Unfinished Desires



May 31, 2001

Feast of the Visitation

House of Olivia and Gudge Beeler

Mountain City, North Carolina

THE ROOM, THOUGH small, is light and airy. A highly polished writing table overlooks a square of lawn with flower borders. On the left side of the table, sharpened pencils have been placed slantwise across a brand-new yellow legal pad. Just behind the pad perches a small brass dinner bell. On the right side of the table is a silver serving tray. Laid out on its starched white cloth are a cut-glass water goblet, a silver pitcher beaded with frost, a tea napkin embroidered with a rose, a package of colored M&M’s, and a designer box of Kleenex tissues.

In the center of the table a shiny ellipsoid tape recorder awaits its mistress.

Two women enter, arm in arm. The stylish one in crisp linen slacks is tactfully leading the old one, who is all but blind. She can still see shapes and colors, identify objects and—with a little assistance from them—the people she knows. Guided by her sense of smell and touch, and from long familiarity with the appropriate things and their happiest placements, she can still recognize a perfectly appointed room.

In her mid-eighties, she has a leonine thatch of crisp white hair, erect posture, and a noble profile. Her glittering blue eyes, set deep in their sockets, make her old girls feel she is seeing into them as keenly as ever, and perhaps she is, aided by other instincts developed and sharpened over her decades of girl-watching. She is dressed with the simple taste of one who prefers tailored over feminine, and the only indication that she is a nun is the Latin cross, pendant on its silver chain, resting on the modest bosom of her silk blouse.

Every spring since the school closed in 1990, a group of her girls have pooled their resources and flown her from the Order’s retirement house in Boston down to Mountain City for a month’s visit. They know how hard it was for her to leave Mountain City, which was home to her for sixty years, first as a seventh-grade boarder from Charleston, South Carolina, then as a boarding student in the academy, from which she took her postulant’s vows in her senior year. From then on, except for semesters away at college after she was professed—and the one awful “leave of absence” (1952–53) enforced on her by her vow of obedience—her entire life as a teaching nun, the headmistress of the academy, and, finally, reverend mother was enacted within the blessed confines of Mount St. Gabriel’s.

This year, she is staying with Olivia Stewart Beeler, class of 1974, possibly her most satisfying class in fifty years of teaching. The ‘74 girls were easy; they were spirited without being spiteful, resourceful without being destructive. Her year with them (as headmistress, she always taught the senior classes) had been a picnic after the stormy sixties and the detritus left in their wake. There had been other rewarding classes, of course, ranging from the bracingly challenging to the sweetly uneventful, as well as the poignant and sad ones, such as ‘43 and ‘44, in which a total of six graduating seniors lost their fiancés in the European or Pacific theaters of war. And those once-in-a-while “star” classes, which kept her intellectually up to the mark, years in which a cluster of girls stood out and shone almost too brightly for the rest of the class’s good, setting off undercurrents of resentment and grief in the less gifted. After that, the postwar daughters of the upwardly mobile, taking for granted their security: even the pranks of those girls were fun-loving rather than mean.

AND THEN, IN the fall of 1951, the poisonous elements convened as the class of ‘55 entered their ninth-grade year and came under her charge. She still calls it the “toxic year” and is uncertain to this day how much of the damage can be laid at her feet.

A year better forgotten. Yet fifty years later she is still haunted by those girls.

But now her old girls have persisted and finally they have prevailed. They have persuaded her that she must write a memoir of the school or, rather, talk it into this waiting machine shaped like a miniature spaceship. “Otherwise, Mother, it will all be lost. Mount St. Gabriel’s was the school of schools. Please. Think about it over the winter. Remember all the assignments you gave us? Well, this is our assignment for you. It will be a fabulous story,