Perfection – A Novel by Kathleen Wade
Excerpt: Perfection by Kathleen Wade
Abandoning her dreams of becoming an actress or a writer, Maggie Walsh embraces Church teaching, believing the convent is the path to perfection. She sets out to follow that path, no matter how difficult.
The challenges of the 1960s: radical changes in the Church; civil-rights unrest; anti-Vietnam War protests, all seep into the cloister and stir up conflict. A high-school sweetheart, then admiring male colleagues, complicates her resolve to be faithful. Can Maggie and her classmates find fulfillment in God alone?
June 1960 – August 1962
I waited for him on our front porch—something I’d done a hundred times. His old blue Ford chugged down our street of modest, red-brick houses. He parked and slid through the opening in the boxwood shrubs—a shortcut he’d created during the two years we’d been going together.
The sight of Stan gave me butterflies—his wavy hair, flashy smile, broad shoulders, and tanned arms. This time, though—on this June day a week before my high school graduation—it would be different. He took our front steps two at a time and planted a kiss on my forehead.
I didn’t kiss him back.
“Stan,” I said. I looked him in the eyes—those beautiful blue-green eyes. “I have something….”
He interrupted, out of breath. “Don’t say a word.”
“But wait, I want to….”
He held up a hand to silence me. “Close your eyes.”
“Stan. I need….”
“Come on, Maggie.” He smiled, his face full of mischief. “Close. Your. Eyes.” He was gentle, but it was a command.
I obeyed. I could feel him close, smell his Old Spice aftershave, hear his breathing, quick and heavy.
“Now—give me your hand.”
I held up my right hand.
“No,” he said. “Your left hand. No peeking.”
“Stan, what are you…?”
I held up my left hand. He hummed as he slipped a ring on my ring finger. “There! Open your eyes.”
He was beaming.
I looked down at my hand. “An opal. It’s my….”
“Birthstone—I do pay attention. Your sister helped me with the size.” He seemed pleased with himself. “Do you like it?”
“It’s not technically an engagement ring—couldn’t afford a diamond. But the jeweler said it’s the finest opal he’s ever seen. It’s not flashy, but….”
“Stan…I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll wear it.” He leaned in, twining his fingers into mine, and whispered, “Think of me—how much you mean to me. How much…I love you.”
I couldn’t speak. I could hardly breathe. I nodded.
“Something’s…what is it? Maggie?”
“Oh, Stan.” His fingers were still locked in mine. I led him to the porch swing. “Here, sit down.”
We glided back and forth, our bodies touching, the way we’d done on so many summer nights. The chains holding the swing creaked and groaned rhythmically from their hooks in the porch ceiling. My throat tightened. The tears I’d promised not to cry welled up.
“Something’s wrong.” He loosened his hand.
“Stan, it isn’t you.” I couldn’t look at him. “It’s me. I need to tell you something. You need to listen.”
“Jesus, Maggie, you’re crying. What’s happened?”
I caught my breath. “I’ve made a decision…about my future.” I felt the tears and took a few deep breaths.
Stan pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to me. Telling my family had been one thing—that hadn’t been easy. But telling Stan—how many times I’d tried. I’d put it off for too long.
“There’s no easy way, so I’m just going to say it. I’ve decided to enter the convent.”
“Yeah, right.” He laughed. “And I’m going to be the next Pope.”
“I’m not kidding.” I met his gaze.
Stan’s smile faded, his eyes darkened. “You have to be kidding.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not. On September 8, I’ll enter the convent of the Sisters of Saint Mary.”
The swing stopped abruptly—he planted his feet on the floor.
“You’re not joking?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?” His voice rose. “When did you decide this—big decision?”
I didn’t answer.
“How long have you been stringing me along?”
“I only just decided—for sure—a few weeks ago.”
“A few weeks ago?” The anger in his voice startled me.
“I told Sister Helen first—my drama teacher—then my parents, then yesterday we met with the Mother Superior at the Motherhouse. There are papers to sign and stuff to order in the next two months. It’s been really fast.” I tried to get the swing moving again.
“All this time, you’ve kept this little secret from me? How could you?”
“I can’t explain it, even to myself,” I said, swallowing hard and dabbing at my eyes with the handkerchief. “You’re the first one I’ve told—after the Sisters and my family.”
“Great. Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He got quiet, then stood up and paced back and forth, his hands in his jeans pockets. “You’ve told Jack?”
“He’s my brother, Stan, of course, I told him.”
“He’s my best friend. Why couldn’t he…?”
“I made him swear—don’t think he didn’t want to. Jack’s not exactly happy about this.”
“You thought I would be? Jesus, I’ve been a fool. Your whole family knew and I didn’t? Your sister helped me pick out the ring. Why?” He stopped pacing and faced me. “You owe me more than I can’t explain it, Stan.” He was deliberate, demanding. “I thought you and I were…come on, Maggie. Give me something.”
My mind was racing. What could I say that would make sense? That I loved God more than I loved him? That I’d been thinking about this since sixth grade but had never told a soul? That I’d been called by God to be a nun—not in so many words, but still, a real call? That my Catholic religion taught that I needed to answer that call? All those things were true—at least I thought they were—but how could I say any of it to Stan?
He stared at me, his brow furrowed, eyes squinting, as if I were a stranger. “How long have we been going together?”
“Two years, I guess.”
“You guess?” He looked up, as if he were calculating. “Two years, three months, and seventeen days.”
“You count the days?”
“It’s an estimate.” He leaned over me. “In all this time, you couldn’t give me a hint that this was coming? I took you to prom, for God’s sake.” He sighed. “Maggie, look at me.” He brushed his hair off his forehead.
I looked at him. His bright eyes were clouded. “The most I can say is—I’ve always known I had this calling,” I said. “If I don’t follow it, I’ll never know who I am.”
“God is calling you to be a nun? How in hell do you know that?”
“I told you—I can’t explain. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve just got to do this. If I don’t.…”
“What? You’ll go to hell?”
“Don’t mock me, Stan—not you.”
“Mock you? Who’s mocking who here?”
“Please. Listen. Like I told Mother Superior, I’ve tried to ignore the call for years,” I said. “But in the last year, I’ve felt it at Mass, walking in the woods, during prayers. I finally feel ready.” Stan wasn’t Catholic—so he didn’t understand my religious upbringing. Besides, what if this was all my imagination? “During the last two years, I put the idea aside. We’ve made such a good pair.”
“But I can’t ignore it any longer. I wish I could—I don’t know how to make you understand.”
He looked confused, sad, angry. It broke my heart. I reached for his hand, he pulled away. “Come on, sit down next to me,” I begged, wiping tears away.
Finally, he sat down. We glided back and forth without saying anything, without touching.
“You’ve always said you wanted to be a writer,” Stan said.
“I do—at least I did—but this is a calling on a much higher level.”
“What about college? Your dream to major in theater?”
A million thoughts were running through my head. Stan didn’t know how my Mom laughed at my dreams of becoming a writer or an actress—or how she held up my older sister, Marianne, as the perfect daughter. But I was not a summa cum laude student like Marianne. I didn’t want to go to nursing school like she had done.
“You know I’d need a scholarship to go to college,” I said. “I’m not scholarship material—not like Marianne.”
“That’s bull,” Stan said. “You’re just as smart as your sister.”
“Then why did I fail the math part of the test?” I hadn’t planned to tell him that.
“I’m surprised. I don’t understand….” Stan looked out to the street and watched three neighborhood kids tossing a ball.
“I’d have to wait a whole year to take that test again—and fail. So now I’m following a different dream. I heard a voice, months ago, at church.”
“Now you’re hearing voices?” He sounded cynical, scornful.
“I don’t expect you to understand.” I couldn’t explain how I’d been praying—asking God to show me what to do. Give me your whole self—nothing less, the voice had said. Was it God—or my imagination? I needed to find out. “There’s only one way for me to know if I’m being called to give my whole self to God—and that’s to become a nun. I don’t know what else to say,” I managed to squeak out.
“I thought you loved me—that we were—was that a dream?”
“No! I did.” I sniffed and drew in a deep breath. “I do love you.”
I touched his face. Seeing the sadness in his eyes, I was tempted to say it was all a big mistake. But I’d committed—been accepted by—the Sisters. I couldn’t go back on my word.
“If you love me, call it off.”
He must be reading my mind. “I can’t. I have to do this.”
We sat together without speaking. I stopped crying, listened to his breathing, felt the warmth of his body next to me.
He sat up straight. “Remember when we saw that movie—The Nun’s Story—not more than six months ago?”
I remembered—Stan’s shock and anger after that movie had taken me by surprise.
“Audrey Hepburn…joins a convent and gets sent to some God-awful place.”
“Where she’s humiliated, mistreated—not by the natives, but by the other nuns.” Stan’s voice was rising, gaining energy. “What happens to her? She leaves—broken.” He looked at me. “Am I right?”
“That was different—the story was set forty years ago.” I felt more sobs catch in my throat. “It was just a movie. Things aren’t like that—where I’m going.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do,” I said, stifling sobs. Did I know?
Minutes passed. Stan took a deep breath. “I know you, Megs,” he said. “You’re so damn stubborn. I’m not going to try to change your mind—not right now.” He looked at the opal on my finger. “I’ve been saving that for just the right moment.” His laugh came from deep inside. “I rehearsed a speech. I was thinking of it as a pre-engagement ring. The joke’s on me, isn’t it?”
“Stan. I’m so sorry.” I started to slip the ring off. “Maybe it’s better if I….”
“Don’t insult me!” It was the first time Stan had raised his voice to me. Immediately he regained his composure. “The ring is for you. Only you.”
He took my hands, his eyes filling with tears. “I’m leaving now, Megs.”
“You haven’t seen the last of me.” He squeezed my hands so tight it hurt. I winced. He let go, stood up, and hurried down the steps. He slipped through the hedges, slammed his car door, and roared off down the street.
Stan called me twice a week—from mid-June until early August. Could we go for a ride, get a pizza, catch a concert in the park? Could he just come over and talk? Each time, I begged off—then hung up and cried my eyes out. My parents and my sister and brother tried to convince me to see him. I was afraid I wouldn’t stay firm. Finally, I told Stan it was no use—I wasn’t going to change my mind.
Most Saturday afternoons, I heard his voice in our backyard as he shot baskets with Jack. I watched from my bedroom window, tears falling, as he and Jack jostled. I admired his strong arms and bare back, his golden tan, his gentle laugh, his graceful athletic leaps, twists, and turns. The more I tried to separate myself from him, the more helplessly in love I fell.
I remembered the first day I’d ever seen Stan—paired with Jack in a tennis tournament at the Y. I was finishing my sophomore year, Jack and Stan were about to graduate. Stan had returned Jack’s final serve with a volley, beating Jack, and advancing in the tournament.
I’d liked Stan’s smile, how his sandy hair fell in waves in the sunlight. But it wasn’t just his perfect tan and clean good looks. Was it his eyes? Or the way he leaned in to speak with Jack, face to face?
I’d followed Jack off the court. “Who was that guy?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jack loved to tease me. “Interested in him, little sister?”
“You know I am.”
“We made a pact,” Jack said, “there at the net, to team up as doubles partners and win the next tournament. We’re unbeatable.” Jack wasn’t boasting—just stating a fact.
Before long, Stan was spending his free time at our house. I was shy at first, then glad to be invited into their conversations, as Jack’s friends hung out on our front porch or shot baskets in our backyard. I avoided playing tennis opposite Stan—but he insisted and I finally gave in. He was a good teacher, never lording his talent or strength over me.
“I’ll never be able to play like you. What’s the use?” I said one day, after losing badly in three sets.
“Don’t you want to get better? Besides, it’s just fun to be with you. Next time, I promise to let you win.”
I loved how Stan could say, “It’s fun to be with you,” and not sound phony or turn red in the neck. By the end of summer, we were holding hands as we walked from the Y to my house most evenings before supper.
“You’re the first non-Catholic I’ve ever been around,” I told Stan one day, as we sat on the porch swing. “My Dad thinks I should convert you.”
Stan took my hand in his. “Is that so? Do I need converting?”
“No, you’re fine. It’s just—Catholics aren’t supposed to date Protestants. The mixed-marriage stigma and all that.”
He dropped my hand. “That hits a nerve.”
“I’m sorry. It was stupid—I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I knew little about Stan’s home life, except that his father did not live with them and his mother had to work to support them. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
Stan sighed, then picked up my hand again. “My Dad was brought up Catholic, my Mom wasn’t, so when they married, she had to promise to bring us up in the Catholic Church.”
When he didn’t continue, I risked asking, “What happened?”
“My Dad showed his true colors as a cheat and a liar. I don’t blame my Mom for giving him the boot. I just wish he’d left before he spent everything on booze and gambling.”
“I didn’t know.” I held his hand tightly.
“Now you do.”
That explained why Stan had not made plans for college, why he worked full-time at the bowling alley—so he could go to classes at night. We’d dated for over two years, but we were not love-struck teenagers. We took walks together, went to football games, listened to music. On Saturday nights, Stan would come over and we’d play records, sneak a few beers from my parents’ fridge, and slow-dance in our basement.
I was walking away from my best friend. Every night I lay in bed, praying for strength. I missed Stan—the life we had together. If I trusted the call was real—and I did—then I needed to go through with it.
One Sunday afternoon, a week before I was off to the convent, I heard our Irish Setter, Danny, barking at the front door.
“Hey Boy, it’s only me,” Stan said.
My heart pounded. I opened the door and invited him in.
“I know you don’t want to see me, but I have something to tell you.” He avoided making eye contact. Danny loved Stan and sat obediently while Stan scratched his ears.
“It’s good to see you.” I stumbled over my words. “I’ve missed you….”
He cut me off. “I won’t stay long.”
We stood awkwardly in the living room. I was glad I was the only one home.
Stan eyed my opal ring. I’d worn it all summer.
“Come and sit down.” I tried to take his arm and lead him to our sofa but he pulled away.
“I’ve enlisted in the Navy. It’s the only way I’ll be able to afford an education. My Mom is in tears.” He smiled gently, then his face turned serious. “She’ll get over it. It isn’t as if I’m walling myself up inside a convent.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Sorry—I shouldn’t have said that.”
We looked at each other. The upward curve of Stan’s mouth was permanent, even when he was angry. The sight of him—his blue-green eyes and wavy hair, streaked blonde from the sun, made my stomach dance.
“When do you leave? Where will you go?”
He took a step back, looking down at Danny, sprawled at his feet. “I leave next week for Boot Camp—Great Lakes Training Station in Chicago. After that, who knows?” He smiled. “Join the Navy. See the world.” His smile turned to a frown. “Funny—I’m going to see the world, and you’re going to leave it.”
“Will you write me?”
“Will you write me?” Stan shot back.
Just like the tennis volleys he is so good at, I thought. Would I write him?
“Probably not,” I said. “Maybe—I don’t know—if I’m allowed.”
“I thought as much. I hope Jack will. I hope I haven’t lost both my best friends.”
“Stan, I’m so sorry. I wish….”
He cut me off. “Listen,” he said. “I’ve got to go. Mom wants to make up for all the time we never spent together while I was growing up and she was working at the Post Office.”
What a beautiful guy, how lucky some girl is going to be, I thought.
He looked at me, his eyes narrowing. “This isn’t over, Megs. I’m not giving up on us.” He leaned in, put his arms around my waist, and drew me toward him. He held me tight and kissed me harder and longer than he ever had before.
I locked my arms around his neck. I kissed him back. I felt his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his breathing. He must have felt my heart thumping.
Eventually, he pulled away. His fingers brushed my cheek. “You see?” he said. “This is how I know it isn’t over. Not by a long shot.” Then he was gone.
I don’t know how long it was before I could move. I had no words to describe the sensation. I’d never lived through an earthquake, but I was feeling one inside of me—a series of tremors and ripples. I had to sit down.
The days before leaving home were a confusing mix of anticipation and heartbreak, knowing I might never see Stan again.