I am proud to have two beautiful grandsons, aged six and four. However, both have been born during my imprisonment, so we have never been together. I know that they need me and I long to be a grandfather to them, so I commune with the little guys by reading to them over the phone.
I got the idea a few years ago when I called my daughter’s home. It was evening and she was reading a bedtime story to her son. I wondered why I shouldn’t read to him as well. I asked her to send me a copy of the books he was reading, “Goodnight Moon”, along with some of his other favorites. These turned out to be children’s books I had read with my own kids years ago. My daughter sent a collection of old favorites by Arnold Lobel, titles like “Frog and Toad All Year” and “Owl At Home”.
I signed up for an evening phone slot and called just before my grandson’s bedtime. He was sitting on his mom’s lap in pajamas, fresh and pink from a warm bath, and getting drowsy as his bedtime approached.
I read “Goodnight Moon” to him deliberately and with expression. With his mom’s help, he turned the pages and followed along. As we finished each page I talked to him about the wonderful illustrations which are part of the charm of “Goodnight Moon”. For example, on each page a certain little mouse appears in a different spot. I asked my grandson to find the mouse and show it to his mom before moving on to the next page.
We had a wonderful time. My daughter said that her boy enjoyed the story very much. For a little while I felt truly together with my grandson and my daughter. She was pleased to see her father and her son interacting. And she experienced the nostalgia of hearing the beloved story, read with the same voice that used to nudge her to her own sleepy time many years ago.
Not all of my calls could be made at bedtime. When I called at other times of the day we shared the other books my daughter had provided. All three of us looked forward to these times together.
Soon I reached out to another of my daughters so that I could begin reading with her son as well. She made sure that he had a matching set of the books I was using.
Although this one is the older of my two grandsons, he presented a special challenge. He is on the autism spectrum and although three years old at the time, was not yet able to speak. As I had with his little cousin, I began to read to him on the phone while he followed along in his own books.
He was a bright little fellow. My daughter and I had reason to believe that although he could not speak, he could understand. Through his fourth year, he communicated by signing and was drawn toward speech by speech therapists. We continued our reading tradition.
At five he began to utter individual words. I remember how excited we were when he said “purple”. And then, almost suddenly, all that pent up language seemed to just burst forth. Today, although his pronunciation is a little quirky, he speaks as fluently as any child his age.
One day when I called to read to him he proclaimed, “I can read!” And so the reading tables were turned. Now it is him reading to me. He loves to show off his reading and I love to praise him and to listen to his sweet little voice.
My first reading partner, my younger grandson isn’t reading yet having just turned four. But, his mom reports that he has mastered his alphabet and is “reading” his little books from memory. It will be a matter of months before he also turns the reading tables on Papa.
In this way I have nurtured relationships with my grandsons and they have come to know their Papa. I also frequently write letters to them geared to their age level and addressed to them personally. They love getting their own mail.
I must admit that I have had some funny looks from guys waiting in line to use the phone in my cell block. Some even asked why I am reading children’s books over the phone. But when I explain, everyone seems to respect what I am doing. Who knows, maybe some young inmate with kids will follow my lead and ask to borrow my books. It hasn’t happened yet but I’ll be glad to share if it comes up.
The separation of men from their children and grandchildren is a tragic aspect of mass incarceration. As incarcerated men, we need to do all that we can to encourage and mentor the kids we are separated from, as well as to support the women who are out there caring for them. Reading to the little people on the phone is one tool for this purpose.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.