Notre Dame, April 15th, 2019


I prayed in the cathedral of Notre Dame five hours before it burned.

David and I were gifted a trip to Paris last April by our son and his wife. Although I was a French major and a French teacher, I had never been able to afford to go to France. My parents moved during my sophomore year of college, so I became an out-of-state student and had to move to South Carolina the year that I would have spent abroad. We did not have the money to go to Europe, and after I married, David and I could not afford to travel, either. The trip from our kids was a dream come true.

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday and had only a few hours of daylight left. We opted to go for something simple, the Eiffel Tower, which became suddenly complicated when we got lost coming back to our hotel and just barely thwarted a pickpocketing attempt on the Métro. Just a few seconds and a young teenager had worked through two zipper compartments on my purse, which was under my coat. I felt a light bump and grabbed her wrist just in time to pull my wallet and passport out of her hand.

After a good night’s sleep, Monday was going to be a much better day. We got oriented, had breakfast at a lovely neighborhood café, and braved the Métro once again. First on the agenda was the greatest landmark I had ever wanted to see, Notre Dame Cathedral. We came out of the underground station beside the Seine. This was the Paris of my dreams. I had studied Paris for so long, even taught about her beauties, and here we were. We crossed one of the many bridges and walked onto the Île de la Cité. Where was it? Where was it? We kept walking and I saw a peek of the spire, then around the corner, and there she was: the towers, the flying buttresses, the rose windows, the gargoyles, all the pictures I had ever pored over right in front of me. One thing that you don’t see in the guidebook photos is the huge crowd surrounding every single landmark in the city. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and we waited in line for an hour to get inside.

When we finally stepped into the dim interior of the church, it was as awe-inspiring as I had dreamed. The soaring ceilings drew the gaze up and up, and we were surrounded by some of the world’s greatest paintings and sculptures. We walked all around the perimeter of the church, snapping photos and taking in the rose windows and altar pieces, maintaining the hushed silence of all the people, the main sound being the swish of slow footsteps. Once we had been around the church walls, we went into the roped-off center seats “reservées pour les fidèles,” reserved for the faithful. We were fidèles, so we quietly walked up to an empty row to pray.

We had not found Parisian people to be hostile, as some people assert. Rather, our experience was very pleasant. All of the French people with whom we spoke were polite and helpful, although their manner was more reserved than that of the average American. However, France is an undoubtedly, almost aggressively, secular country. Surrounded by sacred art on every side, in a town that closes up firmly every Sunday, there is no room for public expressions of piety. A perfect example is the Panthéon, which began construction as a Christian cathedral dedicated to St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, and quickly transitioned to a paean to art and reason during the French Revolution. The suppression of spiritual devotion is almost palpable.

With this in mind, we became ever more aware that the people in the cathedral were viewing it as an historical monument, rather than a living church. There were only a couple dozen of us in the roped-off section, with rows and rows of empty seats. I like to imagine that they have greater attendance during mass. We spent some time in prayer, took in the view from what the builders would have considered the typical church-goers’ perspective, and then moved out to walk all the way around the famous exterior.

We strolled around the side of the building with rows of ridiculously fragile-looking flying buttresses, spring flowers blooming riotously all around. We passed a wedding photo shoot among the blossoms while fully-armed gendarmes strode by, fingers on their triggers. The back of the cathedral was covered with scaffolding, and we regretted that its beauty was blurred by metal grids.

After tearing ourselves away from the church, we crossed a bridge over to the Latin Quarter, where we spent the rest of the afternoon tracing the steps of famous authors and artists, beginning at Shakespeare & Company and ending at the Panthéon. This is old Paris, with narrow cobbled streets twisting in every direction and café-goers sitting out on the sidewalks. Oh, to live that day again! So rich.


The Panthéon. Below, St. Geneviève, patron saint of Paris on the left, scenes from the Revolution on the right.


When we were completely exhausted and ready to get back to our hotel in northern Paris, we crossed the Île de la Cité once again from south to north, walking along the back of Notre Dame, admiring her and sharing our happiness at having fulfilled a lifelong dream. It was just after five o’clock.

The back of Notre Dame Cathedral from the bridge, April 15, 2019, about 5:00 P.M.

We found the Métro entrance and made our way back to our hotel, and then to a café at the top of the Rue de Moscou.

We had just put in our order when my phone rang. It was my sister, vacationing in Myrtle Beach.

“Are you alright? Where are you?” she asked frantically.

“We’re in Paris, in a café. Why?”

“There’s a fire in Notre Dame. Are you near there?”

“No, not now. But we were there earlier today.”

She was relieved, but cautioned us not to go near it. I told David what she had said, and we assumed that it was a small fire that would be extinguished soon, since the local fire departments would surely move heaven and earth to preserve this beloved landmark.

The café owner came over to deliver our food, and when we asked him if he had heard that Notre Dame was on fire, his response was curious. He held up a cautious hand and said in French, “Don’t worry. It’s just a fire.” Just a fire? Haltingly, I tried to express how sad it was, and he replied, “Ah, oui. C’est triste.” Later, we could only surmise that he didn’t want any panicked Americans in his café screaming about terrorism.

Then my phone rang again. This time, it was my daughter-in-law. She was frantic and had the same questions as my sister. We reassured her and our son, ate our dinner, and returned to our hotel.

News photo from several hours later.
My photo from early afternoon, April 15, 2019

The small lobby on the side had a big-screen TV. It was a wall of fire. Until that moment, we had had no idea that the entire cathedral was engulfed in flame. We hurried upstairs to our room and turned on the local news. I was shaking. When we saw the spire fall in, I felt physically sick and started sobbing. I felt as if western civilization had crumbled. I called my brother, who is a medieval scholar, and tried to tell him what was happening. He had no idea, and I just kept weeping, “It’s gone! I just saw it this morning, and now it’s gone!” He was devastated.

Was it possible for this wooden altarpiece from the back of the church to be rescued? 
Two of the last photos of the famous ceiling ever taken.












Underneath the crushing sorrow was the overwhelming sense that I had received an incredible gift of grace from God. For sixty years, I had longed to see Notre Dame cathedral, and I had been granted that gift. I felt so unworthy that I wanted to lie prostrate on the floor, and at the same time I told myself that that was ridiculous, and that there were countless numbers of people who would never see her now, since the reconstruction could last a lifetime, and who knows what treasures were lost forever? Although the French government may truly hasten the repairs and billionaires from around the world may pour in their donations, the church will probably not be complete in my lifetime, and when it is complete, it will not be the same cathedral as it was. Besides, I will probably never be able to afford to go to France again.

Here is the truth: if I had waited until another week to go to Paris, or if I had placed it on another day of our itinerary for the week, I would never have seen Notre Dame in my life. I am so, so grateful to God for those few precious hours.


Ken Follett, who knows a thing or two about cathedrals and was greatly moved by the destruction, has written a little book called Notre Dame. You can read a quick review on my blog All proceeds go to a fund for the renovation.


A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges

Craftsman's LegacyMy husband actually read this one, but he read so much of it aloud to me and we discussed it so thoroughly that I feel as though I read it myself. Based on the PBS television show of the same name, the book’s subtitle, Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning, was the catalyst for me to bring it home from the library for David.

Gorges worked in the corporate world before opening his motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, and becoming a master metal shaper. After considering the changes in his life because of his creative work, he decided to visit craftsmen in other disciplines to examine the influence their handwork wrought on their minds and souls. Deep stuff for a biker.

Camille scarf 2
For my sweet daughter-in-law.

David and I have been diving into the spiritual aspects of handwork lately, as well, and this book really helped to drive some of our conversations. David has been continuing his generations-long family tradition of woodworking with small and large projects, and perhaps a future of entrepreneurship. A year and a half ago, I checked off a box on my bucket list by learning to knit. Since then, I have become an avid fan of this needlecraft, my favorite in a long list of needlework throughout my life. Each project has taught me a new skill, along with knowledge of the fibers and the history of the stitches. The tactile pleasures of working with wool, silk, and cashmere while crafting warm garments with Celtic-knot cables or open lacework are soothing and satisfying. I liked it so much that I committed myself to knitting five Christmas presents this year, which I will never do again.

Shawl backWorking with one’s hands does absorb the same time that could be used for reading and writing, and I am only so fond of audiobooks, so I will have to take that into consideration in the future. However, David and I both found that handcrafts moved us away from technology and slowed our thinking in ways that were healthy for us. We both believe that God created people in his own image, and part of that image is our innate desire to be sub-creators, as Tolkien expressed it. The growing joy that one feels as a project begins to take shape under our hands, gradually assuming the image that we had in our minds, is a delight that makes us return to our craft again and again. Each time, we also have grown and learned new skills and are able to bring more complex and beautiful works into being. A bit of ourselves is woven into each product, and inanimate objects take on meaning that survives beyond our human lives.

Celtic cables on needles
King Edward’s Knot

As Gorges visits each artisan, he tries his hand at their craft. Pottery turns out to be much more difficult to throw than he expected, and he marvels at the bulging muscle on the engraver’s carving hand. Glassblowers, woodworkers, and sculptors all have skills developed over years of labor. I was especially interested in the chapter on calligraphy, since that is next on my list of artistic endeavors. I made a stab at it years ago, but my Christmas list this year included split-nib pens, ink, alphabet books, and a light table. We are fixing up a craft room right now, and I hope to have ink-stained fingers in no time. But first, I owe David a scarf.


Many needles mitts
Too many needles!


Karen's mitts with tag
Mitts for my sis. Tags from AdKnit on Etsy.

If you have an itch to create, Eric Gorges will show you how your soul will be enriched by the work of your fingers. Oh, and download an audiobook from your local library while you work.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and my husband’s and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. This column is reprinted at, with additional photographs.

Alley Cat

Me Allan Milledgeville“Is it true that Alley Cat is your brother?” the older blonde girl demanded breathlessly.

I glanced nervously out the school bus window, relieved to see my stop approaching. “Yes,” I whispered.

Suddenly the bus was filled with squeals, and I was lavished with the attentions of a legion of new preteen best friends.

Such is the life of the sibling of a pop star. My brother, Allan, had begun working at the radio station owned by our next-door neighbor and had adopted the name Alley Cat, using the popular piano song as his intro. In our little town, he was a teenage idol. He had always been an idol to me.

One night, my mom and I huddled in front of the huge radio in our living room, waiting for Allan to deliver on a promise. “This next song goes out to my sister, Cheryl. It’s her sixth birthday today, so this one’s for her. Happy birthday, Sis!” And then my favorite song: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” The Beatles. I was so in love with Paul—along with my elderly doctor and my mother’s friend’s teenage son, who was oblivious to my existence. Oh, the pitiable romances of little girls.

Those were the halcyon days. My mother later said that they were the happiest years of her life. My sister was a toddler, I was in Miss Ivy’s Gingerbread House kindergarten, and Allan was in high school at Georgia Military College, an all-boys school in town. On weekend afternoons, we would go to watch the military parades, decked out in dresses, hats, and white cotton gloves.  On Friday nights, my parents would go to the country club with their friends. We had a close community, and it was a sweet and seemingly innocent existence.

It could not last. When I was in the fourth grade, my father took a job in New York, at least partly because he wanted to send us to Catholic school. Just as we prepared to leave, my brother’s “number came up,” and in order to avoid the draft, he enlisted and was able to go into Army intelligence because of his experience in radio. Our teen idol turned soldier and shipped out to Japan.

We spent the next few years adjusting to living in New Jersey, losing our southern drawls, and listening to the evening news about the Vietnam War. The whole nation was torn apart debating whether our country should participate in the conflict at all. There were over 58,000 American casualties in Vietnam, and one battle could cause thousands of deaths. Our avaricious neighbor once purred that she hoped that the war continued, since her investments were doing fabulously. I thought my mother would throttle her. Mom spent her days and nights dreading a knock on the door or a tragic telegram.

After spending several years in the role of eldest child, I was thrilled when Allan moved back home. These had been tumultuous years for him, a result of the war, the world, and his own life. When Allan entered the military, he was a mildly rebellious kid from a nice family, living in a newly integrated Georgia still in the midst of the civil rights movement. He went into the army wondering why our country was fighting in southeast Asia, and like many soldiers of that era, his heart was not in the cause. Some of his teenage decisions bore the fruit of personal suffering, and somewhere in Hawaii or Japan, Allan grew up. He wrote me long, handwritten letters, musing on life’s meaning while watching the sun come up over the ocean in the Land of the Rising Sun. I still treasure these bundles of lined notebook paper. He decided to go back to college, and after his discharge, he stayed in Monterey, California, working in radio while he finished his bachelor’s degree before coming home to a place he’d never been before.

When Allan moved into our house in New Jersey, I was a moody fourteen-year-old who seemed to do nothing but weep. He knew that I was an avid reader, so he gave me an incredible gift: the first American edition of a new work of literature by J.R.R. Tokien called The Lord of the Rings. He also gave me his paperback copy of The Hobbit, and I think I read the entire boxed set of LOTR four times in a row. My early teen years took place in Middle Earth.

These few years with Allan set my life on a new course. Somewhere, somehow, he had acquired something that had not been present in our family before: culture. My parents were smart, hardworking people who deliberately pulled themselves and their kids out of the working class of their parents and into the middle class. They had a nice house in the suburbs, sent us to Catholic school, dressed well, and went on summer vacations. But they knew nothing and cared nothing about art, literature, classical music, or any intellectual pursuits. Whether it was the influence of that great high school history teacher, his reading during his time in the army, his travels, or the classical music that he had been playing on the radio, by the time Allan arrived in New Jersey, he had matured into the intellectual that he would remain for the rest of his life.

Allan decided to go into graduate school at Rutgers to study medieval history—the whole world was mad about the middle ages at that time– and I was his lecture audience. While he rattled on about Frederick Barbarossa, I read Malory and Gottfried von Strassburg. I learned French and read Le Chanson de Roland and Tristan et Iseult. He taught me about classical music, and we debated Plato and Aquinas. My high school also excelled in the liberal arts, and the theology classes accomplished the opposite of what my father intended and sent me into New Age wanderings, Wicca, Buddhism, and finally, atheism. I did all of these things through storms of tears; I have no idea why Allan put up with me. Perhaps I was eager to learn, and my brother was eager to raise up his kid sister in his own image.

Allan Distant Mirror
Allan’s publicity photo for his radio show, A Distant Mirror, on WWFM.

If not for those critical years, I would be a different person today. I learned at least as much at home as I did in school, and the knowledge was deeper and richer when I could discuss it with my revered older brother. Of course, there were unintended consequences of studying at the same university a few years later, such as the shock I felt when I realized that the graduate assistant who would be grading my art history final was the young woman with whom my brother had recently gone through a dramatic and messy break-up. Fortunately, she was a serious student and gave me the A for which I had labored.

I came to true faith in Christ ten years later, and that faith was stronger for being tested and tried. I still read widely, and I taught my own son at home and passed on this desire to live an examined life. I went to graduate school myself late in life and became a librarian, a field that explores all the riches of human knowledge. Allan continues to challenge me to think critically about the world, introducing me to new authors and keeping up with plays and music. In the end, all that I have learned and even the hunger for the mysteries of wisdom have come to me as a result of those years under the tutelage of Alley Cat.



ellenNext door to us in Milledgeville lived a pair of twins, Alice and Ellen. As teenaged girls, they were like Patty and her cousin Cathy on the Patty Duke Show, for those of you old enough to understand that reference. Alice lived out loud, partying and having fun. Ellen was everything refined and lovely, just what an upper-crust parent would desire.

Their parents, Mike and Bea, were my parents’ closest friends. She was old money; he was new. They owned the only radio station in town, had a full-time, live-in maid, and kept the local parish priest in their back pocket with large donations. Like my dad, Mike was an Irish Catholic, and his religion was a large part of his identity, which helps to explain why their world came to an end when Ellen became engaged to a Protestant.

Mike forbade the priest from marrying Ellen in her own church. He could do that; he had the power. When Ellen— who was completely in love with Don, a fine young man from a good family— married him anyway in his church, her parents closed their doors to her and vowed never to speak to her again.

As their friends, this whole situation was very uncomfortable for my parents, especially my mother. She had declined to attend her own brother’s wedding, because it was held in a Protestant church and Catholics were forbidden to enter non-Catholic places of worship. As time went by, and especially since she had had time to observe this sweet young woman and her beautiful love story, Mom had begun to rethink and regret her decision.

Within a year or so, Ellen gave birth to her first child, as young brides are apt to do. When she showed up at her mother’s door, aching to share this joy with her, Bea sent a message through the maid to say that she refused to see her. Stricken, Ellen came to our house, where my mother took her in and let her cry on her shoulder. I remember riding in the back of Don and Ellen’s car, caring for the baby, who was laid on a blanket in those days before car seats. Ellen was in the front seat tearfully asking Don, “What should I do?” My mother grieved for her.

Years later, when I married a Protestant myself, as did my sister after me, we were married in our own Catholic church. My father was unhappy at the time, but as our husbands became Catholics, he relaxed. My mother never spoke of the issue; she was a wise woman who learned from the suffering she had seen. Within five years, I left the church, and as a decades-old Protestant now, I have seen the same spirit of division from the other side. It’s as if we always think that 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 was written for other people, as if the Lord is only upset with division in the church if other believers disagree with us and our beliefs. Otherwise, surely we would find a way to avoid these thousands of denominations. As Jesus prayed in John 17:31, “May they be one, as you and I are one.” Not “may they be correct.”

Within a few years, Ellen had two more children, and her parents never saw them. She brought each and every one to her parents’ door, but always ended up crying at our house. She was still a young woman with little ones when she was struck with appendicitis and rushed to the hospital for what should have been a routine surgery. No one knew that she was allergic to the anesthesia, and by the time they realized it, she was dead. Don had called her parents to tell them that she was going to have surgery, and when her father arrived to find that she had died, he began shouting at the medical staff, threatening to sue the doctor and the hospital and demanding an autopsy. Quietly, Don said, “No, she will not have an autopsy, and we will not sue the doctor. It was an unfortunate accident. You would have no part in her life, and now you will have no part in her death.” Mike and Bea lived for many years after Ellen’s death, but they were broken people who never recovered.

The day after Ellen died was Mother’s Day. Bea loved flowers, and she delighted in the rarest blooms she could find. Ellen faithfully sent her mother flowers every year on Mother’s Day, even though they had not spoken in a very long time. Of course, she had ordered them several days earlier, so when the doorbell rang on the morning of Mother’s Day, Bea received a thoughtfully chosen gift from her dead daughter: a rare black orchid.

Behind the Mask

When Allan was a teenager and I was a little kid, he held a Halloween party in the cellar. We didn’t have a basement in Milledgeville; we had a dirt-floored room under our house that had to be accessed through an external door: a cellar. While the teenagers rocked around the clock down below, one of my friends showed up at the front door with her mother. Mom came to get me, and I followed her into the living room and stared at the costume with wide eyes. Everyone could see that I was afraid, and so my friend cried, “Look, Cheryl! It’s me!” and ripped off her mask. I screamed and ran back to my room. My mom could never get over the fact that I was more afraid when she showed her real face than when her scary mask was in place.

Even though I went trick-or-treating all through my childhood, that fear of masks stayed with me. I was so relieved when the rest of the world finally admitted that clowns are really creepy. We all share that uneasy feeling when the smiling face that you see is not the real person underneath. It is a nightmare sensation that blurs reality and illusion and renders you powerless to keep yourself safe.

When I started working in the children’s department in a library, the kids’ reactions to puppet shows fascinated me. Even though they could see the librarian walk behind the puppet stage, or even when she held a puppet on her lap and they could see her mouth move, the puppet show kept them simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I’ve had more than one child plead with the puppets, almost in tears, trying to help them out of their little fictional problems. Occasionally, a child had to be carried out of the room because they became so distressed by puppet antics. The kids know that the puppets are not real, but the line between reality and illusion is so thin sometimes, and the inability to hold onto it upsets something deep in our psyche.

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, my boyfriend was friends with one of the employees of Great Adventure amusement park. One day, we had the special treat of going “backstage” to see the workers transform into their park characters. Our friend stepped into a gorilla suit, laughing and chatting all the while. Hours later, after riding roller coasters and having a blast, we saw him heading toward us through the crowd. My knees went weak and nausea began to roil in my stomach. I tugged on my boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere else.” “But don’t you want to see him? He’s heading this way, and he’ll probably goof around with us and make people laugh.” I knew if he caught up with us, I might faint. Even though my mind told me that a friend was underneath that mask, my body couldn’t escape that fight or flight reflex, which was definitely tuned to “flight.”

Fast forward twenty years, and my husband and I were spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon in lovely Clarkesville, Georgia, drifting in and out of the many antique shops in its quaint little downtown area. After a couple of hours, we stepped out of yet another peaceful store and almost walked into a KKK member in full regalia. I stifled a scream. They were on every corner, handing out flyers in their white robes and hoods, but with their faces exposed. I had never seen a KKK member in person before, and I didn’t even know that they still existed. So many thoughts swirled through my head, and even though our car was just on the other side of them, I asked my husband to take me in the opposite direction. I was already knocked flat by the costumes, which were a symbol of pure evil. Why did they feel confident enough to show their faces? Why weren’t they ashamed? David put his arm around me and said, “But we can get to our car a lot faster if we go this way. They’re not going to hurt you.” True, but I’d never get past them on these noodle legs. Again, that confusion of two people existing in one body: the friendly local insurance agent and the dangerous madman encouraging others to join him in his acts of hatred. How can they both be the same person?

When we choose a mask, are we concealing or revealing? It’s fun to try on another identity for a while, to escape our boring routine and be a fairy princess instead, or to defy our powerlessness and put on a superhero outfit. Perhaps a gorilla suit allows someone to run around and make people scream and laugh, and lords and ladies might hide behind simple black masks to engage in naughtiness, as did the revelers in Much Ado About Nothing. No one, however, puts on a white hood to be silly; it’s far too revealing, and is meant to be so.

C.S. Lewis’ favorite of his own works was Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which he shows that we all have expectations of people based on their appearance, and how the distortion of those appearances can cause the wrong response, which is perhaps unfair, since we do not always control the way we look. So which is out of joint, the appearance or our reaction?

We await the day when we have our true faces, and all will be revealed.

To the Funny Farm

Me Karen MilledgevilleAnd then we were three.

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.

Me Allan Milledgeville golf
You can tell he’s so happy to have little sisters to interrupt his golf practice. Allan once sent a golf ball right through that wall of windows in the background.

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.

Flannery & Me

Flannery O
Flannery O’Connor

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.

Andalusia Flannery
Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia

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.

Flannery O’Connor. She is a part of my history.

Beeswax & Dust

Sacred Heart MilledgevilleScientists 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.

Votive candles redA 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.

Born to Read

Sherman's marker Milledgeville
So, not Sacred Heart Catholic?

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.

Milledgeville LibraryNot 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.

First Girl I Saw in Pants
The first girl I ever saw wearing pants.

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.”

Alone on the Mean Streets

Me ballerinaI 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.