March 19, 2020 Several months ago I made a little talk at the Flannery O’Conner Childhood Home in Savannah Georgia. About 25 people were assembled to hear my talk on a Sunday afternoon of a mild winter day. At aged 77 my one great asset for these people was undoubtedly that I had actually known the great writer. So my presentation was going to be primarily a story or two about her.
I opened my talk by advising my hearers that my Flannery stories would not be just the telling of experiences in which I picked up information about her. Also I warned that I am not a bit an expert on literature or even a very insightful reader of Flannery O’Conner’s fiction. From my view these stories are nevertheless possibly the bearers of worthwhile meaning about dimensions beyond either literary criticism or yarns about a famous eccentric. My stories are about encounters between two people–a very young Kelley Kidd and an older adult. I was a male protestant with fuzzy conceptions of Catholics and the very biased view of Southern white males towards women, especially towards any notion that women can be smarter or more assertive than men. But I was also a seeker after wisdom and insight, a fledgling in the awesome adventure of trying to encounter God. She was Flannery O’Conner, who I suspect is one of the least understood probers of the spiritual struggles within each of us, and she too was consumed by her search for nearness to God. Sometimes those struggles take place in the encounters between people, and so I believe it was when I was given the mission of borrowing Mrs. Flannery O’Conner’s donkey for use in a Methodist Christmas pageant.
We both lived in Milledgeville Georgia, the home for several generations of her Mother’s family and my Father’s. I was a high school student at the local military school which was housed on the grounds of the building that had formerly housed the state legislature for nearly 70 years stretching from the turn of the 18th century until after the Civil War. My home was a block away and across the street from the Catholic church in which Mrs. O’Conner and her widowed Mother attended mass daily. When the capital building was dedicated on a double block lot in 1802 space had also been alloted to the four principle protestant denominations, all of which had subsequently become open only to white congregants. The Catholics were not invited to camp on state property, but the tiny Catholic church had been there for quite a while. The First Methodist church in which I was christened had long ago moved to a location directly facing the principle buildings of the state women’s college, the school where she had attended college more than a decade prior to the late 1950s when this story takes place.
By the time of the story Mrs. O’Conner had become a well known author of a single novel and many short stories. I had read none and shared the opinions I had heard around town. These opinions were unanimously to the effect that the novel was more strange than admirable.
So I was out of school for the Christmas holidays. My stepmother informed me that the christmas pageant at the Methodist Church this year was going to feature a live donkey. And since the only live donkey in the area was at Andalusia, the O’Conner farm, that was the one we would have to borrow. And the strange writer had been emphatic that she would not lend the donkey to an institution like the church. Nor would she entrust the donkey to anyone but me?
My first reaction was Why me? I had been going to the Presbyterian Church on the same grounds as the military school in which I was an eleventh grade student. But my stepmother was clear about the need for me to go with two young adult Methodists to get that donkey. Mrs. Flannery O’Conner had insisted that should would not lend the donkey to the Methodists, but would allow the donkey to be used if I would come and get it and be responsible for it. My stepmother was also a Presbyterian, but being my Father’s wife meant attending and participating in the the Methodist church. She was in no doubt that my duty was to go with the guys with the flat bed truck, get that donkey and take responsibility for seeing to it that the donkey performed and got back to Andalusia afterwards.
Nobody ever gave me any explanation for why Mrs. O’Conner wanted me for the job. My guesses later in life include the following: My English teacher showed her a little essay I wrote on the beauty of the old episcople church or she read another essay I wrote for the military school newspaper or she saw me wandering near the Cline home mooning over a young cousin or hers or she had a fellow feeling for the three year old Kelley who had worn leg braces. Who knows. The fact was that she specifically conditioned the donkey on my coming for the animal and bringing it back. My stepmother said many years later that she was in love with me, an unlikely matter. But I dutifully went motivated as much by curiosity as by duty. The clincher was that I did not want the stepmother mad at me.
On the way to the farm one of the others asked why me. I had to admit I did not know. The best guesses I could come up with had to do with the fact Flannery O’Conner and I had exchanged a few pleasantries a few times as she and her Mother had parked in front of my home on trips to mass. But I really did not know why she would want me to be the custodian of the donkey.
The asker was brawny and in his early 20s, a fraternity man back from college. He volunteered that his Mother was the director of the pageant. He told me about the plan to mount the girl playing Mary on the back of the donkey while as Joseph he led the donkey from the door to the left of the alter around the semicircular alter to the door on the other side. The doll in the virgin’s arms would be wrapped in a long garment his mother believed was similar to the swaddling clothes mentioned in the Bible. From the balcony behind the congregation the director would read about Herod’s threat to all the babies in Bethlehem, Joseph’s warning from the angel and the trip to Egypt. While the Reverend sang a beautiful song–Oh Holy Night I believe–the congregation would be amazed to see a real donkey plodding quietly around the decorated alter. It would be the last and climactic scene of the pageant. I had heard it all before from my stepmother and from the director who had assured her son that Flannery’s Mother vouched for the docility and good behavior of the donkey.
The whole venture seemed silly to me. Aside from the amusement of seeing a live donkey in the church, there was no apparent value to be obtained from such an elaborate effort at theatrics. But there were worse things that could happen. I supposed it would do not harm. Anyway I was rather curious about why the writer expected so much of me. No one had ever entrusted me with an animal, although I doubted that such an entrusting happened very often.
My companion parked the truck twenty feet from the door to a small barn that sat to the rear of the house at he end of the driveway. Mrs. O”Conner came out by crossing a screen porch. She was a slender, rather tall and not especially attractive woman in her 30s. She wore glasses similar to mine with rims that were encased in a little plastic jacket on top. Her clothes were feminine but not memoraly attractive. I met her polite smile with one of my own. The most striking aspect of the writer was her direct manner. She talked and acted with the manner of a man who knew me personally, and who wanted to trust that my judgement would be as good as hers.
THIS STORY WILL CONTINUE SOON