History fascinates me. I love to learn odd facts and epic truths about our past. History and political science were my choices of a major in college, but I was weak-willed and let my mother influence to become an accountant like Lowery Pickard. Haha! An accountant!!!! I hate numbers. I can do them, I always made good grades, and I majored in accounting for her and graduated with honors, but I hated it and the years that I spent pursuing that career path. Who was Lowery Pickard you might ask? He was a son of one of my mother’s friends and she deemed him successful – thus,my life was influenced and molded by a dry, bespectacled bean-counter who I didn’t know very well. But, I did make my escape into the world of writing – finally!
But history is still important to me. I stay part of my time at my uncle’s deer camp in East Texas. It’s more than a deer camp because it has land and a large house sitting on it, capable of housing the entire family when we get together – think rural backwoods Kennedy compound and you’ll have an idea of where I hangout, deep in the Piney woods with swampy areas nearby. Anyway, the land sits fairly close to two larger reservoirs. One of them is Toledo Bend and the other is Sam Rayburn. My Nana’s husband worked for the State during these developments and I can remember him telling me of his experiences. For example, he shared with me how he rode a paddle boat down the Sabine River before the lake was ever built and listened to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana brass. After the bridge between Texas and Louisiana was built, he was responsible for salting the 5 mile bridge during freezing weather, this would have been in the 1960’s, before machinery was invented to do those things. He and a crew did it by hand with a shovel, working off a maintenance truck.
One thing he shared with me, I had forgotten. This past year, we experienced some drought conditions and the water level fell in the lake, quite drastically. Toledo Bend is a big lake, it covers 185000 acres and when its full, the depths reach 173 feet. So, during the dry season when it fell to below 150 feet, some things came to light that had not been seen in many years. Archaeological sites, Indian mounds, old road beds came into view that hadn’t been seen in fifty years. Tree stumps emerged and when you would drive your boat over areas, you would know that whole towns and cemeteries were submerged beneath the waters. It made me feel funny. I remember Papa telling me about people who fought so hard to keep their homes. They didn’t want to lose their land and houses when the rivers and waters rose. One old man, Ira Holbrooke, just refused to leave until they came in and crushed his home with a tree-crusher. Other’s battled the state governments over their ancestors remains in cemeteries which would be consumed by the lake. These facts haunt me, I can just imagine diving below the surface and seeing whole towns and tombstones – someday I shall write a book about it. Another thing that bothers me is who warned the wildlife – – TODAY IS THE DAY YOU NEED TO RUN – THE FLOOD WATERS ARE COMING! Some of the animals couldn’t outrun it, that’s obvious. How many drowned? This bothers me.
Most people don’t even think about this when they drive over the bridge or sit at the country club and stare at the peaceful blue waters. They don’t think about what lies beneath or what it used to be before that 185000 acres was overrun by a raging flood that covered over entire town, people’s lives and a past we can only glimpse beneath the murky surface of the waters.
In Forget Me Never, history played an important role. I have lived in and around the area of South Louisiana most of my life. I knew there was a town named Carville, but I associated it more with the Ragin’ Cajun’ news pundit James Carville who helped get Bill Clinton elected. I love to watch the man talk, he graduated from LSU and he is brilliant. The town of Carville was named after his grandfather, who was the postmaster there years and years ago. But Carville is more than a small hamlet on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Please allow me to tell you about Carville. For about one hundred years it was the location of the only leper colony in the continental United States. The people who were sent there had no choice, it was the law. When they were diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, they were quarantined and transported to Carville either willingly or unwillingly and sometimes in chains. A person who was ‘sentenced’ to Carville was taken from their family and their names were changed. They lost the right to vote and most of them were never permitted or able to go home again. And if a resident did get a chance to leave for any reason, they had to obtain permission from any area they had to pass through. Of course, due to the fact that there were men and women at the facility – things happened – but if a baby was born to a patient, it was immediately taken away and given over to foster care. This is the inspiration for Savannah’s past in FORGET ME NEVER.
Up until the later part of the nineteen hundreds, Hansen’s disease or leprosy was totally misunderstood. For thousands of years, leprosy carried the stigma of being a condition that was a result of the judgment of sin. Those who suffered from it were thought to be immoral, unclean and beyond help. It wasn’t until the 1940’s when it was discovered that the disease was caused by a bacterial infection related to tuberculosis that people began to – slowly – look at lepers and leprosy differently. As a side note, the only other creature that contracts the disease is the lowly armadillo and much research has been done to find out why.
I arrived at Carville early on an August morning, I had been there before, but never with the knowledge that I had now. The fog from the river lay heavily over the landscape. Huge oaks stood like sentinels guarding a place that housed the dashed hopes and the unfulfilled dreams of almost five thousand people. I was able to walk through the grounds and imagine what it was like for this to be the sum total of their world. Now it is a military base and it is still fenced and guarded, but you can access the museum and drive around the base and still see the building that housed the infirmary. I must say that I felt I walked on sacred ground.
As time passed, Carville became a better place than anyone ever expected. From the time that the first people were brought – hidden on a barge – until the leprosarium was made into a museum, there was a spirit of survival and determination about the place and its people. Those who were sentenced to live there made it as much of a community as they could. They had their own newspaper, Mardi Gras celebration – they even founded the first integrated school in the United States at Carville.
When a treatment was discovered that used a combination of three antibiotics, the lives of leprosy victims changed. Gradually the rules changed, too. At first it was declared that a person could leave and return home if they proved clean after twelve consecutive tests conducted one month apart – or over a year’s time. Some residents didn’t want to leave; Carville was their home. And the authorities let them stay. Some of them lived there even after the year 2000.
Before I left, I walked through the cemetery with its military style white headstones and saw the last resting places of people who were buried and identified only by numbers or by names which were not their own. And I saw graves of several of the Sisters of Charity who had devoted their lives to caring for these people and had chosen to be buried among those they served. I felt a deep sorrow and admiration as I strolled among these poor souls who had lived their lives confined to such a small fenced existence. But, I guess we are all confined behind walls of some sort – be they financial, emotional or circumstantial.
Fear is a strange element. We always fear what we don’t understand and sometimes that fear gets out of hand. The families of leper victims were treated as harshly as those who had the disease. Some were threatened with violence, most were ridiculed and many were ostracized just because a loved one had been diagnosed with this disease which still carried with it all the prejudices that any plague would have.
Aids is the modern day leprosy. Cancer may be horrible and even deadly, but compared to leprosy and Aids – cancer is a respectable disease. Isn’t that horrible? Isn’t the disease bad enough? Must we add judgment and hatred on top of pain and suffering?
You might wonder what all of this has to do with a romance novel. Well, my Savannah in FORGET ME NEVER was born at Carville and taken away from her mother and then no one would adopt her because she was the child of a leper. She was healthy and beautiful but people judged her and considered her unclean because of where she came from and the circumstances of her birth. It makes for some heavy emotion and I will admit I’ve shed tears while writing this book. But she met Patrick, (sigh – Patrick – yum) and he was able to look beyond the silly prejudices and see the beautiful, perfect Savannah.
We all need to count our blessings and give thanks that we were never forced to leave our homes and live in a place that we could never leave – all because we were unlucky enough to get sick. It’s just beyond my comprehension.
So, yes – history is all around us. Places that we are familiar with, that we see every day – sometimes they have a hidden history. And that is what makes this world a fascinating place.
FORGET ME NEVER is out in audio book this week. I hope you try it, this is my first try at something like this – and I’m very excited!
Here’s an excerpt below and also a clip from the audio novel.
Glimpses Into The Past
GEORGIA at 16
“Rise and be healed!” Elisha Renfro threw his arm in the air and shouted in a vibrant, mighty voice. In his hand he clutched a Bible which he waved in the air like a banner.
Georgia Renfro timidly stood with head bowed in front of her father.
“In the name of Jesus, I command the vile spirit of leprosy to vacate the body of this, thy maidservant!” The words echoed in the small building. As the healer sing-songed the name of the Savior, it seemed the very walls vibrated with power. He strained, red-faced as he tried to pour every ounce of faith in his soul into the words that would eradicate the ancient plague from his daughter’s body. Elisha placed the handkerchief covered palm of his hand on the top of her head and pressed hard, pushing her backward. She stumbled and would have fallen if Malcolm Waters hadn’t caught her. Immediately he righted her, and then wiped his hands over and over again on his pants.
“Easy, preacher,” Elisha’s assistant cautioned the man of God, “remember what we’re dealing with here. Okay? It’ll be all right, Georgia.” He patted the air near the trembling young girl’s shoulder. “He’s just trying to help you; that’s all.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“Check for the spots,” her father demanded.
Georgia hung her head in humiliation as Malcolm grabbed her arm and gingerly pushed her sleeve up without coming into contact with her skin. They all looked, but the white patchy lesions were still there. “God Dammit!” the pious evangelist bellowed.
“What’s going to happen to me, Daddy?” Georgia was scared out of her mind.
“You’ll have to go to the hospital, Girl,” Malcolm tried to comfort her without touching her.
Georgia wondered if anyone would ever touch her again.
“Take her away,” Elisha sighed as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I can’t do anything more for her.”
“But, I don’t want to go, Daddy,” she pleaded. “I want to stay with you.”
Malcolm led the crying sixteen year old from the room and returned after a few minutes. “Sister Jones is getting her ready to leave. Everybody’s scared to death, preacher. What now? Are we all infected?”
“I pray to God He’ll spare us.” Elisha laid his Bible down and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Georgia will have to go to Carville, it’s the law. But I don’t want my name or the ministries name involved in any way. From this day on, I don’t have a child.”
“Sir?” Malcolm Waters tried to understand.
“Don’t you get it?” Elisha paced across the wooden floor of the small country church where he was leading a charismatic revival. “I am a faith healer! I am God’s physician! It can never be known that my child has come down with a disease that is the very expression of sin and evil! It’s beyond my understanding, but Georgia has come under divine judgment and I do not have the power to deliver her!” By now his swollen face dripped sweat and his breath was coming in gasps.
“Sir, you need to calm down. You’re going to have a stroke and then where will be we? I’m sure the doctors will be able to help your daughter at Carville.”
“I no longer have a daughter!” Elisha bellowed. “When you leave her at the leprosarium, give them another name for her. I’ll pull some strings at the capitol and have the records sealed. I don’t ever want her real name or my name connected in anyway ever again. In fact, her name is to never be spoken again. After I’m finished, there will be no way for anyone to ever trace Georgia back to me. I wash my hands of the leper.”
“Why?” Malcolm couldn’t believe the man that he followed as his spiritual leader could be so cold as to abandon his only child. Where was the compassion? Where was God’s love in all of this?
“Don’t you see? She would be the ruin of us all. I can’t afford to acknowledge this travesty. If I cannot heal my own child, no one in the world would ever place their faith and trust in me again. My reputation would be in tatters. Our ministry would be over.”
Malcolm almost reminded him that it was God in whom people should place their faith and trust, but Elisha paid his salary – the words went unspoken.
Georgia and Miguel
“Push!” The infirmary nurse stood about a foot away clothed in enough protective gear to enable her to survive a nuclear meltdown. Georgia complied; she pushed as hard as she could and held her hand out to touch Miguel. Dr. Cheshire had allowed him in for the birth, even though they both knew they wouldn’t even get to touch the baby.
“It won’t be long now. Good girl.” The doctor stood back and looked at the couple who had created life in the midst of suffering and death. His heart went out to them.
Miguel took her hand. It was as unmarked as his was. Their disease was under control, yet they still had to abide by rules that went beyond cruel and unusual punishment. They had to give up their baby. “I love you, Georgia,” that was the only words of comfort that he could think of.
He had come to Carville from a border town in West Texas. The doctor at the clinic who had handed down the sentence of leprosy had told him that great strides were being made in the treatment of Hansen’s Disease and that it didn’t have to be a death sentence. What he hadn’t told him was how people would treat him, or how confining the leprosarium would be. If he hadn’t found Georgia, he would have gone stark-raving mad. But sweet, beautiful Georgia had been his salvation. She had given him hope where there was none and a reason to live that went beyond just the instinct to survive.
“Come closer,” she urged him. Georgia squeezed his hand hard. The pain was incredible. “Will our baby be okay?” She looked up at his dear face. When her father had sent her to Carville, she had felt as though she were being sent to the death chamber. No one would touch her; no one would even look her in the eye. But at Carville, she had found acceptance and love. She had found Miguel.
Miguel looked at the doctor who had a smile on his face. “How does it look, doctor?”
“It looks fine. The head is crowning; it’s time for one more big push.”
Georgia clung to Miguel and pushed hard. She was fraught with emotion. For nine months she had carried this baby and she loved it to distraction. Everything within her wanted to clasp it to her breast and love it forever. But that couldn’t be. The doctor had told her that leprosy wasn’t passed to a child during gestation or childbirth, but it could be passed by close contact afterwards. So, she knew what she had to do. And it wasn’t like she had a choice. “God help me!” she screamed as her child slid from her body.
“It’s a girl!” the doctor announced.
Instinctively Georgia held out her arms for her child, but the nurse stepped up and took the squirming, wiggling, screaming infant from the doctor’s arms. With tears streaming down her face, she watched as they wrapped her little girl in a blanket and prepared her to leave. “Bring her close, I want to look in her face just once,” she pleaded.
The nurse hesitated, but Miguel added his appeal. “We just want a moment with her. We’ll never see her again. Have mercy on us, please.”
Dr. Cheshire nodded his permission to the nurse who had looked to him for guidance, then moved a few steps nearer to the new mother and father who were about to say goodbye to their infant daughter before they had even said hello.
Georgia’s heart filled with love even as it broke with utter despair. “She is so beautiful. Just look at our baby, Miguel.” Together they stared at tiny fingers and tiny toes, a button nose and a head full of curly black hair. Georgia gasped in magnificent agony. “I love you, Savannah.” She didn’t know if the name she chose would be given to her child or not, but she prayed it would be so. “Mama will pray for you every day. In my heart, I will always be with you. You’ll never be alone. And I will never, ever forget you.”
SAVANNAH At 12 years old
Savannah edged just as close to the wall as she could. All she wanted to do was hide behind something, but there was nowhere to go. These nice people with their pressed Sunday clothes and too-wide smiles weren’t going to take her home with them. No one ever did. She was unwanted. And it wasn’t because she was too old; although, she was almost a teenager, it was because she was dirty. And it was the kind of dirty that you couldn’t clean off of you. With jerky movements, she scratched nubbins of grey paint off the sheetrock with her thumbnail. She’d get in trouble for it, but she didn’t care. The scars she put on the wall could never be worse than the scars on her soul.
“Stop that, Girl!” A hard slap upside her head caused Savannah to reel sideways and a sharp ringing started in her ears. A rough, gloved hand grabbed her by the collar of her worn cotton dress and led her through the door of the Baton Rouge Humane Services Department out into the stark sunlight of a hot summer day. “This was a damn waste of time. Nobody’s ever going to adopt you!”
What her current foster father shouted came as no surprise to Savannah. She knew she wasn’t going to be adopted. She had already been rejected twelve times. No one wanted a child born at the leper hospital, no matter how healthy and polite she was.
For a long time, the word leper had confused her. Why was being a leper bad? At first she had thought they were saying leopard hospital, and she had liked that. Later, Savannah had found out being a leper was shameful. Harlan Mosby, her foster parent’s oldest son had taken great pleasure in explaining to her what a leper was and why she was tainted forever.
It was state law that the circumstances of Savannah’s birth had to be disclosed to any couple who might consider bringing her into their family. But they wouldn’t tell her or anyone else who her real parents were. The details of Savannah’s birth were sealed by request of the family and a court ruling. That worried Savannah. Why didn’t they want her to know who she was? It couldn’t have been to protect her, because she was not being protected by anyone.
All she had been given from her real family was a tattered Bible. For years she thought there were no clues in it at all. But one day, she had been reading it and discovered that two of the back pages were stuck together. When she had carefully separated them, what she found were just a few words scrawled in blue ink. They didn’t make any sense to her: ‘Forgive me daughter. You are my greatest failure. May the Word bring you comfort. God save us both.’ And it was signed, ‘the Prophet.’ One day, Savannah vowed, she would find out what that meant. Savannah wanted to find her mother and father, she didn’t care if they were lepers or not.
“When we get to the house, I want you to get back to cleaning out the basement. If you want a room of your own, that’s where it’s going to be.” Savannah didn’t mind the work; it gave her something to do. And it would be nice to have a real room and not have to sleep in the broom closet. There were three other foster kids, one boy and two girls, and they had bedrooms. She wasn’t allowed to mix with them or the family to any extent.
“Yes, sir.” The differences between her and the other kids weren’t obvious to Savannah, but apparently everyone else understood. They were clean and she wasn’t. Savannah ate by herself, slept by herself and played by herself. She had her own plate, glass, fork and spoon. No one wanted to eat after her. And she had to use a hospital portable potty chair because no one wanted to share a bathroom with her.
Mrs. Mosby had said keeping her was worth it, though. Apparently, the state paid them double for all the trouble she caused them. This confused Savannah. She had asked if she was a leper, and they had told her ‘no’, so she didn’t understand why she was dirty. Some nights she washed her hands over and over trying to get clean, but no one ever treated her any differently, no matter how pruny her skin became.
It didn’t really matter, that’s what she told herself. Savannah tried to be happy. She sang and made up stories to entertain herself. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Her foster mother brought her books that the library was throwing away. Or at least that’s what she said, why the library was throwing away good books was a mystery to Savannah. She liked to think that the librarian didn’t mind her touching the books. That would be nice. History was her favorite subject, so Mrs. Mosby took extra care to bring her all types of biographies and text books.
Savannah liked Mrs. Mosby. She talked to Savannah quite a bit and let her sit near while she was ironing or mending clothes. Although, she didn’t care much for some of the things she said. If her life was going to be as lonely as her foster mother tried to prepare her for, she didn’t really know if she wanted to grow up.
As Savannah sat on a towel in the back seat of Mr. Mosby’s sedan watching the flat landscape go by, she thought about what his wife had told her. “You’ll never be able to get married, Savannah. No self-respecting man is going to want to touch you.” Savannah didn’t really know why she would want a man to touch her other than to be held. Sometimes she dreamed about being held. The Mosby kids got hugged, even the other foster kids got hugged occasionally, especially the girls – but as far as Savannah could ever remember, no one had ever hugged her.
“Get out, Kid. We’re home,” her foster dad held open the door. Savannah hadn’t even been aware the vehicle had stopped. As she climbed out and looked up at the stern older man with his balding head and bad teeth, she wondered what her real dad was like. Savannah bet her dad had a nose. Harlan said lepers didn’t have noses or toes or fingers, that they rotted off and left holes in their face and stubs on their feet and hands. The thought of what her parents must have suffered through made Savannah’s heart hurt. Despite the horrible picture Harlan painted, she longed to be with her real mom and dad. She longed to be happy.
So right then and there, as she walked into the foster home where she wasn’t wanted except for the money she brought into the household, Savannah vowed to find out who she was. Flipping the basement stairs light on, she looked down into the lonely gloom, wondering what her life would be like. Would she ever have a home? Every night she prayed that God would give her a place to belong and someone to love.
Thanks for listening to me ramble.