Bluejeans and Pantaloons in Yesterplace
From my bedroom window, I could see the Cline farmhouse, known today as Andalusia, the home of author Flannery O’Connor and of course her mother, Regina, the dairy lady.
In 1910, my grandmother moved to the South Liberty Street house, and the friendship between the Myricks and the Clines began. Regina lived less than a block away on Clark Street. The same age, Regina and my Aunt Allie quickly became friends, and the friendship extended to Mutha as well as the other sisters, and continued life-long. Of all the Myrick girls, only Mutha remained in Milledgeville after gadding about during her college years. Regina grew up, married, and moved away. When Regina moved back, settling at Andalusia, the friendship picked up again. It continued in spite of the landline dispute.
Our calf pasture, bottomlands with rich dirt that produced lush grasses and tall hardwoods for shade along the creek banks, bordered the Cline/O’Connor lands. When ownership of that land became a court issue, my sisters and I attended the session in the woods, alongside that fence, beneath a monster oak that years later fell and became firewood for the house.
I remember raising my hand when Mutha did, to swear to tell the truth, while the sun dappled us with shadows. I cannot remember the testimony, just that we lost the land to the O’Connors. But we never lost the friendship.
Flannery was a delight to know, but she took some getting-to-know. I met her soon after our home burned in 1954, when she came with Regina to visit. She walked into the house on her crutches, carrying a smile. When I saw her dressed in her deceased father’s clothes, I loved her instantly, for I wore dirty jeans and a sweat-soaked shirt. Her too-large shirt, unlike mine, was spotlessly clean, as were her jeans.
She once said that she wore her father’s clothes because it would be a waste to discard them. Genius, and very practical, with a barn full of common sense.
In all the years I knew her, I saw her in a dress maybe twice: When she spoke at GSCW and when she attended my father’s funeral.
Regina had come over to talk “farm business” with Mutha, and the two of them kept up a rousing conversation. Flannery spoke almost not a word after introductions, but sat and listened. I began to wonder that day if she were already plotting a new story based on the political topics of conversation.
A couple of weeks later, when Mutha came home and found a note from Regina, we were off to Andalusia. Mutha didn’t have to ask me twice if I wanted to go. I was thrilled that day when Flannery took me and Lil into her “writing room,” and showed me where she wrote every morning. (We knew to never but never go to Andalusia in the morning.) Her teacher’s style desk had a cut-away for her manual typewriter—all typewriters were manual in those days, and I taught myself to type on one even older than Flannery’s.
Flannery showed us her paintings, and when I commented that one looked like something Edgar Allen Poe might have painted, she loaned me a copy of his stories, as well as some other books—we had lost all ours when our house burned. I asked how she held the peafowl while she painted herself and it, and she laughed, telling me she painted it without looking in a mirror or at a picture of herself; she added in the peafowl from memory also. That self-portrait captures her sense of humor, for I can see her laughter trying to escape with the bird and fly off into the air. That somber look on Flannery’s face could only be in jest.
She told me she didn’t consider herself an artist, just a writer with hopes, and that her paintings, like her birds, were only a hobby. She raised peafowl, guineas, ducks (she had three varieties), pheasant, turkeys, and geese. Often she simply got fertilized eggs and hatched the birds in an incubator, raising them as yard pets.
When Flannery, Lil and I joined Regina and Mutha, sitting in porch rockers, Flannery became a sponge, soaking up whatever others said and seldom speaking. Her mind was like a computer hard drive, storing data for later use.
I loved their porch. The screens let in the breezes but kept out the bugs, except for the powder post beetles that invaded old homes, eating away like termites, piling up little mounds of sawdust as they dined. We would sit in the rockers while we talked, and I felt I could rock all day. One summer day, a rain shower drummed the tin roof with music that promised freshness was only moments away.
Over the years, we shared many “across the fence” events. Our bulls would catch a whiff of one of their cows in heat and head across the fence to go courting. Regina did not want our cull bulls breeding her bloodied dairy cows, so one of us girls would ride horseback over to drive the wayward bull to his own pasture.
One time Regina came to the house right about dinnertime to tell us one of our bulls had come courting, and Lil took off on horseback to drive the escapee back to our side of the fence. We expected her home long before suppertime. But the afternoon progressed, and Lil didn’t return. And didn’t return. Regina re-appeared, wondering why no one showed up. By then, darkness was falling over the 1000 acres of The O’Connor Swamps.
We rang the bell, not just a farm bell. We called it the Liberty Bell of Georgia since it once hung in the capitol building and rang out session. The chip out of the bottom edge supposedly got clobbered out when the bell ringer got too excited about secession. But when we rang it that day, Lil heard, and was soon home, tired, hungry, and grateful for the bell ringing. We got the bull the next day.
Someone asked my dad once why he had such a mish-mash of cattle and didn’t raise prime beef, and he said that if the train ran over one of these cows, it wasn’t much of a loss, but he’d hate to lose a valuable cow or bull to the train.
Since good fences supposedly make good neighbors, we probably weren’t such good neighbors. Our fences were three-strand barbed wire, strung from tree to tree as much as possible, with some fence posts thrown in. It didn’t take a bull much effort to push through the fence to go courting. We learned the best way to find any holes in the fence was to chase the bulls back from Andalusia—they always ran to the spot in the fence where they escaped hours earlier.
But Flannery immortalized our bulls in her stories, just as she did many local people and events. She was present when a Confederate veteran saw his young wife receive her diploma at GSCW, an event I well remember. Therein lay “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” Who but Flannery could be so subtle in telling the reader the great hero was dead on the stage?
She laughed about the boys who escaped from the Training School, boys who showed up at Andalusia and set the woods on fire, then sat beside the road, now U. S. 441, and threw rocks at their mailbox. These events became a portion of “A Circle in the Fire.” She immortalized two girls who rode the school bus with me, referring to them by their teenage years, the younger one already married and pregnant.
She put her mother into many of her stories. I can see Regina inspecting the inside of a milk can. Displaced persons worked on Andalusia after World War II. Flannery could take reality and give it a twist, usually while laughing. It mattered not how serious the moment, she could see the humor in any situation.
I wonder what kind of story she might have woven around a girl who rode the school bus with me. In the fourth grade when I was in the second, she was still in grammar school when I entered high school. In those days, we had no “middle school.” We argued on the bus a lot, the biggest fuss about creeks flowing north. She insisted no stream could flow north, that north was always uphill. She never understood that north can be downhill and the globe is only a representation.
When we’d pay a social call and join them for Cokes and cake, Flannery always said for us not to stack the dishes, she didn’t want to have to wash the bottoms; it was enough trouble to wash the tops. I still agree with that philosophy.
She said that when she autographed a book she felt that she was signing a blank check. When a fan couldn’t find Flannery’s book at a well-known store, Flannery said that store never expected her books to sell and thus ordered only two at a time.
When the county was paving the road in front of our house one of the workmen told us about a quail nest they were going to have to bulldoze. I collected the eggs and Mutha drove me to Andalusia to take them to Flannery. She was delighted to get them, for she had hatched quail before. Since she had a Bantam hen just beginning to set, she put the eggs under her rather than in the incubator. The hen hatched the eggs, and she and Flannery raised the quail until they took themselves off into the wild. I still think of Flannery whenever I hear a bobwhite, and wonder if that bird is perhaps descended from those Flannery hatched and released.
Her peafowl were her pride, and even from my home, about 2 miles cross-country, I could hear them squawk. The first time I heard them, I wasn’t sure what was so noisy. Her jackass I could recognize, and it often roamed near our joint fence line to express itself. Perhaps, like our bulls, it was seeking female companionship.
When my father died, in spite of her illness and her need to avoid sunlight, she came to the services, which were only at the graveside. She stood on those crutches, in the sun, for probably an hour from the time she arrived until she left.
Flannery was a lady with gumption.