Donna Lee Turley: Finding Sweet in the Bittersweet

“Donna Lee Turley: Finding Sweet in the Bittersweet,” Ensign, Mar. 1988, 64–65

Donna Lee Turley: Finding Sweet in the Bittersweet

Donna Turley formed a dream for her life as she listened beneath a quilting frame to the conversation of her mother and the other sisters in tiny Woodruff, Arizona. There would be a mission, an education, prosperity, and a home with flowers and fruit trees. There would also be children, good health, and happiness. This dream contained seeds of both disappointment and fulfillment, because so much of it would never be hers—yet she would find unforeseen richness in adversity’s crucible.

Donna grew up in pioneer-like conditions, reading by candlelight and bathing in a washtub. She was baptized in an irrigation ditch, and she believed her family was rich because her mother had two pairs of shoes. Conditions improved gradually until her parents, Wallace and Margaret Wimmer Turley, brought the whole family, a cement mixer, and a washing machine to Provo in 1949 to help support Donna as she began her college career at BYU. She was the second child after Ella Mae (Judd), and was followed by Loreine (Despain), Alan, and Wayne.

After graduating in 1953, Donna taught at Snowflake High School in Arizona. The football players who came by her room for treats still remember the “all boys” home economics class Donna organized for them. They all made shirts and washed them each night so they could wear them days on end.

She went without a car for her first three years of teaching to help finance her father’s mission. Of her parents she later wrote, “No one will deserve my loyalty, trust, and forgiveness more, because they tried all through the years to bless and to build me.”

Donna taught clothing and child development at Dixie College from 1955–58, but found her real love in being appointed Dixie’s first girls’ dorm “mother.” One Christmas she made housecoats for her forty-eight girls out of surplus GI material that had been given to the school. The girls proudly wore them down the main street of St. George in an impromptu midnight parade. Her role as gifted confidant to the Dixie girls steered her toward a career as a professional counselor.

This sunny picture of life began to darken in 1959, when Donna was stricken with crippling rheumatoid arthritis while serving as an LDS missionary in New England. With characteristic grit, she simply tried to outwork her illness, but her condition only worsened. In the physical deterioration that followed, Donna gradually came to know the world of doctors, medication, surgery, incessant pain, and the frightening specter of total immobility.

After her mission, Donna was a teacher and counselor at B.Y. High for ten years. She earned an M.A. in counseling at BYU and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology at Arizona State University in 1972. Clark Moustakas of Detroit’s Merrill-Palmer Institute became her mentor, encouraging her publication of Mosaic of Myself, a book of poetic reflections now in its third printing.

Since 1968, Donna has been school psychologist for California’s Redwood City School District, working with educationally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. She has also been the Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Cupertino Ward for the last ten years.

Amid a worsening illness and an urban life far from the flowers and fruit trees of Woodruff and Joseph City, Donna worked and groped and grew. After years of professional intimacy with troubled families, nothing surprised her any more. She remembers the shy little boy who lived with grandparents, after having watched his father kill his mother; the child who vowed not to live if his parents divorced; the girl with a seventy-five-year-old father and a young retarded mother who begged to stay at school because her parents had said not to come home that day.

Yet Donna also discovered the magic chemistry between a caring adult and a troubled child. Motherhood never came to her, but, she says, “my children have been the children of the world. I have had my private moments with trusting, shining eyes. I have felt their hugs and known the sweet sharings of little hurts and joys.” Here Donna found an echo of her childhood, when she would take the cows to the sun-baked hills to graze. There she had learned that there is a “wonderful serenity” in “happy aloneness, needing nothing and no one to make my joy complete.”

Donna Lee Turley is a bright and peaceful light in the darkness of a society drowning in its own self-pity. “I am determined,” she once wrote, “not to leave this life with an ounce of anything left in me that could be a stepping-stone or a light to another.” As many elements of her childhood dream have slipped from her grasp, she has reached deeper to find new ways to dream. For Donna, happiness is not a place, but a way of seeing life. She is happy for being alive, having work to do and gifts to give. She knows some who feel undervalued in a Church that emphasizes family life, but she will not let being single rob her of the blessings of full membership in the Church.

Her native insight, heightened by fine training and intense professional experience, has made her tolerant and perceptive about human nature to a rare degree. Now she understands the little boy she once scolded when he kept playing while his new kittens were hungry. “Aunt Donna,” he had asked, “what do I do? Why didn’t you tell me they were hungry?” Now she writes, “I came to know that we cannot be angry with people for not knowing what they haven’t had a chance to learn.”

Her intellectual integrity is wrapped in a blanket of kindness, yet her honesty moves beyond modest sincerity toward understanding and meaning: “Loneliness is feeling while other people are laughing./ Loneliness is admiration when you wanted love./ Loneliness is feeling that you understand another better than he understands you./ Loneliness is praise from someone who doesn’t know you.” Donna’s personal relationships have become a devoted multitude, nurtured by her gentle understanding. No matter the length of time between visits, when she sees family or friends, “the softness … it’s here again. I feel the world is tender and loving, as I used to feel.” Then Donna will send them home with cookies or a note and will wonder to herself, “Why do I love to clean up a messy kitchen after feeding a group of my friends? Does everyone love life as dearly as I do?”

Donna Turley grew up wanting life to be perfect, then discovered through bittersweet experience that she could make life perfect, however it comes. To the outside observer, she has not had an easy time of it. But Donna knows that she spends herself fully, all the days of her demanding life. Whatever she has to give, she gives. She has forced herself to go on and on. “That persistence came easily, because I loved life and felt it to be finite—but I wanted it to be infinite.”

We would do well to emulate the fulness, integrity, and faithfulness of her example.

  • Bruce C. Hafen, a member of the Orem (Utah) Twenty-third Ward, is dean of the BYU Law School and regional representative for the Granger Utah and Granger Utah North regions.

Photo by Hour Portrait, Cupertino, California