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Conversations with Ronda

July 14, 2014

These visits are never planned far in advance. How often do they happen? Once, maybe twice a year? I don’t know. I am not even sure how long I have been doing this, how many years.

All I know is, that from time to time, I am drawn to this place to talk with her.

I have been here on some early mornings, but I usually arrive in the evening to take my place in the small white chair that always awaits.

Sometimes I speak loudly and emotionally, and I become aware that time is passing and the western sky is turning pink and I wonder if the gates are about to be closed. Other days, words won’t come at all. They are somewhere locked deep within as feelings, and they refuse translation. It is as if they are caught between my heart and my mouth. So sometimes, on those days, I don’t sit in the chair. I leave the car running and I get out and touch the stone and I briefly look at the smile on an eternally youthful face and drive away, taking a long final look over my shoulder.

Most of the time I stay, quietly sitting and reading the words over and over again, I guess still trying to make some sense of them after all these years: “An Angel Came to the Green Earth, And Took a Flower Away. Ronda Leann Richter. Oct. 17, 1962-July 25, 1980.”

As I said, I don’t know when I first found this spot – it was a few years ago. After spending time at my Dad’s grave, I would look around for Ronda’s and wonder if it was even in this cemetery. I did that for many years. Then once I was driving through the narrow gravel roads between the plots with my window rolled down. I met her familiar and expressive brown eyes and broad smile in the picture that adorns her gravestone. I yelled, “There she is!” And I got out and went to the place and pointed, and there were no words.

The smile has always been the thing – the same smile I remember from the playground in third grade and in the Polaroid as she looks up from the pool at the junior high band party at Chaparral Baptist Assembly. I saw it again last night in the face of a small child – the second-grader in the black-and-white photo in the worn Bradford Elementary annual my mother saved.

I am not sure when I started phoning her house, maybe it was in second grade, as well. She lived in the country, like I did, and when I called she would try to explain the shortcomings of something called a party line. You see, I never wanted to hang up. But she said she could not talk long because her family had a party line, which meant a whole ‘nother family had the same phone number and probably needed to use the line right at that time. And at precisely that moment in her explanation, a menacing and uninvited voice interjected, “THAT’S RIGHT!”

“See!” Ronda said. “You got me in trouble!”

I did not dare call after that. At least for a few days.

Ronda was never in trouble much. She was the kind of person you went to with your troubles. The smile was a window to authenticity and openness, and it gave testimony to a spirit within that soared. Whenever I see old photos, her smile reminds me of what I thought was her most amazing characteristic as we tranformed from being young kids to teen-agers: She did not seem to know about social barriers or participate in putting them up. Smart, beautiful, talented and friendly, Ronda easily became known as one of those people we called “popular,” yet I never really counted her as being a part of the elusive “in” crowd because no one was ever “out” with her. I have heard so many classmates say that about Ronda – that she could be friends with anyone and seemed completely uninterested in the lines many of us drew between each other, particularly during the high school years, which were years I found could be awkward and difficult.

So when Ronda left our small town and moved to the big city of Wichita Falls, it was tough for a lot of us who were in band with her, and for a lot of other people, too. But at the same time, we all still saw her on occasion, and those small-town bonds don’t break easily. So it wasn’t the end of the world.

I still remember how surprised and happy I was to see her during the summer of 1980 at the Gibson’s Discount Center tent sale, of all things. I worked at Gibson’s, full-time during the summers, and the tent sale was our big deal – the week we hauled out a big carnival tent, put it up on the blacktop and all worked a lot of additional hours. It was a lot of fun and a lot of sweat and hard work for very little money. I loved it. Extra help was always brought in, and Ronda came and sold chili dogs that week for a quarter apiece in the tent. I got to talk to her every day. I bought a lot of chili dogs that summer. We were both going to be high school seniors. She was a twirler in band, and at her still new school she had been chosen as a cheerleader. I don’t think we talked about any of that. I wish I could remember what we did talk about the last time we were together.

A few weeks later, Larry, our store’s assistant manager who was not gifted in the art of sharing bad news, told me as I mopped up one evening that she had just died in a car accident. I said repeatedly that I did not believe it until he threw up his hands in frustration and walked away. I recall being at her funeral but remember nothing that was said by the minister or anyone else – I see only a picture in my mind of the scene as it appeared from my seat. Like a still photograph.

That must have been around the time the dreams started, and they continued for two decades. I always had one of the dreams after a period of not thinking about her at all. Suddenly she would be there and we would be talking, and at some point as we talked I would notice that she appeared broken, damaged and hurting, unable to be put back together, and I would suddenly awake, deeply troubled, and could not go back to sleep.

The dreams eventually stopped – completely. I don’t remember when, but it was a long time ago now.

Now I sit with her in the Highland Cemetery. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but most of these visits have been as disconcerting as my dreams. I no longer encounter her as broken. I’m 51 years old now. And so I sit here and I think about her being just a kid when we lost her, 17 – and all that she has missed. What would her life have been like? What would she have done? What would she have become? How many more people would have cherished that smile, or been changed by it? I think of the family I love, and the family she had no chance to have and the injustice of it makes me sick in the pit of my stomach, and angry.

These questions ultimately become directed to God, who has not answered them. But sometimes I feel better after I have prayed there, in the cemetery. And it seems to do good for my soul just to come here and to be present, as a sign of remembrance.

In fact, lately, I have driven away from here with more peace than I have known before. I realize I just want her not to be forgotten. Her life was cut so short but it was precious and meaningful and touched others. As you can see, it still impacts me today, and I struggle with the reasons why.

Once, in high school, our band had finished a marching contest performance, and we were in the stands as other bands played. And here came Wichita Falls High with Ronda as featured twirler. And so we all yelled for her – and Wichita Falls High, because Ronda was now part of it. The show finished with Ronda extending her arms in the sort of overly dramatic pose that twirlers do – and we all went crazy, yelling her name. Being Ronda, the center of attention but never too big for her small town, she held her final position on the field while slightly turning her head our way. Flashing that smile, with the rest of her body still frozen in place, she waved with her extended left arm. She knew we remembered and could not help acknowledging it.

The image of brokenness that invaded my dreams is not the mental picture that has stayed with me. When I think of her now, I see her elegance capped by a warm wave to old friends, a response to those she left behind but who love her still.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Annette Goss permalink
    July 14, 2014 11:03 pm

    Even though I never met Rhonda, I know feel I KNOW her. Great story. What an impact she had on many lives.

  2. July 15, 2014 2:28 am

    Matt, that was a beautiful tribute to your friend. Thanks for sharing it. Sonny

  3. July 15, 2014 12:38 pm

    Thank you so much Sonny. Therapy for me.

  4. P Clore permalink
    July 15, 2014 7:54 pm

    I hope everyone has a Ronda to remember. Thank you for sharing.

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