My father went to prison just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1994, so for our family this holiday marks a particularly difficult anniversary. No matter what time of year someone enters the prison system, the incarcerated and their loved ones face the holidays with a marked loneliness and longing.
While I filled my Thanksgiving week this year with friends and days of baking and basting, I do not know precisely how my father filled his. I imagine that he has done quite a bit of reading and perhaps he has written a few letters. Other than the absence of mail delivery, Thanksgiving day likely passed much like any other day in prison. What sets holidays apart from ordinary days inside the walls is likely a greater sense of wanting to be somewhere other than in prison, an even stronger desire to sit down beside the people you love without the watchful eyes of guards upon you, more specific memories of what this day of the year used to look like when you were not held captive. Many prisons provide some sort of a special meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but even this can be surprisingly treacherous. Several Thanksgivings ago my father’s prison served spoiled turkey and gave hundreds of prisoners food poisoning.
Many of us with loved ones in prison feel guilty for celebrating in the absence of our loved ones. Why should we be able to eat pie, to watch the parade in our pajamas, to sink into the comforts of home when our family members cannot? As a teenager, I had been reticent to wholeheartedly live because I wanted to be in solidarity with as many of the limitations placed on his life as I could. If he could not have access to so many of the simple pleasures in life, why did I deserve them? The holidays only brought this sense of loss into starker relief. All I wanted to do at each holiday was get to the prison and visit my father. Nothing else seemed fitting or justifiable. However, communicating honestly with my father while I was in this mindset quickly became difficult. I didn’t want to make him suffer more than he already does by telling him about my devastation, indeed my solemn vow to remain devastated so that he would not be alone. This left us with not much to talk about, and I knew that if something didn’t change, he would one day cease to really know me.
I realized a few years into my father’s incarceration that he very much wants me to be joyful and to make the most of my life rather than waiting quietly for his release. I swung to the other extreme, trying to be as productive and as grateful for each breath as I could. I work at being happy and sharing my joy with him in letters, phone conversations, and visits. I make sure he knows what my life looks and feels like, and I try to draw him into my days with stories and photos of my life, with open channels of communication. This strategy has proven far more fulfilling and sustainable for both my father and me. He seems bolstered by my successes and my happiness, and he draws even closer to me in my sorrows and my failures. He is, and has always been, a very good father, and he takes every opportunity to offer me advice, to help me make difficult decisions, and to remind me of his love.
My schedule and my budget only enable me to visit him about three times a year, and the Texas prison where he resides now has a rule that because of the higher numbers of visitors who come on holidays, no family will be allowed to visit for more than two hours a weekend during the weeks closest to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. An ordinary visit for us includes eight hours of visiting time, so this new limitation on holiday visiting hours strips us of six hours of time together. I now avoid visiting at the holidays to make sure that when I do see him, we can have a full visit. These kinds of restrictive visiting policies undoubtedly make the holidays more difficult for all of the families and prisoners who wish to be together.
That prison visiting room is my home because it is the one place in the world where I can bring my family together. Prisoners and their families make homes where they can, and during the best of visits, we can forget for a few hours where we are because our love and animated conversation make the world around that small table where we sit disappear. I am blessed with another, more traditional kind of home–one I’ve created with my husband in the year and a half that we’ve been married–and we had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday with about a dozen friends who came through our doors with armloads of food and love. I was happy all day long but at the same time never ceased to carry my father with me in my heart, hoping that he had found some joy this day, too, and knowing that he lacks the comforts and freedoms that I do. I will go home to him in December, early enough to have a long visit, and until then, our letters and phone calls will have to sustain us. The letters, the phone calls, even the visits are never enough, but they are what we have. We make the most of them, and we wait with hope for a time when no one will have to make a home in prison.