Authors: Gail Godwin
Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction
Circling back, inside God’s point of view, to her classroom this morning, Mother Malloy recalled those stirrings of girl rancor in the classroom that might well flag the interest of a passing devil. It was hardly more than a distant rumble of thunder, but Mother Malloy had witnessed the face-off. It was just before roll call and Maud Norton and Becky Meyer, class president and vice president respectively, were busy updating the bulletin board, putting up new notices of meetings (choir practice, Sodality of Mary, the decorating committee for the Christmas tea with the Pisgah Prep boys). Then in came Tildy Stratton, with quiet little Chloe close behind. Tildy, grumpily on the lookout for something to find fault with, immediately spotted it.
“Wonders never cease,” she sarcastically murmured to Chloe. “Our humdrum old bulletin board is getting a makeover.”
Becky Meyer, with her characteristic standoffishness from all classroom intrigues, continued on with her thumbtacking. Maud, however, spun slowly around, a strange smile lighting her face, and addressed herself to Tildy’s friend alone.
“Oh good, Chloe, you can help us. Will you please think of something
so it won’t look like everybody else’s bulletin board?”
Chloe blinked. Tildy looked momentarily stunned, then narrowed her eyes. Pushing Chloe forward with the tips of her fingers, she said,
go give it a bit
as though the idea had originated with her. “Good
, Mother Malloy.”
“Good morning, Tildy.”
“Good morning, Mother Malloy,” echoed Chloe.
“Good morning, Chloe. Now, everyone, please be seated for roll call. And let’s all of us think of ways we can make our bulletin board uniquely ours.”
Careful to eschew the pet words of either faction. No mention of artistic or “humdrum” or “pizzazz.” If you were too humble and submissive in your conduct to young people, St. Augustine warned, your authority would be undermined.
The problem of discerning mischief from good, thought Mother Malloy (closing her eyes against the flickering sunlight and leaning back against the Red Nun) was that, very often, the two grew together. Our Lord knew this: His parable of the wheat and the tares. If you ripped out the menacing weed prematurely, you risked killing the tiny seedlings of goodness struggling for life around its root.
Early Monday afternoon, October 15, 1951
Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila
Mount St. Gabriel’s grotto
WANTING TO STAY
off Mother Ravenel’s radar, Madeline Stratton parked her yellow convertible down the road, behind the junior college. Head lowered modestly, she made her way up the drive toward the old building where her baby sister was having algebra class. This morning she had dressed for stealth and invisibility rather than toward her usual standard of glamour.
Today Mountain City High students had a half day off. They were always having half days off at Mountain City High, to make room for the really important things in life, like football rallies and electing the homecoming queen and her court. “I really think we ought to change our name to Mountain City
School,” Madeline remarked recently to her mother, the occasion being another of the half days off, when she had sought relief from aimlessness by helping at her mother’s downtown studio.
“Oh, Maddy, you do miss Mount St. Gabriel’s.” Mother and daughter were in the darkroom together. Below them in the developer tray the faces and bodies of this year’s first-form boys at stylish Pisgah Prep floated up at them piecemeal, like ghosts emerging through a fog.
“Not the creaky old place itself. I miss the feeling of being kept on my toes.”
“And there’s nothing to keep you on your toes at—
Mountain City Low.”
Her mother’s droll tone indicated approval of Madeline’s witticism.
“Not really, no. I’m liked by the girls one would prefer to be liked by. And the boys, well, I can more or less pick and choose. Though it’s sort of like choosing to go out with one Hershey’s Kiss instead of another. I guess I miss hating certain people. Hating definitely keeps you on your toes.”
“I take my share of the blame for your having to leave. You wouldn’t have sassed Mother Ravenel at that vocation day thing if you hadn’t had so many years of my running her down at home.”
“I didn’t sass her, Mama. I just said what was true—”
“The one thing in the world you ought not to have said.”
“Well, it was true, wasn’t it? I just said I didn’t want to jump the gun on my vocation, the way some people had.”
“You know, Maddy, I often fantasize where we’d all be today if our parents had sent Antonia and me to the public schools after seventh grade. Back then we didn’t have an eighth grade. Lots of other Catholic girls transferred to public high. They wanted to go; they’d had it with restrictions. Mount St. Gabriel’s would have laid our religious groundwork perfectly well by then, and without Suzanne clinging like a leech Tony might have stuck with her vocation. Oh, drat and damnation, just look at that!”
“That wretched boy on the end of the front row.”
“What about him?”
“Well, look. He has his eyes shut.”
“But you always take backup shots for each group.”
“Yes, but the light was perfect in that one. In the others there was too much sun and all the boys looked bleached out.” Then Cornelia giggled wickedly and bumped her hip against her daughter’s. “Like identical bleached-out Hershey’s Kisses.”
TO SPARE HERSELF
parading past Ravenel watch points, Madeline detoured down an overgrown path that led in a roundabout way to the grotto. Inside her shoulder bag was Mother Malloy’s letter, in exquisite nun cursive, received last Friday at the Stratton home.
Thursday, October 11, 1951
Dear Mrs. Stratton,
This is a follow-up to Tildy’s first six weeks’ report card, which she took home yesterday. Would there be a convenient time for us to get together? I have a free period on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the girls’ algebra class, from one until two. Weather permitting, I walk about the grounds or sit in the grotto. Otherwise I can be found in my office. I am also in my office following three o’clock chapel, if that is better for your schedule.
Tildy has a vivacious spirit and many leadership qualities, though she must guard against haughtiness and impertinence. She enjoys working out math problems, and she is an enthusiastic participant in the Spanish conversation classes. Her vocabulary and range of expression in speaking are truly exceptional for a girl her age. However, they far exceed her written work. As you can see from the six weeks’ report, her grades in History (75), Composition (70), and English (70) are on the borderline of failing. What I am hoping is that we can put our heads together and come up with a plan for Tildy’s improvement. I look forward to meeting you, Mrs. Stratton.
Mother Kate Malloy, O.S.S.
PS. Please give my warm regards to your daughter Madeline and tell her that I hope she will come and see me sometime.
“Well, she must think I’m a very neglectful mother” had been Cornelia Stratton’s outburst of self-reproach as she passed the letter to Madeline. “I didn’t accompany Tildy to the sacred rite of registration day, and last Wednesday, when Tildy handed me her report card, I didn’t go rushing out to the school, demanding why my daughter was failing in three subjects. Yes, this Mother Malloy must think I’m a very poor excuse for a parent.”
“She writes ‘on the borderline,’” said Madeline, scanning the letter. “Seventy isn’t failing.”
“It’s just one little point
from it, Madeline.”
“Well, but she got a 92 in Algebra and 75 in History. That’s only five points below a C. And Tildy’s always hovered around a C in English. You know how she hates to read.”
“You always loved reading.”
“But I was a slug at math. Still am. Though at Mountain City High, which is a year behind Mount St. Gabriel’s, I’m a dazzling B plus in Algebra.
“But, look—” Cornelia snatched back the letter. “Right here she says Tildy’s vocabulary and range of expression are ‘truly exceptional for a girl her age.’ Tildy is the most articulate child I know, Maddy. She surpasses you at her age. She’s never at a loss for words.”
“I think it has something to do with the print on the page, Mama. When I’d read to her when she was little, she’d say trying to follow all those up and down flat marks made her want to throw up, and she’d rather listen to the story with her eyes shut.”
been reading all these years, whether she hates it or not—I don’t see why now, all of a sudden, she should backslide. Do you?”
“Well, it could be because Maud’s not around anymore. They studied together so much.”
“You’re not trying to tell me Tildy kept her eyes closed all those years while Maud read aloud to her.”
“No, but maybe talking it through with Maud made it less oppressive.”
“And now Tildy’s teacher expects me just to drop all my professional commitments and head out to the
so we can ‘put our heads together.’ And I should, I should! But, damn it all, this week of all weeks, I’ve got the Jaycees lunch and the Toastmasters’ dinner and the opening of the new Jewish Community Center, not to mention I’m way behind on the Pisgah Prep job because I have to go back and reshoot the first form because of that little boy with his eyes closed.”
Madeline saw that her mother was warming up for one of her “Nobody understands a professional woman’s life” arias.
“Why not let me go on Monday, Mama? We’re getting another half day off for float decoration.”
“But you have your
obligations at school, too, Madeline.”
“I’ve just been elected to the homecoming court, Mama. That should fulfill my quota of social obligations for the semester.”
“But I hate to always be imposing myself on your young life—”
“Oh, my young life. Mother Malloy said in her PS she wants me to come and see her. I can be your emissary, like the Pope’s—’Her Excellency says she can meet with you in the near future, but at the moment her schedule—’
“Well, maybe if you
just drop by the school on Monday and explain to her about my dratted schedule and ask if we can set up a meeting the following week—oh, Madeline, you are such a support. You’re probably sick of hearing this, but you remind me so much of Antonia. So coolheaded and so giving of herself. The complete opposite of me. How I wish you could have known her better.”
“I’ll never be sick of hearing it, Mama, and I do think I remember Aunt Tony playing games with me in her room.”
“She adored you. She felt you were partly hers, you know, because we went through it together.”
When eighteen-year-old Cornelia Tilden had married Smoky Stratton after graduating from Mount St. Gabriel’s in 1934, her parents had turned over their Mountain City house to the new couple and moved out to the farm left to them by Great-grandmother Tilden. Antonia, at loose ends since her sudden decision not to take vows, went with them and threw herself into getting them acclimated to their new life. But no sooner did she get the three of them settled into the farmhouse than Cornelia sent an SOS and begged her twin to move back into her old upstairs room and help her endure the intimidating ordeal of pregnancy.
“We spent so many hours, Tony and I, curled up on her bed together, with you, Maddy, right there in my stomach between us, getting bigger by the day. When I felt really awful, she was the only person I could stand to have near me. Poor old Smoky had to sleep all by himself.”
Her late aunt Tony’s room was now Madeline’s room, had been so ever since Antonia had married Henry Vick in 1938, when Madeline was three, and gone off on their unlucky Italian honeymoon. Madeline wished she could remember more about Aunt Tony playing games with her in that room. There were vestigial recollections of sweet afternoon light and the stately swish of cars passing outside beneath the leafy old elms, and stifled breaths behind a curtain, or someone flinging open the lid of the window seat and pulling the warm hidden child squealing from its depths. But who was the child? Little Madeline enfolded by Aunt Tony, or warm little Tildy, wriggling and squealing in the arms of the not much older Madeline? She could never be sure.
TO MADELINE, ENTERING
the grotto was like stepping into a moody illustration in an old book others had read, or thought they had read, and then told you about maybe once too often. Today, however, she was struck by the juxtaposition of the alabaster-pale nun resting against the rough, ruddy memorial to the dead girl who had not achieved nunhood. Straight-down October sunshine pierced the turning leaves, bathing the hulking figure in a mottled, moving light. At first Madeline presumed Mother Malloy was deep in prayer, then saw that she was asleep, wedged upright in the marble embrace of the Red Nun. She stood transfixed, not wanting to startle.
Then the breeze parted a patch of shade and sunlight shone direct into Mother Malloy’s face. She woke, blinking up at Madeline.
“I’m sorry, Mother—”
“Whatever for? I’ve hoped you would come, Madeline.”
“Mama got your letter about Tildy and wants to meet with you early next week, if that’s okay. Her schedule is just crazy this time of year—all these lunches and things opening in town. She runs the business all by herself, you see. And since they were giving us a half day off today at Mountain City High, I said I’d stop by—”
This was coming out all wrong. As if Mama’s schedule were more important than Tildy, and like I’m doing everyone a favor, when it was my idea in the first place.
But Mother Malloy smiled as if Madeline had given back something equal to her own frank-hearted welcome.
“And here you are. Come, let’s sit over there.” Mother Malloy rose from the red marble shelf, a perfect “lap” for two young girls to snuggle in, side by side, but too small for two adults. As the nun gracefully shook out her long skirts and readjusted her sash, it struck Madeline that this woman was not much older than herself.
Would I want to enclose myself in all that
for the rest of my life, she wondered, taking a seat beside Mother Malloy on the wooden bench facing the Della Robbia. It would depend, I suppose, on how many boring or unfriendly elements it would keep out. There would be a certain release of having chosen your so-called destiny, so you could get on with whatever came next.
“Tell me about your school, Madeline. Do you like it there?”
To her disgust, Madeline heard herself regurgitating the “Mountain City Low School” quip that had amused her mother in the darkroom.
Though Mother Malloy did not laugh, she continued to regard Madeline with fond attention. “The work isn’t challenging enough?” she suggested.
“It’s not just the work—it’s the whole life
. I feel I’ve been held back to repeat what I already know how to do. It’s like you’ve learned to swim really well, and now you’re ready to cross a huge body of water and see what’s on the other side, and then someone tells you, No, no, dear, you have to stay in this pool and tread water until—until I don’t know what. Whatever comes next. I wish I could get to it!”