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Connections | Magazine

In my turbulent childhood, I always had walks with the nuns

Even decades later, through all of life’s ups and downs, walking still brings solace.

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Sitting behind the wheel of a car riddles my nerves, but it is daily walking that has saved my soul. As a Jewish girl growing up next door to the Helpers of the Holy Souls in small town New York in the 1950s, I was called “dear child” by the nuns, some still teenagers, while I hurried to keep up as they strolled through the woods. Rather than following the path of any organized religion, I now walk in cities and on country lanes. When the weather prevents outdoor trekking, I pace in my house.

I would not have dreamed of telling the nuns about my turbulent home when I was a child and they certainly never confided in me about the loneliness of taking their strict vows, giving up worldly goods, and sleeping on hard beds far away from their families. I would tell my mother I was going “over to the nuns” and even when she could not offer me solace, she was thankful that the nuns could.


In summer the nuns let me play basketball with them on their macadam basketball court and in autumn we kicked through the leaves. They would bend their heads to their prayer books and I would open my hands and pretend to do the same. In winter, though I was too shy to join them, I watched them leap on toboggans and sled down the snowy hill, their black habits sailing against the white powder.

It was in the summer heat that I would step with them on their daily course, I in my sneakers, T-shirt, and shorts, and they in their heavy black robes and polished black-laced shoes.

Over the journey of my life, my family has formed and dissolved and been patched together several times. I have had two stepmothers and I am a stepmother now. I’ve been a single woman, married, a widow, and married again. I am a mother and a sister, a daughter and a wife, and through it all I continue to walk.


My first husband, the son of a Mennonite minister, grew up in a parsonage in Holland; my second was raised a Southern Baptist in Atlanta. While neither husband continued in the religions of their youth, they also never found solace in walking the way I have. These days people call me “Ma’am” rather than dear child, but as long as I am able, I walk. Sometimes, it is with women friends on what we call our “walk-and-talks,” sometimes I am solo and silent.

I teach writing workshops at a YMCA and security has gotten more sophisticated than it was when I started teaching more than 30 years ago. Now employees have to put one finger in a machine that reads our fingerprints, but lately the machine has had trouble reading mine — first my index finger and now my thumb. Whether it’s from age or years of tap-tapping on writing machines, the lines that distinguish me from anyone else on earth are fading away. I am trying to accept that no matter how smooth or raggedy the arc of my life is, I will continue to walk.

Even when demons try to steal my soul at night, when I get up and walk in the morning they are spun out. I try to heed the advice I give my students, “Walk and then write. Get up from your desk and walk some more.”


Ever since the nuns left in the 1960s, and their convent was later turned into condominiums, I have thought of what happened to the women whose walking ways are my inspiration still. And I hope, dare I say pray, that continuing to walk helped — and for some, still helps — sustain them on whatever path they took.

Patty Dann’s new novel, The Wright Sister, will be published in August. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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