“Let’s just admit it. A woman’s gotta have her chocolate.” There were giggles and nods of agreement with my friend Pixie’s confession as we all savored the sweet deliciousness of the chewy brownies being shared around the table. “Oh, this is heaven!” “It’s been sooo long since I had chocolate!” “Oh, it’s too good!” These were the exclamations that accompanied sighs and sounds of pleasure as we reveled in the sweet treat. Leave out a few reference words here and there and a group of men would have concluded we were talking about sex. Only women would have this kind of conversation in reference to chocolate.
Pixie and I had just shared lunch with a group of 7 other women, all of whom had been dropped off by the prison van less than an hour earlier. They had clearly enjoyed the burgers from McDonald’s but the brownies were the big hit on this day and they were finished off in short order. Aside from chocolate, the main topic of conversation was children. “I have 4 boys and 2 girls.” “I have 3. The youngest just turned 2. I missed his birthday, but not by much.” Whatever wrong turn it was that landed these ladies in prison, they were still moms and they had missed their children terribly. We’re moms too. And grandmoms. We empathized. But today we gave thanks for freedom and going home and reunions and new beginnings. There was a lot to smile about.
And so, with lunch over, it was time for “shopping.” Or, at least, the closest thing to a shopping trip these ladies had experienced in a long time. They got to pick out clothes. And shoes! And handbags! Oh My! Granted, they were used clothes and the choices were somewhat limited. But they weren’t prison clothes. The garments they arrived in were tossed away with relish as were the red grapefruit bags they were given to carry their few possessions: letters from loved ones, a Bible, medications, photographs. These they packed into attractive tote bags along with the toiletries we offered. “A real tooth brush!” “Deodorant!” “Look, hand lotion! Oh my skin has gotten so dry, thank you so much!” And then it occurs to one woman, it would be ok to ask about the one item she needs most at this moment: “Do you have any tampons?” Of course.
Time to accessorize. I showed one of the ladies our selection of donated jewelry. “Oooo! Girly stuff!” she exclaimed. Yes, we have girly stuff. A pair of earring maybe? A bracelet with pretty blue stones to go with that blue shirt? A ribbon or a scrunchy to tie back your hair? Or perhaps a cap. A pretty dark haired lady picked out a glittery gold baseball cap that she perched on her head at a jaunty angle. It gave her a kind of Christina Aguilar look and all the other women complimented her and one another on their transformation from prisoner to person. Indeed, prison has a way of stealing one’s humanity but oddly enough, a change of clothes and a glittery gold cap can go a long way toward restoring it.
Later, when all the ladies had been escorted to the Greyhound station, ready to board buses to homes around the state, Pixie and I got into our cars and drove home. Along the way, I thought about all the ladies we’d met, about how different our lives had been and yet how much we still had in common. And I thought, as I always have, that it is that woman to woman connection that makes this ministry click. My friends and I, the volunteers in this ministry, have never been locked up in prison. And yet we know instinctively what these newly released women need and we quickly bond with them over things both simple and profound: Chocolate brownies. Motherhood. The terrible ache of separation from children and grandchildren. Photographs of the ones we miss. Clothes shopping. Hand lotion. Feminine hygiene products. Jewelry and other glittery accessories. Girly stuff, both simple and profound. Kathie Gallagher