Authors: Ashley Judd
Michael and Diana dated on and off for the next three years, and she has said that he first proposed marriage when she was only fifteen. She also claims she never loved him, but she enjoyed being taken on dates to the country club, and she was impressed by the comfortable lifestyle of the Ciminella family, which seemed luxurious compared with her family’s humbler circumstances.
Charles Glen Judd, my maternal papaw, came from a family that didn’t have much money, but they had laughter, stability, and love. He was born on Shirt Tail Fork of Little Blainecreek, alongside a farm that had been in the family for generations. Papaw Judd and his folks moved to Ashland because the job options in Lawrence County were coal mines or nothing. When he was a senior in high school, he fell for a fourteen-year-old strawberry blonde cashier named Pauline “Polly” Oliver.
Polly, my maternal grandmother, whom we call “Nana,” came from a strange and troubled background. Her paternal grandfather, David Oliver, had turned on the gas oven and then hanged himself in front of his sons, aged only six and four, apparently because he was distraught that my great-great grandmother had left him. Howard, Nana’s father, managed to save himself and his younger brother by breaking out a window. Howard, in turn, married a flophouse alcoholic party girl named Edie Mae Burton, who repeatedly cheated on him. When Nana was nine years old, her dad was found in the bathroom with a bullet in his head; it looked like suicide, but everyone suspected Edie and her boyfriend. Edie took off soon after the funeral, dumping Nana and her two younger siblings with her rigid, intimidating grandmother, Cora Lee Burton. Nana raised herself and her brother and sister among a collection of maladjusted grown aunts and uncles who were still living at home, and she went to work at her grand-mommy Cora Lee’s restaurant, the locally loved Hamburger Inn.
She was just fifteen when she married Glen Judd, and it must have seemed like a good deal. Glen bought his own treasure of a gas station and called it Judd’s Friendly Ashland Service. When he and Nana started having children, they bought his parents’ big wood frame house at 2237 Montgomery Avenue. Diana was the firstborn, followed two years later by Brian, then Mark, then Margaret.
My mother has always described her early childhood as idealized, happy, and secure, like a Norman Rockwell fantasy, with a stay-at-home mother who cooked wonderfully and a father she adored, who was hardworking and popular in the community. For Nana, though, the marriage was no picnic. Papaw Judd was a decent man who made a good living at the filling station, but he was as tight with money as two coats of paint. Nana never had new clothes and didn’t have a washer and dryer until the youngest of their four children was out of diapers. When the furnace quit, Papaw Judd told Nana to fetch plastic from the dry cleaner’s to insulate the windows. It was the only time Mom remembered her mother standing up to him about household finances. Papaw also worked long hours, often staying late to drink whiskey.
My mother describes herself as wildly imaginative and a perfectionist as a child, the kind of kid who always had her hand in the air at school, earned good grades, and kept her room immaculate. She had neighborhood friends to play with in the humid summer evenings and siblings she loved, especially her gentle and funny younger brother Brian. Like all children, Mom must have absorbed the tension in the household, but she says the only thing she missed as a child was the attention of her elusive father. While she yearned for his affection, she learned to be noticed in other ways. Mom was a born extrovert who used her babysitting money to take tap-dancing lessons. And folks around Ashland all say how popular and beautiful she was.
By the time Mom was a junior in high school, Dad had graduated from Fork Union seventh in his class and was enrolled at Georgia Tech. He flunked out after only one year—he said he was having too much fun fooling around to go to class. In the summer of 1963, he and Mom were still dating sporadically, but neither of them was about to marry. He had pulled his act together and was on his way to earning a 4.0 during summer school at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Mom was thinking about college applications and dreaming of the future when suddenly her idyllic world, her parents’ marriage, and all of the Judd children’s childhoods were shattered.
Her beloved brother Brian had been concealing a strange, painful lump on his shoulder that had been bothering him for weeks. He feared something was wrong with him, but he was more afraid of missing a much-desired vacation with a school friend. Soon, though, my grandmother noticed the lump and took him to our local doctor. Dr. Franz immediately knew it was grave and recommended seeing a specialist in Columbus, Ohio, where Brian was diagnosed with a deadly form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While her parents were in Ohio with Brian, Mom stayed behind to start her first day of classes as a high school senior. It was the first time she had ever been left alone in the house, and Charlie Jordan, a boy from Ashland (who interestingly was often mentioned alongside my dad in the local newspaper’s coverage of baseball) whom she had also been dating, came over for a visit. She later wrote in her memoirs that she was “too emotionally spent to put up her usual defense,” and they had sex for the first time. It was not the tender, romantic experience she had dreamed about. She woke up the next morning racked with shame and told no one what had happened.
The experience cost her dearly. She missed first one and then another period, and with growing panic, she realized she was pregnant. Because she didn’t have a driver’s license, my mom took some money from her piggy bank and secretly hired a cab to drive her to Dr. Franz’s. Upon confirming her pregnancy, he put his head in his hands and wept. He knew well what her family was already facing with Brian, and with abortion both unthinkable and illegal, there was nothing he could do to help her.
If I trace the story back to what is a crucial moment, the first time my mom missed her period, I am left to use my imagination to fill in blanks, guided by what I know about small-town America in 1963, the social expectations of “good girls,” and the excruciating grief that was unfolding in my grandparent’s home while my uncle Brian lay dying of childhood cancer. Papaw spent his life savings trying to save his son. According to Mom’s letters to Dad, Nana was “beside herself, about to have a nervous breakdown.” I know from my aunt Margaret and uncle Mark what a lost, emotionally punishing time it was for them, too. As a result, I now have nothing but empathy for my young, vulnerable mother as I picture her in her sweet childhood room, engulfed in the profound loneliness and terror of those awful months. Mom has told me she let Charlie know she was pregnant. It did not go well. He asked Mom to return his class ring and informed her he would be leaving soon to join the armed services. Even though he knew he was her biological father, Charlie never tried to contact my sister. Upon his death, his family members, whom I have gratefully come to know, told us he had newspaper clippings about my sister in a drawer. It seems he was proud of her.
My mother was now living under a pressure for which she was wholly unprepared. Until then, her greatest concerns in life were limited to things like forgetting to set her damp hair in rollers on a Saturday night and thus rushing to ready herself for Sunday school the next morning. In a moment to which only she is privy, and based on a sense of despair and urgency I can only imagine, she determined to identify Michael Ciminella, instead of Charlie Jordan, as the baby’s father. Once she set this narrative in motion, she would commit to it completely. She took total ownership of the story and would not vary from it one iota, promulgating and defending it as if her life depended on it.
The letters she sent to my dad during this time give me a precious glimpse of the girl who told this lie. “Sheez,” she wrote. “One day, my whole life is ahead of me, and then …” She trailed off. According to Dad, he was baffled when she told him she was pregnant. Although they had once, as he later told me, “hopped in the sack and almost had sex,” the act had never been fully consummated. Still, he figured, a girl could easily become pregnant. Besides, he loved my mother, and he simply could not fathom that she would lie about something so enormously consequential. He accepted her word and wrote a letter telling her they should marry. He couldn’t think of any option other than doing the right thing.
When Nana found Dad’s letter tucked under Mom’s mattress, she confronted her daughter, screaming hysterically. But according to Mom, Papaw Judd’s reaction was more painful. He stood quietly in the doorway, looking dazed and crushed and small. He rarely hugged her, but somehow he managed to on this inauspicious occasion. She could smell whiskey on his breath.
On January 3, 1964, Mom and Dad were married in a sad ceremony in a Baptist church in Virginia, where nobody knew them, so shamefully regarded was the occasion. Mom borrowed a navy blue suit from her mother. The only guests in attendance were both sets of parents, who were barely on speaking terms, blaming each other’s children for ruining their dreams. The photograph from that day is one I can bear to look at only briefly; it is steeped in melancholy.
After the wedding, Nana rather mercilessly told Mom to move in with the Ciminellas, because she wouldn’t be able to handle a crying baby in the house along with her own sick child. So Mom carried her little suitcase up to Dad’s attic bedroom, with its junior high school pennants and trophies, where she would stay by herself while Dad continued his education in Lexington. It must have been the loneliest winter imaginable. After having rarely slept outside her own home, and then only to spend the night at a girlfriend’s house, she was a scandalously knocked-up teen living with adults she barely knew, knowing their son was not really the father of her baby. Her girlfriends were wrapped up in Ashland High Tomcats basketball and prom dates, but Mom had dropped out of high school when her pregnancy started to show and finished her courses with a tutor.
Mom gave birth to my sister, Christina Claire Ciminella, on May 30, 1964, the week her high school class graduated. She received her diploma in the mail. Back at school in the fall, Dad wrote Mamaw and Papaw letters, thanking them for taking such good care of “Honey and the baby,” whom they often drove to Lexington on weekends to visit him, telling them how much he loved them for it. The writing is touching and sweet.
My sister’s birth was the only happy coda in a grim year. Brian’s cancer treatments weren’t working, no matter how many specialists he saw, Finally, after months of deep yet brave suffering, Mom’s beloved brother died, leaving a gaping wound in her and her family’s heart and soul that I doubt has ever truly healed.
Mom and Dad continued to raise their new daughter with tons of help from both sets of grandparents. To help make ends meet while still a student, Dad worked delivering newspapers and loading a UPS truck. Eventually Mom and the baby joined Dad in a small apartment where married students could live at Transylvania University. After several months of living with Mom, and more experience in the methods of creating babies (and how pregnancies are prevented), Dad began to wonder whether Christina was really his child. He can’t remember the exact moment the light went on, or when he figured out that Diana’s ex-boyfriend, Charlie Jordan, was the biological father. All he knew was that he loved my sister and accepted her as his own, he was in love with his wife, and he was perfectly content to be a family. He decided not to confront Mom with his suspicions and moved on with their life together.
In 1967, Dad graduated and was offered a job with Amphenol, an electronics company based in Chicago that sold airplane parts. The little family of three lived there while Dad went through his training as a sales engineer. When he was finished, the company offered him a position at its plum office in Los Angeles. Both Mom and Dad jumped at the chance to move to exciting California. I was conceived right after they heard the news and born the following April.
My sister, who was four, thought I was a gift just for her. In photographs, I am lying on my belly while she powders my back, or she is sitting in a small rocker holding the little bundle that was infant me. She would rock away, pausing only to pat my cheek. I’m told I was a happy, easy baby with hugely chubby cheeks, deep dark eyes, and olive skin inherited from my father’s Sicilian side of the gene pool. As I started to walk and talk, my dad nicknamed me “Ashley Famous”—which, if you ask me, was an improvement over “Fat Ashley,” another early nickname from my folks, or what my first best friend later called me: “Chipmunk Cheeks.”
I don’t remember much about those early years in Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley, when Dad was busy building his career in the aerospace industry. Mom says she longed to get out of the boring valley, and my first memories are of the two-story house they rented in 1970 in West Hollywood on Larrabee Street, just off Sunset Strip and around the corner from the Whisky a Go Go. It was a marginal neighborhood, and my parents’ lifestyle was typical for the “anything goes” era. Mom and Dad had started experimenting with pot while we lived in Sylmar, and by now Mom smoked regularly to escape her suburban blues. The habit stuck with her after we moved to Larrabee Street. I remember there was always marijuana inside the house, and I heard about the smack dealers out on Sunset Strip, where Christina walked by the bars on her way to elementary school. Dad was prone to taking hallucinogenics with friends on Saturday nights