The last time I drove up the hill of Hamilton Heights I was a high school senior at Mount Saint Joseph Academy — steering the gigantic wheel of my father’s asthmatic ’65 Malibu.
But today I was behind the wheel of my Volvo on a reconnaissance mission to see if it would be the right assisted living facility for my ailing mother, who 30 years ago gave me no other option than to attend the school that then owned the building.
I was in the last class to graduate from The Mount. That was 1978 and by then a school that once had 600 girls in grades 7-12 had dwindled to fewer than 200. When I was a student there The Mount was an ancient queen that had once been beautiful and graceful: The school was dark with heavy wood and velvet maroon drapery. The marble floors were cracked.
While most of my classmates went to The Mount as a punishment, I went on a dare. I had graduated from the local yeshiva and much to my parents’ horror had taken up with the group of Chabadniks that had infiltrated that school. If I wanted single-sex education, they insisted that it had to be in West Hartford, Conn. and not Borough Park.
I was not the first girl in my Jewish family to go to the nuns. My maternal grandmother was educated at convent schools in Greece. Nuns tutored my mother in Havana. In the ’50s and ’60s the Mount had a cadre of Jewish girls. By senior year, though, it was just my younger sister and me.
The Mount has been through a few incarnations since I graduated, but it’s a historical landmark. That means its exterior is eerily preserved in perpetuity. For the past six years it’s been an assisted living facility.
Coming back to check it out for my mother, it felt odder than odd to use the front entrance, which was prohibited when I was in school. Inside, the place was now decorated in false cheer. The nun’s quarters and student classrooms had been converted to small apartments. The gym is now the Alzheimer’s unit.
Tracy, who showed me around, said that people think the place is haunted. Doorknobs suddenly jiggle, windows slam shut, elevators randomly open and close. My mother, who has always cautiously opened doors as if she’s about to encounter a ghost on the other side, might feel at home.
As we stood at the entrance of a small room, Tracy asked me if I knew why it was called the Pope’s Room. I told her there used to be a chair, cordoned off with fancy braided rope, bearing a plaque that Pope Pius XII had once sat there. On a winter afternoon during my senior year I too sat in that chair. I didn’t yet know about the Pope’s immoral silence during the Holocaust.
My mother, who was equal parts beautiful and difficult while I was growing up, would probably not willingly come to this place, where she had once wielded so much power over me. She’d react like a woman Tracy told me about who had considered moving there, who was so overcome with memories of nuns rapping her knuckles with rulers that she refused to get out of the car.
Still, now I could almost picture my mother setting up house in Sister Barbara Maureen’s old classroom or finding Pius XII’s chair on one of her nocturnal strolls.
But by the end of my visit, I was choking on the irony of it all.