The mothers and daughters crossed arms and held hands, singing the Girl Scout song about making new friends but keeping the old. In a few minutes, the girls would have to leave - carrying leftover cupcakes and juice boxes past the barbed wire and through the metal detector. Their moms would stay behind - in some cases, for years to come.
The mothers and daughters crossed arms and held hands, singing the Girl Scout song about making new friends but keeping the old.
In a few minutes, the girls would have to leave — carrying leftover cupcakes and juice boxes past the barbed wire and through the metal detector.
Their moms would stay behind — in some cases, for years to come.
A circle’s round; it has no end, they sang. That’s how long I want to be your friend.
Mothers began burying their daughters in hugs, mentioning the next time that the bus will carry them from Columbus to the troop meetings at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.
As the oldest member of Troop 48001 tried to avoid the displays of affection, her mom sneaked a kiss on her cheek.
Diedra Gardner, 17, acted disgusted.
“Oh, my God, I’m going to vomit,” she deadpanned, watching her mom start to tear up. “Don’t start crying. Oh, my God, I can see it coming.”
At first, Diedra didn’t want to join Bonds Beyond Bars, a Girl Scout program for the daughters of incarcerated mothers, with 30 chapters nationwide — not after the years that her mom had abused drugs and alcohol, ruining birthdays and Christmases for Diedra and her four younger brothers.
By January 2012, when Tara began a 32-month sentence for identity theft and forgery, Diedra had grown to hate her.
She tried to block thoughts of her mom, focusing on getting good grades at Whitehall-Yearling High School and becoming the first in her family to go to college.
Tara, too, pushed herself to improve, reclaiming her health and advancing her education. In November, she gained permission to join the Girl Scout troop at the prison, where 75?percent of the inmates have children.
Since then, through seven months of meetings about crafts and cookie sales, the Gardners have been repairing their relationship: Tara realizing the importance of being a mother and Diedra, though still angry, realizing that she missed having one.
She snickered about the Mother’s Day card she decorated, depicting her stick-figure mom behind bars, tears flowing from her eyes. Tara was offended until she read the sentiments inside: I can’t wait for you to get out of here so I can be with you all the time.
. . .
If not for Girl Scouts, Tara wouldn’t have had visitors during the past six months.Struggling with health issues, her estranged husband hasn’t taken their four sons, ages 9 to 14, to see her since Christmas; other relatives live out of state.Unable to afford the prison prices for phone calls and email, Tara, 35, contains her relationship with Diedra almost entirely to the troop meetings, conducted two Saturdays a month during the school year and once monthly in the summer.
For the 21 other troop members, one as young as 5, time with Mom is similarly limited.
The Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland Council — which in 1994 started the second Bonds Beyond Bars program in the nation (the first was in Maryland) — draws from 30 counties. Most meetings include a dozen or fewer attendees, with girls traveling more than two hours to the prison.
Program director Diana Lee provides lunch, plans activities and invites guest speakers. With the rest of the time open, the younger girls end up with arms around their moms, snuggled into laps.
The relationship is more complicated for Diedra and Tara, who hold hands one minute and bicker the next.
Their argument topics — Diedra’s boyfriend, her plans to go tanning before her prom — aren’t so different from those of other teen girls and moms.
But the setting is never out of mind as their conversations move quickly from the serious to the mundane: Tara’s hopes for a release date earlier than July 2014, Diedra’s recent meal at BD’s Mongolian Grill.
“Is that where you’re going to take me when I get out?” Tara asked.
Diedra fired back with truth-laced sarcasm.
“Why would I treat you for getting out of prison? It’s your fault you went in there, and it’s not my fault you have to eat prison food every day,” she snapped, before pausing. “I have to go to Easton.”
“You hurt my feelings; I want you to apologize,” Tara said quietly. “What do you need at Easton?"
Toward the end of the meeting, the volunteers who had given a presentation about conflict resolution passed out work sheets. Diedra began answering the questionnaire: “Who do you look up to?”
When similar questions are raised, Diedra hates that some girls name their moms. Incarcerated parents, she thinks, are role models of what not to be.
No one, she wrote, because I’m the only person I can depend on 100% of the time.
. . .
The Vicodin was prescribed for a shoulder strain after Tara, a waitress at the time, slipped and fell at work.
She began to like how the pills eased her pain from a difficult childhood, the pressures of raising five children.
Beginning when Diedra was 12, Tara’s addiction spiraled out of control and into other substances: alcohol, heroin, whatever pills she could get.
On one of Diedra’s birthdays, her mom was too drunk to enjoy the family beach trip. On the next, she skipped birthday cake to stay in the bedroom, getting high with a friend.
The day Diedra turned 16, Tara awoke in the hospital after a health scare, her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease aggravated by drug abuse.
“Do you know what today is?” Diedra asked, and her mom didn’t.
Eventually, Diedra gave up on the relationship. She doesn’t understand why her mom ever tried drugs when her grandma is also an addict, comparing the decision to that of knowingly eating a bowl of cancer.
In her clouded mind, Tara justified her actions: At least she was using drugs at home, not out on the streets. When she stole more than $2,000 from residents of a retirement home, where she worked as an aide, most of it was for Christmas presents for herkids, she said.
The rest was for drugs.
Reflecting, Tara said she was so selfish that she didn’t realize the harm to her children until after she was sentenced to prison for not paying restitution to the victims — a probation violation.
A month into her prison term, she received a letter from Diedra that broke her heart.
Dear Mom, it began on loose-leaf paper. I cried today in school. Because I miss you.
Diedra wrote about having to smile and act strong while waking up each morning angry and sad. Tara hadn’t considered that her daughter, so adept at keeping up her guard, would miss her mom in the middle of the night.
I feel so alone because, even though I’m surrounded by so many people who love me, Diedra wrote, the one person I want to fix this all, can’t.
. . .
It sounds strange, she said, but Tara looks up to a teenager: her daughter.
“To me, she’s just so perfect,” she said. “She’s everything I wish I was.”
Whereas Diedra is funny and outgoing, Tara can be shy and lacking in self-confidence.
While balancing choir, cheerleading and part-time work at Donatos, Diedra made the National Honor Society. Tara dropped out in the ninth grade to look after her younger sister; their mom kept overdosing.
Now, Diedra is the one caring for her younger brothers, one of whom has special needs, while their father works nights as a security guard.
She chose Ohio Dominican University in part for the scholarships, worried about becoming “$90 million in debt.” Although she’d like studying music or working with animals, she thinks a career in medicine would provide what she wants most: stability.
“When I move out, I get a fresh start, and I get to make every single decision on my own,” she said. “I want to end my bad life and start a better one.”
For the first time in years, Tara is aiming to do the same. She recently wrote an essay reflecting on her time in prison, titling it “A Blessing in Disguise.”
From prison, she has obtained a high-school equivalence certificate and enrolled in a community college to earn a social-work degree. After her release, she hopes to enter a halfway house and start a career in chemical-dependency counseling.
She lost 50 pounds and began studying the Bible. A volunteer in various prison programs, she was approved this month to start working outside the prison gates for the city of Marysville.
Maybe she deserved the life she gave herself, Tara used to think, but her children deserve a better mom. Their old mom would show up high to Diedra’s concerts and refuse to take the boys to the park.
“Now, I’d do anything to go to that choir concert. .?.?. I would love a chance to do homework with my kids,” she said. “I can’t wait to go home and do all of those things.”
Diedra keeps reminding her mom that she won’t be there, half-joking that she’ll never come home from college or share her campus address.
Still, Tara makes comments about camping in the backyard and lying in bed talking. At one Girl Scout meeting, as she looked at the little girls cuddling with their moms, Tara asked Diedra why she never sits in her lap anymore.
Her mom wants another chance at her daughter’s childhood, Diedra thinks, but it’s too late.
. . .
They discussed Diedra’s year-end choir trip over sandwiches that Tara sliced with a plastic spoon because knives aren’t allowed in prison.
Diedra excitedly told her mom that she was going to Chicago after all. The school librarian, knowing she couldn’t afford the trip, offered to donate $400.
“We get to go to a mall with seven floors,” she said, describing the itinerary. “Seven floors!"
Tara started to cry, wiping her eyes with a Cheetos-stained napkin.
In December, she had asked a judge for early release, saying she wanted to see her daughter graduate. Describing her achievements in prison, she didn’t expect to be denied for the third time.
“You don’t understand,” Tara told her daughter, who begged her to stop crying. “There’s things that you’ll look back on, and I?won’t be in that memory.”
Only a few Girl Scout meetings remain until Sept. 30, when her daughter becomes too old for the program.During the past 18 months, Tara has missed Diedra’s college visits and choir concerts. She missed Diedra accepting her award for cheerleading MVP, Diedra waving from the homecoming-court float in the parade.
Before the Whitehall-Yearling graduation today, Tara sent her daughter a letter and all she could give as a graduation gift: a string bracelet she made in the prison’s arts-and-crafts area. So a piece of me will be with you, she wrote.
She’ll miss seeing Diedra in her cap and gown, singing the national anthem. As the milestones pass, Tara worries that her daughter won’t forgive her absence. She gets nervous before every Girl Scout meeting, imagining the feeling of disappointment if Diedra doesn’t show up.
But she always does, even when their last meeting fell the morning after the prom. Diedra looks forward to the meetings, even if she often doesn’t let it show.Before Diedra went home once, Tara wiped her own tears and told her she loves her. Diedra allowed a brief hug before her arms dropped to her sides.
Not until she left the conference room did Tara hear the goodbye, with Diedra’s voice calling from the hallway: “I love you, Mom!”