When Priscilla first learned that Conard was planning to have his son christened, her worries centered on the ceremony—its implications, her memories. Safe at home in her small Wisconsin Avenue apartment, far from the scene of the planned event, she found herself waking up every night to spiral into self-disgust when she remembered that she was a fake Episcopalian—not because she’d been evil but because she’d been just plain stupid and not for the first and only time in her life. What it came down to was that when she was twenty-two, she’d had herself christened, and although she’d admitted, even at the time, that she didn’t really believe most of the things you were [End Page 124]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 125]
supposed to believe, she’d gone ahead with the ceremony and a few years later married an Episcopalian in an Episcopal church and, in the following years, had her two sons christened in turn.
Evil or stupid, this false position made her anticipate the christening with a dread out of all proportion to anything that might follow from the actual event. Or so her common sense managed to assert, shortly before dawn every night for two weeks. Part of the problem with this sort of self-disgust, as many of us know, is that you can see how pointless it is even as it comes welling up inside you, one of the depredations that make old age even worse than it already is, something I point out, here at the beginning, because Priscilla was in her early seventies, as were about half the people in this story. Aside from one baby, the other half were in their late thirties and just beginning to sense that the mistakes of the past never quite disappear the way you always assume they will when you are young.
Priscilla’s christening came about in this way. Based on her positive experience of a small public high school in a town not far north of Boston where her family had lived for generations, she decided her senior year in college to become a high school English teacher. She envisioned herself instructing underprivileged students in the rules of proper grammar while nevertheless praising their self-defining dialects. And she would encourage them to read important literature in order to learn about life. Not very glamorous, but doable, and when she mentioned this to one of her college professors, he thought it was a great idea and pointed out that Yale had a wonderful MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) program in which you took a year of classes from the most brilliant minds in the field and the university gave you a degree that enabled you to teach at any high school in the country, any private high school, that is, since most public versions wanted actual certification. Priscilla’s parents were impressed with the practical nature of this plan and figured it was worth the tuition because Priscilla would undoubtedly marry (maybe a Yalie, since she was so pretty) and have children and with a solid degree like an MAT she could go back to teaching as soon as the children were grown. A secure job for the rest of her life, and if she discovered she needed professional certification, it was surely out there to be had. And so in 1965 Priscilla moved to New Haven and enjoyed her first semester of English classes, which weren’t all that difficult even though designed for high-performing PhD candidates. Her favorite was the Milton class she ended up taking when Shakespeare turned out to be full, and she [End Page 126] also took an underenrolled class on Henry James, who seemed to deliver a sensible message: if you are pretty, you can get somebody with money, and if you have money, somebody can get you. Yes, James was okay, but she liked Milton better.
For some reason she had never read any Milton in college, and she must have found Paradise Lost convincing, for want of a better...