Friday, September 12, 2014

A Place That Has Been Loved

Like the house where I live, the former Sorrel Farm, renamed Andalusia Farm, feels loved. In the early twentieth century, Andalusia Farm was loved by the uncles whose generosity and caring made late summer pony rides possible for Mary Flannery and her Boston cousins. Years later, love coincided with refuge as mother and daughter undertook to live together as adults under the cloud of a disease they already understood. Today, love remains visible in the window treatments that Regina Cline O’Connor crafted. Home sewers immediately recognize the difficulty of handling the heavy fabric, matching the pattern of peacock feathers or plaid, making the lining work, and pleating the tops of the draperies in the front room. The kitchen fridge and Cousin Katie Semmes’ book cases would have been her daughter’s evidence of love. To love a place one has not chosen seems to me a mark of character, resilience, and faith.

To make that place a sight of hospitality and conversation—as well as work and worship—requires additional commitment, a commitment that remains evident on each of my visits and resonates in The Habit of Being. I am grateful that friends, family, and publisher stepped forward in love fifty years ago to begin the process that makes a significant collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters widely available today.

It is to the letters from mid-September that I now turn. This time in 1953, O’Connor was sending a blouse to Sally Fitzgerald as a house gift. Our author is anchored at Andalusia as she hears from friends traveling in Ireland and France and contemplates the Fitzgerald’s sojourn in Italy (Habit 62-63). In 1954, she was negotiating a target date for her first collection of short stories (72). In September 1955, her crutches are new (104). Around this time in 1956, she is commiserating with a pen pal who has lupus and chuckling about the fridge bought from the sale of rights to adapt “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (174-75). The ellipses in this letter most likely signal a passage not in the public but rather in the private sphere. For me, they announce that I do not necessarily have the right to know everything, and I concur.

September 1957 finds Flannery O’Connor writing some of her closest connections in ways that might seem to be trivial. Yet, under the apparently superficial are references to her beloved uncle—I believe Uncle Louis—moving home (240) and to the difficulty and pain of writing (242). September 1958 is similar in that things apparently innocuous lead to serious references to Nazis and race relations, as well as the craft of fiction (294-96). The middle of September 1959 finds O’Connor telling John Hawkes how much she would like to send him a prepublication copy of The Violent Bear It Away (349). A year later, our author and Maryat Lee are teasingly using the novel’s names as monikers (406).  A year after that, she mentions Shot’s inactivity (449), yet she keeps her own spirits up in the face of adversity. In mid-September of ’62, she is waiting for Dr. Helen Green to visit, reminding me of the close relationships she maintained with her former professors who were my esteemed predecessors here. Graduates of Georgia State College for Women during these years tell wonderful stories of their own visits to Andalusia Farm as students, usually in the Literary Guild. Mid-September of 1963 is heavy, as O’Connor reads Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and seems immersed in thoughts concerning race. This Flannery O’Connor  is the one whose writing Alice Walker came to respect. And then, before September returns, the years at Andalusia Farm have ended. What I think I do know is that much love and much courage were displayed there by a mother and daughter from a very strong family of women.

-- Elaine E. Whitaker, chair of the Department of English and Rhetoric at Georgia College, rents one of the historic properties in downtown Milledgeville, so following Dr. Bob’s references to another of these properties, the Thirteen Columns, seemed appropriate to her. Whitaker has admired and been inspired by O’Connor’s tenacity in her vocation as a writer and is grateful to all who keep O’Connor’s legacy to us alive.

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