Gail Godwin

Book Excerpt

Father Melancholy's Daughter Father Melancholy's Daughter
A Novel

Published 1991


September 13: Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage, 258

--The Calendar of the Church Year

I: M O R N I N G

Although I did not know it then, my life of unpremeditated childhood ended on Wednesday, September 13, 1972. The weather that day in Romulus, Virginia, was warm and sunny; the sky an unclouded Shenandoah blue. I had been in first grade for three weeks. The schoolwork I found easy, insultingly so. It was the social side of things, the winning over of other children that was going to demand my subtler energies. I was, and was destined to remain, an only child, and was more practiced in the management of adults.

That morning I had dressed by myself because Daddy had Wednesday Mass and had gone next door to the church to "set up shop," as he called it, and Ruth, my mother, was completely taken up with an overnight guest, a woman she had known at boarding school. The visit of this person had been anxiously anticipated by my mother for reasons I failed to understand. From the moment she had arrived the evening before, sauntering arrogantly up our walk and making her arch comments about the rectory, I had taken a dislike to Madelyn Farley.

I remember well the dress I put on that fateful Wednesday morning. At Romulus Country Day School, girls were allowed to wear jeans or corduroys by then, just like the boys, but since I was the Rector of St. Cuthbert's daughter, I guess it was thought that I should uphold the old ways a little longer. My dress was one of several new ones that Ruth and I had bought over in Charlottesville, the nearest good town for shopping before Romulus built its giant mall.

It was a blue and brown plaid of soft cotton, but with some percentage of miracle fiber in it so it didn't have to be ironed, and the reason I liked it was because it had these wonderful buttons all the way down the front. They were of a magical clear amber color that changed according to the light and they were shaped like little cats' heads, even with the eyes and noses and whiskers etched in.

"Those are real buttons, Margaret," Ruth had said in the store when I was insisting on this dress. "Every time you put it on, you'll have to button them all the way down, and every time you take it off you'll have to unbutton them."

"I don't care, I want it," I said. "I don't mind buttoning the buttons."

"Well, just remember, I'm not doing it for you. I've got enough buttons of my own to worry about." My mother had this way of talking. She would say something that sounded simple and harmless in her light, melodic drawl, but underneath you often got the feeling she was saying something quite different at the same me.

When I came down to breakfast on the morning of September 13, I was waiting for Ruth to see how well I had buttoned every one of the little cats' heads, but before she could even notice anything, the woman named Madelyn started acting chummy with me, asking how I liked school.

"It's okay, I guess," I said. Not one of my brightest answers, but I could tell she wasn't truly interested. The chumminess was for my mother's benefit.

"Oh, come on now, Margaret," said Ruth, laughing. "You love school." She sat in her accustomed seat in our breakfast nook, the nook she'd had built into the recesses of an old-fashioned bay window when we had moved into the rectory. The bay window had once been part of the dining room before my mother had talked Daddy into getting the vestry's permission to knock out a wall. It was her favorite spot in the rectory, this breakfast nook that she herself had designed and implemented. Here she drank coffee, made her lists and wrote letters, often slipping out of her loafers and stretching her legs out in front of her on the pale yellow window-seat cushions corded with bright orange. Occasionally she did watercolors of Daddy's garden, which was really many different gardens, depending on the season and the particular time within that season. Once she made me sit across from her, where the woman named Madelyn was now sitting, and had tried to do a watercolor of me. It was not a success, although I almost went crazy keeping still. I pretended to like it, because she was so unhappy with the way it had turned out. But she was right. It had made me into a blurry little girl with flat brown curls and eyes as undiscerning as a blue-eyed doll's.

Now, hugging her coffee mug secretively to her chest, as if concealing a small, warm pet that belonged to her alone, Ruth was bragging to the visitor about how well I could read. Her rings flashed in the morning sun. Though she had stayed up most of the night talking and laughing with her friend, she looked fresh and lovely, particularly in comparison to Madelyn Farley. My mother was a collection of pleasing colors, with her honey-smooth tan, aquamarine eyes, and the silky hair with its red and gold and even some bluish lights. Lately she had taken to wearing her hair pulled back severely with a tortoiseshell clip, ever since one of our parish ladies had told her she looked more like a college girl than a rector's wife. With the bright fall sunshine upon her, she seemed partly made out of silky, liquid light herself. It is right there, in that vivid instant of my appreciation of her, that I preserve some genuine feel of what my mother was to me, some essential Ruth-ness about her that has not become blurred by my father's and my subsequent romanticizings of her, or worn thin by our obsessive retrievals. It's not a lot, but it's better than nothing. It lives on in me, that glowing little moment of paradise, when I walk towards her light and her colors as towards a treat; I am sure of my welcome, sure of her esteem. Even the unlovely visitor serves a purpose by providing a contrast: that's what you might took like if you are outside the light, when you are only basking in it briefly before taking to the road again.

"Margaret could say her alphabet by the time she was three," Ruth was boasting to her friend. "And she and her daddy have been hitting the books ever since. You saw how the two of them couldn't wait to get away together last night for their reading session. You should have seen the look on her face when she came home from school the first day. She is the single child in her class who already knows how to read! I was a little worried at first. You know, that her classmates might resent her. But her teacher says she's handling it just fine. She's going to be smart and popular, it looks like."

"Well, why shouldn't she be?" remarked the other in her brusque, flat voice. "You were."

"Oh, come on, Madelyn. I made friends easily, but I was certainly not a brain. I was just a good memorizer and knew how to please my teachers. No, Margaret gets her brains from Walter."

The woman plunked down her spoon and bared her big, square, white teeth at my mother in a sarcastic grin. She had been eating some grayish mush that I assumed was the wet version of the "high-energy" cereal she had brought with her in \the glass jar when she had arrived last evening in her silver Mustang with the New York license plates. "This ought to be refrigerated," she had told Ruth in her flat, clipped tones. "It's got raw wheat germ in it."

Now she shook her head scornfully at my mother. "Ruth, Ruth, Ruth," she chanted in her mocking way. "You haven't changed at all. What are we going to do with you?"

"Well," said my mother, blushing, "it's the truth. Walter's mind is formidable and she gets that part from him. Maybe he does push her a little, but she seems to like it. It makes them both happy."

"Walter's formidable mind is not the question here," challenged Madelyn Farley with a wry look at my mother. She was the first adult who had not reacted with awe at the news of my precocious abilities. In fact, I felt as if I were invisible to her at the moment. Totally focused on my mother, Madelyn Farley sat with her back to Daddy's fall garden of Michaelmas daisies, scarlet asters, and what he called his indomitable little nasturtiums. The same morning sun that glorified my mother shone cruelly through the visitor's short, wispy, tinsel-colored hair. You could see through to the outline of her scalp and picture how she would look if she were bald.

"Margaret, honey," said my mother, "why do you always shake out a mountain of cornflakes? You know you'll only eat a fraction of them."

But Madelyn Farley answered for me. "Because, when you pour the milk over it, you have the satisfaction of watching the whole mountain collapse."

This was exactly the way I felt about the cornflakes, only I couldn't have expressed it as such, but I didn't like Madelyn Farley any better for putting my feelings into words for me.

She sniffed my animosity. Trying her chummy act once more, she slid forward her jar of the "high-energy" cereal my mother had teased her about last evening when we had been carrying in her things from her car. "Would you like to try some of my cereal?" she asked in her scornful voice. "It reacts differently from your cornflakes. With mine, you pour on the milk and everything swells up." She bared her big white teeth at me in what she probably thought was a smile, but her eyes, a hard metallic gray, like her car, were mocking. She was too complicated, even if I had wanted to he friends with her. Also she appeared to be challenging me in some way, as though the two of us were in competition.

"No, thank you," I said politely, looking down at my collapsed cornflakes drowning in their milk. I pretended to be intent on eating them. Only a few minutes more and it would be time for Ruth to walk me to my school-bus stop. I reminded myself that when I returned from school this afternoon, this unsettling person would be gone from our lives.

She was on her way back to New York after working all summer in some outdoor theater in southern Virginia. First she had been supposed to come and visit at the beginning of the summer, but she got a late start from New York and canceled at the last minute. After my mother rallied from her disappointment she told us that the end of the summer would actually be better because then Madelyn could stay a few days. All summer Ruth prepared for this rescheduled visit of her old friend. She and Daddy discussed it and then she sat down in her breakfast nook and wrote a letter to Madelyn Farley telling her about all the things they would do. "I've got to tempt her," Ruth said. "Madelyn is always working, working, working. You have to talk her into having fun."

"You could use some fun yourself," Daddy said, "after putting up with me this past winter." He was referring to his most recent depression, but after one of his depressions was over my mother didn't like to talk about it. I think she hoped each one would be the last. So she made no comment and continued writing her letter to Madelyn. "You two could drive to the Peaks of Otter," Daddy went on convivially. He was full of benevolence and good ideas since his hope and energy had come back. His sonorous, rolling voice, which Dr. MacGruder, our senior warden, called Hour pulpit treasure," had its old bounce in it once again. "Do take a few days off," he urged my mother. "You and Madelyn go somewhere and be schoolgirls together. It would do you good. Margaret and I will stay here and hold the fort."

"We were never girls together, Walter," Ruth corrected him. "Madelyn was an instructor at Miss Beale's. She was twenty-five at the time and I was eighteen. Even eighteen isn't a girl anymore. It would be fun to go off somewhere, but on the other hand I really want Madelyn to get to know you and Margaret. Also, she'll be coming from down there and she might not want to double back, even for the Peaks of Otter. Madelyn's not someone who likes to double back on herself. It's all straight ahead for Madelyn."

"My," said Daddy. "She sounds pretty fierce. Well, you tell her we'll do our best to make her comfortable."

Ruth sent the letter off and weeks went by without a reply. "She's probably not coming," said my mother disconsolately.

"She has her career on her mind. Besides, our lives are so different now."

But finally, in late August, came a picture postcard showing a play in production at the summer theater where Madelyn was working. The picture showed two actors in overalls sitting in front of a shack on an outdoor stage. They were made up to look like ancient hillbillies, but you could tell they were young men. Ruth was overjoyed to get the card and read the message aloud to us several times. "Madelyn says thank God this isn't one of her sets, and she can come to Romulus on September twelfth and stay till Friday the fifteenth. I had been counting on a week, but she's a very busy woman. I think I'll buy a new bedspread to replace that sickly green one in the guest room. We'll need it for the Bishop in November anyway, when he comes for confirmations."

"The Bishop is color-blind," said Daddy amiably, "but you go right ahead and buy a new spread that will pass muster with your friend."

But when Madelyn Farley arrived on the evening of September twelfth, she had hardly climbed out of her car and allowed herself to be hugged and kissed by my mother before she was announcing in her flat, clipped voice that she could stay only one night. She had to be on the road to New York the very next morning, she said, sounding very pleased with herself.

"Oh, Madelyn, I'm crushed. I've been looking forward to your visit for months. I even went out and bought you a new bedspread!" Though my mother spoke lightly, and was pretending to make fun of herself, anyone who knew her well could tell she was genuinely hurt. "Oh, I'm so disappointed, Madelyn."

"So am I," the visitor had replied breezily, not sounding at all disappointed. "But this new job came up. I have to work for a living, you know." She pulled a glass jar of something out of a canvas bag on the backseat of her car and handed it to my mother. "This ought to be refrigerated. It's got raw wheat germ in it."

That's when Ruth had laughed and teased her. "Oh, Lordy, if it isn't your same old 'high-energy' gruel from back at Miss Beale's! You still swear by it?"

"I still swear by it," repeated the visitor in a mocking singsong, which sounded as if she were trying to imitate my mother's way of talking.

"You used to say at Miss Beale's that it was the source of your secret powers," my mother said.

"Did I really? How arrogant of me." But Madelyn Farley looked pleased to be reminded of this former arrogance. Slinging a stuffed gray leather bag over her shoulder, she started ahead of us up our own front walk. She wore dirty sneakers without socks and rumpled khaki pants and a dark polo shirt open at the neck. She was a pale, lanky person, and though breasts were obvious beneath the polo shirt, she loped along more like a boy. She was different from the grown-up women I knew. And she seemed another species altogether from our church ladies with their constricted, mincing walks and their soft-spoken pleasantries. My mother, who had changed dresses twice that afternoon while nervously waiting for her old friend's arrival, followed joyfully behind, carrying Madelyn Farley's large black portfolio, which tied with strings on all four sides, as if it were the property of some awesome dignitary. I was put in charge of the "high-energy" jar full of dry grainy stuff that had to go into our refrigerator at once.

Just before reaching our front steps, the visitor halted abruptly and scrutinized our house. "So this is the rectory," she said wryly. "I had first thought a chilly gray stone, but this grizzled brick creates the same mood. I expected the ivy, of course. All rectories must he smothered in ivy. But I really have to congratulate myself for imagining your Gothic Revival windows exactly as they are." She spoke as if, standing there with her legs apart, hoisting her stuffed gray bag, she was actually making up our home on the spot.

"Madelyn is a scenic designer," Ruth explained to me. "She makes the sets for plays, so she has to pay special attention to houses and things. I don't mean she actually constructs the sets anymore, do you, Maddy? Not like back at Miss Beale's. Now that Madelyn here is in the big time, she just decides how things will look and then other people build them. Madelyn has worked on Broadway."

"Mmm," rumbled Madelyn Farley sarcastically. "And the play closed after three performances."

"But that wasn't the fault of your set, Madelyn. I mean, you didn't write the play. And besides, this is only the beginning for you. I'm sure all kinds of directors saw that show and admired your set, whatever they thought of the play."

"Oh, Ruth, it's good to see you again," said the visitor in a slightly condescending tone. "I really don't know how I stayed away so long." She slipped her free arm around my mother's waist and the two of them stood there swaying back and forth, my mother smiling happily.

"Run on, sweetie," Ruth said to me, "and put Madelyn's jar in the refrigerator. And don't bang the screen door."

"I'm very pleased with myself for getting your Gothic windows exactly right," said Madelyn Farley, still swaying back and forth, hip to hip, with my mother.

"I never much noticed what our windows were," came my mother's vaguely wondering reply. "Except to sometimes wish they let in more light."

I went on into the rectory as ordered, but forgot and banged the screen door. The long, straight hall that went to Daddy's study and then turned a sharp left towards the kitchen was rather dark. And as I realized this, I felt the stirrings of a profound uneasiness. I could not have said why then, but I wonder now whether I didn't sense that this woman about to enter our house might indeed possess "powers" capable of changing our lives by making us see ourselves differently.

Daddy was in the kitchen, stooped over the cocktail tray that he was ceremoniously setting up for the visitor. His stoop was his most characteristic posture, not only because he was six feet three and always inclining towards shorter people but also because of his close-up style of attending to things. He was nearsighted and had to get right down to their level. Being small myself, I appreciated this: I felt he saw me not just in outline, the way many adults did ("Oh, there goes a child"), but in all my unique particulars.

In honor of the visitor, I saw, he had fastened his clerical collar in back with the gold stud Father Traherne, his late beloved mentor, had given him at his ordination.

"Whoa there," he said as I stomped past with Madelyn Farley's energy granules. "What kind of critters have you got in that jar?"

"They're not critters. It's some stuff she eats for power that's got to be refrigerated." I packed my voice full of disgust, to signal to him my feelings about the visitor.

"Oh, oh," he crooned affably. "Well then, I expect we'd better get it on ice, hadn't we?" His playful inflections conveyed to me that my opinion of my mother's friend had been registered. "But we'll be cordial to her, won't we?" he said, capping the top of my head with his large hand. It was all he needed to say.

Madelyn and my mother went straight to the guest room. Presently Ruth returned alone. "She wants to shower and change first," she told Daddy. "Oh, and she can only stay one night."

Daddy raised his eyebrows. "I thought until Friday."

"A new job came up and so she has to rush back."

"I see. Too bad she didn't phone. You've gone to so much trouble with your menus."

"Oh, well," sighed my mother, sinking down on the sofa and looking despondent, "she's not a lady of leisure like me."

"Busy people can find time to phone," said Daddy, "and you are hardly a lady of leisure."

"I'm sure she meant to phone," said my mother defensively, frowning at the air in front of her. "By the way, she doesn't drink cocktails, she said. Just white wine with a little ice."

In that case," said Daddy, "I'd better open the white wine, hadn't I? But I only bought the one bottle, for our dinner. Should I go out quickly and get another one?" He looked at his watch. "Though I expect they're likely to be closed by the time I get there."

"No, it's too late," snapped my mother, exasperated. She rolled her eyes at the ceiling, the way she did after a tennis game with Elaine Major, when she would fling down her racket and do parodies of the Major before going off to restore her good temper with a shower. But now she was making a supreme effort to keep her good temper. "Oh, Walter, I'm sorry," she said contritely, after a moment.

"Sorry for what, my love? There's nothing for you to be sorry for.

"But the visit's starting off all wrong. I wanted you two to like each other."

"Well, I promise to try my best," replied Daddy amiably. "But I can't promise on her behalf that she'll like me."

He rose resolutely from his chair to go and open the white wine, and after watching my mother brooding to herself for a minute, I escaped to join him in the kitchen. Except when he was having his depressions, Daddy was the most congenial person I knew. He could smooth over any awkwardness with a winning phrase. Whereas Ruth, my mother, though she always looked graceful and assured, could at the same time emit devastating little dagger waves of displeasure when things were not living up to her expectations. She was also more impatient than Daddy and tended to give up on people and things more quickly. She and Daddy differed in another way, too: when something did not go well, she would roll her eyes and sigh and exclaim, "I'm sorry, it's all my fault!" But you knew she was expecting you to convince her it was not at all her fault. In contrast, when something displeased or disappointed Daddy, he would shake his head sadly and say, "Civilization is crumbling. The world as we have known it is going down the tubes." But you could tell he was really blaming himself for not being good enough or powerful enough to make things conform to his expectations.

The visitor finally made her appearance and was introduced to Daddy. When he dipped his long, black-clad body to her in an old-fashioned bow, she gave him a suspicious side smile, as if he might be poking fun at her, but he wasn't. He was one of those men who still bowed to women. Madelyn Farley had changed into dark trousers and a smocklike flowing shirt crammed with embroidered figures and symbols. I thought it was a preposterous thing for a grown woman to wear, but it did break the ice by serving as a conversation piece.

"What a wonderful shirt, Madelyn," said my mother as Daddy handed the visitor her white wine with ice in it. "is it from some place exotic?"

"It's from all over, actually," said Madelyn Farley in her brusque voice. As she positioned herself in front of our unlit fireplace, her long fishy-white feet in their scuffed sandals poked in opposite directions. Her tinsel hair stuck up from her head in damp separate wisps from her shower. She was definitely the strangest person I had ever met. "A costume designer I work with made it for me," she said, rotating her wine glass upon the palm of her hand, causing the ice to make a little clinking song against the sides of the glass. She appeared to be listening to the song, holding us all in the palm of her hand as we waited for her to go on. "She cut out motifs she liked from scraps of old fabrics and tapestries and arranged them to please herself. It's a collage." She drew out this last word in her dry, mocking manner. It was the first time I had heard the word, and for a long time after that, I thought it meant the type of garment she had worn.

"Well, it's most interesting," said Daddy, who hovered alongside of her in front of the fireplace because he couldn't politely sit down before she did. "I believe your friend may have cut that one" -- and he lightly tapped a dove with an olive branch in its mouth on Madelyn Farley's shoulder -- "out of an old altar frontal. Yes, because here's some more of it in the same weave and colors." He indicated with his finger, but this time did not actually touch, two intertwined letters on Madelyn's breast pocket. "Yes, your shirt certainly is 'from all over', isn't it? That's the Alpha and the Omega you've got on your front pocket."

"What is the Alpha and the Omega?" inquired Madelyn Farley, at last deciding to take a sip of her wine.

"Well, they're the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet," said Daddy. "But in Christian symbolism they stand for the all-embracing, the totality. That's what I meant when I said you were right about your shirt being from all over. On altarpieces and vestments, the Alpha and the Omega stand for Christ. It's His monogram."

"Oh, my," said Madelyn Farley. She raised her eyebrows at Daddy, then smirked down at her pocket with complacency. "I'm going to have to look into this church symbolism of yours. There are probably things I could use in my work."

"Ah . . . undoubtedly," murmured Daddy. Still standing beside the visitor who was obviously not going to sit down, he smiled ruefully down into his Scotch glass, as if confiding to it something more than he was prepared to say aloud.

"I hope you aren't offended," challenged Madelyn Farley rather combatively, "that I am wearing Christ's monogram on my shirt."

"Well, of course he isn't offended, Maddy!" My mother spoke up from the sofa, where she had been raptly watching this important opening scene being played out by her husband and her old friend. "You didn't know what it was. I myself didn't know until Walter pointed it out just this minute. And besides, well, my goodness, it's just a shirt your friend made for you."

Avon Books | Paperback| 404 pages