My mother loved the holiday Season. Her normally bright smiling face was a little brighter, her smile a little bigger during the holidays.
She suffered from macular degeneration among many other things, and was legally for several of the last years of her life.
I had the unique experience of spending 2-1/2 years of time on the world in Florida with her and my stepdad – Pop – who had a stroke at the end of 2004.
My duties included yard and house maintenance, cooking, shopping, shuttling them to their myriad of doctor appointments, and among other things, putting up the Christmas decorations when that time of year rolled along.
Mom was an incredible woman, and dealt with her physical limitations with as much strength and determination as any person could expect to – more than many would. She went to the “Lighthouse for the Blind” in Ft Lauderdale to learn how to deal with her disability and she learned her lessons well.
In fact, with her ability to maneuver around her home including the kitchen and with the relaxed look on her face as she looked directly at you when she spoke with you, it was often easy to forget she really couldn’t see much at all.
I recall setting up their artificial Christmas tree, which had to be 15 years old – Pop always got his money’s worth out of something. It had been shortened a little through the years, and some of the color-coded tags had fallen off, and the whole process of just setting up the tree itself and getting it all fluffed up was a task in and of itself.
The first Christmas I was there my stepsister, Adrienne – ‘yo Adrienne’ to me – set it up, in fact so she can offer first hand testimony to the challenge.
The lights would come next, and there were a lot of them, in fact 1,000 for a 6’ tree, and they had to be wrapped on each branch, from tip to trunk.
Pop would put most of the ornaments on, and when it was done it was a pretty sight. A lot of depth to the lights, what with them placed all the way to the trunk and all. And bright. Possibly bright enough to be seen from space if placed in the front lawn.
But what exactly, could Mother see? As she sat with her signature smile across her kind face, I asked, “What do you think?” “It’s beautiful” she would say, rocking back and forth and hands clasped in front of her not unlike a child.
I would laugh and tease her “what the heck are talking about, you can’t even see!”
She would feign ignorance and say “Just stop it! That’s not true!”
“Ok, then – tell me, exactly what do you see, really?”
“Well”, she would say hesitantly. “I can see a bright light, like a halo, along the outline of the tree”, and she would draw the outline with her hands out in front of her. She continued, “The inside of that outline is black”. She sat back and looked up at me.
“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s all you see? No ornaments or anything?”
“Pretty much”, she said.
“Then, why do we go through all of this?” I asked tactlessly.
“Because I remember”, she said, looking at her past with a smile on her face, as she sat in her favorite chair.
I love my mother immensely, as do my children, my siblings, their children, and just about anyone else who ever met her.
She was the gentlest, kindest, most loving person I have ever known and any capacity I have for love I got from her. I miss her tremendously, as we all do.
I am also thankful, in a way, that she is with God and not alive today for as much as I love her, I don’t think I could have faced myself in the mirror knowing how she would have been during these holidays that just past.
As it is, I am confident she is with all of us all, watching from Heaven, with the perfect vision the Lord has given her back, and that she is reassured by him that this too shall pass and we will all get through this my children, my brothers and sisters and their families, my friends, and myself.
She helped me to see all the lights and decorations on the tree that wasn’t there this year.
Was this a horrible holiday, this Incarcerated Christmas? Not at all.
And I’ll tell you all about it next time. . .
There was no stocking hung by the chimney, with or without care. There were no chestnuts roasting by an open fire. (Actually, an open fire would probably be good for another year or two.) I didn’t set out any cookies or milk for Santa, either because someone would have eaten the cookies and drank the milk and it would have been the fat man. It might have been A fat man, but not THE fat man.
There was a Christmas decoration contest within the individual Housing Units, although I’m not sure how that went because the memo never made it to our bulletin board and I didn’t become aware of the said contest until Friday the 17th. The judging was to be on Monday the 20th. No one seemed to care, which is okay. I received quite a few cards (for which I am grateful) and taped them around the inside frame in my cell. (Something that wasn’t allowed, but no one saw it – they are gone now but not forgotten). I don’t know who did win, or what they got, but I try not to let what anyone else does affect me, and if someone did put forth an effort and received acknowledgment of some sort, then God bless them!
There were some decorations in the “courtyard” between the administration building and the dining hall. There is a raised hexagon planter about 15’ across in the center of the “courtyard” which does pass going to the dining hall, the library or laundry, as well as the building that houses all of the people who make the prison run.
There were some icicle lights draped over the edge of the planter all the way around, a decorated tree on the side that could be viewed by people in the Admin Building, as well as the classic Santa Claus scene, consisting of a Santa standing by a flat bottomed boar being pulled by 2 grinning alligators, all cut out of plywood brightly painted and trimmed with lights.
There were also some decorated tables and railings in the dining hall next to the security line, and window decorations in the chapel.
South Central Louisiana is located far enough north for the grass to turn brown in the winter and far enough south for the trees to stay green – most of them anyway.
The temperature swings wildly from the 30s one day to the 60s the next. But more often or not, the days are reasonably comfortable, although not quite a Christmas climate, but then again, I lived 5 years in South Florida and 12 years in Dallas prior to that so weather wise it is pretty much what I am used to.
The razor wire and the boys in khaki added a new twist to the season, however.
But it was what is was, and while it was far from ideal, it was my Christmas and I was determined it was going to be thankful, and thankful it was, and thankful I am, and thankful I remain.
Christmas, for most of the inmates perspective centered around 2 thinks: the holiday meal and the “holiday bag”. Oh yes, what a stir the “holiday bag” creates.
Some – no, many – of the fellow khaki clad convicts will complain about anything. The sense of entitlement and the classification of everything is “a right” is strong. Strong, sometimes to the point of being an insult to the intelligence of any rational member of the human race.
The “holiday bag” is a sealed plastic bag full of carious chips and cookies, munchies and crunchies, TGI Friday was there with Potato Skins, and Burger King made an appearance with “onion rings”. There were pecan shortbread cookies, Hot n’ Spicy Cheese Its, and awesome big bar of milk chocolate (my personal favorite) and assorted other goodies like “lemonheads” and some really unpleasant sweet n’ sour twisted thingies.
A vertical plethora of goodness that was criticized for more for what is wasn’t in it than for what was.
There seemed to be a disagreement over whether it was a bigger than last year or not, and since I wasn’t here last year I had no such opinion. The bag was a nice gesture, I thought. Probably set the taxpayer back several million dollars to provide them for the whole B.O.P.
My problem lies not with the bag itself, for it’s not the gift that matters, correct? It’s supposed to be the thought that counts and it was the manner in which the gifts were distributed that out a damper on what could have been a symbol of kindness, humanity, and the spirit of the season.
Wednesday, December 22nd the day “the bags” were to be distributed. The day dawned with clear skies and temps projected to be in the 60s, after the noon meal which was the time established for the event.
Unit by unit, beginning with the one I live in, we were released and headed out, single file, to receive our goodies. From the unit we could see that most, if not all, of the prison staff had turned out for the event.
We walked through ‘the key’ which is the control point separating the housing portion of the compound from all of the other facilities.
At the key, we were instructed to go down the sidewall to the left and enter the dining hall through the west side. Of course, not too many people call it the west side – to most, it is the Black side, which of course meant we would be exiting on the East, or – anyone?, anyone? – that’s right, the white side!
As it happened, I was pretty close to the front of the line, and as we walked closer I could see a group of people outside the door and I turned to my friend Rob and said “oh look, the Warden is there and they all must be lined up to wish us a Merry Christmas”.
Not a person in the group of 8 or so individuals (all highly ranked officials) even so much as looked at us, let alone wish us a happy anything.
We opened up the door and were met with the one of the bands that used the music room, playing Christmas tunes. I like Christmas music, I mean who doesn’t? So that was a nice touch. They had cleaned some tables out of the way and they were off to our right facing the serving line where a group of inmates was placing freshly baked cookies in little white bags for us to pick up as we moved closer to “the prize”.
There were more officers and staff lining the route we were traveling, more gazes averted, more uncomfortable shuffling in place. One person did look up and catch my eye and I said “Merry Christmas” with a big smile. He seemed slightly unsure and hesitated for just a moment before saying “Merry Christmas” back.
Maybe they all felt comfortable thinking any of us had anything to be happy about. Maybe they didn’t think us deserving of the gifts we were about to receive. I don’t know and probably never will, but I kept a smile on my face, joy in my heart, and an eye out for someone willing to share my good cheer as I continued through the line.
Of course, the inmates bagging the cookies all responded when I wished them a Merry Christmas.
After picking up the cookies, we were handed a rather large and extremely tasking Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. And then we headed for the last stop, the big prize, the piece of resistance, the crowning glory of this precious moment – “the bag”.
“The bag” was located just outside the “white side door”, and the remaining office staff in attendance were out there with the same uncomfortable looks and stances as most of the others.
We were handed our bag full of goodies and turned right to head back to our unit where everyone ate their cookies, drank our hot chocolate, and opened their ‘presents’. There would be much trading and ‘buying & selling” of whole bags or individual items over the next couple of days.
Personally, I missed sneaking down the stairs, peering around the corner, and seeing the treasures left by the mysterious old fellow known as “Santa”, seeing the trains, bicycles, wagons and dollhouses that were somehow assembled by Santa as he munched the cookies and drank the milk that we left by the chimney.
Christmas sure has changed – but certainly not all in bad ways.
I’ll tell you about that Day of Peace, Joy and Love, from an inmate’s perspective, next time.
The Bible says “so if we have enough food and clothing, let there be content” Timothy 6:8 NLT
The clothing is not very stylish, but our bodies are covered. The food – well, we are fed 3 meals a day and we won’t starve. Sometimes it’s better than others, and trust me, I would love to have a 2” thick grilled Porterhouse, a little char on the outside, a little pink on the inside, and a lot juice everywhere, but – that will have to wait (excuse me while I wipe the drool from my chin).My prayers for Christmas morning focused on family and friends, and being thankful for both. Of course I miss my family very much, but I gave thanks to god for watching over them and blessing them. I prayed that my incarceration would not detract too much from their happiness on that day.
I also prayed for all the men who share life inside the fences and walls that they may find some solace of peace, comfort and joy on this the most difficult day of the year I would think, to be away from family.
I work in the dining hall, and since I normally work in Saturday, I would be working on Christmas Day throughout breakfast and then the noon meal, which was eagerly awaited by all.
The menu for this meal sounded impressive, and the executing of it was very, very good. The meal consisted of: A plump, juicy Cornish Hen for each inmate, accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy, dirty rice (this is Louisiana), green beans, corn and a dessert box that contained two small, round pecan pies and 1/6 slice of custard pie.
As I have said before, we take better care of our prisoners than we do the poor & elderly.
My ‘normal job’ in the dining hall is to mop in front of the 20’ of beverage and ice dispensing equipment and anyplace else a liquid spill may occur (I only do liquid spills – solid waste spills is another department).
Christmas Day lunch I was pulled off my mop (which I am very good at, thank you!) and placed on “utensil deployment”. This means I hand each person their rolled-up napkin containing a “spork” and salt & pepper. As I had previously mentioned there are two entrances to the facility, and both walk towards each other in front of the line of servers who fill the trays and hand them to the inmates just before they meet in the center.
Today, because most of the amount of food and dessert, there was a 6’ table set up perpendicular to the serving line in the center, with a co-worker of mine on each side handing a dessert box to each inmate as they picked up their trays. Then they passed by yours truly who was standing at the end of the table handing out “utensil packets” as they passed by either side of me.
I was determined to try to be cheerful and upbeat and I proceeded to say “Merry Christmas” to each of the 1200 or so inmates who passed by over the next hour or so (may 1½ hours).
That’s a LOT of Merry Christmases!! Of course, I had no idea who was Jewish, Muslim, Navajo, Wiccan or What (editor note: Wiccan is a Neopagan religion and a form of modern witchcraft, not uncommon in the southern reaches of the bayou), but it was Christmas Day no matter how you looked at it and political correctness has never been my strong suit, so I said it to all.
And the strangest thing happened. The overwhelming majority said the same thing back! Even some who on any other day would probably be upset that I was even talking to them. Many seemed surprised. Many seemed – I don’t know – kind of thankful. It was strange, but it was nice. I enjoyed it and felt good that I had done it.
I know this may seem like a big deal to most of you. But you have to live here to get it, maybe. If that’s the case, I hope no who’s reading this ever gets it.
But I suspect someone will understand.
Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I will have a more opportunities to volunteer to pass out spoons before I am able to be with my family during this most wonderful time of the year. I’ll do my best to make the most of a bad situation in the meantime.
Until next time. . .