It was the morning of December 24th. Glancing at the clock on the bottom of my computer screen, I was surprised by the hour- nearly 10:30 am and no one was stirring. Usually by this time the women had already popped in to say hello and informed me of any new controversies. On this day, however, the house was silent and everyone was still tucked away in their beds.
Within a mere minute or two, I heard a soft knock at my office door. Finally someone was awake!
"Melanie, I'm wondering when we get to open presents." one of the women asked sheepishly.
You see, piled in the corner of my tightly packed office was an impressive mound of donated gifts. Plush throw blankets, boutique cosmetics, handmade soaps, candy, and puzzles were all wrapped festively and awaited their new owners.
I answered, "When everyone else is awake."
My role is a strange role. I supervise, I case plan, I problem solve, I mediate, I intervene, I teach, but more simplistically put, I mother a group of adult female offenders eight hours a day. My role was no different this day. In fact, in many ways, I was more maternally motivated because I was privileged to give a gift many had never received before- a safe Christmas.
The woman left my office and no more than 30 seconds later I heard a yell, "Get ready, Susan*, we get to open presents!"
"I don't think Lucy* is up either!" another yell from another woman.
I couldn't help but laugh at their childlike enthusiasm.
Most of the women weren't looking forward to Christmas. The holiday regularly triggered upsetting memories and cravings. The season reminded them of the family, often their own children, they were separated from.
A few minutes before 11:00 the same woman, with her wrinkled pajamas still on, her tousled hair, and a shy grin on her face, came back to my office.
"Everyone is up and they're waiting in the living room." she said in a controlled manner.
With a little help, I carried the red and white packages to the other room. The women's eyes were wide. I placed the gifts in front of them. It was easy to see all they really wanted to do was tear open their gifts, but they showed restraint.
They saved me a spot and waited for me to sit down. I handed out the largest presents first because, even for adults, there's something very exciting about receiving a large gift. I informed them they could trade and swap their gifts amongst each other if they chose to do so. As soon as this permissive statement was given the women took no time at all to shred through the gift wrap. Each woman held up her soft, oversized blanket, admiring it.
"This is my color!" one woman shouted, clearly indicating she was pleased by her pick and had no intentions of trading.
"How did they know I liked blue?" asked another woman.
"Who do we thank for these presents?" questioned one woman thoughtfully.
The women opened the rest of the gifts with equal enthusiasm. They passed around their handmade soaps, appreciating the unique fragrances. They instantly started to snack on the boxes of chocolates that were carefully concealed in other packages. Those women who received puzzles examined the intricate details and quickly requested help putting them together. They compared their lipstick shades and eye shadow hues. In this time of fellowship the women were given their last gift, a joyful, respectful, and safe Christmas.
My job and the program where I work are polarizing. There are those who value the resources that keep women out of jail and there are those who do not. There is no simple solution for the incarceration problem in this country, but there is a simple solution for the fear, hate, and ignorance that plague our nation. Love. I don’t mean the threadbare, trivialized version of love. I mean the kind of love that is patient and kind. Love that isn’t envious or boastful or proud. The kind of love that is honorable and selfless. Love that holds no records of past wrongs and does not anger. A love that seeks and praises the truth and is safe and hopeful.
So love each other this holiday season. Love when it’s difficult and love when you’re bursting at the seams.
*Names have been changed in order to maintain confidentiality