Volume 20, Number 3

Third Strike

Myra Sherman

Saturday, November 1st

Dear Baby Daughter,

I’m sitting here in hell, or my jail cell, which is really a cement room, like a tomb. No, that’s not what I want to say. I’m writing, my darling, so you’ll understand. It’s my first try and probably I’ll have to do this over.

I can’t believe what’s happened. I’m not a bad person. But I was stupid, so stupid. Shoplifting a dress for a job interview? What could be dumber?

This is so hard. I don’t know how to explain. I’m not a good writer, even in the best of times. Even with my supposedly high IQ and A's in junior college English, before I left home. It’s not the spelling and grammar, it’s what to write. I never could express myself.

When I was a kid, I stuttered. Mostly repeated sounds and words, like saying, “m-m-m-mommy, p-please-please.” But sometimes I’d get really stuck and couldn’t even get a word out.

“It’s from my side of the family,” my father would say, “nothing to worry about.”

My father died when I was ten. I wondered if he got the heart attack from his family. I wondered if I’d get heart attacks, just like the stuttering. I wanted to ask my mother, but was afraid of sounding like a pudding-head. I didn’t want to make her mad.

Your grandmother’s very smart. She finished high school at seventeen. She graduated from college. When I left home she was the office manager for a big law firm in Los Angeles, where I grew up. I haven’t seen her in five years. But now, I’d like to.

Oh baby, my heart hurts to think of losing you. If only we had family. I’m sorry to say your father was a bastard and nothing but trouble. By the time I knew I was pregnant, he was long gone. But I never considered getting an abortion. I always wanted you.

I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love you so much. No, that sounds like my being in jail is your fault. And it’s not. Baby, this is coming out all wrong.

At first I was hoping my mother, your grandmother, would come through and take you. But she has breast cancer. Does cancer run in her family? Will I get it? Will you?

The social worker said she’s in a hospice program. And I didn’t even know. I wish I could see my mother again, just to say I’m sorry. I was sullen and hateful. It wasn’t easy, raising me alone.

* * *

Sunday, November 2nd

My Darling Dear,

I’m starting over. So, like I meant to say before, I’m writing this letter so you’ll understand when you get old enough. The social worker promised she’ll make sure you get it, no matter where you go, or who takes you.

I don’t know how she’s going to do that since she’s already ancient. Probably she means Family Services, where she works, will make sure. But why not just say that? It’s hard, having to depend on people I don’t know. The thought of some burnt-out government hack making decisions for you just kills me.

How it hurts. I have to do what’s good for you, my little angel. That’s why I’m giving you up. The social worker said you’ll get adopted into a good home, with everything I couldn’t give you, even if I wasn’t in jail for my third strike.

My pumpkin, your mother will be locked away for a long time. I don’t want you in foster care, going from home to home. I can’t do that to you. You’re just two, and so pretty I know you’ll end up with a loving family. The kind I never had, but always wanted. Who could resist your sweet smile and rose-petal skin?

You’ll have perfect parents, like you deserve. And I want that for you, I really do. But it’s tough on me. Just thinking of strangers kissing and cuddling you gives me a migraine. And when I think of you calling someone else Mommy, I get nauseous.

I’d do anything for you. That’s how much I love you. I want the best for you. No one could love you as much as me. You’re my little girl. You’re mine. All mine.


Your Mother

* * *

Wednesday, November 5th

My Dear Darling,

The social worker came to see me yesterday. She told me you’re with a nice elderly couple, who’ll keep you until the adoption. After she left, I couldn’t stop crying. Finally my cellie called the deputy, who ended up putting me in a rubber room. “So you can calm down,” the deputy said.

I know you’ll never go to jail, so you won’t know what a rubber room is. It’s what they call the ‘hole’ in prison movies. They dress you in paper and chain your leg to a hook, like you’re some kind of animal. You have to pee into the floor drain. And it’s really stinky and cold.

Maybe you’ll never even see this. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But it’s like I have to keep writing, to keep you with me. Oh, baby girl, how I love you.

I want you to know what happened. I still can’t believe it. Like I’m in a nightmarish bad trip and will come out of it, shaking my head and kicking myself for being such an ass. “Baby girl,” I’ll say to you. “Your mother is a total idiot.”

Things were looking up for us. I remember singing a Bon Jovi song as I fixed breakfast that morning. I think it was “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” I didn’t get mad when you tossed your oatmeal on the floor, just cleaned up the mess and microwaved some more. Life was finally going good. I was getting off welfare and on my way to being respectable.

The job wasn’t much. If your grandmother knew, she would’ve turned up her nose. “A receptionist, that’s the best you can do?”

“But Mom, it’s a start,” I would’ve answered.

Still, I was excited. I pictured taking you to the babysitter, dressed up for work, just like my mother. Only I didn’t have her closet full of clothes. Just the pantsuit the counselor got from a second-hand place, this cheesy brown polyester that made me look awful. So without thinking things through, I left you with the downstairs neighbor and rushed off.

“I’ll just be an hour. I have to go shopping,” I told her.

“Lucky you for having the bucks,” she said.

I took the bus to the mall and headed straight to Nordstrom’s. “Is this the petite department?” I asked a sales clerk, like I had a checkbook, or credit card, or cash.

I tried on three dresses in the fitting room. I left with a Donna Karen black jersey in my backpack. Which shows how zoned out I was. Like if I was going to shoplift, why not take them all?

“Were you trying to get caught?” the store detective asked.

Was I? I’d seen the security tag. I knew it was there. So what was I thinking?
Or not thinking? Like when I got involved with your father … which led to my two previous convictions for drug possession, which led to me getting a twenty-five year sentence because of the third-strike law. All for a $200.00 dress.

I got hysterical when the police came and brought me to the jail. “But my baby, my baby girl,” I kept screaming.

“You should’ve thought of her before,” the cops told me.

I am so sorry.

Your Forever Loving Mother

* * *

Friday, November 7th

Dear Baby Girl,

I was thinking, maybe I should tell you more about me. In case you start wondering when you’re grown.

As you probably guessed, my childhood was mostly unhappy. I lived in fear of stammering and kept to myself. I went to a speech therapist, but the exercises never helped. I wasn’t good at school. I wasn’t popular. I think my mother was ashamed of me, even if she never said so.

Sure, there were some good moments, like going to Disneyland with my father for my fifth birthday, and when I won the drawing prize in 3rd grade. Or the time my mother took me to her family in New Jersey when I was twelve.

“Such a cutie.”

“So this is my California girl.”

“Maybe you should raise her here.”

The New Jersey relatives had important family dinners and Sunday barbeques. I had grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.

“C-c-c-can we stay?” I asked.

“Absolutely not,” my mother insisted. “I’m not going backward.”

I think my mother wanted to remarry, but never did. After the trip to New Jersey, she even stopped dating. “You’re my life now,” she told me.

Right after my thirteenth birthday, my stuttering got better.

“It happens like that sometimes,” the speech therapist told me.

“I knew you’d outgrow it,” my mother said.

I still repeat a little, especially when I’m nervous. No one seems to notice. But I worry you’ll inherit my stutter. I told the social worker. So far you seem okay; your baby words are totally normal. I think by your age, I already was choking on sounds. So here’s hoping....

Anyway, my life changed when I stopped stuttering. My mother said I blossomed. She didn’t know the half of it. I went from wallflower to backseat Betty. I’m not sure why; maybe because I could.

I started sneaking out to see guys when I was fourteen. I had sex the first time with a guy I barely knew and never saw again. The second and third times were like that too. So were the fourth and fifth. After that I stopped counting. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I want to be honest. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

When I turned twenty, I decided to move away.

“What’s wrong with L.A.? Why are you doing this?” my mother yelled.

“You can’t stop me,” I told her. Nothing I did was good enough. I was sick of trying to please her.

Your father was my first real boyfriend. I was in San Francisco, working at Burger King, when we met. You look just like him, the blond hair and blue eyes. I wish I had a picture of him. I hate to think of you growing up not knowing what your father looked liked, even if he was a worthless shit.

I wonder if they’ll give you my picture. There’s that one in the park, holding you. I think you were six months old. It’s a good one of me. I’d lost the pregnancy weight and just had my hair highlighted. I’ll tell the social worker to find it. Because I’m sure not in shape for picture-taking now.

I don’t know what bothers me more, that I can’t tweeze my eyebrows, or can’t get depilatory for the hair over my lip. I keep telling myself it’s not noticeable, but I know it is. At least up close. Not that my appearance matters now. But looking like crap makes me feel bad, like putting a bag over my head and hiding.

I shouldn’t be telling you this. I don’t want you ashamed of me. So, I’m trying to think—if I couldn’t remember my mother, what would I want to know? What she looked like, was she smart? Did she love me, did she love-love-love me?

Well, you already know I love you. So here’s the rest. I’m 5’3”. I have to watch my weight and usually wear a size 8. I hope you’ll be taller and thinner, more like your father. He had a good build, though the meth made him too skinny sometimes.

My natural hair is dark brown. So are my eyes. I’m not one of those really pretty girls. But I’m not ugly either. You wouldn’t be embarrassed, walking down the street with me.

When I was pregnant, I gave up pot and tequila. I only used meth with your father, so no worries there. I took care of myself so you’d be healthy. I wanted to give you everything. Baby, I loved you so much. I love you so much.

Your Mother

* * *

Friday, November 14th

My Dearest Cassandra,

I’ve decided to just keep writing and do a big fix-up job when I’m done. I’ll cut out all the bad parts. As you may notice I’m calmer now. The shrink started me on medicine. “A lot of women take antidepressants in jail,” he told me.

Before starting again, I read everything I’ve written. What I noticed was I never wrote your name. I think that was intentional, in case your new parents change it. Maybe they’ll want to rename you after a relative or special person in their lives. But maybe not, since you already answer to Cassandra. You know your name. Anyway you’ll always be Cassandra to me, my baby Cassandra. My only baby....

Does that sound sad? Am I sad? I don’t want you to worry, or feel sorry for me. I’m a survivor. And being incarcerated isn’t the most terrible thing in the world. Although I can’t think of anything worse right now. Maybe being really sick, with lots of pain and no hope of getting better, like your grandmother....

Should I write her? What would I say? So sorry Mom, but you were right all along. You said I’d never amount to anything. And here I am, in jail.

But like I said, it’s not that bad. Some of the women get really close, but I keep my distance. My cellie is from Mexico and doesn’t speak much English. I think she’s being deported.

If boredom could kill, we’d all be dead here. There’s nothing-nothing-nothing to do. Except for a few hours, we’re locked in our rooms. Imagine lying on a bunk all day, staring at the ceiling, trying not to watch your cellie go to the toilet, which is right near your bed, trying not to smell, trying not to think. Hell, that’s enough, and more than you need to know.

I’ll tell you a secret. Something no one knows. I’ve been thinking of killing myself. Not now, but when things get too bad, if things get too bad. Shit, I keep forgetting this letter is for you. I better stop. Tomorrow’s another day, like they say. One day at a time.

I’m so, so sorry,

Your Mother

P.S. If you’re wondering what my name is, it’s Dara. That’s Hebrew for wisdom. What a joke. Dara Moore. That’s me. And you’re Cassandra Moore. Cassandra is Greek and means prophetess. Your father’s name is Greg Jackman. Just in case you need to know someday.

* * *

Friday, November 21st

Darling Cassandra,

Maybe you’re wondering how I always get the date right. Especially since the days just run together, when you don’t get visitors and are through with court. So there’s nothing to look forward to, or even think back on. It was so confusing my other times in jail, not knowing the day or date.

But this time I was lucky. On my second day, this red-haired librarian came on the module. She was wearing a silky green dress, like for an office. Even though she was older, she was pretty enough that I felt jealous.

Here’s the luck part. I was looking through her cart of books and found part of a Humane Society calendar—October, November and December. It was perfect, since I figured I’d be gone, one way or another, by New Year’s. November has a gray kitty playing with a red ball. It’s so sweet and cuddly looking. I’m sorry I never got you a pet. I always meant to.

I must be losing my mind, writing about such stupid stuff. That medicine makes it hard to think. And if I ever needed a clear head, it’s now.

I have a new cellie who’s here from prison for a parole hearing. She told me about this movement to get rid of the third-strike law. So maybe I wouldn’t get twenty-five to life.

“I thought it was just twenty-five years, I don’t remember anything about the life part,” I told her. “What movement?”

“You could end up with a much shorter sentence. Be out in a couple of years. After the law changes, if it does. But don’t hold your breath,” she said.

“Then why’d you bring it up?” I was pissed, at myself for getting into the conversation, at her for screwing with me.

“Just trying to be helpful,” she smiled.

Looking at her, missing her front teeth and with a terrible complexion, I saw my future. I felt like crying. But most of all, I kept thinking what I should do about you, baby girl.

What if the third-strike law is changed and I get out in a few years? Maybe I shouldn’t let you be adopted, just keep you in foster care until I’m out. But what if I don’t get out? What if you’re abused or molested? Screwed up forever because of some ignorant foster mother who’s in it for the money and delights in torturing poor, abandoned children?

What should I do? If only I could see you and hold you, breathe in your special honey-sugar smell. I love you so much. You are my life,


* * *

Friday, November 28th

Dear Cassandra,

Happy Thanksgiving, although it wasn’t. I thought about you all day, wondering what you were doing. Our lunch was turkey, with mashed potatoes and canned peas. No pumpkin pie, no cranberry sauce. There’s nothing worse than a holiday in jail. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s. Depressing-depressing-depressing. But enough of that.

Miss you-miss you-miss you,

Your Mother

* * *

Sunday, November 30th

My Dear Baby,

I have some terrible news. The chaplain came to see me this morning. At first I wouldn’t talk to him. “I’m not religious,” I kept saying.

But it wasn’t about religion. He came because my mother died yesterday. It’s funny, but I had this feeling. I was on edge all day, waiting for something bad to happen. I kept thinking the social worker was going to come and tell me you were out of my life forever. Which didn’t make sense since I haven’t signed the adoption papers. Not yet.

I never expected it to be my mother. I can’t believe she’s gone. Because now I’ll never get a chance to … I don’t know what. Beg her forgiveness? Tell her I love her? When my father died my mother said I was too young to go to the funeral. I knew he was dead, but somehow kept waiting for him to come home. For years I dreamed about his funeral, seeing myself at the grave, crying.

“I have to be at my mother’s funeral. You don’t understand,” I told the chaplain.

“I’m sorry.”

 “But I’m her only child. Can’t I get a pass or something?”

“You can’t attend, not with your charges,” he said. His face was chapped and red, his shirt wrinkled; he looked as hopeless as everyone else in the jail.

“All I did was shoplift a dress.”

“Shall we pray?”

I pretended to pray with him, just so he’d go. Then I went back to my room and hid under the covers.

“You okay?” my cellie kept asking.

“Get out of bed,” the deputy said.

When I wouldn’t … well, you can guess what happened: back to the rubber room for me. I didn’t care that much. At least I could cry in peace there, with no one bothering me. I cried and cried, for my mother and myself, but most of all for you.

I’ll write again when I can think straight.

Love always,

Your Mother

* * *

Thursday, December 4th

My Dearest Daughter Cassandra,

I keep thinking about my parents. How we found my father in the backyard, by the pool. I never got to say good-by, even at his funeral. And now, not being there for my mother when she’s buried.… I wasn’t around for them. I won’t be around for you.

My soul is sick. I feel pain all over, in my heart and head, fingertips and toes, like needle-pins stabbing me to death. Maybe this is the time.... I could hang myself with a towel under my bunk. Or save up my pills. But what if you find out someday? Learn your mother killed herself. I wouldn’t want you to feel guilty. There’s nothing worse than guilt. I know that for sure.

I want the best for you. I want to hug and kiss you. I love you.

Your Mother

* * *       

Friday, December 12th

My Darling Cassandra,

I’ve made my decision. My life feels worthless, but at least I did one thing right. I made you. I’ll never get pregnant again. I’ll never have another child. You are my only daughter. You will be my only child.

I’ve lost my mother and now I’m going to lose you. But I’m doing what’s best, even if it means never seeing you again. Or maybe, when you’re grown and I’m old, you’ll look me up. We’ll hug and kiss, we’ll look at each other to see what we’ve lost. Maybe we’ll phone everyday and have lunch once a week. Grow close and confide in each other. Or maybe not....

I have to give you up for adoption. It’s the right thing to do.

This is the last time I’ll write.

I didn’t say good-by to my father. I can’t say good-by to my mother. But I can say good-by to you.

Good-by, my baby doll. I will always love you.

Please be happy-happy-happy.

Love and Kisses,

Your True Loving Mother,

Dara Moore

* * *

Friday, December 19th

Dearest Cassandra,

I couldn’t do it. The social worker came with the adoption papers, all smiling and chatty, like no big deal. I just couldn’t do it. All that mumbo-jumbo legal stuff, sign-signing you away, like the pink slip on a car. I was dumbstruck, dumbfounded, dizzy and desperate, like dying in my heart and soul, but worse.

The social worker kept saying, “I know this is hard.”

I couldn’t get the words out but wanted to scream You have no idea, no idea. I wanted to tell her you were mine, my daughter, my love, my life. When the social worker said she’d come back, I nodded. After she left, I threw up in the toilet, with my cellie watching.

I don’t know what to do.

Your Always Loving Mother

* * *

Thursday, December 25th

Dear Cassandra,

Merry Christmas. I hope they got you some nice gifts. I hope you’re not too young to remember last year. The decorated real tree, even if it was small enough to sit on a table. And the red baby parka I got you from OshKosh.

I won’t talk about Christmas here. Except to say this morning these carolers came on the module. The deputy opened the doors as they went room to room. The carolers sang and looked afraid. I felt like a monkey at the zoo.

When the singers left, the deputy told me I was scheduled for a professional visit after the holidays. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m on my way to prison. Although maybe it’s better, just to go and start my sentence. My cellie said it’s easier in prison. More free time and privileges. But it still seems worse, being around serious criminals all the time.

Love Always,


* * *

Monday January 5th

My Dearest Cassandra,

Happy NewYear. Baby, I have happy-happy news. This morning the visitor came, a lawyer, Ms. Margolin. She specializes in third-strike cases. The minute I saw her I had a good feeling. She’s tall and stylish, with a young face and gray hair, which I guess is premature. Right off, I felt I could trust her.

Anyway, the social worker sent her. And here’s the big news. She’s going to appeal my conviction.

“You’re not a third-strike case. I don’t want to point fingers, but somebody really messed up.”

Of course we both knew she was referring to my public defender. Who hardly saw me before court, he was in such a rush. Who kept calling me Dora and never looked me in the eye.

Then Ms. Margolin explained that for three strikes, the first and second strikes have to be violent or serious felonies. Like murder or rape and burglary or assault. And all I had were drug possession charges. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, smiling.

I almost fainted, I was so thrilled. So thanks to Ms. Margolin and the social worker, who I sure had wrong, I’m going to be free.

Another chance.... This time I’ll do things right. Go back to school, get a good job, give you the best life I can.

My sweet precious girl, I can’t wait to see you, to hold you. I’m filled with love for you. This is the best day of my life. Until we’re together, hugs and kisses. Kisses and hugs.

I love-love-love you,

Your Mother