Tuesday, April 18, 2006

father. time.

I see him there still, mostly when he lets himself smile, lets himself believe that after all these years I am really there, really back and still his.


My father was a player, a party boy, a beautiful dirt brown slickster. In 1983 he had hair as think and long as a gorgeous young woman’s and a walk that plucked second looks from passersby. The rhythm of his voice gave the impression of confident nonchalance and those eyes, my eyes, are what people remember most certainly about him and about me. My memory refuses to call up whether he was big or small before he went away but I do know that when I saw him in the hospital some weeks after the accident, propped up and barely conscious, he looked tiny and abandoned but like he intended despite that, to be fully brave.

Five or six months later in a Tehachapi State prison visiting room, he looked huge and imposing; broad shoulders, thick neck, prison chest. But something quieter yet more profound had also changed. His gaze was curious and distant, as if he had slipped off of the plane of everyday living and onto something more perilous and difficult to manage. He announced with no particular emotion that the doctors said he had high blood pressure “Cause it’s real crazy in here.” He was twenty eight.

During that same visit he asked me questions about school and teachers, neighborhood friends and church, my mama, my step-daddy and if I was keeping contact with his people. He smiled occasionally but it was painted over with sadness. He even laughed once but I could tell it hurt.

We did this daughter-visit-daddy dance again in 1987 over a long weekend in a prison trailer. A lean, severe corrections officer escorted him to my grandmother and me and all weekend he walked around asking me thousands of run-of-the-mill questions, cooking, watching television, but never feeling free. At thirty two years old his health was no better and so we were careful with the salt at dinner. Before bed he took pills in front of the sink in a tiny bathroom with no mirror.

I remember interrogation type lights that illuminated the entire grounds so that it seemed daylight never quite went away. For good measure an officer came to the door three times a day. They made sure that no one with the name Jackson made the mistake of thinking our lives had in any way changed. I don’t recall how we got food or if we ever left the trailer but I remember feeling that we were all exhausted from the effort and just wanted to get back to lives in which we could breathe easy.

I tried one more time to see him at age sixteen but got turned away for a wrong bra or a faulty form. Something. But I didn’t fret and they didn’t have to worry because that was it for me. I said my sayonara in the parking lot that late morning and for the next five hours flirted and fell for a boy whose status as convicted felon at age seventeen, kept him from visiting his mother’s boyfriend too.

Now, in 2006 with many years behind us and nothing between us, I see so much more change; more than I imagined and in truth, slightly less than I had feared. At forty nine he is not big, but not frail, grey but not terribly aged, wounded but not broken. He was a bit guarded but not distant and overall perfect considering the circumstances. Sitting beside him, knee to knee, he was a strange kind of bud, blooming in slow motion before me over coffee, watermelon, talk, and too much time gone by.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

so many men

Going through my box-o-things last evening I was reminded that I have received my fair share of correspondence letters from California Department of Correction inmates. There is of course Daddy, then there is my older brother, my cousin (one of many, many), my brother’s friend M, my friend E from the church choir (who went in for the murder of an old woman. A crime I can neither believe or comprehend) and an ex (again, from church), K.

As I’m reading these missives to the young-girl me, I’m wondering what my parents were thinking when prison mail was arriving for their daughter at fourteen, fifteen, seventeen and eighteen. I’m wondering now, as a mother sitting in this pile of sorted memories, if they ever thought to shield me or if they even knew. I imagine that when I got this mail I felt special. I always did when someone (especially men) paid even small bits of attention to me.

The messages were pretty much variations on the same theme. Daddy would always ask about school and whether I had talked to my grandma (his mom). Whether I was still pretty and always whether I still loved him. Because he still loved me.

My brother, only two and a half years older than me, sounded distant, either perched real high or tucked down too low; regretting in one particular letter, a life barely begun. His friend M said he would follow me to Georgia since that’s where I would be going to college. Although I recall vividly being in love with him (the way only a sixteen year old could be with a 21 year old), I don’t recall offering or thinking this was good.

Both my church friend and ex wanted love letters, time, attention; things that no teenage girl with her own gaping holes can afford to frivolously spend on far-off men.

My cousin, he just wanted to say “Hey”, to anybody, anywhere and on that week’s mail run, tried me.

I can not imagine being in a physical prison; the bricks and the bars, the cots and the cuffs. But somehow between the dates those letters were written and the day they reached me, a thread was formed. Maybe after all this time I still have these letters because I felt like those boys - those men – somehow knew me, and that together, even though we would be no less alone, when we pressed pen to paper, we would feel much less lonely.

Monday, March 27, 2006

like origami

Sometimes these memories are too intricate to unfold.

Friday, March 24, 2006

my life in letters

Saturday November 5, 1983

Hi _________, how have you been? Daddy’s been thinking about you every day but a lot of things have been going on here. How is your little brother? What is he doing right now? Have you been good? Daddy’s alright. He’s just trying to get out so he can be with you. You are going to be a big girl one day, do you know that? And I hope you are a pretty girl too. Tell your mama to help you spell the words when you write back. There are a lot of things I want for you and to show you, and I will as soon as I get out. Are you doing pretty good in school? Do the best you can okay. That’s all you can do is your best. Daddy loves to be around you but it seems like I’m never with you; this has got to stop. Do you know what I mean my little one?________ daddy is so glad that he has you and _______ because you are all I’ve got and I want to show you the world. Be good baby. I will write you again ok. Love, your daddy.

This was the first letter I received from my father from Tehachapi State Prison.

There is a chill that spreads slowly through a little girl’s limbs when she gets that first one. And the longer he’s gone, the deeper it sets until at last she fears she might never thaw.

After I read this first letter from my father I folded it back as I had found it, placed it in its envelope and thought, “Oh daddy, please come home. Please daddy, hurry up and come home.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

at 8

I remember being sure that I was beautiful. I remember being oblivious to whether I was the right height, and weight. I remember knowing I was the perfect shade of soft soil brown. I remember loving a cool dapper mama’s boy named James. I remember calling out “daddy!” I remember him smiling wide in reply. I remember motorcycles and women loving my father – women that weren’t my mother - as much as I did. I remember being tiny in long, shiny cars with big wide seats. I remember the yucky, loving act of my father licking his thumb and wiping my cheek. I remember words like “baby girl” and “hey there” falling like now & laters from my father’s lips. I remember “give daddy some shuga” meeting me in the air just above his head. I remember going home and not being able to wait to see him again. I remember the heat of an August morning. I remember Fair Oaks Avenue. I remember a sea of grey-blue carpeting. I remember a cool new boys club. I remember silence despite the sound. I remember a boy I thought I liked. I remember his sandy brown face and “good hair”. I remember his eyes too big and wild with excitement. I remember his voice screaming “did your daddy kill somebody?!” I remember being shocked. I remember walking past him (refusing to look back) and wondering how I ever liked him. I remember another boy. I remember this other boy being his brother, maybe. I remember him racing right up to my nose. I remember his voice. “your daddy was drunk and kilt this dude last night!” I remember spinning, but only my head. I remember wanting the spinning to stop. I remember wanting to disappear. I remember wanting my mommy. I remember wanting to cry. I remember not crying. I remember the loud crinkly sound of the newspaper. I remember it being shuffled too close to my face. I remember voices shouting “look! look!” I remember looking. I remember reading. I remember thinking dead, dead, dead, next to Jackson was wrong. Dead next to Jackson was bad. Dead next to Jackson was true. I remember knowing that anything in the newspaper was right. I remember being so confused. I remember the crowd around me growing big. I remember growing small. I remember wanting to call my mother. I remember wanting to disappear. I remember wanting to fight the tears. I remember a grown-up rescuing me. I remember thinking it was too late. I remember pleading to call my mother. I remember knowing that if she came there, it would mean everything had changed.

a strange kind of bedroom community

In order to get a visit at the facility that is housing my father in this twenty-second year of a fifteen-to-life sentence, you need to be 1) determined 2) adaptable 3) a bit unhinged. And when I say unhinged I mean this in the most respectful way, as I am now keenly aware that having a loved one in prison, with all of its politics and trappings, rituals and requirements, can make the people waiting on the outside as frantic as the people on the inside.

So I was advised to be there early. Really early.

When A and I arrived on the grounds at three thirty Sunday morning, we read a sign that warned all visitors off the property until 6:30 a.m.

“I don’t get it. The ladies on the site said to be here between one and four.”

Because he was tired and hungry and more nervous than me, he didn’t say that he knew that didn’t make sense, but I could see his expression under the soft orange lights above us.

As we were turning to leave the grounds and go god-knows-where, an officer pulled up. “We’ve never been here before,” I said immediately, because I felt like he needed to know that.

“You here for a visit?” he was nicer than I expected and I said this to A when we finally pulled off, but first I said, “yes” and told him that one of the regular visitors told us to be here at this time.

He smirked some and pointed, “Over there. Across the overpass.”

“The overpass?” The direction he indicated was dark and far away.

“I know, believe me it’s ..” but he stopped himself. Maybe he understood that whatever he was going to say about them, he was also going to be saying about us. “Just drive to where you see that white car. You’ll see the rest of them.”

We pulled out and crossed the 101 overpass headed for the white car.

There were no words for the quiet organized picture of more than fifty cars lined bumper to bumper. Waiting. A silent, sleeping, motorized community of ladies-in-waiting. One or two cars with a steady stream of exhaust puffing from its muffler while the rest slept; the cars and the women inside of them, until it was time.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

what I will do: revisited - part 1

I will keep my mind on this.

I have not stopped thinking about my father since I left Soledad. I am smiling because I think he has on him what I kept detecting – slightly – on so many random boys/men in my life; false detections which led me to so many useless relationships and heartbreaks. Except his is authentic, the real thing; that "New Boy Smell". Thinking about him makes my heart race. I want to be there for him in every way because he was there for me in the only way that matters to me now: in the making. His absence and the circumstances surrounding it, were central to the prcess of shaping and molding the ‘me’ today. So, from now until the day he is no more, if it is the only contribution he makes to my life, I will be forever grateful.

I suspect though, that contributing to my birth will not be the only thing that he finally has to offer. He was full-speed-ahead trying to teach me all of the things a father teaches a daughter between the ages of age eight and thirty. We talked about stranger saftey and the importance of keeping tight connections with family members and how to open a checking account and establish good credit (this right after I told him I had just bought my first home!) He is so eager to parent me; show and tell me things. I could feel his urgency to get it all out, to get me up to speed with the facts-of-life and in return I wished that I could, just for a single fairytale moment, gently take my heart out and show him how hard it was beating in response to him and all of his love.

What I did learn in that impossibly small five hour window that I spent with my father, is that good daddies do everything they can, when they can, with whatever resources they have available, for their daughters. I was certain from sitting there next to him, listening intently to his words and watching carefully his grave yet tender expressions, that if any one of those C.O.'s would have escorted him back to his cell so that he could go under his bunk and bring me back the whole world, he would have.

to be continued…

Monday, March 20, 2006

Amazing Truth and Gratitude

I am grateful for grace, experience, faith and abiding joy.
I am grateful for the gift of fathers.
And the truth that time is no match for love.

Soledad update:
It went great.
He is amazing.
Love between fathers and daughters is amazing.