Friday, July 29, 2016

A Requiem for Flannery

This coming Wednesday, August 3, is an anniversary we mark each year: Flannery O’Connor’s death at 12:4o a.m. at the Baldwin County Hospital. Perhaps on this day more than any other Flannery steps out of the “darkness of the familiar” as she put it. The lady behind those stories, essays, and letters that we’ve read so many times becomes far more of a real person in our confronting her death. 

Even to visitors who have never read much of her work, Flannery’s presence here is quite evident, beyond the crutches against the wardrobe and the sink against the wall. The literary elements are still here, too: the hayloft and tractor, among others.  The house is put through many of the same motions as it was when Flannery lived here, from the Supper Club dinners with our donors to conversations with visitors on our front porch.  I think Flannery would like that this place remains as much of a home as it is.

There are stories of Flannery’s having to hide papers from her nurses because they didn’t want her to write in the hospital. We can all certainly admire the work ethic there.  Those stories went into the second collection: Everything That Rises Must Converge, and some of my favorites were edited in the hospital room: “Parker’s Back,” Judgment Day,” and others.  Flannery’s work ethic is no small part of our willingness to preserve Andalusia for the generations to come.  This is a place of great inspiration, but inspiration is only as good as the efforts taken to put it into something tangible, sharable, and lasting.  Thus, we thank Flannery for her example, and work to preserve that which she left behind. Requiescat in pace.

If you would like to make a contribution toward the preservation of this place, please visit our website, or give us a call at 478-454-4029. 

Daniel Wilkinson is a Visitor Services Assistant and Blog Editor at Andalusia

Friday, July 22, 2016

A "Glob": On the Farm in Piedmont, NC

Why do I come to Andalusia? Because I visit with the spirit of Flannery, and the farm wraps its arms around me.  I feel good from both encounters.  I come to Andalusia because the pace makes me feel good about myself and the world. 

When I was a child, I grew up on farms. One was with my parents; it was not really a working farm.  My father earned our livelihood in other occupations.  Our farm just had beef cattle to keep the land in use with minimum labor.

The farm I loved was the one of my paternal grandparents. (I know now my grandfather was an agribusiness man, a totally unknown idea to me at the time.)  My grandfather, known as “Pa-Pa” (Pah-paw) had many operations. The list would include: a traveling saw mill, a cotton gin, a Robinson Chemical retail fertilizer business, a threshing machine business, and in the winter a place where people came to slaughter and prepare hogs for utilization during the winter.  He also served out community as Church Treasurer, Chairman of the local school board, and adviser and helper to many.

I understand now that the cotton gin’s space with the roll-top desk was basically my grandfather’s office. However, much of my time was spent in his large truck with a full bed on the back. This was not a pick-up truck, but a large truck.  He never went out in it without his constant working companion, Raoul, a young black man.  Sometimes I was allowed to sit on the back of the truck bed with my feet hanging over; Raoul was ALWAYS there to protect me. Most of the time the three of us rode in the engine area of the truck. I have no idea how many hours I spent in this endeavor, from about three years to the time I began school at six years of age, but I felt like the “Queen of the Hill” as I rode along. 

And so, Andalusia puts its arms around me when I am here.  And I feel as safe as eight decades ago in Piedmont, North Carolina. There are many Grandmother stories, but they must wait for another day.  

Therry Deal, formerly of the Georgia College College of Education, is a volunteer at Andalusia. 

Friday, July 15, 2016


We are pleased to revisit this topical, and I daresay almost tropical, piece by our Executive Director, Elizabeth Wylie. 
-Daniel Wilkinson, Blog Manager & Bon Vivant

“Just wait until July and August.” This has been the frequent refrain as I have mentioned my interest in exploring the idea of going without air-conditioning at Andalusia. A 1962 photograph of the farm house shows a window air conditioning unit installed in Flannery’s room but surely this was a recent addition (the first window unit was introduced in 1939 but just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning as late as 1965). Instead, we can imagine Flannery and her mother ‘operating’ the farm house in a classic manner. This meant minimizing heat gain by working with the original climate-specific vernacular architecture of the 1850s plantation-style house. The high ceilings, tall windows, deep roof overhang and cross-ventilation were designed for the middle-Georgia climate.

Many of us remember our grandparents keeping the house closed in the day and then opening it up in the evening to cool off. Shutters played an important role in this dance as did behaviors: one would be early to rise to beat the sun. Lots of outdoor work happened early in the morning before it got hot. Mid-day ‘dinner’ was the main meal and was typically followed by rest, or at the very least low-impact activities performed inside or in the shade. Once things cooled, folks would go back outside until sun-down. A light evening meal (‘supper’) would close out the day. This kind of schedule encouraged lively civic engagement with lots of porch sitting, strolls in the town square, and conversation. The human body is also remarkably adaptable. If we were to dial back air-conditioning, we might start to question our assumptions about what is comfortable and can (re)learn how to live in the environment we have.

Today, 90 percent of U.S. homes have air-conditioning. Commercial spaces are typically over-cooled and who can say they have not had to ‘layer-up’ in response to what I call the ‘tyranny’ of air-conditioning in office buildings and commercial spaces. The associated impacts from refrigerants and fossil fuel energy use are contributing to climate change. Going without air-conditioning at Andalusia is certainly a preservation strategy as we demonstrate mid-century life ways, encouraging porch sitting, etc. But revival of the original design intent at the house also underpins a conservation story, one of environmental stewardship and resource efficiency. There is for sure a critical need for climate controlled spaces (for those sick or vulnerable, as Flannery was for example) so I don’t imagine we can or would jettison air-conditioning altogether. Still, Andalusia is valued as a place of beauty and serves as a snap shot of mid-century farm life. It is the place that inspired and supported an original and influential artist; part of our job is to tell the story of how she lived there. That means going without air-conditioning (or trying to anyhow!). What say you? Could you eliminate or minimize your air conditioning use?
 Photograph by Joe McTyre. Note the red arrow that points to Flannery's A/C unit. 
Elizabeth Wylie is the Executive Director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Walking the O'Connor Labyrinth

The first time I went to Milledgeville, there was nothing much to see. I mean, nothing much O’Connor-related. I did manage, after getting a guy from a convenience store to drive me to Memory Hill, to stumble across her grave (the caretaker didn’t know where the O’Connor plot was). But I kept going back. I made at least six more pilgrimages to Milledgeville, and every time there was more to see.

On that first trip, I drove up and down 441 looking for some sign of Andalusia. On my next trip, I was there for a writing conference with a friend. We, along with a future National Book Award winner, piled into my truck and drove to Andalusia. We’d heard the stories of Regina Cline hiring Baldwin-Felts detectives to keep people like us off of her property, so we were nervous. But it was hard to be so close and then to just walk away. We hopped the fence, but didn’t dare get too close to the house or the barn.

The next trip I was pleased to find that Andalusia was open for visitors—sort of. The local trolley was making a special trip out there. I went with my friend, the novelist and short-story writer and possibly even more devoted O’Connor fan, Elizabeth Stuckey-French along with her family. We got to sit on O’Connor’s front porch. Why did it make us so happy? I’m still not sure.

Years later I went back for a National Endowment for the Arts Summer Institute called “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor.” The Institute was a great experience. I read through drafts of the novel O’Connor was working on at the end of her life, went to lectures, and sat in rocking chairs and learned about O’Connor from smart and charming people. I also began working on The Book of Hulga, which was just published on O’Connor’s birthday this year. The group of scholars went out to Andalusia a couple of times and now were allowed inside the house.

I was there recently for the Flannery O’Connor and Other Southern Women Writers Conference. I told the story about the first time I’d gone to Andalusia and somoene said they wished they’d had the opportunity to jump the fence. I could understand the sentiment—there is something vaguely romantic and poetic about the gesture.

On the last day of the conference, I hiked with a friend of mine from town, struggling through the heat and exhaust and high grass along 441. We walked into the cool house and paused for a long while, looking at O’Connor’s bed, the crutches leaning there, the curtains she hated, the painting on the wall, the bookcases. We went outside and looked at the peacock, walked through the barn.
The director, after offering the shop’s part-time worker a loan when he mentioned waiting on his financial aid check to arrive, offered us a ride back into town. In the car I thought about the person’s comments about jumping the fence. I thought too about all of the work and money and time that went into restoring Andalusia, into making it available for people like me, people with no real claim to O’Connor other than admiration. And I realized that this—this connection between strangers because of a shared love for a woman not one of us ever knew personally but whose words shaped us in ways we can’t articulate—this was what I have been travelling to Milledgeville all of these years to find.

And I know I’ll keep coming back.

Rita Mae Reese is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship in fiction, a “Discovery”/The Nation award, and a Pamaunok Poetry Prize, among other awards. Her second book, The Book of Hulga, was selected by Denise Duhamel for the Felix Pollak Prize in 2016 and is available at Amazon and other retailers.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Places of Pilgrimage

In spring 1958 Flannery O’Connor embarked on her one and only trip to Europe. Although, as Brad Gooch has noted, O’Connor styled herself an “accidental pilgrim,” this trip was primarily one of pilgrimage, especially to the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

After spending some time with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in Italy and visiting Paris, O’Connor traveled with her mother and a group of other Georgia pilgrims to Lourdes. There in 1858 the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous. The centenary of this event inspired O’Connor’s “Cousin Katie” Semmes to suggest—or really, insist upon—the trip. Her hope was that the healing properties attributed to the waters at the shrine might be beneficial to O’Connor’s worsening health.

Although O’Connor declared in a letter to Elizabeth Hester that “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it,” she did make the journey to that holy site, in her own words, “as a pilgrim.” After some resistance and “with bad grace,” she entered the pool in turn with the other malades. She was understandably dismayed by the unsanitary conditions of the common bath, the shared “sack that you take a bath in,” and the “thermos bottle of Lourdes water” passed around from pilgrim to pilgrim that “everybody had a drink out of.”

“Somebody in Paris told me the miracle at Lourdes is that there are no epidemics, and I found this to be the truth,” she later quipped to Elizabeth Bishop; “apparently nobody catches anything.”
After a return to Italy and a special blessing by Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, O’Connor and her mother travelled home to Andalusia. By the end of the year O’Connor reported to Hester that “the trip to Lourdes has effected some improvement in my bones,” which, according to her doctors, “were beginning to recalcify.”

Cousin Katie, who was herself very ill in Savannah, was thrilled to hear of this improvement. Despite O’Connor’s sardonic comments about the pilgrimage, she was herself open to, and suspected that she might have experienced, the power of the miraculous. She added in the same letter to Hester: “Before we went they told me I would never be off the crutches. Since last week I am being allowed to walk around the house without them.”

O’Connor even attributed renewed progress on the novel The Violent Bear It Away to her experience on the pilgrimage. “I am by no means finished,” she wrote to Hester, “but at least I know that it’s possible. I must say I attribute this to Lourdes more than the recalcifying bone. Anyway it means more to me.” Certainly the European trip reinvigorated her body, at least temporarily, as well as her literary imagination.

* * * 

Although I have never been to Lourdes, like O’Connor I have travelled as a pilgrim to Rome and the Vatican, on the occasion of the 2009 International Flannery O’Connor Conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. But the closest I’ve come to a visit similar to O’Connor’s at Lourdes was my first trip to Milledgeville and Andalusia ten years ago.

My first stop in Milledgeville was at Memory Hill Cemetery and O’Connor’s flat stone grave. Some visitors leave peacock feathers or flowers. I brought a rosary made of Jerusalem stone and draped it on the tablet, near the “IHS” (for Iesus Salvator Hominum, Jesus, Savior of Men). I prayed for the repose of O’Connor’s soul, and of her father’s and mother’s, and I asked Flannery to pray for me.

I then drove through the heart of Milledgeville and to the property of Andalusia. Like many before me, I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than a wooden farmhouse and some fields and trees. I had been praying for a renewal in my academic work, a new direction and a new start, and this desire inspired the visit. I wanted, like many, to gain a better sense of the world that formed O’Connor’s imagination and her writing.

After pulling my car behind the house, I wandered around the backyard a bit, came up to the front door, opened it, and entered. It struck me as a simple place, frankly in need of some repair. The most fascinating room, to the left of the entrance, was roped off and contained an enticing bookcase filled with various volumes from O’Connor’s own library. The crutches, too, were there—not hundreds as at Lourdes. Just one aluminum pair.

Craig Amason, who was then director of the property, greeted me warmly. I purchased a couple of O’Connor books, the latest issue of The Flannery O’Connor Review, and a bumper sticker that declares in the words of Hazel Motes, “No man with a good car needs to be justified.”

I then strolled around the property a bit more, and eventually, downhill from the front porch of the farmhouse, I circled a small pond covered in algae. Looking at a photo of it now, it reminds me of O’Connor’s description of the pool at Lourdes, stagnant and unhealthy. To my knowledge, no one currently bathes in it or believes its waters to be in any way medicinal, physically or spiritually.

Still, that visit was in its own way transformative. I discovered then a new subject for my literary criticism and a new, powerful enthusiasm. As a Catholic I feel close to O’Connor, as one can to the souls who have gone before us, to all the departed and to the Communion of Saints. As I write about her work and think about her life, I intuit a deeper connection to O’Connor as a fellow believer and as someone who is both dead and still, mysteriously, alive.

I am certain that I am not the only one who perceives Andalusia to be, if not quite a shrine, a holy place where God was loved and suffering was endured, and, yes, where witty comments were made amidst many moments of grace.

George Piggford, C.S.C., is a Catholic priest and Associate Professor of English at Stonehill College in Easton, MA. His “Mrs. May’s Dark Night in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Greenleaf’” will appear this fall in Christianity and Literature.