The sight and deep smell of the pines greeted me at the campsite in Georgia. I drove down from a home visit in Louisville. The air was damp but not hot. I set up my tent and other things and plopped in a chair for the better part of forty-eight hours and read, ate, dozed, swigged some Yuengling and stared above at the canopy and beyond at the lake. In that time I don't think I spoke more than fifty words aloud, but words were swirling around me and memories, stories and friendships. I was alone but I was not lonely. The campsite was a stopover en route to Milledgeville, Georgia. I was driving down to see Flannery O'Connor.
I called it a pilgrimage. It was a road trip, a wacky idea to satiate a wacky preoccupation with a woman who died fifty years ago. I was off to set foot on her property, poke around the farmhouse and sit on the screened-in porch. I was off to take in the peacocks, smell the country, stand on the front brick steps. I was off to take flowers to her grave, the apex of the pilgrimage, to be near the flat stone marking her physical remains and share a few stories of my own with her.
Getting off the interstate southeast of Atlanta, I was immersed at once into her stories: the farms and woods along the country highway, a woman smacking the hell out of her husband as he veered the old pickup truck ahead of me; it was altogether familiar, that foreign place.
T.S. Eliot was right: "...the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
The closer I got to Milledgeville, the more worried I was that this was a fool's errand. Why come all this way? What's the point? Won't it ruin what you have worked out in your mind about her? Turn back! The anxiety increased until I passed through the intersection of one Friendship Lane. It was almost too hilarious to notice the point of it. I shuddered. Buckle up. "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I continued forward.
I arrived too early. Andalusia didn't open for visitors until ten, so I did a haphazard drive through town. I stopped in her church, a little brick structure made from the remains of an old hotel. It had all the signs of a Catholic place but was understated as if it didn't want to draw too much attention. Most of the votive candles remained unlit. The windows were clear glass, perhaps to calm the wild imaginations of suspicious Protestant passersby. This is where she went to Mass nearly everyday.
I went down the street and ventured into the visitor's center, where the lady running the place was quick to point out that Sherman, in his crazed firestorm through the South, spared the town thanks to the begging and pleading of its inhabitants (he had already torched Atlanta so what was the point, they argued - he agreed but burned down government buildings for good measure). When I told her why I was there, she said she thought the peachicks had just hatched at Andalusia. Perfect timing.
I drove up the humble lane to the farm and caught sight of the house. "There it is!" I said aloud to no one. I parked in the grass behind the place and wandered around. I had my phone out like an idiot, taking pictures right and left as if amnesia was imminent. I didn't want to risk it. A woman emerged from the porch and greeted me. "You must be a pilgrim," she said. I am, how can you tell? "Pilgrims always approach the house differently, with reverence. Take your time. Stay as long as you want. The peafowl are over there." I wasn't ready to go into the house.
Sure enough. Everything looked right. Trees were where I imagined them. The peafowl were the right colors; the peacock with the appropriate level of arrogant indifference. I began to meditate. The smells of wet grass and magnolia wafted. I closed my eyes. A voice pierced through the sky announcing that Gina, your car is ready in automotive. Wal-Mart is just beyond the property line. Ha.
I crossed the threshold and to my left was Flannery's bedroom with desk and typewriter. It was sudden. I thought it would be in the back or upstairs or somewhere that required a procession to get to, a kind of hitherto shalt thou come but no further. My eyes filled. Like so many before, I looked in and imagined her writing then stopping, clapping her hands and laughing hysterically at something she came up with in a character or letter. I looked in and thought of the suffering she endured.
I asked if I could sit on the porch for awhile to think about her. Of course, the lady said. Take your time. Annie Dillard made the point somewhere to spend the day: you can't take it with you. So I did and I rocked in a white chair along a row of empty white chairs.
After awhile it seemed right to leave. I said my goodbyes to the ladies working in the back of the house and drove down the street to Wal-Mart to pick up some flowers. Her grave was easy enough to find in the little cemetery in town. No marker at the entrance with flashing lights directing the visitor. I put the flowers on her grave, said a few words and went back to the car parked under a small shade tree. I stopped. Go back! You came all this way: go back. I went back and sat on a concrete slab at the foot of her stone. I spoke aloud for a bit. I thanked her for her friendship. I told her about working with my seniors on some of her stories and spiritual writings. I told her what about her made me laugh and think and wonder and believe. I told her I love her. I cried, even.
And that was it. I made a left and headed to Macon. Pilgrimage complete.
Sometime stop by here and pay me a visit. I would like to fit your face to your search.
- Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being, 485.