The Monument: Notes on a Prison Memento

Prison Baby - Yarn Toy Memento - Deborah Jiang Stein

Editor's Note: Deborah Jiang Stein is author of the memoir Prison Baby, a powerful account of her discovering as a child that she was adopted, and that her biological mother, a convicted drug addict, gave birth to Deborah in prison. It's a poignant, affecting portrait of identity and redemption, and Deborah joins us today to discuss her emotional connection to the yarn toy on the cover of her book, a memento from her time as a 'prison baby.'

The yarn toy on the cover of Prison Baby connects two worlds, my life in prison and my life thereafter. My beloved incarcerated birth mother mailed her version of a stuffed animal she made in prison craft class to my first foster home. This yarn toy, which measures just four inches long, was her final outstretching to me, the daughter she lost.

I can't call my year in prison a sentence. A judge didn't commit me to ten years of lockup. A judge handed that to my birth mother. It was neither the first nor the last of her time in prison, all for drug-related crimes.

My birthmother was pregnant with me when sentenced, so you could say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe I was exactly where I was supposed to be at the right time. This isn't to say I didn't suffer from the trauma of multiple broken attachments at an early age. I've already written a lot elsewhere about these losses.

But there's also a fairytale in this love story of my incarcerated mother and me, a story I've only been able to patch together from government documents and Bureau of Prison files, and by returning to my prison birthplace, and by searching for kin and people who knew her. She's deceased. I'll never know the story as she would tell it.

Some experiences bookmark the harmonics of our lives. A prison sentence, for example. It can freeze time, divide families, shatter hope. The images associated with prison are harsh: steel barred doors and the slam as they clang locked. Loud voices that echo and reverberate into hollowness. And broken individuals.

But my bond to prison is one of love. Deep down, I associate prison with security. It's my birthplace, after all, and I lived inside the compound for a year with my birthmother before the authorities placed me in foster care and then a few years later into adoption. What sounds to some like a tragic beginning is to me, now, a love story. Out of prison, along with these losses, came salvation. I received the deepest of love.

The yarn toy vibrates with life as if it’s an animated character in my private story book. It is significant here that one of the earliest etymological meanings of the word “memento” is “something that serves to warn.” The yarn toy is just this for me, an alert of my incarcerated mother’s fierce love for the daughter she lost. It’s the one object that has followed me from place to place. From lockdown in the Hole, where my mother and I were sent to solitary confinement, to foster care a year later when I was removed from prison, and then to adoption a few years after that. The yarn toy threads together these three distinct chapters in my life.

Throughout my life, I’ve had periods where I packrat belongings, and times when I shed what I own. Today I follow the theory that “less is more,” especially when it comes to belongings. I believe in the golden rule of keeping sentimental things: the fewer things we keep, the more they’re special.

The yarn toy on the cover of Prison Baby is a monument, and I plan to keep it forever. Even though it’s just soft fuzzy wool woven together. the yarn toy stands strong in my eyes,  as if made of granite. It’s a tangible treasure in the vast unkowns of my birth story. Sometimes when I look at the yarn toy on its display in my home, it triggers a longing to know more about my birthmother. But I’ve grown to accept that as another loss, the lack of knowledge, of ever meeting her again.

The yarn toy is ultimately a work of art, a prize —it’s not even really a toy. In some ways, it’s even more than a memento or some memory tool. The yarn toy is my mother. Her hands were all over it. She poured her hopes into it, her love, and most likely her tears. It's my gene pool, my DNA. It's an eternal connection, a tribute to her motherhood, to her loyalty and love, to her losses and mine, her pain and mine, her joy and creativity, to the courage in her. This knit yarn figure is an artifact of the kind everyone yearns for in the archaeological dig into our past so that we may learn who we are today.