By SALLY FITZGERALD, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 28, 2009
One of the most moving and beautiful passages in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs begins with the question: Who shall describe a valiant woman?
Many of the virtues and ensuring accomplishments of such a one are listed and extolled in the answering verses that follow the question; and most of these qualities were to be found in the indomitable lady whose person and long life, now peacefully ended, we have come here to celebrate today.
The wonderful language of the Douay Bible describes those qualities in somewhat archaic terms, suited to the ancient world. Nevertheless, we recognize in them their modern counterparts, and find them still quite valid in taking the measure of a woman such as Regina O’Connor.
It seems to me a little unfair that Miss Regina is best known—outside Milledgeville at least, as the mother of a remarkable daughter, increasingly honored throughout the world for her luminous accomplishments as a literary artist, and hardly less for her extraordinary valor in the living of a rigorous and demanding life. The daughter’s travail was great, but it was relatively short.
Not so the mother’s. Hers has only just ended. And so, to my mind, Regina O’Connor should be celebrated for herself—for what she brought off in contending with losses and adversities that must sometimes have seemed endless, in the course of a century, less a few months, in which she lived and labored, never flagging in her faith, and drawing from that faith the kind of courage that has been defined as grace under pressure. The last surviving member of her immediate family, she saw precede her in death, over the years, both her parents and fifteen brothers and sisters, as well as her young husband and only child. To say nothing of the cherished friends and extended family members who disappeared, one after another. Her confident faith—and the acceptance it brought with it—never wavered. As it was to become to her daughter, both in her writings and in her life, that faith was the taproot of the abundant life, and openness to life in every season, that we could all perceive in Regina, throughout her struggles, in her joys as in her sorrows and losses.
Growing up in Milledgeville in the early part of the century, amidst a large and lively family, protected by all the care and circumstance that sheltered girls of her background, she could hardly have foreseen what was to be demanded of her. One of the younger children in her family, petite, disarmingly pretty—and well aware of it—petted and indulged by her older siblings, saucy, bossy, witty, flirtatious and, like belles before and since, no doubt a little spoiled, she would have seemed anything but a candidate for heroism. The sparkling future she had most likely mapped out for herself was to prove illusory, however.
Hamlet tells us, and most of us would agree, that “There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may …”. So it was no accident, I think, that a young woman of just such hidden potentiality as Regina should have found herself appointed to the essential role she played in her daughter’s life, drawing upon abilities she herself may not have known that she possessed.
Left a widow of inadequate means in her mid-forties, Regina O’Connor found herself faced with the necessity of finding a way to earn a livelihood for herself and her child, and to provide for the education that would permit the full development of gifts already in evidence in that child. She studied the skill of bookkeeping, and began to manage the financial affairs of a brother’s farm outside town; the beginnings of her experience in dairy farming that would become a part of her double task in future, enabling her to act as the ever-vigilant caretaker who created and guarded a place of quiet, privacy and beauty for her invalid daughter, quite literally keeping her alive for the thirteen years she survived after the onslaught of inexorable illness, and thereby making it possible for us to inherit the imperishable literary works brought into being on the outskirts of Milledgeville.
By her activities in operating a dairy farm, I don’t mean that she sat at a desk and kept the books in order and made easy decisions for others to carry out. She it was who supervised the building of ponds for the cows, oversaw the tasks of both dairymen and field hands, made sure that the hay was cut and baled, looked to the health and welfare—and sometimes the behavior—of the people living on the place, arbitrating their internecine struggles, and in short dealing with all the problems that any small farm operator would encounter.
In addition, she dispensed warm and charming hospitality continually, not only to friends living in and around Milledgeville, but to an ever-growing stream of visitors from near and far, come to pay their respects to the young writer who had earned the admiration of discerning readers everywhere.
An account of her daily doings would be far too long for this occasion. It is enough to say that she more than adequately lived up to the requirements set down by the biblical scribe when he wrote: “She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm. She hath tasted and seen that her traffic is good: her lamp shall not be put out in the night. She hath put out her hand to strong things, and her fingers have taken hold of the spindle. She hath opened her hand to the needy, and stretched out her hand to the poor. She hath looked well to the paths of her house and hath not eaten her bread idle. Her children rose up and called her blessed …”
At least her one child did so: I can remember being told by her daughter that her only fear was that Regina would die before she did. Because, as she said, “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
She didn’t have to. Regina outlived her child by thirty-one years. And in her own last years, she encountered what may have been the most trying ordeal of all: being brought to a halt by osteo-arthritis that so damaged her knees that she could no longer walk. But this, too, she accepted with grace and good humor, and, although confined to a chair, remained as active as possible, never failing to take her daily ride to the farm to visit Equinox and Flossie, the burro and hinny who survive her. Even when, upon the death of Joe Butts, her “best friend” as she called him, she had to give up those excursions, she continued to receive old friends, always perfectly coiffed, and touched with rouge for the visitors. As promised, she did often “laugh in the latter day.”
Let us recognize her, then, for all she did, and was. And, as the Proverbialist instructs us: “Give her of the fruits of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates.”
This is the eulogy written and given by Sally Fitzgerald at the funeral Mass for Regina Cline O’Connor on May 12, 1995, at Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville. Fitzgerald was a close friend of Flannery O’Connor and the editor of her letters.