I got a call this morning from a family member who is currently in jail. I won’t go into detail about his offenses or criminal background because this is not what this post is about. What I can say is this young man has so much potential and it is heartbreaking to sit back and watch as his life ticks by.
As my eyes swell up and I choke back on tears, I reflect on my experiences visiting family members in prison, writing letters and feeling their absences during holidays and central occasions. This is not new. According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. This is an epidemic. Always young black men getting caught in a system that will hinder their success. On Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and even my wedding day the weight of their absence heavy on our hearts.
While they are doing their time, it is often said we do time as well. I understand the sentiment but the reality is that time stops for no one. We go on with our lives continuing to celebrate, travel, and grow while they sit in a cell. Reinforcing what society continues to tell them. They are unworthy, they must fight, they are a threat.
The contrast of our White vs Black Family
The contrast is so imminently obvious at holidays. For years, we did a duel Christmas celebration, spending the first half of the day with my husband’s family and then rushing over to mama’s house (my side) for the rest of the day. Both celebrations filled with warmth, laughter, and tradition. Yet there are stark differences from one gathering to the other.
James’s Family Christmas
Until recently, the Laufenberg family Christmas looked like Oprah’s favorite things on steroids. Thanks mostly to my mother in law who would thoughtfully collect meaningful gifts for every member of our family throughout the year. For example, each year one person received an autographed book.
Though we have recently scaled back the gift exchange and limited it to only the kids, the traditions remain the same. We meet late morning in the same house my husband grew up in Windsor WI. The house his parents have owned for over 40 years, adorned with beautiful flowers, a pond in the sprawling backyard that backs up to a cornfield.
My mother in law completely revamps her décor for each holiday. placing snowmen on every available surface, hiding the pickle on one of her two trees and setting the table with seasonal napkins. It is peaceful, relatively quiet as we sip on a cocktail and catch up with the family. Three of the four brothers are married each with two daughters. The same family members are present every year.
My parents sold the house I grew up in on the North side of Madison shortly before Giana was born. We were sad yet I understood my mom’s desire to not have the work of maintaining the property. She did the mowing, painting, and pruning alone. With an open-door policy, mama welcomed most anyone needing a meal, an ear or shelter into our home. That did not change when she downsized to a two-bedroom apartment.
Regardless of the size of her home, she never limited the number of guests invited in. She continued to cook as though all six of her kids lived with her, ready for anyone to pop in for a meal. I suppose that came from her mother Bernice, who had 13 children and taught her how to cook. When we arrived for the holiday mama would be dressed to the nines in her church clothes. With an apron on and a smile on her face, Mama embraced everyone that walked through her door with open arms.
This is Us
We often had a miscellaneous guest at Christmas, a church member who is alone, my sister’s random and rather strange friends, my brother’s new girlfriend. Every seat typically filled and the volume at our gatherings loud. Our voices run high, the music playing a soulful r&b holiday mix and when the Taboo game started the volume borders on obnoxious. Accordingly, my white husband must have had a culture shock those first couple holidays but he is immune to it now.
There were fewer gifts under the tree. While mama overindulged her grandkids (she has 10) just like grandma Laufenberg, the consistency of aunt and uncle gifting was much less stable for my side of the family and honestly unnecessary. They had received enough. Of my five siblings, two are divorced and only one aside from myself remains married.
A tablecloth dresses the 8×10 folding table stuffed in the corner of the dining area. It displayed Turkey, Ham with roasted pineapples, candied yams, greens, hash brown casserole, baked macaroni, and cheese along with a pound cake. But it’s not enough to bring us together on the holiday? As I look around there are only two men that constantly show up for the holiday celebrations on this side of the family, my white husband and my remarkable brother.
You cannot conceal the thoughts of a child; you should not deny them the truth. They notice everything and they keep it real. “Mommy is **** in jail?” asked Giana one year as we were leaving Christmas at mamas. The word jail coming from her innocent mouth piercing like a thorn in my hand. “Yes, he is Giana”. A fact she picked up from eavesdropping on the adults. “Why?” There is always a follow-up question. I sigh “Because he broke the law and got caught by the police” or “He didn’t do what he was supposed to do and this is the consequence.”
This is my family; I love these men. My guys aren’t violent criminals; they were raised in loving homes. They are the lost boys. With no clear path to success. No college fund or money to start building their lives. They have no advanced education to add to their resumes. Without a decent job that cannot pay for their basic needs, they feel worthless. Thus they fall into the traps, making major setbacks.
My daughters love them too. They harass them at every chance they get, climbing all over them, clambering for their attention. Perhaps they can sense the urgency of each moment spent with them. I once pined for a son. Sadly, I now feel relief that I don’t have to raise and protect a young black man in this world. Still, I try. I try to bring them in, direct them to goals and uplift them during collect calls. Knowing I am helpless in this plight. No words to explain to my own daughters the empty chair at mamas on Christmas Day.
Read about how we are teaching self-love and worthiness to our girls in this post.