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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“Don’t make any sudden decisions,” her sister advised. To Mother Malloy, she said, “She’s just had the strangest little
contretemps
in the drive way with her best friend, Maud—”

“You shut
up!”

“Sorry
, little one. I’m always overstepping, aren’t I? I guess I’m not used to being motherly. I was once in ninth grade myself, Mother Malloy, and interview day at Mount St. Gabriel’s makes everyone cross. Listen, Tildy, run ahead and stop Henry Vick before he drives away with Chloe and ask if they’d like to come by our house for cocktails or tea or anything at all.”

Thus Tildy’s dignity was salvaged before any tears fell, and Madeline stayed behind for a word with Mother Malloy. “I guess you don’t think much of me, Mother, but I love my baby sister, and, oh, this place is such a hotbed of bitchery. Generations of bitchery and intrigue! I can say it now, I can say anything I want. I can even say you are beautiful and I hope you enjoy being a nun. I had a beautiful aunt, my mother’s twin sister, who also had a vocation, but something went wrong and then later she married Henry Vick and was killed on their honeymoon. They were in Rome and she was knocked down by a van. I want Tildy to keep her intrepid little soul—I have half a mind to coach her in how to get expelled so I can keep better watch over her over at Mountain City High, only you can’t go there till tenth grade.”

“On the contrary, Madeline, I think I like you very much,” said Mother Malloy. “I hope you’ll come and see me again. In the meantime, I promise to do my best to watch over your sister’s intrepid soul.”

The last were the two Dutch girls: Hansje Van Kleek and Beatrix Wynkoop, from Enka Village, the rayon plant. The largest in the world, Mother Ravenel had informed her. (“When the Dutch set out to do something, they do it right.”) The mothers of the two girls, looking hardly older than their offspring, paid their cheerful respects to the new teacher and then went off to visit Mother Finney. “We could smell her oatmeal cookies all the way from the parking lot!”

Both Hansje and Beatrix spoke excellent, unaccented English, from which word-swallowing Ashley Nettle would surely profit as they rode to and from the school together. Mother Malloy made every effort to distinguish Hansje from Beatrix, both tall blond girls with perfect manners, both returning for their third year at Mount St. Gabriel’s. She noted, like a possibly significant punctuation mark, the down-turned left corner of Hansje’s mouth, as though she had a reservation about life even as she smiled, and Beatrix’s seemingly unconscious gesture of twirling a lock of hair around her finger as she attended to you expectantly, as if you were on the verge of saying something wonderful.

Before Compline tonight, I will sit at the little desk in my room, open my roll book, and go down this list of girls. And I will say each name aloud, followed by a short prayer: “Help me to see what I need to see about this young human soul.”

Mother Malloy’s Ninth Grade, 1951

Marta Andreu

Lidia Caballos (last-minute cancellation)

Lora Jean Cramer

Elaine Barfoot Frew (mother, Francine Barfoot, ‘34)

Josephine (Josie) Teresa Galvin

Gilda Gomez

Kay Lee Jones

Mikell Maria Lunsford

Rebecca Meyer

Ashley Nettle

Maud Norton

Chloe Vick Starnes (mother, Agnes Vick, ‘34; aunt by marriage, Antonia Tilden, ‘34)

Mary Tilden (Tildy) Stratton (mother, Cornelia Tilden, ‘34; aunt, Antonia Tilden, ‘34)

Hansje Van Kleek

Beatrix Wynkoop

Dorothy Yount

CHAPTER 6
The Afterrunner

Sunday, June 24, 2001
Feast of St. John the Baptist
House of Olivia and Gudge Beeler
Mountain City, North Carolina

THIS IS HER
last night in what Olivia Stewart Beeler, class of 1974, refers to as “your very own VIP guest suite, Mother Ravenel.”

Tomorrow morning Gudge and Olivia will drive her to the airport to check her luggage—Olivia has lent her a second suitcase to carry the tape recorder plus other gifts from the girls—and impress on airline personnel that this legally blind old lady must be conveyed like a precious heirloom to her destination. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Boston, so a wheelchair will be waiting at her gate at Dulles to speed her to her connection. It has all been arranged and she is grateful.

At Logan Airport in Boston, she will be met by Sister Bridget, who will promptly disabuse her of any notions of heirloom status picked up in Mountain City. Sister Bridget, sixty-five, is the “young” superior of all that is left of the Order of St. Scholastica, though there’s not much left for her to be superior to. She is the only one in the house who still has a driver’s license, and will make sure to squeeze in as many errands as possible between the baggage carousel at Logan (“Two suitcases, Sister Suzanne? How can that be when you left with only one?”) and the Order’s retirement house in Milton. Sister Bridget calls all the nuns “Sister,” followed by their given name, even though the old ones have been accustomed to “Mother,” followed by their surname, for most of their professed lives.

Fortunately, all the young in power are not as mirthless and bullying as Sister Bridget. At Mass at the basilica this morning, Father Thad, the new monsignor, had preached a lively sermon on John the Baptist.

“It’s not easy to be a forerunner,” Father Thad had said. “But when something larger than life is about to appear in our midst,
someone
has to go first … you know, like those cars with flashing headlights that precede a truck bearing an oversize load. People have to be prepared. The forerunner has to announce—has, even, to
forewarn:
‘Pay attention! Something larger than you’re used to is riding into town.’”

After Mass, Father Thad, a towering blur clothed in red vestments for the martyr’s feast, greeted his congregation as they filed out through the narthex. When her turn came, he swooped down and gathered her in his arms. His garments smelled of incense; his warm neck exuded a spicy aftershave.

“Ah, Mother Ravenel, I don’t like this at all! In a month’s Sundays I’ve gone and lost my heart to you, and now you’re leaving us tomorrow. What do you expect me to do?”

“I expect you to be right here when I come back next year,” she volleyed back in her headmistress tone. “And, Father, your sermon has helped me to see what I may be, in a larger sense. I am just the opposite of a forerunner. I am what comes afterward—an ‘afterrunner,’ if there is such a word.”

“Well,” he replied, delighted, “there is now.”

“Yes, Father, you’ve helped me to see that I am to be an
afterrunner
. My old girls have talked me into writing a history of Mount St. Gabriel’s. I’ve been speaking it into the tape recorder, which I’ll be taking back to Boston with me tomorrow. Please pray that I live to complete my assignment to the glory of God and that I do justice to my material.”

“You may be sure I will, and I expect to get a personally inscribed copy. Have a safe journey, Mother. May He carry you in the palm of His hand.”

It is nice to be among people who are aware that you were once in power. It is a blessing, at eighty-five, to lie on these soft sheets in “your very own VIP guest suite,” surrounded by comforts, cherished and picnicked and partied and toasted by those who were actually present during your strongest hours
. Yesterday’s final picnic lunch, at the mountaintop aerie of Beatrix De Groot Bradford, née Wynkoop, class of 1955:

“Oh, Mother, what a sad time that was, the end of our ninth-grade year. I always felt bad that it was our class that sent you away on sick leave.”

Beatrix, at sixty-four, is a comfortable woman who has a Christmas tree farm on top of the mountain and performs countless services for her church and community. She has been twice widowed, lost a son in a boating accident, and survived cancer, yet she still maintains her cheerful, expectant outlook and her old schoolgirl habit of playing with her hair.

“There were extenuating circumstances, dear. My mother was dying in Charleston and my brother asked me to come and nurse her and Reverend Mother gave the permission. She thought it would be a restorative thing for me to get away. And at the same time, I would be helping out my family. But after all those regrettable things happened, you must remember, Beatrix, the composition of the class changed. By the time I had you all for your senior year, there were more of you, for one thing, a graduating class of twenty-one—”

“—and some were no longer there.”

“Some were no longer there,” Mother Ravenel echoed meaningfully, tipping up her face to feel the midday sun on her bare neck. Although she does miss being called “Mother” up in Boston under Sister Bridget’s leveling jurisdiction, she doesn’t miss the old stifling habit one bit.

“You prevailed, Mother.”

“We
prevailed, Beatrix. God was beside us through all of it.”

Through her sunglasses the light was the golden platinum of high noon and Beatrix, facing her in an Adirondack chair, was a bright, beloved blur. “Well, Mother, it’s been eleven years and my doctor says I’m still cancer-free. And I still have this mountaintop with three thousand little spruces growing diligently into Christmas money, and I still have God, and I still have you. Of course, I can’t pop out to see you at the convent whenever I feel the urge, but I know you’re there at the other end of the telephone and you’re still on the same earth. And now, the girls have given me the privilege of transcribing your tapes as you send them.”

In the noonday light, Mother Ravenel could make out Beatrix absently raking her hand back and forth over her new head of hair, which sprang out from the blur of her face like a sizzling halo of steel wool.

“It will be like having you in the room with me all year long, Mother, telling me stories about my favorite place and the stories behind the stories,” Beatrix said. “Are you going to tell the sad parts, as well? I remember Mother Malloy so clearly.”

“I still dream of her. Mother Malloy was with us such a short time, but all these years later she’s remained a faithful visitor to my night life. Do you have that, Beatrix? People who reappear regularly in your dreams and bring you messages and themselves often go on growing and changing in the dreams?”

“Oh, Mother, yes. And even if they never knew one another when they were on this earth, they can mingle and exchange information in the most amazing ways.”

“What do you hear about Chloe Starnes, Beatrix? Olivia told me she changed her name to Vick so the firm could stay Vick & Vick.”

“Well, they say that after business hours Chloe has always kept pretty much to herself. She’s on the alumnae mailing list, of course, but she never answers the questionnaires. If I happen to run into her in the Fresh Market, she’s always cordial, but she keeps pushing her cart. She attends the Episcopal church now, and designed them a beautiful labyrinth. That’s become one of her specialties. Sacred spaces.”

“I was invited to her wedding, back in the sixties, the one that never took place. I’ve always wondered why.”

“So have many of us. There are speculations that she was in love with someone else, but I try to stay clear of those. She sent all her presents back and, as far as I know, never dated again.”

“Well, I’m sorry she didn’t finish at Mount St. Gabriel’s, but I wish her well. Apparently, she was a great comfort to old Mother Finney, the year I was away. I wish them all well. Even those we lost track of. You must pray for me, Beatrix. I so much want to do a good job on this little memoir of the school.”

“I always pray for you, Mother, and how could you do anything but the best?”

Thank you, Lord, for this noonday brilliance on Beatrix’s mountaintop. It’s like going to heaven and finding my girls in charge. I mean, under You, of course
.

CHAPTER 7
The Swag

Saturday, September 15, 1951
Tildy Stratton’s fourteenth birthday
Smoky Stratton’s hunting cabin


I WANT TO
have a
different
kind of party this year,” Tildy announced to her parents at the end of her first week of ninth grade.

“Oh-oh,” groaned Tildy’s father with a comic wince of his burly shoulders. “How much is it going to cost me this time?”

“Very little, Daddy. Less than ever. I plan to invite only one person.”

“Little Maudie, I suppose.”

“Maud and I are
very
past tense, Daddy. And she is not at all ‘little’ anymore.”

“Maudie has shot up like a weed and grown a substantial bosom over the summer, according to Madeline,” Tildy’s mother informed her husband. “So who will be your distinguished guest, Tildy?”

“What I’d like for my birthday this year is to have Chloe Starnes out to spend the weekend at the Swag. We could cook over a fire and make our own food, and I promise we’d wear life jackets if we even
thought about
walking close to the lake.”

“You don’t mean go alone—just you and Chloe?”

“Of course not.” Tildy had planned her approach. “What I thought was, Flavia and John would go with us, just like they do for Daddy’s hunting and fishing guests. Only we wouldn’t ask Flavia to cook or clean for us; she’d just be there to chaperone. And John would drive us and fish his heart out.”

“But what would you girls do for a whole weekend?” Mama asked. “The lake’s way too cold for swimming by then, and the Swag, you know, doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment.”

“We can entertain ourselves. Chloe is a very interesting person to be with, and she finds me interesting.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Mama. “Give Daddy and me time to talk it over.”

“The one thing I don’t want is you girls trying to build any fires,” said Daddy. “John would have to build the fires and extinguish them. That is, if your mother and I decide you can go.”

“And Henry Vick would have to give his okay for Chloe,” said Tildy’s mother. “But your father and I
haven’t
decided yet, so don’t go rhapsodizing prematurely.”

Tildy knew she had won.

CHLOE, SITTING NEXT
to Tildy in the roomy backseat of the Packard gliding quietly through the countryside, executed a few just-so strokes on her drawing pad and a figure sprang to life.

“Oh my God, it’s her!” cried Tildy. “How do you
do
this, Chloe?”

“I don’t know, exactly. First, I need for that person to appear, and then I try to see them, and if I get it right they sort of come out through the tip of my pencil.”

“But it’s her to the life. The way she stands when she’s writing on the blackboard. Oh, I love it. Can I have it?”

“Not until your birthday.”

“But it
is
my birthday.”

“It is not
tota
ll
y yet
your birthday. You were born at five this afternoon and it’s only ten in the morning.”

Though the two presences in the front seat occasionally spoke in murmurs to each other, they bore themselves with monolithic remoteness: John, the conveyer and fire builder, and his wife, Flavia, the protectress and overseer of foodstuffs. It was a new thing to Chloe, black people living on the premises with their white families. Rosa took the bus from Uncle Henry’s home to Colored Town every evening, despite her advanced age. Chloe’s own mother and Rex Wright had never employed “help,” as Rex made no secret of his distrust of Negroes.

John and Flavia lived in an apartment over the Strattons’ garage. John ran the family’s errands in the black Packard and drove Mr. Stratton wherever he wanted to go; he transported Tildy to and from Mount St. Gabriel’s. Tildy’s mother and big sister dashed about in their own cars, while Flavia stayed home and made soups and Creole dishes and Tildy’s school lunches and seemed to hold the Stratton household completely under her dominance. She was neither friendly nor talkative, but you could feel her sort of enveloping you in her idea of how the day should properly go. As long as you fit into her choreography of things, you felt taken care of, even brooded over, within her aloof protectorship.

“Oh, Chloe, you’ve got the sleeve, the elbow, the veil always floating out a little when she moves, and the way she tucks her chin in when she’s writing. God, on her, even those old-lady shoes look good. I wonder what she was like at our age. She told your uncle she was an orphan.”

“No, she said she had been in a foster home.”

“But that could go either way, couldn’t it? I mean, she could have been an orphan or she could have been abandoned by her parents. She didn’t say which?”

“She only said that much because Uncle Henry asked if she had any sisters or brothers.” Chloe herself had pumped Uncle Henry about his conversation with Mother Malloy in the grotto. Like every other girl in ninth grade, she was under the spell of their teacher from Boston.

“Maybe they had to give her up,” Tildy said ominously.

“Who?”

“Her parents. I mean, what if …” Tildy lowered her voice. “Maybe her father was a priest or something and their love had to remain secret, so the woman was forced to go away and have the baby and give it up for adoption to a foster home. Maybe the mother was a nun.”

“If someone is adopted,” Chloe quietly pointed out, “they don’t go to a foster home. They go home with their new parents.” Whenever Tildy’s flights of imagination dispensed too cavalierly with the way things worked, Chloe felt obliged to return her new friend to the plausible. It had been three weeks now—they were going into their fourth week of friendship—and Chloe still glowed at the memory of Tildy stepping forth in the school driveway, like a young prince claiming her for the dance, and presenting her to Maud Norton as “the nearest thing I have to a cousin.”

For reasons Chloe was still piecing together from Tildy’s brusque remarks and her own intuition, the partnership of Tildy and Maud had been ruptured during their separation this past summer. Now the former best friends regarded each other slantwise and warily; they conversed, when necessary, in guarded commonplaces, as though trying to outdo each other in nonchalance. Though once, when Maud had addressed her old friend as “Tiddle-dy,” Tildy had blazed out, “Don’t
ever
call me that again.”

“Oh, okay, fine,” Maud had replied, with a cool smile. “If I call you anything, I’ll call you for dinner.”

“I really do think they scooped out part of her brain down there in Palm Beach,” Tildy had told Chloe. “Her letters got shallower and shallower, even her handwriting got silly, with little circles and things, and now she’s come back with all these trite sayings to fill in for real talk. This new ninny is nothing like the person I was friends with all those years. I want you to understand that. It’s almost like the real Maud had
died
or something.”

Then poor Tildy had flushed beet red, and Chloe knew she was thinking, How could I have said such a dumb thing, when Chloe’s mother really
has
died?

“I do understand it,” Chloe said. “It’s bound to make you feel sad.”

“Not so much sad as disgusted,” corrected Tildy.

Maud Norton—the “new” Maud—appraised Tildy’s new best friend with an affronted sort of curiosity that recalled to Chloe Rex Wright’s begrudging, puzzled glances at his stepdaughter during the four years they had shared Agnes. Like Rex, Maud also looked at Chloe as though she had taken away something rightfully belonging to her. Like Rex, Maud seemed to be trying to figure out the source of Chloe’s power without sacrificing her pride.

Once again, Chloe felt herself in the middle of a spoiled relationship. Not just passively in the middle, taking up space, but filling in the space between antagonists and receiving the arrows from both sides. For, of course, the connection between Tildy and Maud was still there, as strong as before, maybe stronger, but now the forces had turned negative. Just as when Agnes and Rex became disenchanted with each other, Chloe felt the arrows from either side.

Because of their frequent moves while her daddy was in the war, Chloe had never had time to make a best friend. Her best friend had been her mother, Agnes. They had played together, read together, slept together, while waiting for the war to be over so they could be a family again. Then when Daddy’s plane was shot down in the last weeks of the war, Chloe had to be the “older and wiser” friend for a while. Making Agnes eat, reading to Agnes aloud, dragging her out for walks, coming up with little treats and surprises, making Agnes want to get up in the morning. And then Rex Wright had come courting and Agnes convinced Chloe they would be a family again. After the marriage, Chloe settled into one place—Rex’s hometown, Barlow—and went to the same school for four years. A quiet, composed girl who listened as much as she talked, she attracted friends, both girls and boys, but not a particular best friend. Her one best friend was still her mother, whom she frequently called Agnes.

Rex’s family was respected in the town and Rex himself had come home a war hero. So far, so good. Then, after a while, Chloe stopped bringing her friends home; she never knew when there would be raised voices, or weeping behind a closed door, or the thud of someone falling. Before Rex, Chloe hadn’t known that men struck women. When Agnes was married to Daddy and they had an argument, Daddy almost always gave in first and then Mother would tease him that he’d let her win. Mother often said Merry had been the perfect name for Chloe’s father.

Somewhere just before Rex’s hitting started, there was a much anticipated weekend bus trip with her mother to the mountains to visit Uncle Henry. Mother and daughter had shared Agnes’s girlhood room under the eaves. They were to have visited Mount St. Gabriel’s the next day—Agnes wanted to introduce Chloe to her beloved Mother Finney—but it was not to be: Rex surprised everybody by showing up a day early in his new Beechcraft and insisted on flying them back with him immediately. Agnes cried. Rex blew up.

“Nothing I ever do for you is enough!” he had screamed after takeoff, banking the plane so steeply Chloe thought she was going to upchuck. “What I ought to do is smash us all three into the side of your beloved
mountains
and be done with it!”

And then, that final year, Agnes and she had become closer friends than ever. The private lessons at the diner began. The Latin, the catechism, the stories told hurriedly, one after the other, as though there was a deadline looming, about Mount St. Gabriel’s, where Agnes had been so happy. Mother and daughter keeping back more and more of themselves from the increasingly furious Rex.

Evening, Tildy’s birthday
The Swag

Tildy and Chloe, faces bathed in red light from the campfire, stood turning their sticks, watching their marshmallows blacken and blister to perfection. A sickle moon had risen on the eastern horizon and stars popped out like little lights going on in the sky.

Tildy withdrew her stick from the flames; Chloe followed suit.

“These are exactly right,” pronounced Tildy. “And this is
exactly
the birthday I wanted.”

“Now you are officially fourteen,” said Chloe, pleased by Tildy’s words.

“And
you’ve
been officially fourteen since back in June,” said Tildy.

A clumsy silence followed in which Chloe was sure Tildy was thinking how sad Chloe’s last birthday must have been, coming so soon after Agnes’s death. Chloe rescued the moment by restoring Agnes to the living. “You know, my mother was out here at the Swag once. It was in the fall of their senior year, at your mother and father’s engagement party. Agnes was about to get engaged herself but she didn’t know it. She already knew she was in love, but my father hadn’t asked her yet. He told her later he was afraid she might turn him down.”

“God!” cried Tildy. “So there they were, suffering in silence because they were afraid of not being loved back! All that wasted time! Can you imagine being in love, Chloe?”

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