I bet this never happened to you. I was talking to a friend while selling fried catfish dinners when a determined-looking young woman approached. She stepped up to me and calmly asked: “Mr. Pratt, do you remember me? You wrote a column about me after my father killed my mother and then killed himself.”
It took a few seconds to internalize what she said. Over the course of a long writing career, I have written a bazillion columns. This one did not ring a bell. Given the magnitude of the incident, I think I should have remembered her. Then she went into further description. “I was the homecoming queen at McKinley when you did the column on me,” she said. Then I began to recall small pieces of the story. The column was written so long ago, almost 17 years to be exact.
She went on to explain that she was Karen Ferguson back then, but that she is Karen Marioneaux now. We continued to talk, and some fragments started coming back to me. But I was tired from frying fish and annoying the people working with me, so I took her contact information. I couldn’t let it go. We finally talked by phone earlier this week. However, before the call, I got a copy of the column. “My goodness,” I thought.
And then, everything started to come back to me. Amazingly, the grown-up version of that girl is just as incredibly composed as the teenager I had interviewed in 2000. In 1999, Marioneaux was a super student at McKinley High in Baton Rouge. She had a 3.5 GPA. She had been Miss Sophomore, Junior Class vice president and served on the school improvement team. She even played clarinet in the school band. She loved school. However, she lived in a troubled home. Her father and mother argued a lot. In fact, they had divorced but were living in different rooms in the same house.
There I was, looking at pictures of my granddaughters, both making me smile and laugh. One g…
Her dad, Marioneaux said, had turned to drugs. “I loved my dad. He was the person that taught me how to cook and change a tire. ... He told me about what to expect from men,” she said. “But when he was on drugs, he was different.” She described her mom as her best friend, whom she could come to with anything. Both parents pushed her to be the best at school. In fact, her mom encouraged her to run for Miss McKinley when the time came. One day in 11th grade, Marioneaux came home to discover her mother and father lying dead on the floor. Authorities surmised that her dad had shot her mother, then turned the gun on himself.
She screamed. She cried. Then dealt with the deaths in her own way. “That was on a Thursday. I was back at school on Monday,” she said. “People were asking why was I back in school so soon? I had a paper to turn in ... I needed school. It gave me some stability.”
The next year, she won the Miss McKinley contest. But she missed her parents not being there. “I could not tell my mom I had won the contest. She wanted that for me.” Now, Marioneaux is married, with two children and a stepchild. But that came after dealing with emotional baggage from her parents’ deaths and difficulties maintaining relationships. “Just when I thought I would never have a long relationship with anyone, I met Ty,” she said, then laughed. They met, got engaged, had a baby and got married, all in less than a year. That was 11 years ago.
She finally earned her college degree, a process that included some stops and starts, a change in majors and a nudge from her husband to go back to school. Marioneaux is now a social worker at a local hospice facility. It seemed like the perfect place.
A few years ago, she had helped take care of the needs of aunt who was in hospice care. One of the care personnel at the facility complimented her and suggested she look into social work. She went back to college and got a degree in social work.
When I hear education officials and school principals talk about statewide scores, I sit up …
Marioneaux said what happened to her parents didn’t happen much when she was growing up. “But it’s happening all of the time now,” she said, adding that the living arrangement that her mom and dad had was never going to work. “But she was so much in love with him. ... She thought she would fix him,” she said, adding that people try to do that today, and that effort so often leads to bad results. “I think about my mom and dad every day,” Marioneaux said. “I can’t show them my wonderful children and my husband. My children will never meet their grandparents on my side. That hurts.”
But, she said, she loves her life with her family and that gets her through. “I tell children and my children too, don’t let bad things become your whole story. Bad things are going to happen. It can be part of your story, but not your whole story,” she said.
"Look," she said, “I will take any day I have ... I’ll take a bad day anytime over no day at all."
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.