Local author finds a sense of purpose in her tennis shoes
The first words out of the obstetrician’s mouth were: “This child will never walk.” Donna Rankin Love was born with a congenital birth defect, where both of her feet were bent upward at an awkward angle, her tiny toes arcing toward her shinbones. This was 1927, before the days of corrective surgery or orthopedic shoes.
Still, the young mother grazed her fingers over the tips of her baby girl’s skyward-pointing toes and met the doctor’s gaze with three prophetic words: “You wanna bet?”
With nothing more than faith and determination, the mother went home and began the loving ritual of massaging her baby’s feet down. By 15 months, the child had taken her first steps. A lifetime later, the woman who had supposedly been born a cripple would celebrate her 59th birthday by walking more than 3,700 miles from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. on the 1986 Great Peace March for global nuclear disarmament. The following year, she would walk and bus from Leningrad to Moscow on the Soviet-American Peace Walk. Then, in 1988, she would traverse the U.S. once again in the American-Soviet Peace Walk from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco.
Now in her ninth decade, Love has written a memoir of her experiences on the peace marches of the 1980s, titled “Walking for our Lives.” She will read passages from the book at Capitola Book Café on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. The public is invited to attend this event, where Love will talk about her passion in pursuing world peace, as well as the value in putting one’s life story into written words.
More than simply a chronicle of a social movement, Love’s book documents the transition of a woman from a domesticated housewife to a liberated peace activist.
“This book started out to be primarily a history of the peace march,” explains Love. “And then I was in a writing group last winter in which I brought a chapter each week. They said this is a really interesting story about the Great Peace March—but the really interesting story is about how it changed the woman.”
Married in her twenties, Love had four sons within five years. As was typical of the 1950s, she was a dutiful wife and mother, taking care of her children and home while her husband earned money so they could sustain the American dream.
“When we got together as women we had a coffee klatch,” recalls Love. “We all had four or five children and we lived in little houses that were all kind of alike. The little kids played with each other and the women sat in the kitchen and talked about their lives—which included their frustrations and some of their great ideas about ‘boy, if I could do this I would.’”
But when 5 o’clock rolled around, the women would stifle their dreams, jump up from the table and run home to get the kids cleaned up and dinner on the table by 6 p.m., when their husbands usually walked through the door.
After 23 years of marriage, Love’s vision of the American dream was shattered. One spring day, with the children growing closer to adulthood and visions of an empty nest looming, Love’s husband announced to her that he wanted a divorce. Now, for the first time in her life, the obedient housewife found herself responsible for her finances. She went back to school, sent her boys off to college and began a tutoring service for dyslexic children.
Looking back, Love brackets her life in 20-year intervals: The first 20 years she was in school, the next 20 years she was married with children and the following 20 years she “grew up.”
“I had to learn to depend on myself,” she says.
Life changes that seem catastrophic at the time are often the ones that catapult us into promising new directions. Such was the case with Love. The 18 years of personal growth that she experienced following the divorce gave her the courage to dedicate her life to something greater than herself: world peace.
When an acquaintance suggested she join the Great Peace March of 1986, Love wasn’t involved in the movement for nuclear disarmament. But she had an adventurous spirit and a longing to see the world.
“I went on the Great Peace March not as an activist, but as a walker,” she muses. “I just liked to be outdoors.”
All that was about to change, however, when she found herself in her late fifties marching across the U.S. to spread the message of peace. Surrounded by people committed to the cause, the dedication was contagious. Love describes a pivotal moment during the march when she walked into a classroom in Salt Lake City and asked the children what they thought would happen if there was a nuclear war.
One little boy raised his hand and replied, “If we are blasted, I will die and when I do, I will miss myself.”
“I said to myself, ‘What am I doing? This is not right,’” recalls Love. “The radical change was that I changed from being a tourist walker who was just going on a walk across the nation. I walked out of there a peace walker. I was committed. And I’ve been talking about it ever since.”
In her book, Love details the journey of walking the Great March, even after 800 of the original 1,200 walkers dropped out and she continued on with 400 other relentless messengers of peace. She tells of marching in Russia where she couldn’t communicate with words, instead marking the backs of people’s hands and the bare feet of babies with a rubber stamp of a dove holding an olive branch. She tells of the people who stood out in the rain to honor them as they passed, offering them flowers from their gardens.
“Obviously we didn’t curtail the development of nuclear weaponry,” says Love, sitting in her cottage in Capitola where she writes from today. “But we did give people hope. As we walked across the country, every place we stayed, we affected people.”
From Love’s living room window you can see the tip of a peace pole that she has erected in her yard, a gift to herself for her 84th birthday. On each of its four sides, in four different languages, are inscribed the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” Since turning 80, Love has written three memoirs and started teaching memoir-writing workshops to aspiring writers—who gather around her dining table. Through writing their life stories, Love maintains that people will find inner peace and forgiveness—both of which she says are foundations for global peace.
“I’m still a peace activist,” she says, her eyes lit with enthusiasm but her face deadpan serious. “I don’t walk around holding signs anymore, but I help to create world peace by (writing) stories.”
Donna Rankin Love will read from “Walking for our Lives,” conduct a Q&A and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information call 462-4415.