by Cathy LaGrow
Minka was watching Betty Jane asleep in her bassinet when she heard the gentle knock
“Minnie? Is this a good time to talk?”
Minka wanted to decline. Today, she did not want to discuss the subject that the older woman had delayed raising. The subject that had been waiting in the shadows and through restless nights ever since she’d come home from the hospital.
But Minka’s manners won out.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
Miss Bragstad entered, smiling at the bassinet. She laid a hand lightly on the baby’s stomach, then turned to Minka. The smile didn’t waver.
“We must talk about your plans.”
Minka nodded her head, but her eyes jumped to the baby. She reached into the tiny bed and gathered up her infant. Betty Jane groaned and grunted as she was jostled from her deep slumber, then settled back into sleep at the sound of Minka’s heartbeat and the feel of her warm arms.
“What have you been thinking, Minnie?”
“I don’t . . . I can’t.” Minka fought back tears. She did not feel strong, but panicked.
“All right,” Miss Bragstad said in a gentle voice. She placed her hand on Minka’s back.
“Mother said it is best that Betty Jane have a home with a mother and a father. She . . . I have no education. I’m just a milkmaid.”
Miss Bragstad already knew this.
Minka did not say the other thing they both knew—that the child would grow up with the shame of not having a father. Her perfect little girl would be called names. And what would Minka say when Betty Jane began to ask questions about her father?
“This is your decision, Minnie. Only you can make it.”
Minka wanted to say that she had made it. That there was no way she’d ever leave her baby girl. But she envisioned her own gnarled fingers pointing at her, taunting her. Those perfect baby fingers will look like yours if you keep her. What kind of life will she have with you? You have not one thing of your own.
“What do you think I should do?” Minka whispered.
Miss Bragstad didn’t answer for so long, Minka looked up to be sure she was still there.
As Minka watched the proper and disciplined matron pace the floor, she realized Miss Bragstad struggled with the dilemma. This wasn’t easy for her, either.
“When I consider what is best for you, I have many hopes for your future. Raising a child as an unmarried mother . . . though that wasn’t your fault, you will be judged. It is the way things are. I also consider what is best for your Betty Jane.”
“And she would be better off with someone else.” Grief tore at Minka’s voice.
“That is not true. Look at you, you are a natural with her. But she, too, will be judged, all of her life.” She paused. “But I do not believe anyone could love her any better than you do, Minnie.”
Miss Bragstad excused herself after a few more minutes.
“I will pray that you will make the right decision, whatever that might be.”
In the light of day, Minka settled on the belief that Betty Jane would have a better life with a respectable family. She made the decision, certain she could be Betty Jane’s selfless champion, sacrificing her own wants for her daughter’s future.
At night, when the moon cast a lonely glow across her bedroom floor, Minka wanted to clutch her daughter in her arms and flee to points unknown.
But finally the daytime prevailed. Minka went to Miss Bragstad, carrying the child in her arms down the creaking stairs and through the hall to the matron’s office. Minka didn’t wait until Miss Bragstad made her rounds to check on the girls or when they sat together at a meal—Minka had to speak her decision before she took it back.
“You’ll find a very good family?” she asked after the dreaded words, the worst words she’d ever spoken. “A mother and a father for her? The best mother and father?”
Minka spent the hours with Betty Jane, holding her close, smelling her hair, her skin.
A dozen times, her resolve faltered. She did not know how she would do it when the time came. How could she leave her baby here? How could she hand her over and actually walk away?
Betty Jane stared up at her with deep blue eyes. One of the girls had told her that all baby’s eyes were blue and that they’d change in color over time. Minka didn’t want to think of this. She didn’t want to consider all the things she’d never know about her sweet Betty Jane. For now, this was her baby. Hers alone.
Minka thought of the dairy. It seemed like another life now. She’d been a child then. Now she was a woman. Not just a woman—a mother. Nothing would take that away. No amount of pretending or returning to the dairy as if nothing had occurred. Everything had occurred. She’d awoken from a dream, and she could never fall back into her former sleep again.
Although Minka knew that Betty Jane would never remember her, she lavished affection on her. She wanted her daughter to know her love, to never feel that Minka had abandoned her. Somehow, maybe, she could convey that.
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