Saturday, March 26, 2011

Flannery O'Connor, Visited and Revisited


Blame it on the Chinese food.  For weeks, I'd looked forward to this moment: the day I would set foot inside the childhood home of Flannery O'Connor for the first time.  I'd Googled, I'd Mapquested, I'd made dry runs on the route through southern Georgia, I'd Wise Blood-ed myself to death.  I was ready, I was excited.  But now something stood in the way of Complete Flannery Fulfillment: the Chinese food.

Two hours before our scheduled arrival in downtown Savannah, my wife and I had stopped at a Chinese restaurant for a quick meal of meat, vegetables and MSG.  Make no mistake, the food was good and it quickly settled into our stomachs.  In my case, it also traveled farther south at a quick, alarming pace.

By the time we parked the car along Charlton Street and walked the half block to the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home, I had the look of a man with a desperate secret he could no longer contain.  That's a polite way of saying I was walking funny.  My wife, in the way wives of 23 years are known to do, picked up on my signals.  She took one look at my grimacing face and said, "You're kidding, right?"

I was beyond speech at that point.  I could only shake my head, hoping the movement wouldn't dislodge anything.

She sighed.  "You couldn't have taken care of this when we stopped for gas thirty minutes ago?"

"It wasn't an issue at that point."

"We can always turn around and go back.  Come again another day."

I should explain that I was alone in my enthusiasm for this pilgrimage.  My wife had never read anything by Flannery O'Connor, nor do I ever expect that she will.  Long ago, we'd come to the agreement and understanding that there were some parts of our worlds that would rarely, if ever, intersect.  Reading was one of them, The Dr. Phil Show was another.  This is not to say she never cracked open a book and I never sat in front of the boob tube.  Certainly, I've watched my share of "My Husband Is In Love With My Sister" episodes and my wife has been known to run her eyes across a page or two (I'm still jealous of the fact that she's read Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White before I've had the chance to get to it).  But for the most part, I had my books, she had her TV, and we were snug as bugs in a rug with this pact.  This did not make her a more shallow person, nor did it make me a deeper person.  It was what it was--the product of two strangers with two wildly diverse backgrounds joined together in holy matrimony and mutual adoration.  No one ever expects all the puzzle pieces to be a perfect fit.  I think even Dr. Phil would agree with that.

Because she had never read any books by Flannery O'Connor, my wife was puzzled, bemused, and probably more than a little concerned by the hypno-spiral look in my eyes, the fevery knit of my brows, the high squeak of my voice when I talked about making this trip to the home of my literary idol.

"Calm down," she said, "it's just a house.  Bricks and boards and roof shingles.  No need to get all crazy about it."

I assured her I wasn't crazy.  Delirious, yes; but not crazy.

I mean, it's not like I was standing on a street corner in a gorilla suit handing out religious tracts for the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.  At least, not yet.

*     *     *

Yesterday was Flannery O'Connor's birthday.  If she had survived her battle with lupus, she would have been eighty-six.  Frankly, I'm not sure I would want her alive today, nor even much beyond the years God allotted to her.  Okay, maybe three or four more years because I think she still had at least one more fierce book inside her head, one that would have burned us all with an enduring chill of recognition, a novel that would once again turn our notions of morality and mortality inside-out.  But for the most part, I'm okay with her dying at thirty-nine, surrendering to the disease which had crippled her most of her adult life.  I'm happy with just the few works of fiction she left behind because they are all that we need.  In fact, they're almost more than we can handle.  They are fun-house mirrors the likes of which we've never seen before or will see again.  These two novels and thirty-one stories reflect our hypocrisies and failures with a distortion that is horrifying, funny, and true.

*     *     *
....he lay for some time staring at the water stains on the gray walls.  Descending from the top molding, long icicle shapes had been etched by leaks and, directly over his bed on the ceiling, another leak had made a fierce bird with spread wings.  It had an icicle crosswise in its beak and there were smaller icicles depending from its wings and tail.  It had been there since his childhood and had always irritated him and sometimes had frightened him.  He had often had the illusion that it was in motion and about to descend mysteriously and set the icicle on his head.
       --"The Enduring Chill"
*     *     *

My devotion to F. O'C. began in my undergraduate years at the University of Oregon when I enrolled in a 20th-Century American Literature course.  Syllabus in hand, I stalked the aisles of Smith Family Bookstore in search of this writer I'd never heard of: Frank O'Connor, I think it was?  No, Flannery--Flannery O'Connor, that's it.  I ran my index finger along the O-Apostrophe shelf until it stopped on a chunky, white Signet paperback, an omnibus edition of Wise Blood, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and The Violent Bear It Away.  There were no used copies on the shelf.  Apparently, those who bought Flannery O'Connor kept her.  I splurged the extra three dollars on the clean, unbroken, virgin-tight paperback copy.  The cover design showed a twilight-dim country road curving into a blood-orange sun.

Twenty-five years later, I still have that paperback copy.  Its margins are dark with ballpoint notes, the pages are swollen, and the spine is curved and creased.  The setting sun is scuffed from all the times I've read, re-read, and re-re-read what lies within.

*     *     *
A blinding red-gold sun moved serenely from under a purple cloud.  Below it the treeline was black against the crimson sky.  It formed a brittle wall, standing as if it were the frail defense he had set up in his mind to protect him from what was coming.  The boy fell back on his pillow and stared at the ceiling.  His limbs that had been racked for so many weeks by fever and chill were numb now.  The old life in him was exhausted.  He awaited the coming of new.  It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold.  His breath came short.  The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion.  Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes.  He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror.  A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him.  But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.
       --"The Enduring Chill"

*     *     *

Back in Savannah, my skin was getting clammy and blood was starting to drain from my face, my fingertips were chill with tingle.  I walked along the sidewalk like the man with the proverbial stick up his ass.  Which, I suppose, was true in so many unspeakable ways.

When we reached the former residence of the O'Connor family, we climbed the steep stone staircase leading from the sidewalk to the front door. That door was a good fifteen feet above street level, as high and mighty as some cathedral entrances. Looking back, I think I deserve some sort of Olympic medal for the way I, uh, kept it all in during the ascension.

Despite the distractions of my body, I felt like Dorothy and her friends must have felt when they topped that rise in the poppy field and saw jutting before them the emerald shards of the City of Oz.  I was here, I was really here.  I was about to walk where Flannery once walked.  A very young Flannery, to be sure, but Flannery all the same.  What would I say?  What would I do when I stepped inside and was enveloped in the environment where once she had played as a child?  How would I greet the particles of her ghost that still filtered like motes through the air of the house?

I opened the door, stepped across the threshold, and grinned sheepishly at the bald docent who was bustling down the hallway to greet us.  "Can I use your bathroom, sir?"

*     *     *

My Flannery fever reached its pitch when I was living on the edge of the tundra in Fairbanks, Alaska and attending graduate school there.  You don't need to be a geography whiz to know that Fairbanks, Alaska is about as far away from Flannery as you can get--both in thermometer and in temperament.  I thought no one there would know who she was, I thought she would be my own little secret, a warm ball of fur I carried around in the pocket of my parka which I'd reach in and touch when I wanted to feel superior, literary-wise, to everyone else buying reindeer sausage at the supermarket.

I was wrong--completely uncharitable in my thinking.  There were many Flannery fans in Fairbanks (and, for all I knew, Anchorage, Nome, and Point Barrow).  Chief among them was my professor and lifelong mentor, Frank Soos (himself the author of a very good collection of short stories).

March 18, 1993 (Fairbanks, Alaska): Some pertinent notes from my Forms of Fiction class tonight: Frank Soos, who has dedicated his life to the works of Alice Munro and Flannery O'Connor, said, "The reading public thought Flannery was being ironic towards religion. They weren't sure how to take her stories -- was she being SERIOUS about Christianity?"

Another student (beard, Carhartts, sandpaper voice): "Flannery is almost medieval in her outlook."

Frank:  "What does everyone else think?"

Sound effect: Cicadas, mixed with car tires on gravel road. Various points of view, mostly leaning toward the Protestant.  Me, I kept silent.  O'Connor is still my secret Shazam! ring.  I don't let anyone else have the decoder.

Factiod #1:  I just learned that some monks sleep in coffins to better prepare themselves for death.

Factoid #2:  I also just learned that grayling hibernate. I'll have to research this, but I was told that in the fall, their bodies slow shut down, heartbeats dwindle and when the river freezes over, they become encased in ice and remain that way until the spring.

Question: What would Flannery O'Connor make of all this?
Tonight, after coming out to my van in the parking lot on campus, I discovered someone had put a half-eaten cookie under my windshield wiper. I started thinking about the person who had studied my car, then in full view of everyone, raised my wiper and stuck the chocolate chip cookie against the glass like a parking ticket.  Who would do such a thing?

The same kind of person who'd steal an artificial leg from a girl named Hulga/Joy, that's who.

*     *     *

"We are obsessed with other writers' processes and behaviors—with a writer's space:  The room, the desk, the tools are all a part of the equation.  Seeing the place where a successful author created her work can be encouraging and grounding.  The writer's space is proof it can be done."
       --A. N. Devers, quoted in "Inside Writers' Houses" by Alex Dimitrov, Poets & Writers Magazine, March/April 2011


*     *     *

The bald man pointed down the hall, past the kitchen to a back room where, he said, there was a bathroom.  He said it reluctantly, fussily, like he really wanted to be holding up a sign that read "No Public Restrooms" but felt he had to surrender to what looked like panic and despair written large on my face.

I thanked him and waddle-limped down the hallway, leaving my wife, the one person in the world most disinterested in Flannery O'Connor, to strike up an uncomfortable conversation.  I closed the door on the little closet-sized bathroom, dropped my pants, settled my ass cheeks on the toilet seat, and

[deleted]

As I sat there in the aftermath, all I could think was: "I am sitting* in Flannery O'Connor's bathroom!"  Had her hindquarters once sat where mine now did?  My chest filled with the warmth of our new-blossomed kinship.

Even after I'd taken a closer look at my surroundings and noted the chrome handle on the toilet, the post-1980 architecture of the bowl and tank, and even the still-shiny bolts which held it to the floor, I couldn't be talked out of my new, trans-century connection to my literary heroine.

I washed my hands (IN FLANNERY'S SINK!), dried them (ON FLANNERY'S TOWELS!), then made my way back through the house to find our tour group had doubled in size with the addition of a husband and wife--Floridians, by the looks of them.  The lady wore a voluminous dress which leaned more on the side of comfort than fashion; her husband was clad in shorts, sandals, and knee-high socks.  His face and arms were brutally tan, his legs were not.  You needed sunglasses to look for any length of time at his legs.

As I approached, the look on my wife's face said many things.  It said, "Oh, thank God you're back to rescue me from these insufferable morons!"  It said, "We are never doing this again, so enjoy it while you can, buddy."  It said, "How bad of a stink did you leave back there?"

The docent was well into his docenty tour-guide narration by the time I re-joined the group.  Without breaking stride, he gave me a look like I was now forever in his debt for being allowed the privilege to break the House Rules** and use the non-public restroom.  I began to not like him very much at that moment. Plus, I thought he kind of looked like a computer programmer with nothing better to do on the weekend.  He was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt which was tucked into navy-blue sweat pants that rose high over his shoes as if he was fully prepared for a flood.  The pants were cinched tightly above his waist--the sort of thing an eighty-year-old man walking to the Sav-Mor in Sun City, Arizona might be seen wearing, not a fifty-year-old employed in the service of Flannery O'Connor's legacy.  His eyeglasses balanced on top of two puffy cheeks which summited in two hard knobs then spread and flared toward the back of his jaw coming finally to rest in meaty jowls which gave me a sudden craving for Jell-O.  What little hair he retained was slicked back and over the dome of his head in sad, thin rivulets.  I couldn't help thinking he'd have been better off if someone had been there to shoot him every minute of his life.

He nattered on and on about how Regina and Ed O'Connor moved into the Charlton Street town house in 1923; how the rooms of the house were flooded with the sound of tolling bells from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist across the street every morning, noon, and evening; how Mary Flannery O'Connor was born just a few blocks south at St. Joseph's Hospital on March 25, 1925; how she used to disrupt her elementary school classes by saving a mouthful of food she ate for lunch then later, hiding behind a book, get her friend's attention by opening her mouth to show her "see food."

I'd heard most of the stories before, so my attention started to wander to the rest of the house: the Edwardian-era furniture, the fireplace mantle, the mint-green walls, the baby carriage which had once held Flannery's tiny pink body, as small and curled as a shrimp plucked from the tidal waters of the Ogeechee River.

*     *     *

Built in 1856 of Savannah gray bricks, covered in light tan stucco, the O'Connors' three-story Georgian row house, its front door topped with a ruby etched-glass transom, was still joined, in 1925, with 209 East Charlton Street....Mrs. O'Connor took pride in the modest elegance of her well-kept parlor floor with its small entrance foyer; attractive, dark green double living room with two black marble fireplaces, two chandeliers, and four eight-foot bay windows; large dining room with a heavy dark oak table, where the family would gather for formal meals; small kitchen; and back sunporch, where she kept her green plants.  Upstairs, the parents' front bedroom was connected by a doorway to their daughter's back bedroom, both heated in winter by coal fireplaces.
       --from Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch

*     *     *

"And now," the docent said, "I'll take you to the back of the house and we'll see the yard where Flannery once taught a chicken to walk backwards."

Mr. Highwater Pants shepherded us from the parlor toward the back of the house.  As we passed the open door of the bathroom, his face curled.  He held a forefinger just below his nostrils.  "Oh," he said.

I looked at my wife.  She looked at me.  I shrugged.  She shook her head in disapproval and shame.

Our small group stood on the back porch, looking out at the yard, the size of an index card, where H.P. told us Flannery's first brush with fame took place.  "In 1931, five-year-old Mary Flannery taught a chicken to walk backwards."

"Really?!" exclaimed the husband from Florida.

"My, my," his wife said from within the tent of her dress.

"As a matter of fact," the docent continued, "her fame for this fowl trick--" (Pause for group chuckle) "--eventually attracted the attention of the Pathe News Service and they dispatched one of their newsreel photographers from New York down here to Savannah to do a funny little film--the kind you'd see before they showed the double feature back in the 1930s.  Flannery is only on-screen for a few seconds, but it was an experience she would remember for the rest of her life."
 



*     *     *

By the time we climbed the stairs to the second story and stood in reverential silence in the bedrooms--those most private of places (next to the water-closet) where the fullest acts of human intimacy were carried out--I was starting to think Mr. Highwater was in love with his ghosts.  In particular, Flannery's mother Regina.

"And this," he said in a moist voice, "this is my favorite part of the tour."  He walked to the wardrobe, opened the door, reached inside and pulled out a nightgown.  It whispered on the air as he carried it to the bed.

He made it very clear that we were not to touch the fabric.  He leveled a particular gaze at me, as if to say rules would not, under any circumstances, be broken in this instance.  With all the practiced devotion of an altar boy preparing for Holy Communion, he unfolded the sleeves of the lavender-colored peignor and spread them across the bed's counterpane.  He did so delicately, reverentially--as if they were gossamer angel wings.  He sighed and by the look in his eye, I could tell he really, really wanted to run the back of his hand across the chiffon bodice, as if he could feel what was once beneath.  Suddenly, I started to worry for the well-being of this man's wife and children--if he even had any.

"Isn't it just the loveliest thing you ever saw?" he said, his voice moister and moister with each word.  “Everyone is always surprised to see this peignoir because they picture Regina as this towering, imposing woman, when actually she was quite small.”

He allowed us to gaze upon Regina's negligee for an appropriate but limited length of time, then with a brusque intake of breath, he reversed the folding process and stowed away the one remaining trace of Flannery's mother until the next tour arrived and he was granted another opportunity to not-stroke the lavender fabric.

"And this," he announced in the next room, "is where Flannery slept."  His hand was on an oblong box, raised on legs and screened in on all four sides and top.  "It's called a Kiddie-Koop Crib and this is where Ed and Regina would put Flannery down for naps or when they just needed her out from underfoot.  Does anybody think it looks like our modern-day playpens?"

I, for one, thought it looked like something used to cage prisoners during the Spanish Inquisition.

The docent went on: "I like to think being in this Koop was the underlying cause behind Flannery's lifelong obsession with chickens and peacocks."

I, for one, liked to think it was the genesis for her decidedly off-kilter and askance worldview.  I mouthed a silent thanks to Ed and Regina for starting their daughter off like this.  Who knows what bland mainstream writing we'd have on our hands today if it weren't for this infant torture device?

I was a little disappointed to find that the house had been remodeled over the years before the Childhood Home Foundation bought the property in 1989. For instance, the staircase had been reversed (now, it spills out at the front door; in Flannery’s youth, it started at the back door) and a wall had been knocked out between Flannery’s room and her parents’ bedroom. The building had previously been carved into apartments, hence the remodeling. In fact, the third story and the basement were still rented out to tenants (this is how the Foundation makes the majority of its income).

As the tour ended and we made our way back downstairs, Highwater Pants handed us literature on the Foundation, which included detachable donation forms, "if we would like to make a charitable contribution which would go toward keeping the house in operation."  There were also, he pointed out, books by and about Flannery for sale just off the parlor.  I bypassed the books because I already owned everything written by and nearly everything written about O'Connor.  I noticed Mr. and Mrs. Florida also scooted out the door with the kind of haste one normally sees after Sunday church services by people who want to avoid getting trapped in handshake-and-conversation with the preacher.

I felt a little bad for Mr. Pants and the Foundation.  But I still didn't buy any books.

Later in the car, I turned to my wife and said, "Did you notice how he said they rented out apartments in the house?  I mean, wow, wouldn't it be thrilling to--"

"Don't even think about it," my wife said.  "We're not moving into the Flannery O'Connor House."

"But--"

"But nothing," she said.  I could tell she was still pretty miffed at the embarrassment over the whole "bathroom incident."  It would take a while for her mortification to pass--though someday it might make a funny story to tell friends over drinks: "My husband waits his whole life to get inside that house and the first thing he does is run to the bathroom and take a shit."

I pulled away from the curb and eased down Charlton Street, the spires of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the tan stucco of Flannery's home shrinking in the rear-view mirror.

"Well," I sighed, "There's always Andalusia."

*     *     *
By midnight he had left the road and the burning woods behind him and had come out on the highway once more.  The moon, riding low above the field beside him, appeared and disappeared, diamond-bright, between patches of darkness.  Intermittently the boy's jagged shadow slanted across the road ahead of him as if it cleared a rough path toward his goal.  His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.
       --The Violent Bear It Away

*     *     *

Want to give Flannery O'Connor a belated birthday gift?  Why not help with the operations and renovations of the O'Connor house by sending a tax deductible donation to 207 East Charlton Street, Savannah, GA 31401?  She thanks you kindly.


*I am resisting the obvious play on words here.
**There are, to the best of my knowledge, no such rules.  It's just one of the things I may have exaggerated in this account (others being: the glare-white strength of the legs belonging to the tourist who may or may not be from Florida, the baldness of the docent, and the way I have undoubtedly scrambled and rearranged the layout of the house).  I make no apologies for the few instances of fiction I may have injected at opportune moments.  When it comes to stories like this, I adhere closely to what O'Connor herself once said: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures."

5 comments:

  1. Love this. Even the stinky parts.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a riot!

    You should check out Anne Trubek's book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writer's Houses.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Lisa: Thanks for bearing with the TMI-overload.

    @Amy: Trubek's book is definitely on my radar. Though, after reading Brock Clarke's novel, I'm a little flinchy about getting near "writers' houses." Especially the ones in New England. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Enjoyed the tour, even the bathroom stop. (I hope it was a silent dump.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Now see, I wasn't going to go all the way to TMI-ville, but since you asked, yes it was All Quiet on the Southern Front.

    ReplyDelete