January 30, 2023

The sign on the west side of U.S. 441 on the outskirts of Milledgeville, Ga., is small, inconspicuous, bounded by woods. The driveway turns into a rough, potholed dirt road that winds a few hundred yards into a clearing in front of the house. The Andalusia farm was the home of novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor for the last 13 years of her life. She died in 1964 of lupus. She was 39.

Behind the house are a dozen outbuildings of the property, once the O’Connor dairy, then beef farm. One of them is a pen resembling a chicken coop, the home of two full-grown peacocks, a male and a female, who spread their gorgeous fan-like tails for us. O’Connor owned peacocks, ducks, ostriches, and other birds and cared for them through her years at the farm.

O’Connor’s father died of lupus when she was 16. Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, then moved to the farm with her daughter and managed it in the years the two women lived there. When Flannery died Regina moved into Milledgeville and turned the property over to a family member, who managed it until 2003. It then was donated to a foundation and in 2017 became the Andalusia Institute of Georgia College in Milledgeville.

O’Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, 31 short stories, and hundreds of book reviews, letters, and commentaries. She has become a kind of cult figure, her work branded as “Southern Gothic,” an ambiguous label loosely attached to dozens of writers mostly from the South whose work dwells on the violence, backwardness, or just strangeness associated with small Southern towns. A term often applied to the work of Southern Gothic writers, including O’Connor’s, is “grotesque,” referring to their settings, characters, and themes.   

O’Connor wrote that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”  She writes about bizarre, ignorant, demented, and racist small-town farmers, businessmen, the physically handicapped (like herself), and others who commit or are victims of crime, indifference, and cruelty. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she tells of an ignorant, racially bigoted woman whose son accompanies her on a bus ride and who is himself cruel and unfeeling towards his mother. Other stories describe her characters’ selfish, criminal, racist, or hypocritical behavior. Eventually—always—unfortunate consequences follow.

Some critics have suggested that O’Connor’s use of the n-word in her characters’ dialogue reveals her own racism. But then, she was a Southerner in the mid-twentieth century Deep South. She knew and understood, and wrote about her world.

Yet she finds in the horror and tragedy of her characters and settings an opening to grace. O’Connor wrestled with reconciling her devout Catholic faith with the ugliness of life. She was a scholar, an intellectual, but one who knew farmhands, small-town businessmen and political hacks, and both ignorant and well-educated racists, not only in the South, but in New York and elsewhere. As she struggled with the devastation and pain of her disease, she recognized faith as the path to enduring and overcoming human weakness.

We arrived at the house on a gray, oppressive afternoon. At first we saw one person, a young bespectacled woman in a long overcoat and wool hat, who somehow reminded me of O’Connor. She sat on the wide porch at the front of the house, waiting for the tour. She smiled and introduced herself, she was on a road trip from Minnesota. She had read all of O’Connor’s work.

A half-dozen others showed up for the tour, conducted by a young man employed by Georgia College, O’Connor’s alma mater when it was called Georgia State College for Women. He led us through the austerely furnished rooms, which have been preserved as Regina Cline O’Connor left them, down to the spices in the kitchen spice rack.

The arrangement of furniture in Flannery’s room shows the accommodation of her disease. The single bed is pushed against a desk, a chifforobe is within arm’s length. Here she worked on her writing three or four hours each day in the last years of her life. Two of Flannery’s 1950s-style dresses hang on forms, made for her by Regina, who sewed all her daughter’s clothes. Half of the room is empty, allowing her space to maneuver with her crutches, which lean against the bedframe.

We walked through the study and the great room to the wide front porch that faces a broad lawn and a grove of trees. Down a long slope is a pond, built to water the cows while Regina and Flannery lived there. The dairy and cattle business provided income but not wealth.

Milledgeville is a pretty town of about 17,000. Until 1868 it was the state capital. The college, now part of the University of Georgia system, counts some 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Besides O’Connor, the town claims as its own oldtime funnyman Oliver Hardy and, on the other extreme, is the birthplace of far-right Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. Driving there is a wearying slog on winding local roads past woods, fundamentalist churches, and strip malls. The way out meant a couple of hours more zigzagging through deep-rural central Georgia.

The town, far off the beaten track, brings to life the beauty and moral complexity of O’Connor’s work, her pain, her stunning intellectual vigor, her perception of the role of faith in human existence. She is buried in town, but her life and work still inspires and touches visitors to Andalusia.  


January 23, 2023

Eugene bought gas for the outboard motor, then picked up two dozen live shrimp from a bait place a few blocks from the pier. We met Richard and “Little” Bill, who’s about 6’4” and mid-thirties, yet a veteran fisherman. The four of us, all cousins, latched the boat on its trailer to the pickup and headed for the Intercoastal. Eugene backed the pickup down the ramp to slide the trailer into the water, the boat floated free. We grabbed the lines and jumped aboard.

The Intercoastal Waterway, near Edgewater, Fla., shimmered in the high-noon sun. A few hundred yards north a couple of porpoises rose and dived languidly. Huge pelicans cruised nearby, thrashing their wings, dunking for their lunch. We stowed the rods, tackle, and snacks. Eugene kicked up the outboard and we held on. The bow rose from the water as we roared into the channel. I gasped as the rush of wind blasted my lungs. Bill, the son of my cousin Margaret, handed me a windbreaker.

The Intercoastal Waterway winds through rivers, bays, and canals along the East Coast roughly from Massachusetts to the Florida Keys, then wraps around Florida along the Gulf as far as Texas. You can leave your office job in New York or some other crowded city and climb aboard a sailboat or other craft and tack to the Intercoastal. If you know what you’re doing and have the time and resources, you then can follow your dream of navigating from the congested Mid-Atlantic down through the mangrove inlets of Florida and beyond. Some finish, many don’t. I just talk about it.

Thinking about the waterway began with Albert Gallatin, Treasury Secretary under Jefferson and Madison and his 1808 Report on Roads and Canals. Congress dismissed his ideas for a series of connected waterways down the East Coast, but some were built under the General Survey Act of 1824. States and private companies built new waterway links. Legislation passed in 1882 and 1884 funded toll-free coastal water routes, and in 1924 Congress set up the Inland Waterways Corporation, the start of oversight of the IW as a contiguous route.

Bill (top), Eugene

Eugene has spent years on the water—the ocean, bays, and Intercoastal, pulling in fish—tuna, bluefish, sea bass, whatever’s catchable in saltwater. Bill has caught every game fish that swims from Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades to the St. John’s River and the dozens of Florida bays and creeks that flow into the Intercoastal. Richard and I, really, were along for the ride.

After 30 minutes we slowed and drifted in the shallows. Bill had shown photos of some big redfish he had caught at the spot. Eugene tossed the anchor and we impaled the shrimp and cast, Bill and Eugene whipping their lines out sixty feet, maybe more, their baits plunking quietly. Eugene had clipped the barbs from the hooks to avoid injuring the fish we planned to haul in.

I held my breath and heaved the rod and landed my shrimp a few dozen feet away. We all settled in. Bill and Eugene talked fishing, technical stuff, tackle, water conditions, temperature, state and county policies. I leaned back on the steering console, taking in the pale sun.

The brilliant blue of the sky met the deeper blue of the water at the horizon. A mile or so downstream we could see other small boats, just dots, heaving along slowly. The channel ran past jungles of tangled mangroves, so thick they appeared to be islands. The water beneath the boat was no more than five or six feet deep, we could see the sandy bottom.

The breeze flagged and died away. The water lapped against the hull. The surface, out a mile or more, became still as an inland lake. Apart from our low voices, our little spot in this world was silent. At a distance, the mangrove islands were a thin dark line. We shifted our rods to gauge the quivering of the slender tips for fish interest. We reeled in, inspected the remains of the shrimp and replaced them.

I cast again and leaned forward, fingering the line, and felt a tug. I raised the rod and hauled in a small bluefish, maybe a foot long. The cousins cheered. We got the obligatory photo and released it. Then we settled back into the classic fisherman’s pastime, waiting. The fish seem to wise up after one is caught, as if the guy that got away passed a warning to the others.

It was no big deal, we weren’t fishing for our next meal. Catch-and-release is the policy, and most Florida anglers go along. Eugene has caught tuna 100 miles out in the Atlantic off New England and turned them into homemade sushi. Here, though, it was the ritual, a celebration of the time on the water in the serenity of this semi-tropical place.

The outing mattered for cousins who now rarely see each other. Eugene, Richard, and I were kids together. We marched through a generation of family life, precious and tragic, coping with kids, work, sibling melodrama, now looking at the wear and tear on the body at six or seven decades, meaning doctors, hospitals, and surgeries. Yet here we were, not exactly Hemingway, but setting all that aside for a while to get out on the water in the crisp fresh air, the warm, bright sunshine, to feel the invigorating rush of the twenty-foot outboard crashing forward.

As the sun moved across the sky we polished off our sandwiches and talked more. Bill pulled out a trout fly rod, attached a fly, unspooled a stretch of line, and with a deft stroke whipped it a hundred feet, dropping the fly just outside the mangroves. “Haven’t worked this much around here,” he said. It’s for trout, after all. He’s done that.

He explained the pluses of Powerpro braided SpectraFiber fishing line. I gave him a blank look. “It’s incredibly strong and has no memory, meaning it won’t tangle as it comes off or gets reeled back,” he said. I recalled the hopeless tangles with the monofilament line I had installed on the spinning reels I had given my grandsons. Powerpro it is, I told myself.

“The baitcaster is a better choice than the spinning reel,” he said. He picked up his baitcaster and sent a quick cast fifty feet off the stern. “With the spinner the line comes off sideways, so it’ll tangle more easily.” I nodded at all this. It was wisdom in a domain I had played in as a kid, but now knew next to nothing.

I recalled the photos of Bill’s thirty-pound redfish as we hauled in the anchor. Eugene fired up the outboard and we cruised back to the channel, then chugged slowly back toward the dock. I thought it would be nice if the kids could catch something if we go fishing in the spring. Most likely it will be some local stream or pond, not the Intercoastal. But then, Bill says, here’s where the fish are.

A Wedding

January 16, 2022

We hurtled down I-385 in the 4:00 AM darkness and fog, finding I-26 for 30 miles of construction cones and flashing beacons. In 90 minutes we passed through Columbia’s early rush hour. The eighteen-wheelers roared by. In another hour we curled south past Orangeburg onto I-95.

Our target was 500 miles south, Lake Mary in north-central Florida, for a young cousin’s wedding. A hint of daylight calmed our nerves. We got breakfast at St. George, then slogged into the Low Country wilderness-wetlands north of Savannah. Creeks and tidal rivers flow from the marshes under the interstate: Cowtail Creek, Edisto River, Allen Creek, Ashepoo River, others. The lights of Savannah flared up then disappeared. The stunted forest retreated to the horizon, the highway bounded by miles of marsh and scrub grass.

We had made this trip, or part of it, a couple of times in reverse. Decades ago I drove from Nashville to meetings at the chic hotel on Sea Island in the so-called Golden Isles, where miles of empty marshland became the setting for a pricey imitation-Old World resort. We took our honeymoon trip there, a splurge we’ve never repeated. So it was I-95 to Savannah, I-16 through the empty center of Georgia, I-75 to Chattanooga, I-24 the rest of the way to Nashville.

The Florida welcome center seemed overrun with oldsters like us. Then Florida goes on and on. The sun was high and bright for January, I-95 traffic was heavy but moving through Jacksonville and on toward Daytona. Along this stretch the rest-area signs include a screen showing how many parking spots are available. In two hours we turned onto I-4, which runs northeast-southwest, a stretch where farms started becoming industrial parks and subdivisions decades ago.

Sometimes you have to go. My cousin Eugene is the son of Peggy, one of my mother’s two sisters, now gone. Eugene’s parents, Peggy and Gene, raised their nine kids out on Long Island, New York—“out” because when I was a kid in New Jersey, Long Island was a long way “out.”

When we drove to the Island my dad fought the traffic across the George Washington Bridge into New York, across the Bronx, then through a maze of highways to Queens and the Island. The urban crowding of Queens peters out in Nassau County, then farther east to Suffolk. In the late 1950s it was transforming into Levittown-type subdivisions, which still left lots of farmland. When we visited, the two families, a bunch of brothers and sisters, were loud, adventurous, sometimes a little crazy.

Years went by in a blur. It was Sandy and me in Nashville, then Virginia, Eugene and Jean on the Island, all of us preoccupied with work and children. We missed a few milestones, the graduations and so forth. Eugene and Jean came to my dad’s funeral a few weeks after their wedding. Years later they, with their younger son, Patrick, drove out to a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania for our son Michael’s wedding. Garret, the older boy, was in school.  We dealt with three more parents’ funerals, one in Jersey, two on the Island. Then suddenly all our kids were adults.

Florida, once a Shangri-la for Yankees, was a kind of spiritual destination for Eugene’s siblings. The Island, where Eugene and Jean built their own home practically brick by brick, is more than half of their lives. That house and the attached farm property still is the family anchor. But their boys moved to Florida and built successful careers as engineers. Eugene and Jean got a place on the Atlantic side.

Three years ago in June in the blazing Florida sun Garret drove the four hours down I-95 from his place near Daytona to Fort Lauderdale for his aunt’s memorial service. He was busy with work and didn’t have to come. But he came to be with his dad, who flew down from the Island to spread his sister’s ashes in the bay.

We got the invitation to Garret’s and Shannon’s wedding a month ago. On the road I recalled those years-ago trips, from south Georgia to Tennessee, Virginia to Florida, Florida to South Carolina, over those same interstates and backcountry state roads. Away from Savannah and a few small settlements, nothing had changed in those 40 years. It occurred to me that only the people grow old.

The wedding crowd, at any wedding, tells stories of family life. If you haven’t been around much the faces are not the faces you remember. The kids are teenagers, the teenagers are young adults, now serious about careers and children. The young ones create the life of the party. Then there’s the rest of us, the over-the-hill gang.  

We admired the grace and class of the bride and groom, who thanked their parents and families for their immortal moment. Shannon and Garret moved around the tables, thanking folks for coming, for sitting through the unseasonable wind during the outdoor ceremony, wishing us well on what is their time. We mostly sat back, enjoying the company, the music, the little kids trying out their dance moves.

The next day we tramped around Black Hammock Campsite, an eerie spot next to huge Lake Jesup, said to be infested with thousands of alligators. Signs along the shore warned walkers, but the chilly weather must have spooked the gators. In Lake Mary we saw typical urban Florida: miles of low-rise apartments and condos, golf courses, traffic. Then too, lush floral displays, giant oaks, and waving Spanish moss, all a kind of dress rehearsal, I guessed, for the Disney World complex a few miles south in Orlando.

Some journeys are magical in the travel and in the destination, the miles may summon the richness of the past. We slogged for half a day from the South Carolina Upstate to the Low Country, then along the endless stretch of empty tidal swampland, to that place of dreams.

As I held the wheel I noted the mix of Northern license plates, Yankees buying into, or at least sampling the dream. I felt the heaviness of the long hours. As everyone scattered the next day we hugged Garret and Shannon and all the cousins and said so long.  We’ll do it again sometime, we hope.             


January 9, 2023

It’s always something.

The doctor entered the office and strode over to a whiteboard mounted on the wall. He picked up a green highlighter and scrawled “Keytruda” in bold letters.

“It’s an immunotherapy drug,” he said. “It acts to reinforce your immune system. You’ll get it through an IV, one infusion every three weeks for a year, with a CT every three months.  If it goes well, we could stretch the infusions to every six weeks.” He added, “If it’s not effective, there’s surgery.

‘Ninety percent of patients tolerate it well, ten percent experience some side effects, like nausea, a rash, some other discomfort.”

Edwin Newman, for decades the wise dean of language at NBC News, in Strictly Speaking, his lighthearted book on writing and speaking English, poked fun at those of us befuddled by the surprises of life. “You know, you never know,” he cracked.

You know, you never know. No one not a doctor knows this stuff. Keytruda is the stage name for pembrolizumab. That’s right. We’ve seen the commercials on the evening news, when drug companies try to reach the senior set, the biggest demographic for network evening news. They run ads for treatments for all sorts of health problems. Who actually pays attention? I recall Keytruda only because it’s easier to pronounce than pembrolizumab.

The commercials flog the drug’s effectiveness, showing smiling couples walking hand-in-hand or feasting at backyard picnics. They also warn of side effects more extensive than those the doc mentioned, that could affect the liver, kidneys, skin, hormone glands—separately or together. These include shortness of breath, anemia, decreased appetite, dizziness or fainting, weight gain or weight loss, hair loss, various levels of pain. My favorite, from a Keytruda website, is “your voice gets deeper.”    

Every drug has side effects. The drug companies have to trot them all out to cover themselves. They don’t want lawsuits from people who experience unexpected serious side effects. Most cancer patients want to follow their doctor’s guidance. If he says Keytruda, they’ll go with Keytruda. And ninety percent sounds like pretty good odds.

Side effects aren’t incidental or minor. When you have them, they’re the main event, sometimes more agonizing, more excruciating, than the condition the patient is being treated for. Many cancers are asymptomatic in early stages. No pain. The guy or gal who gets diagnosed and treated early may suffer more from the treatment than from the disease.

I’ve had my side effects. There’s no predicting who’s going to get them and who isn’t. Generally, people in better physical condition do better than those who aren’t. People with certain allergies are more prone to certain side effects. No surprise. Yet people in good shape experience side effects, some with allergies do not. It’s a crapshoot. It’s healthcare.

Two weeks after seeing the doctor we returned to the Cancer Institute. We met with the treatment team, Holly, Crystal, Melissa, Ellen, Katie. Holly signed me up for a study run by the Cancer Center of the University of Rochester and National Cancer Institute. The study needed a 13-page questionnaire completed—right now! Crystal talked about insurance and took my credit card for the co-pay. Melissa delivered the Keytruda briefing—it’s great, you can take it forever, she said with a smile.

She gave me a six-page paper on the drug with two pages on side effects that more or less matched what I knew, divided into “more common” and “less common.” Some of the less-common ones I couldn’t pronounce.

 Nurse Navigator Ellen told us to call with questions about anything—there’s a 24-hour hotline.

Oncology nurse Katie took charge for the infusion. She led me into the treatment space, half the size of an NBA court. Patients sprawled in their La-Z-Boys, getting their immunotherapy or chemo drugs. Some chatted, some slept, others checked their cellphones or sifted through sheafs of hospital paperwork. The nurses were pushing IV racks about, giving instructions, hooking and unhooking folks.

She checked my wristband. “Your labs are back, the pharmacy is mixing your treatment,” she explained. Every patient gets blood work for every infusion. The lab does an analysis then gives the pharmacy the go-ahead. You get freshly made stuff every trip.

We talked a bit, she said she had family in Connecticut. “Litchfield, a cute little place. But my dad got a job with Michelin, so we moved here.” I told her I lived in Hartford for a while and had friends in Vernon. We could have gone on about all that. Everyone likes hometown talk. But she had to hook me up and see to other patients.

The Keytruda flowed easily. No sensation. I fell in with the program, as I had in January three years ago. The big chilly room, the IV racks, the patients, a mix of young and old, the staff hustling around doing their jobs, saving and prolonging our lives. Sandy sat near me, a nurse handed her a blanket. Patients came and went. A nurse wheeled a young boy past in a wheelchair, his mom following. She helped him into his La-Z-Boy. The mom took a chair and watched in silence.

I looked out the big windows at the pretty wooded grounds, then glanced around. The room was filled to capacity. Cancer was having its way in this town. My paperwork listed the sites of the cancer centers in eight cities around the state, all with treatment rooms like this one, all providing cancer therapies to sick people, some desperately ill.

This is the way it is. Things may turn out differently than you expect or hope. I recalled going years ago with our youngest daughter, Kathleen, on a church-group trip to help low-income folks fix up their homes. Her team got lost on their way to their worksite, their tools never arrived. They had to improvise to do the work. “If you have lemons, make lemonade,” she told the team. Good advice, I thought. May as well make lemonade.