Published July 19, 2007
It’s a blisteringly hot day when we head over to Andalusia, the farm where Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother, from 1951 until her death at age 39 on August 3, 1964.
We leave the downtown area of Milledgeville and drive pass the tacky strip of fast-food restaurants and stores, which in Flannery’s day would have been fields and pasture.
Across the street from a car dealership, we spot the small sign marked “Andalusia” and make a turn into the driveway. The entrance to Andalusia is protected by a gate, which has been unlocked for visitors today, and we drive down a single-lane dirt road.
The first impression is delicious solitude and silence, although one has to remember that in Flannery’s day, there would have been the piercingly loud cries of her peacocks, especially at night.
“Lee-yon lee-yon, Mee-yon mee-yon! Ee-e-yoy! Ee-e-yoy!” they would call, according to her own description.
We park the car near a falling-down barn and mosey over toward the house. But first we stop for a peek at a burro that is completely engrossed in munching on some apparently delicious grasses. The animal ignores our pleas for attention and refuses to come nearer, but my husband manages to get a few photos.
We climb the steps leading into the two-story white farmhouse, where Flannery O’Connor churned out her novels and short stories, wrote hundreds of letters to friends and received guests. We join a small group of visitors in the entryway, fanning themselves.
Craig Amason, the executive director of Andalusia, is mentioning a few highlights about Flannery, who has been hailed as one of the greatest Southern writers of the 20th century.
As we listen, I imagine Flannery popping up behind him to tell the visitors that in her day, “We had no bookstore in Milledgeville, but we had the largest mental institution in the world.”
The house is stifling, despite a weary box air conditioner laboring to provide some respite from the heat. As I break out in a head-to-toe sweat, I recall reading that Flannery told friends it was not the heat she minded, but the cold, especially when the pipes froze and left the household without water.
To the left of the stairway, there is a small, humble room with a narrow bed, a generous number of bookshelves, a desk and a manual typewriter. This, then, is Flannery’s room, as no-nonsense and no-frills as one would expect.
As we peer into the room, I again imagine Flannery poking her head out and making some appropriately outrageous remark about people going on pilgrimages to famous places, much as she once did, albeit very reluctantly, to Lourdes.
I can just see her writing to a friend later and saying: “I considered selling them some ‘holy’ water from our pond, but my parent would have none of it.”
The room reminds me a bit of a cell in a monastery. Here lived a person who didn’t crave material trappings. A person who had just enough, and not much more, to do the one thing she had been put on earth to do, which, of course, was writing.
When she took a break, she no doubt looked out the window near her desk, and sometimes spotted her mother shooing the peacocks away from the flowers, one of their favorite treats.
Flannery’s crutches are displayed on the simple bed, and they give you a sense of the odd paradox of this woman’s life. Her disease clearly placed limitations on her world, since the crutches made it difficult for her to travel and do things others might do without a second thought.
But the restrictions meant a deeper devotion to writing, and less time wasted on diversions. Her slow decline from lupus from one point of view was tragic, but from her Catholic perspective, was something to be accepted with humor and grace.
Her Catholic faith taught that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had changed suffering forever, giving it a deeper meaning. Still, if you were to openly admire the way she so graciously handled the gradual diminishments of her life, she would surely bristle.
She hated being called holy and had no time for self-pity. As she put it, she managed to get around just fine on her crutches, like a “stiff anthropoid ape.”
As we climb the steep stairway, we notice a framed illustration depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a stunning reminder that the inhabitants of this Deep South farmhouse, located in a largely Protestant town, were solidly Catholic.
In the upstairs room is displayed a generously sized, framed print, which shows a grief-stricken Mary being comforted by friends, with a cross upon a hill way off in the distance.
Downstairs, we peek at the kitchen, remarkably small by today’s standards, and the dining room, remarkably large, with a generously long hardwood table that could easily sit a dozen people, bespeaking a household where guests were welcomed.
You can almost hear the chatter of guests gathered at that table: people who once included the sisters from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, Abbot Augustine Moore from the monastery in Conyers, and a Jesuit priest who was Flannery’s friend.
We learn from Craig Amason that the burro, named Flossie, is a descendant of the ones that lived on the farm in Flannery’s time. As we are leaving, we try calling the animal’s name, which results in her ignoring us with greater determination.
In some ways, Flossie is a more poignant reminder of Flannery than anything in the house, because the burros, the swans, the ducks and the peacocks were Flannery’s real delight. The household and the day-to-day running of the farm were left to her mother, Regina.
That evening, we visit Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, where she and Regina worshipped, and there, in an outdoor garden, amidst clusters of hearty roses, we see a large, pure-white statue of the Virgin holding court.
A plaque asks visitors to say a Hail Mary for the woman who long ago gave the statue to the church. Obediently, I clasp the outstretched hand of this stone Madonna and say two prayers: one for the lady and one, in gratitude and love, for God’s gift of Flannery O’Connor.
Lorraine V. Murray is the author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?” She lives in Decatur with her husband, Jef, who illustrated this column for the print edition. Readers may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her Web site at www.lorrainevmurray.com.