At the ripe old age of 35, my mother became pregnant again, to the consternation of her doctor, who told her that she was much too old to have a baby. Nine months later, however, the black telephone rang on the hall table, and when Grandma Kelly handed me the phone, I heard my mother’s soft voice say, “You have a baby sister.” Karen has been woven into my life from the day when I was four years old and saw the top of her fuzzy little head in my mother’s arms, coming down the driveway in Milledgeville in Daddy’s powder blue 1956 Chevy Bel Aire.
We couldn’t have been more opposite. I was Miss Priss, and she was an athlete from the start. When I was about seven, we were playing in our carport with Ronnie and Pat, our constant companions. Ronnie was known to eat his morning bowl of grits wherever he happened to be, and Pat spent years of his life with a towel fastened around his neck with a safety pin, singing, “Na na na na na na na na—Batman!” Ronnie boasted to me, “Watch me climb this pole!” He worked his way manfully to the top, and I dutifully expressed my admiration. We knew nothing of Lean In at that time; we only knew Southern Belle. Three-year-old Karen declared, “I can do that!” And she shimmied right up in half the time. Ronnie was crestfallen, and my mom had to quickly turn away and walk into the house to hide her laughter.
When we went shopping at Belk, my mother lost sight of her for a moment and found Karen entertaining passers-by in the front display window. Another time, she found her fast asleep in one of Belk’s display cribs. The professional portraits that we had done at Belk when Karen was a toddler show her with curly dark hair, bruised legs, the typical disastrously crooked bangs that display the good intentions of 1960s moms, and a big smile. I once tried to curl her ringlets in our mother’s combination hair dryer/ manicure kit and practically ripped them out of her head. I swear it was an accident.
Mom and Dad had an active social life in Milledgeville, and they had provided themselves with a built-in babysitter. Poor Allan, who probably wanted to go to teenaged parties of his own, often got stuck taking care of us, and as with every other female who has smiled at him for his entire life, he did whatever we asked. Our dog, Spot (we were creative), was never allowed in the house, probably because he was an outside dog in south Georgia and covered with ticks and fleas. Mom and Dad would barely get out of the driveway when we would beg, “Oh, please, let Spot in the house! We won’t tell! Promise!” Of course, we told. First thing the next morning. He never learned. The next time he babysat, it would happen all over again.
But revenge is sweet. Some days, after dark, Allan would call us into his room on some pretext, and of course we would go, because he had a room to himself and was the cool, older brother. Once we were in, he would turn off the lights and play a scary record called, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Haha,” by Napoleon XIV. This was a really creepy song, especially to two gently raised little belles like ourselves. It’s about a guy who loses his mind because his beloved leaves him. It gets echoey and weird, with ambulance sirens in the background. On the flip side of the 45— which, for you young folk, is a small vinyl record— was the same song played backward. We screamed and cried, and Mom came to rescue us, pretending to scold Allan and laughing all the while. The next time Allan let us come into his room, we went. Certainly a gene study of our family would show an issue with short-term memory loss.
All these decades later, Allan is still the cool older brother, and Karen is still a great athlete. I hope that I am a little less prissy. Mom and Dad are gone, but the three of us grow closer every day. Allan spins records for a living, and Karen keeps her Great Dane in the house.
Of course, I was at Flannery O’Connor’s funeral—or so my mother assured me. Not that I remember, since I was just turning six at the time, but in a small town like Milledgeville with only one Catholic church, we all knew each other. She is the only truly famous author with whom I have had a familiar and long-term relationship, and I have absolutely no memory of her.
I do remember Andalusia, though, probably because of the peacocks. My mother and the other ladies of the church had an outing at Andalusia, and the little ones were allowed to come along. Children remember fantastical animals like peacocks, and sheer terror cemented them into my brain. I was afraid of most animals when I was young.
My brother recalls Ms. O’Connor very well. He is ten years my senior and was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He clearly remembers watching her from the front of the church as she made her difficult way up the aisle on her crutches. As she became aware of his attention, she turned and fixed him with a piercing gaze. He blushed and looked down. Allan knew who she was because they studied her work in his high school.
My parents, however, were vaguely aware of her fame, but since they were not literary people, it did not faze them. My mother was more acquainted with Flannery’s mother, Regina O’Connor, who was a formidable woman held in high esteem—and perhaps a bit of awe—by the other women. At an Altar Society (women’s auxiliary) meeting one fall, the ladies were planning the church’s Thanksgiving celebration, and they asked for volunteers to bring roasted turkeys. My New England mom was an accomplished cook, so she volunteered to bring one, and Regina huffed, “What does a Yankee know about cooking a turkey?”
Mom was much younger than Ms. O’Connor, so she said nothing, but I’m sure she was thinking, “Plymouth? Pilgrims?”
When the celebration day arrived, Mom walked into the parish hall to the sound of Regina O’Connor fussing over her pale bird, “I don’t know what happened. It just wouldn’t brown.” Mom tried not to flourish triumphantly as she placed her own perfectly golden turkey right next to it. She told that story gleefully for decades.
With all of this backstory, one would think that I would have become quite the expert on Flannery O’Connor’s literary works, but I demur. I have read and admired many of her stories, and, along with most scholars, I wonder at the marked “otherness” of her protagonists. Their deep flaws reveal her acquaintance with the darkness of the human soul and our helpless need for redemption. Her setting recalls a Southern landscape that has almost disappeared, which is perhaps a redemption of its own.
Scientists tell us that the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell. When I catch a hint of a certain aroma, it transports me back to my childhood at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville. It’s a warm combination of beeswax, old wood polished many times, dust in the carpet, and a lingering vapor of incense. To me, it is the smell of holiness.
Our church was tiny, the only Catholic church in this small, southern town. The congregation was filled with Yankee transplants and Cuban immigrants. We were the former. The church was hushed and quiet, and so crowded that we were often in the parish hall, which joined to the side of the sanctuary. Mass was still in Latin in those years, so there was plenty of time to look around and let a child’s mind wander. I dearly wanted to wear a beautiful mantilla like the “Spanish ladies,” but my mother said no. I had to wear a hat.
There were candles on the altar, of course, but also votive candles in a bank of red holders off to the side. A person had to put some money in the box to light a candle, and then their prayer was supposed to go up to God for as long as the candle lasted. I thought they cast a lovely glow, but when I later became a Protestant, and my family visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I eschewed them as pagan, since there’s nothing in the Bible about prayers in candle flames, and because they were often lit to pray for someone’s soul to be released from Purgatory, another unbiblical notion. Besides, they were often in a little alcove in front of a saint’s statue.
My mom was not a spiritual person. She was glamorous, gregarious, and efficient. She was a Protestant before she married my father, so she went to Mass and said her prayers privately, avoiding the more mystical aspects of the faith. She didn’t deny them; she just didn’t care for showiness in religious matters. Mom spent decades of her life caring for sick and dying relatives, pouring out her precious days in service to those she loved, while never going a minute without eyeliner and lipstick. I mistook her practical faith for shallow belief. Two days before her death, her Birkenstock-wearing parish priest came to her hospital bed to give her the last rites. He said, “Margaret, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for your sins?” She looked full in his face, eyes wide and childlike, and said, “I do.” This is one of those moments in my life that is forever fresh and crystal clear. I visit it occasionally to consider what it says about my mom and about myself.
A year or so ago, my brother and I had a day together in Manhattan, and we trekked down to the 9-11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel, and then we went further down the island to the oldest church in New York, Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. Whereas St. Paul’s Chapel is more tourist site than church these days, Trinity was quiet and filled with worshipers. We strolled the historic graveyard and quietly admired the beautiful architecture and pipe organ in the sanctuary. Off to the side, there is a little chapel room with a sign asking for complete silence. I sat down and spent a little time with others in prayer and meditation. Coming out, I saw a bank of glowing red votives. I lit a candle.
In Jewish tradition, it is usually the woman who lights the candles at the beginning of religious ceremonies, symbolizing the fact that women bring life into the world. Messianic Jews further interpret this ritual as a symbol that a woman brought forth the Light of the world. In any case, it is, as they say, a mitzvah.
Most evenings after dinner, around seven o’clock, I head out to my back porch to read my Bible and spend some time with the Lord. My porch has become a holy place. David will usually join me a half hour or so later. But before the Bible is opened or any prayers are said, I light a candle.
I grew up hating General Sherman, incensed that he had quartered his troops’ horses in our church in Milledgeville while burning his way to the sea. I had vivid memories of the bronze historic marker outside the church and remembered it as one of my earliest reading experiences. It was an embarrassing number of years later—decades, really—when my brother, upon hearing my story, informed me that Sherman quartered his horses in St. Stephen’s Episcopal, not our church, Sacred Heart Catholic, and that he likely did so in order to preserve the building, unlike the other structures in town. He also said that Sherman marched to the sea, burning as he went, in order to bring the war to a precipitous close while we still had a country left. I harrumphed something to the effect of, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” but in matters historical Allan always reigns supreme. It seems that Google agrees with him.
Although it appears that I was not reading bronze historical markers at a precocious age, I was a solid member of the Cat in the Hat Book Club. I eagerly awaited the delivery of the two books that came every month in a cardboard box, ripping the box open as I walked back to the house from the mailbox across our sleepy street. Mom and I would sit on the living room sofa and make our way through the likes of Green Eggs and Ham and Go, Dog, Go! Looking back at these brilliant beginning readers, I now realize that, despite my preference for phonics instruction, I probably learned to read by sight, just catching on to the fact that most letters have the same sounds all the time. My mom was never a teacher, but like most mothers of her day, she sat patiently and read aloud, running her finger along the words as she went. We got it. By the time we arrived in school—first grade, as there was no compulsory kindergarten—we were tracking along with Dick and Jane, those sight readers extraordinaire that raised a whole generation of kids.
Not long afterward, my friend Dee’s mom took us to the library downtown. Dee Hammond and I had met because our mothers found out that we had both had benign tumors that had been removed when we were toddlers. Had Dee been a child today, she would have proudly displayed the Potteresque scar on her forehead, but as it was, she daintily covered it with a fringe of bangs. The public library was located in an imposing Greek Revival building on the campus of the Georgia Women’s College, and as we walked into the children’s section, Dee went to the picture books and I went to the chapter books.
“Don’t read those! Those books are for babies. Look at these!” Evidently, I didn’t understand the library value of not criticizing other people’s reading choices in those days.
“Those books are too hard for me!”
“No, they’re not. Look!” I opened up a copy of Eddie the Dog Holder, or some other Carolyn Haywood favorite, and she peered in.
“I can read that!” she exclaimed, and we happily picked out one book apiece to take back to her house and read on her parents’ big bed while her mother ironed. I distinctly recall that her mother said not one word, only looked on, smiling, during my very first reader’s advisory transaction. It took me forty years to figure out that I could get paid for this.
I actually lived in Dick and Jane’s world. Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy and Eddie were the kids that I saw around me. Boys wore dungarees and loved their dogs. Girls were blond, with pigtails or ponytails, and wore cotton dresses that poofed out right from the armpits. I did not see a girl in pants until I was school-aged and my parents had some friends visit from Massachusetts. I asked my mom, “Is she a boy?” She was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that her own daughters wore dresses every single day of the year, and so did all of their friends.
Most glaringly of all, every single child in all of the popular children’s books of that time was white. No exceptions. How in the world did the adults of the 1960s expect children of all races and ethnicities to enjoy reading when they never saw anyone who looked like them or their families in books? As a children’s book selector today, I can rejoice that so many writers have answered the call to create literature for every child. You can peruse some of the titles on my book review blog, EatReadSleep, to see that some of the best writing for children is coming from diverse authors.
We were not wealthy, but we did have the advantage of our Greatest Generation parents, who were determined that their children would have a better life and a better education than they did. Thanks to them, I learned to read early and never stopped. Read to your little ones. Run your fingers under the words in beginning readers. Let them see you reading. Read together as a family. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
I was four years old when I first wandered alone on the streets of downtown Milledgeville, Georgia, in the early sixties. My sister, Karen, was newborn and probably lying on a blanket on the front seat of my mother’s car, while I was standing up in the middle of the back seat, decked out in a black leotard and tights, with maybe an armrest between me and the windshield, because that was just the edgy sort of life we lived in those days. When we arrived at the ballet studio, my mother could not leave Karen in the car, so she dropped me off on the sidewalk in front of the staircase that led to the second-floor business. I climbed up to the landing at the top, only to read a note on the door that announced that the teacher had had a family emergency, and that class was canceled. I fled back down the stairs, but my mother was gone. Since cell phones only existed in science fiction novels at the time, I sat down on the bottom step and started to cry.
In my dim memory, it didn’t take long for a policeman to wander by, and he seemed surprised and somewhat amused to find a distressed preschooler in ballet slippers along his regular beat. He asked me a few questions, then smiled, took my hand, and led me to the nearby police station.
“I picked this one up for loitering,” he cracked as we entered a room filled with more busy people than I had ever seen. In reality, Milledgeville was a small, southern town, although it had the antebellum mansions to prove that it had once been the capital of the state. Be that as it may, the police station was a step up from Mayberry, but just a step. The secretaries had poufy, teased-up hairdos, and the police officers all seemed young and self-important. In their usual round of petty thefts and town drunks, I was the cutest thing that had ever happened to them. The women smiled at me, and one of the men offered me a stick of gum. They placed me in a wooden desk chair and encouraged me to twirl around and around. I was proud to be able to recite my parents’ whole names and my address and phone number. I was just getting bored when my fourteen-year-old brother, Allan, walked in. He explained that my mom was still in the car outside with an infant rolling around on the front seat. So we went home, and that was that.
Decades later, I look back on this experience and wonder how this scenario would have played out today, but I will not bore you with moralizations. We can look to true stories from the recent past to encourage us to imagine a sweeter, saner future. It could have all turned out differently, but—as Jane Austen would say—it didn’t.
There was screaming all around me, and my vision was filled with the sight of my oversized snow boots being chewed and swallowed by the old wooden escalator. The toes were already consumed by the wide space at the end of the stair treads, and my feet were about to be crushed. Suddenly, I was whisked upward, right out of the boots, and I watched in horror as they disappeared under the machine, devoured by the wide, wooden slats.
This is my earliest memory. We were in Rhode Island for my grandfather’s funeral, and since I was a Georgia peach, I had never even seen snow. Fortunately—in many ways—my older cousin lent me a pair of her boots, and my toes remain intact.
My mother’s beloved father had shoveled out his driveway before going to work one January morning, and then he had a heart attack and drove into a snowbank. His body was robbed before the police arrived.
Some may say that his smoking contributed to his early death at only 54, but my mother believed that it was his stress over her brother, Ralph, whom they always called Sonny. My uncle is the shadowy, ne’er-do-well character on the periphery of my childhood and the father of my generous, boot-lending cousin.
Mom and I stayed in Rhode Island with my grandmother for a month or so, while my father and brother went home. After we returned to Georgia, my mother plunged into a year of mourning: no entertaining, no music, no laughter. The lynchpin had been pulled out of her life. She rebuilt, but the space was never filled. She told me later that Granddad had doted on me, and she regretted so much that he never saw me without the tumor that disfigured my toddler face. I wish I could remember him.
To this day, I give a surreptitious little hop at the end of every escalator.
No grocery stores for miles, flat tires, little boys running around with guns, and gale-force winds. It was a perfect vacation.
Our extended family, or at least five old people and a teenaged boy, spent a week in April in Surry, Virginia, touring the historic towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, besides hanging out on the front porch watching the James River flow by while a pair of bald eagles feathered their nest in our yard. Unfortunately for our teenager, no one would agree to ride the roller coasters at Busch Gardens with him, so his week may have been quieter than he had hoped.
It is true that there was no internet connection, but it only took a few days for my hands to stop trembling. The ferry, however, was only a mile away, and it was our connection to civilization. It was free, ran on the half-hour, and landed right in Jamestown. We began to arrange our lives by the ferry schedule. Mornings were easy, as we always slept in, and evenings were spent bundled in afghans on the porch in this ridiculously interminable winter. In between, we soaked up history.
Jamestown is the oldest successful English settlement in North America. “Successful,” because Roanoke, North Carolina is older, but it disappeared. “Oldest,” because the tour guides want you to know that it was around for thirteen years before the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and if you forget, they will continue to remind you. Although the original museum is interesting, and the replicas of their ships are fun to climb on, if you drive one more mile to the original settlement site, you can see the monument of their landing and the archaeological digs that are underway. Here there is a second museum with skeletons and other morbidly fascinating artifacts.
If possible, join a guided tour by a ranger or a reenactor. We were fortunate to have the same tour guide, Dick Cheatham, at Yorktown and at Jamestown, where he dressed as John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas and introduced tobacco to Europe, which finally made the settlement self-supporting. The tour guides can help you to understand the movement of thought behind the physical structures, the reasons for the rejection of European models and the growth of the American worldview that resulted in the Revolutionary War. In Jamestown, the settlers suffered through and abolished the rigid English class system, tried socialism and died by the hundreds, and then settled on hard work and egalitarianism. The words of the Declaration of Independence didn’t descend from an ivory tower.
The capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in the 1690s because, as Powhatan had told them decades earlier, the water in Jamestown was unhealthy. The village in Historic Williamsburg now shows colonial life at its height. In the governor’s palace, we learned that the colonial leaders were strong monarchists and had no use for Parliament, which did nothing but levy taxes on them. Therefore, there are huge portraits of English kings hanging all over the palace. The maps on the walls show North America divided into horizontal stripes, with the holdings of the English, French, and Spanish in pastel colors. The existing residents were ignored, of course. The pink area of Virginia was carefully detailed on the east coast, with a straight-edged stripe leading off to the west coast, which is not shown. The crown of England was not sure exactly what the western edge of North America looked like, but they claimed it anyway. Although the governor kept a standing army, every male person above the age of sixteen had to have a weapon with ammunition and know how to use it. The army and the militia were separate, and the governor did not support the militia in any way. Interesting tidbits for our contemporary discussions of the second amendment. Wooden muskets and tri-cornered hats are sold in the market, and every little boy in town was running around in a red-state euphoria. I can still remember touring Williamsburg when I was a teenager, going from building to building, watching colonial craftsmen and -women plying their trades: candle making, book binding, and tailoring, to name a few. They are all still there! The very beautiful Episcopal church is still an active congregation and seems to have a rather prickly relationship with Historic Williamsburg.
After a quiet day of reading, we went to Yorktown on Thursday. For some reason, I was less enthusiastic about this one at first, probably because it was military history.
But ah, here was Dick Cheatham, this time dressed as Thomas Nelson, one of the many Thomas Nelsons in his illustrious family. He led us around the village, telling stories as he went, and what became clear to me was how providential our history is. There were so many times, from Jamestown to Yorktown and beyond, when we very nearly didn’t make it. It is as much a wonder that we are not British subjects today as that the whole world is not speaking German since World War II. While ordinary people are working hard to put food on the table, their leaders are busily arranging history. If it had not been for the French, we could not possibly have won our war for independence. If it had not been for the resistance at Yorktown, we would be watching The Crown as our own story. The Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were written, is nearby. After walking through the village and admiring the York River, you can jump in your car and ride around on the driving tour, where you will see berms built for cannons, battlefields, and the Surrender Field, which is— May I just say it since I refused to leave the car?— a field.
We returned to Jamestown a second time on Friday in order to learn more about the extensive diggings going on in the church and all over the grounds. Since the vast majority of the settlers died in the first ten years, the place is one big unmarked grave. It also took that long before the first group of women arrived, apparently after the investors figured out the answer to the problem, “I wonder why the population in our Virginia settlement never seems to increase. Hmm….” Had it not been for the friendship between ten-year-old Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, no one would have survived the harshest winter. Pocahontas risked her life to smuggle food into the fenced-off compound. In addition, John Smith was the first commoner to lead the settlement, and he had very different ideas about manual labor than the gentlemen who preceeded him.
Although John Smith and Pocahontas both have statues at Jamestown, they were never married or romantically involved at all. Sorry, Disney.
Our house in Surry was perfect for our group. Lots of common space, but generously sized bedrooms, as well. Deer in the backyard, eagles in the front. There is also a front living room, so there are two separate conversation areas. In this picture of the family room, dining area, and kitchen, we had taken a leaf out of the table to fit a birthday party tablecloth for my brother-in-law. My sister found the house on Home Away: https://www.vrbo.com/993515.
In the midst of the current madness, historic Virginia is a bracing reminder of the unique character of our nation. From struggling settlement to proud British colonists to rebellious subjects, these three towns will teach you and your children about the cost of freedom, the need for a thoughtful and informed citizenry, and the perilously fragile nature of liberty.