It doesn’t help anything that my stupid name is a magnet for meanness. Donna Lee Donnelly. What were they thinking? Did they even say it out loud before they put it down on my birth certificate? Donna. Lee. Donnelly. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
On top of this name, I’m funny-looking. These home perms, you know, these Toni’s, they make my hair all stand up on end like frizzy pieces of wire. Add to that, I’m as skinny as my pogo stick. The biggest thing on me is my knee caps. I’m a set of legs with big knees and buck teeth.
See, that’s the kind of girl I am. The kind that makes you feel mean just by looking at her, the kind of girl you just want to slap to see her cry. I don’t see that changing any time soon. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed lately.
Lolly, she’s my sister, she says the changes, they took a long time, but I remember it different. To me, it seemed like it all happened in the same week. For sure, I know it started on a Monday and then went from there.
When the Sunday school bus drove up Monday morning to North Reservoir Street, it was bringing us neighborhood kids, even us Catholics, home from Summer Bible School. We’d gone that day because our mommas were sick and tired of us by then, that last week of summer. When the bus stopped, I saw my Momma through the big front window, standing there, right out in the street. She had her lilac embroidered hanky up to her face and her eyes were nearly swollen shut.
“Hurry on up, Lolly. Push that kid on out of the way.” I said to my big sister just ahead of me in line to get off the bus.
“Hold back, Donna Lee, I need…”
That fat brat, Kevin Connor, pushed me forward just as Lolly pushed me back. I was already squeezed out of breath when Kevin tripped and knocked me down the steep bus steps. Falling on one knee, then the other, sliding not bouncing on the asphalt, the sting from the broken skin on my right knee jumped into my mouth so I yelled,
“Jesus H. Christ, Kevin. Watch where you are going.”
“Un,un, Donna. I’m telling.”
Before I can take it back, I hear Lolly ask, “Momma. What is it? Why are you crying?” I never see my Momma cry. Ever.
“Oh, girls. Gramma is gone. She’s gone.
At first I can’t figure what she is talking about. Gone where? To the store? To L.A. to visit Uncle Bob in the big jail there? Gone fishing?
Daddy comes across the street and somehow manages to hold us all at once, me, Lolly and Momma. Half-kneeling, genuflecting like in church, he says,
“Gramma Bess is dead, girls. Passed while you were at Bible School this morning.”
Momma said to Daddy, kind of dreamy, “How can it be such a warm day? How can the weather be nice? That is just not right.”
Back at the house, lots of folks were there, crying and stuff. Nobody even put a band aid on my skinned knee.
Then after that Monday, the changes started big time. I guess because we couldn’t live at Gramma’s house anymore, that’s when we, that’s Momma, Daddy, Lolly, the new baby, JR and me, we all hopped in the pick-up, the back of it stuffed with everything we owned, and drove on down Hwy. 99 south to the desert.
“Don’t look back, girls,” Daddy said, over the wind whistling through the open pick-up windows. ”Nothing but trouble back there.”
So we changed towns. Changed houses. Changed churches. Changed schools. Even changed the kind of clothes we wear. It’s too darn hot down here for much more than a pair of shorts and flip-flops. Coats and sweaters got left behind in the old clothes closets. And that’s not all we left behind. Momma says Daddy left his good sense back there in Pomona.
And now it’s Spring. JR is twice as old as he was then and into everything. Lolly is 12 going on 21 and ignores us all. Momma and Daddy can’t seem to let each other be. I’m busy praying for things to change back to how it was before. Praying Momma and Daddy will be nice to each other. Praying Lolly will straighten up and fly right. Praying Gramma will look out for us from up above. Praying JR was never born.
Whoops. I have to take that last prayer back. That’s just not nice to pray for, Sister Boniface says. She’s my teacher here. At my new school. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary. Grade 5. Sister says I must keep praying, keep away from sinning and do my works of mercy, then God in his Goodness will take care of it all. We learn all about that stuff here in Catholic school.
We also learn that when us Catholics do something wrong, when we sin, we gotta go to Confession. We must be heartily sorry. We must vow to never do it again. Then, Father, that’s Father Rattigan, our Irish priest, he says we will live in the State of Grace. I want to live in that state. I most certainly do. And I’m working at it hard.
One of the other things us Catholics do is collect indulgences. We get them, these indulgences, like Girl Scout merit badges, for going to Mass and Holy Communion every day during Lent. Doing corporal works of mercy. Humbling ourselves in the eyes of the Lord. Stuff like that. We can turn them in, like Blue Chip stamps, for all kinds of favors from God. Mainly right now I’m collecting them to get Gramma out of Purgatory. Things haven’t been the same since she died and I’m hoping that if I can get her up to Heaven, she’ll look out for us a little better.