Visions of LaDonna

In my elementary school, there was a girl a few years ahead of me named LaDonna. A fearless, redheaded tomboy–always a first-round pick for playground games of softball–she had Lauren Bacall’s bedroom eyes and husky voice.She talked out of the side of her mouth, looking as much like a guy as she could, back when girls had to wear dresses and skirts to school. The boys called her DeeDee. Her easy confidence and bravado both impressed and intimidated me. One morning in early January, word went around school that her house had burned down and she had died. Huge headlines in the newspaper told the whole story: five family members perished in that fire–her mother, two brothers, and a young cousin.
A few days later, I went past the house. It still smoldered; the stinging scent of smoke hung in the air and blanketed the neighborhood. Somewhere in that charred soggy wreck of a house, huddled in a closet–as the playground gossip had it–she had died, clutching a doll.

When I think of her now, she is still thirteen, swaggering out to the playground, ready to humiliate the boys at softball. She wears a plaid skirt, reluctantly, and her red hair is parted on the side. Her smile is wide, and she is teasing some boy about something as she punches a fist into her mitt.

LaDonna and her brothers.Photograph from the Richmond Independent, January 5, 1961
In those days, no one called in grief counselors. But I remember my fourth grade teacher telling us about some of her high school friends whose car got stuck on the tracks in front of an approaching train. Her story helped us understand that tragedy doesn’t skip over kids, something we wanted to believe with all our hearts. Mrs. Brown usually didn’t mollycoddle us, but she had a softer tone with us that day.
No more than a year after high school, I had already been to the funerals of three friends. Before I was thirty, I had lost more friends–to accidents, illness, and bad judgment.
Michael, a boy I had snuggled with under a beach blanket on a high school field trip to Santa Cruz, died young many years ago. I never found out what happened to him. When I think about him now, he is smiling at me, his brown eyes shining, and he is a crazy in love kid at the beach, fifteen years old, with a bright future.
Another friend, a college buddy of my husband’s, died on his way home from our wedding. His old jean jacket hung in our closet for years afterwards, smelling faintly of cigarettes, beer and ocean air.  I remember him as a happy-go-lucky guy, twenty-two years old, hair hanging over one eye, always ready with a joke and a smile.
When I read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, I wondered if her character’s vision of an afterlife could be possible. What if we get to choose the best time of our lives in which to spend eternity? And if we encounter past loves or childhood friends–will they be as we choose to remember them too?  Not that I believe any of this, but if we show up old and wrinkled and meet that heartthrob from long ago–well, that doesn’t sound much like paradise to me. Imagine the scene: the young man who left this world behind at a virile 25 or 26, reunited with his long-ago love who lost the blush of youth and the spring in her step, not to mention her long dark hair and youthful figure, decades ago.
It’s a question that can’t be answered, so I don’t know why I even think about it, and yet…perhaps there’s a reason  we have an image locked in our hearts and minds of friends who left us too soon and long ago. Maybe we’ll recognize them if we ever see them again, and maybe there’s enough left of the person we were–even though we’ve grown older– for them to recognize us.
Remembering long-departed friends preserves a part of my youth that would otherwise be lost. If I conjure up a mental picture of them, I can angle the lens around a bit and see my younger self too. When I think about the redheaded girl who never got the chance to grow up, I recall admiring her ability to be herself without conforming to what girls were supposed to be like in those days; she was tough, strong, and sure of herself. The boys played the outfield deep when she came to the plate. I wanted to be like that.
And when I think about Michael and the thrill of  long kisses on the beach, I get to remember the girl who made the boy smile that way.
She’s still here, somewhere, forever young.

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