Maybe today isn’t special for you, but for Tonithia it’s monumental. So important, in fact, she couldn’t sleep a wink last night.

Because it’s visiting day.

For three hours per month, inmates at Tutwiler Prison, in Wetumpka, Alabama, get to see their children. Thanks to AIM (Aid for Inmate Mothers), a program that spearheads the whole thing.

The first thing you’ll notice about Tonithia is a bone-tough exterior. She’s a former crack-addict, mother of six, and longtime inmate. If this woman ever got mad at me, I’d be dead, (snap) just like that.

But if you want to see Tonithia melt—ask about her babies.

“My son, Anthony,” she says. “He’s a good boy, he take care of everybody, always wants to know if I’m alright.” Then she wipes her eyes. “He’s like the man of the family… An honor student.”

Good kid.

Outside these walls, today is a regular weekend. Nice weather, decent sunshine, another midday soccer game for the kids. But for Tonithia, it’s cotton-picking Christmas.

There’s enough electricity in the air to light a forest fire. Some ladies even wake up at 1 a.m., just to start getting ready—primping hair, applying eyeshadow, praying, or reading their Bibles.

One inmate says, “It’s a happy time. Soon as kids come through the gate, they already be looking through the doors… To see they mamas.”

When the church vans arrive, the younger children bolt out. They run through the chainlink gates, hollering.

Older teenagers move a little slower. They’ve done this before. I suppose the older you get the harder it is to see your mama in a white jumpsuit.

Anthony waltzes toward his mother.

When Tonithia sees him, she opens her arms. Then, she touches his chin. She wants to memorize his face the best she can. It’s only been thirty days, but he’s older. She can see it.

“Hey baby,” is all she says.

And in that awkward way teenagers mumble, Anthony says, “Hey Mama.”

Then, she kisses and squeezes Anthony hard enough to break the boy’s ribs. She clenches her eyes shut, and part of me wonders what she’s smiling about.

Maybe she’s trying remember what it feels like to be a mother. Or maybe holding him is proof that her life wasn’t a waste. Or maybe it just feels nice to touch someone.

In any case, if you’ve ever wondered what real happiness looks like, here it is.

And today, it lasts for three blessed hours.

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