headlong into the torrents of wind, the sky deployed buckets of cold water and pitchforks of lightning. Thunder shook the earth under her horrid black shoes. She sprinted despite the fire consuming her toe. The toe that felt what she could not feel.
The rain was blinding, the grass slippery underfoot. Her hair came loose and smacked wet mop strings into her eyes. She lost her footing, went down. Lay there with her face in the mud for a long moment, drinking in the disparate scents: tangy, grapefruity vegetation; the duskier, muskier earth it was rooted in; the drowned sunshine.
It was too late for the laundry.
As she raised her head, a small, ghostly pale hand with blackened nails appeared in front of her face, as if it had reached out of an unmarked grave. She screamed and recoiled, fell onto her back, panting.
A girl, not a ghost, stood there. She was about Ruth Ann’s age and just as drenched. The girl looked vaguely familiar and wore the same gray work dress as Ruth Ann. She dashed water out of her huge brown eyes, then she covered her mouth and sneezed like a buffalo.
“God bless you,” Ruth Ann said automatically. Not that she thought it’d do the least bit of good. If a body at the Colony sneezed her soul out and a devil wanted to pop into its place, it would do as it pleased, blessing or not. Clearly Satan possessed Mother Jenkins. Her soul—if the witch had ever had one—had been dropkicked into a gulley and pissed on by an angry mule.
The girl grimaced. “You look like you could use some blessing yourself.”
“What makes you say that?” Ruth Ann’s tone was wry. But she took the girl’s helping hand and pulled herself to her feet.
It was the very last name Ruth Ann had expected, since Glory looked about as glorious as a rat caught in a bucket of wet cement. Her hair clung to her skull, her dress was stuck like glue to every bone in her body and any color that might once have crept onto her cheeks had been thoroughly rinsed off by the rain.
“Pleased to meet you,” Ruth Ann managed. “Ruth Ann. Riley.”
Glory’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
She wouldn’t want anything to do with her now that she knew Ruth Ann’s last name was Riley. That was for sure.
“Yeah.” Ruth Ann turned to resume her trek toward the doomed laundry. Its former struggles had ceased; every piece hung like a sodden corpse, stretching the lines to breaking point. Mother Jenkins would be fit to be tied. Too bad nobody’d actually tie her. “Thanks for the hand up.”
“Wait…” Glory sneezed again.
“God bless you,” Ruth Ann repeated.
“Did you just come from Doc Price’s office?”
Ruth Ann stilled. Nodded. Jammed her toe against the top of her shoe again, relishing the pain. And again. Her toe popped through the abused, burned leather. She registered it in disbelief. Now there’d really be hell to pay. Shoes didn’t come cheap.
“’Cause I’m headed there now. I’m late. Mother J told me I had to get the oven scrubbed clean first—she didn’t care if I had an appointment with St. Peter himself.”
There was a long pause.
Glory swallowed. “Do you…maybe know…why he wants to see me? I don’t feel sick.”
Ruth Ann wiggled her purple toe. “You’re new, right? I remember now when you came. About three months ago? And you were…”
Glory’s face flamed. “Knocked up. You can say it.”
“Yeah. Well, so was I. Um. Doc Price prob’ly wants to talk to you about that.”
Ruth Ann shrugged. “It’s a medical thing.”
“What kind of medical thing?”
There was nothing Ruth Ann could do to help the girl. Heck, she wasn’t sure there was anything she could do to help herself. “I got to go. Mother Jenkins is gonna take the Belt to me as it is, what with the wet laundry and all.” Ruth Ann turned on her fat plum of a toe, dragging it through the muddy grass.
“What happened to your shoe?” Glory asked.
“Nothing.” She wasn’t going to waste her breath on sob stories. This girl wouldn’t end up her friend, anyway. She’d shun her, like everyone else, now that she knew her momma was creepy, crazy Sheila Riley. And who cared? She sure didn’t.
“What happened to your toe?”
“Nothing,” Ruth Ann said. “See you around.” Midstride, she stopped, somehow sensing the hurt in the gap between them. She turned around. “What happened to your baby?”
But Glory’s face had hardened. “Nothing.”
“You lazy, useless, stupid girl!” ranted Mother Jenkins as Ruth Ann shivered and dripped in misery on the mudroom floor. The matron didn’t even hand her a towel, much less tell her to go find some dry clothes.
Mother Jenkins resembled a toad on stilts: bulging eyes set wide in a well-fed face, a bare blip of a nose and a broad, thin-lipped, foul mouth. She had no breasts to speak of; her girth was all in the belly, but she had curiously small feet. They might even be described as dainty, in contrast to her disposition. She was crusty on a good day. On a bad day, such as this one, Ruth Ann would swear that bats flew out of her behind, shrieking for blood.
“Hours and hours of labor, wasted!”
I should know. My labor.
“Cakes of soap, hundreds of gallons of hot water, down the drain!”
Who d’you think boiled that water to heat it?
“A whole day lost…”
- "A Mother's Promise just became a new classic that all readers should have on their shelves."—Urban Book Reviews
- "A Mother's Promise is a powerful, heart-wrenching, ultimately uplifting novel about the bonds of family and one woman's courage in the face of adversity. K.D. Alden brings history to life with rich storytelling and deep emotion."—V.S. Alexander, author of The Magdalen Girls
- “An extraordinary debut novel . . . one of those must-read books.”—Historical Novel Review
- "A compelling read! This book will stay with you for a long time."—The Book Review Crew
- "An emotional read that will leave you thinking long afterward."—Homeschool on the Range
- "Haunting and beautifully written."—Let's Get Booked Away
- "An emotional, heartbreaking, masterfully woven tale by Alden that immerses you so thoroughly into the lives, feelings, and personalities of the characters you never want it to end."—What's Better Than Books?
- "Emotional and thought-provoking."—Just Reading Jess
- On Sale
- Jan 19, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages