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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“I expect I will be sometime, but right now I guess I wonder more about other people—what it was like for them. My uncle Henry, for instance, with your aunt Antonia.”

“That was kind of strange,” said Tildy.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, Aunt Tony had a vocation. From early on, she was very serious about becoming a nun. And my grandparents approved. It wasn’t like that poor girl who never got to be the Red Nun, that girl who died while her parents were still hoping to talk her out of it. My grandparents were
proud
of Aunt Tony’s decision. They had her dowry money put in a special account and everything. The way it was supposed to be, Mama said, was that Antonia and her best friend, Suzanne Ravenel, were going to enter as postulants together at the end of their senior year. But Suzanne jumped the gun without telling anybody and entered at spring break, with Reverend Mother’s permission. It just stunned Antonia, it broke her heart.”

“My mother told me something about that,” said Chloe. “But she said it was because Antonia was having doubts, and Suzanne wanted to spare her friend the embarrassment of backing down.”

“That’s what Mama calls ‘the Ravenel alibi.’ Aunt Tony never had doubts till after Suzanne went behind her back. Then she just sort of caved in. She got through her studies with decent grades, she kept going to Mass, but she was like a robot, Mama said. At the end of their senior year Antonia was voted Queen of the School—that had always been expected; everybody knew Aunt Antonia was the most admired girl in the school.”

“And Antonia turned down being queen,” Chloe said, taking up the story. “She said she didn’t deserve it and asked Mother Delaney, the headmistress, to have another election. But Mother Delaney decided against it, and the tradition was discontinued.”

“Aunt Antonia was the last person to be voted queen of Mount St. Gabriel’s and she wasn’t ever even crowned.” With her marshmallow stick, Tildy poked at the dying fire. Then she sank to her knees and blew on it vigorously. “Does your uncle Henry ever say anything about Aunt Antonia after she was his wife?”

“Oh, he mentions her at least once every day.”

“What kind of ‘mentions’? Does he ever talk about how they fell in love?”

“No, it’s more like ‘Antonia once said …’ or ‘Antonia always felt …’ or just ‘We weren’t together very long.’”

“Maybe you could ask him. You could just casually say when he’s having his cocktail, ‘Uncle Henry, how did you two decide to get married?’

“I could maybe do that,” said Chloe. “But didn’t your mother tell you any stories about them as a couple?”

“Just that they started dating after Antonia was running the photography studio—when Mama was pregnant with my sister.”

“But doesn’t your mama remember how they fell in love?” asked Chloe. “I mean, she and Antonia were twins. They must have whispered together in the dark.”

“I can see them whispering in the dark about Aunt Antonia’s wanting to be a nun, because that’s when they were girls. Mama was already a mother when Aunt Antonia married your uncle Henry. They weren’t sisters whispering in the dark anymore.”

“I wonder why Mother Ravenel—back when she was Suzanne—why did she go ahead like that and enter without telling her best friend? I mean, when they had planned to enter together?”

“Best friends have been known to do hurtful things to each other,” said Tildy with a less enthusiastic poke at the dying fire, making Chloe feel sad in advance at the possibility that she and Tildy might one day hurt each other and cover their hurts with guarded commonplaces.

It was getting chilly out here in the darkness, and Flavia could be seen brooding out at them from the cabin’s lit kitchen window.

A summer morning, very early, 2001
St. Scholastica Retirement House
Milton, Massachusetts

Lord, when are You going to deliver me from this mortifying dream? Each time I have it, I wake embarrassed to address You and I would probably be more so if You chose to reply. So just let me talk. Maybe I will run out of things to say and then it will stop. Not that I don’t love to elicit Your voice, but this is distressing. St. Augustine was distressed in his chaste thirties and forties when his body continued to betray him in sleep. But, Lord, I am going on eighty-six.

It’s always the same place, the Swag. Or, rather, what has come to be my dream construction of the Swag. Antonia and I are walking away from the campfire, away from the others. We can hardly wait until we are far enough away to clasp hands. And then we start running and we lift off together and mount the night sky. The culmination is always the embrace, but before the embrace comes the foretaste of union—when we know we are going to be inseparable and, through each other, utterly changed forever. If I had come across such sentiments in a novel one of my girls was reading I would have confiscated the book with a revulsive snort. But, you see, in the dream this is my peak moment of fulfillment:
it is going to happen, nothing can stop us now
. With the embrace comes the knowledge of sin, the one we will repeat as often as we can. Then comes the bad part: waking inside this old body still throbbing guiltily with satisfaction, my mouth and cheeks swollen and gritty from the prolonged contact—all in a mere dream!

And yet, Lord, I only kissed her that once, at Cornelia’s engagement party out at the Swag. And she returned my kiss. We both lost ourselves in what we had discovered. But after that night, I could feel Antonia withdrawing from me.

Early Beginnings, Continued

As I’ve already said, Elizabeth Wallingford was twenty-eight when she went to the Cowley retreat, preached by the charismatic Anglican monk Basil Maturin, and afterward confided to Father Maturin in a private conference that she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to God but didn’t know how to go about it. Father Maturin sent her to visit his sister, an Anglican nun in Oxfordshire, who advised Elizabeth to go home and pray about it and ask God for His suggestions. “Don’t be afraid to ask for specifics,” this wise nun said. “God loves specifics.”

Now, at this time there was a young horse trainer from Ireland staying with the family. The Wallingfords were avid horse people and the Finneys from Gal-way were avid horse people and the squire’s interest had been piqued when his friend Brendan Finney had boasted that his youngest daughter could break any recalcitrant yearling on the Finney horse farm. “Let her come and visit us,” said the squire. “I’m sure we can find some recalcitrant horses for your daughter to break, and my daughter would enjoy the company of another horsewoman.”

This young woman who came to stay with the Wallingfords was Fiona Finney.

In 1889, she was twenty-three, five years younger than Elizabeth. Both were excellent horsewomen, both had great independence and vitality, and both were seeking strenuous ways to serve God. It wasn’t long before the two friends were riding their horses over to Littlemore, a village just outside of Oxford, to visit a Catholic priest Fiona had been consulting about a possible vocation.

Now, Littlemore, you remember, was where John Henry Newman had experienced the crisis of conscience that led him to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic. His conversion in 1845 changed the religious complexion of the nation. In the forty-four years to follow, the Catholic Church became the church educated middle-class people in England were attracted to. No longer was Catholicism just for Irish immigrants and stubborn old Catholic aristocrats who had survived Henry VIII’s dissolution.

Growing up in western Ireland, Fiona had always felt so at home inside her Catholicism that she had never really examined it. Being Catholic was the same to her as being a Galway Finney. Unlike Elizabeth, Fiona was not an intellectual or a scholar, but now she mustered all her powers of mind to examine her religion in order to convert Elizabeth. Because by now it was clear to both of them that they had vocations. And they felt certain that they could accomplish more staying together and supporting each other than going off to be nuns in different religions.

Elizabeth went back to Cowley to see Father Maturin a number of times and talk with him about her growing interest in the Catholic Church. The more she came to know about the Catholic faith, through worshipping with Fiona and through her own reading—she devoured Newman’s
Apologia
and afterward wrote her own spritely commentary on the book of Acts—the clearer it seemed to Elizabeth that the straightest, purest line was that which stretched between the church Peter and Paul had worked so tirelessly to establish and the present-day Catholic Church.

It would be wonderful to have listened in on Elizabeth Wallingford’s talks with Father Maturin, because, as we know, he himself converted to Catholicism in 1897. By that time Mother Wallingford and Mother Finney had taken their final vows and established their Order under the aegis of the Benedictines and were running their first academy for girls in Boston. You can’t help wonder to what degree Elizabeth Wallingford’s avid questionings led her famous mentor to follow her example!

—from
Mount St. Gabriel’s Remembered: A Historical
   Memoir
, by Mother Suzanne Ravenel

CHAPTER 8
The Pungent Ache of the Soul

Monday evening, October 15, 1951
Pine Cone Lodge
Mountain City, North Carolina

MAUD NORTON HAD
always loved reading, but
David Copperfield was
, introducing her to the idea that someone else’s story, if told a certain way, could make you ache as though it were your own.

From the lodge’s screened porch three floors below, her mother’s coquettish murmurs alternated with Mr. Foley’s oily baritone replies. Maud was glad their words were inaudible. The rhythms themselves were bad enough. It was still warm enough for them to sit out on the porch if they wore wraps. The mingled aromas of Lily Norton’s cigarette and Mr. Foley’s cigar floated up into the open window of Maud’s “ivory tower,” as Lily preciously called it. The tower room was too hot in summer and too cold in winter, and you had to go down steep circular stairs to get to the bathroom, but Maud treasured its remoteness from the rest of Pine Cone’s compromised life. Despite the room’s coming winter chill, she looked forward to the hard frost, when the porch furniture down there would be covered with plastic and turned to the wall and her mother and Mr. Foley would be forced to carry on their furtive courtship indoors or downtown at the movies.

Art Foley, who sold fancy foods (“choice comestibles,” his brochure said) for a wholesale company based in Atlanta, was a star boarder at the Pine Cone from the second Tuesday to the third Monday in every month. He had the prize corner bedroom with its own bath. He brought them gift baskets full of questionable treats: mustard with ale in it, goose liver with blackish mushrooms called “truffles,” English “biscuits” that were actually just dry tasteless crackers, and mottled cheeses that looked and smelled as though they should have been thrown out a long time ago.

Down below, in the darkened living room, Grandmother Roberts sat in her late husband’s armchair, her swollen legs elevated on the ottoman, listening to her radio programs and keeping watch on the hallway leading to the kitchen. Certain guests had a tendency to pilfer from the Pine Cone’s refrigerator.

By tomorrow the class was supposed to have read to the end of chapter 11 and updated their life chart on David. “When you finish the book,” Mother Malloy had told them, “you will see the progress of a life on your chart.” Maud had skipped ahead to find out if David would definitely go to live with Mr. Micawber so she could enter his new address on her chart. Assured of that, she could go back to the chapter’s beginnings, where they were just being introduced, and savor the certainty that things were going to get a little better for David, who had been sent away by Mr. Murdstone to wash bottles in a slummy warehouse.

Not that Maud’s mother had married a villain like Mr. Murdstone and herself died soon after. Lily was very much alive, sometimes embarrassingly so. And now everyone at school, thanks to Lily’s shameless broadcasting, knew that Maud had a respectable father in Palm Beach, and that both he and his wealthy wife, Anabel, had been “captivated” by Maud this past summer, with hints of more benefits to come. Yes, Maud possessed a father every bit as “real” as Tildy’s. Tildy’s father had more gruff masculine charm, but the way the two men spent their days was remarkably similar. Smoky Bear Stratton, with nothing very urgent to do, oiled his guns in the den and rode around town in the front seat with his chauffeur. Cyril Norton, with nothing very urgent to do, drove himself around town in his wife’s second-best Cadillac and was growing fat from snacking in the kitchen while chatting up the cook.

Far from being sent off to wash bottles in a slum and be mocked by inferiors, Maud was in a top school, with a beautiful teacher everyone worshipped, and once again she had been elected class president—the first time without the help of Tildy’s officious campaigning. The other girls looked up to her, to Maud Norton, and not to that former monster-duo known as “TildyandMaud.”

Yet why did her heart exult as she reread and savored the passage where David confided to the reader that no words could express the secret agony of his soul as he washed bottles with his low-life companions and felt his hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in his bosom?

To be “utterly without hope”! What secret agony in her soul corresponded to this? What feelings of shame? What fears that all her learning would pass away from her, little by little? What had happened in her past, or could happen now, to make her plight match his? When everything in her life was going so well, when every school day brought her six hours of proximity with the superior Malloy, what chords were being struck here by this English boy in another century in poverty and despair? And yet they
were
being struck, over and over, with a pungent ache.

After the class finished reading and discussing the novel, Mother Malloy expected a five-page paper from each girl. “Please, do not go to the library and look up what others have said about
David Copperfield
. I will have read any critical works you are likely to find there. I am interested in
your
experience of the novel. Not ‘What does this mean?’ or ‘What have others said about it?’ or ‘What would impress my teacher?’ but ‘What does this move in my soul?’

Could you write a paper called “The Pungent Ache of the Soul in
David Copperfield”?
Malloy encouraged you to think for yourself but came down hard on anything that smacked of the impertinent or the slangy.

Do I or don’t I miss Tildy?

Standing alone was a little scary—so exposed—but at least you were just yourself, not tethered to somebody whose name always came first in the mouths of others: TildyandMaud. Standing alone was like starting your own club and waiting to see who wanted to join it, rather than having to be grateful for your measly visitor’s pass to someone else’s country club so you could swim beside your friend and be patronized by her.

Not that it didn’t rankle when Tildy found a replacement so quickly, a brand-new person to boss around—the mousy little orphan “cousin” who would now partake in Tildy’s schemes and owe Tildy gratitude.

Was I ever that mousy? Was I ever that grateful that she had chosen me to collaborate with her in what she called “making things turn out the way
we
want”?

I probably was. Until this past summer in Palm Beach when Anabel Norton raised her plucked eyebrows at me on Worth Avenue and asked, “But what exactly do you
see
in her, darling?”

That whole thing with Mrs. Prince back in sixth grade. We weren’t learning anything. Mrs. Prince, who smelled of old-lady talcum powder, had taught Tildy’s
mother’s
sixth-grade class arithmetic and read the Uncle Remus stories and brought the fudge to
them
. “Poor Mrs. Prince—her trouble was she wanted to be liked too much,” Tildy’s mother had declared. “That’s always the undoing of anyone.” Tildy’s mother could be devastating when she narrowed in on some person’s shortcomings. She could pronounce death sentences with a corrosive turn of phrase.

“Let’s try something, Maud,” Tildy had proposed after Mrs. Stratton had pronounced Mrs. Prince’s death sentence. “Let’s see how far we can go by
asserting our will over Mrs. Prince
and setting an example for the others.”

It had worked. Within two months, Mrs. Prince was gone. They got a new teacher, hatchet-faced Mother Odom, who taught the upper girls in the academy and said it was never too early to start on algebra. Tildy was giddy with their success. Maud felt a little shaky at first; she felt like a witch: if they could accomplish this, what else might they do?

“I think you should be class president next year” had been Tildy’s next proposal. “If we start planning now, you’ll be a shoo-in for seventh grade. You’re the smartest person in the class and people respect you.”

They respect
us
, Maud had thought; they respect the strange animal called TildyandMaud. Though Tildy’s grades were mediocre and her reading problems a secret shame, she seemed to take it for granted that Maud’s superior abilities were hers to share and would cover them both in glory. And as long as they were harnessed together like a pair of horses, their carriage skimmed swiftly forward, ahead of everyone else’s, borne by Maud’s abilities and Tildy’s fantasies and Tildy’s implacable self-regard.

In the seventh grade Maud was elected class president. In the eighth grade, likewise.

But now, for the first time without the benefit of Tildy’s electioneering, Maud found herself class president of the ninth grade, having beat out the other contender, Kay Lee Jones, nine to six by secret ballot. If Kay Lee, the prettiest and sauciest of the transfers, despite the strawberry birthmark on her neck, had voted for herself (and why not? Maud had voted for
herself)
, that would put all four of the St. Jerome’s transfers—Kay Lee, Lora Jean Cramer, Mikell Lunsford, and Dorothy Yount—in the Kay Lee corner.

Given the rupture between Tildy and Maud, Tildy and her new best friend, Chloe, could easily be expected to have voted for Kay Lee. Except Maud could perfectly well hear Tildy telling Chloe, “Though Maud and I are no longer best friends, Maud is a
known quantity
. She takes being president seriously. It’s a job, like with her grades. Whereas Kay Lee Jones and her bunch aren’t truly Mount St. Gabriel’s girls yet. I mean, they’re hardly individuals; they’re more like a
clump
of something from across the river.”

Maud was appalled at Tildy’s flagrant snobbery. It could so easily have been turned on herself, if Tildy had not chosen her for her best friend.

No, it must be two other new girls who’d voted for Kay Lee Jones. Not Marta Andreu, the new Cuban girl, because she would vote however Gilda Gomez did, and Gilda had always liked Maud. Perhaps stuck-up Elaine Frew, then, who lived for her piano practice and couldn’t care less who was class president.

And probably the other Kay Lee vote came from Ashley Nettle. Those first days of school Maud had seen Kay Lee playing up to nervous Ashley.

Now, however, Ashley had joined the constituency made up of Josie Galvin, the doctor’s daughter, and the Dutch girls, Hansje Van Kleek and Beatrix Wynkoop—and sometimes Rebecca Meyer, when she wasn’t involved in her synagogue activities. Rebecca Meyer had never liked Tildy much, though she was too aloof to come right out and say so.

How was Tildy coping on her own with these
David Copperfield
assignments? Though Tildy, like her mother and sister, commanded an impressive speaking vocabulary, she was strangely defeated by the sight of words lying flat on a page. Last year, in eighth grade, she had threatened to have a nervous breakdown over
Silas Marner
. Maud had to drag her through that book, one-fourth the size
of David Copperfield
, kicking and screaming all the way.

(“Oh, God, God, God, it makes me want to
puke
, Maud. This story isn’t written in English, it’s in murky old-fashioned hieroglyphics that make me dizzy! Who cares about spinning wheels, and what the be-jesus are ‘nutty hedgerows’?”

“It’s what they’ve assigned us, Tiddly. We’ve got to get through it. Don’t get sucked into the spinning wheels and nutty hedgerows. Let’s just go along, a chapter at a time, and get what they want us to get from it.”)

Was Chloe Starnes performing that function for Tildy now? Was Chloe as amazed and grateful as I was when Tildy came up to me in third grade and said, “You want to sit together at lunch?”

And all those years I went on being amazed and grateful that she had chosen me. Until Anabel Norton asked me, when we were shopping on Worth Avenue, “Do you have a picture of this special friend you’re always talking about?” And I pulled the snapshot of Tildy out of my wallet—lovably arrogant Tildy, hands on hips, narrowing her eyes at me like a cat at its owner (“You belong to me”)—and proudly handed it over to Anabel.

The plucked line of Anabel’s brows shot up a full inch and then she laughed.
“This
is the superior being called Tildy? Why, Maud, she looks like—Orphan Annie without a neck. She is such a little girl compared to you. You’re already a stunning young woman. What exactly do you
see
in her, darling?”

Oh, Tildy, how I hurt for you when Anabel said that. It’s like Granny is always saying to Mother: “Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes again.” But what do you call it when somebody pulls the wool
away
from your eyes?

After Anabel said it, even though she tends to judge everyone by their looks and clothes, I couldn’t make the wool go back. I felt sick about it, but it had changed something. For the first time I wondered, What would it be like to be just Maud without the “Tildyand” in front? I had to find out. But how, without hurting you? Maybe if I acted shallow and stupid you would get disgusted and think you were dropping me. And you, the one who was always saying, “Oh, Maud, you’re so deep, you have a jillion facets”—poor Tildy, you didn’t even see through me!

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