Visions of LaDonna
Waiting for the morning bell at my elementary school, I hear a bunch of boys talking about LaDonna.
“You know what? Dee Dee’s dead!”
“Yeah, she burned up in a fire!”
Those boys are always saying things that nobody believes. They tease girls and make fun of other kids. But not Dee Dee. No one teases or makes fun of her.
LaDonna is a sixth grader all the kids know. She has red hair and freckles and she’s a tomboy. She’s kind of a tough kid, but nice to everyone. The teachers call her LaDonna, but the boys call her Dee Dee. She plays baseball with them at recess every day, and she is just as good as they are. Sometimes they let me play with them too, if they need a right fielder.
On this morning, the boys shove each other and interrupt, each of them trying to talk the loudest about Dee Dee.
And this is how I learn that her house burned down the night before. The boys say she died and so did her mother and two of her little brothers.
“She died holding a doll!”
“Dee Dee had dolls? Nah!”
“She did! They found her in her closet, with a doll!”
Now they laugh—a mean, teasing kind of laugh. I can’t say out loud how I feel, but I am mad at these boys and very sad about LaDonna. And more than sad, it makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about a girl a couple of years older than me dying in her own house like that, hiding in a closet from fire. Was she scared? Did she know she wouldn’t be able to get out? She must have been scared. What if my house caught fire? Could I die, too? Would those boys make fun of me?
Mrs. Brown, my teacher, knows about Dee Dee and the fire. The whole school knows about it. We don’t go into the auditorium for information or instruction, like we do for fire drills or duck and cover. We just go to our classroom. But once we are in our seats, Mrs. Brown tells us a story about what happened in her town when she was in high school. Some kids she knew were in a car and it got stuck on the railroad tracks, and a train came before they could get out. She remembers how she felt when she learned that kids can die, that some people never get the chance to grow up. She tells us this story, and then we get back to our lessons.
Her story makes me want to imagine her as a teenager, but I can’t.
I think Mrs. Brown is trying to help us figure out how to understand what happened because she knows this is the first time that someone we know—a kid—has died, and that this is a day we will never forget.
I look around at my classmates and wonder if maybe they won’t get the chance to grow up either. I think about this on the way home and at night when I try to fall asleep.
The house LaDonna and her family lived in is not very far from the house where I have lived all my life. I am curious to see the house that burned, the house where a girl was trapped in her bedroom with her dresses and her dolls. I ask my sister to come with me. She is curious too, and so we walk the three blocks to see the house on McBryde Avenue.
We smell the house before we see it. It smells like the tall silvery ashtrays in the lobby of my aunt and uncle’s apartment building. The smell makes me wrinkle my nose. We crowd in front of the other people who have come to see the mess that’s left after the firemen put the fire out. The windows have blown out, and the house is burned black. I try to imagine what it was like when the fire started, but I’m still thinking about the things I heard from the boys at school. We stare into the burned-up house from the sidewalk.
We don’t want to get too close.
LaDonna Malone had a deep voice and talked out of the side of her mouth. She always looked like the sun was in her eyes. She acted as much like a boy as she could, back when the girls had to wear dresses and skirts to school. One day on the softball diamond at recess, I saw her pinch her sweater between her thumbs and index fingers, creating a pointy bust line. She gave one of the boys a look that said, “Hey, get me!” as though the idea of her turning into a woman someday was a ridiculous scenario—as unlikely as one of those boys turning into a girl. Filling out a sweater? Nope, not her. She and the boys, some of whom had already learned how to embarrass a girl by sneaking up behind her and snapping her bra, had a good laugh and got back to the game. Her easy confidence and bravado impressed and intimidated me.
And one morning, she simply wasn’t there anymore.
LaDonna represented more to me than a kid who died. Her death made me see that even someone so powerful and larger than life—at least to my ten-year-old self—wasn’t safe. And in no small way, her death marked a time when I stopped thinking of myself as a child. It left me wondering about whether I was going to be safe and protected, or whether I would die, too. I wondered who would be sorry, and who wouldn’t care. My sister? My parents? The boy who lived across the street?
I hid my feelings at the time, but they continued to haunt me.
The year I turned forty, in 1991, my house burned to the ground in a devastating firestorm that swept through my Oakland, California, neighborhood. Twenty-five people lost their lives trying to outrun the smoke and flames, among them a teenage girl. The newspapers published the names of those who couldn’t get away from the fire and where their bodies had been found.
I thought again about LaDonna. A girl, unable to escape, a life cut short.
After the fire, I focused on helping my young kids make sense out of an event that would change our lives forever. My husband and I held our three children close and got to work creating a place where they would feel safe again. I remember feeling angry when I heard about people driving through our burned-out neighborhoods, drawn out of curiosity to the scene of a tragedy, as my sister and I were so many years before.
Our school district provided counselors who gave the children an outlet for expressing their fear, their anger, and their feelings of helplessness in a world that seemed out of control. The kids were angry that someone set a fire; they were angry that the firefighters couldn’t save their homes; they were angry that their parents couldn’t stop the fire or protect their houses. They were scared that any new home would burn down. Their behavior changed to reflect their fears and anxieties. My older son started wearing his jeans and T-shirts to bed, and it took us a while to get it: He thought he needed to be ready to run.
I saw counselors at our school getting the children to draw pictures and talk about them after the fire, to put into words the feelings that came over them. My son, in fifth grade at the time, described how he felt in the days following the fire:
“My feet had million-pound weights on them. I found it hard to move. It was like I was underwater, like in a dream. . . My knees registered a 10 on the Richter scale. I couldn’t stand still and felt kind of wobbly. Someone was riding a bike in my stomach. . . There was a pounding bell in my heart: thump, thump, thump. My eyes and nose were running nonstop. I was really scared and worried.”
He doesn’t remember the details of the time he met with the group and did the art work, but it allowed him to process his feelings and see how he could learn from the experience. In some ways, he had to act a little more grown-up after the fire, and perhaps he would say now that he lost a bit of innocence then. Bad things can happen and there is no one to blame. Even strong capable people can be lost when they are overcome and have nowhere to go.
My son was the same age I was when I learned this.
Several years ago, I began a writing project that encompassed memories of my early childhood. I traveled back to the wide streets of Richmond: Games of jacks and hopscotch; ice cream trucks and hide-and-seek at twilight in the summertime; roller skates, recess, elementary school.
And there I was again, thinking about the girl with red hair.
I returned to the library in my home town to do some research on the fire that caused her death. I was able to follow the tragic story through microfiche copies of the local newspaper. The headlines were huge, the coverage extensive. There were details of the fire damage and where the bodies were found. A lit cigarette dropped on a couch in the early hours of the morning; the unimaginable grief of the surviving father and son; the clock, stopped at 5:31 a.m. in a young girl’s room—it was all there, in morning and afternoon editions which I had not read as a ten-year-old. On the front page, dated January 5, 1961, I saw a “vision” of LaDonna: a young girl surrounded by her parents and three younger brothers, gazing at the camera with hooded eyes and a crooked half-smile, looking uncomfortable in a dress.
I felt the pang of losing her all over again when I saw that picture. It felt as though I lost her twice, the girl who was just a kid, and the larger-than-life playground idol I had built her up to be in my memory.
What would she have grown up to be like, if her life hadn’t been cut short at 13? Would she have continued to have a devoted following, a circle of admirers who laughed at her jokes and treated her with respect? Would her good humor and charisma have buoyed her through the travails of high school and young womanhood? I wonder what career path she would’ve taken, and if she would have been able to buck the stereotyped roles assigned to women in those days.
I like to think she would have.
The impression she made on me didn’t die when she did. As a child, I felt that it was up to me to carry on as she had, if I could. Her death still serves as a reminder to live life as large as possible, because you never know.
In my mind’s eye I see a vision of LaDonna. A redheaded girl wears a plaid skirt, reluctantly, and her flaming hair is parted on the side in a pageboy. She is squinting in the sun out on the playground, her smile is wide, and she is teasing some boy about something as she punches a fist into her well-worn leather glove. I admire her ability to be herself without conforming to what girls are supposed to be like. She is tough, strong, and sure of herself. The boys play the outfield deep when she comes to the plate.
I had wanted to be like that.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland, California. Her essays and articles have appeared in local and national publications and in several anthologies. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty: Parents Reveal The Upside, Downside and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest (No Flak Publishing, 2008). Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here (She Writes Press) was published in Spring 2016. She writes a column for Berkeleyside.com under the name of Ms. Barstool, and was a contributing writer for eatdrinkfilms.com. She blogs at risanye.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MsBarstool.