From "A Nun Without a Habit" Introduction.
Flannery stayed with her mother because in her last years "Mary Flannery," as her mother called her in the Southern fashion, had a very serious disease, "lupus," which eventually claimed her life in 1964. Her father had died of this same disease, and it was genetic.
What you really need to know about Milledgeville at that time (in the 1950's and early 1960's) was that it had been the state capital of Georgia before the "War Between the States." After the War, the capital was moved to Atlanta, but much pleasant antebellum architecture was, of course, left behind. The small town was full of white high-columned two-story houses, and the people living in them prided themselves on a lifestyle of Southern manner and gentility.
Because of the withering "lupus" that placed Flannery on straight steel crutches before the end, she had to return from the North, where she had been living and writing, to her home in Milledgeville, where her widowed mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, could look after her.
Flannery had to have constant supervision and care. After Flannery's funeral in 1964, at which I was a pall bearer, Regina told me the one thing that reconciled her to her 39-year-old daughter's early death was that if she, Regina, had died first, who would have looked after Flannery? Regina said that had worried her a great deal, as it certainly would have worried any mother in a similar situation.
To reach the Cline-O'Connor frame farm house you drove up a hill and over a long red clay and gravel driveway flanked by green pastures. As I recall my many visits with Flannery, I always remember seeing a seated Flannery waving welcome from her rocking chair on the house veranda.
Joining her on the veranda in a rocking chair overlooking the sloping hills, nearly every visitor enjoyed a sense of rural peace and serenity. I was often found there on summer afternoons and evenings, gently rocking and talking with Flannery. Sometimes Regina, her mother, was present.
When Regina was with us, the conversation took on a more gossipy and provincial level than it did in the times I enjoyed most, when Flannery and I talked about writing, literature, religion, history and the ironies of life--or anything else we wanted to talk about. Often, we rocked and talked as we watched the beautiful coloring of the sunset change the shades of the night around us.
I came to know Flannery because my father and Regina sat on the town Red Cross committee together. The Red Cross appealed to them both as a worthy cause that their community should back. Now Regina was a devout Roman Catholic (as was Flannery), and my father was minister of the First Presbyterian Church in the town. But that made no difference to either of them. They had a meeting of the minds on charity and the good work of the Red Cross.
A small and delicate lady in the fashion of old-time Southern belles, of which she was one if ever there were one, Regina always carried a dainty lace handkerchief in her hand. This handkerchief sailed around her because she gestured with it as she talked. My father wore a gray Fedora hat which bobbed up and nodded down as he agreed with someone. The two talked often.
In my memory, I can see the two of them on the Red Cross steps talking after meetings. How amused I was to see her white handkerchief sail and dot the air as if sending semaphore to her words. My father's hat nodded up and down as he agreed with her. He often said to me that Regina had as good business sense as any man and much better than most men. That she did. She was a born manager. Regina remarked to me that my father was a handsome man. That he was. The two got along famously.
I was a student at Washington and Lee University in Virginia in 1956 when I first heard about Flannery O'Connor, the writer. My freshman English classes at Washington and Lee were quite good. A teacher there, Ashley Brown, had done literary evangelism for Flannery in the English department. All the English teachers knew of Flannery, which was very good and clever of them at the time, as Flannery was not well known at all in 1953. Many friends from my prep school who had gone to other well-known colleges had not heard of her when I mentioned her. I have always felt I was lucky to have gone to Washington and Lee.
After an English teacher heard that I was from Milledgeville, Georgia, he asked me if I knew O'Connor. I did not. He said I should, and that I should read her short story "A Stroke Of Good Fortune" in a past issue of the college literary magazine, Shenandoah. I did so. I didn't know exactly what I was supposed to feel, but I laughed and laughed and laughed. And I said to myself that I had to meet her. Here was a real-life lady.
When I came home for a weekend, I asked my father if he knew Flannery O'Connor. He thought a little. "Of course," he said, "That's Mary Flannery, Regina's daughter. Regina sits on the Red Cross with me." Then he paused and said, "Mary Flannery writes, I think." I said she did, and that I wanted to meet her. He said he would be happy to arrange it.
In Milledgeville there was one good restaurant, the Sanford House, in an elegant antebellum mansion. It was run and owned by Miss Fannie Appleby White and her younger friend, Mary Jo Thompson. The O'Connors often ate there, as did my family. Miss White was a good friend of Regina O'Connor. In fact Mary Jo and Miss White often spent their weekends at Andalusia Farm with Flannery and her mother.
To make matters better, Mary Jo was a friend of my mother, and Miss White was a member of the Presbyterian Church, had taught Sunday school there for years, admired my father's sermons and was clever enough to tell him so regularly. When my mother, who had heard I wanted to meet Flannery, said that was easy, and explained the social connections to me, I knew I was "in like Flynn": I would meet Miss O'Connor. So I began reading everything of Flannery's I could find.
A few days later, when my family entered die Sanford House, my father asked Miss White to signal him if Mary Flannery and Regina O'Connor came in. He told Miss White why. They did and she did. And so I met Flannery.
Miss White joined two walnut dining tables together so Regina and Flannery and my family could all sit together. Regina was delighted to have someone to gossip with. "And this way," Miss White said, "Flannery can meet Jim" (me). She should have said, "So Jim can meet Flannery."
And so I had my first meeting with Flannery in the dining room where there was a big engraving of Robert E. Lee over the fireplace. When the Sanford House closed some years later, I bought the 1870 Lee engraving and have it in my foyer today as a memento of my first meeting with Flannery.
At the table, my father and Regina immediately started talking "Red Cross." My mother threw in some provincial gossip which Regina hadn't heard (and was delighted to hear). But Flannery and I were both children of older parents seated at the same table. Even then, in the South, children--no matter what age--were to be seen and not heard.
Flannery and I didn't get to talk too much then about literature, but I was able to tell her how "smashing" I thought her writing was. I could tell Flannery liked this. I asked if I might come alone one day to talk writing and "maybe other things."
Ever polite, Flannery, said she would be delighted to have me visit. She said we could sit on the veranda, see the sun set and discuss literature and writing. She said her mother would telephone me a good appointment day and time for me to visit. I said, "Thank you very much."
She added she was very sorry I had to come to see her, but she was very limited in getting around. (She had come in on her steel crutches and leaned them against the wall near her chair as she ate.) I said, no matter, that I had been reading her, and I found her stories "great fun."
I visited off and on with Flannery for eight years. She was very kind and gracious. She shared her opinions about writing, religion and life in general quite honestly with me and was always informative, ever interesting, dry, ironic and amusing in her comments.
Flannery liked to ask me questions to answer the questions I asked, so our conversations often went on and on. She was using the Socratic method, of course, which, looking back, I think was the right way to teach someone my age. (I was twelve years younger than she.) I talked to her as if to a wiser and more experienced big sister. I was able to do this because she was never pompous or pretentious about being an author.
Knowing her was a wonderful experience and, in time, I came to want to share my O'Connor experiences as well as I could with those who never knew her. My hope is that, just maybe, through writing them up, I may be able to share some of the flavor I found in knowing her with those not so fortunate as to have met her.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||MacLeod, James L.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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