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Edith Riley: How the Girl Rescued from a Closet Inspired a Wild Child to Become a Foster Parent
Wild Child Turned Foster Mother
My grandmother was born at the perfect time in the wrong place. An artist to her very core, the young Agnes found few creative outlets in rural 1920s Iowa, instead turning to smoking, drinking, adolescent acts of rebellion like cutting her hair short and hard partying to quell her desire for adventure. Imagine Frida Kahlo, banished to Muncie.
Her untamable spirit caught the eye of my grandfather, Donald, a handsome and adventurous heir to the county's wealthiest family. They said he married down, but no two people were ever more meant for one another, for good or bad.
There were many good times. They married in town; my grandma wore a dark blue velvet dress she made herself. Soon after, my grandfather began flight school. Finally, the first real taste of adventure!
Then, the first bitter spoonful of hardship. Complications during the home birth of my uncle. The forceps used to pull him out permanently damaging his brain.
Although they loved him desperately, raising a special-needs child in the 1930s presented many challenges, challenges that weighed on the young couple's thirst for adventure.
And then WWII started.
There was a glimmer of hope, but never more than a glimmer. One day my grandpa was going to fly as a fighter pilot for the Army Air Corps, and the next day, my great-grandfather told him to come home to his "responsibilities." He was the oldest. Everyone needed him; the family needed him. His duty was with the farm, not flying an airplane over some foreign country. All this burden strapped to my grandfather as he watched his two younger brothers drive to Omaha to enlist.
So no adventure, only the sting of disappointment and jealousy.
Little Girl Locked in a Closet
I don't think there's a family photo - save for a couple of albums my grandpa gave away in the throes of Alzheimer's - that my grandma ever got rid of. There are also birth and funeral announcements, birthday cards, my mom and uncle's school drawings and journals, prize ribbons, ledger books, Bibles ... if it had anything to do with our family, even if it was only a remote connection, my grandma kept it. Cousin 18 times removed? We probably have a graduation photo. I have boxes upon boxes of photos and bits of paper that are priceless treasures to our family.
But she didn't keep any other stuff. There are no newspaper clippings of major news events like the Pearl Harbor bombing or the JFK assassination.
But she saved these.
They're from the year she graduated from high school, 1931. News clippings about a little girl in Washington state named Edith Riley, who was rescued at the age of 13 from the dark closet in which her father and stepmother imprisoned her for four years.
The first clipping shows Edith immediately after her rescue. Eyes sunken in, frown lines deeply etched in her cheeks. The reporter notes that she weighed a mere 38 pounds when she was rescued. In the adjacent photo, a much-improved Edith, weighing 52 pounds, is smiling, a white flower clenched in her hand. Her eyes look bright and cheerful.
Edith's First Christmas, Thirteen Years After Her Birth
My grandma loved Christmas. She made Christmas magical every year. In the 1950s, she began work on a life-size wax Nativity Scene that still operates in her small Iowa town. With the help of her sister and my grandpa, they built several human and animal figures; my grandpa even built the barn to protect it. Thousands of people would come each year to see the Scene. Many people kneeled to worship in front of the Scene because they were so moved.
Seeing this second photo of Edith, receiving Christmas gifts from the first time in her entire life must have deeply saddened her. The extent of her parents' neglect is apparent; she is much smaller than the younger Girl Scouts that tower over her. Their gazes are filled not only with compassion but also a fair bit of confusion at this odd girl. How could they understand the horror she survived?
I think the 1970s televised the end of innocence in America, an end that had quietly come decades earlier. Regular people still thought we were fighting for American values in Viet Nam, Nixon's betrayal was still an unbelievable shock and Charles Manson was an aberration. For kids like me, still in elementary school, these horrors seemed like something that only happened in ABC after-school specials (which greatly whitewashed the realities of tragedy). To me, life before I was born was just like all the reruns of old black-and-white shows: pristine, moral, upstanding, ordered. Gilligan's Island was my idea of chaos.
I knew that our family had a "hired girl." She lived with the family long before I was born, but she was a fixture in many family photos. I thought she was a cousin or something.
Then one day my mom started talking about her, and how she had come from an abusive family. I was in my 20s and it was the first time my mother ever really talked about her, or talked about my grandma being a foster mother. Then she went on to say that my grandma took in children who were badly beaten or sexually abused, including a 2-year-old girl who had been forced to repeatedly perform oral sex on her father.
The Evil Stepmother: Cinderella Had It Good
The final of the three photos, in which Mrs. Riley is on her way to jail, looking forward, obviously exhausted and fearful, not daring to look toward the press camera snapping away to her right. She looks like a weak and evil person. A corpulent Deputy Marshal stands sentinel between the prisoner and the press corps who were waiting to eat her alive. And deservedly so: She and he husband locked poor little Edith in a closet for four years, starving her body and mind.
Mrs. Riley and her husband served two short years in jail; even at the time, the clipping notes, the sentence seemed lenient.
My grandmother had a good childhood, filled with love and happiness. Edith's story must have been a true horror to my grandma, a horror she didn't want to see happen again. So when given the opportunity, she signed up to become a foster parent in her county. She was the wife of one of the county's richest men, so there was no question of her qualifications. Unfortunately, it wasn't to last.
She dearly loved those children as her own, and would have accepted many others into their home, but Agnes fought with her own demons. The wild days of her youth never really went away, and the isolation of the farm, coupled with everyday tedium of being a housewife, led her to drink far more than she should have. Her love for those foster kids, and her love for her own children (one a special needs child) couldn't defeat her alcoholism.
They would have smelled the alcohol on her breath. Then they would have known. And then the alcoholic cycle truly began: She would drink, they would find out, she would be punished. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. They didn't allow her to have foster kids again, which was a devastating emotional blow.
But at least little Edith Riley was saved. The little girl that broke my grandma's heart and made her want to change the world for the better, even if she couldn't change herself.
© 2015 Carrie Peterson