(This essay is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)
May 4, 2011
I know that there is something sad and faintly distasteful about love’s ending, particularly love that has never been fully realized. . . . In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.
— Edna O’Brien, b. 1930, Irish fiction writer
from “Sister Imelda,” in A Fanatic Heart
I spent the whole year I was in tenth grade planning to become a nun.
I can stop conversations with that revelation. Some people can’t reconcile the image of the woman they know, strong-willed, independent, worldly, sexy even (so some say), with their stereotyped image of nuns as sedate, sexless, submissive individuals who have no life beyond the walls of their classrooms or their hospitals or their diocesan administrative offices. As I gave my history here in 2008:
For most of my tenth grade year I wanted to become a nun. Every morning I would go to the library at Bishop McDevitt High School and look through a directory of women’s religious communities. It was sort of like a college catalog, all the various orders of Catholic sisters presented with a picture of a typical member in her official garb and a fact sheet about what the community’s particular ministries were. I prayed every day for discernment and read memoirs of convent life that I found in the guidance office. I was drawn to the School Sisters of Notre Dame because I adored my Latin teacher, Sister Euphemia, but I finally settled on the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who did social work among troubled and adjudicated girls. I sent away for their application materials. My mother found the packet in my room and questioned me with some alarm and suspicion about my plans. This attitude puzzled me. Some time during the summer before eleventh grade my interest in becoming a nun waned as my interest in Michael Vergot as a boyfriend increased. Eventually I threw the application materials away, and never thought about it seriously again.
Sometimes I try to articulate for friends what motivated me during that year in my life. I was drawn, I think, to the community aspects of convent life, to its rhythms, to what I perceived as the security of regimentation. I’d seen The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn as the valiant Sister Luke struggling to obliterate all vestiges of Gabrielle, the girl she was. And Francis of Assisi, the beautiful Dolores Hart (who really did become a nun) as Clare who hears Francis’s message of repentance and self-denial (through the handsome Bradford Dillman, of course) and dedicates her life to the service of the poor and the sick. I read what I’ve just written, and it baffles me now.
“Sister Imelda,” first published in The New Yorker on November 9, 1981, depicts an unnamed narrator, a boarding student at an Irish convent school, who forms an attachment to her math teacher. Her feelings are akin to what now might be termed a “girl crush.” The youngster’s feelings for Sister Imelda ride the very thin line between intellectual and emotional desire for her teacher’s friendship and an actual physical desire for her. She misses her during school vacations, devises ways to see her outside of class, suffers the pain of rejection when Sister Imelda appears to ignore her or treat her harshly, perhaps as a way to hide her own feelings. The girl decides to become a nun, and confides this aspiration to Sister Imelda. Over the summer after her graduation, however, she changes her mind (through a process not divulged in the story), enrolls in a university as an undergraduate instead of in a convent community as a postulant, and stops writing to Sister Imelda.
Although I read that story this morning in a paperback edition of stories selected from Edna O’Brien’s extensive body of work, I read it originally in The New Yorker. In fact, it so impressed me then that I tore it out and saved it, and I have it still in a file among my OPW (Other People’s Work) materials. I’m fairly certain I didn’t read it the day that issue of The New Yorker landed in my mailbox. I was probably in the hospital, in the first or second course of an effort to relieve the pain and compromised mobility caused by what was diagnosed as a slipped disc. The disc would rupture just after Christmas, I would undergo an operation to have it removed, and I would spend eight weeks recovering. That’s probably when I read the story, in the long weeks that I spent my days alone. I was at a crossroads in my life. I would file divorce papers on the anniversary of that surgery.
“Sister Imelda” is a story that I read frequently. Always, I get to the end surprised, because I’ve read it straight through, without pausing to analyze its structure, to notice how O’Brien uses language or manages point of view. I’ve used the lines I use here as an epigraph several times, usually when trying to communicate to someone that I am at a loss for words to say how meaningful something is that has transpired between us. As with any piece of great literature, it is a different story every time I read it, because it is a different person who sits down with it time after time.
In recent weeks I have been sighing, living with and through a depression that descended on me without warning, Melanie, my Black Bitch come to visit out of season. Last week, after an event that took me back into my childhood milieu, I came to some clarity about what was bothering me: Although I love and celebrate and appreciate the life that I have, over the last weeks, I have been grieving the life I didn’t have; parts of the life I did have that have ended or vanished; and aspects of a life I will never have.
That’s what “Sister Imelda” gave me this time through, a confirmation of that clarity. The narrator sees Sister Imelda on a bus about two years after their relationship ends. “Life was geared to work and to meeting men,” she recalls. She is with the girl who was her best friend at the convent school. She hesitates to approach her former teacher and say hello, begin to explain about having abandoned both her vocation and their friendship, and to ask forgiveness. She hesitates too long, and when she is finally ready, Sister Imelda and her companion have disembarked from the bus and are walking away.
In my deepest moments, I say the most inadequate things.