Howard Winn’s writing, both fiction and poetry, has been published by such journals as Dalhousie Review, Descant (Canada), Break The Spine, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, New York Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Raven Chronicles, Borderlands, Beloit Poetry Review, Xavier Review and Toyon. He is presently working on a novel dealing with Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” His B. A. is from Vassar College. He also has studied as an undergraduate with A. B. Guthrie, Jr. and John Ciardi at Middlebury College. Winters. He has done additional graduate work at the University of California San Francisco. His doctoral work was done at New York University. He has been a social worker in California and currently is a faculty member of State University of New York faculty as Professor of English.
HISTORY OF A SCHOOL GIRL
By Howard Winn
In school, she had often felt humiliated by small things, probably not even noticed by others. It had to do with her ambiguous status at the school.
She had been a scholarship student at the expensive all-girls boarding school where her mother worked in the school office. The school was in the wealthier suburbs of New Jersey and most of the students were either the children of business executives who commuted across the Hudson River to high level jobs in Manhattan, or (for some reason obscure to her at the time) the daughters of wealthy Latin American families. Later, when she was grown up and attending Radcliffe College in the 1940s before it disappeared into Harvard, she realized that the motive for those Hispanic parents came from the strict social rules that the school and the Headmistress enforced for the boarders. There were certainly rules for the day students, such as she, but the non-boarders got to go home after classes and were therefore free of the “in loco parentis” regulations by which the boarders had to live. These standards for behavior seemed something left over from the Victorian period, as was the Headmistress, she also realized later; but those rules comforted those elite and wealthy Spanish parents with their sense of what was necessary to guard the purity of young females while they were getting a college prep program in English.
Nevertheless, her American middle class adolescent life was informed both by these standards for behavior and by the limited finances of her own family. She was the daughter of a single mother, a widow, whose husband had worked in a local bank and had more or less drunk himself to death. Her mother and father were white collar upper middle class people. Her mother painted in water colors on weekends and had some artistic talent which she could not translate into a career.
She named her daughter Holly out of romantic notions about the festival nature of the plant. Later her daughter, when she took a required science course in botany at college, would wonder if her mother knew those bright red berries, beloved by some birds, were toxic for human beings. Diarrhea and vomiting could result from ingesting such Christmas decorations. Holly thought maybe she had been cursed by the name and the fact that the shrub was dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants. She felt so incomplete without at least a crush on some adolescent boy. Maybe it even explained her inability to be realistic or critical concerning the ones she obsessed about in school. Where would be the perfect male holly plant for her and how would she recognize the right it or the perfect him?
It had been that way beginning with puberty and she was certain it was not normal, but she could never be certain since she never discussed her feelings with her mother. There was never that revealing mother-daughter birds-bees and blood talk. There seemed never the right moment and her mother always appeared too busy, particularly after her father’s death, or too scornful of physical girl talk. The scorn became more evident when Holly began to bloom into a young girl who if not prettier than her mother had the glow of young womanhood that is beautiful in its newness.
Holly had to find a book and read it thoroughly in order to understand what being a woman was. She had to find it in the public library since nothing of that nature appeared in the library at Miss Buckley’s. The diagrams helped.
Her father, when he was sober, was the practical no-nonsense opposite of her mother. He had read history books with a critical eye. He had found novels and poetry tedious, irrelevant to his business life, an attitude not much different from the corporate men of his generation and status. It was a taste not even open to question in his circles.
They were, oddly enough, both liberal in politics, FDR supporters during his time, with a strong sense of obligation for the less fortunate, although her father flirted with the idea of voting for Thomas E. Dewey when he thought Harry Truman might be too weak a man to be president on his own. For her father, whose bank was saved by the quick governmental actions of FDR in the financial crisis at the beginning of the Great Depression and the launching of the New Deal, there could not be a word of criticism for the Democrats with FDR, even if some in the WASP establishment said he was a traitor to his class. In the end, therefore, he could not vote Republican and went for Harry. His kidneys and liver gave up the ghost after that election and before inauguration, so he failed to live into Truman’s own elected term; but perhaps his indecision and final choice epitomized the reasons the newspaper headline was so wrong at that time. All of this family history did not exactly have an obvious effect upon her character or the direction of her life, or maybe it all did. She did not think about it much. Her success was the most important thing.
At the school, she was a very good student. She was imaginative and diligent. She did particularly well in art classes and English classes. She went out for field hockey because playing some game was a requirement of the school. The headmistress believed in the theory of a sound mind in a sound body, even though the headmistress herself was not particularly athletic, at least not at the headmistress stage of life where her ambition had now taken her. But those beliefs hung on, and inflicted themselves on the students, and she saw no inconsistency between her current sedentary life and her theories about what was good for young girls. Tiring physical activity left little time for bad thoughts was a guiding principle.
As Miss Burgess often said to her meek assistant, Miss Peeler, “Wear out those young bodies and we will not have to deal with the unbridled libido of adolescent girls.”
Miss Burgess, who had more or less inherited this school from its founder, another spinster Miss from an earlier generation, may have seemed to belong in the era of Queen Victoria, but she had read Freud and Jung, unlike the creator who began Miss Buckley’s Classes in an old house, and knew what she needed to be on the look-out for in her young charges, and what they were capable of if not watched carefully. “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” she often said, and who was Miss Peeler to question biblical wisdom, particularly from someone as forceful and as sure of her own beliefs as was Miss Burgess.
Holly was intimidated by the sophistication of the South American girls, particularly the ones from Argentina who all seemed to consider themselves honorary Europeans, and to look down their patrician noses at the provincial American. Their derision of a school girl like Holly was made evident.
“Never been abroad?” said one with a last name of de Rodriguez-Amengual. “Why? Not to know the pleasures of the world and to know only New Jersey. How sad.”
“I visit cousins in Spain,” said another one with the last name of de Cuevas. “Do you have any important relatives?” she asked Holly.
Holly had no important relatives and only a few unimportant ones, other than her widowed mother. How mortifying it was to be so parochial in the world of these girls who had to be watched over by Miss Burgess and Miss Peeler because they obviously would rush to sample the flesh pots of the Gringos and Gringas in this Northeast United States – in the big city to the north– if left free to do so. They might be saving themselves for the important Latin American wedding to one of those notable Argentines or Venezuelans, or perhaps even a European Spanish noble, but they were obviously not going to go to such an event completely inexperienced. Virginity seemed not an option.
Holly swore that eventually she would escape the Miss Burgesses and see the wide world on her own. She only had to figure out how to do it with the kind of capital left by a depression-ruined banker father and the pitiable income of a single widow who worked in the office of a private girls’ school where salaries were more than modest, even for the mostly single women who were the teachers. The answer was to work even harder on her studies, excel, and get a scholarship to a really good college.
So she did.
She foreswore school social affairs, school politics, and boys, while focusing totally on studies. Her mother was very pleased with her grades. Her teachers, who were often social misfits themselves, were so full of pride at how they had succeeded in turning out a young scholar that they began to tell her she should look at the top colleges for her future. They did not understand the motives that inspired Holly and quite naturally gave the credit to their superior instruction.
In the process, Holly also began to see her mother as one of life’s losers. She was too young to see the complications of life that had brought her mother to this pitiable state. There were just too many conditions – the depression, the pompous but weak father, the “good” wife and mother role, the expectations for women – that she could not be expected to grasp it all. She only knew that she would clearly avoid such a miserable fate.
Radcliffe was the answer. Her mother thought Sweet Briar, because she knew that intelligent young ladies went there, but Holly set her sights on the Harvard of women’s colleges. She could not get into Harvard, of course, but Radcliffe would be the key to the world she wanted to enter. Smith, Vassar, or Wellesley if that plan failed.
Her SAT scores were perfect, 2400, a reasonable rarity anywhere and the first ever at the school. The ladies who taught were proud of their prodigy. She began to get letters from colleges which, if not exactly begging her to apply with a guaranteed admission, made it plain she was in if she wished to be.
But Radcliffe was the place in her dream plan, and off she went in the autumn of 1946. No superior South American debutantes there to sneer about her lack of sophistication, or at least none that she ran across in her classes, but there were plenty of prep school valedictorians, who made it necessary for Holly to work her trim little butt off to keep up. At least, she had gone to an acceptable WASP private school, so she was not summarily shunted to some untouchable social category where the public school graduates found themselves.
Not that she had much time for sophisticated social life in the Cambridge Boston area, nor did she hook up with handsome Harvard men who intended to go on and become leaders of industry, banking, government, and law, or MIT men who planned to become the next Nobel prize winners in science. Not part of her calculations.
She was looking for the alluring, worldly, fascinating man of the world, perhaps a bit older, for whom the intelligent, successful, brainy woman she intended to be after college would be the perfect helpmate. It was a glittering world for the two of them that she envisioned.
Into her second year, she discovered the prospect of a junior year abroad. The first year plus those few months in the second had plodded by with plenty of academic successes. Few friends, of course, since she was spending most of her time on studies, and in learning how to look like a Radcliffe girl on a very limited budget. At least, understatement could be cheap, if one purchased only a few classic garments from Peck and Peck. Now the possibility of a year abroad as the introduction to the worldly sophistication she hoped to obtain after graduation whetted her appetite. It would be a kind of trial run, she thought, for her later persona.
She chose Ireland and Trinity College. She thought about exploring Dublin and following the tracks of James Joyce’s characters. She thought about Molly Bloom’s earthy sexiness, the eagerness of Stephen Dedalus to explore the world and escape the provincial life. The ideal father in Leopold Bloom thrice baptized.
Oxford and Cambridge as a goal would be just too ordinary, and Trinity seemed somehow more glamorous and different with the aura of James Augusta Aloysius Joyce about it and the seductiveness of his forbidden sexy Ulysses alive in the Dublin streets.
The history of my family is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, Holly had thought to herself , revising and adapting Stephen’s famous cry, while immersed in Joyce’s Ulysses for one of her lit classes. That cry spoke to her condition. She would study history at Trinity, since she had elected European history as her major. Her instructors thought a junior year abroad in the U. K. would be more appropriate, but Holly knew her own mind and Trinity in Dublin would be it. Besides, Ireland would be like testing the waters, while Oxford or Cambridge might just be too demanding for her first exposure to old world urbanity and elegance. Besides, she found she wanted to see the Book of Kells for herself.
The final months of her sophomore year that followed this decision dragged by. She kept up her studies, spending hours in the library so that she would depart for Dublin as the accomplished junior year scholar, ready to set Trinity on its ear with her erudition. She also squeezed in time to research Ireland and Dublin, Joyce and Trinity. She would be ready.
In that interval she and her mother squirreled away funds for her flight and for her expenses while away. She took a waitressing job for part of the summer and put that money away with the rest. It was hard, but once her mother understood how important this year abroad was for Holly, she became as dedicated to making it all happen as her daughter was. Even money put away for her mother’s retirement was called upon. If Holly was the success she planned to be, she would take care of her mother in her declining years, as Holly termed them in her mind.
She could hardly breathe as she boarded the TWA plane at Idlewild for Shannon. Flights from New York to Shannon, Ireland had not been scheduled for that long and she hoped everything went according to schedule. Perhaps the recent establishment of Shannon as an international airport with DC4s flying in over the Atlantic was a sign that this junior year abroad in Ireland was just meant to be. She kept checking her tickets, looking at the time for the connecting flight to Dublin. The requirement that made everyone stop at Limerick was a nearly unbearable arrangement, and there seemed to be no rail connections in case of a problem.
Her assigned seat was on the aisle. She buckled herself in, even though the plane was still hooked to the starting gate. She looked at the material in the pocket of the back of the seat in front of her. Ditching instructions! Oxygen mask use! Vomit bag!
“Pardon, Miss.” A velvety baritone voice interrupted her semi-panicked perusal of these dire instructions. “I have the window seat.”
A blue-gray uniformed arm rested on the next seat back. Her eyes traveled along it to the tall, blonde man who possessed it. He was in a blue-gray RAF dress uniform with ribbons and wings, with eyes the same color as the uniform. He smiled.
“Unless, of course, you would like the window for the view. I am quite used to that sort of thing, you know. Do take it. Dennis O’Phelan, since we will be elbow to elbow for a number of hours”
“Holly Dean,” she blurted out, before she could remember that Miss Burgess would have more than frowned on the informality of these introductions, but it was done. A mutual friend should be present to do the honors, but Holly would have to improvise in this situation.
They talked a great deal during the flight, and the conversation took her mind off all the fears that she taken with her as part of her baggage. He learned she was going to Trinity for her junior year abroad from college. He knew about Radcliffe and was impressed. She learned he was returning from a British military intelligence assignment in the US to be discharged and take up residence at the family estate in county Cork near Kilphelan. She was impressed in turn to learn the town was from his family name. By the time they had eaten the airline food together, drunk together, dozed together, waked up together, gone to the WC (as he put it) alternately if not together, they seemed like old friends.
Afterwards, she marveled at how comfortable she had felt with this slightly older man and with their conversation. They seemed to exist in a cocoon while the Irish returning to their home territory had celebrated loudly through the trip, even when the cabin was darkened for what some passengers might have wanted for sleep. Bushmills, Redbreast and Jameson all were used to toast the old sod, the magic green island.
When the great buzzing vibrating plane finally put down, they gathered their carry-ons and inched down the aisle. “Trinity?” he said, “For a year? Perhaps when you get settled in I could show you Dublin. They have grand pubs that I know of, often with authentic Irish music. Or a boat ride on the Liffey. There might even be a band on the boat. Very scenic, it is, the River Liffey, and empties in Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea. In good weather it would be something to remember.”
And then they lost one another in the bustle of luggage retrieval, customs, and finding her connecting flight. The excitement, the anxiety about getting it all right and the nearly being there drove him from her mind.
He did show up eventually, slim, aristocratic in manner, but friendly and solicitous. No uniform, of course, since by then he had been mustered out and was living a civilian life again at the O’Faolajin manor house near Kilphelan in County Cork. Irish tweeds covered his angular frame and capped his head.
“Donegal,” he explained. “In the north, near the border with Northern Ireland. Grand pastoral countryside and close to wild coastline. Or Galway, famous for the green Connemara marble. The best freshly caught salmon in the world there, if you like fish. You should see it – sometime.”
He shepherded her to pubs where she had Harp Lager and listened to music by bands called such names as The Irish Ramblers or The O’Grady Brothers. He offered advice on how to drink Bushmills Original. “It is triple distilled. Scotch is only doubly distilled. No peat smoke for Irish. Sip it like an old brandy.” She decided to stick with Harp Lager. Safer, she considered. No way was she going to get drunk and make an ass of herself. Miss Burgess had had a permanent effect in that respect. Remain a lady.
He would return periodically to take her out to dinner and she decided she was being courted, even though that had never happened to her before. He was gentlemanly, considerate, told her of his ancestors, of the 18th Century house he lived in, the estate of the O’Faolaljins that had gotten a bit run-down while he was away at war, that his parents were deceased, and that he had been an only child – something of a rarity, but his mother had not been very strong.
He said he was attempting to get the estate and the manor house into shape for a woman to be happy in, where the next generation of O’Faolajins could grow up to continue the line, and then he finally asked her to marry him. He proffered his late mother’s engagement ring.
She said no. It was a tempting offer but she planned to complete the junior year and return to Radcliffe to get her Bachelor’s degree, the inevitable Phi Beta Kappa key, graduate work and independence. She informed him that was part of her long range plan for her life. Only then would she think about a man, maybe this one but not necessarily, she considered. She needed the opportunity to look around and compare.
She finished the year at Trinity with distinction, as she originally expected. Although Dennis still came around at intervals, he did not mention marriage again. Her refusal did not seem to alter his gentlemanly attention, or his polite consideration. When they said goodbye for the last time in Dublin as she organized her life for departure, he kissed her – on the cheek, no less – and wished her a safe journey.
His last words were, “Au revoir” which she thought charming and worldly. He was enchanting, if you can call a man that, no doubt about it
Her return to Cambridge and Radcliffe was the same. She did not actually feel any more sophisticated than before she embarked for Ireland. She had seen the Book of Kells, listened to Irish music in Dublin Pubs with a beautiful man who offered marriage, studied hard at Trinity without feeling like James Joyce, sailed the River Liffey, and learned about yeomanry of the U. K.
Now was the last year. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, just as she had planned, and was to graduate with distinction. Doctorial work was now just below the horizon, like the sun in winter at the North Pole. Then Dennis turned up again in Harvard Square, right there at the intersection of Mass Ave and Brattle, as he said he would when he called her at the dorm. She took the call as she was packing up to move.
“You should have been here for Harvard-Go-Bragh,” she said. “Lots of Irish stuff to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Bands, parades, green beer.”
“It sounds riotous, but I don’t really go for all that stage Irish shenanigans,” he said.
“Shenanigans? Is that Irish?” she laughed.
“I haven’t the foggiest’” he said. “My mother used to say it. So, how about dinner? You pick the place, since you have spent four years minus one in this territory.”
Over dessert and coffee – fresh strawberries dipped in a fondue of hot chocolate fudge – he suddenly pulled out the ring again. “Now what is your answer?” he asked without preliminaries.
Her sinuses hurt from the dust of packing. She would have to arrange the moving of her possessions to the dingy apartment in Medford that she had arranged to share with other graduate students she did not really know and her back pained her in prospect. There would be a summer job to fill up her depleted checking account, and then back to the books, lectures, and the library, a TA assignment reading student papers or exams. She was tired. She had to admit it. And this was just the middle of the journey, if that.
Suddenly all this mad rush to independence and personal success seemed pointless and enervating now and in prospect. Treadmill to what? Academic spinster? Married to another dry academic? Sniffling away in a dusty library? Single retirement in a college town? These alternatives were depressing. The childish desire to be taken care of, long hidden, resurfaced.
“Yes, this time,” she said, much to her own surprise.
So the sleeping beauty awoke and was wed by her prince charming and lived happily ever after in his castle in County Cork.
Only it did not work out exactly like that.
About six years later, one of her former undergraduate friends who was now doing post-doc research on the Scotch-Irish and the development of the Irish linen industry, decided to look up her old classmate. Finding a listing in an alum directory, Nancy Miller made contact and arranged to come by for tea on her way north.
Nancy, who was driving a rental car, an Oxford MO, steered up a gravelly track with grass in the center. A small stream of water ran along the drive. She approached the imposing front of a manor house – imposing from a distance but diminished in grandeur as one drew close. Paint was peeling, hedges looked in need of trimming, and flower beds along the drive were weed filled. From somewhere behind the house, Nancy could hear familiar cackling bird cries, a bit like rusty gates swinging, which seemed to be similar to those she remembered from walking in the fields of Nebraska with her grandfather. Pheasants, here in County Cork?
“And Black Grouse, as well,” said Holly, as the two sat in the parlor of that decaying O’Faolajin castle. “We raise them in pens and when they are grown, Dennis has shooting parties come out. The birds are released at the edge of our fields and when the dogs scare them up, the people shoot them. It is rather like shooting live skeet, you see. Dennis guarantees a proper number of kills and the hunters go home with wild game. Except of course, they are not really wild at all. Just sitting ducks.” She laughed. “Or sitting grouse.”
“Well, it brings in a tidy sum, and we do need the cash flow, as Dennis says. That is why he imported American pheasants, as well. Americans, who come to look up their Irish roots, like the fact that they can go home and tell everyone they have been shooting pheasant or grouse on the moors. Not that they actually have, but it makes a nice story to tell the home folks. I doubt if anyone of them could tell a moor if they stepped on one.”
.”What do you do here? With your time?”
“The two children take up a lot of my energy and time. Dennis Junior – actually he is Dennis IV or V, I am not really quite sure – is still such a baby. Joan at five is quite a responsible little girl, but she is still little. And I help Dennis with the birds when I can; although dried bird guano dust bothers my sinuses.”
“No historical studies here? You always loved digging around in original sources and making sense of old documents back at college.”
“I have seen the Book of Kells, you know. Fascinating and beautiful. Unfinished. Isn’t that amazing. Of course, that sighting was in my junior year abroad and that seems like another era by now. There are burial mounds on the property. Dennis says they date from antiquity and no doubt contain the bones of original O’Faolajin family.”
“Sometimes I think this house is a kind of burial mound and we four live in it, believing in some kind of sentimental fiction about a glamorous family of Irish history. The maybe bones actually seem more alive than the human beings now bearing the family name – many have changed it, you know, to Phelan and Whelan, except the Celtic revivalists who have reverted to the old Gaelic spelling.”
“Well, that is interesting,” said Nancy, who could think of nothing else at that moment.
“He has never read Joyce. Never heard of Beckett . He hardly knows Yeats, except that as a good Irishman, he knows he should. We never have a literary conversation. The 18th century wall paper is peeling but he can’t replace it because it is authentic. Even if it is French, anyway, and not Irish. His friends talk about investments and how Ireland is on the cusp – one of his favorite words – of an economic revival. This place is so damp and musty I had a real temper tantrum – me, the calm one– when Dennis Junior was born, and he promised he would build a normal modern house on our land. It would have double walled cement blocks with air space between, he said, since a timber house would mold and rot; timber was for American sub-divisions, anyway, he said. It will not have the full color O’Faolajin crest on the wall, I can tell you. Even the new house has something of the mausoleum about it, particularly in its present unfinished phase with the unpainted walls of cement blocks. Going into debt to do it.”
Nancy did not know how to respond to all these intimacies. She felt as if she was standing in for some kind of therapist, but her study of the Scotch-Irish French Huguenot connection to the growth of the Irish linen trade did not supply any answers to all of this post-school girl angst.
“Mother was so happy when Dennis and I got married. She did not want me to have the hard life she had had when Dad died. It was not exactly the career, of course, but it was security and a certain cachet to be the wife of The O’Faolajin. She was overjoyed to become a grandmother twice over and to be the grandmother of the next The O’Faolajin as well. Big deal! Face it, Mom is a snob, liberal but a snob. I feel like I am waiting for Godot but what shows up are these god damn phony hunters, shooting pathetic, tamed, hand-fed birds. If I said that to Dennis, he would not know what the fuck I was talking about.”
She paused. “He is a very good man, I know, but so, so.” She struggled for a word. “Mediocre. Not what I thought at all. And how I have come to loath those mawkish Irish tenors! Shit.”
Nancy knew it was now time to leave. Holly was resurrecting the mildly obscene language of their semi-liberated youth and it just did not go with the proper English tea and the decaying decor of the room. Perhaps there had also been enough personal revelations.
She told Holly that if she were to make it to the next B and B on her trek toward historic revelations concerning linen, she had to get back on the road.
As she waited at the open door of her Oxford MO to exchange the requisite polite thanks and goodbyes, Holly said, “I apologize for all the talk about me. I did not even ask if you had married, although I kind of guessed not, since I see no husband on this trip with you and no rings.”
“No, not yet,” Nancy said. “I have some candidates but I have just been too busy getting the Ph. D. and now this post doc research to cinch a tenure track line.”
“Well, then,” Holly said through the open car window as she helped shut the door. “Pick one who has a good brain and who knows how to make love and not just babies.” She paused. “ I had no standard of judgment, you know. Such a dithering romantic school girl, I was.” She paused again. “Or maybe am. I would love to grow up.”