Read Unfinished Desires Online

Authors: Gail Godwin

Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction

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BOOK: Unfinished Desires
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“Did—Aunt Antonia tell you what the oaths were?”

“We didn’t have a whole lot of time together, as you know,” he said, avoiding the issue for now. What good would it do Chloe, when she had to be friends with these girls and respect Mother Ravenel as headmistress, to know that his wife had lain next to him in bed on that brief honeymoon and reminisced about Suzy Ravenel’s high-flown promises they had all solemnly recited, holding hands in front of the Red Nun. (“Oh, dear, we were so earnest, pledging to be true to selves that we hadn’t even met yet. But Suzy convinced us—she adored having secrets with just a few select people.”)

“Maybe that’s why Mother wouldn’t join—because of the oaths,” Chloe said. “Suzanne—Mother Ravenel—was really put out with her over it. They had to ask this other girl to make up the required number. You had to have five before you could start a club.”

Registration Days at Mount St. Gabriel’s

Every fall at Mount St. Gabriel’s we had two full days of registration. Day one was for the preparatory grades, first through seventh—until, in 1943, the state added an eighth grade. The second day was for the high school grades, which we called the academy.

By the late 1940s, after the anti-Catholic prejudice had died down in Mountain City and people realized what a fine school “the nuns from England” had created in their midst, enrollment in the prep was up to 200 and there were 78 girls in the academy, 15 to 20 girls in each class. We also had a junior college and secretarial school for day students, with an enrollment of about 50 girls.

In fact, so many prominent local families desired their daughters to have a Mount St. Gabriel’s education that the bishop of our diocese jokingly complained that the Order of St. Scholastica was running a school for Protestant and Jewish girls with a few Catholics thrown in!

Now, back in the 1880s and 1890s, our school had been a very famous mountain resort, Clingman’s Sky Top Inn. People came to Clingman’s from all over the country for its pure mountain air—one mile above sea level—and its matchless panoramic views. You could face west and see the ranges of the Great Smokies backed up all the way to Tennessee, and you could spin right around the other way and have a commanding view of Mountain City and Long Man River, one of the few north-flowing rivers in the United States, with Beaucatcher Mountain in the background.

Our building was an imposing three-storied wooden structure in the Victorian style. It had a fabulous gothic air about it. Even after it was razed to the ground in 1963, many an old girl reported that she regularly roamed its corridors and porches in her dreams. It had eighty bedrooms, two dining rooms, a ballroom, an indoor swimming pool, and many parlors. It also had its own water tower, which could be seen from all over Mountain City. The tower was a local landmark. When our foundress, Mother Elizabeth Wallingford, purchased the site in 1909, the tower no longer contained water and she asked a Mountain City architect, Malcolm Vick, to design a room up there where nuns and girls could go and meditate and have the wonderful “God’s-eye view,” as she called it. As she herself had grown up in a large country house in Oxfordshire with tower rooms, Mother Wallingford was able to help Mr. Vick with the design.

You approached Mount St. Gabriel’s by a long entrance drive lined with Norway spruces that got more majestic as the years went by. The first thing a visitor would notice when the building loomed into sight was the handsome porch that wrapped around three sides of the building. In the summertime the nuns would enjoy the gracious coolness of the porch from their rocking chairs, and on warm days during the school year the academy girls would have their study period on the porches. This was considered a treat. We had boards made that went across the arms of the chairs so the girls could write their lessons in the fresh air. However, the girls had to turn their chairs to face inward because the views would be too distracting. But at the end of the study period they turned the chairs around again and we had a final prayer while “lifting our eyes up to the hills.”

On registration days, parents would park their automobiles around the edge of the circular driveway and come up the stairs to the formal front entrance with their daughters.

Inside was a grand, spacious lobby that we called the “main parlor.” It was presided over by our Infant of Prague, who wore vestments, handmade by the nuns, to match the church seasons. And all around this big lobby were small private parlors. For two full days, starting with the prep and finishing with the academy, the teachers in charge of each of the classes would sit in the small parlors and each nun would interview every girl entering her class and that girl’s accompanying parent. These parlor interviews were scheduled alphabetically and, though they lasted only fifteen minutes apiece, much was accomplished.

—from chapter 2 (“The School Year”) of
Mount St. Gabriel’s Remembered: A Historical Memoir
, by Mother Suzanne Ravenel

Switching Friends

Academy registration day 1951
Mount St. Gabriel’s

girls scheduled for the late-afternoon registration interviews swept punctually through the entrance pillars of Mount St. Gabriel’s and decelerated to a ceremonious crawl up the shady tree-lined drive. The Norway spruces had reached their full maturity and the downward-dipping branches from either side formed a gloomy canopy above the cars. The approach had been open and sunny when eighteen-year-old Henry Vick, serving in the role of parent, had driven his fourteen-year-old sister, Agnes, to register for her freshman year in September 1930. Their father was out of town, drumming up much-needed commissions after the Crash the year before, and their mother was on one of her discreet drying-out vacations at a West Virginia sanatorium.

“Well, there it is,” Henry said to his niece, Chloe, as the picturesque old firetrap came into view.

“Yes, and there
are,” said the girl. “All lined up like satisfied crows waiting to welcome us. Just like Mother described.”

There they were, indeed, the nuns in their row of rocking chairs, taking in the fine late-summer weather from the porch, some of them past their teaching years and a few, like Mother Finney, old enough to have been part of the original faculty. Henry felt the friendly scrutiny of these hooded figures—“satisfied crows” was so typically
—as they identified the arriving automobiles and commented among themselves on the persons inside them. He knew what they would be saying about himself and Chloe—and the remembered Agnes.

And likewise—having happened to glance in his rearview mirror—he could imagine what they would be saying about the two girls in the yellow Oldsmobile convertible following him.

“That’s Tildy Stratton just behind us. Her older sister, Madeline, is driving them.”

Henry could see from the sudden stiffening of Chloe’s shoulders that she was restraining herself from looking back.

“Is Madeline in the upper academy?”

“No, not anymore. Madeline’s a junior at Mountain City High.”

“Ah, she wasn’t invited back to Mount St. Gabriel’s.”

“How did you know that?”

“Because Mother told me about those letters that go out at the end of the year. ‘Your daughter is—or is not—invited back.’”

You and your mother must have talked a lot about Mount St. Gabriel’s
, Henry almost said, but then stopped himself from venturing further.

But Chloe answered as naturally as though he’d spoken his thought aloud. Henry was growing increasingly aware of this mind-reading propensity of his niece’s.

“Mother told me lots about the school because we liked going there together in our imaginations. It was a place she’d been happy and safe in, she said. And nobody could follow us there.”

her up ahead,” said the insolently beautiful sixteen-year-old girl at the wheel of the yellow convertible.

Tildy Stratton was in a foul mood, having been dragged by Madeline out of the country club pool even though it would be closing at the end of this week. Creighton Rivers, the scrumptious lifeguard who had taught her the swan dive and called her “Tantalizing Tildy,” would be leaving town for Emory University. And all for the stupid purpose of putting on a dress with sleeves too tight under the arms (no cap sleeves allowed by Raving Ravenel!) and shoes and
Mount St. Gabriel girls did not go bare-legged—to throw away the remainder of a beautiful day sitting on a straight chair in a stuffy little parlor, being grilled—and accordingly prejudged—by the teacher you were going to be stuck with for the whole next year.

“Chloe Starnes. Up front, in Henry’s Jag. At last you two will meet.”

Tildy perked up. All summer she had been rehearsing her first encounter with Chloe Starnes: what she would say to Chloe, and to what desired effect. Henry Vick and Chloe went to the Saturday evening Mass; Tildy and Madeline, and sometimes Mama, went on Sunday. “He’s certainly keeping that little orphan niece wrapped in black tissue paper,” Mama had said. Finally, back in June, Mama had phoned Henry and invited him and Chloe for tea or supper, but Henry had said she wasn’t quite up to it yet; would Cornelia ask them again in a month or so?

“Of course
, Henry, I’ll phone you again ‘in a month or so.’” Mama had repeated his exact words back to him in her “social” voice. But after hanging up she had made a sour face. “It will be a cold day in hell before I invite that pompous stick again. Even if he is still officially my brother-in-law.”

More than anything, Tildy was anxious to set eyes on Maud, whose letters and postcards from Florida had grown dippier and more enraging over the summer—the first extended period they had been apart since they became best friends back in third grade. Maud’s mother and grandmother operated the Pine Cone Lodge, which Mama said was just a fancy name for a run-down boardinghouse for traveling salesmen and older tourists on budgets. Maud’s grandmother, a Sluder, was a descendant of old settlers, and that claim allowed some leeway for Maud’s mother to be a divorced woman and for Maud to look gypsyish, even, some guessed, Jewish.

Every summer before this one, Tildy’s father had arranged a special pool membership so Maud could go to the club with Tildy as often as she wanted. Tildy had taught Maud to dive and, under the tutelage of her older sister, Madeline, the girls had begun their apprenticeship in flirting with older boys.

And then suddenly last spring, Maud’s long-lost father, Mr. Norton, whom many of the girls had suspected of not even existing, invited his daughter to spend the summer in Palm Beach with him and his present wife, Anabel.

“It’ll completely wreck our plans!” Tildy had screamed. “We were going to learn to water-ski. Madeline’s already arranged for Creighton’s motorboat on his day off.”

“Oh, Tiddly, I really am sorry. But Granny and Mother say I ought to give it a chance. If they like me, they might offer to help with college. Apparently Anabel’s loaded.”

“Don’t be silly, Maud. With your grades, you can get a scholarship to any college in the universe. You don’t need them. Can’t you postpone it? He’s postponed
long enough.”

That’s when Maud had suddenly turned on her. “You don’t understand. He’s my father. I want to know him. And—and, I mean, maybe he had his own reasons for
me, which, by the way, is an extremely cruel way to put it, Tildy.”

It was like having cold water thrown in her face. First the abrupt abandonment of the funny, cherished nickname “Tiddly,” invented by Maud, who was the only one Tildy allowed to call her that. And then being accused of cruelty.
By her best friend since third grade.

But there was worse to come, something Tildy could hardly bear to acknowledge as it rolled inexorably toward her like a dangerous wave. All these years Tildy had rested secure in the certainty that she was the most important person in Maud’s life. She had reveled in her role as patron and benefactor. In many ways Tildy had created the Maud who faced her now, a bold new hostility flaming in her cheeks.

Extremely cruel!

In third grade, before Tildy had taken pity on her and embarked on her Magnanimous Experiment, Maud Norton had been nothing: an uncertain newcomer, voice scarcely above a whisper, trailing shady rumors behind her. Her mother divorced (or so she claimed). Returned to town from somewhere in New Jersey to help the grandmother run the Pine Cone Lodge. Down on her luck? Ashamed?
She said she was keeping her married name so it would “be the same as my daughter’s.” Maud’s mother had a stuck-up air about her, Lily Roberts who now called herself Lily Norton. She was always like that, Mama said, even back in high school, though she hadn’t gone to Mount St. Gabriel’s. Grandfather Roberts was violently anti-Catholic; he bragged that he had jumped off the back of a Mountain City streetcar when two nuns from Mount St. Gabriel’s boarded it. But now Grandfather Roberts was dead and the grandmother wanted Maud to have the advantages of a Mount St. Gabriel’s education, even if it did cost a hundred and fifty a year for a day student.

But who was “Mr. Norton”? And, as first the months and then the years went by, why did he never show up to visit his daughter?

“Do you think Maud even has a father?” Tildy had asked her mother after she and Maud had become best friends.

“Everybody has a father, Tildy,” said Cornelia Stratton. “Whether he’s in the picture or not. What has Maud said?”

“She doesn’t remember him very well. He sold college jewelry and traveled a lot. But I was thinking, if her father
out of the picture and, say, her mother died, our family could legally adopt her, couldn’t we?”

“What would be the point of that, Tildy?”

“Well, I just thought—”

“Don’t you two see enough of each other as it is? And besides,” Tildy’s mother drily added, “Lily Norton hardly looks as if she’s wasting away. She’s frequently seen dining and dancing with the town’s most eligible bachelors at the Casa Loma Club. If anything, someone else might be adopting Maud before too long.”

However, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade passed, and nobody adopted Maud. Lily Norton continued to be seen dancing and dining at the Casa Loma with the town’s current crop of eligible bachelors; the former ones had married and begun raising families. “At this rate,” Tildy’s mother remarked, “Lily Norton will be dating the sons of her old dates before long.”

Cornelia Stratton was known for her caustic tongue. The last thing you wanted was to inspire one of her “dry ice” comments, as her daughter Madeline called them. No one was spared, including Cornelia’s husband, Bernard, whom she had renamed Smoky Bear when they became engaged, because he took parties of men bear hunting, living cheerfully and guiltlessly on his inherited lumber income. Even Cornelia’s adored twin sister was fair game, both the living and the dead Antonia. “That’s just like Tony, so eager to get into a damn
on her
that she runs in front of a van,” Cornelia had raged in her grief after the telephone call had come from Rome. Over the years, her daughters had suffered dry-ice burns so often that they had turned them into humorous scars, each bearing its story. At some point Madeline and Tildy had tacitly decided to regard their dry-ice scars as signs of Cornelia’s close attention to them, proofs of motherly love.

But what had been happening this summer to Maud in Palm Beach with Mr. Norton and the wife, Anabel, who was loaded? Tildy was dying to see Maud in the flesh and make her own conclusions. Norton was far enough down the alphabet for Maud’s interview to be scheduled, like those for Stratton and Starnes, for late afternoon. But first Tildy intended to punish her best friend. Maud’s scatty letters and postcards, when they trickled through the mail slot, had been so disappointing they had verged on insult. Whole dimensions had been left out. And Maud had a jillion dimensions. Tildy had been the one to spot these promises and depths in Maud and coax them into the light for others to admire. But in these stingy summer missives, for which Tildy had first waited avidly, then reproachfully, and at last angrily—Jesus, it was like Maud was under a spell or had undergone a lobotomy; even her classic, slanting penmanship everybody admired had become debased with circles now floating above the
and squatting beneath the far-too-many exclamation points. And, for some reason, she put the names of all her new acquaintances, including her stepmother, in quotes.

Yes, first I will have to punish Maud a little, hit her with a dose of the “shunning treatment” we mastered together and taught the rest of the class to such advantage in sixth grade. She needs to be reminded of all I have done for her and how much more we can do as a combined force. She needs to understand how boring ninth grade would be without me beside her

“So, little one,” said Madeline, “you want me to pull in behind Henry in the driveway, or should I tootle on down to the parking lot to give you more time?”

BOOK: Unfinished Desires
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