After a week of vacationing at Amelia Island, Fla., my wife Liz and I detoured on our return home into central Georgia. We wanted to visit the farm of one of the great American writers, Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus at 39 in 1964.
As we checked into a motel in Milledgeville, O’Connor’s hometown, Liz asked the desk clerk and the assistant manager, who also was standing at the counter, “How do we get to Andalusia from here?”
Both seemed puzzled.
“Andalusia, Alabama?” the clerk said.
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“The farm Andalusia. It’s here in Milledgeville. It’s open to the public.”
The employees looked at each other. They shook their heads.
“It was Flannery O’Connor’s home,” Liz explained.
Never heard of her, either.
Although Liz and I didn’t know it at that moment, the entrance to Andalusia — the farm, not the Alabama town — was nearly within sight of the motel.
Soon we figured out the location ourselves with help from Liz’s smart phone, but discovered the farm was already closed for the day. We’d go the next day.
We knew O’Connor had once lived in the town proper, too, and she was buried in a city cemetery. So we spent an hour or two after dinner looking for that earlier house and her grave.
We eventually found them. There were no signs. We encountered no historical markers.
We also found the Catholic church where O’Connor attended mass every morning.
Along the way, we asked not just the two motel employees but a dozen local residents if they’d heard of O’Connor or Andalusia. Exactly one had — a Starbucks barista.
Of course, I realize not everyone is a literary geek like us. Few people are.
I didn’t expect that every human in Georgia would be an authority on O’Connor, or that they would have read her classic books, which include “Wise Blood,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
But O’Connor is widely regarded by scholars and critics as among the great writers of 20th Century.
I’d have thought that in a town the size of Milledgeville (population 18,900) everybody would at least have heard of her, given that she lived and worked there most of her life and belonged to a prominent family and died there barely 50 years ago.
I’d have thought there might be a statue on the town square, as there is of William Faulkner in Oxford, Miss.
I don’t report any of this to disparage Milledgeville. I’m sure it’s a fine city populated by wonderful people. No one is required by law or morality to be familiar with famous authors.
That’s not even my point.
My point is, you can be one of the more accomplished people in your field on the planet — a genius, as O’Connor was — and in the end you’ll just die. And more than likely, you’ll be all but forgotten even in your own hometown.
Everything is vanity and striving after wind, the prophet of Ecclesiastes said long ago.
I realize O’Connor isn’t forgotten everywhere. Battalions of college English professors and graduate students worship at her altar. Her farm is now open to the public —although when Liz and I finally got our tour that next day, we were the only visitors there.
Still, I’ll bet that if you were to go into the Walmart that’s alongside the highway leading to Andalusia, and if you were to stand in the busiest checkout line and swing a dead cat, you’d likely not hit a person who has the faintest idea who O’Connor was or has read a single marvelous line she wrote.
That might have been fine with O’Connor. She didn’t write primarily for fame or fortune. A devout Christian, she wrote because she believed God had given her the talent and she wanted to serve God with it.
But as we drove away from our exclusive tour of Andalusia, Liz and I discovered we both were thinking that our visit to Milledgeville had put things in perspective.
For one, we’d seen again that whoever you are, you’ll hardly be chilly in the loam before most memories of you start fading. The living will move on. They inevitably do.
And having had that thought, we’d both had this second thought.
Whatever you do with your life, it had better be — as with O’Connor — because you find personal worth and pleasure in it, not because you think it’s going to make you forever beloved or change humanity.
Liz and I had come to Milledgeville from a week at the beach. There we’d shared a house with my son, his wife and our five grandchildren, who range in ages from 3 to 9.
I won’t speak for Liz here, but I didn’t do a single lick of important work that whole week.
Instead, we watched the kids frolic like puppies in the surf. We caught up with John and Cassie, who we don’t get to see as much as we’d prefer. We ate delicious seafood. We slept as late as we wanted. We walked on the beach.
Yet for us those days proved as rewarding — and as meaningful — as anything in this old world can ever be.
For us, those quiet joys were enough.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.