The Road to Andalusia: Book Tour with Mom

Taking my mother along on the Georgia leg of a book tour in October 2010 was both risky and inevitable. For one thing, my newly published novel was dedicated to her, and for another, I had a reading scheduled in Milledgeville, where Mom and her sisters went to high school. On top of that, Milledgeville is only fourteen miles from Haddock, Georgia, where Mom’s older sister still lives. Aunt Sissie had turned ninety-one in June.

One week shy of her eighty-fifth birthday, she was smaller than she used to be… but she had a certain presence, my mother, the result, I think, of her steadfast refusal to be impressed.

Traveling with my mother was never easy. She wouldn’t fly, and she preferred to do her highway driving from the passenger’s seat. When I was a kid and every family vacation was a trip to Georgia to visit my mother’s relatives, Mom used to close her eyes and pray us through the Great Smoky Mountains, alternating murmurs of “Oh, dear Lord!” with “Watch out, George!” — the latter addressed to my father at the wheel. Year after year, we chugged up Lookout Mountain past billboards and barns and little red birdhouses whose roofs extolled the beauty of Ruby Falls and enjoined us to “See Rock City!” with its view of seven states. (Stop at the top? No chance.) In more recent years, Mom has made her southerly pilgrimages with a daughter — “Watch out, Mary Helen!” — or son-in-law at the wheel. I drove 3,969 miles with my mother one summer on a marathon of visits that took us through middle Georgia, where Mom was born and raised, all the way down to South Florida, where another sister lives, before I took her home to Milwaukee. (My mother moved up north for love in 1945, having met and married my father while he was stationed at Robins Field near Macon.)

The Milledgeville reading was at Andalusia Farm, where Flannery O’Connor spent the most productive years of her short life, chasing after her numerous pea fowl and pecking away at her typewriter every morning, putting out one O. Henry Prize-winning story after another until they all added up to a National Book Award in 1970, six years after she died.

Barn at Andalusia Farms

The road to Andalusia Farm plunges into the woods off U.S. Highway 441, across from a Best Western that used to be a Holiday Inn. Back in the ’70s, peacocks risked their long and colorful necks to scoot across the highway and strut around the motel swimming pool. Once, on a family visit in 1980, long before Andalusia became a site on the Southern Literary Trail, I used the Holiday Inn as a landmark to find the steel gate that barred the way into the farm. I stood on the lower rung of that gate for a long time and peered down the lane as far as I could see, hoping for a glimpse of the farmhouse or a renegade peacock. No such luck. All I saw were haystacks at the edge of a field. The only sounds were leaves rustling in the hot breeze and the traffic behind me on 441, where cars rolled by, as Tom Petty says, like waves crashin’ on the beach.

We got to Milledgeville early on the evening of the reading in October 2010 — my mother, her sister, my husband, and me. The gate was open, the lane marked by a sign that welcomed us on behalf of the Andalusia Foundation. We passed pine trees and a pond and the white frame house with its red metal roof — Plantation Plain style, circa 1850, according to the website — and parked on the grass. While my husband escorted Aunt Sissie to the screened front porch full of rocking chairs, Mom and I strolled past the farm buildings behind the house. We saw the red brick dairy shed, the hired family’s house (yet to be restored, the front porch crisscrossed with yellow tape and warning signs), and the magnificently weathered barn, its roof sloping left and right at two dramatic angles from an off-center ridgepole. We stopped at a coop made of chicken wire and two-by-fours to say hello to a young peacock named Manley Pointer — after the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s most famous story — and his lady friends, Mary Grace and Hulga.

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