Authors: Ashley Judd
fter Dad found out that Mom was moving us back to Kentucky, he offered to put us all up at Camp Wig while she studied for her degree. Mom decided to declare a temporary truce in her war against Dad in order to score a place for us to live, and Dad put aside his simmering resentments to have us girls back in his life. So for several tense months in 1974 and 1975, we were more or less living together again as a family.
Camp Wig could be amazing for exploring, being half-naked and wild, kept company by tomcats and playing in the fecund river mud, but it was not practical. It was buggy and hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. We did have indoor plumbing, which some of our neighbors did not: a toilet and a small, funky shower. (When a neighbor friend of Sister’s was over playing with us, she wanted to try taking a shower. It was her first, and she was so scared, we crowded in there with her.) I had the pervading sense that we were living without direction or structure, although I was unable to articulate the chronic, low-grade feeling of
being not quite right. There was a classic seventies hippie vibe at the camp: the Stones and Joni Mitchell playing on the stereo, grown-ups smoking pot. Although today I know they thought they were simply trying to correct the taboo around bodies and sexuality that had warped their parents’ generation’s attitudes, I was exposed to adult nudity (skinny-dipping in the river, grown-ups coming in and out of the bathroom naked), and it felt icky. Dad kept a copy of
The Joy of Sex
in plain view. (Well, plain view when Sister retrieved it from his bedside and showed it to me!)
Sister and I were quite feral, and in good weather it could be fun, even the time she pushed the lawn mower over a nest of yellow jackets. We made the best of it, sitting on the screened-in back porch eating graham crackers and drinking milk, with me commiserating while I carefully observed the backs of her knees swell up. But mowing was a rarity at Camp Wig, which at times bore a strong resemblance to an abandoned property—at least, compared with our grandparents’ homes and what I thought was normal and safe. Thick vines hung from trees in the undulating front yard, and I remember wandering around in grass taller than my head, eating blackberries off the bushes, chasing fireflies, swimming across the wide, powerful river, bravely climbing fences from which to leap onto any bareback horse I came across, gripping a section of mane, and squeezing my tiny legs till I fell off and got the wind knocked out of me again.
We were always well clothed thanks to our grandparents, and there was enough to eat. I have the most special memories of Mamaw and Papaw taking us to the shops in Ashland or fancy department stores in Lexington like Shillito’s for our back-to-school gear. They were so careful picking out and buying each item, making sure it was quality made, would last, and that we had “room to grow.” I also know they put cash in my parents’ hands. To supplement our meals, Dad would hunt rabbits and catch catfish for dinner, and I flinched in bed in the early morning at the sound of his hammer coming down on their heads after he’d picked the lines. In the winter, he would take me deer hunting with him. I remember the old-growth woods being so beautiful, with ice frozen in patterns over the creeks, the meadows covered in curtains of mist. Those were good times. Memories of shivering and huddling under cotton quilts with my mother and sister on frigid mornings were not as pleasant. And the river kept flooding that spring, threatening to ruin our sparse belongings and prompting several frightening middle-of-the-night evacuations. I don’t recall the moments of being awakened, grabbed in my nightgown, but I wish I could forget watching, petrified, as water began to seep through the floor and under the door of the MGB as we fled the rapidly rising river.
Every morning we rode the yellow school bus out of our backwoods enclave and past the elegant, beautifully maintained horse farms that ringed Lexington. I loved school and was an eager student, even though on the first report card I remember, my teacher wrote, “Talks too much.” It wouldn’t be the last time. But I was as much a reader as I was a talker and had been for quite a while. When I was a kindergartner in West Hollywood, I had been reading aloud to the class when something magical happened.
“Try reading to yourself, Ashley,” said the teacher.
“But I don’t know how,” I said.
“Sure you do.”
So I looked down at the page … and
. The words became a voice in my head, and something shifted forever. I was an explorer making landfall in a vibrant new world.
Now that I was in first grade, I had already outgrown the remedial books, like the Dick and Jane series. I thought they were pointless. They were so stark, and the supersaturated primary colors bored me, as did the simplistic world they painted. I already knew life was more nuanced than that. I didn’t relate. And I didn’t like how Jane always seemed to be trailing behind Dick and the dog. I preferred something with guts, intrigue, and magic. I was soon devouring the Little House on the Prairie series and especially fairy tales with moral complexities. Someone gave me a child’s version of Genesis that fascinated me. I literally wore the pages out with my thumb. And on my own I learned the order of the books of the Bible.
There was a cinder-block Holy Roller church just down the road from us along the river, and one week while they were having a revival, I got saved. As with so many of my childhood memories, I don’t have any idea how I arrived there, why I had gone to the meeting with one of my little friends from up the river, where the grown-ups were, what the evangelist said, or what it was that compelled me up the aisle for a full immersion baptism. My memory resumes when I am sitting at the foot of my bed, still damp, crying softly, frightened I was going to be in big trouble for having done something momentous in secret. First my mother entered the room and knelt in front of me, looking concerned, and then my father came in. I wondered if they thought I’d fallen in the river or some such.
“I got saved,” I whimpered.
They weren’t mad at all. In fact, they both hugged me, were happy and supportive, which really surprised me. It was one of the few times that I can remember them agreeing on anything and the last cooperative effort they made on my behalf for many, many years.
Mostly, they fought. Dad wanted to spend more time with us, and Mom did her best to drive him away from Camp Wig, back to his room behind the leather shop in Lexington. When Mom and I passed him in town once, I was transfixed by the sight of him, but she ignored him. Eventually he decided that as long as he was paying the rent, he was going to move back to Camp Wig full-time. At that point Mom moved out, telling us she couldn’t stand him anymore. She rented a converted garage apartment out in the country near Berea, an idyllic and creative college town about forty minutes across the river from Camp Wig. Sister and I finished the school year living alone with Dad. Mom would occasionally come to pick us up for weekends. During one of those visits, on the most beautiful spring day I still have ever seen, we floated over the swollen Kentucky River on a rickety ferry and drove through lush, rolling land to visit her apartment. I recall looking out the window at redbud, dogwood, daffodils, irises, and pom-pom bushes, knowing exactly what heaven must look like: a spring day in Kentucky.
At the end of that next summer, during which Sister and I had continued our routine of living with our grandparents, Mom came by and swooped us up without warning and took us to a new home. She had befriended a kindly music professor from Berea College, who for a small rent let us live in a beautiful house on her rural estate in the hamlet of Morrill. The house was so lovely that it had its own name: Chanticleer. It was filled with Appalachian crafts such as hand-hooked rugs and Early American antiques and was surrounded by lawns and woods. I was enchanted by the new place and didn’t even mind starting second grade in a new school. I suppose I was mystified that Dad had suddenly disappeared without any explanation from Mom. I don’t remember the precise moments of asking her where he was, what had happened, and if he still loved me, but I know I did, and my memory picks up as I am standing in front of her and she won’t answer me directly, instead saying vitriolic, gruesome things about him. Mom had kept a briefcase of his, with what seemed to me like important grown-up papers, including check stubs. What I remember most is that after her tirades about Dad, I would hide with his briefcase and look through its mysterious contents, wondering who, and where, he was. It was all I had of him.
During this time Mom was busy with school and a boyfriend, and I have long successive memories of nothing but time, endless time, spent on my own. A pattern of isolating myself, having secret, unacknowledged feelings of deep pain and anger, and especially stultifying loneliness, began in earnest. I guess it was a reaction to being alone so much, and perhaps as an adaptation, a response to relationships in which my needs were not being met. Sometimes I would lie in bed for long stretches of time, staring at the knotty pine wall in my bedroom, or color the same images incessantly (a log cabin under a rainbow—no humans; or a lone old man). I realize now that this was my first bout of childhood depression. My distracted mother and sister saw only what they needed to see: an intelligent, charming child who was eager to please. Nobody saw a depressed seven-year-old who needed attention and possibly treatment. Thus my journey with the disease of depression began and progressed as I grew older and many times nearly killed me. Just the first hint of what was to come.
Chanticleer’s lonely legacy did include one enduring gift, what is perhaps my best memory of my mother. My relatives tell me I always had an entourage of imaginary friends I had invented to keep me company, and that I believed in them wholeheartedly. I spoke to my unseen friends with unself-consciousness, even in public places. At Chanticleer, I went further, and began to create a whole community of fairies and set about immersing myself utterly in their world. I spent days and days crafting tiny, elaborate houses for them out of grass, leaves, moss, and acorns among the roots of giant trees and along the rocky-edged creeks deep in the woods that surrounded us.
Mom was always busy with school. When she was home, she would be squirreled away in her room studying, and I suppose I missed her terribly. But when I had her attention, she could be wonderful, and she was clearly charmed by my heartfelt devotion to my fairies. At dusk one autumn afternoon, we were getting out of her red Volkswagen Beetle and I noticed a piece of paper blowing across the yard.
“Go get that, Ashley,” said Mom.
“Why do I have to pick it up? I didn’t leave it there!”
“Just go get it.”
Finally I gave in and fetched the piece of paper. When I looked at it closely, my jaw dropped—it was a letter addressed to me from the fairies! Mom had made up a language for them, along with a hieroglyphic alphabet, which I had to translate. In my room alone, I read how they told me how hard it was to write, because the pen was so big and they had to stand on one another’s shoulders to hold it upright. I was enthralled. All I wanted to do for the rest of the school year was commune with the fairies. They helped me through some very rough and lonely days. I have no memories of friends from school, except playing one cold winter afternoon on an empty playground with a girl I didn’t know, discovering she was still there, too, because her parents were divorced and there was no one to pick her up on time. Fairies helped distract me from such painful disappointments and feelings of insecurity.
When Mom was home from school, she would sometimes give me a dime or quarter to rub her feet while she worked on her nursing studies. I am sure we did some other things together, but those aren’t the memories that stuck. I learned to cook my own breakfast, and that expanded into another dimension of my autonomy in the household. I guess she needed me to be able to look after myself to a large degree.
My mother and sister were beginning to fool around with singing, learning old mountain songs and discovering their uncanny harmonies. Berea is a mecca for traditional craftspeople, artists, writers, and musicians and home to an American treasure of a college whose mission is to educate Appalachians. My sister, who was by then in the sixth grade, flourished in the environment. Dad had given her his Gibson Classic guitar, and he had already taught her a few chords while we were at Camp Wig. Now she practiced on it constantly (as well as our baby grand piano), and Mom definitely recognized her incredible potential. But they were also starting to go at each other, and I found myself cringing on the sidelines of increasingly bitter fights that began to characterize life in our household.