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

Unfinished Desires (9 page)

BOOK: Unfinished Desires
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“You want to sit together at lunch?” you said that miraculous day in third grade. And I said, “Sure, why not?” Trying to hide my amazement. We’d both brought our lunches from home, but when we got to the cafeteria you went to the counter and bought each of us a bag of potato chips. You handed me my bag and then put yours on the bench and sat down on it.
Crunch
.

“I like to do that,” you said in your uppity way. “It makes more of them. Why don’t you try it?”

So I did.
Crunch
. It became a thing we did, and soon the other girls were copying us.

Oh, Tiddly. You could be so funny!

LILY NORTON, SHOULDERS
draped in an afghan, leaned back against Art Foley’s sweatered arm lying casually along the back of the glider. It was quite dark now. No nosy gossip passing on the sidewalk, even someone with twenty-twenty night vision, could see anything more than two figures sitting respectably upright on the porch of the Pine Cone Lodge.

“Yes, Maud and I are very close,” Lily said. “We are more like sisters than mother and daughter. Of course, I had her so young. I was practically a child bride. Mr. Norton used to call me that: his child bride. Maud tells me absolutely everything. We have no secrets from each other.”

“Do you tell her absolutely everything, too?” Art Foley’s voice was laced with lazy insinuation. As the syllables rolled out, his hand on the back of the glider stroked the nape of Lily Norton’s neck.

“Well, not
quite
everything,” said Lily with a skittish laugh. “I am her mother, after all. There are things that a young girl being carefully brought up isn’t supposed to be thinking about yet. Maud is so much less sophisticated than I was at her age. Much of it’s due to her school, Mount St. Gabriel’s, and those nuns—though I’m glad Mother and I have been able to scrape together the tuition. And last year she won a four-year scholarship to the academy. She’s getting a superior education, and meeting the right kind of girls. As I told you, I went to the public high school because my father hated Catholics and he thought nuns were an abomination.”

“The time he jumped off the bus when the nuns got on,” remembered Art Foley, now actively kneading Lily’s neck and shoulders.

“Oh, that feels so good. Don’t stop.”

“Who says I’m planning to?”

“It’s just that—oh, sometimes, I get so tired. It’s not easy being a woman on your own with a daughter to raise properly in a small town where everyone is watching you and waiting for you to make a mistake. I’m so glad that Mr. Norton and his wife, Anabel, have taken such a shine to Maud. Anabel is a very wealthy woman, and Maud likes her. Of course, Anabel’s a good bit
older
than Mr. Norton, but I daresay the arrangement suits him. He was never one to
strive
. Mr. Norton had his attractive points but being a good provider was not one of them.”

Art Foley chuckled.

“What?” asked Lily.

“I was just wondering if Mr. Norton had a first name? Or did you call him ‘Mr. Norton’ the whole time you were married?”

“It was—Cyril,” said Lily, rather stiffly. She hadn’t used the first name of Maud’s father for so long it sounded strange.

“You called him Cyril, then? ‘Will you take the garbage out, Cyril?’ ‘Oh, Cyril, that feels so good.’ ‘Oh,
Cyyy-ril
!’ ”

“You are very naughty, Mr. Foley.”

“Yes, I expect I am. But you were talking about your lovely daughter and meeting the right girls at school and so on. How about sharing some of that afghan with me? There’s plenty of it to go around if we just drape it over our knees, like so. It’s getting kind of nippy but I’m not ready to go in yet, are you?”

“Oh, no. Mother’s in the midst of her programs. She likes to turn off the light and
live
in them, you know.”

“Go on about Maud’s friends.” Under cover of the rearranged afghan, his other hand got to work on the inside of her thigh.

“Maud has this whole new set of friends. Mmm, this
is
comfy. But are you sure you have enough room under there, Art?”

“More room than I need, Lily.”

“You see, when she started to Mount St. Gabriel’s in third grade—that’s after Mr. Norton—
Cyril
—and I had parted ways and I came back to Mountain City to help Mother run the lodge. It wasn’t my idea of an exciting life, but I had a hostage to fortune to think about now. Well, in third grade Tildy Stratton made a beeline for Maud, and after that they became inseparable.”

“Yes, I’ve met Tildy. Saucy little number. Parents are society people, you said.”

“His great-grandfather founded Stratton Lumber. But other people run it now. He mostly just takes rich people hunting out at his cabin and rides around in the front seat of his automobile with the black chauffeur.”

“I guess Stratton Lumber has cut down enough virgin forests by now to let him do that,” said Art Foley with his lazy insinuating good humor.

“I have nothing against the Strattons,” said Lily.
“She—
Tildy’s mother—has a mean tongue, but Cornelia does go out to work every day. She has this very successful photography studio in town. She does all the important weddings and clubs.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” crooned Art Foley, taking a few more liberties under the afghan.

CHAPTER 9
Nuns’ Dormitory

Monday evening, October 15, 1951
Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila
Mount St. Gabriel’s

Ignatian Examen of Conscience

  1. First, ask for God’s light. Then try to review the day from God’s viewpoint.

  2. Pray for the grace to see clearly the guidance God is giving you in your daily history.

  3. When reviewing the day, ask to be shown concrete instances of the presence of God and of the activity and influence of evil. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings you experienced during situations and encounters.

  4. When did you and God act together? When did you yield to the influence of evil? Ask pardon for your failings and ask for the strength to overcome them.

  5. Plan how you can do better on the morrow. Then entrust yourself to God’s grace. Conclude with an “Our Father.”

Mother Malloy unpinned her veil, folded it according to custom, and laid it in its drawer, the two straight pins arranged on top of the black square of georgette crepe in the form of a cross.

In the portfolio on the desk were her handwritten preparations for tomorrow’s classes: portions of Cicero’s
Second Philippic
, that masterpiece of invective against Mark Antony, with its many shadings and tones of attack, though nothing too brutal or salacious in their Latin textbook with its imprimatur; in medieval history, they were doing guilds and festivals and the visual arts. What riches she could have checked out for them from Boston libraries!

For English class, she had brought up-to-date her own chart of David’s life. “Goes to live with Micawber family at Windsor Terrace, City Road.”

With reminders to herself in the margins:

  1. Mr. Micawber based on Dickens’s father’s experience of debtors’ prison.

  2. The author’s use of recognizable speech tags (“I never will desert Mr. Micawber”) to identify characters.

  3. “Flat” vs. “round” characters: advantages and disadvantages of each.

Removing the starched coif, Mother Malloy rotated her neck, enjoying the freed expanse of side vision and the coolness of a bare head. All those years of wondering what kind of unsightly remnants must lurk beneath nuns’ coifs—and then her surprise, after profession, to find out that the majority of her sisters
opted
to retain squashed clumps of hair under their veils. In the Order of St. Scholastica, the choice was left to the individual. Old Mother Finney, who had remained clear-sighted and steady-handed into her eighties, fulfilled a wide range of convent roles, from sacristan to school archivist, cellaress, and barber. “Finney’s Clip ‘n’ Shave Parlor,” as she called it, opened for business once a month in the nuns’ sunroom on the third floor. You sat on a kitchen stool facing the mountains and the western sky, a ragged sheet pinned around your shoulders, and requested either the scissors or the electric razor. Mother Finney herself was a shaver, she told Mother Malloy. “They do come back wilder and thicker—it’s as though each hair rejoices in its freedom to start over. All the same, like you, Mother Malloy, I prefer a tidy scalp.”

First, ask for God’s light. Then try to review the day from God’s viewpoint
.

In her flannel nightgown, Mother Malloy dropped to her knees on the prie-dieu beneath the wooden crucifix. After asking for God’s light, she launched into his empyrean, circling like a hawk in the dawn air above Mount St. Gabriel’s. This precept of taking a God’s-eye view came naturally to her. As a child, Kate Malloy had gone on frequent night journeys after lights-out in the foster home. This satisfying form of recreation was to be had simply by closing your eyes and envisioning whatever scene you chose—whether floating above and looking down on your own body curled in its narrow bed, or observing the foster home as a bird in West Newton might see it from the rooftop, or spotting the lights of Boston Harbor as they might appear to a night traveler aboard an incoming ship. These journeys were perfected during a long convalescence in her ninth year, when a strep throat followed by severe bronchitis kept her out of school for weeks; they continued unabated throughout her teens. It was not until she became a postulant, overscrupulous about everything in her mental life, that she confessed them to her spiritual director, who, luckily, was a man grounded in the physical realities, a priest who taught high school physics and chemistry.

“What do
you
think of these little excursions, Sister? Do you feel you are performing a mystical feat when you go floating around? Or that maybe God has graced you with these visions as a token of His special regard?”

“They don’t feel at all mystical, Father. It’s more of a visual shift in perspective. And the scenes don’t appear out of nowhere. First I have to want to go there—and I have to have seen the places, or to have seen pictures of them. It’s just that I can look at them from other angles.”

He brought her a test booklet from the high school. She looked at diagrams and chose the picture closest to how the object would appear when assembled from the diagram. She gauged distances in her mind or transposed angles, then chose from the pictures how the field of view would be altered. She made a perfect score on the test.

“I thought so, Sister. Yours isn’t a case of spiritual presumption; God has simply given you a high degree of spatial apperception. You would have made a damn good pilot.”

Go back to this morning. Be in God’s point of view as He rides the dawn, then banks and swoops and penetrates the chapel roof as an invisible, all-seeing presence
.

The community is at morning prayer. Today is the feast of St. Teresa of Ávila. Mother Ravenel reads the lectionary with her fast-paced southern brio, weaving in her own asides, as though she is a confidante of the sixteenth-century nun and perhaps believes she is a likely candidate for a modern Teresa.

“… and as you all know, she was a first-rate organizer, a vigorous and practical woman who had become so close to God that she talked right back to Him.
If this is the way You treat Your friends, no wonder You
have so few!
Yes, that’s just what she told him when her carriage overturned in the mud while she was on the road to found another convent.”

A ripple of nun laughter from the pews. A few had not heard the story; the rest laughed to register their good-natured acceptance of Mother Ravenel, the vigorous and voluble organizer among them, engaged in an act of being typically herself.

(“The hardest part of convent life is the day-to-day coexistence with your sisters in Christ,” Mother Malloy’s novice mistress in Boston had warned her. “Some personalities will rub you the wrong way from the start; others will cause you to lie in the dark at night, grinding your teeth. Some will bore you, some will earn your esteem, others you will cheerfully dismiss. But they are all vital pieces in God’s human kaleidoscope. That’s the thing you have to remember when you kneel next to them in chapel or watch them chewing their food across the table. But it will be especially trying for you, Sister, because you are fastidious and have the same high expectations of others as you do for yourself.”)

Mother Malloy had not been much discomfited by any friction with her sisters since she had been at Mount St. Gabriel’s. She was simply too tired at the end of each day to lie in the dark and grind her teeth over anyone. She often dozed off while doing her examen and saying her evening prayers. Up here in the mountains, one mile above sea level, the oxygen was scarcer. The southern food, fried meats and grits and starches and cobblers, cooked and served by the black kitchen staff, sat on her chest for hours after a meal. No wonder Gilda Gomez grew into her outsized blouses by Thanksgiving.

Except for the nuns’ noon chapel break, Mother Malloy was generally with her ninth-grade girls from eight forty-five in the morning until the end of last period, at two fifty-five in the afternoon. The exception was their after-lunch math class with Mother Odom on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, during which time Mother Malloy liked to walk the grounds—not the strenuous “mountain goat” hike of her first day with Mother Ravenel, but just strolling and breathing deeply and recollecting herself in the presence of God. Even when other faculty members were teaching the combined academy grades in the big study hall, Mother Malloy was expected to hover somewhere in the background, monitoring her fifteen girls.

The combined classes included Miss Bianca Mendoza’s popular Spanish conversation classes and Professor Staunton’s Friday afternoon lectures on current events (not so popular: Chloe Starnes doodled quite accomplished sketches in the margins of her current events notebook; Marta Andreu, whose comprehension of English remained minimal, gazed longingly out the window; the piano prodigy Elaine Frew drummed scales on her desktop).

There were also Mother Ravenel’s sprightly biweekly addresses to the entire academy, which went under the rubric “Moral Guidance for Modern Girls,” which Mother Malloy had overheard Tildy Stratton refer to as “Moral Guidance for Modern Goats.” (She was sure Tildy had meant her to overhear.)

She respected Mother Ravenel, was a little in awe of her, and yearned for a mere fraction of the headmistress’s stamina. Mother Malloy could not remember a time, even as a child, when she could command such reserves of energy.

WHEN REVIEWING THE
day, ask to be shown concrete instances of the presence of God and of the activity and influence of evil. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings you experienced during situations and encounters
.

On this Monday, the feast of Teresa of Ávila, Mother Malloy had experienced two definite instances of God’s love made manifest in human exchanges. She also had felt, in her classroom, stirrings of rivalry that might attract a devil alert to opportunity. She had difficulty with the concept of pure evil, but she could comprehend Aquinas’s definition (“a tear in the fabric of the good”) and had worked out for herself that temptation is anything that encourages us to be less than we are or that tries to separate us from God.

She remembered Tildy Stratton’s older sister, Madeline, on registration day saying, “I want Tildy to keep her intrepid little soul,” and her own promise to keep watch over it. She had wanted to see the interesting sister again, and on this very Monday, during her free hour after lunch, her wish had been granted.

For lunch she had taken a minuscule helping of the frankfurter-and-bean casserole, passed up the berry cobbler, and hurried out to take advantage of the crisp October air while Mother Odom did algebra with the ninth grade. She headed straight for the grotto, not by the strenuous route Mother Ravenel had chosen on her first day, but along a gentler path that branched off from the circular driveway in front of the school.

Once seated on the cool marble lap of the Red Nun, facing the Della Robbia Annunciation, Mother Malloy took deep breaths (she had walked fast in order to make the most of her hour) and tried to get a head start on her nightly examen by examining the day so far. The “keeping track” part of the religious life was difficult when there was a full teaching load as well. Was young Mother Galyon, the new principal of the lower grades, who had been granted uninterrupted years to finish her graduate work, able to keep track of her soul along with all her class preparations?

Where
, Mother Malloy asked herself in the grotto, nestled against the unfinished memorial to a dead girl,
have I, so far today, discerned God’s presence? And where the influence and activity of evil? Or spotted a tear in the fabric of the good?

She was aware of God’s presence most mornings when she took the ninth-grade roll. She felt herself inside the nimbus of Christ as Good Shepherd, alphabetically naming her sheep, checking on the well-being of each. Every routine “Present, Mother” came back to her in a particular accent and emotional tone. During this brief antiphonal exchange with her flock, Mother Malloy acknowledged each girl’s essence—Lora Jean Cramer’s stolid complacency, Mikell Lunsford’s tomboyish inattention. She also looked for signs of a girl’s current state: edgy or despondent this morning? Keyed up over something? Teary or sullen?

They were at such a molting age. Not yet divested of childish wrappings, their womanly selves poked out in spurts. Mother Malloy noted the almost daily changes. Tildy Stratton’s face had new cheekbones—she was going to be striking, if not pretty—but her grades were close to failing. (Mother Malloy had sent a note to Mrs. Stratton last week but had not yet heard back.) Flat-chested, word-swallowing Ashley Nettle had sprouted breasts, and under the influence of her Dutch friends Beatrix and Hansje, with whom she rode to and from school, was now speaking (almost) coherent English sentences. Dorothy Yount, holding herself like a diva since Mother Lacy had discovered her voice and become her coach, seemed to have mislaid her allergies altogether.

(“Remember, girls: you are a work in progress!” This was Mother Ravenel’s signature sign-off at the end of every “Moral Guidance for Modern Girls” lecture.)

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