Story by Candy Abbott
The clank of the metal door and the echo of their footsteps rang in the ears of Ivy and Joanne as they walked down the dingy corridor behind the prison guard toward the “big room.” The aroma of Ivy’s homemade chocolate chip cookies wasn’t enough to override the stench of ammonia from the recently mopped floor or the bitterness and anger that hung in the air. Women’s Correctional Institute was not the kind of place where seventeen-year-olds go for an outing, but Ivy had a mission.
She didn’t know what she was getting into, but she had to try. With trembling fingers, she dialed the number for an appointment at the prison. Warden Baylor was receptive to Ivy’s desire to visit and referred her to Joanne, another teen who had expressed interest.
“How do we do this?” Ivy asked.
“Who knows? Maybe homemade cookies would break the ice,” Joanne suggested.
So they baked their cookies and here they were, bearing gifts to strangers. “I put almonds in these,” Ivy rambled nervously as they moved along. “The dough was gummier than usual . . . “
“Don’t chatter,” the guard snapped. “It gets the prisoners riled.”
The harsh words made Ivy jump and her heart pound. She walked the rest of the distance in silence.
“Okay. Here we are,” the guard grunted, keys rattling.“ You go in. I’ll lock the door behind you. Be careful what you say. They have a way of using your words against you. You have fifteen minutes. Holler if you have any trouble.” Ivy noted the prisoners’ orange jumpsuits and felt overdressed. Maybe we shouldn’t have worn heels, she thought. They probably think we’re snobs.
Remembering the guard’s admonition, the girls put the cookies on the table next to plastic cups of juice without a word. Some prisoners leaned against the wall; others stood around — watching. Studying. Thinking. Staring. Nobody talked. Ivy smiled at one of the women, and she scowled back. From then on, she avoided eye contact. After five minutes of strained silence, Joanne whispered, “Let’s move away from the table. Maybe they’ll come over.”
As they stepped back, one of the prisoners blurted out, “I’m gettin’ a cookie.” The others followed and began helping themselves. Soon they heard the rattle of keys. Time was up.
“What a relief to get outta there,” Joanne sighed as a gust of fresh air caressed their perspiring faces.
“Yeah,” Ivy agreed. “But there’s a tug inside me that we’re not done. Would you be willing to go back?”
Joanne nodded with a half-smile. “How about Thursday after school?”
Week after week they came. And week after week the prisoners ate the cookies, drank the juice and stood around in silence. Gradually, antagonistic looks were replaced by an occasional smile. Still, Ivy couldn’t bring herself to speak — not a word.
Then one Thursday, an evangelist walked in. Her step was sure, her chin was high, and she glowed with the love of God. But she meant business. “I’ve come to pray with you,” she announced. “Let’s make a circle.”
Ivy was awed by the inmates’ compliance. Only a few resisted. The others, although murmuring, inched their way toward the middle of the room and formed a lopsided circle, looking suspiciously at one another.
“Join hands,” the evangelist instructed. “It’s not gonna hurt ya, and it’ll mean more if you do.” Slowly they clasped hands, some grasping hard, others barely touching. “Now, bow your heads.” Except for the orange outfits, it could have been a church meeting.
“Okay. We’re gonna pray,” she continued, “and prayer is just like talking, only to God. I want to hear you tell the Lord one thing you’re thankful for. Just speak it out. Don’t hold back.”
Ivy’s palms were sweaty. I can’t pray out loud, Lord. I can’t even talk to these women. Guess I should set an example, but they probably don’t even like me — think I’m better than them cause of my clothes.
The words of an inmate jolted from her thoughts.
“I’m thankful, God, for Miss Ivy bringing us cookies every week.”
Another voice compounded the shock, “God, thanks for bringing a black lady to see us, not just Quakers and Presbyterians.”
Ivy’s eyes brimmed with tears as she heard, “Thank you, God, for these two ladies givin’ their time every week even though we can’t do nothin’ to pay em back.”
One by one, every inmate in the circle thanked God for Ivy and Joanne. Then Joanne managed to utter a prayer of gratitude for the prisoners’ words. But when it came Ivy’s turn, she was too choked up to speak. Her eyes burned in humble remorse over how wrong she’d been about these women. She wished she could blow her nose, but the inmates were squeezing her hands so tightly, she resorted to loud sniffles and an occasional drip.
The following week, Ivy and Joanne returned, bright-eyed, to find the prisoners talkative.
“Why do you bring us cookies every week?” a husky voice inquired from the corner of the room. When Ivy explained, she inched a few steps closer. “Can you get me a Bible?” she asked. Others wanted to know more about the Jesus who inspires teenagers to visit prisoners.
A ministry was born from Ivy’s cookies. What started as a silent act of kindness and obedience turned into a weekly Bible study at the prison which eventually grew so big it split into several groups that continue to this day. After Joanne married and moved away, Ivy continued to minister to the inmates alone for years. Eventually Prison Fellowship picked up the baton.
Ivy is a grandmom now. Her radiance has increased over the years, and she brightens any room she enters. But last Thursday afternoon she indulged herself in a good cry. Curled up on the couch, wrapped in the afghan her daughter had made, she wept. Deep sobs wracked her body as she remembered it had been one year since her daughter died of asthma. She ached over the loss and felt, for the first time, the full weight of her words, “The kids can live with me.” The baby was asleep in his crib and the two girls were in school when the doorbell rang.
There stood a young woman, probably seventeen, with a plate of homemade cookies.
“Are you Ivy Jones?? she asked.
“Yes,” she answered, dabbing her eyes with a wadded tissue.
“These are for you,” the girl said as she handed the cookies to her with a shy, sad smile, turning to leave without another word.
“Thank you,” Ivy whispered in a daze. The girl was halfway down the sidewalk when Ivy called out, “But why?”
“My grandmother gave me her Bible before she died last week, and her last words were, “Find Ivy Jones and take her some homemade cookies.”
As the girl walked away, a wave of precious memories, uncertainties and younger days flooded Ivy’s soul. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she choked back a sob and headed toward the phone. It’s been a long time since I talked with Joanne.