Read Come to the Edge: A Memoir Online

Authors: Christina Haag

Tags: #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Personal Memoirs, #Biography, #Television actors and actresses, #Biography & Autobiography, #Rich & Famous

Come to the Edge: A Memoir (3 page)

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
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I was never hit with a ruler, never taught the rosary or the difference between a venial and a mortal sin. When I was in second grade, an earnest nun with huge eyebrows taught us how to baptize.
Just in case
. One day, she said, we might find ourselves on a desert island with someone who wanted desperately to convert. She shut the classroom door, turned the brass knob until there was a click, and in hushed tones made us promise not to tell our parents. I did as she asked. I was quiet at dinner, but later solemnly baptized my dog Tango with bathwater so that we would be together forever in heaven.

The teaching methods began to change, too. We were still drilled on multiplication tables and French verbs; we still curtsied every morning and were silent on the stairs. But now there were journals for everything, and Arts Days and Medieval fairs; and if, instead of writing a paper, we wanted to paint a picture or put on a play or design a costume, we could. For Ancient History one year, we trooped to Central Park and scraped around in the dirt by Belvedere Pond pretending to be Sumerians. The sixties had seeped through the walls, and what we learned was love and not to hide our light under a bushel.

When I started at the school, more than thirty years had passed since Otto Kahn’s death, but remnants of him were everywhere: a painted ceiling thick with leaves, a frieze of Greek muses, a grandfather clock like the one Drosselmeyer covers with his cape in
The Nutcracker
, and the shapes of waves on stone. Doors carved in lion faces, parquet floors perfect for dancing, and in the library, a flight of hidden steps up which Kahn, it was whispered, lured young actresses to the master bedroom (now a classroom) above. But at the top of the second-floor landing, between the library and the chapel, there was a painting of a young woman in a salmon-colored gown that reminded us of why we were here. It is a copy of a Renaissance-style fresco from the convent of the Trinità dei Monti in Rome.

Mater Admirabilis
, Mother Most Admirable, she is called, and Our Lady of the Lily. The original, painted in 1844 by a young postulate of the order, was venerated and said to perform miracles, and in her small chapel above the Piazza di Spagna, words of thanks are carved in marble and etched in silver. Replicas of this Madonna can be found in Sacred Heart schools throughout the world. Ours was tall and had an arched frame. Set low to the ground, it rested on a platform of graduated steps so that even the smallest girl could approach. Unlit white tapers stood at either side, and on her feast day, the nuns placed flowers.

She’s called Mater, but if you look closely, past the ease and self-possession, you can see that she’s not yet sixteen. A girl. Through the columned arch behind her, dawn is breaking. She sits on a wooden chair, with a distaff on one side and a lily on the other. In her resting hand is a spindle, and at her feet, a book. Her dress is simple but ornamented. Beneath her is an elaborate floor of colored marble. She’s the picture of contemplation, but she has not turned from the world; the hair that falls from her veil is curled, and behind her lips there is a secret. She wears a crown of stars, but it’s before all that. Before she is Queen of Heaven, before the Annunciation and the Assumption, before the Magi and the star and the flight to Egypt. Before the wedding at Cana. And well before a body is handed down at the foot of the cross. Before grief.

I first saw her when I was four, and I liked her at once. She was pretty and she wore a pretty dress. But soon I knew her effect, the kind some have over small animals and storms. I felt watched over, loved without judgment or requirement. I felt allowed. It was to her I aspired, not the nuns or the priests or the images of suffering. I wanted to know her mystery only. In lower school, we passed her at least four times a day, shuttling from one stone staircase to another. I knew her then, knew her face, the way she appeared to blush in certain light and that her eyes were downcast but pleased. From the middle of a line of girls, I would always look back—craning my neck and dragging my feet—in case this was the day, the moment, she chose to reveal herself.

I knew when I was young that I went to school in a castle, and I knew that this wasn’t normal, but the small evidences of ruin—a chipped column, a faded tapestry—gave intimacy to the splendor, so it seemed it really was someone’s house. The nuns would say God’s house. And perhaps they were right. But from those years and from that place, I had the sense that brokenness meant approach and that beauty was something mixed of shadow and decay. That it was made, in part, from the pieces of the past and the things that are left behind.

I wonder if I was born nostalgic. It’s possible it’s in the blood, a predetermined trait like green eyes or flat feet. And it may well be that some ancestor on a sea crossing was filled with longing for what was gone—out of grief or pleasure, or simply to make the time pass on the ship.

I remember the first time I felt that kind of longing. I was standing in the hallway outside the first-grade classroom, eyes smarting and nose beginning to run. I’d been sent there by Sister Caroline for asking too many questions.
Too imaginative
, she’d written on my report card.
. Curiosity, it seemed—encouraged the year before by our kindergarten teacher, Miss Mellion, a smart Londoner who wore blue angora miniskirts and whose voice had a melody like one of Mary Poppins’s chimney sweeps—was now punished.

Sister Caroline was stout, with a pinched, doughy face, and if you stood close enough to her, there was an odd, shuttered smell. She was a visiting nun from another order and wore a different habit—starched, short, and striped—not the flowing black robes of Mother Brown or Mother Ranney. She also lacked their kindness. Her sharp eyes were always darting, never seeming to rest or take you in. She was the only nun I ever truly hated, and I wasn’t alone in this. What pleased her was order. What provoked her was expression. She was an expert in phonics, but her teaching was joyless, and her frequent reprimands, from which no one was immune, usually took the form of being banished to the stool in the Stupid Corner (while the rest of us had lessons) or coloring “baby papers”—simple outlines of flowers and puppies—with dirty crayons. Tougher girls, like Nancy or Christy, were able to laugh it off, but I wasn’t. And after I refused to open my milk carton during milk break—because I could never finish it all and what about all those starving children in Ethiopia—her dislike of me became acute.

That day, the hand bell had been rung, all the doors were shut, and I was alone in the long white hall. This was one of the worst censures, second only to being sent to Reverend Mother’s office, and it was the first time for me. I had no idea why I was there, and I wanted to hide. There was the cloakroom behind the elevator, the play deck on the roof above, or the dusty wings of the velvet-curtained stage in the assembly hall two floors down. Shame welled up in me, and I began to cry. I realized that the only way to get through the rest of the year with Sister Caroline was to dim myself, to silence whatever voice I had.

Blinded by tears, I turned down the hall. By the kindergarten rooms, thumbtacked neatly on bulletin boards, were rows of colored paper with cracked finger paint and names written in Miss Mellion’s black felt pen. With all my heart, I wanted to push the classroom door open, grab one of the little-girl smocks that hung on hooks in the cubbies, and bury myself forever in Miss Mellion’s soft, warm, British lap. And when I realized I couldn’t, I began to sob harder.

Then something strange began to happen. I couldn’t move, the floor seemed to swell beneath me, and a wave of everything I remembered from the year before came over me: Miss Mellion’s throaty laugh, singing a song during show-and-tell, the rounded inkwells in our yellow wooden desks, the red rug where we lay at nap time, the delicate chiming of Miss Mellion’s bracelets, the sun from the open window on Elizabeth’s gold hair. I was frightened at first, but then I gave over to the barrage of color and sound.

When it was over, I was no longer crying. I had lost track of time, and that felt like relief. Although I sensed that six was a bit young for this style of reminiscing, I also discovered that memories of pleasure—of what I longed for and what no longer was—had calmed me. They were as real as the long hall I stood in or the Gospel words on the banner nearby or Sister Caroline’s virulent disdain of me. I took the secret of that day, and later, on nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would choose a memory. Lying on my back with my eyes shut to the dark, I’d pick one, imagining it was a selection on a jukebox. I would wait until, like a shiny 45, it dropped and slowly began to spin.

It might be that the desire to turn back is passed on. I believe that. But it could also be that this place so redolent of the past had claimed me, marked me, like the smudge of Lenten ashes burned from the blessed palms of the year before.

Famous people’s children went to Sacred Heart, and in that way, it was like any private school in New York. The nuns were indifferent—they treated everyone the same—but names were whispered down, as in a game of telephone, during gym or in the lunch line. There was the daughter of Spike Jones, a big band leader of the forties and fifties (this impressed my father to no end; he had an eight-track tape of Glenn Miller, and he played it on all our car rides); the great-granddaughters of Stanford White; the nieces of William F. Buckley and Carroll O’Connor; and, for one infamous year at the height of Watergate, John and Martha Mitchell’s shy, red-haired daughter, Marty. Caroline Kennedy and her cousins Sidney and Victoria were older than me. I saw them in the halls, during fire drills, or at congé, a surprise feast held twice a year, when we played hide-and-seek en masse and ate cake and tricolor ice cream in paper cups with lids that peeled off with a pop. But at that age, the world consisted of the thirty-two girls in my grade—and a few of the mean ones in the grade ahead.

On a spring day in 1969, when I was where I shouldn’t have been, I saw her. No longer Mrs. Kennedy, she had married the previous October and was now Mrs. Onassis.

Arrivals and departures took place on Fifth Avenue through a small door that led to an industrial staircase. At the end of the day, the older girls headed off with colored passes for the downtown bus or the crosstown bus, but the lower school girls boarded private buses, double-parked and yellow, or were met by mothers and nannies gathered on the sidewalk for pickup.

The formal entrance was on Ninety-first Street through a recessed half-circular drive, once a carriageway, that led to two sets of dark double doors. The covered drive, where we sometimes lined up for fire drills and class pictures, was a well of coolness, a cavern of stone. At either end of the drive, flung wide in the day and locked by the nuns at night, were fifteen-foot arched dungeon doors. This was the grown-ups’ entrance. We were allowed to use it only at special times, like First Communion and the Christmas concert, when the front lobby was home to a massive tree and a terrifying oversize crèche.

I don’t remember whether, on that day, I went there because it was spring, or because it was off-limits, or because I simply wanted to stand by myself in the cool between the doors. Nor do I recall how, before that, I found myself, between lunch and gym, alone on the first-floor landing.

I stood on the landing (where I was allowed) looking at the lobby (where I was not), and instead of turning left up the steps by the courtyard, I lingered. Except for Miss Doran, the receptionist, the large hall was empty. No one on the heavy benches that looked like church pews. No one at the ancient creaky elevator with the brass grate (also off-limits). It was a window that wouldn’t last.

My waist rooted to the handrail, I inched down a step. Miss Doran turned in my direction. She was chinless, and her head ended in a topknot. I watched as it bobbed. She was on the phone, a private call I could tell, and with her thumb, she kept tapping on the bridge of her cat-eye glasses. She saw me and she didn’t. When she swiveled her chair away from me, I began to walk—the polished doors just feet away—not fast, not slow, but as though I belonged, as though I were an upper school girl instead of a lowly third grader.

I made it through the first set of doors into the tight alcove with the lantern above. My heart raced. Realizing that no one had followed me—no nun, no Miss Doran, no handyman—I pushed open the second set of doors. Triumphant, I stood alone on the top step, looking at the tight-budded trees on the street outside.

But there was someone there. A woman backlit by the sun had just stepped through the arch onto the cobblestone drive, her face obscured by shadow. Behind her, a photographer was taking pictures. He looked curious to me, like a monkey bending in all sorts of ways, but oh so careful not to drop his camera or cross the line that divided the sidewalk from school property. Even through the flashes, I recognized the long neck, the dark glasses, and her hair just like my mother’s when she went to a fancy party. Tall, like an empress from a storybook, she glided toward me, without interest in the man who continued to take pictures of her back. Her face was calm, as if by paying no attention, she could will him from being.

When she was close, I saw her face, that her lips were curved. She took one step up, placed a gloved hand on the heavy doors, and was gone.

Years later, when we met, I remembered who it was she had reminded me of that day. It was the painting of the Lady with the Lily, with the same inscrutable smile.

The uniform we wore was nothing like the ones at the other girls’ schools nearby. Not for us the blue pinstripe or the muted plaid. We wore a gray wool jumper, a boxy jacket to match, either a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar or a red turtleneck jersey, gray kneesocks with a flat braid up the side, and brown oxfords bought at Indian Walk the week before school started. The shoes were hateful—like the ones nurses wore, with pink lumps of rubber welling from the sides. The only consolation was that everyone had to wear them. My mother made me polish mine once a week with a Kiwi kit (also from Indian Walk), and as I sat on the white-tiled bathroom floor inevitably scuffed with brown, it seemed to me a supreme waste of time to shine something that was so ugly to begin with.

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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