By Doc Lawrence –
MILLEDGEVILLE, GA.- Her home is called Andalusia, a name often associated with Spain and gypsies. Visitors flock to place where Flannery O’Connor, one of the more gifted American authors lived and worked. The grounds are lovely, part of the bucolic landscape in this middle-Georgia town that was once Georgia’s capital. There’s still a peacock out back but no sign of her famous rooster alleged to have been trained to walk backwards. O’Connor’s bedroom reveals some aspects of her disability and suffering: crutches and a wheelchair she required until she reached her final year at age 39.
There was a tall ancient magnolia near the house bearing a single lovely blossom.
Flannery O’Connor’s life and works are enjoying a revival. I literally started my year at the January Key West Literary Festival where a day was devoted to her work. I imagined a picnic with her at Andalusia, near the ancient magnolia tree. The spread included tomato aspic, potato salad, pan-fried chicken, pickled beets, fresh corn muffins, baked cauliflower and coconut cake. All served with two chilled wines, Chablis from Burgundy and a nice rosé from Provence.
Andalusia is no less a shrine of Southern Gothic literature than Faulkner’s Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner once told an interviewer that the South “is all I know.” A gifted writer trapped in a doomed body, O’Connor reminded the world that she was spiritually connected to Georgia’s fertile soil. “Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it’s a good thing to be stuck with,” O’Connor once said. “If my characters speak Southern, it’s because I do.”
Leaving Andalusia launched an inspired journey, beginning with Milledgeville’s old governor’s mansion and the former state capitol of Georgia, striking architectural wonders where the Marquis de Lafayette was honored with a huge barbecue, reportedly the largest food event in the new nation. General Sherman quartered there for a few days on his March to the Sea, taking time to hold a mock repeal of Georgia’s secession resolution adopted on the eve of the Civil War.
Irony abounds in this part of America. Cities named after the Founding Fathers, Revolutionary War heroes, and U.S, Presidents were also fiercely involved in the Civil War, and some paid a huge price for being part of the Confederacy. Madison, described by one magazine as America’s most beautiful small town, lives up to its reputation. The sidewalks of nearby Greensboro inspire walking and window-shopping. It’s home base for Carey Williams, the accomplished raconteur who is editor and publisher of The Herald-Journal, a family-owned weekly newspaper. The door is open and Williams, almost on cue, will share stories about New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle, his friend who lived at nearby Lake Oconee. Also a novelist, Williams was close to the late Lewis Grizzard, the humor columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Laughter and shared stories with Williams might earn a visitor a jigger of mellow peach brandy. Origin unknown.
Eatonton was the childhood home of Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) and Joel Chandler Harris, the author of Uncle Remus stories and the inspiration for Disney’s first hit movie, “Song of the South.” The museum is energized by Georgia Smith’s presentation that includes her leading guests in singing “Zippy-Do-Dah.” A very bright woman, Miss Smith, as she is called, glosses over nothing about slavery and comfortably shares her fascinating African-American heritage.
Blues legend Blind Willie McTell is honored annually at Thomson, Georgia’s “Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival.” Blind Willie sang for years on Atlanta sidewalks for a quarter per song and didn’t live to see his musical legacy immortalized by perhaps the best song recorded by The Allman Borthers, “Statesboro Blues.” Concert headliner Buddy Miller sang “One More River to Cross,” a tribute the late Levon Helm that blended well with fresh air, genuine barbecue and cold beer.
Laurel and Hardy, the great comedy team that inspired actors including Jackie Gleason and Art Carney have a solid Georgia connection. The lovely village of Harlem was the birthplace of Olivier Hardy and the town’s museum is exceptional. The tall water tower features caricatures of the two fabled actors. After a tour of the Augusta Canal and the Augusta museum, I freshened up at the city’s luxurious Partridge Inn. A stay in Augusta, home of The Masters Golf Tournament is an opportunity to dine at The Bee’s Knees, a tapas restaurant where carafes of sangria are omnipresent.
Widely considered as one of finest examples of authentic Southern cooking, The Blue Willow Inn located in Social Circle, Georgia is famous for their fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler. The food is outstanding, confirming that fresh and local are priorities. The Blue Willow Inn cookbook belongs in every kitchen library.
Food and wines are delicious culinary adventures, but not every meal must be fancy. A relaxed early breakfast with friends at Eatonton’s Crooked Pines Farm featuring fresh food served family style with lots of good coffee momentarily trumped memories of gourmet dining. Simplicity and natural beauty are divinely bundled at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers, Georgia, a place dedicated to silence, meditation, study and spiritual purity. And the monks bake heaven-inspired bread.
The magnolia is often a symbol of feminine sweetness and beauty. A “steel magnolia” refers to the delicate yet strong nature of some Southern women who have endured hardships but were able to rise above them. I’ll return to Andalusia next spring and visit that magnolia tree, hoping to see another solitary blossom.