southern harmonics

StadiumOur Lady of Perpetual Help, the hospice and urban garden, did not rudely elbow its way to a tight squeeze between Atlanta Braves Stadium (Turner Field) and the Crew Street police precinct. The free cancer home at 760 Pollard Blvd was there first, when the address still went by the name of Washington St., and occupied an undeveloped, open field. Our Lady of Perpetual Help will remain after the Atlanta/Milwaukee/Boston Braves have abandoned another city and become the Cobb Crackers/Smyrna Suburbanites. Classical icons of Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours preceded the founding by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose of the order of Dominican nuns who operate the Atlanta cancer hospice.

By 1960, Boston Irish Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) had been elected president of the United States, and the serious literary reputation of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor (FOC), born in Savannah, raised for a while in Atlanta, then in Milledgeville, was in full bloom with the publication of two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and a volume of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The times they were a changing.

The Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta contacted Flannery O’Connor in 1960 through mutual friends at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Flannery O’Connor lived on a farm she called Andalusia on U.S. Hwy 441 outside Milledgeville.

crutches 013Although Flannery O’Connor was at the height of her rise making miracles of southern literature, she was crippled with lupus, dependent on steel crutches and the care of her snarky, widowed mother Regina, who also ran Andalusia, a working dairy farm, with the help of tenant labor, including refugees from WWII Poland. There were chickens, ducks, peafowl, cows, a donkey, and a barn loft, a challenge to climb with a wooden leg, a dangerous descent hard to explain, without it (Assume here the usual denial concerning any resemblance between fictional characters and real persons living or dead as purely coincidental). Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, barely age 39.

In a letter to her New York editor and publisher Robert Giroux, Flannery O’Connor described the Atlanta home for incurable cancer patients. “The Sister Superior there wrote me about a child with a face cancer whom they had kept for nine years … ” Sister Evangelist “is determined that something must be written about her. Fr. Paul thinks it’s quite comic that they have lit on me to do this. He asked them which of my murder stories gave them the idea I should help them with it.” FOC was already known for her lack of sentimentality. Her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” contains one of her most memorable and often quoted lines: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

FOC answered the Atlanta Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that the child Mary Ann’s life and death in the Home “was not the sort of thing that made fiction and that if it had to be written, the Sisters should write it themselves and it should be a factual account … I told her if they did happen to write it, I’d be glad to go over the manuscript and would supply a little introduction if that would help. I thought that would be the last I’d hear of her. Never underestimate them.”

“The manuscript is not very good, of course,” O’Connor cautioned her editor. “I set about to get the obnoxious pieties out of, and that proved almost impossible. I’m still working on it, and they are expecting me not only to turn it into a decent manuscript but to get them a publisher … ”

Flannery O’Connor wrote the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann. Among other things, it said that when Mary Ann “entered the doors of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, she fell into the hands of women who are shocked at nothing and who love life so much that they spend their own lives making comfortable those who have been pronounced incurable of cancer.”

The Milledgeville author told her New York editor about the introduction, “The Sisters were very pleased, and even Regina liked it which means something as she is usually bored by my productions.” Flannery O’Connor mailed Robert Giroux the address for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home, 760 Washington St , Atlanta, Ga. The location was still called Washington St., and there were no encroachments, when I visited my daddy there.

My daddy likely never heard of Flannery O’Connor, though his spirit haunts characters in her writing, particularly and disturbingly the bigoted grandfather in “The Artificial Nigger.” I do not know how great writers conjure their fiction from my real life experiences. I only know when I read that story, every mis-step on every sidewalk of mid-20th century Atlanta from train station to train station were ones I took with my daddy.

To my knowledge, the significant female relationships of my daddy’s life were a mother, three daughters, two wives, and someone he knew in Japan, where he served in the U.S. occupation forces after President Truman dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My daddy would explain, though nobody ever asked, that a Geisha was not the same as a prostitute. A Geisha was trained in dance, playing a musical instrument that looked like a banjo, and serving cups of tea. I never knew my daddy drank tea in a cup. His Japanese friend gave him a real pearl as a parting gift. My mother refused to accept any form of jewelry that could be made with the pearl.

My daddy’s last wife once baked a special casserole for rare company come to dinner, my only wife and me. My wife, a renowned cook, asked for the recipe, though duplicating the dish from memory would present no difficulty: diced sweet potatoes, Granny Smith apples, raisins, Georgia pecans, sugar, cinnamon. At the table, my daddy’s last wife asked him, “Do you like it?”

He replied, “I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?”

And Flannery O ’Connor thought a good man is hard to find!

There are lots of things fathers cannot do for their sons. Nothing they can provide is more enduring and powerful than their genetics and their own example. Often when I am working, concentrating intensely, perhaps even straining with some physical effort, I suddenly become aware of holding my mouth in just such a way that I recognize immediately from my daddy, who looked like John Wayne. As a lanky young man, he could have passed for the handsome star of “Stagecoach.” In the fullness of his life, he looked like “The Quiet Man”. He grew old at John Wayne’s pace, all the way to the pot-bellied, one-eyed has-been of “True Grit”. In my mind, John Wayne and my daddy might as well have been the same person. My daddy, a Marine Corps veteran, was absolutely the strong, silent type. Still waters run somewhere nobody ever knows.

Although he only graduated from the seventh grade, he took great pride in the fact that he could read and write. He enjoyed working the jumble word puzzle in the newspaper. He loved a good joke. He loved a bad joke. He took me to Atlanta Cracker games at Ponce de Leon Ballpark, across the street from Sears. On hot days and nights, he would say, “They need to turn on the fans.” My love for baseball made me a reader.

SuccourOne Saturday, my sister and I sat at our redneck daddy’s bedside in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home with the Hawthorne Dominican Nuns scurrying in the halls, as he lay dying. His admission application certainly must have been prepared too hastily to mention he was an anti-Papist and past master of the Grant Park Masonic Lodge. Every time I visited, he was motionless and speechless. My sister and I recalled the women’s softball games on summer nights in Piedmont Park long before the days of Title IX requirements of equal opportunity for women’s athletics.

“What was the name of that team that was so good?” my sister tried to remember. “The one with the pitcher that looked like Little Orphan Annie.”

“And the catcher that looked like Yogi Berra,” I added.

After a long silence of neither she nor I being able to think of the answer, from Daddy’s pillow came the last words I ever heard him say: “Dixie Darlings.”

Photographs by the author. Classical icon by Byzantine fresco artists.
William Cotter

William Cotter

I actually remember when THE ATLANTA JOURNAL claimed it "Covers Dixie Like the Dew," because 50 years ago, when I graduated from high school, I landed my first full-time job there as a copy boy. Thanks to city editor Harold E. Davis, I was promoted to city desk clerk, then later became the youngest of his young reporters, when they were still located at 10 Forsyth St., next to the train station (have I preceded your memory yet?). Before I left journalism in the 1970's to try and earn a living, I also had worked for THE DAILY JOURNAL of Elizabeth, N.J., had been a stringer for NEWSWEEK, and had written articles for Atlanta weeklies CREATIVE LOAFING and THE ATLANTA GAZETTE. In 2006, I was hospitalized with meningitis, three weeks in a coma, waking up with 100 percent hearing loss in both ears. I received a cochlear implant, which provides me a miraculous electronic approximation of hearing, although everybody sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks announcing the subway stops at the Atlanta Airport. After I was discharged from the hospital, I began to write a blog to see if anything about my brain still worked and if I could still type. In addition to my own blog COTTER PEN, I have been a contributor to the arts blog SOUTHERN CREATIVITY and helped design and launch other blogs about writers and artists.

  1. What a wonderful account. Your writing style is superb. Will go back and read your other essays. Look forward to seeing your by-line again.

  2. I visited Andalusia earlier this year and the sight of the steel crutches in Flannery’s bedroom sent chills for a moment. I just returnewd from the Key West Literary Seminary which devoted a substantail amount of discussion about her works and all the images of her, my own family (which includes a disabled son) were fresh and troubling. I remember the days in Atlanta you described including Cracker baseball at Ponce de Leon park. Your story broght to the forefrontmuch of what I experienced and a great deal of what I have just learned about my family, my Southern heritage and the besuty of simple acts of kindeness. Keep on writing.

  3. Doug Cumming

    Lovely, full of Dixie darlings you pull together well. There are a few short stories Updike wrote with titles that came from 3 or 4 unrelated things that he could spin into one little story, like you’ve done here, titles like “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, A Trade Car.” Good writers can do that. Reporters are advised not to.
    You made me remember something. I once edited a religion page for the Journal-Constitution and had a photo-essay from the Free Cancer Home run by those nuns (the order started by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, a Catholic convert). I thought the photos were beautiful; like Flannery said, those women were shocked at nothing they got so much out of living. But an editor noted that several of the patients in the pictures “looked dead,” so about half of them were edited out.

    1. William Cotter

      I also once edited the religion page of THE ATLANTA JOURNAL but the cancer hospice did not come to my attention until later. Thank you for your comments.

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