A Child Is Not a Kitten

Deb Peterson

During the Depression, my Grandpa refused to accept help of any kind from the government, including food for his children—a well-meaning neighbor once brought over government surplus food because he knew my dad and his siblings were hungry, but Grandpa made the man take the food back.

So, my grandma had to find a way to feed and clothe herself and her husband and eleven children, the oldest of whom was born nine years before the Crash of 1929. The youngest was born a year before the United States entered World War Two. Grandma raised chickens, grew vegetables, and made dresses for the girls out of flour sacks. The family was so poor my father was not allowed to play outside in the winter because he did not have snow boots—he didn’t even have shoes.

The five-room house that this 13-person family lived in had two bedrooms upstairs. All five girls slept in one bed in the smaller 8X8 bedroom and all six boys slept in two beds in the (slightly) larger adjoining bedroom. Grandma and Grandpa slept in a tiny room off the living room. All day long, Marshall worked the farm while Bessie cooked, washed, cared for children, and made meals out of raw air and hope. They had an outhouse but no bathroom.

Then, one day, Grandma got a strange request from a neighbor.

The neighbor was wealthy. She had nice dishes and nice furniture. She kept a tablecloth on her table. She dressed smartly. But she was poor in one respect: she had no children. This wealthy woman took a shine to four-year-old Betty who had blonde curls, blue eyes and a big smile, just like Shirley Temple. The wealthy woman’s request of my grandma was this: “You have all these children and I have none. Won’t you let me have Betty? She will want for nothing.”

Before I tell you what Grandma said, let me ask…what would you do? Would you think about the easier life your little girl would have if she lived in a wealthy home, especially considering the hard times that Betty and her family were enduring in 1938? Would you take pity on this childless woman and gift her with a small part of your bounty so the rich woman could know the love of a parent for a child—so she could feel down to her toes the bond that changes your very soul and makes you a better person?

Would you consider how your other children would benefit once Betty was gone and there was more food and more flour sacks to go around? Would you say to yourself, “Giving her away would be better than making her suffer along with the rest of us”?

Or would you balk because you know in your bones that a parent’s love for a child supersedes time, space, borders, governments, prison camps, and for-profit corporations? Because you know that a parent who loves a child and a child who loves a parent never stop grieving when they lose one another?

 My Grandma refused her wealthy neighbor’s request, and she kept her Betty away from this woman from that day forward. For my Grandma, and nowadays for other poor parents who love their children, to give up your child voluntarily is unthinkable, but to have your child stolen is unimaginable.

I guess Grandma knew that. I guess that’s why she refused to give up her child, even though that meant Betty would grow up eating corn mush at a crowded table with her family rather than growing up eating whipped cream with a silver spoon from a crystal dish and wondering how her brothers and sisters were doing.

Wondering when her mother was going to come and get her and bring her home.

Deb Peterson writes literary, mystery, and speculative fiction stories under the name Delaney Green and is the author of historical fantasy novels about Jem Connolly, an 18th century girl with magical Second Sight. More by and about Delaney Green here.