From the beginning, she was a godsend. New to blogging and confused by the intricacies of setting up a site, I began browsing the WordPress forums, seeking answers to questions I barely could formulate.
Her avatar was the first to catch my eye. The apples – two red, a few green – shimmered on the page. I asked my questions, and she answered in a way I could understand. Like other experienced forum volunteers, she brooked no nonsense, but never ridiculed. I began to learn, and began looking for her avatar even when I had no questions.
In the beginning, I never considered why she might have chosen apples as her signature image, but in time the apples made perfect sense. Ellaella was a New Yorker at heart, a former resident and devotee of “The Big Apple”. Her favorite apple, the Honeycrisp, perfectly represented her personality – a sweet heart, accompanied by crisp, concise opinions and a tart tongue to share them.
An apple avatar also made sense for a “foodie”, an identity ellaella claimed without snobbery or pretension. Her entries about New York chefs, her restaurant reviews and critical notes on “food tv” were entirely entertaining. Still, the heart of her blog was recipes, always accompanied by useful information about ingredients, cooking methods and her personal experience with dishes. If something had worked, she explained why. If she’d had a disaster – like the marvelous overflowing honey cake – she told us that, too.
There was, of course, a tagline accompanying her blog title. From Scratch included a lot of chatter about food, (plus a little about politics). That phrase – “a little about politics” – qualifies as true understatement. When it came to politics, the word count wasn’t necessarily high, but it didn’t need to be. Her view of the political world was sharp, incisive, acerbic and entertaining. “I’ve never believed cooking, thinking and voting are mutually exclusive,” she said, and even as I smiled, I wondered. Between the quality of her writing and the clarity of her opinions -who was this woman?
Perhaps sensing her intensely private nature, I never asked a direct question about her life outside the blogs. We did engage in a lot of chatter about things other than food and politics and, as we did, we began to know one another. She loved egg creams and the word “unfettered”. She loved teh kitties, and sent Christmas cards to my darling Dixie Rose. We exchanged “mom stories” galore, and when my own mother began to reject food she found “boring”, ella suggested recipes to help tempt her back to the table.
She especially enjoyed talking about photography. When I traveled to Mississippi for Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival, she asked for a few photos that had appealed to her, wanting to transform them into black and white. She knew her photographers and had spent enough hours in the darkroom to understand those techniques, but she was intrigued by the possibilities offered by digital processing. After a little time, she sent her results back to me, along with paragraph-long treatises on dodging, burning and the mysterious “unsharp mask”.
In time, her comments on my blog entries became more pointed. Once, in an email, she made a comment about the importance of the editorial process and then off-handedly remarked that she’d written for certain national news organizations and knew what she was talking about. After I didn’t take offense to a later remark that my writing was that of a “talented beginner, making beginner’s mistakes”, she suggested a particular entry would make a good basis for a “point of view” exercise. If I cared to give it a whirl, she said, she’d be happy to read and critique it. I was thrilled, and just a little awed. And I began to re-write.
One day, she announced she was moving from The Little Snowball – her tongue-in-cheek name for New England – back to the world of The Big Apple and DC. She was excited, but apprehensive about the amount of work required. Mentioning on my blog that she was downsizing, getting rid of excess baggage, she laughed as she remembered how much easier it was to box and move books in her twenties. There were a few cryptic remarks about not being in the best of health, accompanied by upbeat declarations that she “would manage”.
Her last email arrived soon after the move. She loved her kitchen, and delighted in the fact that a “real” grocery store was nearby – many of the ingredients she’ d been missing were again available. She mentioned the attractiveness of the neighborhood, and her eagerness to get settled. Finally, she sent her regards to my mother, along with another “Ella recipe” she thought Mom would enjoy, and closed by reminding me I still needed to send along my “point of view exercise” for her to look at.
And then she was gone. The pretty apple avatar already had disappeared from the forums. She stopped commenting on my blog, and stopped posting to her own. When I emailed, there was no response. Initially, I assumed it was because of her move and thought little of it. As the weeks passed, I became puzzled, and then concerned.
Other friends, many of whom had known her longer and more intimately than I, also were concerned. Internet searches began, and people who’d never met found one another through her blog. As we compared notes, I began to learn about the woman behind the avatar.
Ironically, the intensely private ellaella was Donna Penyak, a woman who’d lived an intensely public life. Despite her hints about professional writing, I was amazed to discover she’d been a radio personality, part of the “Donnie and Donna” team on 93KYS in Washington, DC. Later, she became a CBS news broadcaster in New York. It was Donnie Simpson’s “Farewell to a Friend”, passed on to me a few days ago, that brought an end to speculation over Donna’s disappearance.
In October of 2010, when another blogging friend found comments at the UK Guardian posted under ellaella’s name and linked to her site, I was relieved. The comments appeared genuine, and though I couldn’t understand why she would choose to disappear without a word, it seemed as though she was well. She continued commenting there until March 19, 2011, posting her last comment only weeks before she died of cardiac arrest in April – alone, in a homeless shelter in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Despite the lucidity of her comments on The Guardian, a friend who talked to her during that time said she appeared to be mentally unbalanced. She had stopped paying bills and was evicted from her wonderful new apartment. She lived in her car for a time, and then entered the homeless shelter. Although Donna told me she had no family, that wasn’t true. After her death, family members were found who claimed her body, taking her back to Ohio for burial next to her mother. Their expressions of gratitude are included on Donnie Simpson’s tribute page.
Some years before her departure from WordPress, prior to her return to the DC area and the convergence of those mysterious circumstances leading to her death, Donna noted the passing of Irish music legend Tommy Makem in New Hampshire. “This one’s personal,” she wrote in 2007. “I knew Tommy from New York, where he had an Irish restaurant and where I was active in the Irish-American community. He was a gracious gentleman in the true, old-fashioned sense of the word. He was a loving family man, a lifelong teetotaler and a humble man who hadn’t forgotten his modest roots. And he was funny as hell; the man could tell a joke with the best.”
After expressing her sympathies to Makem’s family, she added his powerful and highly-political Four Green Fields to her post. “I don’t know who uploaded this originally,” she said, “but I will echo the sentiment — Rest in peace, my friend.”
And so say I, dear Donna. So say I.
“What did I have?” said the fine old woman
“What did I have?” this proud old woman did say.
“I had four green fields, each one was a jewel
But strangers came and tried to take them from me.
I had fine strong sons, they fought to save my jewels.
They fought and died, and that was my grief,” said she.
‘Long time ago’ said the fine old woman
‘Long time ago’ this proud old woman did say
‘There was war and death, plundering and pillage.
My children starved by mountain valley and sea
And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens,
My four green fields ran red with their blood’ said she.
‘What have I now?’ said the fine old woman
‘What have I now?’ this proud old woman did say
‘I have four green fields, one of them’s in bondage
In stranger’s hands, that tried to take it from me.
But my sons have sons, as brave as were their fathers
My fourth green field will bloom once again’ said she.