I was saddened Saturday afternoon to read Naomi Judd, mother half of the mother- daughter duo The Judds, has left this life.
My heart is heavy for her daughters, her singing partner Wynonna and actress Ashley Judd, and the rest of their family.
I was a fan of The Judds from their earliest days of success. Today I can still mouth the lyrics to some of their songs, most of which bring memories of smiles, laughter and general good times with friends.
When the Judds constantly occupied my playlist in the mid- to late-1980s, I never dreamed I’d actually meet either of them. Twenty years later I’d have time to meet both. On the Santa Train.
Naomi was the first to give her time and heart to helping Santa distribute gifts along the train’s 110-mile route in November 2005.
I haven’t forgotten my first interaction, albeit indirect, with her. I hope I never do. It still makes me think, slowly and deliberately at stressful times in my own life.
Naomi, walking the length of the train to get to her quarters, stepped into the “press car,” which included railroad workers, PR folks and others in addition to us reporters. An older man I assumed was a railroad worker passing through in the other direction was the first person she saw. He clearly was star struck but shyly stepped aside, hat removed and in hand, grinning broadly but eyes cast down.
“Well, hello,” she said, stepping toward him as if to draw him out and give him a chance to speak with her. “I’m Naomi Judd.”
He, I think, muttered his name, still smiling. He seemed unable to find words.
She helped him out by asking “Tell me, what’s the best thing that ever happened to you?”
I could see him open up and begin to speak as she placed her hand gently on his arm and gave him her full attention. My own mind was frozen, yet racing. Oh. Sweet. Lord. If she asks me that what on earth will I manage to say?
The first thought: “My parents.”
Second thought: “Jesus died for me.”
Third thought: “I know Jesus because of my parents and the examples they set.”
Fourth thought: “God chose my parents.”
I saw Naomi moving away, the man she’d encountered moved on into another train car, still grinning, his eyes glistening a bit.
Naomi Judd never asked me that question. But to this day I think it’s one of the best questions I’ve ever heard as an ice-breaker, the perfect opportunity to start on a positive note. What is the best thing that ever happened to you?
I still consider it and it helps me focus on my blessings, not my stressings.
Naomi was a delight when she put forth her public persona, shining bright to encourage, entertain, bear witness to others.
Four years later, in 2009, Wynonna was Santa’s special guest on the train.
And in 2010, the Santa Train welcomed aboard mother and daughter, the Judds, with both joining the ranks of "elves" who helped Santa deliver gifts.
Naomi again was a beacon of light each time she stepped out in front of the crowds.
I’d never have dreamed she would later reveal she battled depression.
After the news of Naomi’s death broke on Saturday, I received a message from Santa. It was simple, direct and oh so true.
“We both lost a very nice elf today."