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FAMILY OF CHANCE, FAMILY OF CHOICE
Say not, "I have found the truth," but rather,"I have found a truth."
My favorite author, Edith Wharton, wrote in herautobiography, "My last page is always latent in my first, but theintervening windings of the way become clear only as I write." So it hasbeen with me as I have undertaken to make sense of my own past.
Although the home of my heart is in the AppalachianMountains, I always considered it auspicious that I was born in Southern California,one of the most transitory places in the world, during one of the mostturbulent springs in American history. When I arrived by cesarean section atGranada Hills Hospital on April 19, 1968, California was the epicenter of asociety in the throes of a cultural and spiritual upheaval. The Vietnam War wasraging. The nation was still reeling from the assassination of Martin LutherKing Jr., and Bobby Kennedy would soon be gunned down at the Ambassador Hotelin Los Angeles, leaving a generation of idealists lost in a tide of grief andregret. Some of the flower children who had flocked to San Francisco for theSummer of Love were now panhandling for loose change along Hollywood's Sunset Strip-aplace I would soon know well.
My parents, Michael and Diana Ciminella, were small-town kids from rural eastern Kentucky. Like mosteveryone else in the Los Angeles basin, they had moved to California lookingfor a fresh start in what Joan Didion described as "the golden land whereevery day the world is born anew." In 1967, my parents bought a tracthouse on a cul-de-sac in Sylmar, a suburb carved out of olive groves in the SanFernando Valley, about twenty miles north and a world away from Hollywood. Mydad sold electronic components for the aerospace industry; my mom stayed homeand seethed with boredom. They had dreams, just different ones. And they hadsecrets.
They had married too young and for the "wrong" reason-namely,the unplanned pregnancy that produced my older sister, Christina (you know heras Wynonna), when Mom was only seventeen. It was a typical story of the time:high school girl becomes pregnant and "has" to marry her teenageboyfriend. But there was a twist: Michael wasn't the father of Diana's baby-somethinghe didn't know at the time of the wedding, and something my sister and I wouldn'tlearn for decades. When I came into the world four years later, my family'stroubled and remarkable course had already been set in motion, powerfullyshaped by my mother's desperate teenage lie and the incredible energy she dedicatedto protecting it.
I began to understand the dynamics of my past, and how weare only as sick as our secrets, when I was thirty-seven years old and startedon a simple and practical path of personal recovery. It was then that Idiscovered we all belong to two families: our family of choice and our familyof origin. My family of choice is a colorful assortment of surrogate grandparents,aunts, uncles, and friends who infuse me with love, belonging, and acceptance.My family of origin, the one into which I was born, was also brimming with lovebut was not a healthy family system. There was too much trauma, abandonment,addiction, and shame. My mother, while she was transforming herself into thecountry legend Naomi Judd, created an origin myth for the Judds that did notmatch my reality. She and my sister have been quoted as saying that our familyput the "fun" in dysfunction. I wondered: Who, exactly, was havingall the fun? What was I missing?
As I write these words, I am happy to say that each of ushas embarked on a personal process of healing, and my family is healthier thanit has ever been. We have come far. In our individual and collectiverecoveries, we have learned that mental illness and addiction are familydiseases, spanning and affecting generations. There are robust strains of eachon both sides of my family-manifested in just about everything from depression,suicide, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling to incest and suspected murder-andthese conditions have shaped my parents' stories (even if some of the eventsdid not happen directly to them) as well as my sister's and my own.Fortunately, along with the dysfunction is a legacy of love, resiliency,creativity, and faith in a family whose roots I can trace back at least eightgenerations in the mountains of Kentucky and about 350 years in America, and asfar as the shores of Sicily. That history is as much a part of my DNA as thearch of my eyebrows or the color of my hair. It's imprinted in the soft r's andlong vowels that well up in my voice when I'm speaking about my home place orthe way I whoop for my dogs from the doorway, barefoot, in a nightgown,assuming my mountain woman stance with a hand on one hip, a way of being asnatural to me as breathing.
Although I now make my home in rural middle Tennessee,eastern Kentucky still calls to me. Kentuckians have a deeply ingrained, almostmystical sense of place-a sense of belonging that defines us. As a teenager, Itook a friend to see my great-aunt Pauline's farm. She passed away when I wasin the fourth grade. Nevertheless, although I had not been there since I wasten years old, I navigated my car deep into the countryside, to her homesteadon Little Cat Creek, without making a single wrong turn. More recently, afterflying over catastrophic mountaintop removal coal-mining sites in Pike County,I drove to Black Log Hollow in Martin County, where my paternal grandmother wasraised. When I pulled onto Black Log, something ineffable-without words anddeeper than memory, from a place so primal that it transcends thought andconscious action-tugged at my soul. I went unhesitatingly to the first mailboxon the right. The stenciled name read "Dalton," which was my paternalgrandmother's maiden name; I had found my great-grandparents' home and realizedthat folks to whom I am kin lived there yet. I called on the residents, andlike a cliché, the old woman inside accused me of being the law or a taxcollector. The only thing missing was a rifle across her lap.
These mountains can hold dark secrets. Mary BernadineDalton, who became my Mamaw Ciminella, never talked to me much about her familyor her years growing up. Her mother, Effie, was married at least five times.The husband who fathered Mamaw and her two sisters disappeared from the scene-shenever said why, at least to me, although Papaw Ciminella, who loved familydearly and was a devoted reminiscer, told me that my great-granddaddy had hitEffie and she'd ended that marriage on the spot. Mostly, what I knew was thatMamaw was a gorgeous mountain girl with a luscious figure who, like the KimNovak character in Picnic, fell for a charming, exotic outsider who lovedadventure.
Michael Lawrence Ciminella (Papaw) was the son ofSicilian immigrants who had settled in western New York, on the shores of LakeErie. His mother was a classic homemaker in the Italian tradition, his fatherhad a good job making wine for Welch's, and they were surrounded by a vibrantextended family. They raised five children together, including Papaw. But,according to my cousins, there was a dark side to this quintessential Americanstory. A family member had raped Papaw's mother, and his oldest brother wasconceived in incest. I can only imagine the suffering that created in Papaw'sfamily as he grew up, and it may explain why he developed ulcers that kept himout of military service during World War II. As a young man, Papaw, after hisexciting tenure in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the western states, whichallowed him to discover his love of rambling, installed copper roofing andgutters up and down the Appalachian Mountains. It was on one of these tripsthat he met the beautiful Billie Dalton at a clandestine juke joint in Inez,Kentucky. He swept her away from the local hero she was dating and married herin 1944, after a six-week courtship. They moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where hefound a good job with General Electric building locomotives during the war. Myfather, Michael Charles Ciminella, who came along, was their only child.
After the war, Papaw and Mamaw briefly owned a diner inErie until Papaw, who used to play some serious poker, lost the business to oneof the local "hard guys" in a card game. His gambling days over (fora while, at least), Papaw moved his young family back to eastern Kentucky,where he worked as a brakeman for the C&O Railroad. He was a wizard withall kinds of metalwork, and he eventually turned a part-time business buildingand installing gutters and siding into the successful Ashland Aluminum ProductsCompany.
Dad idolized his father, whom he remembers as outgoing,immensely competitive, hardworking, and honest. Papaw never lied or cheated tomake a sale, and he expected people to pay him when and what they owed him.Mamaw, in her early years, was as outgoing as Papaw. They were a beautiful andstylish couple, accomplished dancers who enjoyed socializing and golfing at thecountry club. But Dad's memory is that Mamaw grew more eccentric as she gotolder. She liked her house to be perfectly clean, neat, and orderly. She alsotended to fret, particularly about the health of her only child.
Dad had come down with a bad case of rheumatic fever as ayoung boy. It took him years to recuperate, and the family moved to Floridaduring the winters to help him heal. Mamaw must have been terrified of losinghim, because she nearly smothered him trying to keep him safe. He chafed at hervigilance, and when it came time for high school, he asked to go to Fork UnionMilitary Academy in Virginia to slip out from under her watchful eye. Dadthrived there, academically and athletically. The once sickly kid had turnedinto an outstanding baseball player, whose achievements were chronicled in thelocal paper and who briefly considered going pro. When he was sixteen, hisparents bought him a Corvair Monza so that he could drive himself back andforth to Ashland.
As soon as he received the car, Wendell Lyon, his bestfriend back home, enlisted him to drive him and his girlfriend, Linda McDonald,who would eventually become my godmother, to the movie theater over inHuntington, West Virginia. To seal the deal, Linda arranged a blind date forMichael with her pretty, fourteen-year-old across-the-street neighbor andfriend, Diana Judd.
Michael and Diana dated on and off for the next threeyears, and she has said that he first proposed marriage when she was onlyfifteen. She also claims she never loved him, but she enjoyed being taken ondates to the country club, and she was impressed by the comfortable lifestyleof the Ciminella family, which seemed luxurious compared with her family'shumbler circumstances.
Charles Glen Judd, my maternal papaw, came from a familythat didn't have much money, but they had laughter, stability, and love. He wasborn on Shirt Tail Fork of Little Blainecreek, alongside a farm that had beenin the family for generations. Papaw Judd and his folks moved to Ashlandbecause the job options in Lawrence County were coal mines or nothing. When hewas a senior in high school, he fell for a fourteen-year-old strawberry blondecashier named Pauline "Polly" Oliver.
Polly, my maternal grandmother, whom we call"Nana," came from a strange and troubled background. Her paternalgrandfather, David Oliver, had turned on the gas oven and then hanged himselfin front of his sons, aged only six and four, apparently because he wasdistraught 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 MaeBurton, who repeatedly cheated on him. When Nana was nine years old, her dadwas 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 thefuneral, dumping Nana and her two younger siblings with her rigid, intimidatinggrandmother, Cora Lee Burton. Nana raised herself and her brother and sisteramong a collection of maladjusted grown aunts and uncles who were still livingat home, and she went to work at her grandmommy Cora Lee's restaurant, thelocally loved Hamburger Inn.
She was just fifteen when she married Glen Judd, and itmust have seemed like a good deal. Glen bought his own treasure of a gasstation and called it Judd's Friendly Ashland Service. When he and Nana startedhaving children, they bought his parents' big wood frame house at 2237Montgomery Avenue. Diana was the firstborn, followed two years later by Brian,then Mark, then Margaret.
My mother has always described her early childhood asidealized, happy, and secure, like a Norman Rockwell fantasy, with a stay-at-homemother who cooked wonderfully and a father she adored, who was hardworking andpopular in the community. For Nana, though, the marriage was no picnic. PapawJudd was a decent man who made a good living at the filling station, but he wasas tight with money as two coats of paint. Nana never had new clothes and didn'thave a washer and dryer until the youngest of their four children was out ofdiapers. When the furnace quit, Papaw Judd told Nana to fetch plastic from thedry cleaner's to insulate the windows. It was the only time Mom remembered hermother standing up to him about household finances. Papaw also worked longhours, often staying late to drink whiskey.
My mother describes herself as wildly imaginative and aperfectionist as a child, the kind of kid who always had her hand in the air atschool, earned good grades, and kept her room immaculate. She had neighborhoodfriends to play with in the humid summer evenings and siblings she loved,especially her gentle and funny younger brother Brian. Like all children, Mommust have absorbed the tension in the household, but she says the only thingshe missed as a child was the attention of her elusive father. While sheyearned for his affection, she learned to be noticed in other ways. Mom was aborn extrovert who used her babysitting money to take tap-dancing lessons. Andfolks around Ashland all say how popular and beautiful she was.