The Confessions of Frances Godwin is the fictional memoir of a retired high school Latin teacher looking back on a life of trying to do her best amidst transgressions-starting with her affair with Paul, whom she later marries. Now that Paul is dead and she's retired, Frances Godwin thinks her story is over-but of course the rest of her life is full of surprises, including the truly shocking turn of events that occurs when she takes matters into her own hands after her daughter Stella's husband grows increasingly abusive. And though she is not a particularly pious person, in the aftermath of her actions, God begins speaking to her. Theirs is a deliciously antagonistic relationship that will compel both believers and nonbelievers alike.
From a small town in the Midwest to the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, The Confessions of Frances Godwin touches on the great questions of human existence: Is there something “out there” that takes an interest in us? Or is the universe ultimately indifferent?
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The Confessions of Frances Godwin
By ROBERT HELLENGA
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Robert Hellenga
All rights reserved.
Do Not Resuscitate (2006)
At the end of May 2006—my last Commencement—my students marched across the stage at Galesburg High School. I watched them throw their hats into the air even though Mr. Walters, the principal, had made it perfectly clear that they were not to do so. And afterward we said good-byes. I would miss the students, most of them, I would even miss the obligatory school functions—the faculty meetings, the parent-teacher conferences, the endless round of games and band concerts, and the union meetings (I'd been the steward for five years)—that had been my life after my husband's death. The students were looking ahead, I was looking back; they were letting go, I was hanging on. But now I had to let go too. The Latin program was being "phased out." I'd protested, organized demonstrations, clipped articles about the Latin Renaissance in the United States and articles about the successes of our own program, which had strong enrollments and which was regarded as one of the best in Illinois. But to no avail. The state was more than a million dollars behind in its payments to the school district and cuts would have to be made.
I had several weeks to clear out my classroom, but I wanted to get it over with, so I started in on Monday. This classroom had been my home, my second home, for forty-one years. Everything in it had a story to tell. Every object whispered to me. The window ledges and the long tables in the back of the room were crowded with models of Roman buildings—enough to recreate the whole city of Rome, at different eras, and half of Pompeii before Vesuvius. We'd started, years ago, with a jigsaw puzzle of the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill and moved on to three-dimensional puzzles of the Colosseum, and the Baths of Caracalla, still standing (glued, varnished, repaired with packing tape), and then, with the help of George Hawkinson, who taught physics, and Dan Phillips, the ingenious shop teacher, we'd moved on to more substantial models: bridges, arches, a Roman villa, even a model of the Pont du Gard aqueduct that could actually carry water for about half an hour before it started to leak.
The walls were crowded with pictures of Rome and famous Romans from Scipio Africanus to Marcus Aurelius; pseudo-Latin quotations from Harry Potter were flanked by a Spartacus poster and pictures of neoclassical architecture, including the old Galesburg city hall, and by Doonesbury cartoons of the president, invisible but wearing a Roman military helmet as he jousts with reporters about weapons of mass destruction, about Abu Ghraib, torture, the war, Colin Powell, Hurricane Katrina.
The students got extra credit for translating the dialogue into Latin. Some were quite difficult, maybe too difficult, but they did a good job and we took Id adfer as our motto. Bring it on. How could the administration object to that?
I had to laugh at the cartoons, which had caused a certain amount of trouble. I left them tacked up on the bulletin board. The principal and some members of the school board had wanted them down, but the students had kicked up a fuss, invoking the first amendment.
Bits and pieces from our last Roman Republic tournament were still scattered on three game boards in three different corners of the room. I sorted out the faction cards and the statesman cards, the forum cards, the event cards, the scenario cards, the province cards, the war cards, the Talents (marked in Roman numerals), the chits and markers and personal treasury boxes. I could see that the late-republic game had ended in defeat for all the players because four active war cards had come into play at the end of the combat phase. Game over. At the end of the wars the advanced Latin students had given me a used copy of the Warwick Vergil Concordance that had once belonged to a Miss Allison Connolly of London, Ontario. Paul and I had driven past London more than once on our way to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and I pictured Miss Connolly in her classroom, a classroom much like mine, the big red concordance open on her desk as she looked up a word. I felt sad for Miss Connolly and sad for myself, too, as I ran my finger over the names of my students, who had signed their names on the half-title page. But the inscription made me laugh:
hanc ego de caelo ducentem sidera vidi; fluminis haec rapidi carmine vertit iter.
I recognized the lines from Tibullus's "To Delia": "I have seen her draw down the stars from the sky; she diverts rapidly flowing rivers with her spells." And I recognized Jason Steckley's bold handwriting. And his sense of humor: the woman in the poem is a witch who can not only draw down the stars from the sky and divert rapidly flowing rivers with her spells, she can make the earth open up and lure spirits from their tombs; she can chase the clouds from the sky and make it snow in summer! She can make old men who used to mock young lovers put their aged necks in the halter of Venus! Well, it was all fine with me.
It was almost four o'clock, time to shift some boxes. I had left a lot of books that would have to be discarded, and had already packed the ones I wanted to keep in banker's boxes: my dark blue Oxford Classical Texts, my red and green Loebs—green for Greek, red for Latin. I thought I might take up Greek again, read The Odyssey. I'd probably have to learn the language all over again, but that was all right. Maybe this time I'd master the optative mood, which was worse than the subjunctive in Latin. It was one of these banker's boxes that did me in. It was too full to handle easily and too heavy with the weight of the big concordance, which I'd put on top. Or maybe it was just too heavy with the weight of memory. Whatever it was, I felt something tear inside me as I tried to lift it. I thought it was my heart ripping in two, but it was part of my abdominal wall. My internal organs were trying to get out. I tried to push them back into place, exerting gentle pressure. But it was like trying to force the lid down on the books in the banker's box.
I got to the pay phone in the lobby and called my neighbor, Lois— my oldest friend (and enemy)—who brought me home. She wanted to go out and buy a truss at Burgland Drugs. But I said no, even thought my insides were protruding. I kept caressing the protrusion, as if it were a baby.
My doctor saw me that afternoon, late. Lois took me. He poked and prodded and palpitated. It was not an emergency, but even so, two days later I was on the operating table.
Just before the anesthesiologist came to administer the anesthetic, the nurse handed me a sheet with a long list of boxes to check. Liability precautions, I suppose. They don't give you much time to think it over, but I looked over the list and checked a box that said "Do not resuscitate." I wasn't looking forward to having loads of unstructured time on my hands, but I wasn't depressed or suicidal. On the contrary. It's just that at that particular moment I thought my story had come to an end, and that it would be appropriate to exit the scene quietly and unobtrusively. I didn't really care one way or another. There was nothing coming up on the horizon that I wanted to deal with: a library board meeting on Thursday; a fund-raiser for the animal shelter on Saturday afternoon; a hair appointment sometime the next week.
The only thing worth mentioning was the forthcoming translation of Catullus that I'd done for a small press in Brooklyn. But what had been a source of joy had become a source of anxiety. The jacket designer had put the wrong Catullus on the cover, not Gaius Valerius Catullus, the poet, but Quintus Lutatius Catulus (with one "l"), and I hadn't managed to garner a single blurb. I used to think that blurbs sprouted like mushrooms, but now I know that you have to impose yourself—beg, grovel, plead, call in favors, cold call. I'd written to all the Latinists I knew and to some I didn't know, though blurbs from high school Latin teachers were not what was needed, so I'd written to all the poets who had given readings at Knox. But so far, no responses, and the deadline for jacket copy was rapidly approaching. To tell you the truth, I didn't want to face the issue. I'd already begged, groveled, and pleaded enough. And I didn't really have any favors I could call in.
Do not resuscitate. Well, that certainly got their attention. The nurses. The surgeon (Dr. Parker, my neighbor in Loft #5), the anesthesiologist. They were all right there, crowded around. "You can't do that," they said, sequentially, and then in one voice. "We always resuscitate."
"Then why do you have the little box?" I asked.
When it became clear that they weren't going to repair the hernia unless I unchecked the box, I unchecked it, drew a heavy line through the box, and wrote "Okay to resuscitate." It wasn't a big deal. I didn't really care one way or another.
"Don't worry about your clothes," the nurse told me after the doctors had disappeared behind the curtain that had been drawn around my gurney. "They're right here in this plastic bag. There's a little lock on it, see?" I saw. I wasn't at all worried about my clothes. "And I'm going to pin the key to your gurney."
"Okay," I said.
"So they'll be right here when you come out of surgery."
"Okay," I said again.
"Don't worry," she said.
"I won't," I said.
The surgery was what they call microscopic, performed with a laparoscope, which comes from the Greek for "flank" (laparo) and "to see" (as in "to scope out something"). The laparoscope has a camera on the end of it. It was all beyond me, and I couldn't tell you, even if my life depended on it, how they inserted some mesh to replace the damaged tissue. But it was minimally invasive. Band-Aid surgery. In and out the same day, though someone had to be there to drive me home. That was Lois.
I was a little woozy when I came to in the recovery room, but not bad. I could have driven myself home, but Lois was there, and I didn't make an issue out of it. Besides, they couldn't find my clothes. Lois had to go back to Seminary Street to get some clothes for me; she had a key to my apartment (Loft #1) and I had a key to hers (Loft #2). My wallet was in the locked plastic bag with my clothes. My driver's license, Illinois state ID, insurance cards, and so on. My keys, too. But I wasn't worried. Lois drove me home, let me into my apartment. She wanted to fix some supper for me, later on, maybe have a glass of wine, or two, but I told her I just wanted to rest. Actually, I wasn't tired, but I wanted to be alone. Besides, the Complete Seinfeld DVDs had arrived from Amazon. Lois had to make a second trip down to the mailbox, in the little elevator room on the first floor, to bring it up. She was curious, but I didn't open it till later.
As a grief counselor at the Banks-Connolly Funeral Home on Carl Sandburg Drive, Lois had been full of advice at the time of my husband's death, and she was full of advice now about preparing for the end of life. She couldn't emphasize enough, she said, the importance of getting my papers in order, and she gave me another copy of the little pamphlet she'd put together on the subject.
But, as I pointed out, not for the first time, I already had my papers in order: long-term care insurance; a living will; hospice information, from when my husband, Paul, had been in hospice (though hospice, I knew now, wasn't a place you went to in order to die in peace; it was an organization that sent someone to your house—a Mrs. Adama in Paul's case—to help you through the process).
"What about your funeral?" Lois asked.
"Stella can take care of it," I said.
"Humph," Lois said. Lois had put together a number of pamphlets—in addition to the one on getting your papers in order— on preplanning your funeral, on dealing with grief and loss, on what to say and what not to say to the bereaved. (Don't say, "He's in a better place," or "At least she lived a long life"), and one on the importance of "sharing your stories."
"Write it all down, Franny," she said, "you've got time now." She pulled a copy of "Share Your Stories" out of her large handbag. "Your life with Paul, all those years in the classroom, the troubles with Stella, and Jimmy." As if Lois had any idea about what had happened to Jimmy.
She was still there when someone from the hospital arrived with my clothes. The dog, Camilla, barked up a storm and rucked up the runner in the long hallway, but she did that every time someone came to the door. I made her sit before I opened the door. I thanked the person for bringing my clothes, told Camilla "okay," and went back to my desk, Paul's railroad desk that we bought at auction when they tore down the old Burlington depot. I thought that if I sat down on Paul's stool at the desk, Lois would realize that it was time to go.
"That's a story right there, isn't it?" she said. "They tell you not to worry about your clothes, and then they lose your clothes and your wallet and your keys."
I had to laugh. "You're right," I said. "I'm going to get started right now."
"You're sure you don't need me to stay?"
"I'll be fine, Lois. But thanks."
Lois's pamphlet went on and on, like the list I'd been given in the hospital, and I was thinking, once again, that it wouldn't have been so bad to check out during the surgery. I was almost sorry I'd unchecked the do-not-resuscitate box. Of course, if I hadn't unchecked it, then Dr. Parker wouldn't have repaired the hernia and I'd be walking around with a truss.
I wrote down the story about the clothes in one of Paul's beautiful dark red Clairefontaine notebooks, put a number "1" at the top of the right-hand corner of the page, and then capped my fountain pen. Enough for one day. I was too tired to share any more stories. I opened up the Seinfeld box. A large box that looked like a little refrigerator. It was a complete set of DVDs. It was used and hadn't come directly from Amazon, so I hadn't gotten free super-saver shipping. The seller had wrapped it up in an old Kansas City Star. I glanced through the paper. A military convoy had been attacked by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Michael Jackson had been cleared of all counts of child molestation, the Detroit Pistons had defeated the San Antonio Spurs in game three of the NBA playoffs and were looking forward to game four. I folded up the paper and put it in the blue plastic recycling sack in the laundry room.
Kramer's coffee table book was part of the package. I was a little disappointed. It wasn't about coffee tables, and it didn't have little legs on it.
I couldn't decide between my two favorites episodes, "Wedding in India" and George's conversion to Latvian orthodoxy, so I watched them both. I took Camilla out for a short walk and when we came back I shrugged off my clothes and climbed into bed and she lay down on a pile of old quilts that had accumulated on the floor on my side of the bed.
In the morning I poured myself a cup of coffee and leafed through Lois's pamphlet again till I came to "Share Your Stories."
Why not? I thought, mentally emending "stories" to "confessions."
I could think of a lot of reasons, in fact, and if you keep on reading you'll probably come up with a few more.
Nonetheless I sat down at the long, narrow harvest table in the living room, uncapped my Pelikan Souverän 600, and started to write, and I kept on writing for two weeks, filling more than seventy pages and going through a full bottle of Aurora black ink. I'm computer literate, of course—I have all my lesson plans, and all my translations, on my MacBook Pro— but I wanted to share my story in ink, wanted the ink to flow from my pen onto the creamy Clairefontaine paper as if it were my own dark blood.
I'll begin at the beginning—the Shakespeare party in Paul's attic—more than forty years ago.
Excerpted from The Confessions of Frances Godwin by ROBERT HELLENGA. Copyright © 2014 Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It seemed I waited and waited for this book to be released. At least once a month checking to see, first if there was any information on the author, and if so, when a book would be coming out. I've read everything he has written, and this one does not disappoint. As usual, everything, every nuance, every chapter makes the reader think. Such intelligence in the written word in a novel is a rarity these days. At least in my experience. So much information including history, science, and everyday life can be found in this beautiful book. The only unfortunate thing is - it was too short and I finished it in two evenings. Please write some more Mr. Hellenga.