Christmas Pity Invitation
“Bosslady, Ima be right back, ok? I gotts to go get that Angel Tree paper. Even though I’m late they gonna let me do it. You can load this kettle by yourself?”
“Of course. Go ahead,” I waved her ahead. Christmas was a few weeks away and we were making the gravy – margarine, soup base, flour and starch – for the Christmas meal. We needed to make 1200 gallons that day to be poured into all of Connecticut’s prisons for the holiday.
“You want a paper, too?”
“You know I don’t have kids,” I scoffed at her.
“Yeah, but your niece and nephew. They can get something for them.”
Angel Tree is a nationwide program run by the non-profit organization Prison Fellowship, a network of not angels but saints who buy Christmas gifts for children of the incarcerated. Any inmate can sign up and an Angel Tree volunteer will contact the child’s caregiver and arrange for presents to be delivered.
“My niece and nephew have everything. They want for nothing.”
“So you can still send them something to show you care and shit.”
“My mother gets them a gift from me every year,” I explained.
“But this is free,” she insisted.
“I know but just because something is free that doesn’t mean that you need to take it.” I shook my head and bit my tongue before I said anything else. It must be terrible for mothers who can’t see their children on the first day of Christmas because the prison cancels all visits on holidays. Angel Tree is less about material gifts than it is their only link to their kids that day.
I wonder how much psychic damage the Judicial Branch and the Department of Correction cause by disappointing children and denying them meaningful contact with their mothers on Christmas. Keeping them from their children and forcing their contact through third-party presents harms the child more than it rehabilitates or punishes the parent. Children of troubled parents should not attenuate their relationships with their mothers on any day, especially not on what is a kid’s holiday. I hate to say it but not having children is a Christmas blessing for women in prison.
Missing Christmas with my niece and nephew bothers me less than the explanation I will need to provide in the future, justification for missing four, maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven Christmases with them. Apologies for their being pulled away from new toys and forced onto the phone to tell me “Merry Christmas.” I don’t miss Christmas because it reminds me of how many Christmases I will miss.
It’s easy not to yearn for yuletide in here. Save one paper banner above the school’s reception desk, all the decking in here is done with fists; we have no Christmas trees, garlands, stockings, wreaths or lights. Christmas decorations in the inmates’ own cells are illegal: contraband and fire-hazardous so I won’t risk it. The absence of the blinking red and green commercial blitz that emerges the day after Halloween makes the twelve days of turtle doves and milkmaids blend with the remaining 353 days of the year.
Sometimes sympathetic staff would sneak in holiday presence, like the nurse who gave me one green and one red gumdrop. They told her: “That is frowned upon.” Or the teacher who gave us mouthwash-sized Dixie cups of orange soda. They told her: “That is frowned upon.” Or the kitchen supervisor who gave a mini candy cane and a card to each worker, thanking her for her labor. They told him: “That is frowned upon.”
Up until four years ago, on Christmas morning, the guards delivered each of us puzzles printed on Xerox paper and a one-page calendar for the next year, packaged in clear mini-trash bags with two of the red and white peppermint rounds that restaurants leave in a bowl for customers to pick up after their meal. Two mints, puzzles and a calendar for measuring our sentences was penal paydirt. Then they frowned upon themselves and tossed the Christmas trash bags. We haven’t received anything since.
Women here will tell you that, with no traditional Christmas influences to overexpect, overspend, or overindulge, the real meaning of Christmas, the spirit of the holiday, shines through. This holiday celebrates the birth of a man who truly had all the answers yet ended up being killed for it by scared dummies, allegedly in the vein of justice. His mother was a homeless, pregnant teenager when she had him. The nicest guy in the nativity story was the innkeeper who let Mary and Joseph and Mary squat in his shed. We know that spirit. And being reminded of this reality? Shining that spirit in our faces? That is frowned upon by us.
With my kettle-loading partner out climbing the Angel Tree, I lifted a tray of thirty seven pounds of margarine above my head and catapulted it into the kettle for the next batch of gravy. No one flinched to help out, instead focused on their own holiday analysis.
“You know, Christmas, Baby Jesus’ birth, that was the set up,” I overheard a butcher telling the phony holy roller who ran the breakfast line.
“Girl, you talkin’ crazy.”
“Really? God sent his own son and tipped everybody off, these three kings, that he was gonna take over. Then when he takin’ over in ways none a dem understand, they kill his ass. Them three kings, they brought the heat. Bringin’ that baby all that expensive shit was like callin’ the cops.
“See now you talkin’ about Easter,” Phony Holy Roller told her.
“Yeah, we don’t get nothin’ special for Easter neither. Cuz it’s on a Sunday, it ain’t even a paid holiday for most these motherfuckers,” she said as she waved at all the supervisors.
“You get something special for Christmas,” I reminded them and Vanna White-ed the kettle cooking the Christmas gravy, hinting that they might want to help me load another thirty seven pounds of margarine. “Roast beef.”
“Chandra, you worked in this kitchen long enough to know that them two Steakumm’s they give us on Christmas is just the Sunday meal switched to Christmas day,” Phony Holy Roller shouted to me.
“You’re right. I know. The ice cream [for Christmas dessert] gets switched off the Monday dinner, too.” I conceded.
“We ain’t gettin’ ice cream on the next Monday?”
I shook my head.
“Shit. They take motherfuckin’ everything.”
“Bosslady, I’m back,” my partner told me, breathless from racing to the chaplain’s office and back and from holding back tears that she won’t see her kids the day we eat two slices of beef and a cup of vanilla All-Star ice cream. “I got you the paper anyway. If you want to send it in.”
“Thanks,” I told her and politely waved away the Angel Tree form. “But I’m not going to insert this place in their Christmas. Christmas is…” I paused and put my palm in the direction of the sallyport through which the inmates leave the facility. “Christmas is out there.”