The Prisoner's Daughter: What if your dad had been doing time for murder for as long as you'd known him?

Categories: Longform

Photograph by Celeste Sloman
Amanda Rosario remembered a big gray room, and she remembered the smell of it. She hated the smell of it. She was on her mom's lap, she remembered, and her dad sat across from them. Her mom wore dark jeans and her dad had a thin face. That's all she remembered of the last time she saw him. She was three at the time.

She was six when she figured out that the big gray room was inside a prison and that her dad was in prison. There was no single moment of enlightenment. She learned the information gradually, in pieces she had to put together. She was a perceptive child, headstrong and curious. When adults gathered in the living room or kitchen, she eavesdropped behind a wall. They often talked about her dad, and when they did their voices were sad. They talked about visiting him. She sometimes heard them mention the word "prison."

She knew what prison was. That's where they keep bad people. It didn't occur to her, though, that her dad was one of the bad people. He sent her letters, three or four each month, telling her how much he missed her and loved her. She read them in her bed and kept them stored in the corner of the closet tucked inside her copy of The Cat in the Hat, which her dad had bought her. Her mom and auntie and grandparents had told her many things about her dad, too. He wrote songs and made her mom laugh. He was full of life and a good man, and he loved her. The conflicting thoughts -- prison for bad people, her dad in prison, her dad a good person -- never intersected in her mind. They remained separate, independent truths.

She wasn't supposed to know he was in prison, she could tell that much. She was supposed to believe he was in the military. That was what her mom said whenever Amanda's little brother, Richard Jr., asked where their dad was. He's in the military, stationed in Japan, and he can't come home right now but he'll be home soon, Minerva Godoy would say. He misses you very much and he loves you.

Her mom was trying to protect them, Amanda realized as she got older. So that they wouldn't think their dad was a criminal. So that they had something to tell kids at school who asked about him. Amanda felt bad for her mom. Her mom had to carry this weight alone so that she and her brother could have a stable, normal, peaceful, happy childhood. So Amanda protected her mom. When her mom told them that their dad was in Japan and would be home soon, Amanda smiled and nodded and never questioned.

She was a leader like her father, Amanda's relatives told her. She'd inherited his forceful personality and his stubborn streak. She took gymnastics classes and sang in the school chorus -- a natural performer, just like her father.

She took pride in the comments, but they wore on her, comparisons to a man she had never really met. As her 13th birthday approached, she resolved to see her father again. She told her mother, making it clear she didn't believe the stories about him serving overseas.

Conceded Minerva: "Your father is in prison for a crime he didn't commit."

"Why is he there if he didn't do it?"

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