What Tara Hall taught me

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TARA Hall in Simla, almost a finishing school for girls, would be considered completely anachronistic today, but was a sign of the times, then. The nuns cared more about the way we walked and talked than our pursuit of mathematics or science.

“After all” they said, “we’re training the girls to become good mothers and wives”.

It was an idyllic life. We lived by the clock with the daily class and home-work routine punctuated with baking cakes, balancing on wooden beams like ballerinas, and preparing for the annual opera, composed by Chopin and Schubert, when we were not singing hymns at rosary or benediction —often in Latin.

But there was one exception. Mother Stanislaus, a world gold medallist in geography, imparted instruction on the African veldt, the savannas of Sudan and the prairies of Saskatchewan giving us a head start to score” ‘A’s in geography. Apart from teaching us how to read contour maps, she was responsible for keeping the school accounts, negotiating contracts for the maintenance of that immaculate institution. Quite out of character, she also taught us ballroom dancing every single night from Monday to Saturday.

“One two there, one two there, one two there” counted Mother Stanislaus lifting her black serge skirt revealing dainty laced shoes beneath, as she demonstrated the intricacies of the Vienese waltz, the samba and the foxtrot. She taught us to actually listen to the music, to swirl around without bumping, to stay on our toes for eternity and to pirouette to a perfect finish. Each class of perfect young ladies that passed out of Tara Hall probably learnt no chemistry or physics, but certainly would stand their place among the finest when it came to geography and ballroom dancing.

Twenty years after I left school I took my two children to see Tara Hall, that lovely grey and scarlet building, its windows sparkling in the afternoon sun. The manicured pathway from the gate led to a Victorian parlour where paintings of the Virgin Mary welcomed visitors. As we entered the gate, I could see two familiar looking nuns walking down, one holding the other’s hand. As I drew nearer I recognised Mother Stanislaus. I weren’t towards her and hugged her. “Mother”, I said, “do you remember me? Shaila?” The blue eyes looked past me completely as though I weren’t there. She did not even notice the two tiny children who stared wide eyed. The other nun took my hand and drew me aside gently. “Mother became a patient of Alzheimer’s five years ago. It is God’s will.”

The memories I had treasured for the last 20 years became crumpled waste-paper. Here was Mother Stanislaus in flesh and blood. The same blue eyes, the same peaches and cream complexion, the same composure. But she wasn’t really there. She was like a wax version of that wonderful geography and dancing teacher our cloistered world had known. This gold medallist in geography who ran Tara Hall with the precision of an assembly line and one who had moulded generations of perfect little ladies, was lost to the world and lost to me forever.

In memory of Mother Stanislaus my heart reaches out to every family who has to face the tragedy of Alzheimer’s. But it is God’s will.