CLEARWATER — She sits outside the sewing circle, her plastic chair tipped toward the door. Like all the other inmates, she wears gray scrubs. The dark roots of her honey-colored hair mark the months she has been behind bars.
Michelle Duhamel, 47, had been in jail before.
But since she walked into that Walmart last summer and stole a pineapple, nectarines and a fist full of sports bras, she has lost everything.
Last night, she screamed at her cellmates. Ranted about what really matters.
At least today she can escape to this sunny room behind the guard desk at the Pinellas County Jail where, twice a week, she and a dozen other inmates talk to counselors and make crafts in a program called the Red Tent.
Other women are knitting scarves for sons they aren't allowed to see, hemming blankets for babies they can't hold.
In her lap, Michelle cradles a purple pillow. It's almost finished. She just has to stitch one end with turquoise fringe.
"Okay, close your eyes. Take deep breaths," the counselor says softly. "Now think about what you're grateful for."
With her finger, Michelle traces the three letters she embroidered on her pillow: MOM.
Her first memories are her favorites: frigid New England mornings, watching snow blanket silver branches, buried beneath quilts in her parents' big bed, her mom warm beside her.
"When school was canceled, she'd let me go back to sleep with her," Michelle says. "She always smelled so good." Like Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds.
Michelle grew up in Rhode Island, in a big house in the country, with two brothers and two sisters. She was the baby. The one who looks most like their mom.
Same thick, wavy hair; same green eyes. As a girl, she remembers watching her mom put on makeup. Her mom even wore heels to the grocery.
Michelle was 12 when her dad died of a heart attack, which brought her even closer to her mom. Her mom taught her to braid her hair, cross her legs, make meatballs. Through high school, Michelle was a "good girl" who never made her mom worry. "I didn't even smoke pot."
When her mom remarried and moved to Florida, Michelle was 18. She stayed in Rhode Island. The next year, Michelle had her first baby, a boy.
Then a friend offered her heroin.
The first time Michelle got arrested, her mom drove 1,300 miles to visit her in jail. When Michelle got out, her mom moved in until she thought Michelle was okay.
Michelle's son stayed with his dad. And she kept getting arrested — a dozen times before she turned 30, mostly for drugs and stealing. For a while, her mom tried tough love. "If you get in trouble again, don't call this house." But after a few days, Michelle's mom would come find her, ask if she needed anything. Promise her, "Everything will be all right."
After Michelle had a daughter, she moved to Florida to be close to her mom. She had another son, who also stayed with his dad. She kept selling Oxycodone, driving drunk, violating probation. When she went to prison for two years, her mom lit candles in her Largo living room, drove to Ocala to see her, told her she believed in her even when Michelle didn't believe in herself.
"No matter what I put her through, she always forgave me and took me back. And loved me."
For a few years, Michelle's mom even took in Michelle's teenage daughter. When she could no longer handle the girl, and Michelle's daughter went to a foster home, Michelle's mom still picked up her granddaughter for every holiday, took her ice skating and shopping and to get her nails done. "Even when I couldn't be there," Michelle says, "my mom was."
In January, when the judge sentenced Michelle to a year, her mom wept. Every time Michelle called from jail, her mom asked, "Are you okay? Do you need money?" And promised, "Everything will be all right."
The counselor surveys the sewing circle, asking each inmate to share her feelings. Needles dart through flowered fabric. Questions bloom into conversations.
Michelle sits silently sewing. Straight, perfect stitches, so small they're hard to see.
After two hours, she knots the pink thread and fluffs the fringe. The MOM pillow is complete.
"Okay, let's come together for a closing," the counselor says.
Michelle tucks the pillow onto a shelf. She's not allowed to bring it back to her bunk.
She lingers until a guard makes her leave the Red Tent room. She doesn't want to return to her pod.
Those girls in there, especially the young ones, just don't get it.
Last night, they were all complaining about their mothers.
"She's so stingy, she only put $50 on my commissary." "She's so lazy, she won't even bring my kids to see me."
Michelle listened for a while, trying to choke back her rage. Then she started shrieking.
"How can you say that? That's your mother! She's sending you money, raising your kids. Instead of complaining, you should be grateful!
"You have a mother! The greatest gift of all!"
Two months after Michelle came to jail, her mom was diagnosed with lung cancer — and died.
The judge wouldn't let Michelle go to the funeral.
Without her mom, she knows she has to find her own way. Late at night, lying in her bunk, she talks to her mom, making plans.
This time, I will stay clean. This time, I won't steal. I'll get a job, save money, move back to Rhode Island and make you proud.
Reunite with my sons. Find my daughter. Ask her to live with me next year, when she turns 18.
"I always had my mother for me," Michelle says. "But I haven't been there for her."
When she gets out, she's going to hold on tight to that pillow, all the way to the cemetery. Then she's going to find that plot overlooking the lake, sit on the bench beside the new headstone.
And promise her mom, "Everything will be all right."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] or call her at (727) 893‑8825. Follow @lanedegregory on Twitter.