Friday, November 25, 2016

First There Is a Mountain, Then There Is No Mountain, Then There Is

On this holiday weekend, revisiting this essay from Jimmy Dean Smith on his family and a trip to Andalusia seems fitting. All of us here at the farm hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
-Daniel Wilkinson, Blog Editor

November 8, 2014: Today is my son Brendan’s thirtieth birthday. A few weeks before he was born, the obstetrician snooping around my wife, Sharee’s, belly via sonogram grinningly asked whether we wanted to know what it was, boy or girl. For reasons that were explained to us much later by friends who were appalled that two such innocent people could cross streets by themselves much less be allowed to procreate, the question itself and the doctor’s absolute certainty about its answer told us, or would have told us if we were marginally sentient, all anyone with a lick of sense really needed to know. (In those prehistoric days, before 3D sonograms removed much of the mystery, boy-fetuses would sometimes arrange themselves so as to, ummm, protrude demonstratively. Embryonic girls were capable of all sorts of things, but not this singular feat. That is, being absolutely sureabout the baby’s sex = protrusion. That is, thirty years ago the ob-gyn saw the kid preening like an Andalusian peacock. )

But No, we said. We want it to be a surprise. We very likely grinned adorably and gazed into each other’s eyes (which we still do, by the way). What our willful ignorance meant was frustrating the dickens out of well-meaning sex-role-determining relatives who were intent on color-coding the little miracle’s blankets and onesies according to sex. Should Gramps buy a teensy baseball glove or an eensy doll-baby? Should Aunt Myrtle get him a He-Man poster or get her a Strawberry Shortcake print? Hammers or teacups? It also meant that Sharee and I pored over every single page of Three Thousand Names for Baby, a pocket-sized booklet we found in the checkout aisle at the Westgate Winn-Dixie. It cost $1.95 and was scripture for the month or so we sat up in bed marking it with a blue Bic pen, a checkmark for Maybe, an X for No, an obliterating scratchout for Consignment to Baby Name Limbo (farewell forever, Eloise). Sure, we gave thought to time-honored family names, but we kept coming back to the baby book for ideas.

We finally made a decision, mostly by tossing the invaluable book (too many choices!) and winging it. Since you are the kind of smart person who logs onto the Andalusia Farm blog, you must already have figured out where this story is going. If we had a boy, we decided, we would call him Brendan (which we did, and which we did). For a girl’s name, we picked Flannery. I have no recollection at all what her full name was to be: Flannery Grace? Emma Flannery? I am relatively certain that it would not have been “Mary Flannery,” though a double-decker Southern name like that is the norm in my family (see my very own name). At that time, I am almost positive, I had no idea of O’Connor’s first name.

I am also almost positive that “Flannery” was not actually in the baby book. Instead, I had read a few of her stories when I was an undergraduate in South Carolina who came to her for “Good Man” and stuck with her for what I mistakenly took to be a punk ethos. (The two photo post cards on my office bulletin board are of Flannery seated beneath her self-portrait and Patti Smith from the Horses cover.) I often heard her name when I was studying in the Hollins College graduate program in ‘83-4. O’Connor had done a reading at Hollins during the last year of her life, and her opening remarks before reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” are gathered, as “On Her Own Work,” in Mystery and Manners. One or two of the professors who taught me—John Rees Moore; somebody else (?)—had known her. A classmate whose specialty was screenwriting came up with a totally copyright-violating script based on “Good Country People” (though in her improved version Manley Pointer absconded with Joy-Hulga’s glass eye). Another classmate, one who claimed to have met Ric Ocasek of the Cars in a men’s room and Joey Ramone at a bank of payphones and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“So I said, ‘Hey, Flea’”) in a Columbia, SC, bar, told us the story of how he and his dad drove over from South Carolina to Milledgeville one day in the early eighties and jumped the fence to Andalusia. Those of us in the grad student lounge said, “Wow.”

Sometime around the beginning of February (I just did the calculations), Brendan was conceived in an apartment complex on Robin Hood Court right outside Roanoke, Virginia. And then he was born, and then he grew up, and then he earned a Masters of Theology from Loyola of Chicago. And now he lives in Auburn, Alabama with The Wonderful Amy, who I was about to joke “is too good for him.” But they are actually exactly good enough for each other. (Hi, Amy! We love you. Make Brendan call home. His mom wants to hear from him.)

Last time I saw Brendan, who was on the way to Edisto Beach with Amy, we toured the sites of Milledgeville. Early in the afternoon, we went to the O’Connor gravesite and played Memory Hill Bingo, wherein you get a point for each grave marker that has the name, either first or last, of an O’Connor character. We peered through the windows of Sacred Heart, and I showed him where the Sanford House used to be and where the restaurant up and went to. But Andalusia, as it is for so many devout readers of O’Connor, was to be the high point. And, except for a few minutes when Brendan’s know-it-all American lit professor dad nearly got into a shouting match with a know-it-all medieval history professor who was telling the folks in his group that the boy in “The River” is an orphan, the visit was ideal. We watched The Displaced Person, simultaneously shouted “Samuel L. Jackson!!” at the same time when we recognized him in the cast, and spent the next few minutes amusing ourselves doing Sulk’s dialogue as Snakes on a Plane-era censor-approved Jackson: “I have had it with these monkey-fighting peacocks in this monkey-fighting barn!” (I sincerely apologize to the O’Connor Estate.) We toured the grounds, eying the barn’s loft with literary appreciation and an empty Schlitz Tall Boy can in the refuse heap next to the equipment shed with confusion. Because I am developing an article about the “creeper child” in O’Connor and other Southern writers, I looked for places where Sally Virginia Cope would’ve hidden. We stared at the treelines, and the trees stared back.

At last we rocked on the porch, talking with a local visitor who was up to speed on a lurid murder trial going on nearby, hankering to see a sunset that was still four or five hours away. “Look at the mountains,” I told Brendan and Amy. Of course, there are no mountains to see at Andalusia, but you might think there are if you imagine that every O’Connor story can be explained by what she saw from that same front porch, which some people apparently do. A visit to Andalusia is a brilliant way to spend several hours, but it doesn’t tell you why there’s a mountain in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” or The Violent Bear It Away.

To think: Brendan could have been Flannery Smith! Instead, that lovely name is still up for grabs. It’s yours, Dear Reader. Take it. Or maybe unused baby names go off someplace like the souvenir jerseys and t-shirts for losing Super Bowl and World Series teams that are boxed up and delivered to poor people in third world countries. Maybe, right now in some distant country, there’s a thirty-year-old woman wearing a “KC Royals World Champs 2014” hoodie while sipping cool water out of a President John Kerry commemorative tankard, and her name is Emma Flannery Grace Smith.

Jimmy Dean Smith was a scholar at the NEH Institute “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” held at GCSU last summer. He writes about British, Southern, and American Literature and has developed a specialty in Appalachian literature and pop culture since moving fourteen years ago to Barbourville, Kentucky, where he lives halfway up a stripmined mountain with his wife, Sharee, and three or four sketchy dogs and some feral cats. He chairs the Department of English and directs the Honors Community at Union College. His first grandchild, Keats Gregory Smith, was born last month and is doing fine.

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