Donna Sciasia describes her life in three distinct periods. First, as a child on the prairie growing up during the Great Depression. Second, during her marriage when she led the life of a military dependent. And third, when she was a librarian at Bowdoin for almost 25 years.
Donna was born in 1931 in a small town in Kansas in the middle of the Dust Bowl. She remembered that, when the dust was especially bad, everyone’s nostrils would turn black. Her sister was chronically ill with pneumonia, and her younger brother was sickly. Although Donna was not chronically ill, she notes that she was “not allowed to be well” either. As Donna unpacked her childhood, she shared that she never felt any sense of affection from her mother. Rather, Donna’s life began as a “persona non-grata” (Latin for “unwelcome person”). Her mother hoped and believed she would have a son for nine months, and she was shocked when the doctor delivered another girl. Donna can still distinctly remember the hurtful words her mother said to her when she was younger.
After attending college, Donna would go on to become a librarian and marry a military man. Their family moved all over the country because of her husband’s placement. She had two of her children in Hawaii. Unfortunately, Donna’s marriage was an abusive one. She remembered how angry her husband would get if his kids beat him at chess. But, at the time, she stayed with her husband because she was afraid she couldn’t raise a family on her own.
Donna told me she feels as though her life truly began when she was 50 years old. By this time, the last of her kids had left for college, and she then got a divorce. After being a victim of verbal abuse since childhood, she was finally free. And for the first time, she was free of her depression, too. She began to travel. She ventured to Scotland, Italy, Turkey, Alaska and Greece, where she collected stories and dolls from each place. Donna documented her travels in a personal travelogue. She has since gifted the doll collection to her grandchildren. If Donna could go back in time to give a piece of advice to her younger self, she said she would tell herself “you can do it,” referring to the strength it took to break free from an abusive marriage. “Don’t ever give up,” Donna emphasized.
Of all the places she has called home, Donna notes that she had some of her happiest memories in Brunswick. After her divorce, she lived in Bowdoin’s Brunswick Apartments for a number of years. She reminisced about the mundane moments of staying in Brunswick Apartments: living below a bunch of football players who avoided partying to accommodate her, getting a tall student to help replace her light bulb and taking care of student’s plants over winter break. Donna laughed aloud when she remembered overhearing a student who lived in a nearby apartment tell a friend “shhh … be quiet, a real person lives here.” Donna has been at Bowdoin before and after women were allowed to study at Bowdoin. “The College improved significantly after women were allowed to enroll,” she said toward the end of our conversation, which prompted me to come back another time for more of her stories.
For the last five years, Donna has resided in Sunnybrook Senior Living Center. Although she participated in activities when she first arrived at the senior living center, things have since quieted down in her life. Since retiring, Donna has spent her time writing short novels and stories, which she shares with friends and family. She shared her most recent story collection, “Sunnybrook Friends,” with me. It features imagined stories from the perspective of animals that Donna has spotted outside her living room window at Sunnybrook. Lately, she feels like it’s too much of an effort to sit at her desk and type, so she spends her time watching T.V., sleeping and playing Words with Friends.