Authors: Ashley Judd
I named my home Chanticleer after the lovely hilltop home in Berea where I had lived during second grade. In spite of the many painful memories associated with it, it was where, out of sheer necessity and a will to survive, my imagination took flight.
When my husband, Dario Franchitti, and I married in Scotland in 2001, I re-created wooded scenes inspired by Chanticleer as the theme of our wedding: Moss, rock, branches dripping with lichen, daffodils, and other fragrant bulbs were our decorations. We met on a blind date in 1999, having been set up at the wedding of mutual friends. We count that date, May 17, as our anniversary. Buttermilk, my beloved hound, was with me that night, so my future husband landed both his wife and his dog in one fell swoop. I had no idea what he did. He had no idea what I did. But we sure knew we were wild about each other right away. I loved the little boy that I glimpsed in Dario, and his wholesome values, especially his kindness and fairness. I knew my soul would be safe with him. My husband is a race car driver, and of his many accomplishments, perhaps most notable is winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, and the IndyCar championships in 2007, 2009, and 2010. But in spite of our clearly public professions, we have enjoyed, by exceedingly careful intention, a discreet life together. We support each other at public appearances, such as races and red carpet events, but we do our best to keep our private lives separate. Our marriage is sacred.
Some of Dario’s grandparents emigrated from Italy to Scotland, while other ancestors trace very old Scottish lines. He loves the Italian part of his heritage and is a Scot through and through. He muses that the passion of the Italians and the canniness of the Scots have yielded his particular character as a race car driver. We live in an eighteenth-century house in Scotland part of the year, where I especially love our time spent in the Highlands. When he’s on this side of the pond, Dario’s home is at Chanticleer. Every special occasion, he gives me trees for the farm (an especially cleverly done wedding anniversary was our seventh, for which the metal is copper, so he gave me seven copper beech trees). Our best moments are spent outdoors, walking the hills with our dogs, lying in the grass, and watching dozens of species of birds, especially the herons and hawks. Our life together here is as nourishing and restorative as any I could imagine. It is a balm.
On summer evenings Dario and I will often sit on the back stone steps, still warm from the sun, spooning ice cream, listening to the crickets, cicadas, and frogs as they tune up for their entertaining nightly symphony. The fireflies come out, proving there is a gracious God who has made a magical, beautiful world. The cats join us, either scanning the gardens, hillsides, and valley for interesting attractions or weaving about us, wanting to be brushed. Our cockapoos, Buttermilk and Shug, engage in their nightly ritual, which we call “harassing the defenseless nocturnal creatures,” and we futilely attempt to restrain them from bounding up the hills and running the valleys. We leave food out for the feral cats we have named (having briefly trapped them to spay/neuter/inoculate and return), and I pretend I am their mama, even though they claim me only for their daily bowls of wet and dry. When one adopts us, we rejoice.
Like many folks, I have a wonderfully deep relationship with animals. They anchor and structure my world. Their unconditional love and four-legged wisdom enriches my life and helps me heal. They provide the connection, the spirit of play and rest, and the acceptance that transcends all doing, all circumstance. My animal companions give me the gift of needing my love—and I have love in abundance. Percy, for example, was a stunning gray point kitty with whom I shared my pillow each night for years. We held hands as we slept (Dario would take pictures, showing me in the morning) and ate off the same plate. Percy never took his eyes off me, thereby giving me at long last what my parents had been unable to sustain during my childhood, that invaluable feeling of being the center of somebody’s world. The animals provide my routine, keep my moorings, and keep me in relationship with other beings at all times. It’s not possible to isolate myself for long or stay caught up in either the vainglories or morbid reflections of life when animals are nearby. And that is one of the reasons animals are often prescribed by doctors for emotional support.
We had dogs and cats growing up, but I moved around so much that I hardly remember many by name. There was Mule the hound dog when we lived in Berea, and Cotton, my beloved little tomcat who sprayed my cheerleader pom-poms in high school. The first dog I ever loved with tender devotion was Banjo (we called him a Heinz 57 mix), whom Mom and Pop, my stepfather, bought when I was in college and let me share as if he were my own. He was the greatest dog ever, until the King, aka Buttermilk, came along.
in 1998 following a long spell in Vancouver, British Columbia, I came home to my newly restored farmhouse, and one afternoon Mom materialized at the door, standing there with a bright, sly smile on her face.
“I have a wrap gift for you!” she sang out.
I rolled my eyes. “How much does it weigh?” I knew it was a dog, and I was unsure this would suit me. I’d never had a dog as an adult, and cats were really my thing. She began to gush and presented me with a beautiful fluffy yellow cockapoo puppy, without a doubt the sweetest, most adorable, easy-to-make-the-center-of-my-life animal imaginable. Although I didn’t want to show her how pleased I was, I was smitten.
I named him for his creamy yellow curls that reminded me of the foamy bubbles that collect at the edges of a milk pail, and because buttermilk with a skillet of cornbread is, as far as I am concerned, a staple of life, as he has become for me. We were inseparable from the start, and he was forgiving and patient with me as I struggled to learn the art of raising a canine. I was aghast when he peed on my bed while we were playing. A cat would
never do that
! We tried crate training, but it was agony. He howled so plaintively, so relentlessly, when separated from me that there was no doubt he would be sleeping in the bed.
Dario understands when I say that Buttermilk is the great love of my life. I know Buttermilk better than I have known any human, and he surely knows me better than anyone. I call him my thighbone; we sleep alongside each other every night, with him positioned alongside my leg so that my hand rests upon him throughout the night. His baby sister, Shug, came along, and little did I know I had the capacity, the space, inside of me to love that way again. But I did, and she expands my soul. Shug falls asleep stretched out on her back, placed down the middle of me, the back of her head tucked under my chin, her little tail lined up with my belly button. Heaven for us both.
When I meet new people at parties, I am often asked if I have any children. Most folks consider it a harmless small-talk opener, and rather than be rude or get too personal, I usually give a laugh and say, “No, we have pets.” This is the truth—in our household animals are full family members—but the whole story is far more complicated. The fact is that I have chosen not to have children because I believe the children who are already here are really mine, too. I do not need to go making “my own” babies when there are so many orphaned or abandoned children who need love, attention, time, and care. I have felt this way since I was at least eighteen and I had an argument about it with a childhood friend. He maintained that people with “our genes and opportunities are the very people who should have kids;” I countered that folks with our awareness and ability to contribute should instead focus on the children already born and suffering so needlessly. I figured it was selfish for us to pour our resources into making our “own” babies when those very resources and energy could not only help children already here, but through advocacy and service transform the world into a place where no child ever needs to be born into poverty and abuse again. My belief has not changed. It is a big part of who I am.
Over the years I have quietly “adopted” many children in America and in different parts of the global South—a better term for the developing world—sending money for health care, food, schooling, and shelter in ways that are appropriate for the places where they live and which improve their chances for better lives. But it wasn’t until 2002, when a stranger named Kate Roberts contacted me at just the right time, asking me to join just the right campaign, that I saw an opportunity to impact—beyond donations—the lives of millions of children and young people I already considered part of my own family.
The letter was an appeal for me to become the global ambassador for YouthAIDS, the HIV/AIDS prevention programs at Population Services International, a nonprofit public health organization. My job would be to raise awareness and funds for PSI’s programs, which target the most poor and vulnerable populations in the world. Would I consider traveling around the world, representing the organization?
This seemed like an enormous request, but I was intrigued. What I could not yet know was that this letter would not only begin a rich, life-changing education, but would also launch me on the path toward my own healing.
THROUGH THE TRAPDOOR
Pursued by paparazzi, I nonetheless stop to befriend a dog.
Where I came from, the nights I had wandered and survived, scared them, and where
I would go they never imagined.
, “Always Unsuitable”
he invitation from Population Services International arrived at what seemed to be a very inconvenient time. My acting career was at such a frenzied peak that I had starred in six movies in the past four years and I felt as if I were being pulled in ten directions at once. In the summer of 2002, when I began filming a noir thriller called
in and around San Francisco, I was as successful, and as sick and tired, as I had ever been in my life.
should have been an enjoyable movie to make. I was excited to be working with director Phil Kaufman, a remarkable auteur who had directed
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
. I had wonderful support from my costars Andy Garcia and Sam Jackson—both of whom happen to be among the kindest, funniest, and most generous artists in show business. But it turned out to be a difficult shoot, with seemingly endless night scenes, and as the weeks wore on, I grew more miserable. It probably didn’t help that my character was a depressed homicide inspector with a nasty temper; a lonely woman who was consumed by unresolved trauma from her past. She medicated herself with alcohol while—and here’s the thriller part—her casual sex partners were murdered one after the other.