ellaella, remembered

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.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond,  click below. And please ~ no reblogging. Thanks!

82 thoughts on “ellaella, remembered

    1. Omar,

      She was a good woman, and a good friend. As I just mentioned to someone elsewhere, sometimes we have to be content with knowing what happened, even if we don’t know why.

      Thanks for your blessing in this sad time.


    1. Jim,

      Once again, thanks for your efforts on Donna’s behalf. As someone used to say to me, “Do what you can, and not what you can’t”. You did a lot, and I thank you for that.


    1. Hippie,

      You know, I thought about the apple-for-the-teacher angle, too. I left it out because I wanted to focus on how I think ella saw the apples. I figured her role as teacher would be so obvious someone would pick up on it – and you didn’t disappoint!

      It was a hard one to write, but in the end it was the one thing I could do for her.


        1. I just read your post, and listened to Benatar a little differently. “Now there’s no looking forward, Now there’s no turning back.”

          Isn’t that just the truth? It’s been quite a week, for sure. So much loss, but so much beauty remains to be remembered.

  1. What! Ella Ella was Donna Penyak? I am a wee bit surprised!

    I did not know ellaella but I did visit her blog a few times about a year ago. Your article and the ‘eulogy’ that Donnie wrote make me wish that I had followed her blog and listened to Donna and Donnie when I had the opportunity years ago.

    You wrote a beautiful tribute for your friend, and something tells me that she would have said that you wrote as an expert writer and NOT as a beginner.


    1. Maria,

      I’ve been trying to remember – I think I sent you a link to her baked oatmeal when you were going to have house guests. So many of her recipes were so good – I kept some, but most are lost now. I kept thinking, “I need to copy those”. And never did.

      This weekend I’m going to be smarter and copy the comments she left on my blog. Many of them are filled with good writing advice, not to mention entertaining observations about life.

      One of her greatest gifts was being able to express her strong opinions without apology, and without making you feel she was willing to beat you over the head with them if you didn’t agree. Perhaps that clarity and strength contributed to her almost complete disappearance. Thinking about it today, it seems it would take an unusual degree of discipline to keep from reaching out. Or perhaps it was only pride.

      In any event, I had to record a tribute for her before I could move on. It’s not right to let such a good person simply fade away without acknowledgement.


  2. Linda, this is a gorgeous tribute to our mutual friend. You have provided much closure to those that were bemused by her sudden departure from her blog, and puzzled by her subsequent actions.

    Really? she said that to you about your writing? I’m a little bit retrospectively intimidated now. I’m glad I was not a “real” aspiring writer at the time; I may have hidden under my bed when she came to call. She was encouraging of my several methods of self-expression, though, and I’m grateful for that. Your writing, is, of course, beyond splendid.

    I’m glad you wrote about her photographic interests. She was the best food photographer I know; I often complained I’d need a new monitor soon if I kept reading her recipes, as I was so tempted to stick a fork in it! Her wider interests in this were unknown to me.

    I’m listening to the song, and weeping and smiling along. And I love how you have interpreted ella’s apples!

    1. MusE,

      Thanks for the kind words. I was surprised by the depth of my response to her death. In some ways it was harder than my mother’s death last summer – no doubt because of the shock that comes with the unexpected. Mom and I had lots of time to talk and adjust over the months. This is something different.

      And isn’t it curious that something that happened a year ago is as fresh as if it were today? I think it was Moonbeam who mentioned how much this was like the days of WWII, when communication was slow and creaky, and families so often received word of a son or daughter’s death at the front months after it happened. Time may help in healing, but not until after the wound has been inflicted.

      It’s funny – I still have the email I sent to another friend after Donna offered her first opinion of my writing. I was a little taken aback – but I managed to respond like an adult. If I hadn’t, I suspect future opinions and advice never would have come. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, as the saying goes.

      There’s another song I love, that I’ve been listening to a lot in these past days. You might like it too. I can’t help but think it’s a good take on the old saying – weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.


    1. jmgoyder,

      Perhaps there were people who didn’t like Donna – I’m sure there were some who didn’t agree with all of her opinions – but I didn’t know anyone who didn’t respect her. She was a fine, funny woman. You would have enjoyed her blog.

      Thank you so much for stopping by, and for the kind words.


  3. Yes Linda, you did refer me to her blog for the oatmeal recipe.

    Once again, you wrote a beautiful tribute to such an interesting lady.


    1. Maria,

      Well, there we have it – at least one bit of evidence that my memory still is functional. If you happen to still have that baked oatmeal recipe I’d love to get a copy. I kept quite a few she published, but I never carried through with my intention to go back and copy a few more. Procrastination’s a terrible thing.

      You would have enjoyed her, so much. I can tell you this – she had just a bit of the Red Ant about her. I knew that before I ever knew the history and meaning of the Red Ants!


  4. This is heart-breaking, not least how such a clearly vibrant life could be so terribly derailed. I do always wonder in such cases: was there no one who recognized what was happening who might have come to her aid? (I don’t mean the well-wishers in the blogosphere, of course–there, it seems, all hearts and hands made an effort to reconnect. It’s a reminder of the limits of this cyber world, I suppose.) You have given here the gift of a moving tribute, and that counts for quite a bit.

    1. Susan,

      Much has been detailed here, but not everything. There were people – former colleagues and friends – who made attempts first to contact, and then to help. Telephone calls weren’t returned, emails never were answered. Even when brief contact was made, it seems the will to connect had been severed.

      Clearly, she was ill, and I suspect more exhausted than anyone knew. Exhaustion can lead to not caring, to a sense that life simply is too much to bear. On the other hand, it can take a good bit of strength to refuse to reach out. Sometimes we call it pride, but I think it’s more complicated than that. What it is, exactly, I can’t say, and which it was in Donna’s life is impossible to say.

      I just was over at your site, looking at the photograph of the man asleep on the bench, thinking about how thin the line can be between security and utter hopelessness. We’re accustomed to going home at the end of a long day – but what if that is his home?

      We need to think about these things. If it could happen to Donna, it could happen to anyone. In a brief moment of fantasy, I’ve even wondered – is this part of what she wanted to tell us?


      1. Why nobody ponders why the ‘will to live’ was so brutally squashed? Where were the friends, family and well-wishers when the phantom was lurking, ready to pounce? Is it not because there never were any ‘real’ relations? The ‘will to not live’ is a disfigured, ghostly offspring of a neglected ‘life’. Nobody chooses isolation, nobody wants to be un-loved…and if ever life brings you to a fork in the road where such a choice becomes a necessity — death always wins, sooner or later.

        This is a fine tribute, Linda. Thank you so much for this. I wish you and your friend, peace.


        1. Red,

          I’m not convinced the will to live was “brutally squashed”, as you say. And I certainly am not going to say there never were any “real relationships”. Of course, I’m in not much of a position to judge, but I’ve learned much about Donna’s life by chatting with people who knew her in “real life”, and I’m not willing to apportion any blame in their direction.

          I’ll grant you, choosing isolation seems counter to all that makes us human – but I know from first-hand experience in my own family that such choices do occur. Sometimes, they’re not even particularly painful – simply another expression of life.

          In any event, I do thank you for your kind comments, and for your absolutely on-target reminder that we need to be mindful of those around us and their needs. It is true that those who are slipping away often are the least able to reach out.


  5. Oh, my. Such a loving, poignant tribute to your friend. How sad that she went alone and homeless, after having enjoyed so richly so much of her life. Thank you for sharing ellaella/Donna with us.

    1. ds,

      It is sad. It’s also helped to refocus my attention on a few things – not the least of which is the wonder of being able to luxuriate in a warm bed on a cool morning, or have a good cup of coffee upon rising. So many of those things we do thoughtlessly – and without a thought for those who even now are living without them.

      I do think it’s also important to remember the importance of freedom, and self-determination. A good number of people would have been willing to help. For whatever reason, she choose not to reach out. It’s almost comforting to think mental problems prevented her from doing so – but it may well be that she set herself on her final path by her own decisions. We’ll never know.

      In any event, thanks so much for your kind words. Now and then I may share a few of her recipes – cold-brewed coffee this summer, cookies at Christmas. It feels now like a nice way to remember.


  6. I’m so sorry you’ve lost a friend and mentor. I didn’t know her or of her, but found your story of her very compelling. To read that she died in a homeles shelter was shocking, but what’s heartening about her initial disapperance from blogs is that, despite the relative anonymity of this place, people cared enough to look for her, and found her.
    It’s a strange place sometimes, this new world, but there are some constants in how we are drawn to each other.

    1. Deborah,

      I couldn’t help but think of your post about the poor woman who wandered off and was found days later by the small boy. As you wondered aloud there, was it purely accidental, a natural consequence of conditions, or in a moment or lucidity, had she made her own decision? We’ll never know – and sometimes that not knowing is difficult.

      One of the best ideas I’ve come across is Moonbeam McQueen’s Blogger’s Emergency ID Card. Along with the usual information, it say, “I am a blogger. In case of illness or demise, please post a comment informing my internet friends.” Then, there’s a place for the blog’s URL.

      When I first saw it, I laughed and thought it was silly. Now, I still laugh, but I don’t think it’s silly at all.


    1. Richard,

      She did, indeed. I count myself lucky – no, blessed – no have been allowed the eighteen months of knowing her I was given. It’s proof, if any of us still need it, that formative relationships don’t have to be life-long or constant.


  7. A moving and heartbreaking tribute. Written with respect and love. Really touched by what you wrote and deeply saddened by her tragic death. May she rest in peace.

    Thank you for sharing, Linda.

    ~ Matt

    1. Matt,

      As you’ve made a point of affirming in your blog solitude and loneliness are not the same. In fact, being alone isn’t necessarily “lonely”. There’s no way to know what Donna was experiencing in the midst of what appears to be a self-imposed isolation, but I certainly hope she experienced moments of grace and solitude in the midst of what had to be a lonely experience.

      Thank you for your kind words – and for the posts last week that were so relevant.


  8. Thank you for posting this. I’ve missed Ella since her last email to me, after her move. She was planning to get back to me about some ingredients for a Japanese recipe which she could now (then) find. And then silence. I also wish I’d copied some of her recipes/posts.

    The “missing her” is different now that I know she is really gone.

    1. Tess,

      It is different, isn’t it? Sometimes people disappear from the blogs and I hardly give it a thought. It’s clear they became bored, or laziness took over, or they just got distracted. Ella was different, and depending on the day I experienced her absence as vexing, worrying, or inexplicable.

      Now, I’m just sad. But at least we can move on. Knowing does help.


  9. Linda,

    You wrote a beautiful tribute to your beautiful friend.

    I’ve spent the morning thinking about our “Ellaella” selves and our “Donna” selves. There are people we never meet who “get” who we are while we communicate in person to those who don’t.


    1. Claudia,

      You’re right. No question about it. And it certainly isn’t a matter of knowing all the details of someone’s life – the “facts”, if you will. To my way of thinking, Faulkner pretty much took care of that issue when he said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other”.

      I suppose in the end that’s why I love Faulkner so much. He’s always got a word that applies, no matter what the situation. V.K. Ratliff in “The Town” might have been talking about Donna when he says, “Between what did happen and what ought to happened, I don’t never have trouble picking ought.”


  10. Oh, Linda, I’m so sorry. You’ve experienced such loss lately — And though they are of different “types,” each is so real, so deeply personal.

    I didn’t have the privilege of discovering Ellaella or Donna’s work, but her story breaks my heart. And, it also reveals how our connections through this thing we call the blog are so real, so genuine, that to have that relationship disappear can affect us as deeply as losing a friend or a relative. I am grateful you had the chance to be enriched by this wonderful woman for as long as it could be, saddened that she couldn’t reach out to the community of friends who loved her during what was clearly a time of need. So many emotions here.

    One thing is for certain. Your tribute to her is eloquent and heartfelt. Simply beautiful.

    1. jeanie,

      There’s still a good bit of mystery surrounding all this. I’ve had difficulty reconciling reports of mental unbalance with the postings I read in “The Guardian”. Then, I remembered the days before my mother got her pacemaker. We’d assumed dementia was setting in. She prepared for visits from long-dead relatives, dressed up to go out in the evening when there were no plans, couldn’t remember how to put on a seat-belt, and so on.

      Eventually, it was determined she had reduced blood flow to the brain because of congestive heart failure. She wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Add one pacemaker to the mix and voila! No more confusion, no more strange behavior.

      So, we never know. I just feel certain her physical condition contributed to her bad decision making. I have no proof, of course. But it makes sense that the added isolation of a major move into a new neighborhood might have made her difficulties worse.

      In any event – I don’t have to tell you anything about the strains of chronic illness. Even a self-limited but severe case of flu can be a real problem for people who are alone with no one to send for medication or ask to fix a meal.

      If Donna’s situation tells us anything, it’s that we need to look out for one another. If someone doesn’t want looking after – well, that’s a choice. But having a choice is the first step.


  11. Your heartfelt tribute reminds me of two other people. One was the Suzanne that you wrote about in your blog four years ago: Reflections on a Homeless Muse. This was the Suzanne who inspired Leonard Cohen’s famous song, and who, as you reported, apparently drifted off into homelessness and seemed not to want to be helped.

    The other person was a friend of mine, Dian Suffin, whom I first met in New York in the summer of 1965 when we both signed up for an intensive summer program to study Portuguese at Queens College. She already knew Spanish (I was one of only two in the class who didn’t), and it was through her that I first learned the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Pablo Neruda.

    The next year we were both part of a group that spent the summer studying in Lisbon. We kept up occasional contact through the next decade, and the last time I saw her was sometime in the late 1970s, on one of my occasional visits back to New York after I’d moved to Texas; I remember she was intrigued by a book of Rumi’s poetry that Robert Bly translated, so I bought her a copy. After that I think I talked to her once on the phone, and she said woefully that she’d somehow lost her rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan.

    Then I lost touch, although I always wondered what became of her.

    Last year I did an Internet search and I found a Social Security record: born 23 May 1943; died April 1981. She wasn’t quite 38 years old. I have no further information about the cause of her death at so early an age. So sad.

    1. Steve,

      I can imagine that losing a Manhattan rent-controlled apartment could lead directly to woefulness. My aunt had one on West 16th. She held on to it tenaciously after my uncle’s death. There were mutterings in the family that she ought to come back to Iowa. Her response sounded remarkably like, “Getouttahere!”

      Your story about Dian is a good reminder that disappearance isn’t limited to the cyber world. Ties fray, of course, and people head off in different directions, but now and then someone will stop and ask, “What ever happened to…?” and no one knows.

      I suppose that’s part of the appeal of Facebook – the ability to go searching for people we’ve lost track of or left behind. I did have to smile at the irony of it all – it was a Facebook posting, emailed to me, that brought word of Donna’s death. I’m still not signing up for Facebook, but I’m willing to acknowledge its value in this instance.

      It still amazes me how many emails I received from people trying to find Suzanne. The latest one arrived about six months ago. I have them neatly tucked into a file, just in case. It’s quite remarkable, really – the thought of who-knows-how-many-people sitting at their computers, searching for the disappeared of the world.

      Part of the purpose is searching is finding, of course, but I suspect the larger purpose is related to what I’m doing here, with this post – attempting to impose a narrative, to make sense of disparate facts. Joan Didion says “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” – and so we do. Whether it’s Suzanne of Dian or Donna, at some point we say, “This is what happened – let me tell you about it.” And then we move on.


  12. J.J and Eric are bringing me back to be able to type and see just now. Gonna get my Grand-daughter up in an hour or so to listen to that Irish Ballad.
    In some ways I see you as my ellaella.
    Don’t take that too seriously, eh.
    Write on

    1. Ken,

      To paraphrase that creaky old politician from some time back, I knew ellaella, and I’m no ellaella! Not by a long shot…

      Aren’t Cale and Clapton great? And so’s that song. Sometimes you just have to sing your way out of things. I hope your grand-daughter likes Tommy Makem. He’s one of the best.

      I’d better get writing. I’ve still got those rabbits to deal with. ;)


  13. Linda,

    I’ve wondered, more than once, what happened. I’m thankful to read your words and to have printed one of Ella’s recipes — appropriately, a Thanksgiving recipe for Pumpkin latte — just as she wrote it…on November 6, 2009, without the story preceding it.

    “”Pumpkin latte

    Adapted from Libby’s

    1 cup/8oz strong coffee
    1/4 cup/4TB pure canned pumpkin, not pie filling
    5 oz (small can) evaporated milk, fat-free or regular
    1 – 2 tsp sugar
    1/8 tsp pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon (see note)

    Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan or a 2-quart microwave-safe measuring cup. Microwave or heat until quite hot; if using the stovetop, heat over medium-low heat and stir from time to time.

    Pour and serve. If you want foam, first whizz the latte in a blender (holding down the lid with a kitchen towel to protect yourself) or use a hand blender, as I opted to.

    Makes 2 8-ounce servings.

    Ella’s Note: I used pumpkin pie spice in the latte and sprinkled cinnamon on top. Greedy, I guess…”

    1. Janell,

      I’m completely delighted – I used to make that latte for mom. There was a pumpkin dip for apples that was good, too, but I think I probably can duplicate that one from memory, as it was very simple. If you want them, I have the recipes for her slow cooker ribs (wonderful sauce!) and a one skillet Italian dinner that was one of those “taste tempters” that Mom loved. She’d always say, “Why don’t you make one of those Ella recipes?”

      I’ve also got her recipe for cold-brewed iced coffee. In fact, I have a Mason jar full brewing in the fridge right now. We’ve been breaking high temperatures on a regular basis, and it will be good to have.

      I want you to know I was so inspired by your latest post I got myself out to the local independent nursery today and came home with two big bags of their *Special*Soil*. It’s a landscape mix that’s great for repotting. I figured if you can do a house and lot, I surely ought to be able to do a balcony. ;)


  14. Actually, I think it was Muse who wrote that post about WWII. And I wish I’d written down some of ella’s recipes too (her pot roast was to die for). That’s another weird, lingering question I have– where did those recipes go?

    I think that Donna considered her parents to be her only “true” family, and they died before she did. I find it odd that there is no formal obituary for her. You know, the kind that says, “She was preceded in death by her parents…” or gives a little bio (besides just the radio career). At the same time, it’s a relief to know that there were relatives who cared enough to claim her and bring her home.

    I love your post, and these incredible comments. It’s a gentle little haven during this sad time.

    1. Moonbeam,

      Eventually,, I’ll figure out where she is. I have her mother and father’s names and her mother’s birth and death dates, so it won’t be difficult. It’s just a matter of finding which cemetery. I’m going to wait and call the cemeteries directly – easier and cheaper than using some of these online services.

      I did find one bit of amazing serendipity – there was a note in the social pages of the Massillon newspaper that Donna and her mother Sophie traveled to the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the same year that my high school band went there to play. That sort of detail just delights me.

      I like your description of this place as a “gentle little haven”. It certainly was that for me when my mother died last summer. I must say, I never expected to be writing such a post again – at least not so soon.


    1. sage,

      I’m glad you found me, and that I could find some “treasures” for you.

      Now, it’s time to move on, but you’re always welcome here! As my grandma used to say, “New friends are good friends”!


  15. Your moving tribute to Ellaella/Donna attests to the fact that, yes, we can create meaningful interactions online. Our virtual persona can be as affective and influential (maybe even more due to anonymity) as our real life. Just wonder what Sherry Turkle has to say to that.

    1. Arti,

      You know, I’m not as inclined as I was some years ago to maintain a distinction between “virtual” and “real”. The way they’ve been opposed, “virtual” has become nearly equivalent to “fake”, “false” or “imaginary”. I don’t like that, and find myself speaking more and more often of “online” and “offline”. It isn’t that my behavior changes from one realm to another, it’s just that what I choose to share differs.

      For example, one of my customers nearly fell off the dock recently when he discovered I have a master’s degree. Fact is, there’s no need for me to share details of my travel or education in my work, so I usually don’t. On the other hand, there’s no need for people here to know every detail of my life in order to enjoy what I have to say, so I exercise a little discretion in this realm, too.

      The same goes for anonymity. In my offline life, I don’t hand out business cards to everyone, or participate in telephone polls, or advertise items for sale on Craig’s List. Here, nearly everyone knows my name, and many have my email address, postal address or phone number.

      When it comes to Donna, one of the things that’s clear is that her insistence on anonymity in both realms, online and offline, did her no favors. But, that’s another of those choices we make. It’s also clear that despite everything, she was a friend to many and deeply loved by some. I don’t have a clue what Ms. Turkle would say about that, but it surely would be fun to talk to her about it!


    1. montucky,

      It is quite a story, and a good reminder that, no matter how much we think we know about someone, our vision can be quite different from the reality. That’s true even in families and workplaces. I’m going to try to pay more attention.


  16. This most sobering post, Linda, has reminded me that I need to tell both Astrid and daughter Amy (and perhaps sister Ruth) how to access my blogs to let people know if/when something unexpected happens. We’ve talked about it but have never done it. You could say we are at that time in our lives…. (sigh)

    1. Ginnie,

      It is important, and I think anyone who does more than throw up an occasional post because they get mad at a politician or decide their latest poem really is good (doggone it!) needs to make plans.

      Even if there’s only one reader who would want to know, that one reader deserves the courtesy. Same goes for blogging breaks. It doesn’t take much effort to say, “I’ve gotten bored with this, and am taking a couple of months off to see if I can get reinspired.”

      Sometimes, that just isn’t possible. It was so out of character for ella to “just disappear”, I can’t help but think her decision-making already had been affected. There’s no way to know, in her case. But at least for the time being, we’re still in charge of our decisions!


  17. Linda, having never known this woman, I can still appreciate her life from your post. I know you say we can’t know why, but I can’t help but wonder how someone who seemingly knew, touched, and reached so many people would die alone in a homeless shelter?

    I can’t help but also feel there is a lesson here, for at least some of us. For me, it would be making time to stay in touch with those friends who are distant, even if it’s only a monthly email. Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying–this is not an offhanded remark to you, for you did what you could; but there are some people in my life whose friendships have grown cold for no apparent reason at all; and while I do believe relationships are sometimes for just a season of our lives, there are some people who just need someone to occasionally reach out and say “I’m here and I was thinking about you today.”

    Clearly, with the mental imbalance, ellaella could no longer maintain, and that is a shame, but you have honored her for who and what she was for the greater portion of her life. Thank you for that,

    1. Wendy,

      I’ve been told ella was an only child, and from what I’ve found online that seems to be true. Her mother died in 1996, and I can’t help but wonder how that played into all this. People who are surrounded by family – parents, children, brothers and sisters – can’t understand what it’s like to become an orphan as an only child. The sense of having no family, of being alone, might become overwhelming.

      We do tell ourselves stories, every day, and as many times as ella told me she “had no family”, she might have come to believe it. Perhaps it was the sense of isolation that finally overcame her.
      She did have a “significant other”, as well. I’m not certain they were married, but I haven’t a clue what happened to him, or how the ending of that relationship played into all this. So complicated.

      In any event, your point is well taken. However our reaching out is received, we need to do it. We have control over our own actions, even if we’re completely unable to control the reaction of others.
      Phone calls, emails, cards sent through the post – they can make more difference than we imagine.

      I keep wishing we could have plunked ella down in the middle of one of your crawfish boils. She would have loved the food, for sure – and she would have loved the company, too!


  18. I never knew ellaella, never read her blog, never heard of the woman behind the pseudonym. All I have are your words of a person you knew ‘virtually’. You have written a lovely piece about her and I feel sad at her death.

    Only yesterday I was with a group of people who felt that most bloggers and social network participants must, deep down, be solitary beings. That we bloggers never really know each other, that we perhaps prefer it that way. That we spend time facing a lit screen rather than a lit-up face, that we tell each other as much as we feel we want to give away about ourselves and no more. That our on-screen persona is not the entire person and, sometimes, even an invented person. (They were kind, not disparaging people).

    I have to admit that, to some extent, they are right. The bloggers who are keen to meet up with other bloggers are not usually the more introspective, intimate bloggers, but rather the ones whose writings remain superficial.

    Your post today has confirmed this; I wish it were different and I wish blogging friends could become closer to each other; perhaps the very definition of the medium, which sends our words out to every living soul on this planet who has an internet connection, makes true connection impossible.

    1. friko,

      I couldn’t disagree more with your suggestion that true connection may be impossible for those who enjoy a life on the web. Ella’s story would seem to support that, but her story is only one story, and it certainly isn’t mine.

      Increasingly, over the four years I’ve been blogging, I’ve interacted with bloggers offline. I’ve exchanged Christmas cards and telephone calls with some, and traveled with a couple. I’ve gone out of my way on trips to meet online friends and their spouses. My 2012 calendar was a gift from another blogger, and I have a stack of sympathy cards I received when my mother died that I will cherish until my own death.

      I’ve not been as good at keeping in touch as I’d like – especially as the circle has expanded – but there are more bloggers than relatives in my cell phone directory. (Of course, I have a small family. Still…)

      And I’ve noticed something else. All of the bloggers I’m in touch with in the “real world” are just like any other of my friends. I think online relationships form just as they do offline – according to individual interests, preferences and natural attraction – that’s why the friends I’ve made online are very much like the ones I’ve made throughout the course of my life. Just as in “real life”, when we enjoy someone’s company, we seek it out.

      Actually, this whole episode has made me acutely aware how glad I am ella’s way doesn’t have to be the only way. I wanted to pay tribute to her because of the wonderful person she was, and because of what she did for me. But I can’t see myself living as she did.


  19. I have a blog friend who disappeared for a time. Those of us who considered her friend freaked out – someone connected with the police even had a wellness check done on her to make sure she was ok. Eventually she returned, apologetic, talking about depression & withdrawal from the world. She stayed around for a minute & then disappeared again. Now I worry about her, but hard as it is I just have to let her be.

    You’re right that knowing what happened helps a lot – the not knowing seems to take a lot of energy. Rest in peace Donna – you’re entitled to it.

    1. Bug,

      On another site I frequent, where the community is a little more self-contained and people interact more frequently, there have been a couple of folks who’ve “just disappeared”, and I know the police were consulted in one case. Illness and despression were involved in those situations, too, and just like in your situtation, both people came back only to disappear again.

      One didn’t actually disappear – I think he’s gone over to Facebook. But the other, after coming back, explaining, and being welcomed, went missing again. It’a been a little strange to watch his blog fill up with comments in his absence, but it’s proof of how confused, resentful and hopeful people can be, all at the same time.

      A blog that’s maintained in its owner’s absence is flat weird – it reminds me of some sort of internet cargo cult. And you’re right – the not knowing, the wondering and worry, can take a lot of energy. Better to know what happened and not like it than never to know.


    1. Red,

      She was lovely, smart and funny. She had a great recipe stash, too. If God’s smart, she’ll be the one in charge of the heavenly banquet.

      I’m glad to see you haven’t disappeared, yourself. I had you on a really entended spring break in the islands – now that I know where you are, I’ll be visiting again for a regular dose of smart and funny.


  20. The internet is such an amazing place. You were such close friends with this woman for some years yet all you knew about her is her apple gravatar and that she called herself ellaella, and always had a great recipe to share, and when she disappeared from the blogosphere you cared enough to go look for her.
    What a sad ending, but with this post you’ve lifted her out of the homeless shelter and brought her back to us as the vital energetic person you knew.

    1. Rosie,

      It is an amazing place, isn’t it? There’s much about it I don’t like – that’s why I’ve stopped reading comments on many of the news sites or certain forums. I don’t need nastiness and name-calling, let alone the trolls and sock-puppets.

      Still, there’s a kind of magic in what we do here. In a way, it’s much like your museum – people come through, we connect for a minute, and often catch a glimpse of a person that no one else has had. That’s special, and worth remembering.

      One of the things that makes her story worth telling is its cautionary nature. Despite our best intentions, we often talk about “the homeless” as a category, or assume they’ve lived lives utterly removed from our own. Donna’s story is a good reminder that everyone is vulnerable to those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.


  21. Linda,
    I have never heard of this wonderful lady but your words have now put her in my world. Your tribute to your friend is just perfect.

    As you know I’ve been on the “other site” for a long time now, like you and many others. In the beginning and even now some of my family and neighbors/local friends, give me a hard time about my “internet friends”. It is getting easier as they now realize these “internet friends” of mine are a big part of my life. I have met many and some several times. I have a cell phone full of my “internet friends” numbers.. not to mention all of your email address and home addresses for Christmas Cards!

    Like you, I enjoy visiting them when I get a chance; I’m going to Destin in May for a long weekend! One day I will make it to Texas to visit with all of you friends that live in that area!
    Like you, I value so many of my “internet” friends and anytime one of them disappears or has a sadness in the family, we do want to reach out and help.

    Thank you for letting us get to know ellaelle aka Donna.


    1. Patti,

      You know who’s disappeared? Otherbug! After her sojourn with Sandi in England, I can’t remember where she went. We need to track her down, too, just for the fun of it. (Note to others who read this: Otherbug is a life-sized paper doll. Long story!)

      From the beginning, you Florida folks had an advantage, with so many of you being so close to one another. GG and I have talked about a Texas get-together, but the answer might be Mobile. Meet-ups are fun, and there’s no question we’d have a good time.

      It is hard for folks outside this web-world to understand that it’s just as “real” as anything we encounter in our daily lives. I think all of us are much more relaxed about it now, too. Heaven knows we’ve had plenty of practice in learning to recognize trolls and such – now, they just irritating facts of life, like mosquitos!

      You would have enjoyed ella – I’m glad you feel like you got to “know” her a little. She took her causes seriously, like you do, and she loved her animals as much as you love Harley. She would have liked you, too.


  22. A remarkable story on many levels. I sometimes try to describe to non-bloggers the community that develops in the blogging community. But this goes far beyond my experience, except with people I actually know. It’s an amazing connection you made with Donna and you honored her with this wonderful tribute.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your friend.
    And as you said, no one should just disappear. I love the idea of the blogger’s emergency ID.
    And J.J. Cale…swoon. You reminded me in a previous post how much I missed him!!

    1. Martha,

      I just was talking with a friend a yesterday about all of this, and she said, “But it’s not so different from the pen-pals we made in school”. And it isn’t. I corresponded for years with a girl in India. My best friend wrote to a girl in Mexico. After a while, we knew each other very well, indeed – not unlike blogging.

      It’s just flat unnerving when someone disappears. I think I noted above – I don’t mind someone closing or suspending their blog, or even posting intermittently. We all understand obligations in the “real world”, and we certainly understand that boredom or exhaustion can set in. But I do find myself appreciating the folks who leave a note, saying something as simple as “I need to take a break – see you whenever”. That’s especially true in the case of someone who’s set up a predictable pattern of posting.

      Yep – for sheer happy-making, there’s no one like Cale. Put him with Clapton, and it’s even better.


    1. Bill,

      Thanks much. As an old friend used to enjoy saying, we need to do what we can, and not what we can’t. I couldn’t send flowers, so I sent her off with a little verbal bouquet. ;)


  23. I recall your comment on my blog, Linda. I don’t know what to say. This is a very sad story, and I know it must have been quite a blow when you learned about her end. She was so gifted and accomplished. Mental illness (if that was in play) is a horrible equalizer.

    As you wisely responded to your first commenter, “… sometimes we have to be content with knowing what happened, even if we don’t know why.” This must be true many times in life, but sad all the same.

    You’ve crafted a beautiful tribute to your friend. I think she would approve.

    1. Bella,

      There isn’t much to say. We spend so much of life thinking we’re in control, and thinking we know what’s happening around us. Now and then, we get reminded how little we know, and how little control we have.

      A lot of life is sheer mystery. That may be why one of my favorite singers is Iris DeMent, and my favorite of all her songs is this one.
      Not a bad sentiment!


  24. Before we had internet I had friends that I knew personally, in person, up close and real. And as the years go by and this thing we call the net comes into play and we meet people along the way that touch us in different ways, it is no less real and personal.

    I wish you hadn’t lost such a person in your life Linda, but then again, do we ever really lose them, when all along we carry them in our hearts and our minds memories? I was just thinking on the drive home the other day about my Dad and how I miss him so. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t been on this Earthly existence for 4 years now and yet I feel like I talk with him everyday in one way or another. Little things will bring him and his smile or his humor right into my life with me. Like truck grease and oil or aftershave….. I miss him every single day and really wish he hadn’t gone yet, but it’s not up to us to hold them back from their path either.

    As you write and edit your incredible words, and as you follow and prepare your friend’s recipes she will be right there with you.
    many heartfelt blessings my friend,
    peace n abundance,

    1. CheyAnne,

      All of life is gaining and losing. Yet, as you say, we never really lose those who are important to us because of all we’ve gained from our relationships with them. I have to smile at your mention of your dad, and how little things will bring him close. Just a day or so ago I was overcome with a nearly irresistable impulse to put together an Easter basket – until I realized the person for whom I always did that, my mom, isn’t here to enjoy it any longer. Still, there it was – the reminder, and all the feelings that come along with it.

      And there’s such wisdom in your words – that “it’s not up to us to hold them back from their path, either”. Sometimes, that’s true in life as well as in death. I’ve watched many people head down paths I wished were different, and sometimes I tried to change their route. Eventually, I learned better. Advice is fine, and feedback is great – but in the end, everyone chooses their own path.

      And you’re right about those recipes! Mom always called them “ella recipes”, and she loved them. They were healthy, and they tasted good. That’s a good legacy to preserve and pass on.


    1. Lynda,

      You know what I think about from time to time? How many people are hidden away in the world, affecting the lives of others without knowing the depth and breadth of their importance to others.

      Obviously, Ella was one of those people. I’m glad I sent her the emails I did after she disappeared. She never responded, but I’m sure she read them, along with emails sent by many others. I hope they made her happy.


  25. Reminds me of my email friend Stella famous for working for the famous and disappeared in a flash. Better than a whimper I guess.

    1. blufloyd,

      I’d say so. On the other hand “disappeared” isn’t so good generally, especially when it’s paired with “mysterious”, “unexplained”, “sudden” or “suspicious”.

      The only disappearance of “someone” I can admit to really enjoying is the Cheshire Cat’s. I do love watching that critter just fade away. ;)


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