Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Place of Their Own

By Kristina Simms

Making a left turn in my little gray 2005 Chevy Cobalt sedan that always contains fast food wrappers and coffee cups and miscellaneous paper, posters, and banners from various meetings, I arrive in the parking lot of the group home where my 49 year old daughter, Celia, lives. It is 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday in October. I am right on time.

The two storey brick building, formerly a church, was transformed into a group home for adults with mental illness by a group of NAMI volunteers in 1983. The 7.5 acre campus contains not only a residence, but a workshop and two greenhouses. The acronym NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am a member and a volunteer for this fine organization and am ever in their debt for the services provided to my daughter.

Celia is waiting at a picnic tables on the grassy area near the kitchen. Behind the two picnic tables, several large azalea bushes hug the side of the home. In the spring the azaleas are lush with pink blooms. In front of the home, a circular brick wall adorned with a statue of an angel can also be used as an outdoor sitting area, but the twelve residents prefer the porch and the picnic tables when they feel like getting a little fresh air, or smoking cigarettes as the case may be. The angel is a memorial to deceased former residents at the home and former clients of one of the work programs, some of whom were considerably younger than Celia when they passed away.

When she sees me, Celia, who is wearing a cotton knit top with a floral design and a pair of blue jeans that are ragged at the bottom, goes to the kitchen door and tells an aide that she’s leaving. Her jeans legs tend to get ragged because one way or another during the course of the day her britches slip down and she walks on the hems. It’s a matter not worth extended discussion because she does so well at so many other tasks.

Celia has wavy honey blonde hair with just a few strands of gray. Her smile is engaging and her demeanor usually cheerful. She will be fifty soon. She could be mistaken for someone ten or fifteen years younger.

She is glad to see me and I am glad to see her. We get together for an outing once or twice a week. Several times a year I plan parties for the residents and their friends. We decorate, do readings, play games, have drawings for prizes, and on a couple of occasions have laughed ourselves silly trying to dance under a limbo stick. Because some of the residents and most of the staff and parents (I am now 73) are in no shape for bending, our volunteer stick-holders graciously raise and lower the stick accordingly. The winners are determined by “style,” not agility. Some of the other parents, board members, and generous church groups also provide treats and entertainment for the residents.

My daughter, and the other eleven residents, have a warm and loving and safe home right now, but whether the board and the parents and the volunteers can keep it financially afloat is a matter of constant concern. A contract with the local mental health agency for housing six of the residents is a major source of income. Contributions from United Way also help with the budget. Fundraisers like plant sales and rummage sales and golf tournaments add to the till. Grants from Flint Energies and the E. J. Grassman Trust have been used for major improvements to the home, such as outdoor lighting, wiring, carpeting, a new roof, kitchen remodeling and plumbing repair. A few years ago, my brother, a lawyer, arranged for NAMI-Central Georgia to receive a donation large enough to enable pay-off on the mortgage. That was a real boon.

Even so, the provision of room, board, supervision, and transportation to appointments for a dozen adults on a 24/7 basis requires a constant outflow of cash and the board as well as the relatives of the residents stay concerned about whether the inflow of dollars will keep up with the outflow. The state of Georgia continues to cut funds and close hospitals and programs for the mentally ill. Aging parents (like myself) of adults with mental illness have no assurance that the state will provide a safe haven for our loved ones when we are gone. Many of the mentally ill in Georgia end up in jail. The catch-22 is that leaving money to an adult on Medicaid and SSI will simply cause their benefits to stop until the inherited funds are exhausted.

Celia gets to choose the restaurant where we will have lunch and she chooses a Chinese buffet restaurant about four miles from the group home. She fills up her plate with fried rice, moo goo gai pan, a shrimp and veggie dish, and an egg roll. The food and a soda keep her happily occupied for a while. Then she announces that she’s going for dessert. In a few minutes she comes back grinning, with two pieces of coconut dessert, one in each hand, one for me and one for her.

Feeling full, I decline the proffered dessert. When Celia declares herself finished with lunch, I pay, give her $10 spending money, and we go to a nearby “dollar” store. Taking her to small variety stores to shop works out well. There’s only one way in and one way out – the front door – and she can roam at will. She loves to shop. Mostly she likes to buy snacks to share with her friends at the home, greeting cards, stationery, seasonal stickers to adorn the many letters she writes, makeup and amusing trinkets. She usually remembers that she can’t buy treats like hard candy and taffy because that sort of stuff plays havoc with her bridgework.

We stop and do some more shopping and at a big chain drugstore. On the way home we stop by the post office so she can buy stamps for some letters and cards she brought along to mail. Celia loves to send mail to friends and relatives and she loves to get mail. From the car I can see her walking around inside the post office looking for the mail drop. I wonder if I need to go in, but she finds the right slot for her letters and returns to the car pleased because the stamps she bought have a colorful, artistic design. Celia is an artist herself and can paint and draw beautifully when she is in the mood. Her handwriting and spelling are excellent. At one time in the long ago past she was in a program for gifted students. She can also play guitar and piano, again when she feels in the mood.

On the way back to the group home, Celia entertains me by singing a Blondie song, “Dreaming.” Blondie is one of her favorites. Celia has a wonderful memory for song lyrics and is one of the few people I know who knows all the words to the national anthem. After she finishes her rendition of “Dreaming,” she and I merge our voices in a silly duet performance of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” She enjoys singing campfire songs too, like the oldie that begins with “I see the moon, the moon sees me.”

When we get back to the home, she wants me to come inside and take some photos of her. Celia likes to include photos of herself in the cards and letters she writes. She poses in various chairs and beside various pictures and pieces of furniture. I tell her that I will be back in a few days with fried chicken and other goodies for a Harvest Party at the home.

When I get back to my apartment I upload the photos from my digital camera and order prints that will arrive by mail at her address in about a week. She loves to get mail.

This was a pleasant trip. Not all our trips have been so pleasant. In the past, some have involved late night drives to distant hospitals in bad weather and interviews with rude bureaucrats and psychiatrists who either clung to outdated theories or who just didn’t seem to give a darn about psychotic patients and parents who were anguished to the point of probably appearing psychotic themselves. Things are better now, for Celia, and for me. She is in a good home, has a good doctor, and a good social worker, and I only hope that the rug will not be pulled out from under us by more drastic changes in state policy or funding. My fingers stay crossed. My heart skips a beat when I hear of another group home or day treatment program being shut down for lack of funds. I fear for her future.

The subject of housing for the mentally ill is naturally of intense interest to me. Later that same week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in downtown Macon, lunching and conversing with Gary, a recent graduate of my alma mater, Mercer University, who works with Macon agencies that reach out to the homeless and also provide services for those with HIV/Aids.
Gary and I had an appointment to meet at one p.m.at a popular downtown sandwich shop where getting a parking place is sometimes problematic. Knowing that, I arrived early and still had to park about a block away. Carrying my purse and a plastic bag full of instant noodle dinners and walking with a cane – the homeless are often seen moving along with a slow or limping gait with their possessions in a bag, a backpack, or a cart. – it occurred to me that I might be mistaken for a bag lady myself had it not been for the fact that I visited the beauty shop two days before and was wearing relatively new clothing.

I gratefully sat down at one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables, where an awning protected me from the slight fall drizzle and ordered a cup of coffee and oatmeal cookies. Then I got out my notebook and pen and began to jot down some questions to ask Gary when he arrived. As a mental health advocate, I wanted to know more about how people became homeless and how they survived living on the streets of America’s cities.

A sudden gust of wind sent leaves flying down the sidewalk and the drizzle turns into genuine rain. A pleasant woman and her two teenage daughter rushed to my aid, grabbing my coffee mug, cookie plate, and bag and helping me get reseated inside the restaurant. Over the past three or four months I have noticed that more people are saying to me “can I help you with that?” Aside from the fact that many Georgians are just basically polite people, this increase in offers to help must have something to do with the fact that I am looking older and walking older these days.
I know I am walking older because my knees gave out at the huge Georgia National Fair and I rented a scooter for the first time in my life. Talk about an adventure! I wasn’t the only one scooting. Other fair visitors were actually scooting out of my way in all directions, almost dropping their corn-on-the cob and BBQ turkey legs when they saw me approaching. The highlight of my scooter tour was when I scooted into a cul-de-sac in the goat barn and found myself surrounded by bleating goats and unable to steer my little vehicle either backwards or forwards. A friendly goat farmer came to my rescue and opened a gate so I could get out. It was a new experience in relying on the kindness of strangers.

Settled at my new indoor table, I nibbled my cookies and kept an eye out for Gary, whom I was supposed to meet in front of the restaurant. The restaurant had large plate glass windows so there was no problem seeing the sidewalk tables from where I sat. The only trouble was that I didn’t know what Gary looked like, and he didn’t know me by sight either. We had spoken on the phone and emailed back and forth but this was our first face-to- face meeting.

Presently an older man in a rumpled pinstripe suit claimed the sidewalk seat that I had abandoned. It was still raining, but not so heavily, and the wind had calmed. The newcomer, who appeared to be in his sixties, waved away the server who came to inquire about his order, and lit up a great big stogie. He too was carrying a bag, but his was a red canvas tote bearing a corporate logo, the kind that might have been given out at a convention somewhere.

My server, a cheerful young lady who might have been a student at one of the local colleges, refilled my coffee and asked in a quiet voice, “Is that the guy you’re waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do me a little favor, please? Poke your head out the door and ask him if his name is Gary.”

The pinstriped man had now been joined by a younger man, badly in need of a shave and haircut, who wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The younger man lit a cigarette and the two, who apparently knew each other, puffed and chatted.

The server shook her head as she walked back by my table.

“He says his name is Joe.”

“Good,” I said, a bit nervously, making her laugh. Somehow the cigar-smoking Joe didn’t have quite the demeanor of a social service worker. Something about his appearance and that of his pal made me feel uneasy.

About that time the real Gary walked in, a slender young man with brown hair and the casual neat attire of a recent graduate. When I saw him looking around, I waved at him and he joined me and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.

We began talking about the homeless in Macon, how they walked the downtown streets with bags or backpacks, sometimes wearing or carrying extra clothing, and it suddenly occurred to me that the two men who were seeking shelter under the awning might fit into that category.

“Oh yeah,” Gary said. “The older guy often gets lunch at one of the church programs. The weekends are harder for the homeless because some of the programs are closed. People have to take some time off, you know.”

The rain had stopped, and the two homeless men moved on. A portly gray-haired man wearing faded overalls and carrying a sack walked by. His gait was slow and the blank expression on his face indicated no sense of purpose or direction. He was just walking.

“And him?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s one of our veterans,” Gary said.

In less than ten minutes I had seen three homeless men. It made me particularly sad to see one of our war veterans plodding down the sidewalk with no home to call his own. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 23 percent of our country’s homeless people are veterans (compared to 13 percent of the general population).

I asked Gary if most of Bibb County’s 300+ vagrants were mentally ill. Many of them were, he said. (According to SAMHSA, the figure is 39 %, but since this figure is obtained by asking homeless people if they have mental problems, the actual number is probably much higher.) Others became homeless because of alcoholism, addiction, financial problems, or being abandoned or kicked out by family because they were gay or had AIDS/HIV. Some were homeless “by choice” because they could not or would not adapt to the rules of society or shelters. Inability to adapt, in itself, suggested some sort of mental disorder to me.

It would be easy for a “normal” person to dismiss the homeless as victims of their own sorriness and unwillingness to work, when the fact is that many receive disability checks but cannot find affordable housing and others work part time but can’t generate enough income to pay rent in today’s market. Chronic illness is common among the homeless, as are co-ocurring conditions. Most of the homeless are men, but increasingly women and children and even whole families are becoming homeless.

Homelessness is largely an urban problem. Gary told me about the thousands who were arrested in Atlanta during preparations for the 1996 Olympics. Atlanta cleared the streets of the poor by using a combination of new and existing ordinances to criminalize the homeless and clear downtown streets of the unsightly poor. Some were given tickets to other cities, such as Macon , a gesture not appreciated by city officials and overworked social agencies.

As I finished my cookies and coffee and Gary finished his grilled cheese, we talked about the stigma of being homeless. He told me how he and some college volunteers had dressed and lived like homeless men for 48 hours. Upon seeing them, mothers would guide their children to the far side of the sidewalk.

“I would have shunned you too,” I said. “Women are afraid of strange men.”

Homelessness + illness + unkempt appearance + stigma = a combination that does not lend itself to warm feelings from the general public. I thought of the uneasiness I experienced during the brief time I thought cigar-chomping Joe might be the man I had come to interview.

After lunch Gary drove me around and showed me some of the bridges across the Ocmulgee that served as shelters for the homeless. There are also some homeless encampments but these temporary camping spots tend to move around because of objections from the police and the railroads. We parked for a moment by the underside of a bridge so I could get a photo from that angle. I saw seven or eight feral cats but no homeless humans. We had no sooner approached the bridge area than I heard the whoop of a police car. Two patrolmen pulled up about half a block away, so we got back in Gary’s car and left.

I thanked Gary for the interview and the drive and promised to help him collect thermos mugs to be used as gifts for the homeless at a charity Christmas party.

Three days later, about 10:45 a.m. Celia is in the kitchen at the group home, chatting with one of the aides. I enter the back door bearing packages of cookies and a bowl of coleslaw. I ask Celia to go to the car with me and help carry in some bags of prizes for the drawing we will have at our Harvest Party lunch. The bags contain a few jokey items but mainly usable stuff like shampoo, stationery, hand cream, and body wash. Celia is wearing an Air America blue T-shirt and jeans. She is squeaky clean including still-damp hair. I invite her to ride with me to pick up the fried chicken I have ordered from a large grocery a couple of miles away.

Before leaving I take a peek at the decorations in the rec room. The tables are decorated with fall-themed plastic table cloths, little pumpkins and colorful imitation fall leaves. The room looks bright and cheerful. The residents are already beginning to gather in anticipation of the special “party” lunch that is planned. Some even choose a seat at one of the tables, even though we won’t eat for half an hour.

At the grocery Celia helps me select some fruit and vegetable trays. Then we stop by the deli and pick up the 48 pieces of chicken I have ordered. It’s a BIG box and it smells wonderful.
Checkout takes a while but Celia is patient. We are in the 15 item or less line and the woman ahead of us plunks at least 30 items on the belt and then must discuss the price of 25 of them with the cashier. Coupons too.

Back at the home, the residents and staff and several guests gather together in the rec room. One of the residents reads a seasonal blessing which I found on the internet and printed off for him. He has a good reading voice and especially likes to do the blessing. Then we sing a few campfire type songs, including two of Celia’s favorites, “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” and “I see the Moon.” Someone makes a joke about our group being ready to eat like bears.

We take turns saying what we are thankful for. Several of the residents say they are thankful to live in a nice home. Last year Celia said she was thankful for good places to shop. This year she was thankful for her mother taking her places. Sure sounds like shopping to me!

We don’t get around to singing “Workin’ on the Railroad” or “This Land is Your Land,” because voices from the kitchen tell is it’s time to get in line for the special lunch! No urging is necessary. Plates are piled high. Special sugar-free goodies for the four diabetics at the home have been provided by one of our loyal volunteers, who also helps me ham it up at the prize drawing. After a ticket number is called the winner must close his eyes and select an unseen item from the prize bag. If the first item turns out to be unwanted, one more “grab” is allowed.
When all prizes have been drawn -- miraculously, everyone wins something -- the next stage of the game is prize-trading. Don’t like your prize? Then hold it up and see if someone wants to trade. Doesn’t anybody want this address book? The party ends with everyone pitching in to clean up, and lots of goodbye hugs.

On the way home I think about the homeless folks under the bridges in Macon, the fact that the onset of cold weather is near, and my thankfulness that Celia is not among those whose lives have spiraled downward into the caste of America’s untouchables. I also think that some of those aimless walkers of the streets if better groomed and clad and properly medicated might be able to fit in at a place like Celia’s group home where a predictable schedule and friendly supervision provide a calm and safe environment. But Georgia has nowhere near enough licensed homes.

Worries cloud my mind. Will her group home be able to keep its housing contract with the local mental health agency? Will the funds be available? Will the state of Georgia continue to cut essential mental health programs as the jails and the streets become the new “asylums.” Will the group home where Celia and her friends live be in existence ten years from now? Five? Two?
Yes, I worry. Mental health workers worry. The churches worry. The charitable agencies worry. But does the Georgia General Assembly? I think not.

(Copyright 2010 by Kristina Simms. Use prohibited without written permission of author.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Flannery O'Connor: Georgia On Her Mind

Magical Mystery and Manners Tour

Maybe I’m just whistling past the Guttenberg Graveyard, but I still like to read black ink on white paper. I am not completely computer illiterate, just a little semi-literate, but gadgets and gizmos and wading through the flotsam in the internet surf just harden my arteries. Entering “Literary Tours” in my browser, I located advertisements for Chaucer’s Canterbury ($3,950), Shakespeare’s Stratford ($6,895), and Proust’s Paris ($5,555). Mark Twain’s Mississippi must include some riverboat gambling ($5,495). Pilgrims for Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia ($1,800) can choose to arrive in Savannah or Atlanta, met by guides who speak the local language and know the roads. Luther’s Literary Landscapes beat that price by half and drove to the front door of my home in the Atlanta area. Luther picked me up in a silver station wagon, large and American.

“Looks comfortable,” I said.

I guessed that Luther had taken to heart a famous book jacket photo and had done his best to present himself after that image, with white beard and bulky turtleneck. As if reading my thought, he said, “Dans argent.” He opened the rear gate of the vehicle and pointed to the third-row seat, which faced backwards. “In case someone wants to take a lingering look at somewhere we’ve already been,” he said. “I call this my frizzled chicken seat, in honor of Flannery O’Connor’s pet chicken that she taught to walk backwards.” Luther guided my small bag to the floor and deftly set-up his laptop computer on the red velour seat. He popped in a shiny disk, pointed and clicked, and the computer screen time-traveled back to 1932. The Pathe newsreel titles identified the adorable, cute five-year-old girl as “Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Ga.”

We drove to a neighborhood not far away, the home of the second pilgrim for the trip, a high school English teacher at a private school with a reputation as a very progressive, anything goes, free-school. “Summerhill,” I said.

Luther said, “We’ll ask her.”

The teacher carried a backpack strapped to her shoulders. Her hair style would have been called a crew-cut on a man, its color peroxide blonde on anybody. Taking the backpack from her, Luther again played the computer disk of Mary O’Connor’s backwards walking chicken.

As the English teacher settled into the car, we introduced ourselves, and I responded to her name, “I lived in Brussels for two years on a beautiful square named for Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon. I believe she was born the daughter of the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire”.

“I am the middle daughter of U.S. Army Master Sergeant Guadelupe Luiz of Ft Benning, Ga.,” the teacher explained. “You can call me Maria.”

I pointed to the small electronic gadget above my ear. “My hearing is provided by a cochlear implant, a miracle but far from perfect, almost human,” I said. “You can call me Rayber, if you want.”
“Tarwater’s uncle, the schoolteacher,” she noted.

“The deaf guy,” I said.

“Why do you think Flannery O’Connor had a pet chicken?” the English teacher asked as we drove off. “Why not a puppy or a kitten, something you could cuddle and hug?”

“Her mother thought dogs and cats were dirty,” said Luther.

“Compared to a chicken?”

“My mother told me throughout my childhood that we could not afford canned tuna,” I said. “I believed the kid I envied in grade school must have been rich, because he brought a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch every day. My mother liked salmon, which she stocked regularly. Imagine my surprise when I grew up and began shopping for my own groceries only to discover canned tuna on sale at a fraction of the price of canned salmon.”

En route to age 90, my mother, without a second glance at a second-opinion, had journeyed as a faith healer, unlicensed counselor, and mystic, but when she arrived in the nursing home involuntary and incontinent, she converted to x-rated declarations of love for Nurse Mary, announcements ever after known in the family as, “Mother coming out of the closet on her walker.”

I entered this long sentence about my mother in the ZIRDLAND.COM ThatFirstLine Writing Contest. When the judges, whose terrestrial address is Oakton, Va., announced the results, I was a top-ten finalist. I congratulated the writer who won first prize and admitted her First Line was more subtle, with powerful aftershocks. First prize was $500. Second through tenth prize was not.

I sent my First Line to the contest just for the fun of it, although I certainly would have cashed the check. If you can’t stop yourself from writing something, nobody else will, but if you are going to let somebody else read it, pray for thick skin and an unbreakable funny bone. According to the rules of the contest, the First Line could be from an essay, novel, poem, anything. Only First Lines were submitted, so strictly speaking, how would anybody know if there was no second line, just a one-liner joke, or another clever opening line with no where to go. Every word of my First Line entry was, as Huck Finn says, “The truth, mostly.”

My mother lived most of her adult life in Atlanta, Georgia. She had five children, including a set of twins, one of whom died as an infant. I was the only boy and the youngest. After her children were grown, my Mother set out to see the world. She traveled coast-to-coast several times via Greyhound Ameripasses, visiting everywhere from the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, and Grand Rapids. She came to Europe, while I was living in Brussels, and we took her to Paris and Amsterdam. She was, as I pointed out in my First Line entry, a person insatiably interested in religion and spirituality. Throughout my childhood, she was a Christian Science Practitioner but was eventually excommunicated from the church due to insubordination, if not outright heresy. For a while, she studied the teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She wanted me to buy her a ticket to Puna, India, to visit him there. This is probably the only thing my mother ever asked me for that I refused. At that time, I was living in Cairo, Egypt. I believed that my mother would be genuinely shocked and inconvenienced by the absence of automatic washers and dryers in Puna. Even more, I knew in my heart she had no intention of studying at the feet of The Master. She would want to point out to him a place, here and there, where he had not gotten it quite right. The followers of Rajneesh eventually founded a settlement in Antelope, Oregon, accessible by Greyhound. However, by then, my mother had moved on to other things, a fortunate circumstance for her, as the Antelope, Oregon, followers fell very seriously afoul of the U.S. judicial system.

My mother later was involved with a group of free thinkers who mixed health food and mysticism, and their headquarters was in the very part of Maryland where I was then living. They planned a retreat in the serene Maryland woodlands in small cabins for single occupants, several days long of fasting and solitary meditation. I drove her to the remote location and carried her bags inside the cabin for her. One of her bags was accidentally dropped upon entering the cabin, and out spilled dozens of jumbo packs of Snickers Bars, one of her lifelong favorites.

“OK,” Luther said. “So what was a good ole Georgia boy doing in places like Belgium, Egypt, and Maryland?”

“I was working for the U.S. Department of State,” I explained. After I graduated from college a long way north of Georgia, I felt like a stranger in all 50 states, so I figured I might as well go ahead and live in foreign countries.”

“Like Calhoun’s aunt said in The Partridge Festival, he’s homeless.”

“Like all of Flannery O’Connor’s college educated characters.”

“Welcome to the club,” Luther said.

Near Macon, we diverted toward Savannah, taking I-16 South, which goes east. We played “My Favorite Flannery O’Connor Character” as 20-questions. The first few pro forma questions narrowed down male, female, evangelist or prophet without honor in his own country shack, Catholic or protestant, farm dweller, traveler to or from the city, college graduate too old to live back home, suicide below the age of reason.

“Does your favorite character have some sort of physical handicap, mark, or blemish?”

“Don’t they all?”

“Careful, now. You’re talking about all my friends and relatives.”

“Does this character have a notable tattoo?”

“An artificial leg?”

“I think that’s ‘Checkmate’,” I conceded.

“Why would a girl be your favorite character?” the schoolteacher asked. “I was actually going to pick Hulga myself.”

“The first time I read Flannery O’Connor, I thought her snotty, college-educated characters laying around mocking the tenant farmhands and small-town southerners had too much of a superiority complex for my taste,” I explained. “When Hulga meets the Bible salesman, she gets what’s coming to her, and Flannery O’Connor wins me over.”

Luther said, “I think a large contingent of Flannery O’Connor admirers are Hulgas and Calhouns, suffering from a little too much education, maybe, too far from a Georgia hometown. There’s us, the academics, and the Catholic intellectuals.”

“I was born a Catholic,” the school teacher said. “I shouldn’t have told you that. Now I can’t select my favorite character from Temple of the Holy Ghost.”

“Flannery O’Connor says in her non-fiction writing that the grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard To Find and her killer ‘The Misfit’ experience ‘grace.’ What is she talking about? All I see is a babbling old lady and a blood-curdling psychopath.”

“Me, to,” said the school teacher. “When Flannery O’Conner says ‘grace’ and ‘mystery,’ I just think she is full of holy water. Her fiction writing speaks for itself. Whatever she or anybody else says about her writing is pretty much beside the point.”

Luther said, “I believe every work of art exists on three levels. May I call it a trinity? First is whatever is in the artist’s mind. Then comes whatever makes it onto paper, canvas, any artistic medium. Finally there’s how the work is experienced by a world full of people exposed to it.”

“I wouldn’t ask Van Gough exactly what he had in mind when he started painting some flowers. What matters is how I react to them.”

GALLEY PROOF, “a program about books,” broadcast by WRCA-TV Workshop, dramatized scenes from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and interviewed its author the week of the 1955 publication of her collection A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND. The actors wore cornpone costumes, and their acting was 1950’s stage style. Between scenes:

Q: Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?”
A: “No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like this. I think there’s only one-way to tell it, and that’s the way it is told in the story.”

…I can’t make any intelligent comments about this book any more than I could about the others; but I can register my sensations.
You suffer this like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t…..I don’t know if you intended any of this but it’s the feeling I had when the book was happening to me.-- 1960 letter to John Hawkes.

We picked up a bucket of fried chicken, biscuits, and cole slaw and a gallon of sweet tea at Metter, about 65 miles short of Savannah, and made a picnic at the Guido Gardens, three miles from the Interstate. We sat in the gazebo and enjoyed the peaceful view of the waterways, fountains, and bridges set in a nave of pines. After lunch we walked the paths of azaleas, camellias, and shrubs, including a featured shrub sculptured in the form of “The Sower,” theme of the Guido Evangelistic Association, owner of the gardens, who had also stationed tablets with the Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes, as well as Christ figures along the walkways.

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard of no more; whereas if you are a protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head. –1961 letter to Sister Mariella Gable.

“That was great,” I said as we drove away from Guido Gardens.

“Flannery O’Connor would not have missed it,” Luther said.


An hour later, we arrived in Savannah, where Flannery O’Connor lived until she was 13, in a townhouse at 207 E. Charlton St., overlooking Lafayette Square. Next door was the home of Cousin Katie Semmes. Cousin Katie was a generous and lifelong benefactor, Lafayette Square a genteel, almost old-Europe urban landscape. Newborn Mary Flannery O’Connor was named in honor of Mary Flannery, mother of Katie Semmes.

We climbed the stone stairs to the front door and entered. The living room of the O’Connor house is formal, with antiques and family photos on display. Toby Aldrich, resident manager of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home greeted us. He was a writer himself, and we exchanged Flannery O’Connor anecdotes and conclusions, as he showed us around: the books, school report cards, the backyard immortalized by Pathe Newsreel.

Flannery O’Connor referred rarely to her life in the Savannah house of her father Edward O’Connor, who also died young of lupus. For an autobiographical sketch in college, she described herself in Savannah as “pigeon-toed,” having a “receding chin,” and “exhibiting anti-social tendencies of an only child.” Her mother Regina O’Connor maintained a list of acceptable friends for little Mary Flannery, and admission to a regularly scheduled Saturday morning social event at 207 E. Charlton St. was restricted to that list. In the living room, the children listened to the radio broadcast of Let’s Pretend. Then Regina herded them through the dining room into the kitchen for refreshments.

Also on Lafayette Square was the parochial school and The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a short walk from home for an impressionable little girl. The parochial school is no longer there. The cathedral, once the congregation for more than half the Catholics in Georgia, still dominates the square. On the sidewalk in front of the steps of the cathedral, an artist had set up easels with paintings of the church from different angles, through the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a concrete urban street-scene, and a spectacular view unavailable at street level but looking down at the spires, the God’s-eye view. One painting depicted a lady ascending the stairs to the cathedral on silver crutches. She wore a gray cloak spread wide at the bottom and layered with festoons of brown, gold, and blue peacock eyes.

“You must be a big fan of Flannery O’Connor,” I said to the street vendor.


The painting was signed, “Wyatt.”

“Are you Wyatt?”

“Nah, but I sell a lot of those for him.”

After supper, I borrowed Luther’s computer and collection of Flannery O’Connor video disks and took them to my hotel room. In addition to the Pathe Newsreel, he had movies and pirated downloads from the internet, including John Houston’s version of Wise Blood, the PBS production of “The Displaced Person,” an adaptation of “A Circle In The Fire” directed by Victor Nunez, and the 1955 WRCA-TV program featuring an interview. There were also some audio-only recordings, but I knew I would be lucky to get anything out of any videos without captions, even if I backed up parts and played them over and over.

In the interview, Flannery O’Connor wore black, or so it appeared in the grainy black and white tv recording. Her shirtwaist dress had short sleeves and pointed collars. She kept stiffly posed, her left hand resting on her right forearm. Today, all the authors appear on tv so glib and relaxed. In 1952, Flannery O’Connor did not even own a television set. She answered pretentious questions with a seriousness they did not deserve but a sardonic edge, from behind which a smile flashed, surprising herself and checking if the listener might smile back. It was a beautiful smile, explosive, deeply believable. I could imagine her sitting at her typewriter occasionally breaking into laughter, shamelessly cracking herself up.


Three hours drive from Savannah via I-16 West and U.S. 441 North took us to Milledgeville. The designers of Milledgeville intended it to be the capital of Georgia, with a broad quadrangle of government buildings, including a Governor’s Mansion, all of which is now part of the college campus that dominates the town. Before the Governor’s Mansion was completed, the large white columned house next door on Greene St. served temporarily as the residence for the Governor. The Green St. temporary Governor’s Mansion a few generations later became the family home of Flannery O‘Connor‘s mother Regina Cline. When the O’Connors moved from Savannah to Atlanta in 1938, Flannery was 13. The adjustment was not successful, and before long Regina and Flannery took up residence in the house on Greene St. in Milledgeville. Edward O’Connor became increasingly incapacitated with lupus, then died still young. Unmarried aunts and her widowed mother lived at the Greene St. house while Flannery O’Connor attended high school and college virtually in the backyard. There were no other children in the house, except in summertime. First cousins Margaret, Louise, Catherine, and Francis Florencourt, visited Milledgeville from Massachusetts every summer, brought by their mother, Agnes, Regina’s sister. Flannery O’Connor was an only child in an old-fashioned Catholic family, extending from 24 siblings of her mother and father.

The Peabody School, which Flannery O'Connor attended on the campus of Georgia State College for Women, left her hostile to progressive education.

Anything having to do with this “learning for life” stuff turns my stomach permanently. I had to attend a “progressive” high school here, one of those connected with a teacher’s college. In the summer all the teachers went to T.C. and sat at the feet of an old boy named William Heard Kilpatrick and those who couldn’t afford that went to Peabody and sat at the feet of somebody who had sat at the feet of William Heard Kilpatrick. In the winter they returned and asked us what, as mature children, we thought we ought to study. At that school we were always “planning.” They would as soon have given us arsenic in the drinking fountains as let us study Greek.--1957 letter to Cecil Dawkins.

Party chit-chat Flannery O’Connor to Russell Baker:
“I read old William Heard Kilpatrick died recently. John Dewey’s dead too, isn’t he?”
“Yes, thank God. Gone to his reward. Ha ha.”
” I hope there’re children crawling all over him.”—1955 letter to Betty Hester.

“She missed the point,” said Maria, the Atlanta progressive-school teacher as we wandered the heart of Milledgeville.

“What was the point?

“She was the point.”

The only embossed one (sweatshirt) I ever had had a fierce-looking bulldog on it with the word GEORGIA over him. I wore it all the time it being my policy at that point in life to create an unfavorable impression.—1955 letter to Betty Hester.

As a young woman in her early 20’s, Flannery O’Connor tried to live in New York City, in an art colony upstate, in guest lodgings with Connecticut intelligentsia. She was driven home by the illness that would eventually claim her life, back to Georgia under the watch and care of her mother, on the farm she called Andalusia, as if this were in fact God’s plan. An argument can be made. Otherwise, can you imagine the work of Flannery O’Connor without Georgia, expatriated to New York and Connecticut? “Tarwater in Tinseltown” or “A Perfect Day for Banana Loaves and Fishes” by M. F. O’Connor.

The farm Andalusia is located on U.S. Highway 441 North, about four miles north of town, a quarter-mile north of the Wal-Mart. We walked the grounds surrounding the two-story white frame house, worshiping at the stations of its relics: the water tower, the rust-colored hand-pump, several piles of collapsed lumber where outbuildings once stood, the tenant house ever-closer to the same state, despite the best efforts of the under-funded Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation. Peacocks, absent from Andalusia for some years, recently have been re-introduced. The burro in the pasture is descended from the one Flannery gave her mother as a birthday present. The barn has a loft, a challenge to climb with a wooden leg, a dangerous descent hard to explain, without it.

We entered the house via the large welcoming porch, screened for Southern comfort, roomy enough for many rocking chairs. We had barely entered the front hallway and closed the door behind ourselves. Looking immediately to our left, we stopped in our tracks. Behind a brown rope was the bedroom where Flannery O’Connor wrote every morning, with her back to the window and her desk and manual Royal typewriter walled behind the clothes chest. Aluminum crutches leaned against the clothes chest. We stood silent as prayer in church. Broken by sobs. I looked around. There was nobody there but us.

I walked on to the dining room across the hall, then the kitchen. At the kitchen table Flannery and her mother took their morning coffee was served from a thermos, which Regina prepared each night to serve the next day.

Flannery O’Connor maintained a lively correspondence with the outside world. Letters to Betty Hester of Atlanta, identified only as “A.” for anonymous at the time of the letters’ original publication. Their discussions of Catholic theology and the art of fiction from the gospel according to Paul Engle’s Iowa Writers Workshop have fascinated appreciative readers. Often pedagogical in tone and content, Flannery O’Connor certainly would not and could not have communicated the same things in exactly the same way to her literary sponsors and celebrated friends like Caroline Gordon and Robert Lowell. Even so, there was warmth and compassion in their correspondence, as well as Flannery O’Connor’s irrepressible sweet tooth for the taste of southern sarcasm.

I have decided I must be a pretty pathetic sight with these crutches. I was in Atlanta the other day in Davisons. An old lady got on the elevator behind me and as soon as I turned around she fixed me with a moist gleaming eye and said in a loud voice, “Bless you, darling!” I felt exactly like the Misfit and I gave her a weakly lethal look, whereupon greatly encouraged, she grabbed my arm and whispered (very loud) in my ear, “Remember what they said to John at the gate, darling.” It was not my floor but I got off and I suppose the old lady was astounded at how quick I could get away on crutches. I have a one-legged friend and I asked her what they said to John at the gate. She said she reckoned they said, “The lame shall enter first.” This may be because the lame will be able to knock everybody else aside with their crutches.” -- 1955 letter to Betty Hester. (Historical notes: Davisons was a department store in downtown Atlanta. Throughout Flannery O’Connor’s life Georgia ladies shopped at Davisons wearing Sunday hats and gloves. The first draft of “The Lame Shall Enter First” appeared in 1961.)

A parade of visitors came to see Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, including townsfolk, established literary figures like Katherine Anne Porter, not-yet known James Dickey, admirers, academics and critics. Ted R. Spivey, Professor of English at Georgia State University, Atlanta, himself a multiple Andalusia visitor and Flannery O’Connor correspondent, writes in his book Flannery O’Connor, The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary: “…at the time of Dickey’s first visits with Flannery O’Connor in 1958, Dickey had not published a volume of poems, …was receiving no great attention. Dickey also in 1958 was aware of her presence as a serious woman of letters. He told me in 1986 that, when he began to write, she was the only writer in Georgia who was doing anything.” (When Dickey looked her up, neither knew they had attended simultaneously, briefly, and unnoticed the same Atlanta public high school, she a new student who never successfully adjusted there and Dickey an upperclassman, football player, and Buckhead Boy.)

Flannery O’Connor shared Dickey’s opinion of other well-known Georgia writers of her day, Erskine Caldwell, Carson McCullars, certainly Margaret Mitchell. At a Vanderbilt symposium, Flannery O’Conner was asked “are you familiar with the work of Carson McCullars?” She hedged, “vaguely.” Elsewhere she minced no words. “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullars,” she admitted in a 1963 letter to Janet McKane.

Maria said, “Carson McCullars was one of the first Georgia writers I noticed, partly because Ft. Benning was near Columbus. By the time I discovered Flannery O’Connor, I realized that I had outgrown being a 12-year-old girl, but I would be a freak for the rest of my life.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its most cultured and literate writer Frank Daniel to interview her in 1962 for an advertised Sunday feature. Among the most frequently published photos of Flannery O’Connor are those by Joe McTyre that accompanied the article. They include poses of Flannery O’Connor standing on the screen porch steps with crutches and peacocks and sitting in front of her self-portrait with a pheasant:

More and more she must interrupt her daily writing to deal with visitors who seek an understanding of her extraordinary talent and insight. Their visits do not much distract her.
“….I write every day. But often nothing comes of my efforts. They don’t lead anywhere. I rewrite, edit, throw away. It’s slow and searching. I’m not sure until it’s down on paper.”
Paintings by Miss O’Connor hang in several rooms of her home. Asked if painting is a relaxation, she said it isn’t—that is hard work.
I painted those pictures when we moved into the house, because the walls needed pictures. When I’d filled up the space, I stopped, until we added on a couple of rooms a couple of years ago. The new sitting room needed a picture in a wall space, so I painted one. That done, I’ve painted no more.—Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 22, 1962.

Versions of this description of herself Flannery O’Connor repeated, as with her backwards walking pet chicken story, in a repertoire used to establish her bona fides as a wry Georgia cracker barrel wit.

In addition to the self-portrait with pheasant, Flannery O’Connor painted farm scenes, the cows, the rooster, the tenant farmhand shack. The only one of her paintings currently on public display depicts three male singers in choir robes with hymn books before them, the face of the singer to the right unfinished or painted over, like a ghost. We saw this painting at the Flannery O’Connor Museum of Georgia State College and University, Milledgeville. (Notes about Georgia higher education: Georgia State College and University in Milledgeville (GSCU) was called Georgia State College for Women (GSCW) when Flannery O’Connor attended it. Georgia State University (GSU) is in downtown Atlanta. The University of Georgia (UGA) is in Athens.)

Flannery O’Connor, who originally entered graduate school at Iowa as a journalism student, maintained a file of clippings from Georgia newspapers, as well as from the Farmers Bulletin. The Atlanta Constitution described a bank robber who went by the nickname of “The Misfit.” She wrote in a 1961 letter to Ashley Brown, “I am a receptive depository for clippings. The latest I have got to add to my collection is one of a man who has just had Christ tattooed on his back. This is obviously for artistic and not religious purposes as he also has tiger and panther heads and an eagle perched on a cannon.”

Before we left Andalusia, Craig Amason, friendly and knowledgeable executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, asked, “Do you plan to attend the program tonight in Greensboro?” He handed us the flyer: “Meeting Flannery O’Connor, a visit with her family and friends. Louise and Frances Florencourt, First Cousins, Bill Sessions, Authorized Biographer. Christ Our King and Savior Catholic Church. 7 P.M.” Nothing like a last minute change of plans.

“I could still have you back in Atlanta before midnight,” Luther told us. Flannery O’Connor’s letters often refer to Regina as “my parent.” In fiction, Flannery O’Connor created a club of mothers, Mrs. Cope, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Hopewell, and Mrs. McIntyre, operating farms on their own, women without husbands. Whatever anybody called her, Flannery O’Connor’s mother was the most significant other.

Maryat Lee, playwright and flamboyantly liberated 1950’s woman, wrote that her friend Flannery “avoided opposing her mother, who could not be opposed—who was, she (the mother) told me, Mayor, Sheriff, judge, treasurer and boss of this little state—a feudal state where she was feudal queen. Regina was her name.”

After Flannery died, Maryat Lee, whose brother was president of the college in Milledgeville, visited Regina. According to Maryat’s hand-written notes, Regina said, “The Library of Congress wants her papers. You wouldn’t believe all the people I’ve heard from, wanting this or that. Do they think I’m going to bare the house? Now the such and such would like a painting & something else.”

Maryat broke in, “Don’t let them have The Rooster. She wrote me that it was to be mine.” When Regina “looked surprised… suspicious,” Ms. Lee said, “But you may keep it for a while if you prefer.”

Regina “ did not seem to hear me. She veered off,” Maryat wrote.

“You never know what to do,” Regina said, then after a while continued, “About this ridiculous pathetic hero worshiper X who came down calling her Flannery. After she was here she began calling her Mary Flannery…. Only Mary Flannery’s family and close friends called her Mary Flannery. Everybody else she preferred to call her Flannery. And you can quote me to anyone else. This X woman kept saying ‘Do you know the passage in such and such where she wrote blah blah. Finally I said to her, look I have so much to do to keep her able to write, that I don’t know one passage from the next.”

When her health permitted, Flannery O’Connor traveled, speaking and giving public readings at colleges and universities. Maryat Lee remembered in a 1965 Memorial Tribute, “She complained about speaking engagements and writing speeches—complained acidly, saying it was the money.  But she loved talking in front of people—she had a gift…” Flannery’s father Edward O’Connor had served as Commander of the American Legion for the state of Georgia and spent much of his time away from home to make speeches.

I am about at the tail end of my present travels—first the Sisters at Rosary College outside of Chicago for two days & now here. The good Sisters really know how to get it out of you. I had 5 classes, a public lecture, read two mss. And underwent a tea in which each student was determined to ask me an intelligent question (400 students). Notre Dame is entirely opposite—much liquor and male companionship, both of which I could stand more of more often. –1962 letter to Betty Hester.

“I was raised by my grandmother and have lived most of my life in Athens,” Luther said, driving the two-lane county road to Greensboro. “After my freshman year at UGA, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. Flannery O’Connor came to Minneapolis. My English professor told me about the event, said I should go, that I would probably be the only one there able to understand her thick Georgia accent. I had never heard of her. She read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” When she mimicked the grandmother’s voice, my blood froze and I stopped breathing. I was so shaken I could not think of any questions to ask her afterwards and was afraid to even speak to her.”

We arrived in Greensboro at the Christ Our King and Savior Catholic Church with time to spare and took seats quietly in the pews. Louise Florencourt introduced William A. Sessions as “biographer of choice.” Dr. Sessions, professor emeritus at Georgia State University, Atlanta, scholarly, personable, long-time friend of Flannery O’Connor, frequent dinner guest at Andalusia, read from the authorized biography he is currently completing. Throughout the Flannery O'Connor Friends and Family presentation in Greensboro, the sound system was at cross-purposes with the electronics of my cochlear implant, so I was able to understand only the few minutes of the question and answer period during which Professor Sessions spoke without any microphone.  Responding to a question from the audience, he said that too much was made over personality conflict between Flannery and her mother. He recalled Regina O'Connor as a "dear lady," although she had said when he announced his marriage plans, "You're no great catch." I asked Dr. Sessions for permission to interview him by e-mail, and he gave me his address but said he would be traveling to Europe for the next weeks.

Louise Florencourt, a charming octogenarian, wore a purple suit with skirt to the tops of her shoes and a black Cossack hat. “Don’t you live in Milledgeville,” I asked, stooping to address her at eye level and better read her lips.


“In the Cline house?”

“Cline-O’Connor-Florencourt house,” she corrected me presenting each name with an emphatic gesture of her hand in the air as if displaying captions just for me. Louise Florencourt practiced law for over thirty years before moving from Virginia to Milledgeville to live with Flannery O’Connor’s mother for the eight years before Regina’s death.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that she learned from her Florencourt cousins that people from Massachusetts discussed ideas, while Georgians told stories. “You all were like the sisters she never had,” I said to Florence Florencourt.

“Yes,” she agreed. An elegant New Englander, she speaks with enough Boston in her voice that even I can identify it. I asked her if it was true that her mother never lost her Georgia accent. “Absolutely,” she confirmed. Frances Florencourt consented to an e-mail interview:

Q: Can you clarify for me the age differences between your sisters and Flannery O'Connor? I believe you explained to me that you were five when she was 12.

A: Margaret and Louise were closest in age to Flannery, Catherine and I four and seven years younger, respectively.

Q: I have read that the older two sisters were the models for the girls in "Temple of the Holy Ghost." Do you agree with this? If so, how did you and they feel about this?

A: I really can't say whether or not Margaret and Louise were the models for Temple of the Holy Ghost. We really never talked about it. But I did hear that there was a fair such as that that came through Milledgeville. although I never went to it--too young probably. I suppose F. did pick up a few ideas during our summer visits to Milledgeville as she picked up ideas from all and everything around her.

Q: Other family members sometimes mentioned as likenesses of Flannery O'Connor characters? Aunts Katie and Mary Cline in "The Partridge Festival," great aunt Julia Cline and the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Can you confirm and/or comment?

A: I don't know the story "the Partridge Festival" that well. But of the three aunts you mentioned (and by the way Julia was not a great aunt, but just an aunt), Aunt Mary, whom we called Sister, and Aunt Kate were very well grounded people, nothing foolish about them. I would say and I've heard many people say that the grandmother in Good Man is like Aunt Julia. The character wearing the purple hat in Revelation we think might be my Aunt Cleo only because of the hat. Aunt Cleo loved hats.

Q: Do you know exactly how long Flannery O'Connor lived in Atlanta. I have seen six months, as well as over a year, and reports that she attended both North Fulton High School in the Atlanta Public School System, and/ or the Catholic school, which I believe would have been Sacred Heart in those days. Can you confirm any of these facts?

A: I cannot confirm which schools F. attended in Atlanta, but I do know she went to school there for 2 years--Bill Sessions confirmed that during a discussion in Greensboro. And I did hear that she went to 2 different schools, one public and one Catholic.

Q: Where are the paintings of Flannery O'Connor, and are there any plans to make them available for public viewing?

A: Flannery's paintings are in climate controlled storage and are taken out from time to time for special exhibits.

Q: Maryat Lee wrote in her journal notes that "Regina was not to be opposed." I have also read in a 1962 report in THE ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION of a visit to Andalusia by a writer I knew personally and respected that "Regina O'Connor's empathy for her daughter is patent." Additionally, Regina O'Connor brought her sister Mary to the Andalusia farm after a heart attack and cared for her at the same time as the last months of Flannery O'Connor's life. Can you offer any observations about this?

A: Regina and Flannery were both strong personalities. My sister Margaret said it well on a documentary that Chris O'Hare made some years ago. Margaret said they forged some kind of an agreement that they would not interfere with each other as they each carried out their life's work. It seemed to work out very well. They both had great respect and love for each other.

In fact that was true of all the Clines. They all looked out for one another. They recognized each other's warts, and enjoyed them really. But in the end there was great love and respect for one another. Yes, Regina did bring Sister to Andalusia to take care of her after Sister had a heart attack. Sister recovered well there and returned to the Cline house in town and lived a year after Flannery's death. My sister Catherine who was living in Kansas City at the time went down there to help them.

Q: Have you read the Brad Goch biography of Flannery O'Connor? What do you think about it? How about other members of the family?

A: I have read the Brad Gooch biography and enjoyed it. I thought it was very entertaining. Some of my friends thought it was wonderful. I cannot speak for any others in the family.


The Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta contacted Flannery O’Connor in 1960 through mutual friends at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers. In a letter to Robert Giroux, Flannery O’Connor described the home for incurable cancer patients run by the Dominican congregation of nuns that was founded by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter. “The Sister Superior there wrote me about a child with a face cancer whom they had kept for nine years….The Sister Superior is determined that something must be written about her. Fr. Paul thinks it's quite comic that they have lit on me to do this.  He asked them which of my murder stories gave them the idea I should help them with it.”

“I wrote her that this was not the sort of thing that made fiction and that if it had to be written, the Sisters should write it themselves and it should be a factual account of the child's life and death in the Home.  I told her if they did happen to write it, I'd be glad to go over the manuscript and would supply a little introduction if that would help.  I thought that would be the last I'd hear of her.  Never underestimate them.  They forthwith sat down and wrote it and they are hell bent to see it through.”

When Flannery O’Connor wrote the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, “The Sisters were very pleased with it and even Regina liked it which means something as she is usually bored by my productions.” Flannery O’Connor mailed Robert Giroux the address for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home, 760 Washington St Atlanta, Ga. The street is now called Pollard Blvd., and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home has been dwarfed and crowded by the Atlanta Braves Baseball Stadium butting up against it on one side and the media parking lot on another. Atlanta is like that. The street address for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home was still called Washington St., and there were no encroachments when I visited my daddy there.

There are lots of things fathers cannot do for their sons. Nothing they can provide is more enduring and powerful than their genetics and their own example. Often when I am working, concentrating intensely, perhaps even straining with some physical effort, I suddenly become aware of holding my mouth in just such a way that I recognize immediately from my daddy, who looked like John Wayne. As a lanky young man, he could have passed for the handsome star of “Stagecoach.” In the fullness of his life, he looked like “The Quiet Man”. He grew old at John Wayne’s pace, all the way to the pot-bellied, one-eyed has-been of “True Grit”. In my mind, John Wayne and my daddy might as well have been the same person. My daddy was a Marine Corps veteran of WWII in the Pacific. He was very much the strong, silent type. Still waters run somewhere nobody ever knows. Although he only graduated from the seventh grade, he took great pride in the fact that he could read and write. He enjoyed working the jumble word puzzle in the newspaper. He loved a good joke. He loved a bad joke. He took me to Atlanta Cracker games at Ponce de Leon Ballpark. On hot days and nights, he would say, “They need to turn on the fans.” My love for baseball made me a reader.

One Saturday, my sister and I sat at his bedside in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home with the Dominican Nuns scurrying in the halls, as he lay dying. There must have been some serious carelessness in his admission interview. My daddy, the anti-Papist and past master of the Grant Park Masonic Lodge. Every time I visited, he lay without movement or speech. My sister and I were remembering the women’s softball games on summer nights in Piedmont Park long before the days of Title IX requirements of equal opportunity for women’s athletics. “What was the name of that team that was so good?” my sister tried to recall. “The one with the pitcher that looked like Little Orphan Annie.”

“And the catcher that looked like Yogi Berra,” I added.

After a long silence of neither she nor I being able to think of the answer, from Daddy’s pillow came the last words I ever heard him say: “Dixie Darlings.”

We drove back from Greensboro later than we had planned. Luther turned on the heater of the big car against the cold night. We said goodbye to Maria the schoolteacher. “Don’t let the children dance on the grave of John Dewey.” As Luther headed to my house, I asked him, “Have you ever thought about adding some Atlanta landmarks to your Flannery O’Connor tour?”

“Everything I’ve ever heard of connected to her no longer exists.”

“That’s Atlanta. Mostly ghosts. Vacant lots and other places where something interesting used to be. I could show you some sights. How would you like to see the route she outlines in “The Artificial Nigger” as the boy and grandfather wander around town lost? It ran right behind Sacred Heart Catholic School for girls, which she attended for a while, and is just about the only way you could get from the downtown train station to the suburban station, which was near where she lived in Buckhead.”

“Sure. That was her favorite story,” Luther said.

“Mine, too,” I said. “There’ll never be another one like her.”

Luther disagreed. “Somewhere between Raybun Gap and Tybee Light, there’s a geeky kid with a dose of attitude and a Red and Black UGA bulldog sweatshirt destined to be somebody special.”

I said, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”

Copyright 2009 by William C. Cotter

Sunday, January 17, 2010


. . . Something to Think About. . .

Washington, D.C. Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3-year-old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days earlier, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

The questions raised:
*In a common-place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
*Do we stop to appreciate it?
*Do we recognise talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made; how many other things are we missing?

Here is one of the best lines I have read recently:

Life is not about waiting for the rain to stop,

Rather, it is about learning how to dance in the rain.

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