Rosemary's Blog

The Tattoo Lady
December 18, 2016, 10:34 pm
Filed under: Family and Friends

Yesterday, December 17, 2016, a dear friend of mine, Judy Carpenter was killed in a car accident. Judy was no ordinary woman, she was a survivor. Judy was the widow of Dennis Carpenter, Jr. who passed on August 23, 2012. She was a bereaved mother. Her second child, Kellie Leann Carpenter also died in a car accident on August 14, 1992.

Judy, Dennis and their son Dee had worked every day to survive the unimaginable, the loss of their daughter and sister almost twenty-five years ago. Judy and Dee had survived every day in the past four years to survive the loss of Dennis, beloved husband and father. Dennis was the first one to reunite with Kellie. Now, in he blink of an eye Judy has joined Dennis and Kellie leaving Dee alone to face their loss.

A Lexington TV station reported an accident on the 5 o’clock news last night in Breathitt County where two people had been killed. For some unknown reason, I immediately went online to see if I could find any additional information on the accident. My first reaction was to make sure none of our employees at our Jackson pharmacy had been involved. There was nothing online except the brief description of the accident I had just heard on the news story.

I was anxious the rest of the day until the nightly news came on. When the names of the two individuals killed in the accident were announced, I was speechless. Judy Carpenter!! Could there be two Judy Carpenters in Breathitt County? I started my online search all over again and spent the next hour trying to gain any other information about the Judy Carpenter who had died as a result of the accident earlier in the day.

I went to bed last night grieving for my friend even though I still had no proof that indeed she was the person killed in the accident. I woke up at least every three hours with Judy on my mind. Not until I was able to reach a compassionate woman at the funeral home that had handled Dennis’ funeral in Jackson was I able to confirm that my precious Judy Carpenter was the woman killed in the accident.

In late August of 1992, I made the first of what has now been over seven thousand contacts to other bereaved parents. Only two weeks earlier, my tow oldest sons Drew and Jeremiah had been killed in a single car accident while on the way home from a concert. Since that tragic day, I had been scouring the obituary section of the Lexington newspaper on a daily basis. This morning, I read the obituary for Kellie Leann Carpenter from Louisville, KY who had been killed in a single car accident with her best friend Carrie. I knew I had to call this family.

Dennis and Judy Carpenter were living in the Louisville area but were originally from Jackson, KY in Breathitt County. I called information and dialed their number. A man answered….Dennis. I told him my name and told him that he did not know me but that my sons had been killed two weeks before in a car accident like his daughter. I asked if I could speak to his wife Judy. He told me she couldn’t talk. I understood totally. Well, Dennis and I started talking and continued talking. He would pause and I could hear another voice speaking to him. He would then relay a question to me that I finally realized was from his wife Judy. This went on quite awhile until finally he said, “Judy wants to talk to you now.” That first call changed my life. I was able to share the loss of my sons with this precious family but more importantly share their daughter Kellie.

Drew, Jeremiah and Kellie became angels within twenty-two days of each other back in 1992. Their deaths bound our families together forever. Our special angels always let us know they were around us by sending us yellow butterflies. Judy came to be called “The Tattoo Lady” when she got a yellow butterfly tattoo on her ankle in memory of Kellie. At that point, she was teaching at LBJ Elementary School back in Jackson, KY and was the least likely person to get a tattoo that you could imagine. I loved it!!

When I decided to write a book to share some of the remarkable families I had come to know and love after the deaths of my sons, I asked Judy if she would write a chapter in memory of Kellie. Of course she couldn’t turn me down. Her chapter is Chapter 9 in my book Children of the Dome released in 2000. I have enclosed her chapter in this post.


By Judy Carpenter

I don’t remember when I didn’t know Dennis Carpenter. That is due to the fact that his parents Dennis and Cordelia Carpenter owned a farm about two miles from my parents, Ed and Mary Hollan in Jackson, Kentucky. I remember when we rode the school bus together. I thought he was very obnoxious. He usually had the honor of sitting in the front seat because of behavior problems. Each day when I was in the eighth grade and he was a senior at Breathitt County High School, he would constantly have a smart remark to make to me as I got on and off the bus. He wasn’t easy to ignore. After he graduated that year, the bus ride was much more enjoyable.

In 1963, Dennis started Lees Jr. College, and I started high school. He attended Lees for two years then transferred to Morehead State University for his last two years. After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Morehead State. At this time, Dennis was a senior and ready to start his student teaching the next semester.

Since my roommate (also from Jackson) and I were at Morehead without a car, she asked Dennis if we could ride home with him on the weekend. He said yes and that seems to be how it all started. Dennis and I had our first date that first weekend and continued to date for a year until August 10, 1968 when we were married.

In January of 1972, I went to the doctor. I thought I was terminally ill. I had no energy, slept all the time, etc. I remember telling my doctor that I thought I had leukemia. He promptly started running tests and did blood work. After about three hours, he came back to my room and proceeded to tell me that I would be fine in about nine months. I was in shock. When I told Dennis what the doctor said, I remember him saying, “You mean you are pregnant?” I said, “No, we are!” At six months, my doctor ordered x-rays to see if I was carrying twins. He found out it was only one big one! On September 8, my son decided to be born two weeks early. After forty-eight hours of extremely hard labor, we had a beautiful 9lb. 13oz. boy, Dennis Edward Carpenter. I had never in my life seen a more perfect, gorgeous little person.

In May 1973, I graduated from Morehead State University with a degree in elementary education. That August, I was hired to teach first grade in Breathitt County. I remember crying for several days as I was driving to work. I missed my son. This was the first time I had been away from him except to attend classes.

Dennis and I decided that since we were becoming financially secure we wanted to move out of our mobile home and buy a house. In March 1975, we bought a huge four bedroom house on Picnic Hill in Jackson, Kentucky. It was a few months later that Dee had his first broken bone. As I was rocking him to sleep one night, he gave a lunge and completely flipped over my shoulder onto the floor. I just knew I had killed him. He didn’t even cry until the next morning when I tried to lift him out of the crib. Then we headed to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, where Dennis met us. Dee was fine except for a broken bone.

In April of 1975, I had another attack of “leukemia.” I returned to the same doctor in Lexington who had delivered Dee three years earlier. This surprise was due on January 20, 1976. Being the prompt, punctual person she proved to be, Kellie LeAnne Carpenter was born on January 20, 1976, during a thirteen-inch snowstorm, the biggest of the season. She was beautiful! Remember, our son was blonde, blue-eyed and a whopping 9lb. 13oz. Well, Kellie was almost bald, had huge brown eyes, and was a scrawny 7lb. 7oz. She looked like a baby bird compared to what our son had looked like as he made his initial appearance, but she was beautiful and very fragile in appearance. We soon learned that she was not fragile in temperament. It did not take her long to get us to conform to her schedule.

In 1980, Kellie started her school career at La Grange Elementary where I teach. This is the school she attended from kindergarten through the fifth grade. During this time, she was involved in school plays, Brownies, jazz and tap dance, basketball, and student council. If there was an activity available, Kellie was there! Her out of school activities included horseback riding lessons, ballet, gymnastics, and piano lessons.

After La Grange Elementary, Kellie attended Oldham County Middle School. She kept up with Girl Scouts, piano lessons, horseback riding, dance, gymnastics as well as Beta Club, manager for the football team, band, and statistician for the basketball team. It seems we were constantly out the door, in the car, and on the road. I remember several times in those years thinking how great it would be when she could drive. As I recall that thought now, my eyes fill with tears.

In 1990, Kellie entered Oldham County High School. Immediately, the busy schedule resumed. Once I asked Kellie if she ever planned to slow down. Her reply was, “When I am old!” If she wasn’t actively involved in something, she was reading or on the phone. Her freshman year whizzed by full of successes. Despite all her extracurricular activities she managed a 4.0 grade point standing.

In January of Kellie’s sophomore year she turned sixteen. For her sixteenth birthday she asked for flying lessons. I suppose looking back on the occasion, Dennis and I were as excited as she was. We could not imagine a five foot two, ninety-eight-pound ball of fire flying a plane. She began her lessons that month and by May had made three solo flights. Maybe this was why we never worried about Kellie when she drove her car. Surely, if you can fly a plane you can drive a car!

I remember the last lesson I went with her to fly at the airport in Clarksville, Indiana. Up to that point, I never thought of premonitions. On that Wednesday, Kellie had taxied down the runway when I heard the radio tower summons her to bring the plane back to the hanger. I raced out to see what was going on only to hear the commander tell her she could not fly that plane, the engine was malfunctioning. She asked what would have happened if she had gone up and his reply was, “If you went out in that plane, we would be picking you up all over Indiana.” This must have frightened her because she asked me to drive her home, something never allowed since she obtained her license to drive back in January. In the car she was extremely quiet. I recall her looking at me and asking, “Mom, what would you do without me?” Later, the day after Kellie’s accident, we received a letter from our congressman that would get Kellie commissioned to go to the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

On August 10th, our wedding anniversary, Kellie sent Dennis a card that at the time just seemed like a card from a very grateful daughter. Now, as we read it, it sounds more like good-bye!

Just four days later on August 14th, I attended an in-service at school. Dennis was out of town, and Kellie had to work from 4:00 to 6:30 at a local pizza restaurant. At 6:30, she came home, changed clothes and informed me she was going to pick up Carrie, her best friend, ride in to La Grange and be home at 10:30. I was watching television and did not walk out to the car with her which was a first. At 10:30, Dennis got home and asked about Kellie. I replied that she would be home any second because she was never late. Five minutes later, the doorbell rang. Thinking Kellie forgot her key, Dennis went to the door. There stood two policemen and a man we later learned was a coroner. I can never explain all the emotions I felt in that one split second—fear, hatred, anxiety, anger, devastation, you name it. In about two minutes, these three men told us our daughter and her best friend had been killed in a car wreck. Almost at once, our house was filled with neighbors and our minister. Every time the doorbell rang, I would run to answer it because I just knew it was all a big mistake. I knew Kellie would be standing there with a big grin saying, “Hi Mom, I’m home! Did you miss me?” She always asked that same question whether she was gone five minutes or five hours.

The next three days are a blur. Oldham County High School held a memorial service at the school for both girls. I can recall only bits and pieces but what I do recall was a wonderful tribute.

Kellie’s funeral was held on Monday, August 17th, 1992. Gradually I realized whether I wanted it to or not, life does go on, and I would not die with a broken heart. Somehow I had to pick up the pieces, find my purpose and try to move on.

I, as well as Dennis, have had several dreams about Kellie since her death. I recall about a week after her accident, Dennis bolted upright in bed one night and said, “Judy, I just heard Kellie! You know how she could say Daa DD and make two syllables out of it? She just called my name!” Did she have his number or what? She had him wrapped around her finger with that Daa DD word. He also dreamed about her being on a plane with him once, and she was where else, sitting on his lap! I dreamed that I was going with her to the high school to have pictures made. I kept looking at her, and she was so beautiful and so happy. She kept smiling and laughing at me with such a serene look on her face. As we entered the parking lot, I asked her how long this would take, and her reply was, “Mom, I’ll be back before you know it!” My last dream involved the door bell ringing, and when I answered the door, there she stood. I immediately asked where she had been and told her that we were worried to death. She answered that she had gone to school and if she had told me before, she was afraid I would not let her go.

Following the funeral, Dennis’ sister, June spent the week with us. I wanted to go to the cemetery—the fact was I didn’t even remember the exact location of the grave, but I knew with all the flowers, it would be easy to spot. I recall sitting on the ground beside the fresh dirt and asking that ultimate question for the hundredth time, “Why Lord, why my baby?” It was about that time that a beautiful yellow butterfly lit on my hand. Many times to follow that when I would go to the cemetery, I would see fluttering butterflies everywhere. I would sit on our sundeck and start to get teary-eyed and there a yellow butterfly would flutter by again.

Many of Kellie’s friends and teachers had the memorial service I mentioned earlier at Oldham County High School the day after her funeral. Afterwards, they wanted to go to the site where she had wrecked. (I had never been there). As we were all sitting there, each choking on our tears and lumps in our throats, two yellow butterflies fluttered all around us and soared off toward heaven. Silently, I whispered, “Hi, Kellie. I know you are there, just stay by my side, or I will never make it and neither will Dad. We need your help and the assurance that you are with us.”

Many of Kellie’s friends kept us busy for a long while after that. I remember one day, C.J. Wallace, a very special friend dropped by. I recall him saying, “Mrs. Carpenter, I don’t think I have ever seen so many butterflies in my life. They are even up there when I am taking flying lessons!”

On the first anniversary date of Kellie’s accident, Dennis’ sister June was with us. (Bless her and all she has done to keep us out of the trenches). Dennis insisted on cooking out on the grill. June came into the house and told me to come outside. There on Dennis’ shoulder was a tiny, beautiful butterfly. By the time I got the camera it was gone, but I DID SEE IT!
Now I suppose it is safe to tell you about the tattoo! I called Dennis at work and told him I had made up my mind and not try to talk me out of it. Of course, he had no idea what I was talking about. I told him I was getting a tattoo on my ankle and no one could stop me. The shop being in a racy part of town, he would not let me go alone. He drove me to the shop, and all I can say is that we were the best dressed people there and also had on the most clothes! Being a teacher and probably considered rather conservative, my behavior shocked my friends, but they understood why my butterfly tattoo was so important to me. Cathy Barnard, my principal, announced the fact at our first faculty meeting, and it was total pandemonium. No one could believe it. The comment was, “Now all the students will want to be in the tattoo lady’s class.”

As I look at myself as I am today and as I was six years ago, I can safely say I would not be where I am without the assistance of all my friends. I can remember Dennis coming home from work and saying everyone wants to know how you are. Our society dwells on the fact that men are strong; they don’t cry, they get over it! I am here to tell you, fathers are human too. This perfect little girl that we brought into this world when I thought I had leukemia was very much a Daddy’s girl. Remember, I said she had him wrapped around her finger. We are not unique; we are like so many parents who have lost children, trying to keep sanity and remembrance in perspective.

Judy, you will be missed here on this physical plane but know you are rejoicing tonight as you are now reunited for eternity with Dennis and Kellie.



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