Authors: Ashley Judd
My sister would be banished to her room, which was above mine, and we would pass each other notes in a basket we rigged on a pulley system outside between our windows. Once she included a toenail that had fallen off in one of our basket emissaries, just to gross me out. It bothered me that Mom was so hard on her. It still seemed I was the only one who realized she was just a kid.
While Mom was at school and Sister was off playing music or hustling games at the billiard parlor (she had become an accomplished little pool player), a hippie couple who lived down the hill used to let me hang out with them. One evening, they took me to town with them. While they were helping a friend do some remodeling on a storefront, they let me wander around, alone. An old man everyone knew beckoned me into a dark, empty corner of the business and offered me a quarter for the pinball machine at the pizza place if I’d sit on his lap. He opened his arms, I climbed up, and I was shocked when he suddenly cinched his arms around me, squeezing me and smothering my mouth with his, jabbing his tongue deep into my mouth. Somehow I twisted out of his grip and ran away.
When I told the couple what he did, they didn’t believe me. “Oh, that’s
what happened, Ashley,” I was told. “He’s a nice man, and that’s not what he meant.”
It never occurred to me to tell my mother, but I tried to tell Uncle Mark, my mother’s younger brother, who was visiting us from college. I adore Uncle Mark and always felt safe with him. He would hold a hand mirror for me after I bathed, so I could see myself to comb my hair, and he read to me every evening we spent together. When I returned home that night, Uncle Mark was sitting on the floor next to the stereo, listening to a record through headphones. I sat down slightly behind him, where I could see his profile, and practiced telling him what had happened with the old man. I remember so clearly saying the words out loud and then looking carefully to see if he heard me. He never did. And I never tried to tell him, or anybody, again. I had lost my voice, my power to speak, and it would be a long, long time before I gained it back. This inability to express what was happening inside would be a hallmark of my future depression.
While we were living in Berea, Nana filed for divorce from Papaw Judd. She had finally had enough after a marriage darkened by drinking, the death of one child, and her two daughters becoming pregnant as teens. To make matters even more unbearable for her, Papaw Judd had been having a love affair with a feisty and colorful woman, Cynthia, for the past seven years of their marriage, and it was driving Nana nuts with grief and jealousy. Mom was backed into a corner, put in an impossible position by Nana, who asked her to testify against her daddy in the divorce proceedings. Instead, she chose to take the geographic route and flee. So at the end of my second-grade summer with my grandparents, Mom moved us back to California, where she would finish her nursing school studies in Marin County.
We moved into a one-bedroom apartment over the post office in Lagunitas, a rural hamlet on the edge of a state forest. It was a real step down from Chanticleer, cramped and noisy because of a bar next door. Mom went to school all day and worked as a waitress at night. I resumed spending a lot of time alone. I explored the redwood groves in Samuel P. Taylor State Park and played in the creek that filled with salmon during the spawning season. I made myself meals like Chef Boyardee pizza from a box and baked my own chocolate-chip cookies from scratch and walked myself to the school bus, even on the first day of school, although I wasn’t entirely sure where I was supposed to go. At school I made friends easily, and everyone thought I was outgoing, never seeing the loneliness that was normal to me by now.
One day, our third-grade teacher asked us to fill out forms that included emergency contact information. In a moment that has become an iconic snapshot of my childhood, I couldn’t turn in my card, because I had no idea whose name to put down. I wrestled with my terrible dilemma on the school bus, completely at a loss. Mom and her boyfriend at the time were at the apartment when I returned home, and I decided to ask him if he’d be my emergency person. They looked at me and started to laugh. I was completely serious, as only a nine-year-old can be, and their laughter crushed me. To this day, whenever I go to the doctor and fill out my forms, my pen hesitates for a second over the blank line for my emergency contact.
While I was in the fourth grade we moved again, to a duplex a few miles up the road, in Forest Knolls. By this point, with all the moves and all the upheaval, what I suspected at age eight during my first depression I now knew for certain: Something was terribly lacking in my life, an aching, unverifiable awareness that something wasn’t right. I was at times feeling angry about my perpetual latchkey status—particularly when I invited friends home from school and couldn’t find the dang latchkey! Once I had to break a window to enter the house. Even though a lot of other kids were in the same predicament—this was California in the 1970s, after all—I started comparing myself with peers who had houses and horses and what I imagined were much better lives and longing for the day we might have more stability—or even reliable heating and cooling.
There were so many people missing in my life. Mom’s decision to run to California triggered an estrangement with Nana that would last a full seven years, when they finally buried the hatchet. We rarely saw her, even when Sister and I visited Kentucky, and almost never heard from her. I missed her, I loved her, and I loved her home. When we were living in Forest Knolls, Sister and I received a small box from her, full of mismatched pieces of costume jewelry that had been leftover inventory at Pollock’s, the jewelry store in Ashland where Nana now worked. I sat on the floor in the closet, holding one earring that said “Aquarius” and another that said “Sagittarius,” marveling, “She knows I am alive, she sent me mail, what is she trying to tell me?” Maybe, just maybe, she was letting me know she loved me, too.
We stayed in Marin County for two years, and I honestly don’t have any memories of my dad from that time. I don’t recall receiving a birthday gift from him or sending him a card on his birthday; I wasn’t even confident of the date. I did not have a photograph of him. There were no calls, no Christmas presents (Dad later claimed that he had sent us presents and checks—that Mom had signed and cashed—but we certainly never saw any of them). I only recall snippets of secretive sharing with other kids whose parents were divorced, whispering, “My mom and dad hate each other.” Otherwise, I guess I made myself stop thinking about him because it was too painful. Other than as a figure my mother loathed, he disappeared from my life.
Meanwhile, Mom and Sister were starting to be serious about becoming a musical duo—or at least Mom was. My sister just loved to play; with a guitar in her hands, her sense of peace was palpable. The broken and ever-changing home and troubled relationships around her faded, enabling a talented, funny, endearing young teen to emerge. It was when she could shine, be fully herself, perhaps with a rose placed behind her ear or a garland of flowers on her head, without all the other crap going on around her to distort things. But Mom had bigger dreams, and she required my sister’s cooperation. Mom began accusing my sister of being lazy, and she was always after her to practice. She gave her lists of things to work on, lyrics to learn, chords to master by their next at-home rehearsal.
Whenever they were practicing together in the bedroom, I was sternly instructed never to interrupt on pain of severe grounding, no matter what the reason. It was a pattern that would continue as they built their musical careers. Sometimes I needed help with something, maybe homework, or had a question that felt important. Sometimes my ride was waiting, some kid whose family has agreed to take me for the weekend or the week, and I needed $5, because I was so ashamed of not bringing money when I went over to a friend’s house. Instead of knocking, I would stand at the doorway, listening to their ethereal harmonies with my arms limp by my sides, unsure what to do.
My mother and sister’s increasing enmeshment only reinforced the feeling that I was a stranger in my own family. I remember so clearly sitting on a plane with Sister, bound for a summer with my grandparents in Kentucky. Sister was weeping, forlorn, looking out the window at Mom, who was waving goodbye from the tarmac below.
“Yeah, I’ll miss her, too,” I said.
Without taking her eyes off Mom, she snapped, “You have no idea what it’s like for Mom and me.”
I thought to myself:
Apparently not. And I don’t want to know. I am going to stay one hundred percent out of that deal
I spent every summer of my otherwise chaotic childhood with our grandparents in Ashland, and I believe they are the reason I am alive today.
Sister and I visited together until she was about ten, when Mamaw decided it was too much to handle both of us at once; after that we would switch between the Judds and the Ciminellas. But the summers we spent together when we were little are my most precious memories with my big sister.
Mamaw and Papaw’s house at 1515 Morningside Drive is an address I still equate with peace and stability. It was the safest, most fun place in all the world. After living all year with a sense of dislocation, a haunting tentativeness and uncertainty, often unsure where my mother and my sister were, always scrounging for a meal, I found the gentle routine at the Ciminella house intensely comforting. In the mornings Mamaw fixed us buttered toast with raspberry jam, cut into squares, and cranberry juice served in elegant little glasses with stems. Papaw was already at work, out early to beat the heat, and I loved to look at his newspaper and see his print on the crossword puzzle, which he left for Mamaw to finish. I considered it my job to read the comics and Dear Abby and ask Mamaw about any interesting dreams she may have had.
After breakfast, I would play outside and maybe sweep the walk while Mamaw dressed for the day. She always looked simple and utterly beautiful. After errands or shopping for school clothes, we’d often have lunch at the Chimney Corner downtown or at the country club. Papaw would pop out of the men’s grill (there was a lot of card playing going on!) to greet us with big hugs and kisses. After the interminable fifteen minutes to allow lunch to safely digest, we would be carefree and in the pool—it was total and complete heaven. I would do daring dives off the high board, and Papaw would wave to me from the golf course as I sought to impress him. We could even order treats at the poolside snack hut and simply sign our grandparents’ club membership for payment! Afterward, Sister and I would shower and compare the sizes of our mosquito bites and the deepness of our tans: Sister was a golden brown; I was the color of Papaw’s morning coffee.
Mamaw served supper at home every night at five fifteen sharp—fresh summer food, much of it grown in the back garden, served by candlelight, on good china with a beautifully set table. Papaw washed up, and everyone looked and smelled so fresh and clean. Having played hard all day, and feeling so wonderfully safe, I was usually famished; my appetite was enormous for my size, and I was always given my fill, serving after serving, to admiring statements about the hollow leg I was surely trying to fill. Supper was followed by the greatest dessert in the world: chocolate pudding, which I still love; and I’d snack before bed, too, just as I do today, often using Mamaw’s china and having what we would share in the small booth in their wonderful kitchen. After we were allowed to snuff out the candles, the magic hour began. We’d play in the yard with sparklers or bat pitches Papaw tossed. Or sometimes Sister and I did elaborate dances wrapped in floral towels we imagined were exotic fabrics from faraway lands, performing in the sunken living room to a rapt, captive audience of two. Often when there was a Cincinnati Reds game on television, I’d lie in bed with Papaw, watching it on a black-and-white TV with the sound turned down so we could listen to the radio broadcast, while also perusing yesterday’s box score in the evening paper. At bedtime we would be slyly told to “skin a rat,” and our adoring grandmother would devotedly bathe, dry, powder, swaddle, comb, and pamper us.