Memoir Contest Winner: My Independence by Donna Lancaster

by Matilda Butler on July 4, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #107 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Women’s Memoirs is pleased to present the third of four award-winning stories today. Donna Lancaster is one of two tied First Place winners in this month’s memoir contest — INDEPENDENCE category. Later this afternoon, we’ll publish the second of our tied First Place winners — Rebekah Varin. Be sure to check back at 4 pm (PDT). This morning we published another pair of First Place winners in the FOURTH OF JULY category.


by Donna Lancaster

She was born on a hot June night in Kiowa, Kansas, in 1932.  Hospital deliveries were the exception then, not the rule.  Dr. Hammer and a nurse delivered the baby at the Hollingsworth’s home.  Ethel’s pains, which had started early in the evening, surprised her.  The baby was not due for another month.  Nevertheless, it was time and nothing would stop her arrival.

The glimpse of the newborn baby was horrifying.  The legs were barely an inch long and the knees and lower legs were missing.  The tiny, misshapen feet attached to the tiny legs had only four toes each.  The little finger was missing from the left hand and the index and middle fingers were grown together.  All of this in a package that weighed barely three pounds.

Virgil and Ethel were stunned and shocked.  The agonizing pain of seeing their child in such a horribly deformed physical body was devastating.  Time stood still.  To look at the future was impossible.

They had wanted and planned for a daughter.

            But not this one.
            I am that daughter.
            My name is Donna.
            This is my story.
memoir, memoir writing contest winner, memoir writing, journaling, autobiography, life story, lifewritingFor the next 18 years my parents had only one objective.  Everything possible would be done so their daughter could lead an independent life–not so easy in the early twentieth century.
First, Mother and Daddy took me to Research Hospital in Kansas City for an evaluation.  The orthopedic surgeons concluded that I didn’t have enough bone structure to support walking.  They suggested bone graphs from my older brothers to make legs for me that might be functional.  These procedures would be experimental and problematic.
Their answer was “No.”
On the way home from Kansas City they agreed that every decision they made would be based on, “What is best for Donna.”  This approach was not always simple or pain free.
At 10 months, despite all evidence that walking would be impossible, I did walk.  This one huge step (no pun) allowed me to go to school, play games, have friends and have fun.
memoir, memoir writing contest, memoir writing, autobiography, journaling, lifewriting, life storyWith courage, commitment and great wisdom, my parents gave me a sense of solid self-worth.  Even though the world would consider me “handicapped,” this word never crossed their lips. They never put me down, made me feel ugly or implied I was different.  They supported me in my decisions, even though they may have doubted my reasoning.
When I was 12-years-old, I begged for a bicycle.  Of course, there was no way I could ride it.  Without knees and very short legs, it was mechanically impossible.  However, on three separate occasions I dreamed I was riding a bicycle.  As a child I was totally convinced that these dreams came straight from the Source (whatever that was) and were prophetic enough that I bought into the idea.
Finally, weary of my begging, they relented.  Daddy found a second-hand 16-inch girls’ bicycle for fifteen dollars.  A local mechanic moved the seat back four inches so it wouldn’t jab me in my back while I peddled.
I straddled the bicycle, put a foot on the pedal, then the other foot on the other pedal and fell down.
Time after time, I fell, climbed back on, only to fall again.  The gravel scraped my arms and legs.  The concrete skinned my face and hands.  I was bloody and bruised.
Finally, after three days of this physical beating the bike and I managed to stay upright  for a distance of thirty feet.
“I’m riding it!  I’m riding it!”  I screamed at the top of my voice.  I felt as if I had just earned an Olympic Gold Medal.
The bike tilted from side to side a bit as I pedaled, which compensated for the missing knees.  It didn’t take long for my skill to improve.  The bike and I were inseparable.  Off we went to school, to the post office and the grocery store.  I couldn’t have been happier.
Mother’s challenge with the bike was greater than mine.  She thought it impossible for me to ride the bike.  She stood at the window, weeping, watching me take this bloody beating.  Her impulse was to run outside and scream, “Stop it!  Stop it!  Don’t do this to yourself.  There is no way you can do it.”  With tremendous restraint, she remained silent.  She couldn’t tell me that it was impossible.  What did impossible mean? After all, against all odds I had learned to walk.  She had to let me find out for myself whether I could ride the bike or not.  She could not influence me to give up just because it was painful for her to watch.  As you can imagine, seeing me ride all over the countryside was as joyful for her as it was to me.

The classic question adults ask children is:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My answer was always the same.  “I want to be a medical technician.” 
My cousin, Sarah, had planted this suggestion in me several years before and I kind of liked the ring of it.  No one knew much about that profession and tended to discount it.  I knew nothing about, but it seemed easier to stick to that choice rather than find something else that appealed to me.

memoir, memoir writing contest, memoir contest winner, autobiography, life writing, journalingMother suggested that I take an accounting or clerical course at the junior college in Arkansas City, twenty miles east of our home in South Haven.  Others assumed that I’d continue studying music or piano.  The telephone company had offered me a full-time position as a telephone operator.   All of the above sounded dull and boring.  Besides, my brother, Jack, had gone to the University of Kansas.  Jack was my hero.
My stubborn mind was made up.  The application to KU was soon in the mail and an acceptance letter showed up a few months later.
Mother bought towels, washcloths, socks and underwear then dutifully stitched labels with my name on the edge of each.  We did the best we could with shoes.  They had to be laced up the front for maximum support and sturdy enough to withstand the twisting of my right foot when I walked.   There would be a lot of walking to do on the sprawling KU campus.  Slacks were easy to make and were matched with shirts and sweaters.  Everything I would need was packed into two Samsonite suitcases.
Daddy had me sign a signature card at the bank.  This allowed me to write checks on his account whenever I needed to.  Both Mother and Daddy had carefully prepared me, to the best of their ability, to face each of life’s challenges fearlessly.  I had no resistance or apprehension about leaving home.  Going off to college was just the next natural step.
Mother and Daddy weren’t quite so confident, but they didn’t let me know about their anxiety until much later.  To them, this was a huge step.  They knew I would be physically, emotionally and  mentally challenged.  However, it was just like riding the bicycle.  I’d have to discover for myself what I could or could not do.  Their fear was never expressed to me.  They had to let me go my way, free of any of their preconceived opinions that might influence me.  What a gift they gave me!
My graduation from the University of Kansas launched me into a a fully independent life — the successful outcome of my parents efforts to allow me to live an independent life.
The university campus sits majestically on a hill overlooking the stadium below.  The graduating seniors marched, two abreast, down the winding sidewalk to the stadium where the ceremonies were held.  That year, 1954, there were three thousand in the line.  I did not know how fast the others would walk, so I remained near the end of the line in case I couldn’t keep up with them.  That was a mistake. The stadium seats filled up, row by row, with the bottom row filling up first, which put me at the very top row of seats.  It was a hot June day and my new graduation dress was soaked by the time I was seated.
According to tradition, graduates had to walk across the platform to receive their diploma from the Governor of Kansas.  Well before my name was called, I began my descent.  Down the bleacher steps I went–step by step, then up the steps to the platform.  As I approached center stage, the Governor presented me with my diploma.  He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Bless you, my dear.”
I certainly needed a blessing.  All I could think about was all those steps back to my seat and getting out of that hot robe.  Friends told me later that the crowd of 10,000 stood and applauded when I walked across the platform.  I hadn’t heard it.  I probably had too much sweat in my ears.
If it hadn’t been for Mother and Daddy I would have skipped the whole ceremony.  But in a way, it was not my celebration, but theirs.  The ritual represented a part of the reward for their years of effort and commitment.  The journey from seeming hopelessness to freedom, independence and self-sufficiency had been achieved although not without trial, pain and heartache. 
My graduation from college was a victory for all of us.


Click on the book graphic to learn more about Donna Lancaster’s recently published memoir.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Judith Newton July 4, 2011 at

This was such a moving story and was beautifully told. I’m anxious to read the entire memoir.

Kendra Bonnett July 5, 2011 at

Congratulations on your winning story, Donna. You’re lucky to have had such supportive parents, and I love the way you ended the story by acknowledging them. Well written too.

Donna Lancaster July 27, 2011 at

Thank you for the accolades, ladies.
I am honored to have been recognized by this group of inspiring women.

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