Authors: Ashley Judd
And so, at the end of my typically nurturing and sustaining summer with my grandparents, with days spent at the pool, trips to the Ohio State Fair, hot afternoons spent helping Papaw Judd at his filling station, Papaw Judd and Cynthia, whom he married after his divorce became final, informed me that instead of returning me to Dad in Lexington, they would be taking me to Tennessee to live with Mom.
I don’t remember that reunion, only the drive, lying in the backseat of Papaw’s Buick feeling scared and intensely sad. They dropped me off at an I-65 exchange in Brentwood, Tennessee, where Mom met them.
The transition was very hard on me. The farmhouse on Del Rio wasn’t ready for us yet, so Mom was still house-sitting while she worked during the day as a receptionist at a firm on Music Row. I spent my first night with Mom, whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas and before that, the previous May, in a strange house. When I woke up, I was alone. I fell into my deepest depressive spell to date and commenced sleeping around the clock, waking up only to watch a few shows on TV, such as
The Price Is Right
. I would search this stranger’s house, and when I found products mentioned on the show, I would clean the living room, interacting with the happy people on TV or pretending to be in a commercial. Once the soap operas came on, which I did not understand, I would go back to sleep. I remember waking up and not knowing if it was dawn, day, dusk, or night or how many days had passed. I remember Mom coming in to check on me a few times, partially waking up while she sat there for a minute. I do not recall us interacting much during those moments. I do not know how long this lasted; I do not recall moving into Del Rio. I don’t remember my sister being at this house. Maybe she was; maybe I was so depressed that I can’t remember. (Or maybe Papaw and Cynthia took her to Kentucky for her own visit with grandparents.) My memories of her begin only at the next house at which we house-sat. I can’t recall if I was happy to see her or how we greeted each other. I just recall that she sat on the back porch learning to play Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Then there is another hole in my memory, and it resumes when I am lying in bed in my new room on Del Rio, and I can hear Mom hanging the few pictures we owned, arranging our familiar things, including a few family pieces such as Grandmommy Burton’s sideboard, in such a way as to make a home.
I entered the sixth grade at Grassland Elementary School, while Wynonna, after her hiatus, was finally starting high school at Franklin High. Early on, we used to do the laundry together at a laundromat I still pass often, and once when Sister and I were folding towels, she cracked, “If you are going to live with us, you have to fold the towels our way.” I guess I had picked up a different technique over the years, spending time in so many different households. How did Mamaw fold? Nana? Cynthia? Dad? Willie Wood? So hypervigilant and unsure of where I belonged, I took my sister’s remark very seriously, believing that one wrongly folded towel and I’d be turned out to live somewhere else.
I continued to fantasize about moving to Ashland to live with my grandparents, but neither of my parents would abide the idea. Over the years, both sets of grandparents had been concerned enough about my living arrangements, yet they never managed to form a full alliance to actually rescue me from my chaotic, nomadic life. Once, even my aunt Margaret hired a lawyer to discuss the possibility of obtaining custody of me, which he explained a judge would never grant. Both my parents were living, and he said she wouldn’t stand a chance. She still looks at me with soft regret, offering her apologies that she couldn’t help when I needed it, and only when I was in good recovery did I stop wondering about how different—how much better—my life could have been if my grandparents had succeeded in adopting me.
Cynthia and Papaw Judd started talking about adopting me as soon as they learned Mom wanted me back again. I would have loved nothing better. They lived right down the street from a school, and I used to walk to it after dark, and in the very picture of a forlorn lost child, wrap my slim fingers in the fence, staring longingly at the playground and buildings, imagining that it was my school, that I had just walked there from my home with my grandparents, after a hot breakfast they had cooked for me (Papaw Judd made a mean country breakfast), and sat at the kitchen table eating with me while we talked about my upcoming day. Cynthia knew Mom needed money and told Papaw Judd the way to make this happen was to pay Mom $10,000 for me. Before they could make arrangements, Papaw’s kidneys failed, related to his alcoholism, and he had a transplant. The medical process was not near what it is now, and he was a sick man off and on for his remaining years, making incessant trips to Lexington for his complex care. He admitted to Cynthia that he was too sick to keep me. I am still so grateful to Cynthia for how very well she took care of my grandfather. She was a faithful caregiver until he died, and it does help knowing they had wanted me.
My feelings about where I actually belonged in the world fluctuated even within my peer group. I had friends from a grade above me, and in my frantic attempt to be accepted, I tried to gain their approval by “acting big” and carrying on the way they did, which at times included smoking cigarettes and behaving like a cool teenager. I was devastated when friends my own age rejected me as being “too fast.” But by now I had no idea what it meant to be “normal.”
Mom took nursing jobs to pay the rent, eventually settling into a three p.m. to eleven p.m. shift at Williamson County Hospital. I nagged her to switch to the seven a.m. to three p.m. shift so I could see her sometimes. She explained those were popular shifts and gave other reasons why she would stay on the three p.m. to eleven p.m. I rarely saw her except on weekends, when she would often fry chicken in an old family skillet, which I loved taking cold in my lunch on Monday mornings. My sister and I occasionally bonded in our shared neglect. She could take good care of me, being protective and fun, letting me do her civics homework for her or be around her friends (both of which I loved), but she could also turn domineering and crabby, hollering at me from her bed to bring her a glass of something to drink so she could take her asthma medicine. I would take her water, but she didn’t want water. I’d take her milk, but she didn’t want milk, either. She wanted juice, and when I brought it, I would be released from my butler duties to resume whatever I had been doing that she had felt entitled to interrupt.
By now my mother and sister had intensified their pathological attachment to each other. They needed, despised, and loved each other desperately, and were often at each other’s throats. Sister constantly obsessed about Mom, how to make and keep peace and earn her approval, which even I could tell Mom would extend and withdraw on a whim in order to dominate and control her older daughter. After one typical period of them not getting along, which could include fistfights that I heard and watched from my bedroom, and after which my mother would show me her bruises, saying, “Look what your sister did to me,” my sister placed little pieces of paper all over the house, taped to doorjambs, creatively hidden inside cabinets, even in the washing machine. They all said, “Let’s get along.” Mom, coming in from I didn’t know where, saw them and imperiously decided to allow herself to be provisionally charmed. She progressed through the house, finding the notes, a smile on her face, until she came across some household chore Sister had left undone. The smile dropped off her face, she withdrew her approval, and they were fighting again within seconds.
There was a fragile peace when they practiced their music. When they were singing, I could hear them behind Mom’s closed bedroom door, collaborating, respecting each other. Without the music, I realized as an adult, there might not have been any good times at all.
Gradually, I went from being somewhat content in my isolation, able to self-soothe and put a happy face on things, to figuring out that my job was to stay out of the way or out of the house.
I often spent school nights with my best friend, Beth Inman, whose own mother, when she gave Beth and her brother their good-night and off-to-school hugs, wrapped her arms around me in a way that both pleased me and made me feel ashamed, because I needed the affection so badly.
Initially while on Del Rio, I tried to stay in touch with my dad. During my first autumn there, I recall we spoke on the phone once, and he said he’d like me to spend Thanksgiving with him. Although I was only eleven, I proceeded to research Greyhound bus schedules, finding the gas station in Franklin at which a bus made a stop, and how long the trip would be, and how much it would cost, for me to ride to Lexington. I presented my plan to Mom with confidence. I remember I was sitting on a cabinet, chatting away about my wish to see Dad, swinging my legs. My high spirits were met with a curt and imperious, “You do not spend Thanksgiving with your dad. You are coming to North Carolina with me and Larry, to meet his family.” My legs stopped swinging midair.
Larry Strickland was a handsome gospel singer for whom Mom had fallen hard as soon as she arrived in Tennessee. Larry soon moved in with us on Del Rio Pike, and Sister and I began calling him “Pop.”
The trip to North Carolina was an unmitigated disaster. I was depressed, for one. Mom and Pop were wildly sexually inappropriate in front of my sister and me while we were in the backseat during the long drive. Once there, Mom, intent on making a good impression on Pop’s folks, had me on a very short leash. Pulling me aside, she explained how she wanted me to behave, and that she would wink at me when I needed to perk up. I was unable to conform to her vision and she looked like she had something in her eye all weekend. By the end of Thanksgiving, I was grounded until my birthday, which is mid-April. Worse, I do not remember seeing or talking to my dad again for nearly two years.
In the summer of 1981, just before I began eighth grade, I did successfully book myself a Greyhound ticket to see him. One evening, my sister dropped me off at a depot in Nashville, and I rode alone for eleven hours overnight on a route that required multiple stops and bus changes to Ocala, Florida, where Dad had moved.
By then Dad was manager of sales and marketing at
magazine and had also married a Lexington belle from a horsey family named Eleanor Van Meter. They were living in a cottage on a horse farm outside of Ocala. The arrangement was such an improvement that as my scheduled departure for Tennessee approached, I was relieved and pleased to hear that Dad, Eleanor, and I were harboring the same idea: I would live with them for my eighth-grade school year. Mom did not object, and Dad enrolled me in a private school, which I picked because they had cheerleader tryouts in the fall and I could maybe make the squad, and for a few months everything seemed great. Dad and Eleanor, however, were not as happy as they had seemed to me. Dad later shared that he had been too rigid to adjust to some of the changes and compromises a coupleship requires, and the brief marriage soon collapsed. One day before school, they were sitting at the kitchen table, looking quite somber. Strangely, Eleanor gave me a card that simply said, “Cheerio.” When I came home from school, she was gone and I never saw her again.
The split caused Dad to go through his own deep depression. When I approached him in the grocery store aisle, where he stood not moving, arms limp by his sides, and I asked if I could have a crap sugar cereal, and he said yes, I knew I was in trouble. That was completely against his fatherly values, and I knew something was wrong and he would not be able to care for me anytime soon. When I rode the bus back to see Mom for Thanksgiving, I was already devising my plan, writing letters to friends in Tennessee about how I couldn’t return to Florida after the holiday but how I couldn’t tell Dad in advance, because he’d be so mad at me. I thus wordlessly ditched my dad, and unintentionally gave my mother a smug victory over him, more fuel for her anti-Dad campaign.
Once I was back in my mother’s house, the savage scripts about him resumed at full throttle, and she was bound and determined to make sure we hated him as much as she did. I can recall only two visits he made to see us during the remaining years we lived on Del Rio Pike. But Dad told me that there were times when he drove to Tennessee to pick us up for a visit and Mom would make us hide in the house on Del Rio, turning out all the lights, until he finally gave up and left. I think I remember one of these stunts, hunkering in a dark house below window level, while Dad circled the house, hollering, but I can’t be sure.