I was born in 1964, the summer that Flannery O’Connor died. On the day that Flannery lay in a hospital bed in southern Georgia, stared at the ceiling and then closed her eyes, her body about to succumb to the last attacks of lupus, her soul about to ascend to the heavenlies, and her writing career about to end abruptly and tragically at the age of thirty-nine, I awoke from a nap in my crib in a southern California suburban ranch-style house, stared at the ceiling through wide three-week-old eyes, and then cried for something to eat—ready to get started with the project of life on Earth. A strange connection, to be sure, but ever since I discovered and began reading Flannery O’Connor, I’ve felt a kinship with her, a sense of family—like she’s my crazy Southern aunt that got locked away and nobody talked about, until they couldn’t keep her a secret anymore.
Unlike Flannery, I wasn’t born into a Catholic family; I was raised Baptist and wandered through several Christian expressions before discovering the beauty and depth of Catholic theology and worship. I first encountered Flannery’s writing through a quote in Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning closed one of his chapters with a quote from Flannery’s short story Revelation (with one of her characters having a mystical vision of souls on their way to Heaven), and it struck me so powerfully that I searched for the largest, most extensive compilation of her works that I could find and read it cover to cover during the months that I went through the Church’s initiation and confirmation process. Flannery’s spooky short stories and novels, her vivid characters and dialogue, and her insightful and dryly humorous letters and essays were quite agreeable companions on my journey into the history and thought patterns of the Catholic way. (Her short story The Enduring Chill was especially educational as to the sorts of priests that I might meet.) I do wish she’d lived longer and written more; along the lines of the adaptation of her short story The Life You Save for television in the ‘50s, perhaps a script or two for Chris Carter’s TV series The X-Files would have been in order, featuring a charismatic faith healer who isn’t quite what he seems…
Ever since I began reading Flannery O’Connor, I’ve felt a kinship with her, a sense of family – like she’s my crazy Southern aunt that got locked away…
Yet, her body of work has retained enough influence in literary circles that, thank heaven, she hasn’t left us completely. A lot of Flannery O’Connor remains to be found in a few pockets of popular culture to this day, especially in those places where she and her work are woven into the fabric of American Southern subculture.
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In December 2005, my husband and I went on a pilgrimage of sorts to Milledgeville, Georgia, where Flannery went to high school and college, and then spent her later years. We drove into town on a sunny afternoon and set about finding Flannery things to do and see.
Milledgeville is a college town of about 19,000; it was once the capital of the state of Georgia, and the Old State House now serves as a local museum. Much of the city was built in the early 1800s, and most of the downtown area has been beautifully restored—or well-kept—by its residents. My husband Gary remarked that the sights reminded him of his own college days in Northampton, Massachusetts (though Milledgeville is about half its size)—lots of bookstores, cafes, college-age folk strolling the streets, and flower baskets hanging from lampposts. We found the Chamber of Commerce and asked about sites and exhibits related to Flannery; we were disappointed to learn that tours of her home at Andalusia Farm required advance notice, and we didn’t have another day to spare. We loaded ourselves up with flyers and brochures, and we went in search of as much Flannery as we could fit into the rest of our fleeting winter afternoon.
I don’t quite know what I was expecting; I saw no thunder bolts from the heavens, heard no voices from beyond the grave.
Flannery is buried next to her parents in Memory Hill Cemetery, located at the southern edge of the downtown/college campus district. We consulted the map we’d been given and set to searching for her name amid the scrubby yellow grass and multiple concrete curbed-off sections. After some arguing over how to interpret the directions and numbers on the cemetery diagram, we encountered a section guarded by a low wrought-iron fence. Within this space were three large slabs of granite set horizontally in the ground, covering each grave. The one in the center bore the inscription:
MARY FLANNERY O’CONNOR
REGINA LUCILLE CLINE
EDWARD FRANCIS O’CONNOR JR.
BORN IN SAVANNAH, GA.
MARCH 25, 1925
DIED IN MILLEDGEVILLE, GA.
AUGUST 3, 1964
We stared a long moment—I for a longer moment than Gary. He seemed anxious to get on with the rest of our journey; we had plans to be in Macon by dusk and the sun, though still high, was inexorably sinking toward the treeline. I sensed his impatience and turned to go, but inside I felt drawn to stay—as if roots from the nearby rosebush were reaching up from below the ground to grab at my shoes, holding my feet where they were. Yet, I don’t quite know what I was expecting; I saw no thunder bolts from the heavens, heard no voices from beyond the grave. Finally I bent down, reached across the ironwork, and put my hand down on the cold stone beside the pennies and nickels that other tourists had pitched onto it and gushed, “Oh, Flannery—bless me, bless me, bless me.” My husband looked away, a little embarrassed, and said, “OK, let’s go.” As we walked away toward our car, I looked back and wondered what I’d just done; being a convert, I don’t know proper ways to venerate a saint’s relics, but I had a small hope that somehow she and God would be pleased.
Next on our list of attractions was Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which had been Flannery’s parish. After more argument (over the town map this time), we ended up parked on the street on the south side of the Old State Capitol (now the home of Georgia Military College) instead of the north side, which was near the church. It was only a couple of blocks away, so we decided to calm ourselves (and try to remember to enjoy our vacation despite our moods) by walking across the green, park-like campus to the church.
As we started across, two dogs appeared from behind the tall Douglas fir and cedar trees standing like stately pillars in the midst of the well-kept lawn. The dogs were tawny-colored, and lean but muscular; one had a woven nylon collar, the other had none. The two of them were about the same (large) size—almost three feet at the shoulder. The word “boxer” popped into my head as the name for the breed, though I don’t know dogs and I usually wouldn’t know any dog from Adam (or Lassie, in this case). They were friendly with each other, as if they were… hunting pals. They trotted along either side of the path as we walked, keeping pace with us; then they circled behind us, then one galloped ahead to snuffle at a bush, then fell back to our pace—holding our every step, our every move in their peripheral vision all the while. Their interest unnerved me. As we walked past the empty buildings, I tried to keep my eyes focused straight ahead—but whenever I turned to look at a tree or an intriguing architectural feature, at least one of the dogs was in my field of vision, looking intently at me.
I watched them watch us as we made our way across the campus, and though they never approached within five feet, I sensed that they were containing us to the path; this soon progressed to the observation that they were all-out stalking us. Large dogs frighten me a bit, having been bitten once as a child by a neighbor’s unruly collie, so I didn’t regard these beasts as pleasant company on our little walk, especially in the absence of anyone who looked like their owner. Gary complained as I picked up my pace: “Come on—what’s the hurry?” “I don’t like these dogs,” I replied, my teeth clenched. “Calm down—they’re fine”, he said. I tossed an exasperated look his direction and kept walking.
My heart beat faster as the dogs seemed to approach closer and closer on their passes.
In the middle of the quad was the Old State House. As we neared it, it looked less like a medieval fortress (as it appeared in the postcards at the Chamber) and more like a rundown hotel, though it was a lovely example of Old World antebellum architecture. However, I was distracted from my observations by my growing uneasiness with the circling tawny-colored sets of sharp claws and teeth, and my most pressing thought was that we might be able to duck inside for a few minutes and see if the dogs would lose their inordinate interest in us. Gary went one way around the building and I went the other to see if the museum was open for business, but alas, it was deserted and every door was shut and locked tight. We hadn’t seen one single person beside ourselves on the entire campus yet—but the dogs followed us around the building, watching us, running ahead, play-snapping at each other as they passed each other, circling. I set my face like flint toward the gate to the village at the other side of the quad and kept walking, determined not to make eye contact with either dog.
My heart beat faster as the dogs seemed to approach closer and closer on their passes. The incident from elementary school played in my mind, and then again, and again. After a couple replays, I searched through the “tape” for clues as to when the dog nearest me might lunge, the exact moment I should leap to dodge his jaws, when to take off back toward the car in a dead run… as if I were fleeing down Brookridge Street again, away from that stupid, mean, black-and-white collie.
We reached the gate at the other side of the quad, and we stepped through it onto the sidewalk across the street from Sacred Heart Church. I thought, We made it. Those dogs won’t follow us across the street. I heaved a good-sized sigh of relief, and I chuckled a little with Gary as he pressed the crosswalk button.
The traffic light changed and we walked across the street. We checked the map; Sacred Heart was actually one more block north, so we walked on towards it. I looked back toward the intersection just to make sure the dogs were gone—and I saw with horror that they had patiently waited in the midst of other pedestrians for the light to change again, and at the moment it did, they calmly trotted in front of the stopped cars and across the street toward us. I thought, Surely they won’t get vicious in front of all these people; maybe they’ll choose a more sickly-looking member of this human herd to hunt down and maul to death. My heart continued its thumping and climbing into my throat as we made our way toward the church and up the front steps.
The only words I could formulate were, “Oh my God.” And then, “Did you see that?”
It was silent, empty, and shut tight as well. I was almost ready to grab the doorknob and twist it, rattle it, pull on it, start pounding on the door: “Help! Let us in! Somebody’s after us! We’re being hunted… um… followed… um… hello?”
The dogs were jumping and playing with each other, stopping occasionally to sniff the bushes by the church steps. If I could have heard them speaking to the passers-by, I’ll bet it would have been something like: “Hi there—nice day, huh? Yeah, we’re just out seeing the sights, sniffing the smells, exploring the environs of our lovely little village. Them? Oh, just some friends from out of town—showing them around. Well, have a nice day! See you around.” Nothing to see here, move along.
It was apparent to Gary and I that we weren’t going to be able to go inside, so we peered in the windows. We wondered aloud whether Flannery used to sit in the front or in the back, or somewhere in the middle; then a wave of fear rose inside me and wrenched my attention back to the present. A quick glance at the dogs, and then at the sky, reminded us that the afternoon was nearly spent; we had to get back on the road to Macon soon, so we turned and headed back in the direction of our car.
We backtracked our trail up the block and across the intersection; the dogs now walked alongside us as if they were our best friends, as if they belonged to us. The passers-by nodded toward our little company as we made our way back to the path through the gate to the college quad.
As we walked briskly back to our car with the dogs keeping closer pace with us than ever, it finally dawned on me: If they were going to attack you, they probably would have done so by now, don’t you think? I considered this and took another deep breath, and let my pace slow down just a little. I let my eyes wander from their fixation on the path ahead to the dogs as they continued to dance around us. I watched them run and jump and discover things in the lawn that apparently were never there before, and I allowed myself a little smile as I wondered, Do these dogs just live here? Who do they belong to? Are they neighbors’ dogs? Strays? Where did they come from?
Suddenly, the dog behind me stopped and stood dead still. By now I was getting used to his company, so I stopped and turned to see what the matter was. Before I could turn all the way around, he was off like a shot, way down the path in front of us—in pursuit of a squirrel that had just climbed down a tree to the ground.
The boxer’s companion saw him running, so he came tearing across the quad to join him. They cornered the squirrel in a recessed sewer grate near the gated entrance to the campus. They barked, lunged, and pawed at him; I saw the squirrel’s head poke out beside the grate above the ground and thought for a moment the little guy might escape, then—I heard a small squeak and a final growl as the collared boxer lunged once more and took the squirrel’s head in his jaws. The other dog quickly grabbed the other share of the squirrel’s body and tail in his own mouth, and together they turned their rumps to us and trotted away across the grass, carrying the doomed squirrel like triumphant Olympic relay racers taking a victory lap with the American flag. As they approached the base of a large cedar tree, one decided he didn’t want to share his prize, and he slowed for a moment; the other didn’t let go and swung himself around to face his buddy. The negotiation tug-of-war lasted only for a second as the body of the squirrel was easily pulled in half, Solomon-like. For the first time the dogs then parted company, each loping away to separate corners of the campus and his own secret bone-burying territory with a satisfied pink-and-black doggie grin.
As the adrenalin subsided, I was filled with a sense of wonderment.
I couldn’t move for about a minute. My eyes were so wide, I thought I might be blinded by the low-hanging red winter sun. The only words I could formulate in response to my husband’s bemused look were, “Oh my God.” And then, “Did you see that?”
I was a little shaky getting back in the car, but when I shut the door, the release of my held breath seemed to scour out the last of my fear; with my next breath, it was replaced with a numb daze. I had taken the wheel; Gary took out the map, and I obeyed all his directions to get on the highway with no argument—not a word. I noticed my glassy-looking eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.
As the adrenalin subsided, I was filled with a sense of wonderment. It wasn’t until we got to Macon and told the story to our friends that I realized: Flannery had indeed blessed me with a deeply personal (and quite proper) scaring.