When I was seven years old, my father, a former sociology professor and veteran government employee, was appointed as Commissioner of Corrections for the state of Tennessee. He served in that position for three years and probably was pretty good at it, but even my little kid brain knew that Dad did not have a fun job. My memories of that time are vague, both because of the mistiness of time and the traumatic brain injury I suffered at age 18, but it still left an impact. I haven't ever really asked my dad much about that time in his life, so what his tenure left me with was some very interesting memories -- and also a substantial amount of weird things in our house.
A framed photograph of my father was in every prison in Tennessee, most likely in the warden's office. It looked like your standard business portrait: my dad, with his big red goofy face and Coke-bottle glasses and white hair, on a cloudy blue background. The kind of thing you'd see in a bank. My dad would go on to work for a bank some ten years later, but right then his face was in all the prisons, and that was the photo that someone, possibly an inmate, used to paint a three-foot-by-two-foot painting of him.
I don't remember him bringing it home, but I have a funny feeling my mom's first reaction would have been to laugh. My dad, looking serious in his grey business suit next to the flags of America and Tennessee, in oil paints and the size of a college freshman's desk. We hung it over the fireplace, a proud honor to the noble patriarch of our family. You know, the kind of patriarch who when you tell him, "It hurts when I do this," responds, "Well, don't do that!" and takes a Superman pose to fart triumphantly.
I'm pretty sure I've been inside at least two prisons, maybe three. One before it had opened, some big impressive supermax deal. We had a photograph of it taken from above framed in the suburban architectural feature known as the 'bonus room' for years, right near the pool table and a weird picture I'd drawn in crayon of the roosters that had lived next to us at our old house in the country. The photo was unremarkable, even boring, but I see now why it stayed on the wall, mixed in with the picture of my mom and her brother as kids, with the photo of my maternal grandparents when they were young blown up poster size, with the one of my brother as a baby; that little 8x10 of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution was just as much a part of our family history. My mother's side of the family was told in modern photos; my dad's side of the house had stone-faced prints of family photos from the 1800s and that overhead shot of a prison.
The prison I actually remember being inside was one that had been closed. It was long empty by the time we were given a tour. What still lives in my mind to this day was seeing the electric chair. I couldn't have been older than nine at the time. Maybe I didn't actually go in. Maybe my mom just held me up to peek through the door window. Even if it's all invented, the creation of a child with one hell of an imagination, I remember the smell: layers of sweat and burnt ozone. Smell and memory sit right next to each other, I've always heard. If it wasn't real, it was still real.
But somewhere in the Tennessee correctional system at that time were two inmates who had formed an artistic partnership. They could have been in that prison captured in the photo on our wall, but I didn't know anything about them: who they were, what they did, except that one of them was very good at painting with watercolors and the other one wrote beautiful calligraphy. And behind bars, the two of them had teamed up to make some very lovely works of art for the big man, for the Commish, to keep in his home with his family.
My father's father died somewhere in the years when my dad was running the jails. I was around eight or nine at the time, and it was my first experience with real, human death. I remember crying in the bathroom at his funeral, and I remember that after that, we had something new in a frame on the wall of our house: a watercolor painting of a rose, its stem trailing down alongside "The Irish Blessing" written in delicate script. May the sun shine warm on your face, said the gift we got from two men behind bars.
It wasn't all they gave us. My mother was the kind of woman who had a box (or two, or three) of Christmas decorations in the attic. They came down every year and the house got decked out for serious with cheer. Sometimes it even involved a little Christmas village of porcelain houses, but even in times when that was too much effort, we always had our copy of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to bring out: beautifully bound, with watercolor illustrations on each page, and every line of the poem in ornate calligraphy. It only really felt like Christmas in my house when we turned on the Star Wars Christmas album and brought down the wonderful picture book made for us by a pair of incarcerated artists.
I like to imagine that those two are free men these days. Maybe they got out of Tennessee, went somewhere where the weather's a little better. Maybe they have a little quaint shop in Vermont where they sell painted poems to leaf peepers. And, okay, I obviously hope they're in love, too. It makes such a better story that way.
Once, when I was eight or so, in a hotel room on a family vacation up in Indiana, visiting my dad's family, my father got a call on the room phone. My mom told me that there'd been a prison escape and we were going to have to cut our trip short, because Dad had to go home and deal with that. Whatever's involved with dealing with a prison escape when you run the prisons can't be fun, because Dad left the job not too much longer after that.
Years later, we visited one of Dad's friends that he'd made somewhere in his career in corrections when we were driving through the Appalachians to go to my brother's college graduation in North Carolina. As we drove up to said friend's cabin up in the Smokies, he pointed out roadside improvements and told us which had been done by inmates. White stones lining a drive, placed there by prisoners. That night in Dad's friend's cabin I ate asparagus for the first time, held a gun for the only time in my life, and wrote a sonnet about the painting they had hanging over the fireplace. In the morning, my mom left with a jar of gen-u-ine Tennessee White Lightning moonshine. My dad's friend had a hookup somewhere out in the hills, operating illegally, but freely. That jar stayed in the back of our freezer, mom taking occasional nips out of it, until she sold the house after my dad moved out.
I don't know what became of a lot of the prison gifts after my parents got divorced. I came home that summer and Dad was already gone, so any gaps that removed art left on the wall had already been covered by my mother's meticulous, organized eye. If she did keep that Christmas book, it might have been sold off in the estate sale after she died, or it might still lurk in the back of my brother's shed with all the other things, all the other memories that exist in the form of things that have no space in our day-to-day life but are still too hard to throw away.
After he quit the job in corrections, my dad worked for the rest of his career in organizations providing affordable housing. I can't help but think it was a career move of karmic balance. He's been happily retired for years now, though. For a while he had a coffee mug from the Department of Corrections that said "THE MAN" on it in big white letters. I have no idea what became of it; these days he sips his decaf out of the NYU mug he got when I graduated. And me? I've still only watched the first episode of Orange Is The New Black. After all, I totally know what it's like to be on the inside.