"What can you say to a girl who asks, 'Where is my mom?'"
Well, one thing you don't say is she tried to kill you.
Other than the victims, who can begin to understand the internal traumas of abused children, born addicted, or into bone-breaking beatdowns, rapes and tortures, as intimately as the mother who took them in? Whose hands soothe feverish skin, soothe despairing recall, soothe desperate hearts racing in fright and aloneness?
I know nothing of it and cannot begin to understand the deviant nature and horror of a man or woman wrecking cruelty upon a child or baby. Neither you or I can put ourselves in any child's place.
All told, five daughters and the son of another, products of varying horrors, were fostered and adopted by 69-year-old Lynda Hudman as babies or little children. Listening to their early year biographies becomes a kind of non-fiction horror porn that rises from some veiled place inside and overtakes anything pure, where everything good threatens to wilt and die. Hudman is a black belt in combating such feelings. In fact, she owns a number of black belts, a martial-arts master, no small feat for a woman who has spent much of her adult years in a wheelchair.
It is a warm, breezeless Friday afternoon in November, and Hudman, with tremendous long gray hair and Joni Mitchell bangs, is sitting at a frontyard shaded table with her 20-year-old adopted son, Daniel. Hudman just ended a pandemic-era, remote-teaching session for her two boy grandchildren to whom she is now legal guardian, and grade-school books are stacked neatly here.
The looming pine tree above us is mighty, aged and rare, leans and hangs on, and reaches three stories up, the tallest goddamned tree in the neighborhood. It was first a Christmas tree, planted in the early 1970s, its roots so powerful the house's foundation is beginning to lift, a parallel to the familial drive in its shade. Hudman talks of planting the tree with her own two siblings and dad, a man she watched die of a heart attack in the kitchen when she was 16. It is the house Hudman grew up in, her own mother and father purchased it upon construction in 1951, after moving here from Illinois. A brick-solid place in near-east Tucson in a neighborhood of safe, kept houses.
Hudman is the adoptive mother of Jessica (Clover), a woman I wrote about in my last column (Tucson Salvage, Nov. 5), now living on the streets. Jessica was a child left to die; beaten, shoved into a drawer as a baby. She was taken in by Hudman at 9 months old, through social service center Casa de los Niños. In that story, Jessica could only profess her love for Hudman.
"All of them were tough," Hudman says. "They had to be for what they went through. That's not to say there were points when I didn't want to just give up. At least I know I've given them the best I could for as long as I could, until they are 18. With Jessica, there wouldn't have been a home for her, she was just out of control. She would work her way out of the car seat and try to jump out of the moving car, many times.
"Jessica's sons are futilely out of control," she continues. "What I can do is offer love and patience."
Hudman in her car sometimes spots Jessica on the street, and it fills her with a profound sense of loss, sadness and untenable emotional responses. She never thought it would come to this. How did this woman she loved and raised wind up living rough? Well, there is an X-factor, there was trauma and likely brain damage from baby beatings and horrible men. There were choices too and everyone involved suffered.
Hudman shakes her head, understanding intuitively the truth of the common drug-counseling trope: You have to cut them loose.
"I'll go through a leap of emotions with her, for all of the children. Her siblings are angry, and I'll take that on. But there is overall sadness, sadness that her boys have so much hurt."
She adds, "I've come further with Jessica. She was a reader, and we have her roomful of books. Yet she needed so much."
Hudman's children were filled with love and opportunities, at the very least weapons against suffering life on the streets. She did everything humanly possible for Jessica: hospitals, doctors, support, care of her children. The last person to let her go was mom, two years ago. Beyond stealing her siblings' valuables to sell, and manipulations, Jessica's internals manifested into the unlivable, and she dived headlong into a life in which she could answer to no one, a longing for autonomy with a meth elixir. She does not know how to exist.
"She'd wave me down on the street and say she was dying, and that would weigh me down. I'd bring her food, things to help, we'd put together boxes and go to meet her where she'd say she'd be and she would never show up. I'd hunt her down when I'd get her social security notices, money that she needs, every alley, every street. She is invisible until she wants to be found."
The Hudman frontyard is all kid-joy, an enclosed trampoline, plastic guns strewn about, a busted wheelchair fashioned into a toy vehicle, and a homemade scare scene still greeting visitors days after Halloween, a blanketed zombie and a fright-face skull sit in chairs beneath stringed lights. A home with many pets, a snake, rabbit, dogs, turtles.
"This ground under here," Hudman says stomping her foot, "is buried with so many animals."
The screen door swings open and one of Jessica's boys hops outside from the house, stops, greets us and looks to grandma for permission to hop on the trampoline. This son is a child born of rape. He is a handsome happy boy, he is polite to me, and shy. To me as to Hudman and the family, the boy is a beautiful thing in this world.
Hudman grins as he speeds to the trampoline. When Hudman smiles it feels like reward. It is a break of calm, and life's grim absurdities sometimes bring tears along with it. Sometimes the tears precede a laugh, which works like a guardian of her heart. The laughs bring sparkle to her very tired blue eyes, the years and the traumas she has made her own, for her children, because of her children. The PTSD, the horrific recalls, the acting out, the irrational rages. You love them with everything you have and then tap into some unseen source and never give up, she tells me, because the children are her own. The love is too great so there is no other possibility.
"I was so naïve. I had this idea that if you're a loving parent everything is going to be okay." Hudman laughs. "I had no idea the issues and heartaches. Your heart is the same, when they push you away. Leaving home, relationships."
There are no well-established procedures, she says. Each kid is tended to in a different way, yet despite wide age differences, their bond lasts, they "can finish the other's thoughts."
Gem steps into the yard, backpack, earbuds, cropped, purple-streaked hair, and a smile, returning from a bus ride to her volunteer job at Our Place Clubhouse, a mutual-support community for adults in mental-health recovery.
She is 39 now. All of Hudman's children are grown, the oldest is 40 and Daniel the youngest. Gem and Daniel live at home.
It is difficult to believe Gem survived. She was 4 years old and weighed all of 15 pounds when first lifted into Hudman's arms, wrapped in a body cast for the broken bones. Yes, 15 pounds, Hudman says, "like a 6-month-old."
Gem's biological parents kept her caged, beaten and starved. No one knew she existed. The question of why goes unanswered, in this conversation or anywhere.
"She was this little itsy-bitsy thing, with hair down to here," Hudman says, and reaches to touch her lower back. "She was a doll, and a fighter. Everybody fell in love with her. Her capacity to love, to be very kind and caring taught me everything."
Part of Gem's therapy growing up was driving by the old torture house, in rural Marana, AZ. Remembering how her biological brother, a young boy, tried to save her by sneaking her food, how her sister participated in the abuse. The parents never went to jail.
Hudson remembers once attending a carnival and Gem's biological mother appeared. Little Gem was on a ride. The mother hissed ugly words behind Hudman's back, "compacting hate," as she calls it. Gem noticed her too, turned white, frozen in terror.
Three of Hudman's daughters either declined or were not available to be included in this story, including Daniel's mother. Two are married and with children and are doing very well.
"Jessica and Daniel's mother were the hardest," Hudman says. Now Daniel's biological mother is also his sister, that is, each were adopted by Hudman. Hudman talks of the prostitute mother of one she adopted, a lot lizard who offered up her toddler to truckers.
Daniel was born in jail addicted to meth. Biological mom's arrest record included prostitution, trafficking, drugs. He has suffered from acute anger and debilitating mood swings. He laughs, "Yeah, I'm a meth baby."
Daniel is particularly self-aware, and self-responsible, speaks perfect sentences with well-chosen words, a savvy, smart kid who was taking apart and fixing computers at 10 years old. Sideburns, trimmed afro with a hint of premature gray, he is slim and urbane like a young Bill Withers in up-to-the-moment attire. He's mixed-race, part Black, part Cuban, part white, identifies as Black. ("I'm colorblind," he says about race. "These days it isn't really about racism, it's more like whoever is offended by what. I'm more offended by white people lecturing others on racism. If you are a bad person you are a bad person.") He's in a role of big brother to the two boys, a protector. He radiates an inner-pride, knowing what he has seen and what he has overcome, a sense that goes beyond conscious thought. Daniel is therefore very kind and accommodating.
"When mom got arrested, she was with my biological father, this charismatic Cuban guy, in route to murder someone in a drug deal," Daniel says. "When puberty hit, a predetermined genetic disorder needing every addiction took over." Daniel went from a 4.0 GPA to getting kicked out of one school, entering another and skipping out on high school altogether.
"The battle for me was not getting dragged into gang life." The route dead-ended when he witnessed a kid get shot in the face and die in front of him.
"Relative struggle I understand but I didn't when I was younger," he says. "I remember in school this kid was hurting because his parents were getting divorced, and I thought, if he would just stop for three seconds, and think—I'm put-together now, but man, then my sister just tried to commit suicide, my real dad is in prison, my biological mom was addicted and in jail when I was born and I could go on and on about what I thinking." He looks to Hudman, says, "She, my mom would talk me through it. It took a while to let go of the anger."
Hudman smiles. "You were my easy child." Daniel's biological mother and adoptive sister is well now, two years sober, and the two get along. She was out of his life for years.
Daniel works a good-paying gig for Amazon. He's saving to move out with his girlfriend and to enroll in cybersecurity engineering school.
The other grandson steps outside. He is lanky, handsome, in a Nobody Freakin' Cares alien T-shirt, and shows off a curiosity with lizards, and the one he owns, a prehistoric-looking bearded dragon.
Daniel adds as the boy walks off, "he has seen some stuff."
A hummingbird flies around a mesquite tree, which Daniel and mom admire, so familiar to them it should have a name. Mom says the hummingbirds are "our family angels."
"If there is an injured bird here," Daniel adds, "she will nurse it back to health."
Daniel moves to the house and returns proudly with an aviator-astronaut G-suit, designed to prevent black-outs caused by pooling blood in the lower part of the body, to stop blood deprivation to the brain. NASA created this suit for Hudman when she was in her early 20s.
Fostering and then adopting traumatized children is one thing. Try it when you are physically restricted.
At 19, in college, Hudman began suffering dizziness and headaches, which led to fainting.
Cardiologists in Tucson thought it myxoma, a noncancerous heart tumor, but that wasn't it. It is a rare form of ischemia, where not enough blood gets to her brain.
Flummoxed doctors sent Hudman to specialists in Maryland and Iowa. She had two open-heart surgeries by her 21st birthday, which did little to nothing to help.
She was an Evel Knievel fan. In 1972, Knievel visited her at the UA medical center, and funded an ambulance and medical staff to take her to see him jump at Tucson Dragway. On a stretcher, Hudman had the drag strip's best view. He kissed her goodbye after the event.
Her one true love would visit her after her surgeries, but decided it was too tall an order to continue with a woman in a wheelchair. Hudman was so brokenhearted she stayed single, meanwhile forced to hang upside down in her spacesuit for 14 months, even to sleep.
Hudman was a star gymnast at Salpointe High School. The physical grace and physical-force part of who she was and still is led to later attempt to earn her physical ed degree at UA. A dream stymied by discrimination, a woman in charge then said a person in a wheelchair would be a "disgrace" to the top-rated program. Hudman shakes her head, "It was a different time."
Hudman began thinking of fostering and adopting children at 29, but figured there was no way she could, an unmarried woman in a wheelchair living with her mother. The hoops to jump through were many.
She laughs, "I had to talk my mom into it. It was basically her house!"
Wheelchair odds be damned, Hudman at the same time embraced martial arts and rolled up to a taekwondo instructor, explained her gymnastics background and he said "Okay, we'll give it a shot."
Hudman had no idea what other students were thinking. The first time she was told to get down and do pushups, she knew she'd be treated like everybody else.
She'd bring her first adopted child Gem to her classes — in her body cast — and set her down to watch. "Soon she'd be crawling on her elbows."
By 1984 Hudman was teaching taekwondo, from a wheelchair—she can walk now but can't stand still to teach or she'll likely pass out. The money helped. She taught the entire family, even her mother Rose who eventually earned her black belt. Hudman has her own studio (Hudman's Taekwondo, shuttered now for COVID) under the N.T.F.A. (National Taekwondo Federation of America) umbrella. It is the taekwondo philosophy of existing harmoniously in the world, one traced back to the Buddhists, that drew her in. The physical, mental and spiritual trip to a "Mastery of Self." This was a key to helping her children.
Hudman says, "Teaching them martial arts really helped with the traumas."
Rose stood amiably by her daughter with a firm hand as she created a family, one child at a time. Through elementary, middle and high schools, twice-a-year camping trips, mental health experts, joys and losses, and doctors and behavioral medications, suicide attempts and Christmases. Rose is now 95, still occupies a section of the house. Rose, Hudman says, is a champion cutter of coupons. The family has always been financially strapped, coupons come in handy.
A few afternoons later we are inside Hudman's home, Daniel's girlfriend is taking Jessica's two boys fishing at Lakeside park, as soon as one finishes his schoolwork, which is problematic; 15 minutes on a computer is all he can handle in one sitting. The other boy is in and out, and Hudman is day-caring one of her other grandchildren. Native American folk art and myriad family photos decorate chartreuse-green walls, a well-aged standup piano with ivories worn to the wood of a million kid finger plunks. Grand matriarch Rose is in the kitchen, diminutive and unhurried, perhaps looking through coupons, before retiring to her half of the house. There is chaos, it is family, and it gusts on.
Trooper, a 4-year-old mixed dog, noses this new visitor and soon curls next to Hudman on the couch. Listens as she talks of her children's horrors returning in force when puberty hit, to haunt them, in different ways. Yet her presence calms, her articulation is soft, barely discernable over household ruckus. Here is certain dignity too, even as she demonstrates a taekwondo move with her arms, and she is one of the most powerful women I have ever met. Daniel says the same thing. Counselors and mental health experts said at least one of her children would be better suited to a mental health rehab home, until they visited Hudman's. Is it any wonder? This home, whose foundation is lifted by family, and by the giant unending pine tree out front with its indifference to the odds.