SAN FRANCISCO, DECEMBER 1958
Sister Marie scurried along the dark corridor as fast as her pudgy little legs would carry her. Even though she would never admit it to the other nuns, alone in the cloisters at night she often got scared. This evening was worse than usual. A storm had knocked the electricity out again, and the flame from her candle cast eerie silhouettes on the stone walls, as though shadow demons lined the path on either side, lying in wait for her to pass.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” she murmured under her breath, trying to draw courage from the words. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
As she continued to recite the psalm, Sister Marie shivered, this time from cold rather than fear. Even the heavy wool habit couldn’t keep her warm at this time of year. Just before Thanksgiving last week, the weather had finally turned. The cold, bright sun set earlier these days, and then the infamous San Francisco fog rose up from the sea, covering the thick legs of the Golden Gate Bridge before rolling in toward the shore, the white mist creeping across the city and snaking its way up here to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage on Telegraph Hill. Sometimes, lying awake in her eight-by-ten-foot cell, Sister Marie imagined the fog oozing in through the keyholes and under the doors, like something from one of those monster movies her younger brother liked to watch.
Stop that, she scolded herself. It was this overactive imagination that had led the canoness at her last convent to suggest that she might not be suited to life as a nun. But even though she had struggled through her postulancy—the six-month period to determine whether she should take the veil—Sister Marie hadn’t wanted to give up. It had finally been agreed that she should be allowed to continue with her novitiate—the training to take vows—but on the condition that she go outside of the closed order. Moving to the orphanage had seemed like the best option. She adored children and had always known that motherhood would be the hardest aspect of secular life to renounce. Now she wouldn’t have to.
The orphanage had been founded by the Sisters of Charity back in the nineteenth century, funded with donations from the city’s upper-class Catholics. At present there were ninety-seven children in the institute’s care—and tonight there was about to be one more. A call had come through late that evening, just as the nuns were about to retire, asking if they had room for another child. It was a baby, apparently only a few days old. Apart from that, no details had been imparted about the new arrival: not its sex, nor the reason for it being abandoned here. It was most curious.
Sister Marie had been assigned to stay up with Mother Superior while she waited for the child. But as the hours dragged on, she’d begun to grow bored. Tired of her fidgeting, the reverend mother had eventually sent her to fix them both a late-night supper. It had been bad enough getting down to the kitchen in this creepy building. Now, on the return journey, the nun’s progress was slower, as she was carrying a tray laden with mugs of cocoa and a plate of thickly sliced bread, spread with butter and jam. It would have been slower still if a gust of wind hadn’t blown through the corridor at that moment, extinguishing her candle and plunging the cloisters into blackness. With a little squeal of fright, Sister Marie let go of the tray. The crash of metal and china on the floor echoed around the vast walls, sending her scuttling the last hundred yards to Mother Superior’s office.
She burst through the door without knocking. “Reverend Mother,” she panted, hardly able to get the words out, “you’ll never guess what happened …” Without pausing for breath, she launched into an explanation of her adventure. It was only as she started to calm down that she took in the scene properly: Mother Superior was on her knees, clutching a string of rosary beads, and had been in the midst of praying. “Oh, my goodness!” A hand fluttered to her chest. “I interrupted you! I’m sorry, really I am. About supper, too.”
“Enough of your apologies, my child.” Mother Superior’s voice was low and calm. “I have no need for refreshment. Just, in future, perhaps, you could make your entrance a little less dramatic. My old heart can’t take the excitement.”
There was the barest hint of amusement in the rheumy eyes—the novice was renowned throughout the order for her histrionics. Using the desk, the old nun hauled herself up, her joints creaking as she stood. She winced.
“Are you all right, Mother?” Sister Marie rushed over to take her elbow.
“’Tis nothing.” She waved the younger woman away. “The cold brings out my arthritis.” She lowered herself slowly and painfully into the wooden chair and then nodded at the seat opposite. “Sit yourself, child. We still have a long wait ahead of us, I fear.”
With that, Mother Superior bowed her head and fell into a contemplative silence. Sister Marie opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again, knowing she ought to resist the urge to talk. That was something else she found hard to deal with—speaking only when she had something worthwhile to say. As she was a natural chatterer, these periods of quiet went against her nature. It was so much easier for the reverend mother, she thought enviously. There was a stillness about her, a sense of serenity that the novice was certain she would never possess, no matter how many years she was here.
In the dim candlelight, Sister Marie studied the older woman’s face, soft and lined, as fragile as crepe paper. She was well over seventy now and still going strong. She spoke little about herself, although there were rumors of a decade spent in the missions in Africa, her time cut short after contracting a disease that had weakened her heart. But despite her physical fragility, there was still an unmistakable inner strength about her.
Sister Marie sensed that, like the abbess at her last convent, Mother Superior had doubts about her suitability to take the veil. Secretly she did, too. Life as a nun was even harder than she had imagined. The tiny cell, starkly furnished with only a wooden bed, writing desk, and dresser; rising every morning at 5:30 to go to chapel for an hour of prayer. But although the superior was free to dismiss a novice at any time, Sister Marie guessed that the decision of whether to continue would ultimately be left to herself. The reverend mother was one of those rare people who did not sit in judgment and truly believed the words “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The two women continued to sit in silence, with the younger nun trying hard not to fidget, alternately wishing for the visitors to hurry up and arrive so that she could go to bed and feeling guilty for the thought crossing her mind. Eventually, she must have nodded off in the chair, but the sound of a car drawing up on the street outside jerked her awake.
Sister Marie jumped to her feet. “That must be them.” She couldn’t keep the relief out of her voice.
A moment later the bell rang, confirming that she was right. Only then did Mother Superior stand, too.
Outside, whoever had rung the doorbell had retreated to the warmth of the car. It was a fancy car, too, Sister Marie noted. Black and sleek, a Lincoln Capri, and this year’s model, 1958. That the car was expensive surprised her. Usually when a newborn came to the orphanage, the mother was an unmarried girl who’d gotten herself in trouble and the baby would simply be left on the doorstep. But this was clearly a very different situation. Sister Marie wondered if Mother Superior knew any of the details; unfortunately, even if she did, she was unlikely to divulge them to her gossipy underling.
Sister Marie looked on with undisguised curiosity as the driver stepped out of the car. He was a tall, distinguished man in his late forties, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a navy cashmere coat that must have cost more than it did to feed the entire orphanage for a year. The collar was pulled up, as though he wished to disguise his identity—or maybe she was just being fanciful again. He walked around to the back of the car and opened the rear door, reaching in as though to retrieve a bag. From her position on the stone steps, Sister Marie couldn’t see inside, but she thought she heard a woman weeping softly. Perhaps she was mistaken and it was just the newborn, though, because a moment later the man emerged carrying a small bundle of blankets, which promptly started to howl.
Without making any attempt to soothe the crying child, he crossed the drive to where the reverend mother stood. His face was blank, and he didn’t say a word, leaving Sister Marie to assume that all relevant information had been imparted over the telephone earlier. Mother Superior took the child from the man’s arms. The baby was obscured by the blanket it had been wrapped in, so the older nun pushed the material back. As she caught her first view of the child’s face, she frowned, as though something wasn’t quite right, and then a moment later her expression softened.
“God love you,” Mother Superior murmured tenderly. Her composure recovered, she looked up at the man and said, “You can be sure that the child will be raised as a good Christian.”
The man nodded once to acknowledge her words, then headed back to the car.
Sister Marie followed the elderly nun inside. Goose bumps covered her arms, and the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. She still hadn’t laid eyes on the baby, but she sensed that something was amiss with the child. Whatever was wrong, it had been enough to unsettle the normally unflappable Mother Superior. And that knowledge disturbed her more than anything else.
© 2011 Tara Hyland
COUNTY CORK, IRELAND, JULY 1946
“Stop! Not here—someone might see!”
Franny broke from the man’s embrace, struggling to sit up in the long grass. Her breaths were coming short and fast, although it wasn’t all due to the fear of being caught. Wanting was written across the girl’s flushed cheeks. But she was determined not to give in to her desire. Before marriage, it was a mortal sin, and while she liked to think she was too sophisticated to believe the Church’s teachings, it was hard to ignore seventeen years of sermons.
Still lying on his back, Sean reached up with one large, callused hand and brushed a lock of auburn hair from her face. The rich red color reminded him of the glossy coat of the sika deer that roamed the Irish countryside, he was always telling her. He had a way with words, did Sean.
“Ah, come on now, my pretty little colleen. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing.”
That was easy for him to say. If her parents found out about them, there would be hell to pay. Canoodling with a boy from the neighboring farms would have been bad enough, but Sean was a laborer, a hired hand toiling on her father’s land. To the snobbish minds of those reared in small-town Ireland, that would be the worst crime of all.
Sensing her fears, Sean gave her the hangdog look she had grown to know so well over the past few weeks. “All I’m wanting is a bit of a kiss and a cuddle. You wouldn’t deny a hardworking man like me a little peck on the lips now, would you?”
Franny felt her resolve weakening—as it always did when it came to Sean Gallagher. With his impish grin, black hair, and blue eyes, he reminded her of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. Like Rhett Butler, Sean was a free spirit, unconcerned by social conventions. He had grown up in Limerick but hadn’t been back for years. Instead he liked to travel, going wherever there was work. When England had needed extra laborers to work in the munitions factories during the war, he had been one of those to go over. Her parents looked down on his wandering spirit, but to Franny, desperate to escape her hometown and see the world, there was nothing more attractive. Until four weeks ago, she hadn’t thought that someone so exciting would ever come to sleepy Glen Vale.
He’d arrived from Cork at the beginning of June, to help with the fruit-picking. The first time Franny had seen him, Sean had been standing on a stepladder, thinning out the apple trees, his bare back glistening in the late-afternoon sun. While her sister had stood by giggling, Franny had bravely gone over to speak to him. Of course Maggie—the nasty little snitch—had told their mammy all about it later, and she’d gotten the strap. But it had been worth it to get Sean’s attention.
“Just stay five more minutes,” he pleaded, reaching up to lace his fingers through hers. As he tugged her toward him, she caught his scent. He smelled of his day working in the fields: a strong, manly odor. “Look, there’s no one close.”
Franny glanced around. He was right, of course. The meadow was fallow and far from the farmhouse. No one ever came out here. But still …
“No,” she insisted, getting to her feet. “It’s late and Mam will be wanting help with the tea. If I don’t get back soon, she’ll tan my backside.”
“I wouldn’t mind doing that meself,” Sean said, reaching up to playfully slap her on the bottom.
“Ouch!” Pretending to be offended by the overfamiliar gesture, Franny drew herself up. “You, sir, are no gentleman.” It was a line from Gone with the Wind, said in a perfect imitation of Vivien Leigh’s southern drawl. Franny had a talent for impersonations and within a few minutes of meeting someone could mimic his accent and mannerisms perfectly.
It took Sean a moment to get the reference. “And you, miss, are no lady,” he returned in a somewhat stilted impression of Clark Gable.
They grinned at each other for a moment, enjoying the shared joke. Sean took her hand. “Meet me later, will you?”
Franny hesitated. It was never easy for her to get away.
“Oh, come on, sweetheart,” her beau chided. “Otherwise I might have to take a trip into Cork and find meself a new woman.”
He said it in jest, but to Franny the words were like a threat. It was her greatest fear: that Sean would lose interest in her if she didn’t do what he wanted. He’d probably met all manner of sophisticated women in England; how was she, a little farm girl, to compete?
But drawing on all her acting skills, she managed to hide her anxiety. Keeping him guessing was the best way to keep him interested, she’d decided long ago. “Maybe I’ll meet with you,” she said, with a touch of haughtiness. “And then again, maybe I won’t.” Without another word, she picked up her skirts and started to run back toward the farmhouse, her golden-red hair flowing out like flames behind her.
As she ran through the cornfields, the long sheaves scratching at her bare legs, Franny knew she would be in trouble again. Not that that was anything new. She was always being told off, usually for skiving from her chores to go to the cinema in the neighboring town.
“What are you doing, wasting your time at the pictures?” her father would grumble.
But Franny couldn’t get enough of the Hollywood films, which allowed her to escape from her dull life for a couple of hours. She went to the movies whenever she could, and she dreamed of one day being a star like Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Jane Russell—of living in glamorous Los Angeles rather than boring Glen Vale.
Franny hated the rural area where she’d grown up. Located about forty miles outside of Cork, the village and surrounding countryside housed no more than three hundred souls. It was an impoverished, gray place, where the men either worked or drank their lives away and the women were given to religion and childbearing—and raised their daughters to expect nothing more from life.
But Franny did want more. She had been born to stand out. At seventeen, she looked exactly as Irish girls were meant to, in a world where Maureen O’Hara set the standard. Along with her vibrant auburn hair, she had large, mischievous green eyes, skin like freshly churned butter cream, and a small, upturned nose sprinkled with pretty freckles. Her soft, voluptuous body would have given Lana Turner a run for her money, and her flame-red hair was matched by a passionate nature, her personality as vibrant as her looks. It was as though she had been recorded in Technicolor, while the rest of the county languished in black and white. Her big plan was to escape Glen Vale as soon as possible. And today, she was one step closer to getting what she wanted.
Slipping a hand into her pocket, she was relieved to find that the letter was still there. It had arrived that morning, informing her that she had been accepted to train as a nurse in London. She was thrilled. Not because she particularly wanted to be a nurse but because it was her chance to leave Ireland. Once in England, she would find some way to do what she really wanted—become a movie star.
But first there was one large hurdle to cross: getting her father’s blessing. She knew he wouldn’t want her to go. He couldn’t see beyond Glen Vale, had never been farther than Cork, in fact. He wasn’t an adventurer like Sean, who was already talking of going back to London. “The city’s in ruins after all the bombing. They’ll be needing builders, mark my words,” he’d told her. Franny often daydreamed about the two of them living in England together.
As she neared home, Franny felt her spirits deflate a little. The farmhouse and surrounding outbuildings were low, uninspired brick structures, built for function rather than aesthetics. Outside, she used the water pump to cool the heat from her face. It wouldn’t do for anyone to suspect where she’d been. The kitchen windows were steamed up, meaning she was late for dinner. Cursing, she quickly dried her hands on her apron and hurried inside.
Flinging the kitchen door open, Franny was greeted by the wet, salty smell of boiled bacon and cabbage. She pulled a face. It was always this or stew—why couldn’t they eat something different for a change?
Her mother was bent over the stove, using a fork to test whether the potatoes were cooked. Seeing Franny, she automatically tsked with disapproval. “Where’ve you been, child?” Theresa Healey was typical of Glen Vale women. Once she had been a beauty like Franny, but years of childbearing and poverty had worn her down. Franny’s greatest fear was ending up like her mother.
“With Sean Gallagher, no doubt.” This was from Franny’s elder sister, Maggie. It was said nastily rather than as a joke. Maggie liked to cause trouble, especially for Franny. At twenty, she was a plain, dour girl who envied her younger sister’s pretty face and buoyant nature.
Their mother looked over sharply. “I hope there’s no truth in that, my girl.”
Franny said nothing, just contented herself with a scowl at her sister, who poked her tongue out in reply. Unlike Franny, Maggie had no interest in anything other than getting married. Skeletally thin, she had a mean mouth and cold eyes, and the permanent look of someone who felt she’d been handed a raw deal in life. “It’s not fair,” she would moan. “If I had only half Franny’s looks I’d be wedded by now.” But privately Franny thought the lack of suitors had less to do with her sister’s appearance and more to do with her constant bellyaching.
Theresa sighed wearily—something she did a lot—and said, “Supper’s about ready, so best get setting that table, girls.”
“Yes, Mam,” Franny and Maggie chorused.
They studiously ignored each other as they began laying cutlery and plates. The crockery was mismatched, and apart from the basics, it was a bare table: flowers and napkins were a luxury the household couldn’t afford. At six on the dot, Theresa started to serve up. The men didn’t need to be called in from the field—the daily routine never altered.
Franny sat on one side of the table, and Maggie took a seat opposite—the better to glare at me, Franny thought—with their mother between them at one end. Sean came in next, greeting the women warmly. Franny had warned him early on not to sit next to her, afraid that they might give themselves away, so he seated himself beside Maggie, winking at Franny as he did so. Franny’s father, Michael, arrived last. As he took his place at the head of the table, a hush fell over the room. They all bowed their heads for grace.
“For what we are about to receive,” Theresa said, as she did every night, “may the Lord make us truly thankful.”
With that, they all opened their eyes and began to eat. Theresa had already doled out the meat, making sure the men had the lion’s share, and now they passed dishes of boiled potatoes and cabbage around the table. This was all done with the minimum of words. There was never much chatter at mealtimes. Michael Healey was a silent man, and, as the head of the house, his preference filtered down to the others.
“So how’s the work going?” Theresa asked.
Michael shrugged and made a noncommittal noise. It was up to Sean to say, “We should be finished soon.”
“And have you made any decision about what you’ll be doing after that?”
Everyone tensed as Michael asked the question that came up at least once a week. It was no secret that once the fruit was collected he wanted to keep Sean on to help with the harvest. The farm was getting too much for him lately, and, as he was fond of complaining, it wasn’t as if he had any sons to help him out. Of the six children Theresa had borne, there had been only one boy, Patrick. A strong, strapping lad, he should have taken over the farm one day. But, like Franny, he had been eager to see the world. While her father, a Unionist man who hated the English, had agreed with Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s policy of keeping Ireland out of the war, Patrick had seen it as his chance for adventure. On the day of his eighteenth birthday, he’d gone to England to volunteer. Less than a year later, he had died on the beaches of Normandy. Now Michael’s only reference to his son was to complain that the English had robbed him of his help on the farm.
Other than Patrick, Maggie, and Franny, there had been three stillbirths, and after the last, the doctor had warned Theresa against trying for more children. That meant Michael had no natural heir to the farm. It was because of this he wanted Sean to stay on to help bring in the wheat, but the young man had always been typically noncommittal. As before, the farmhand said now, “I’ve no idea what I’ll be doing, sir. I’ll see when the time comes.”
The older man shook his head in disapproval. “It’s a strange way you live, going from place to place, with no security or roots.”
“Da!” Franny chided, hating the way her father took every opportunity to put the boot in with Sean.
“Well, it’s true. He lives like a tinker.”
There was an awkward silence, but Sean didn’t seem upset. “It suits me that way. And it’d be a strange world if we were all the same, wouldn’t it?”
Franny beamed at him. He was well able for her father, and that was something she admired.
Now Sean patted his belly and burped loudly. “As usual, that was delicious, ladies. I’ve never eaten so well as I have since coming here. You’ll be hard pressed to get rid of me.”
He winked at Mrs. Healey, who scowled back. She knew Sean Gallagher’s type. A lovable rogue: charming and entertaining, but not someone you’d want near your daughters. Seeing the enraptured look on Franny’s face, she felt a twinge of unease. She’d have to keep a close eye on that one. Her youngest child was a romantic and far too pretty for her own good.
“There’s no need to thank Franny for the meal,” Maggie piped up. “She didn’t help a bit.”
Their father seized on the information. “Is this true, Franny? You’ve been shirking your duties again?”
Franny glared at her elder sister, longing to wipe the smug smile from her face.
“Yes, Da,” she said, trying to look contrite.
“And where were you this time?”
Studiously avoiding looking at Sean, she said, “Out walking. I didn’t realize how late it had got.”
Her father snorted. “You’ve got to learn some responsibility, my girl.”
But he ignored her and continued talking. “In fact, I think it’s about time you started helping out a bit more around here. Your mother’s slowing down. From tomorrow, you’ll take over looking after the small livestock. That should keep you out of mischief.”
Franny was horrified. She couldn’t think of anything worse than being around those filthy, smelly pigs or the goat that always seemed to find a way to chew her hair.
“But what’s the point? I’ll be off to England in a few weeks.” It was more of a question than a statement. No one rushed to agree with her. “Da?” she prompted.
Franny felt a flicker of fear, knowing how easily he could get into a temper. But she couldn’t back down now. “I said, I’ll be in London soon. We talked about this, me going to train as a nurse. Well, the letter came today. I’ve been accepted,” she told him proudly.
She took out the crumpled envelope to show him. She’d read it so many times that it was already well worn. He ignored her outstretched hand and continued eating.
“Michael,” Theresa chided gently. “The child’s trying to show you something.” Franny flashed her mother a grateful look. She was more sympathetic than her husband to her daughter’s wandering spirit. She knew there was no point trying to clip their youngest’s wings.
With a grunt, Michael threw down his fork and snatched the letter from Franny. He quickly scanned the contents and then tossed it onto the table. “What would you be wanting to go over there for?”
“Because there’s nothing for me here!”
“Now’s not a good time. Maybe next year.”
Franny had heard this before. It would be the same every year, until she was too old or too worn down to have her dreams anymore. She looked desperately at her mother for help, but Theresa dropped her eyes to the table. Michael wasn’t a violent man, not like some, but he still wasn’t above the odd whack when the mood took him. Franny was on her own.
He banged his fist on the hard wooden table, cutting her off. “Will you ever shut it, girl!” His eyes flashed dark and angry, and instinctively she recoiled. “I’ll hear no more on the subject.”
He grabbed a hunk of bread and mopped up the meat and gravy on his plate, shoving the makeshift sandwich into his mouth, brown juice spilling out and down the sides of his face. Franny looked at him in disgust. Her gaze moved to Sean, and she saw sympathy in his eyes. At least he understood how she felt, that she couldn’t stand to be trapped in this place, never having the chance to live.
Sean got up then. “I’d best see to the livestock before dark.” He carried his plate to the sink and washed it. As he let himself out, he gave a backward glance at Franny. She saw the invitation in his eyes as he left.
Up until then, she still hadn’t decided whether to see Sean that night. But in that moment, Franny made up her mind. She would go to him, after all. She would prove to him, and to herself, that she was meant for more than this dump. And to hell with the consequences. Who knew? Maybe then he would take her with him when he left Glen Vale.
© 2011 Tara Hyland
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare and contrast Cara and Franny. In what ways are they different, and in what others are they similar?
2. What is this novel saying about second chances? Which characters get them, and what do they do with them?
3. As the title suggests, Sins of the Mother is very much about the failures of maternal figures. Consider the many women who act as mother figures for Cara. To what extent are they successful or disappointing role models for her?
4. Two pregnancies—both to young, unmarried women—drive much of the narrative’s action. Discuss how these pregnancies are handled by the adults in these young girls’ lives, and the impact of their actions. What role does shame play here, and in your opinion, who—if anyone—is guilty, in these scenarios?
5. Where does friendship fit in to this novel? Can it ever compensate for the absence of family?
6. Both Franny and Cara want to pursue a see more