Letter to a Formerly Incarcerated Mother
by Donnie Belcher

 children-of-prisoners  personal-narrative

Dear Ma,

I can remember the anger and bitterness that I felt towards you as a little girl. I can also remember longing to share my A+ homework with you. The longing to talk to you about the issues that I, then an elementary school student, had. And my longing to share with you which boy had the worst case of “cooties.” More than the bitterness, I can remember the unbreakable bond, and the insurmountable love that I felt, that overpowered that bitterness and anger that I kept inside.

Granny used to take me up the highway to see you pretty much every weekend, and I always remember the small things that would amaze me. The way you and I would dress alike sometimes, wearing the same jumpsuit, or the way that you never seemed to be angry, or upset by your experience. I always cherished, and continue to cherish the photographs that we had taken. I also remember hating to leave the visiting room, and hating to leave you in that place, that required me to walk through metal detectors and through electric gates.

You told me recently that on my first visit to the prison, I cried. You told me then that I had to stop crying or I wouldn’t be able to visit anymore. As you said that I dried my face as fast as I could. Most of all, I remember your letters, your phone calls, and you always telling me to be strong, because you only had a little while to go before you’d be home with me.

Momma, now that I am a young woman, 18 years old, and you’ve been out of prison a number of years now, I realize that you and I are alike in more ways than one. I not only share your beautiful brown skin your broad flat nose, and the crinkle in the middle of your forehead that shows when you’re angry, frustrated or just plain tired. I not only share your “chicken legs, or your black baby toenail, but I share many of your inner qualities.

Our roads in life have been different. Your road had a lot of dead ends, a lot of close calls, a few accidents, and a lot of sharp curves, steep hills and streets with no lights to guide you. My road has been pretty straight and narrow, with a few unexpected weather conditions causing the road to be wet and slippery, a few potholes, and lots of speed bumps. Despite the fact that our roads have been different, I realize that our driving style, and our vehicles (that is, our approach to life) and our personality traits are very similar. You also have much more mileage than I do, thus I have learned from your life experience.

The most important lesson that I have learned from your life is power of choice. I understand, from your experience, that every decision that I make has a direct effect on the rest of my life. I understand that having a drug addiction, or being incarcerated, were not your life long goals. However, the small decisions that you made prior to those experiences were what led to those life experiences.

Another important lesson that I learned from you is resilience: the ability to “bounce” back from any situation. Whenever you were down, you did not stay down and dwell in that situation. You assessed what went wrong, picked yourself up and kept moving. I, too maintain that same quality of resilience. No matter what happens (I may fail a test here or there, miss a deadline here or there, or make an even worse decision) I understand that I have the ability to get back up, and keep moving.

Momma, at the time, I didn’t understand the challenges you were facing when you were released from prison. I did not understand that you had to mark the fact that you had been in prison on every job application, and that it made it harder for you to get hired. I did not understand how you had to adjust to the changing world, as you had been in an institution that doesn’t do a good job of keeping up with the fast pace of the outside world. Most of all, I did not understand the emotional roller coaster you must have been experiencing within yourself when you had to face all of those judgmental people who silently wished and waited for you to slip back into your old lifestyle. Those people who refused to accept that you were changing your life for the better, and those people who dangled the past in your face.

So, the second and third qualities that I learned from your life experience were persistence and attitude. No matter how many times you were told “no,” you continued to ask, and ask. While watching you in this process, I learned that no matter how many “no” answers you receive, there is bound to be someone who will say “yes.” No matter how many doors are slammed in my face, I understand that one door will be wide open eventually, and this I learned from you. From you, I also learned that attitude does not have to be a bad thing. I learned that attitude can be channeled and used as a motivation to elevate myself.

The life lessons that I learned from you could never have been learned in a classroom, or from a textbook. You have still been my greatest and most effective teacher. If it were not for your addiction, I would not have known the power of chemical substances and perhaps, like most teens, would have explored curiosity. Because I know the power of chemical substances, I pledged myself a long, long time ago, that I would never even try a small amount of any substance.

Unlike most teenagers, I had the first hand experience of prison; because of your stories, and your experience, I learned that prison was the last place that I wanted to be. I learned that prison was not a place for people with big dreams and big goals. I pledged to myself a long time ago that I would watch the company that I keep and watch my actions so that I would not end up in prison.

When strangers, as well as people who we know, tell us that we are alike I am extremely proud because my mother and I have the power to withstand any and all obstacles that are placed in our way. As some people would say, it is in our blood.

Now I am a college student, on the straight and narrow, and I can see the taillights of my mother’s vehicle, giving me guidance. I can see my mother’s vehicle in front of me, reminding me to slow down, switch lanes, and turn my headlights on bright. As a young woman, I am learning the power of planning, the power of happiness, and the power of my mother’s life lessons. I appreciate everything that my mother has taught me, and I accept and embrace everything that has taken place both negative and positive, because all things that have happened are apart of the divine plan for my life. Everything that has happened has made me the person that I am today: a person that I love, and a person that has been heavily influenced by the life of a formerly incarcerated mother.