Authors: Gail Godwin
Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction
Both transferred their attention to the glazed terra-cotta bas-relief of the Virgin looking up, startled, from the open book on her lap to the kneeling Gabriel. The white dove hovered in the blue-enameled air between them. A Grecian vase crammed with lilies was placed equidistantly between Virgin and angel.
“The young woman—her name was Caroline DuPree—had prayed rosaries here in the grotto, asking Our Lady to persuade her parents to let her be a nun. But the sculptor died while the piece was in its half-finished form. There was talk of the family finding another sculptor, but nothing ever came of it. I’ve always been glad in a way. There is a certain power in her rough form.”
“Like Michelangelo’s Captives.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Only in my college textbook on Renaissance history. But I felt what you said about them: the power of the unfinished. How I would love to go to Italy!”
Too late she realized her blunder: this man’s bride had been killed on their Roman honeymoon.
But he was applying the lit match to the bowl of his pipe with the same tranquil focus—the awful memory seemingly unstirred.
When the tobacco caught flame, he continued to speak in his equable tone.
“Mount St. Gabriel girls have made her their guardian spirit. That unfinished marble lap you’re resting on, Mother Malloy, has been snuggled into and worn down by generations of girls begging her to intercede with the Madonna and heal their sorrows or grant their desires. Suz—Mother Ravenel wrote a play about her for the freshman class in 1931. It was called
The Red Nun
. My parents and I were in the audience. My sister, Agnes, and Antonia, the girl I was later to marry, had prominent roles. Mother Ravenel—she was Suzanne in those days—directed the play and divided her acting talents between several roles, including the voice of God. Since that time, the actual history of the memorial to Caroline DuPree has become entwined with Mother Ravenel’s play, which is revived from time to time. Each class in the academy does a play every year, but the
revivals are for the freshmen only because Mother Ravenel was a freshman when she wrote it. It’s the tradition. And you know how traditions and legends tend to grow tentacles. And the girls are permitted to add their own material. Within reason, of course. That’s another tradition.”
“Let’s hope the next production will be soon,” said Mother Malloy, feeling her strength flowing back. “You have made me very eager to see it, Mr. Vick.”
Over the years the girls have never tired of hearing the story of how our Order was formed. And I never tire of retelling it, because it is such a wonderful example of how intricately God works His purposes in our lives. We must go back in time to the small village of Cowley, just outside of Oxford, England. The year was 1889 and a remarkable Anglican preacher and monk, Father Basil Maturin, recently returned from a very successful ten-year mission in Philadelphia, was leading a retreat at Cowley. One of the retreatants was Elizabeth Wallingford, the future foundress of our Order. Like Father Maturin, Elizabeth was still a member of the Church of England at that time. Her family, the Wallingfords, was a very, very old Oxfordshire family; they and their property holdings are listed in the Domesday Book.
Now, Elizabeth’s brothers had been educated at Oxford, but in those days women were not admitted to universities. We know from the brief account of her life she has left us that she keenly felt her lack of education. At the time of the Cowley retreat, she had reached the age of twenty-eight, which back then would more than qualify you for spinsterhood. After she had turned down several acceptable proposals of marriage, her father, who doted on her, offered to set her up as head of a school for young ladies in a dower house on the Wallingford estate, but she refused him. How can I teach others, she asked, when I myself have been denied the subjects that were daily fare for my brothers? She said the world did not need any more “schools” to teach girls how to stay home and do needlework and play the piano and manage the servants. She was very much ahead of her time but was powerless to do anything about it.
Or so she thought until she went to Cowley and heard Father Maturin preach. “Don’t be content simply to speculate what you
be capable of,” he challenged his retreatants. She felt he was speaking directly to her. “You don’t know what is in you till you try. There was much about the Magdalene that she had never used, perhaps never dreamed that she possessed, until she met Our Lord and He set her on the path of true self-development.”
Ironically, Elizabeth had heard about “the spellbinding Father Maturin” from a former suitor who was now a vicar in the Church of England. He had accompanied her on the retreat, perhaps thinking he might induce her to reconsider his proposal of marriage. But for Elizabeth Wallingford, God had more far-reaching plans in store. “Discontent,” Father Maturin said, enunciating the word with a strange vigor and looking straight at Elizabeth, “may be God’s catapult, His way of saying: ‘Go and try yourself
Mount St. Gabriel’s Remembered: A Historical
, by Mother Suzanne Ravenel
Drawing the Dead
Third Saturday in August 1951
Henry Vick’s house
Mountain City, North Carolina
IT’S AS THOUGH
you were back in my girlhood, watching over me like a guardian angel …”
The girlhood room of Chloe’s mother, from the days when she was still Agnes Vick, looked down over a gently rolling back lawn surrounded by mature boxwoods. The window seat, nestled beneath the slant of the roof, was at present awash in the fiery brilliance of the late-summer afternoon.
In drawing his plans for this room in 1927, Agnes’s architect father, Malcolm Vick, had included a sketch of his daughter fitted into this space, her long legs doubled to form a prop for her book. Already, by age ten, Agnes had reached the height of five feet six and, though it would throw the house design slightly out of proportion, her father had added a second window to increase the length of the seat and provide for her teenage extensions. It was his hope that Agnes would grace this new house for at least nine or ten years before a husband carried her off to another.
Chloe had never seen those plans for the Vick house at the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Riverside Drive, but from her mother’s descriptions she had conjured up her own vision of Malcolm Vick’s sketch of his daughter in the proposed window seat.
And when Chloe herself began drawing in earnest, in the months after her father died, she felt compelled to reproduce that long-legged girl in the window seat again and again. “How do you
this, darling?” her mother would ask. “I know draftsmanship runs in our family, but this is something more. It’s as though you are watching over my girlhood like a guardian angel.” And then her mother had wept, saying, “If I didn’t have you, I might think my whole marriage with Merry was a dream.” And Chloe had said, “Yes, and we can remember him together.”
The drawings got more interesting as Chloe’s skills improved. She experimented with angles: the girl Agnes as seen from above, from across the room, from outside the window.
If my mother could observe this window seat from wherever she is now, with me in it, how could I send her the message that I am all right and that I know that we will go on taking care of each other? After all, we spent one night together in this very room, before Rex showed up early in his new plane and cut short our weekend visit with Uncle Henry.
Chloe could not swallow the notion, put forward too often in recent weeks by people wishing to console her, that Agnes was up in heaven with her adored first husband and her mother and father and all the company of saints as well as Jesus and the Blessed Mother and God Himself. This seemed too simplistic an elevation: the newly dead getting lifted up on their death day (“Going up, folks!”) to eternal life. Where they would then do what? Roam around like they were at a big party, recognizing old friends (and surely some enemies, too)?
Whereas Chloe could accommodate the existence of purgatory—in which her mother had firmly believed. It was an extension of life’s imperfections, Agnes had said. You stopped in purgatory because you weren’t yet prepared for perfection. Rushing off to heaven before you were ready would make you feel soiled and uncomfortable in the presence of perfection.
“Would you come straight home from a sweaty day at school and drag your best dress off the hanger and rush off to a fabulous dance without showering and fixing your hair first?” That was Agnes during one of their “Catechism in Secret” sessions at the downtown diner after Rex Wright had forbidden his wife and stepdaughter to discuss religion “in his house.” (“You two have made your damned Catholicism into a snooty secret society.”)
It was easy to imagine Agnes in purgatory, and Chloe liked dwelling there with her, just as she had spent much of this phantasmal summer sketching her mother in favorite remembered poses: Agnes as seen from behind, hair in a kerchief, stooping to collect the eggs in the henhouse; Agnes in the diner, leaning forward on her elbows to say something, her face, stretched and framed by her hands, looking suddenly younger.
If purgatory was like an extension of what most people meant by “daily life,” a place where you found yourself stuck in the middle of a routine you had neither wanted nor expected, but where there was still a chance that something you did or learned today would move you closer to the exit of this disappointing place, then she could follow Agnes through her daily purgatorial assignments.
In purgatory, there would be things Agnes had to do, things that corresponded to her duties in their house in Barlow. But instead of laundry and chickens and meals and a husband to pacify and a daughter to educate and protect, there would be—
Chloe faltered. It was like going uphill in your mind; gears needed to shift, but what would the gears in a car translate to if you were talking about human beings?
In purgatory, the people wouldn’t be there, or the house or the chickens, but Agnes’s soul would be going through the motions until she got it right, until she understood what she had done and what she had left undone.
There would be no mirrors in purgatory. Agnes wouldn’t need to see her image in a mirror; she would be intent on carrying, with the same care that she transported between her palms a new-laid egg for Chloe’s breakfast, her own immortal soul.
It felt okay to Chloe to compare her mother’s soul to an egg. With both, the hard part was to carry them intact to their assigned destinations. Which would be—in life—feeding a daughter. And—in purgatory—in purgatory—
Here Chloe’s metaphor-making powers stalled just as she heard her uncle’s car purr smoothly into the garage.
WELL, THE DEED
is done,” Henry Vick said, sipping his scotch as Chloe sipped her Coke, he lounging in a wicker chair and she upright in the back porch swing. The shadows had lengthened on the rear lawn, the shiny boxwood hedge had become a deep purple wall, but there was still gold left in the sky. In the kitchen, Rosa, the family cook, reputed to be in her nineties, was frying up chicken to go with the potato salad she and Chloe had made earlier. (“Good child! You know to pull the strings off the celery.” “My mother taught me.” “And guess who taught your mother?”)
“How did she take it?”
“Admirably. Mother Ravenel is always at her best when there’s an audience. There was another nun with her. Your ninth-grade teacher, as a matter of fact. Mother Malloy had just arrived on the train from Boston.”
“What’s she like?”
“She’s an impressive person; beautiful, in a nunlike way. I found her both informed and easy to talk to.”
He left out Mother Malloy’s fainting spell. These days he was very conscious of monitoring Chloe’s grieving; he didn’t want to overload her with too many reminders, though he didn’t wish to prevaricate, either. Accepting in advance that he would make some wrong calls, he kept up a constant effort to strike a delicate balance between what she needed to know now and what could wait till later.
The fainting was something her mother had done, and it was assumed to have caused her death on Easter eve. Her husband came home from giving Saturday flying lessons at the airfield and found her body slumped on the floor of their bedroom. There were cranial bruises from the impact against the radiator. That much Chloe had been told.
Even Rex Wright hadn’t known that his wife had been carrying a six-week-old fetus, until the coroner informed him. “She hadn’t even told me she was expecting my child!” he wailed to Henry on the phone. “She was always keeping secrets, her and Chloe both. They shut me out every chance they got. For all I know, she told Chloe about the baby, but not me.”
Henry doubted this and told Rex so. It would go against his sister’s ferocious attachment to her honor. But he wasn’t about to ask Chloe. Henry scrupulously avoided any quizzing of the girl about her last days with her mother. When and if she was ready to tell him anything, he would be there to listen.
“I wonder what it will be like,” Chloe said, leaning forward suddenly in the porch swing.
“The whole thing. The ninth grade. Mother Malloy. The girls in my class. I hope I won’t be too far behind.”
“Why should you be? You’ve always done well in school.”
“But they weren’t schools like Mount St. Gabriel’s. Mother said sometimes the nuns would put a girl who’d transferred from another school back a grade.”
“That’s not going to happen to you.”
“No,” Chloe calmly agreed, surprising him. “All through eighth grade, Mother’s been teaching me the extras. I know my catechism and we were doing European history and starting Latin. I’d meet her at the diner after school and we’d have Cokes and cheese crackers in the back booth and she’d tutor me out of her old Mount St. Gabriel’s notebooks.”
“Well, then. You’ll certainly be on equal footing with the other girls. Maybe ahead.”
This was the first he’d heard about the tutorials at the diner. Had Agnes been preparing to send Chloe off to school months before she summoned him?
“No, not ahead. Though I’ve been going on with my schoolbooks and her notebooks this summer, since I didn’t get to finish the last month at the junior high. But there’s so much
I won’t know.”
With the tips of her toes Chloe set the old porch swing going until it sang on its chains. She could not know how much she resembled Agnes at fourteen. The same proud posture, Agnes’s identical jutting chin and beaky nose, the same inward gaze even though she could be looking straight at you. The prehensile way the long feet controlled the motion of the swing. Though she was more serious than Agnes. There was not that flash and crackle of wit always lurking beneath the surface.
“What sort of ‘elses’ won’t you know?”
The fine skin between Chloe’s brows crinkled. She licked her lips and shot out her chin. This was her concentration mode. Like a young animal about to leap, she was gathering herself to explore a further outlook. Henry was suddenly pierced to the depths by his young charge. Had he taken on too much? Would it have been wiser to go ahead as planned and let her board at Mount St. Gabriel’s, where, as Mother Ravenel said, she would have a host of mothers? But Chloe had told him last night that she would be sorry to leave the house her mother had been a girl in. She felt, Chloe said, the presence of her mother watching over her. “And, you know, Uncle Henry, I watch over her, as well.”
And he, being one of those grown men who still prayed nightly, had fallen asleep praying about it.
“Well, the other girls, they’ve been together since first grade. To them I’ll be a new girl in the ninth grade—an outsider.”
“I hardly see how you can be an outsider when there are so many connections. Mother Ravenel was your aunt Antonia’s best friend. And Antonia’s niece Tildy Stratton will be your classmate. Antonia and her twin sister, Cornelia, and your mother were all in the class of ‘34. I’d say you’re as … as
as anyone can be.”
She paused in her swinging to consider this, then set the swing going again, but in slower motion.
“No,” she said thoughtfully, “there’s all the stuff these girls have done that I wasn’t there for. And besides that … besides that … Mother was never in the oblates of the Red Nun. Aunt Tony and her twin sister, Corny Tilden, and Suzanne Ravenel
The otiose oblates
, Agnes had scornfully christened them behind their back after she had turned down Suzanne’s invitation to join.
Of all the silly, pointless societies, Suzanne’s little group takes the cake
. He hadn’t thought of the oblates in years, not even earlier this afternoon when he had been filling Mother Malloy in on the lore surrounding the hulk of red marble.
“I doubt if your classmates will know anything about that little society.”
“Well, if Mother, who wasn’t one, told me about them, why shouldn’t Tildy Stratton, whose mother and aunt
, have told her friends about the oblates?”
“Because it isn’t the kind of thing a grown woman would be proud to tell her daughter. It would be as though I had joined some secret high school society where we gathered in the dark and swore solemn oaths beyond our boyish understanding.”