This article was first published on PJP in December 2020.
As my time passes in prison, I don’t pay much attention to the calendar. Year after year, day after day, time loses its significance. I do know the month and I’m usually aware of what the approximate date is. For instance, as I write, we are in the end of November, and it’s Sunday.
Being detached from time, I hardly notice what holiday is near until it falls upon me.
“Why is there no school today?” I ask myself when I don’t see my fellow prisoners who attend the GED program going to school. And I’m quickly told by someone that “it’s a holiday.”
I usually just shrug my shoulders. I don’t really have much interest in most holidays.
Yet, somehow, around the end of November, something changes. I hear a whisper in my head, “’Tis the season,” and then I’m aware of time. My holiday senses get on point. That sudden realization further solidifies when I call home and wish my mother a happy birthday because her special day is closely followed by Thanksgiving.
I’m suddenly bombarded with a flurry of memories of Thanksgivings from years long gone. Memories that I usually keep suppressed.
But ‘tis the season and my memories will not stay in check. Everywhere I look and everything that I hear is a reminder of the past. Often as a child, my family would gather at my great aunt’s house in Somerset, New Jersey. The boys would go outside, and play football, until the actual pro games came on TV. And then we watched those football games in my aunt’s basement as the aroma of the food cooking above in the kitchen would fill the air. My mouth would water as I waited in anticipation of my Nana’s biscuits, mac and cheese, and yams.
Damn, I’m still stuck in here and craving my Nana’s biscuits.
After Thanksgiving, I can feel Christmas in the air. It’s on the TV and the radio. ‘Tis the season when the nation’s best holiday decorations are on display. Macy’s decorations are on every broadcast. Rockefeller Plaza and its tree are front and center of every local news channel’s Christmas coverage.
In my memories, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is playing on the radio. Other memories come flooding back. I remember being a kid and my aunt is taking my grandfather’s car. We drive around until we spot the best adorned home with glinting lights.
‘Tis the season when my grandfather and I would take a ride to Mr. and Mrs. Stokes’ house, a 20-minute drive off shore. Upon our return, Pop Pop would always make a slight detour, stop at the Hess gas station, and buy me a Hess truck. Even now when I see a commercial and the jingle of “The Hess truck is here,” it makes me smile.
My memories keep coming. Now “Let It Snow” is playing on the radio. The sidewalks are full of snow. As a kid, there is no better sight than waking up in the morning to a snowy world and finding out school is canceled. And now I can smell the aroma of my mom’s hot rice pudding in the air. A triple yes!
After polishing off a bowl or two of rice pudding, my brother and I meet up with my two cousins, Shawn and Stef. Then the four of us walk around Atlantic City, shoveling sidewalks for a few bucks.
My ears are now full of the melody, “Jingle Bell Rock!” I wish I could glide out of here on a one-horse sleigh and head to the North Pole. Maybe I could help Santa package and deliver gifts to the underprivileged. “Here comes Santa,” someone would say, as we sled right down Santa Claus Lane.
I have a picture on my tablet of me and my oldest sister sitting on Santa Claus’ lap. I still daydream about us being on the sled with Santa as Rudolph shined our path.
And now in prison, as these memories well up inside of me, ’tis the season when I can’t stop looking at photos of my families gatherings. Food, smiles and love.
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly … Fa la la la la la,” rings distantly in my ears. But, in here, there are no boughs of holly. Even though it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the outside, the reality is that we are in prison. Perhaps we are all playing the role of the Grinch in this Christmas story.
Anyhow, the nostalgia is deep for me this time of year. I sometimes ask, how could the most joyous occasion turn into grief? How could my life take this turn? I also wonder if this is similar to what happened to the Grinch. His joy was stolen, so he turned bitter. Is that what’s in store for me?
No! I’m no Grinch. But ‘tis the season when I’m homesick.
My birthday is December 21, and I remember on my birthday my grandfather would pull that old plastic tree along with its ornaments out of the closet. In my mind’s eye, I see me and Pop Pop decorating the tree on my birthday. It was always the happiest occasion of the year for me as we combined the joy of my birthday and Christmas together, with plenty of gifts for me.
On Christmas Eve, my Pop Pop would promise me that if I was able to stay up until midnight, he would allow me to open a present. I never managed it. But it didn’t matter. On Christmas day, my lids would pop open and I would rush down the stairs to find grandma and pop pop awaiting with smiles, the smell of food, and the sounds of Christmas. I, along with my baby sister, would tear open presents. The rest of our tight knit family would pour into Grandma and Pop Pop’s house, and love would fill the air.
I can see those pictures in my head now. I’m still loved but I haven’t been home in years. There is no Christmas tree of my own to decorate on my birthdays in prison. No gifts to tear open with my family on Christmas day. It’s just a holiday inside prison and I’m left wishing on a star.
‘Tis the season I wish I was home for Christmas.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.