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.

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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.”

Family 9: It’s Howdy Doody Time

The parents of the post-war generation had seen suffering firsthand. They had spent their earliest years in the Depression and had gone through further privation during World War II, whether they fought on the front lines, lost loved ones who served, or simply went without meat and sugar for years. Once those days were over, they were determined to give their own children the idyllic childhood they had never had.

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Allan, left, and his friends in Esmond

Allan grew up in the house his father built until he was eight years old. His grandparents were next door, and he was surrounded by love on all sides. He was a quiet and dutiful child who attended Catholic school and loved to watch Howdy Doody Time and The Mickey Mouse Club every day. For so many working class and middle class kids in the 1950s and early 1960s, the old sit-coms like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver were real-life portrayals of their everyday lives. The entire nation cooperated in safeguarding their innocence, and although there were serious issues—the nuclear threat and the beginnings of the struggles for civil rights—children were largely unaware of them. In those days, there were no cable news channels, so if adults wanted to know the news they either had to tune in for half an hour at six o’clock or read a newspaper. Not everyone even owned a television, anyway. People read books and listened to the ball game on the radio. In many ways, it was a simple, wholesome time.

IMAG1663The textile mills in New England were struggling with union activity, and more and more of them were closing. Walter moved his family to North Andover, Massachusetts, when Allan was eight, leaving both his and Margaret’s parents behind. On their own for the first time, Walter and Margaret became Joe and Marge, and a new phase of life began. Marge worked as a secretary, and Allan played baseball and hung out with his pal, Joey. EC ComicsEvery Saturday, the boys went to the movies, and then went across the street to the store where they sold EC Comics. Apparently, they were terrifying, so much so that Stephen King says that his career was launched from his childhood love of these illustrated horror stories. The federal government was so appalled that American children could access such frightening material that they forbade the publication of all EC Comics. Today, adults who grew up on them collect them from E-Bay listings. And that, dear reader, is why we celebrate Banned Books Week today.

The Kelly family had only lived in North Andover for a couple of years when Joe began looking for a better position elsewhere. About that same time, Marge was struck with rheumatic fever, and in those days, bed rest was required for more than a month. When Marge was finally able to get out of bed and try to resume normal life, she discovered that she was pregnant again. IMAG1676Her doctor was very unhappy about this development, and advised her to have an abortion. He told her that rheumatic fever had damaged her heart, and that she would not survive childbirth. Marge and Joe were devout Catholics, however, and they were in anguish. Abortion was unthinkable, but so was leaving Allan motherless. They decided to go to a cardiologist for a second opinion, and he thought she could take the risk.

And so, a few months later, after the family had moved to North Haledon, New Jersey, I was born in the summer of 1958. Allan tells me that our mother loved a name that she heard every afternoon on his favorite show, that of Cheryl Holdridge, and so she passed it on.

M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-UUU-S-EEEEEE.

Family 8: The Early Years

IMAG1687The war ended, as all wars eventually do, and society had to rearrange itself into having young men and young families in its midst again. Margaret and Walter rented her Auntie Taggart’s second floor for five dollars a week, and Walter went to work at the mill. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he also began attending evening classes at the Rhode Island School of Design for textile design.

Walter had been home for some time, and Margaret began to be worried. She still had not conceived, and they both wanted children. She had taken some secretarial courses and was working hard, and she had been banking Walter’s paychecks from the Army. Between their little nest egg and the G.I. Bill, they had enough money for Walter to start building a house in his unimaginable spare time between working and going to school. Margaret so wished for one of the bedrooms to be a nursery.

About the time that her parents began to despair of inventing new comforting words for her as she said each month, “I think I might be pregnant!”, only to be disappointed days later, Margaret finally gave birth to Allan William in July of 1948. One of the first Baby Boomers, Allan joined a nation awash in happy parenthood. As his first harsh New England winter settled in, Margaret wrapped baby Allan up, put runners on his stroller, and pushed him several miles through the snow to their homesite, bringing dinner to Walter, who was still toiling away on a pretty, little ranch house down the road from his parents. They had given the newlyweds a building site on the family land on Ernest Street.

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Little Allan in front of the house that Walter built.

It wasn’t long before they moved in, and Margaret blossomed into her longed-for role of wife and mother. Like most women of her time, she was devoted to Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care was the Bible on all things childrearing. Little Allan was on a schedule: wake, breakfast, bath, nap, walk, lunch, nap, and so on. Her father, Archie, loved his grandson, but he knew that if showed up during nap time, he would not be allowed to see him, so he would walk around outside to Allan’s bedroom window and sing “On Top of Old Smokey.” Allan would wake up, delighted to see his Grandad, but Archie would have to endure a scolding from his brisk, orderly daughter. It was worth it.

Allan was still a baby when Margaret conceived again, and in due time she had another son, Robert Walter. He only lived two days. Margaret had to share a hospital room with another woman whose newborn was presented to her several times a day for feeding, and Margaret would ask the nurse, “Where is my baby?” only to be told that the doctor would come talk to her later. Since she was only twenty-two and quite shy, she did not know what to do. Later, she found out that Robert was a “blue baby,” that is, a baby whose mother’s blood was RH negative, while the father was RH positive. Walter, his mother, and any other devout Catholic who saw him baptized him themselves right in the hospital, since they believed that unbaptized babies went to Limbo, a place of nothingness between heaven and hell. When Robert’s time on earth was over, Walter’s parents gave them a burial plot, and Margaret was forced to stay in the hospital during her baby’s funeral, weeping while her roommate cooed and played with her new baby.

These days haunted Margaret for the rest of her life. Because they lived in a small town, the doctors did not know that they could have saved Robert’s life with a blood transfusion. In addition, they had not yet invented the injection that is now routinely given to RH negative women after their first birth—which is always successful—that would have allowed her to have normal pregnancies and healthy babies in the future. Instead, she went on to have six fairly late-term miscarriages in the next decade, during which she was almost always pregnant, but still had only one living child. The doctors dismissed the pregnancies as just tissue that her body was rejecting, but Margaret mourned inwardly, although no one joined her in her grief. She was expected to pick back up and move on. It was not until she saw the ultrasound images when my sister and I were pregnant decades later that she realized that she had been right to grieve for what were obviously fully-formed babies, and she was newly angry over the cruelty of the doctors—and the world in general—toward all those loving young women with broken hearts.

Family 7: Margaret and Walter

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  Joseph Walter and his mother, Matilda

As individuals, we live our lives day after ordinary day, but sometimes world events come crashing in to change the course of history—and the course of families—in ways that we could not anticipate and certainly would not choose.

Walter was still drumming with George Masso and blocking hockey pucks when he realized, along with all of his classmates, that they would graduate from high school and go straight into the military to fight in World War II. He and Margaret knew that their courtship could come to a final end when Walter joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Not only had Margaret’s grandfather in Scotland died in World War I, but they both had friends and family who had already lost their lives in the current war.

Walter’s dad had left the mill some years ago and gone to work for New England Transportation as a mechanic, and the skills that he passed on enabled Walter to serve as an airplane mechanic. Furthermore, his mother, Mathilda, had become quite valuable to the Red Cross, so when she had a medical emergency and asked if her son could come to her side while the rest of his unit shipped out to Europe, someone somewhere granted her request—which may be the reason I am here to write this today. Walter stayed stateside for the remainder of the war.

IMAG0030Margaret was 17 and still a senior in high school when she received a telegram saying, “I have a furlough in December. Will you marry me then?” Her mother panicked and immediately refused, but once again, her cousin Dot came to her rescue. “Don’t worry, Auntie Peggy! I’ll help you to get this wedding together in less than two weeks, you’ll see!”

And so, in military uniform and trailing white gown, Walter and Margaret tied the knot on December 14, 1944. They went to Boston for their honeymoon, which may not seem romantic, but it was close by. Everything was rationed, but they were miraculously able to find a restaurant serving shrimp, although it may have turned out to be more of a curse than a miracle, as Margaret later spent her wedding night with her arms wrapped around a cold toilet rather than her warm groom. The next day, they explored the joys of Boston and found a booth where they could sing into a machine and create their own phonograph record. If he hadn’t known it before, this is where Walter discovered one of his beautiful wife’s tragic flaws: she could not carry a tune. Indeed, although she would sing quite cheerfully and with great gusto, she had a terrible voice. When they turned the record over to make the second side, he said, “Here, let me sing by myself on this side,” and she said, “OK,” and smiled at him adoringly, because she was, after all, seventeen.

In just a few short days, Walter had to return to his military service, and Margaret, now Mrs. Joseph Walter Kelly, went back to high school.

Family 6: Joseph Walter

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   Joseph Patrick, Jr., and Matilda Kelly

The marriage of Joe and Mathilda soon yielded a son. In a compromise to continuing the family tradition without the confusion of having three Joseph Patrick Kellys in the same town, they named him Joseph Walter. Most people called him Walter or Walt, but his father usually called him, “Hey, Kel.”

A year or so later, Mathilda conceived again, but had a tubal pregnancy, which, in the 1920s, led to a complete hysterectomy. From that moment, Mathilda considered that her days were numbered, and she treated herself as if she were a delicate piece of porcelain. Whenever she had any small ailment, she would whimper, “Well, I’ve had surgery, so it’s always dangerous,” pressing her hand to her abdomen. At four foot eleven, she worked as a model for Mature Women’s Fashions for Shepard department store in Providence, and carried on living a confident and determined life well into her eighties.

Walter became an athletic young man after he outgrew a touch of asthma that perhaps had something to do with living with two smokers. Riding in the back seat of a foggy car, he was not allowed to roll down the windows for fear of a draft. Miraculously, in his teens, he lifted weights and became an enthusiastic hockey player in the days before sports teams got all concerned about protective gear. He was the goalie for La Salle Academy, a Catholic boys’ high school in Providence, and he had the scars to prove it. His Francophone nose, already a prominent feature, caught a puck at least once, and the filling in his chipped front tooth fell out periodically for the rest of his life.

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Walter on the drums

An even greater passion than hockey was drumming in La Salle’s “big band” with George Masso, who later played with the famous Jimmy Dorsey Band. They also played at all of the dance halls in the area, and Walter was headed toward a big career in music.

Near the end of high school, Walter was hanging out with all of the cool kids at the soda shop in Esmond. He was quite a sharp dresser, and Margaret swooned when she saw that he smoked a pipe. “He was so mature!” He was seventeen and she was fifteen when he asked her out for their first date. Her parents were dubious.

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Dot Plante

Margaret’s cousin, Dot Plant, came to her rescue. “Oh, Aunt Peggy,” she exclaimed, “Let her go out with him. He’s such a great dancer.” As a mother myself now, I cannot imagine why that would be a quality that a mother would appreciate in her daughter’s beau, but I’m so glad that my grandmother did.

Family 5: Joseph Patrick

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My mother helpfully wrote names on this generational photo. From left, Joseph Walter Kelly (my father), Allan William Kelly (my brother), Joseph Patrick Kelly, Jr. (my grandfather), and Joseph Patrick Kelly, Sr. (my great-grandfather). The year is somewhere in the mid-1950s.

Glowing softly from the recesses of my memory is a tableau of my great-grandfather and his son, my great-Uncle Francis, standing in their home. They were Irish immigrants straight out of Central Casting: rugged, worn men in belted trousers and tank undershirts. Joseph Patrick Kelly is the man who gave my family its name, and whenever I see a movie with early twentieth-century Irish toughs, I think, “These are my people.”

Joseph was a quiet man who never cursed or even raised his voice, but when the Red Sox lost a game, he’d throw the radio out the window. His wife had given birth to a daughter and four sons, then died young, but Joseph lived to be 92 and never remarried, choosing to raise the children by himself. Like everyone else, he worked at Esmond Mill, but he had a bit of land and did some farming on the side. He told the story of how he once caught a fly ball off of Tris Speaker at Fenway Park, but you know how the Irish love to spin a tale.

Great-Uncle Francis was the fourth child, and he always liked to stay at home until the day he fell in love and decided to marry. The morning after the wedding, he realized that he didn’t want to live anywhere else, so he moved back in with his father. Perhaps his agoraphobia allowed him to work and farm a bit, but otherwise, he stayed in the house. Fortunately, that seemed to have no impact on his marital bliss, since he and his wife maintained separate households but managed to have three children. My mother told me this story when I was a young teen, and I clearly remember the outrage in her voice. It was deliciously scandalous, to be sure, but I felt proud of them even back then. These two fragile, shattered people pushed through the shame and built a love that was more Antoni Gaudí than Abraham Levitt, while the village looked on and clutched their collective pearls.

Joseph Patrick, Jr., was the second child and the first son. Before he went to school each morning, he cared for the cows and drove the farm truck around delivering the milk. There were no age limits on driving in those days, at least for farm vehicles. He played the tuba and inherited his father’s passion for the Red Sox. By the time he was an older teenager, though, Joe had become an excellent dancer and had a reputation for being what we might call a bit of a player. On Saturday nights, you could always find him at the Esmond Dance Hall. Why would a ladies’ man like Joe take notice of a prim and proper young lady like Mathilda? I’ll bet she could dance.