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Danuta (Donna) Strzalkowski

Alter ego/ Stage name:

~ Sorrow Astrasa ~

Born: February 8, (never told us)

Died: March 21, 2022

In 1990, my parents were young and living with a baby boy in a two bedroom apartment in the suburbs of New York City. Donna had moved back in with her parents - after a called-off engagement - and lived in a unit around the corner. Donna was born in Poland at the end of World War II, her parents having met in a concentration camp, and lived there until her family immigrated to New York. She told stories about being in elementary school, getting yelled at for not knowing a word of English, and once she did, having to translate for her parents. She went to college then took off around the country singing in a small group under her stage name Sorrow Astrasa.

I wasn't around yet when she became my older brother’s babysitter, but on July 27, 1992 Donna's mother passed away and on July 28, 1992 I was born. Donna always told me that God took away her mother and right away gave her me. That was quite a lot to live up to for a very small child, but she never expected anything - I was just a brand new body to transfer her love.

Donna was around a couple days a week. She was chronically late by 30-45 minutes and drove a steady 20 mph under the speed limit. As soon as my mom drove off she would turn to us and ask, “What’s the one rule?” And the four of us would obediently reply, “No going to the emergency room!” All other forms of chaos were allowed. One time, she tried to make us our favorite childhood drink, a “vanilla special” - which consisted of a glass of milk, a scoop of sugar, and a drop of vanilla extract - a minuscule drop due to the high alcohol content. Donna mistakenly added quite a bit more than a little drop and we all got terrible stomach aches. Until the day she died, she would recount that story and laugh and laugh and laugh.

Donna always encouraged and cultivated the tiniest flicker of artistic propensity in my brothers and I. She taught me how to smile while I sing because it opens your mouth wider and gives you a fuller sound. She had long black hair, but wore various wigs that she (and we) referred to as 'hair wardrobes'. She read newspaper obituaries out loud to us at the kitchen table, brought over movies far too mature for little kids - My Fair Lady, VHS taped over segments of David Letterman, recorded operas, and the Titanic (but the 1953 version) - and wouldn't let us turn off the movie until she had read the full cast and crew as it scrolled by, picking out people she admired or just picking out the names she liked - one of those being Ermaline, which she proceeded to call me for the rest of her life. She knew a little bit about a lot of things, and a great deal about astrology and would test us as she taught to make sure we were memorizing her every word. She gave me my first marble notebook when I was six years old and wrote "Emily Menges" right on the cover, and because she was always insisting we date every project: "September 16, 1998." She told me the first thing you do when you write a story is write down all the characters. I have never taken that advice even once. But that’s how all her advice was intended: to be taken or left.

She was just Donna and that was a description in it of itself. We loved her for everything she was and wasn't, and she loved us for being exactly who we are.

And to leave you with her favorite joke.

Q: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

A: “What chicken?”

- Emily (Ermaline)


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