Book Excerpt: 'Coming Home to Myself'

Ask my mother.

I sat there traumatized for what seemed like forever. They assigned me a counselor and put me on probation for six months. I had to check in once a week, and looking back on it now, I realize that it was a lifesaver. Shoplifting was an obvious call for help, and I'm sorry to say that I'd taken some things before that. I think part of it was because we never had the money to buy things like some of my friends.

The counselor quickly saw how conflicted I was. I wanted a career, and wanted out of school to pursue it. I took musician magazines to school and hid them behind my books in class. I wanted a band! Instead I had chores and the responsibility for Ashley. I've seen my counselor, Betsy Jewel, several times since I made it in country music. The first time we met after I was an adult was such a strange moment for me, talking to her about that dark time in my youth. She said she knew I was a good kid all along.

I wanted so badly to be a good kid. But I also wanted to be independent of Mom. Maybe shoplifting was my way of breaking out. I hadn't been ready for the role of being in charge of so much, so young. I remember day in and day out putting my chores off on Ashley while I sat in my room and listened to music. My fantasy was that I'd go on the road with Bonnie Raitt. I was R.T.G. – ready to go! But my reality was that my mom was a single parent working double shifts at the hospital. That left me in charge of my little sister.

I often stood in the gap between Mom and Ashley. I not only was required to do a lot for Mom, I was also expected to be there for Ashley. I became her "Sister-Mommy." I drove her everywhere. At times I was all she had, when I'm sure she would have preferred Mom.

Sometimes I still drive by the house on Del Rio Pike, pull in our old drive and sit there. It was the last place where I was as connected to my sister. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. What memories! Sometimes I can still hear the eighties rock 'n' roll blasting from that old house, the place I sometimes called Ashley's Party Palace.

All her friends liked coming to our house because we had no neighbors, and they wouldn't get caught if they drank beer. I never did figure out how, if twenty kids were invited, fifty would know to show up. Ashley would wait until Mom had to work a double shift at the hospital, then put the word out. She had a lot of guts! For a long time she got away with it, and I helped her! I lived vicariously through my sister and her popularity.

Unfortunately for Ashley, we took some photos at one of the parties, and dropped them off at the local Moto Photo. Mom stopped by and a clerk gave Mom our photos in addition to her own. That was the end of Ashley's gatherings for quite a while. I'd give anything to go back and watch my funny, smart, popular little sister holding court at the Party Palace. Yet at the time when I went out on the road, I didn't think much about what it might do to her. I was too caught up in my own world.

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