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May 5, 2012

Sandra Dallas on Her Mother’s Response to a Tragedy

Sandra Dallas has published nine novels, including her latest New York Times bestseller, TRUE SISTERS. Sandra is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award for New Mercies, and two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award, for The Chili Queen and Tallgrass. The mother of two daughters --- Dana is an attorney in New Orleans and Povy is a photographer in Golden, Colorado --- Sandra lives in Denver with her husband, Bob. Here, she talks about a tragic event from her childhood, and the incredible way her mother coped. 

In 1948, my sister Donna died of polio.  She was 13 years old.  Her death was a devastating loss not only to our family but to everyone who knew her. She was a beautiful girl, with black hair and dark eyes, and she was my best friend. Nearly 60 years later, a woman who’d lived near us recalled Donna’s death as “a neighborhood tragedy.”   

Donna was spending the summer with our grandparents in Moline, Ill., when she contracted polio. Mom and Dad rushed from Denver to her bedside, arriving just an hour before she died.  Only their faith and the fact they had two younger children --- I was nine, my brother Michael, seven --- kept them going.

Like all parents who lose children, Mom looked for a way to remember my sister, not with a monument such as a stained glass window, but something living, something that would contribute to the lives of others, especially children. What could be more important than books?  So on the train back to Denver where my parents accompanied Donna’s coffin, Mom decided she would establish a library at our church, one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country.  At first, the library was to be in Donna’s memory, but Mom realized it would be more meaningful if the library memorialized others, too. And so she established the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church Memorial Library, and over the years dozens, perhaps hundreds of people were remembered by the gift of books.

The library began with Donna’s own books, her Nancy Drews, her small collection of childhood favorites, such as her much-loved SMILING HILL FARM. The library grew as others cleaned out their bookshelves or made monetary donations to purchase books in memory of loved ones. What began in the corner of a meeting room became a real library with its own room filled with books about religion and history, children’s volumes and fiction, as well as books written by church members. There is a shelf of my books, which are dedicated to Donna and Mom and Dad.

Mom, who never went to college, taught herself librarianship. She pioneered ways to fund the library. Her methods were adapted by other churches, and in 2001, she was given an award by the Church and Synagogue Library Assn. She died less than a month later. Her last conversation was about the library. If she had lived, Mom would have been 100 years old this year.

My brother, younger sister, and I received over a hundred condolence notes from church members, many with checks to purchase books in Mom’s memory. And at her funeral my brother intoned, “If any of you have overdue library books, now would be a good time to return them.”