Idonna Richins in 1941
My Great Aunt Idonna died this morning, known more affectionately to all of us as Auntie Donna. She was our last great matriarch from that generation, and though she was the childless sister of my grandma, she was in many ways closer to all of us than my Grandma was. She’d been ill for a while, seemingly recovered twice, and then, today, just gently let herself go.
Every single person in America has a personal story about their “crazy family”, so I shan’t bore you with any of the stories (like the time Auntie Donna and Grandma got a Super 8 camera with a manual zoom lens, took it to Venice, Italy, and when we all watched the footage, many of the grandchildren got motion sickness and threw up). Donna was a little more complicated anyway, capable of subtle mean-spiritedness and jubilant love separated by mere seconds.
One of the best descriptions of her came from my brother Kent, writing in 1995:
Auntie Donna… is one step shy of Boddhisattva. She’s always direct about drawing her limits with people, but doesn’t harbor resentments at length. And when it comes to writing style, she is Joycean in the extreme, even as her subjects are mundane. Sentences roll on for 40 or 50 words or more, and subjects, objects, tenses and verbs bob in a sort of goats head stew. Reading a letter from her is like smoking a half-gram of strong hashish early in the morning.
The cool thing is, if Auntie Donna had read that, she would have burst out laughing. One thing that generation had, including my grandma, was irrepressible self-awareness. I always wondered if the Depression and growing up on a spit-dry farm in Colorado could blanch certain hang-ups straight out of your system.
with her at the family reunion, Altamont, UT, August 2005
She and I had our run-ins, most notably the summer of 1986, when I lived in her garage bedroom for three months. She found my work ethic intolerably soporific, but she really got angry when she discovered I’d eaten some of the Wheat Thins out of her Mormon apocalypse food stash. I kept vampiric hours and borrowed her car endlessly. Years later I finally realized what an entitled brat I’d been, and apologized profusely.
She smiled, would have none of it, barely remembered it, and as she aged into her mid-to-late eighties, much of her trademark fret and naysaying melded effortlessly into being the sort of grandparent that my actual Grandma – having so much fish to fry of her own – couldn’t. She let me use her house for my first short film, which is how Sean and Jordana got together; I like to think Barnaby is a product of their initial courting, surrounded by precepts of the Gospel and foreign teddy bears.
Lucy and Donna, July 2006
Auntie Donna was the first truly old person Lucy ever met, and while the Lulubeans will have only the faintest recollection of her in her later years, I like to think she inherited a small portion of her opinionated feistiness from her great-great Aunt. My extended family may hold fast in a LDS belief system that is fiercely patriarchal, but between my mom, her sisters, my grandma and Auntie Donna, there is no better set of women who could show a young girl how to forge through a hundred years whether a man was helping you or not.
the last time we saw her, Glendora, CA, April 2008
Bye, Auntie Donna. We really loved you.