Flannery

 

My mother, whose poem “Homage” I included in this post, and then immediately added this post with some thoughts on her poetic response to “The Red Wheelbarrow” of William Carlos Williams, was a friend of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), the author of the novels Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), but more well known for such short stories as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Displaced Person,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation,” and “Parker’s Back.” There is also a fine and interesting, posthumous collection of her occasional prose titled Mystery and Manners (1969).

 

Several of you who are following Traces are writers or groups of writers. At least one of you is an O’Connor scholar. So I really don’t need to tell you who Flannery O’Connor is or why it is noteworthy that she and my mother had a warm friendship.

 

My mother had a sort of reminiscence of O’Connor published in The Southern Literary Journal (Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1970). I think some of you O’Connor admirers might like to get the flavor of it. So I’ve included excerpts from it below:

 

Of all the people I have known I can say without hesitation that she was the most alive. I grope about with much frustration trying to find words to convey how she was. I try to go back in memory to the time before she died, before she became a kind of literary Gulliver in Lilliput, to erase the imprint of words from friends and critics that have made me know she was just as forceful as I thought she was, just as significant, just as rare … 

 

She was leaning out holding the door open for me and I saw the crutches. In a few moments we were sitting in chairs on either side of the door to the house. She was slender and slightly taller than average, and well-proportioned. Her hair, light brown with many reddish lights in it, was parted on one side and brushed very simply back and down into slight curls, Her eyes his content downloaded from seemed as wide as her face — very blue eyes, very expressive. She wore glasses. There was an indistinct softness about the lower half of her face, especially along the jaw line, as though her eyes were taking strength from the rest of her. I learned later that this softening was due to lupus, the disease that had also, though indirectly, put her on crutches …

 

Her mother came out and the three of us chatted easily and pleasantly. Regina left us and we talked about her writing. I told her jokingly about being admonished by my husband not to do all the talking, to remember that I was visiting a famous person. She drew down into the chair, lowered her head,and scowled. It was a splendid scowl and it intimidated me greatly. Not looking at me, still with her head lowered, still scowl ing, she said, “I believe in a good deal of Hell’s fire on this earth and if I thought of myself in such a way for a minute, I’d consign myself to it promptly.” …

 

She said, “I’m no believer in ‘art for art’s sake.’ If I didn’t think I had something to say, I wouldn’t write another word.” …

 

One day we arrived at the farm and found some visitors, two priests who had come down to visit a friend of theirs. They had called Regina and asked if they might visit with the friend at Andalusia. We all went to the porch, arranged our chairs in a circle and were served Coca-Colas by Regina. One of the priests was quite handsome; very tan; prematurely grey hair impeccably arranged; a deep, persuasive voice pulsing with self-confidence. Did he have his fraternity pin attached to his undershirt? Surely he did. The other priest was a Juicy Fruit fan. The entire afternoon passed without his once missing the rhythm of his chewing. Had he been practicing for a performance he could not have worked more conscientiously. The suave priest asked Flannery politely about her writing and she answered him politely. The gum chewer threw one leg over the arm of his chair and squinted at the sky. In a little while another unexpected visitor arrived. I must have assumed that people who troubled to come would be congenial in all directions. It fell my some what timid lot to sit by this last visitor and I kept introducing topics that died in my mouth. Flannery caught my eye and when the visitor was looking the other way, whispered, “She ain’t what we’d like her to be.” The more this lady stared at our gum chewing priest the redder Flannery’s face became. When they left, the first thing Flannery said was, “That GUM!” Regina asked us how we liked the handsome one. I said nothing. Said Flannery, glumly, “He ain’t our type.” …

 

There was something terrifying in Flannery. There were those who sensed this and misnamed it — or so I believe. They called it coldness or cruelty. They described it as a deficiency in love and compassion, head overbalancing heart. I think we simply did not know how to take her, especially in a society where affection and pity can be passed out as freely and as easily as finger sandwiches at a party and are apt to be about as substantial. I felt the terror long before I had a glimmer of what caused it. I think part of it was the utter seriousness with which she took my difficulties, the extent to which I sensed she was willing to go to help, the terror of being, in her eyes, “always valuable and always responsible.” It was, too, the terror of encountering humility and charity of such depth and such a fierce and faithful holding on to the truth …

 

Another day and in another mood we are in the back yard along with the ducks and guineas and peafowl. We are going to see a new pond that is being dug and she is telling me, laughing the whole time, about a farmer who happened to be in this same spot last Saturday afternoon. (When she was telling a story she would concentrate her gaze on some object in front of her, not really seeing it, but seeing the scene she would be describing so marvelously — occasionally turning to look at her listener for emphasis upon some point of humor or irony or whatever struck her particularly in the story.) Flannery, Regina, and the gentleman are walking down this same road toward his car since he has finished his business and is ready to leave. All of a sudden a chicken crosses the path in front of them, and as suddenly the country gentleman swoops down, gathers the chicken, and flings her into the air. While the O’Connors watch in astonishment, this remarkable process is repeated several times. Up goes the flapping, squawking fowl and down she comes, only to be caught and flung upward again. At last the chicken, wild-eyed, ruffled, is set down. “If you ever want to give a chicken a good time,” says the farmer, dusting off his hands, “just throw it up in the air.” …

 

One day a lady calls who has recently read, “Good Country People.” She wishes she might come out and demonstrate to Flannery that a wooden leg will not fit into a suitcase. Come she does bringing suitcase and wooden leg, her own, as a matter of fact, a spare. The leg is brought inside, the suitcase is opened, and it is obvious to everyone that a wooden leg will not fit into a suitcase. Triumphantly the lady is ready to move on to other concerns. But where to put the leg? Flannery and Regina are eyeing it with some discomfort. It is wearing a sock and a brown and white saddle oxford. Finally they decide to prop it against the wall in the hall, where Louise, the servant, sees it and departs swiftly for home.

 

My whole family goes over on a Sunday afternoon and my children love the animals and try to pet them all. We have a glass of sherry on the front steps and I am happy that Flannery and my family like each other. She is wearing a huge sun hat and I have never seen her look better. She seems especially to enjoy watching my very husky two-year-old son [gracious, Mama, why not just call me fat?], hand in hand with Regina, disappearing around the corner of the house on his way to see the ducks once more before we leave …

 

At the cemetery we park in the shade of one of the huge old trees and walk down the road toward the canvas awning. The service here is brief. Msgr. O’Connor, whom I had not seen at the church, offers a prayer. His voice as he comes to this phrase, “and if by reason of sin she may have forfeited eternal life in Heaven,” his emphasis, his inflection, his rendering of the word “may” makes the prospect sound so remote that the entire phrase becomes, almost, an embarrassment …

 

[In 1965, after O’Connor’s death, and during a visit my mother made to Andalusia:] I rise and go to the sofa and stand, looking out through the tall window. Directly below me, facing me, on a line with that corner of the sofa is a peacock — one of the many I failed to see while I was busy seeing her. While I watch he slowly raises his flags of glory in salute.

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