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M A Y 1 9 9 9
by Mary Gordon
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From Atlantic Unbound:
Facts & Fiction: Catholic. Woman. Writer (May 6, 1999)
An interview with Mary Gordon.
Her decision to become a nun, her image of herself as one, wasn't fed by
fantasies of Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn. By the time she entered the
Sisters of the Visitation, the number of candidates was dwindling and almost no
one was wearing the habit except the very oldest sisters in the order; she'd
been advised to get her college education first, and by the time she entered
the order, in 1973, only two others were in her class. After twenty-five years
she was a school principal in New York City and the only member of her class
still in the order.
They joked about it, she and the other sisters, about how they'd missed the glamour days, and now they were just the workhorses, the unglamorous moms, without power and without the aura of silent sanctity that fed the faithful's dreams. "Thank God Philida's good-looking, or they'd think we were a hundred percent rejects," Rocky said, referring to the one sister living with them who was slender and graceful, with large turquoise eyes and white hands that people seemed to focus on -- which she must have known, because she wore a large turquoise-and-silver ring she had gotten when she worked on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Rocky and the fourth sister had grown roly-poly in middle age. They didn't color their hair, they had no interest in clothes, and they knew they looked like caricatures of nuns. "Try, as a penance, not to buy navy blue," Rocky had said. They seemed drawn to navy and neutral colors. They weren't very interested in how they looked. They had all passed through that phase of young womanhood, and sometimes, watching her Hispanic students, and the energy they put into their beauty (misplaced, she believed: it would bring them harm), Joan nevertheless understood their joy and their absorption, because she had been joyous and absorbed herself -- though she had wanted to make things happen, to change the way the world worked.
All the sisters she lived with had the same sense of absorption. Rocky, who had been called Sister Rosanna, ran a halfway house for schizophrenics and was now involved in fighting the neighborhood in Queens where the house was located. "They want us out," she said, always referring to herself and the psychotics as "us" -- believing, Joan understood, that they were virtually indistinguishable. Four days a week Rocky lived in the halfway house; the remaining three days she joined Joan and two other sisters -- Marlene, who directed a homeless shelter, and Philida, who was the pastoral counselor at a nursing home. They shared a large apartment -- owned by the order -- on Fiftieth Street and Eighth Avenue. They had easy relations with the neighborhood prostitutes and drug dealers, who were thrilled to find that these people, whom they called "sister," seemed to have no interest in making them change their ways.
They could have been almost any group of middle-aged, unmarried women who made their living at idealistic but low-paying jobs and had to share lodgings if they wanted to live in Manhattan, housing costs being what they were. But at the center of each of their days was a half hour of prayer and meditation, led in turn by one of the four of them. They read the Gospel of the day and the Old Testament Scriptures; they spoke of their responses, although they didn't speak of either the texts or their thoughts about them once they had left the room they reserved for meditation. This time was for Joan a source of refreshment and a way of making sense of the world. If anyone had asked her (which they wouldn't have; she wasn't the type people came to for spiritual guidance), she would have said that this was why she loved that time and those words: they were the most satisfying consolation she could imagine for a world that was random and violent and endlessly inventive in its cruelty toward the weak.
Unlike the other sisters, including Philida, Joan had always been too thin. When she thought about it, she thought she had probably become stringy, and her skin, which had tanned easily, was probably leathery now. Perhaps her thinness and the coarse texture of her skin were traceable to her anomalous bad habit. Joan was a heavy smoker. She'd begun smoking in graduate school, the education program at the University of Rochester. Her study partners had all smoked, and she had drifted into the habit. She had wanted to persuade them -- and herself, perhaps -- that they didn't know everything about her just because she was a nun. Nuns didn't smoke; everyone knew that. But Joan did, though she had tried to quit. The women she lived with didn't allow her to smoke in the apartment; they had put a bumper sticker up on the refrigerator that said SMOKE-FREE ZONE. And of course she didn't smoke in school. She went over to the rectory to smoke.
HE was the principal of Saint Timothy's School, at Forty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue. Once all Irish, it was now filled with black and Hispanic children. Joan was proud of what Saint Timothy's provided. She knew that she suffered from what one of her spiritual advisers called "the vanity of accomplishment." She knew she had a tendency to believe that she could do anything if people would just go along with her programs, and she made jokes about it, jokes on herself, jokes she didn't really believe. When she made her last retreat, which was run by a Benedictine sister, the nun urged her to contemplate the areas of life that were unsusceptible to human action, the mysterious silences of God, the opportunities for holiness provided by failure. She tried, for a while, to center her meditations the way the Benedictine had suggested, but then concluded that this was a contemplative's self-indulgence; she was in the world, she was doing God's work in the world. There was work to be done, and (was this what she had grown up hearing described as "the sin of pride"?) she could do it. She had long ago given up heroic plans and dreams, but she could make her school run well, and she could give to children -- who often didn't have it elsewhere -- a place where they were made to feel important, where things were demanded of them, but where they were valued and praised.
Though Joan was frustrated and vexed by the poor quality of many of her teachers, she believed that the children got from her and her staff a quality of schooling they could never have gotten in the public schools. She came to understand that many of the teachers were at Saint Timothy's because they wouldn't have been tolerated anyplace else. She put up with most of them, because at least they created zones of energy and discipline. She drew the line, though, at Gerard Mahoney. Gerard had been teaching seventh grade at Saint Timothy's since he left his seminary studies, in 1956. Joan was sure he'd been thrown out, not for bad behavior or any spiritual failure but simply because he couldn't make the grade -- not then, not in the years when the seminaries were full to overflowing. God knows, she said to herself, nowadays he would probably be ordained. But they'd sent him home, to his mother, who had been the housekeeper at Saint Timothy's since, Joan once speculated to Rocky, Barry Fitzgerald was a curate. Mrs. Mahoney had been there when Steve Costelloe arrived, fresh from the seminary, thirty years earlier. Steve had been the pastor at Saint Timothy's for the past fifteen years. Gerard's mother had died twelve years ago, after a long illness, when Gerard was fifty-two.
Joan and Steve got along, which was more, she thought, than a lot of women in her position could have said. Essentially, Steve was lazy; his saving grace was that he understood it. He was a pale redhead, with freckles under the gold hair that grew on his hands; he was going bald; he had broad shoulders, but then his body dwindled radically -- he was hipless, and his legs (she'd seen them when he wore shorts) were hairless and broomstick-thin. He had a little pot -- whimsical, like something he carried tucked in his belt, a crystal ball he tapped his fingers on occasionally, as if he were waiting for messages. He was incapable of saying no to people, which was one reason he was universally beloved. Saint Timothy's was a magnet for people who had nowhere else to go; Steve was constantly cooking up vats of chili (his recipe said: "feeds 50-65"), and some unfortunate was always in the kitchen.
Often someone who had no real business being there was found to have moved into one of the spare bedrooms; the rectory, built for the priests, was nearly empty. It housed only Steve and Father Adrian, from the Philippines, who giggled all the time; when faced with the desperate situations of junkies and abused wives, he would say "Pray and have hope," and giggle. Sometimes Joan and Steve said to each other -- thinking of the hours they spent counseling people in trouble -- that Adrian's approach might be approximately as successful as theirs, considering their rate of recidivism. In the Philippine parade he'd been on a float, playing a martyred Jesuit. His brother, who had contributed to the construction of the float, blamed Father Adrian for their failure to win the prize for best float. "You were laughing when they hanged you," he shouted at his brother. "That's why we didn't win." "I couldn't help it," Father Adrian said, giggling. "The children made me laugh." Steve was happy to have Father Adrian, because he was willing to take the seven o'clock mass, and Steve liked to sleep late. Joan suspected that Steve was often hung over. He was in good form by noon, for the larger mass that served the midtown workers, who came to him on their lunch hour and usually, she guessed, went back to work refreshed.
Problems arose when Steve felt that one of the people in the rectory rooms ought to be moving on; then he would come to Joan desperate for help. She would summon the person in question to the office (not in the rectory, of course, but in the school, next door) and speak firmly about getting a hold on life and going forward. Some of them just ignored her, and stayed on until some mysterious impulse sent them elsewhere. But a few of them listened, and that was bad: it encouraged Steve to ask for her help again, and she couldn't say no to his unhappiness; he was as hopeless as a hopeless child. She often said that the one temptation she could not resist was to try to fix something when it seemed broken and she believed she had the right tools. More often than not she felt she did.
Steve was dreadful with money, and a terrible administrator. He was saved by his connections: people he'd met when he played minor-league baseball, or when he sat in the Sky Box at the Meadowlands because someone had given him a Giants ticket, or people whose confessions he had heard on an ocean liner while he was a chaplain on a Caribbean cruise. Once a year Saint Timothy's would have a fundraiser, and somehow he'd be bailed out. He left the administration of the school to Joan, allowing that she was much better at it than he, and saying, "Just don't get our name in the papers, unless it's for something good." He had no stake in proving himself the boss, and she was grateful for that; when her friends ran into trouble with their pastors, it was because those pastors resented a loss of power. Steve wasn't interested in power; but Joan believed he was genuinely interested in the welfare of his flock. When she was angry at him, because he had foiled her or screwed something up, she thought he was interested only in being universally liked, and that he'd become a priest because it gave him a good excuse for not being deeply engaged with human beings.
In the end he'd backed her up about Gerard, whose shortcomings were impossible to ignore. When she walked down the hall past his classroom, the sounds of chaos came over the frosted-glass pane above the door. She had taken to making random visits; the sight of her in the doorway quieted the kids. Pretending she was in full habit, pretending she was one of the nuns she'd been taught by, she could stand in a doorway and strike what her mother would have called the fear of God into any class. Even the rowdy seventh-graders -- the boys who could have felled her with a punch, the girls who were contemptuous of her failure to get the knack of feminine allure -- even they could be silenced and frozen in place by the sight of "Sister" staring down at them, as if from a great, sacral height. It couldn't go on.
She talked to Gerard first. Gerard smoked too, and she saw to it that their cigarette breaks in the rectory coincided. She asked him -- gently, she hoped (though she'd been told that she wasn't tactful and lacked subtlety) -- if things were going all right in his class. He said, "As well as can be expected." She had to hold her temper. Expected by whom? she wanted to say. She said that keeping order among adolescents was difficult, and if he wanted to brainstorm with her and some of the other teachers, she'd be glad to set something up. Then she looked into his dull black eyes, eyes that seemed to have been emptied of color and life and movement, and thought that if there was a brain behind them, it, too, would be inert and dull. No storming was possible in or from that particular brain.
She wasn't someone who thought much about people's looks (whether people were good-looking wasn't a judgment she made about them), but Gerard's looks annoyed her. It was as if he had sat passively by and allowed someone to push his face in; the area from his cheekbones to his lower teeth was a dent, a declivity, a ditch; his lower teeth jutted above his upper ones like a bulldog's. Something about the way his teeth fit made it difficult for him to breathe quietly; he often snorted, and he blew his nose with what Joan thought of as excessive, and therefore irritating, frequency. His ears were two-dimensional and flat, like the plastic ears that came with Mr. Potato Head kits. His clothes were so loose on him that she could not envision the shape of his body. He wore orthopedic shoes, and she imagined that he had a condition no one talked about anymore, something people didn't need to have, which he just held on to out of weakness or inertia. Gerard had flat feet.
He said he was doing just what he'd been doing for forty years, and it seemed to work out all right. He mentioned that one of his earliest pupils was already a grandfather.
She wanted to say to him, What the hell does that have to do with anything? But she was trying to keep in mind what would be best for the children. She suggested breaking up the class into focus groups; she suggested films and filmstrips; she offered him more time in the computer lab. They didn't actually have a computer lab; it was a room with one computer. But Joan thought that by calling it "the computer lab" she would encourage everyone to take it seriously. Gerard, remarkably, was more skilled with computers than most. She imagined him honing his skills alone in his apartment, the one he'd lived in with his mother, playing game after game of computer solitaire, or computer chess, or some other equally solipsistic and wasteful pastime. To whatever she suggested, he responded, "I guess I'll just go on doing what I've been doing. It seems to work out all right."
The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.
Mary Gordon is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of many books, including The Company of Women (1981), Temporary Shelter (1987), and The Shadow Man (1996), a memoir. A collection of her essays, Seeing Through Places, will be published next year.
Illustrations by Gérard DuBois
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The Deacon; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 94 - 106.