She pirouetted between passions, leaping from one to the next in response to some internal rhythm within her. These were never shallow affairs; she immersed herself until it soaked into her being, a riverine evolution of the self across an entire life.
She was President of the Atlanta Orchid Society, a professional photographer, and a physical therapist. Within this asterism of endeavors sparkled the same inner fire: to nurture living beings – human, floral, feline alike.
When she cooked – one of her many ways of showing love – all else dissolved. Much like her meticulous planning of her travel adventures, her horticultural designs, her famous ornament garlands that glinted atop the crackling fire, a vision in her mind’s eye would bewitch her and consume her attention until reified.
Her gardens, first in the fatefully-named Garden Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, then later on St. Simons Island, were a dreamy kaleidoscope of blooms. She liked her flowers boisterous, unabashed. As a child, I remember playing in the garden as the summer sunlight seeped through the southern oaks and cast halos around her creations; two ethereal koi swirled in her pond with scintillating scales; and in those moments, it felt like Donna birthed miracles.
She loved many cats as if they were fluffy toddlers. She lost them, too, their paws etching their names on her heart – Nabila, Alice, Toy, Cleo, Lily. The white-gloved shorthair Daisy survives her. But when she meows, I can hear the mark Donna left on her heart.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Donna hiked around Lookout Valley on her own. But she dreamed of escaping those foothills, of escaping obscurity. She whisked herself away on a whim to New Orleans to see an Egyptology exhibit at sixteen years old. She toured Europe via a constellation of hostels as a young adult and later by elegant cruise with my dad, devouring as many museums as she could.
She would often fly up to New York City on Wednesdays to catch the matinees – Rent, Steel Pier, Hamilton, 1776, anything by Tom Stoppard – and come back a few days later having barely slept, but never exhausted. She would saunter through the snow in Doc Martens to absorb plays and musicals, enraptured by the artistry on stage. By the end of the play, the actors were performing for her, attentive to her reactions; this was not entertainment for her, but embodiment.
Donna put the bleeding heart in liberal. She felt deeply, submerged herself in empathy. She idolized characters like Eowyn and Brienne of Tarth, independent women warriors who summoned courage in the face of fear and injustice. She resented the societal expectations of performative femininity; she would rather be tarred and feathered than obsequious and stifled.
She hated authoritarians with a blistering fury, in all their guises. Like the monarch butterflies she nourished with milkweed in the beach soil, she was born to migrate, to flutter, to birth beauty into the world by her sheer existence.
In an increasingly technical society, she embodied spontaneous creativity – accepting aesthetics for their own sake, not forcing incurious efficiency into all things. At her best, she lived in the present, guzzling the Now. In many of my memories, she gallivants around in grubby gardening clothes singing Broadway tunes or Elton John and waves at me with a curvy open-mouthed smile. Sometimes it’s the green streak in her hair that shines in the beach sunlight of my memory, else glittery purple nail polish or kitschy jewelry; but she always glows with that blazing vivacity that defined her.
She was not religious but would often say, “God knows when you lie,” usually after receiving a compliment. She could never quite feel just how deeply we loved her – how much her kindness kindled our spirits.
Donna entered my life by calling my dad out of the blue one day and asking if he wanted to accompany her to the Shakespeare Festival in Birmingham, Alabama to watch Henry VIII, Part 2. They were silent on the drive back, the comfortable silence that soothes us into a sense of safety – that we are understood, that we share an ineffable peace together.
We hope Donna is at peace now, cruising the U.S.S. Enterprise 1701-D across the universe.