To Darla, From Dad: Letter from the County Jail

I was 11 years old when my father went to prison for shooting a man.

While there, he wrote a letter to me after my sister and I had visited him. I held on to that letter for decades as a treasured possession. The weeks after Dad died, I searched for it, but it was lost.

Then came last New Year’s Eve, and while I was sorting through boxes, I found it.

In this letter, I see a side of my father that I had no chance to learn about during the awful days of my childhood: He wrote well.

Maybe he had dreams of being a writer.

For, as he sat in a demeaning jail cell, my father had written a lovely and loving letter to me.

The sentiment is cheerful for the most part, yet I read much more into it when I think of his state of mind at that time. My father wrote this while serving time as a person who put a bullet into the head of another human being.

He came home early from work one evening and saw a man running away from his home. He called out, “Junior! Junior, where you going?” thinking it was his eldest son. The man did not stop.

When he got inside the house, he saw his wife — my mother — dressed in pearls and heels, with his youngest children nearby, aware of it all.

My mother yelled out the door for her man to come back.

He did not.

My father’s reaction was violent and, like all the other times, we children could only watch in fear.

A year later, my mother went to my father’s apartment to get his signature on legal documents as they finalized their divorce. He — the one who had run away on that night of discovery and who she had allowed to move in with us — waited in the car. Their meeting was taking too long for his liking, so he left the car and went to my father’s door.

Dad told me that he shot in self-defense.


I removed my childhood address for privacy, but Dad wrote it as neatly as the rest of the handwriting you see.


June 22, 1972

Dear Darla,

By the time you receive this letter you will have graduated to the 7th grade. No need for me to ask whether you graduated or not because I know you’ve always gotten very good grades and even though I couldn’t be there to see you in person my thoughts were there and I want to say that I’m very proud of you. Just think — five more years and you’ll be graduating from high school. I realize it’s a little early yet, but have you given any thought to what you’d like to be when you do graduate? Whatever it may be, I know you’ll make it, if you continue like you are now. I know Sandra’s really going to miss you for awhile, but I’m sure she’ll get used to it. Correct me if I’m wrong: Brent must be in the 9th; Norman, the 8th, and to round it out– you’re in the 7th. How about you three occupying every grade at La Cumbre (smile).


I received your letter sometime ago and I’m sorry I didn’t answer before now. I’ve attempted to write lots of times but I’d always end by tearing up the pages. I’ve been so despondent lately that I could never find the right words to say to you. I want you to know that I think about you and the others all the time and that I love you very much, even though it’s been such a long time. I also want to say that I was very happy to see you all the other day when you came down. I hardly recognized you at first because you seemed to have grown so fast since I last saw you. What have they been feeding you (smile).


When are you going on your camping trip to Lake Cachuma? (You have all the fun.) I hope you have a good time. You mention your coming back on Brent’s birthday. When is it, by the way? Mine was on the 19th, right after Father’s Day. I know you forgot about them both, or didn’t have any money. When you get a job, I want you to make up for it (smile).


What did you get for graduation? I know you realize I couldn’t get you anything but I’ll make it up to you later, OK? And what about this pen pal you have? Is it a boy or girl and where are they located? It must be very interesting corresponding in such a way. The new park they’re making — is it right by where the sandbox used to be? It’ll be very convenient for everyone.


If I get out before your vacation is over, I’d like very much to take you and Sandra to L.A. with me for about a week. Would you like that? If so, I’ll contact your mother about it later. Let me know.

We’re only allowed to write two pages per letter on one side only, so I have to close and see if I have enough patience left to answer Sandra’s letter. Be a sweet girl and tell everyone hello for me and to write.


With lots of love,

~ Dad ~

P.S. Send me a photo of you so I can show everyone just how beautiful my other daughter is. I already have one of Sandra. [Note from Darla: These sentences were written across the top of the second page; he squeezed more room out of the two-page allowance by writing in the area above the lines.]

The man survived my father’s gunshot and increased his active hatred toward me and my siblings — physical and emotional abuse that haunt us all to this day.

My mother died in 1999, and my father in 2003. My mother’s last words to her children were denial and curses; my father’s were pleas for forgiveness.

I believe that my father is in heaven today, finally at peace.

The letter he wrote to me while he served his time was his attempt to soften the blow. I didn’t feel that comfort when I read it in 1972 — in fact I despised him for what he did because it took him even farther from me. But in later years, while he was still away from me and working out his demons, comfort is exactly what that letter became.

I wonder about the stories he wrote that I will never see.

Darla McDavid

I'm Darla, a writer of stories about family, friends, goodness, and God. I love cats, coffee, gardening, and tall stacks of books. Click here to subscribe to my blog. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. In my other life, I'm an administrative professional and a Sunday School teacher for preschoolers.

36 Comments Write a comment

  1. Darla, this is a moving, beautiful and heartfelt story. Your words tell the world that your father’s faith in you was well placed. I’m glad you survived your hard times growing up to be the beautiful person you are today. Thanks for writing and sharing this.


    • It was a gift to have five siblings. We stuck together and protected each other, even helped each other escape reality through music and comic books. That bond helped to keep me strong.


    • Thank you for your kind words. I give the credit to my Christian faith for the strength you’re seeing in me via my writing.

      By the way, your March 4 hummingbird photo is amazing! Did you take that?


  2. Dear Darla, my first memories of you from our first year of BSF are two: your joy in learning more of God’s word and your frequent tears of gratitude at the mention of the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.
    Now hearing about your difficult childhood gives me a little insight into your grateful mess for our “AbbaFather”! Watching you with your beautiful , radiant and faithful heart and face inspired me to be more grateful for Gods gift which I sometimes took for granted! Thank you for sharing your pain and your journey.


    • Jean, it was so inspiring to be with people from all backgrounds in that BSF group. We each had something for which to be thankful, and being around you ladies helped me to see the things I had. Again, I take no credit for the beauty, radiance, and faith that you saw shining through me — though I am happy to know that He was seen. Thanks for coming by!


  3. Tonight in bible study we learned how Go sees, listens and remembers His children and how He has a plan for our lives to make us significant. I see that in you…I am sorry you had so much pain in your life, but as you know God seen your sadness, heard your cries and remembered you and your father and made you both into something significant! Continue blessings to you and your family.


  4. That’s an amazing story Darla, even though we knew each other in high school, we never shared any personal stories. I had no idea you and Norman went through such pain. I, too, lost my father at the age of 12 but he didn’t die or go to jail,…I lost him to alcoholism and finally his weakness and decision to leave his five children to their own fate without the guiding hand of a father. I saw him only twice more before he passed at the age of 82. He just didn’t care. I’m glad you’ve healed your wounds through your faith. Love and peace to a strong and wonderful person.


    • I am finding out that many of us schoolmates were hurting at home and hid it quite well at school. You are another example, Adrienne. School was escape for us and the last bell meant the dreaded trip home. Norman literally saved my life at one point, it got so insane with my mother’s new guy. But here we are today, able to use our experience to help someone avoid it or get through it. Even though it’s sad, I am glad that I know you better now through your sharing here.


      • I was fortunate that my mother was a strong and stable person. She had to fight constantly as a Hispanic woman in her profession, she went back to school, got her Master’s and was a probation officer, the only Spanish-speaking PO in her department, she got paid a whole extra $25 a month for that skill 🙂 We struggled financially but never went without food and shelter. Yes, in school, you have this picture in your head that everybody else is living the Brady Bunch life but in reality, we were surrounded by little wounded souls – all of us just trying to find our place in the world. Did you know Lucius Sloan? He was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend…I’m happy you and Norman survived that horror story.


        • Lucius Sloan — that name sounds familiar. I’ll look in my yearbooks. Terrible. Wounded little souls — exactly. If you read some of my Christmas posts, you’ll see that my mom gave us all we needed in the early days, though we were poor. Something pushed her over at one point and she never recovered. I’m glad to hear that your mother did so well.


          • I’ll go back and read, I’m glad you’re sharing your healing process and helping others along the way. Lucius was my little sister’s age so about 4 years younger than us, (he was my son’s cousin). They moved to Santa Maria when he was still in high school and he was in his thirties (I believe) when he was murdered (in SM). His mother was a drug/alcohol counselor and I guess somehow or another got mixed up with this man. I can’t imagine her pain.


  5. Oh, Darla, thank you for sharing this.
    This is powerful truth~truth as he could let himself see it and share it~and truth in retrospect as you weigh it against all the memories before and after the letter. Whatever writing dreams your father might have had, he would surely be proud of the writer his youngest daughter became.


    • There is a sister younger than me; I was second to the youngest of the six children. It’s sad to think about what he missed out on doing with his life because of the pain he couldn’t overcome. I remember him having a typewriter in his apartment and we would use it when we visited. What did he write? Oh, well. He’s in heaven now, doing things far more wonderful than we can imagine.


      • One of his few acquaintances told a story at his funeral, something he did for her during his final years that gave me a completely different picture of my father. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it in the near future.


  6. You handled such a difficult topic with so much sensitivity. You have such depth of understanding, and a wonderful way of writing.


    • Thank you, Sheryl. I didn’t get the time I wanted and needed to spend with my father during his lifetime. Writing about him is like having that time with him. I do hope my story helps others as much as writing it helped me.


  7. Darla, this is a moving, touching, and sad story. While I’m glad you had your siblings to lean on to, I’m sorry for the terrible experience you had to endure. I’m so glad you found that letter.


    • When the siblings and I talk about it now, we realize just how frightened we were because it would have been so easy to tell someone. But we didn’t. We were worried about what might happen to our mother. Sad, yes. But today I’m a Sunday School teacher plus I work for a school. I love that my days revolve around helping children to feel safe and secure!


  8. I found this story of your father and the letter he wrote to you (and your finding it again )redemptive – so appropriate for me to be reading on this easter morning of 2013. The story has a healing and cathartic power to it. I’m glad you shared and published it, and now it is timeless.


    • I’m so happy to hear this story described in this way on this day. I do believe that the hard things we experience in life can be used for good, if we give them to God.


  9. You are amazing, Darla. You brought the past to life with startling immediacy, yet with a delicate touch. In the way you presented just this one letter, you shared years of thoughts, yearning and regrets, and finally mercy. You must always write. It is your gift.


    • Kristen, when I’m complimented and encouraged by someone who writes as fine as you do, then you can be sure that I will keep writing. I am just so touched by this comment.


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