A Lesson of Hope
By Ruth Bruno
On a cold day in 1990 less than a week before Christmas, a ten-year-old girl carries out her daily habit of collecting the mail. Brandy Williams, who is living with her aunt’s family, flips through the mail to find a letter addressed to her from John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington, CT. “The weight of that paper was striking. I, as a kid, didn’t typically get formal letters,” said Williams recalling that first correspondence 25 years later.
Williams opens the envelope to find a letter from her mother, who is undergoing treatment for mental illness and drug addiction.
“I’ve been in the hospital since a couple of days after you seen me last…I’m doing better here and getting the care I need, which is good… I love you very much and hope that you’re doing a good job in school. Behave for your auntie because she’s the best aunt you’ll ever have, her and Auntie S. Anytime you need to talk, hug, or pray with someone, they are there.”
“I remember reading it and re-reading it,” says Williams about the letter. As her mother continued to write to her throughout her stints in the hospital and prison, she collected each of them as a documentation of their relationship, as well as her mother’s relationship with the hardships surrounding her.
“What that letter did is to reinforce something that she had already started to teach… and that was writing.”
While writing would become one of Williams’ life-long passions, it is just one of several lessons her mother attempted to teach her, even from a prison cell. Williams is hoping to have those letters “read and re-read” once again, this time by strangers with incarcerated parents, or those who have been incarcerated themselves. Williams has chosen to share her and her mother’s story of resilience by publishing the letters that would serve as a guide into the adult world.
Tammy Darlene Williams became a parent at the age of 16 with the birth of her daughter Brandy. Struggling with mental health problems since childhood, Tammy turned to drugs at an early age and continued to use them until her death in 2006.
“That’s how I saw my mother. As this composite of addictions and mental health issues and incarcerations, but understanding at the base she was the person who laid the foundation for me, from how I learned to how I communicated to my sense of self. Those are the things that she helped to identify and form some type of foundation for me as best she could under the circumstances.”
Due to her mother’s state of mind and use of drugs, Williams became familiar with fending for herself. Williams remembers that before her mother was institutionalized, she would often leave the house for long portions of the day. When Williams was six years old, her mother left one day and didn’t come home that night. “That was the first time I had an understanding of the difficulties she had,” she said, sharing that at the time Tammy was also dealing with the recent death of her own mother. “I never was angry. I knew she loved me very much, but I knew that she had an addiction and I knew that those two things were separate.”
One night, Tammy left the house while her older sister cared for Brandy. As the hours ticked by and Tammy did not return home, her sister filed a report with the police. At that point Williams and her mother were separated. While Brandy was taken in and later adopted by her aunt, Tammy began a recurring cycle of rehabilitation, imprisonment, and relapse.
After receiving her first letter from her mother from John Dempsey Hospital, Williams’ would receive her first letter from prison about a year later. “Reading them I would hear her voice. She had a very soft voice…very different from mine,” Williams remembers. “I would hear the soothing nature of her voice telling me to keep my grades up, focus in school, mind my manners and be a good young lady.”
And so she did. Despite her tumultuous childhood, Williams maintained her grades, played three varsity sports and was elected class president. Throughout high school she remembered her mother telling her that she would have to “mother herself” and watch out for her own well-being as she wasn’t around to do that for her.
“When you tell someone that they have to be their own mother, the molding that a mother would do I had to figure out while still maintaining a sense of wonder…childhood. I knew I was going into adulthood and that my childhood was cut short.”
Despite her mother’s absence, Williams says she felt her mother’s presence through the letters. “They helped to be the guiding hand in writing that I could never be no matter how hard I tried to step outside of myself. Even though physically she wasn’t there, the letters helped to chart out this course that kept me positive…that helped me see greatness even when it wasn’t obvious.”
And at many points that promise of future greatness wasn’t obvious at all. While on the outside she seemed to be developing just like any healthy child, she was quietly suffering with the loss of her home and mother.
“I held it together, but I remember being at my aunt’s house and I would just cry. I didn’t have a room so I had a cot in the corner with closet doors,” said Williams, describing the attic apartment she lived in with her aunt’s family. “They did everything they could to make me feel welcome. Even though I was a kid I had a feeling that I don’t belong here and I’m a burden.”
It was her own actions and her mother’s encouragement that helped her focus on achieving the goals she had set for herself. Williams studied psychology in college, which led her to Arizona where she worked at a treatment center for adolescents.
“It was one of the first times that my experience as a child could help somebody. Seeing these kids and how much they acted out, I felt very grateful because I am just really fortunate that I had the support system that I had in place and the mindset that I had.”
Today, Williams continues to work among youth and adolescents as she teaches writing workshops at the Queen Ann Nzinga Center in New Britain. Williams tries to instill the same lessons her mother taught her to help guide troubled youth of upcoming generations.
“I tell them they may not choose there they lay their head at night but you do have control over what thoughts you think and that’s where inner strength and determination comes from. The lessons are there if we’re willing to work beyond the perceived form.”
Williams hopes to finish her book of letters by mid-September this year. Updates about the book and information about where to find the finished product can be found on her website. Williams says she hopes others will take from her book a lesson of hope.
“Ultimately this is a story of resilience. She went through things that I will never know…Even when she appeared to be weak she did what she could…which was write letters. Whether you’re a parent in prison, a child with a parent in prison, or even in prison yourself, it’s a story of resilience.”