I recently lost my best friend of over sixty years. She apparently died in her sleep leaving all of us who loved her dearly in complete shock and grief. I include Dona in my family history because she was as much a part of my family and in some cases more like family to me all my life. Dona Elise Sanders Richmond became my friend when she was born a year after I was. Our mothers were best friends, having attended Perkinston Jr. College together in the year of 1955-56. The photo below shows my mother, Janie Morris seated on the left and Dona’s mother, Shirley Reeves, seated on the right. This is the only photo I have of the two friends together, although, I believe there were quite a few others in my mother’s photo collection.
The earliest memories I have of Dona and me together were probably preserved by the many times our mothers discussed our early history with us as we grew up. We were told about the times we were just little toddlers when we would accompany our mommas to the beach and we played in the sand while they caught each other up on their lives after college. I seem to remember those trips to the beach – the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast – with our mothers. But, do I really, or are they from my imagination? Time has taken its toll on my memory after so many years, but, suffice it to say when Dona joked with me about being friends since she was “in utero” I readily agreed, and we would smile really big.
Dona grew up in the Orange Grove area of Gulfport – what I called “the country”. We didn’t get to see each other as much as we wanted because it required our mothers to navigate Highway 49 to get to our respective homes. There were some miles between us and we didn’t attend the same schools. So, if we got to spend the night with each other it was a big deal. We mainly saw each other when our mothers got together for various functions and life events.
Our mothers raised us in the Southern tradition of calling our elders by somewhat formal names. Dona’s mother was “Miss Shirley” or “Miss Sanders” to me as deemed appropriate by my mother and Dona called my mother “Miss Janie”. Her home was kept neat and clean, unlike my mother’s home (complete disarray). A trip to Dona’s home was like a breath of fresh country air to me. A trip to my house provided Dona with a bit of the city life, although Gulfport was not a big city, it still lent a sophistication Dona seemed to crave. I went to church with Dona every time I spent the night at her house. It was the law. It was always fun for me to hang out with Dona, thought, because she and I knew each other better than anyone else in our lives. We held secrets, dreams and heartaches deep in our souls that were shared forever.
When our dog, Hustler, a pedigreed boxer sired an “unofficial” batch of puppies with the neighbor’s mixed breed dog, Dona’s family adopted one of the puppies. Her daddy named him Cassius. Dona and I recently had a conversation about Cassius and how sweet he was. Loyal and fun to play with, just like his dad, Hustler. We loved that we had dogs that came from the same family. We loved out dogs. Cassius was the first dog I remember Dona’s family having.
The day I learned Donald Sanders, Dona’s daddy, died momma picked me up from West Ward Elementary school and we cried so hard I thought our eyeballs would fall out. He built our playhouse in Mamaw’s yard, as well as the house Dona grew up in. I knew him as a loving father to his kids, devoted husband to “Miss Shirley” and dedicated friend of our family. I remember being so shocked that Dona’s daddy had died, just as mine had a few years earlier. It just could not be. I don’t really think Dona was the same after that. She was so sad most of the time during our childhood. But, we laughed a lot, too, in spite of the sorrow. I enjoyed going to Dona’s to spend the night and play Barbies. Dona had her own room with a canape bed – white French Provincial and she had a great collection of Barbies that did not have their leg chewed off by her dog, like mine so often did.
Perkinston Homecomings through the years meant Dona and I accompanied our mothers to the gatherings and football games. We met all her mother’s friends and my mother’s friends, the administration of the college and the families associated with the college. It was homecoming for me and Dona, too. I don’t remember any of our siblings attending the festivities – just me and Dona and Janie and Shirley (Reeves). We loved the bulldog mascot out on the field at the football games and would laugh so hard at him. He just sat there, not moving, like he just was concentrating so hard on the games. We vowed to have bulldogs in our future lives.
There were photos take of us when we were growing up that I remember seeing in our mothers’ photo collections. I have none of those photos now, and Dona did not have any of them in our possession, either when we discussed this earlier this year. She told me she was going to go threw her mother’s stuff and see if she could find any. My mother’s stuff went through numerous hurricanes, so, I don’t know what she ended up with when she passed, but, they are as good as gone to me now. I do have this one photo of me, seated on the right side of the photo looking on as Dona blew out the candles on her 18th birthday cake.
Our friendship was anchored on the Gulfport shores to be sure, but, our friendship stretched thousands of miles as I left Mississippi in 1976, when I was 19 years old, to live in Wisconsin.
In 1977, I was preparing for my wedding to begin in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, when the florist entered the area of the church where the bride and bridesmaids had gathered to help each other get dressed. She was carrying one long-stemmed red rose. She told me her instructions were to present the rose to me just before I went down the aisle. I opened the card that was attached to the rose. It read, “I gave you the first rose when you were born, now, I am giving you a rose when you get married.” It was one of the more amazing moments of my life. Miss Shirley had sent a message from thousands of miles away that she loved me all my life and always would. She was there with me even though she was unable to be.
I was down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1982 visiting my mother when I got a chance to talk to Dona. She told me she wanted me to come to her baby shower. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time. I was so honored to be at her baby shower and we pledged to betroth our two unborn children to each other and laughed! We kind of meant it, though. The photo below is from Dona’s shower.
When my grandmother, Rosie Smith Morris, died Dona was there when I came home to Hungry Hill for the funeral. I made sure I took photos of Dona and her sisters were in the ones I took of my family because they were my family in my heart, too. While momma and Miss Shirley were in the house, we young adults gathered outside to socialize a bit. The Sanders family were as much a part of our family as anyone born to our family. They were there to help us through the tough times of life as well as the good. Dona is seated in front of the hutch in my mother’s dining room at Hungry Hill in the following photo.
Memories have flooded into my mind and heart the past few weeks. Dona was my chosen sister and I’ll miss her like crazy for the rest of my life. She was one of the better angels of our world. Someone who supported and loved me all my life. I feel lost without her. My soul mate.
I’ll probably have to add stuff and update this post many times as I think of things to share. I know I’ve probably been repetitious in some respects, but, my mind feels foggy from the mental and heartfelt pain. I can’t imagine what her husband, kids, grandkids and friends are going through at this time. I am selfish and quite alone in my emotions right now. I just feel this huge void and little else. If I wanted to share my feelings with, it would be Dona. And now, she’s gone. I’m all alone with this grief because I live far, far away from the Gulf Coast and her loved ones.
This blog post has been sort of rambling and I know it is long, but I find the writing difficult because I find it hard to focus. How do you write about such an icon in your life and narrow it down to one blog post? So, I wrote about Dona here on my blog. She loved the written word ever bit as much as I did. Our favorite book was To Kill A Mockingbird and our favorite movie was “Gone With the Wind” — she called me “Mellie” for the character Melanie, and she called herself “Scarlet”. We shared so much about literary works and wrote our feelings out in journals all our lives. Writing is therapy for some folks and that is just another way of coping Dona and I shared.
Peace be with us all…
I’ll end this by providing a link to Dona’s Blog so you can read for yourself what a special gift she was to our world:
And just a few old photos I have to share…
“If there ever comes a day
when we can’t be together,
keep me in your heart,
I’ll stay there forever.”
(from Winnie the Pooh)
And that’s what Dona and I did…
Submitted by Tenderly Rose-Robin Melissa Bosworth-Estrada Reininger