Sunday, 3 July 2022

Flannery O’Connor and “A Memoir of Mary Ann”

Flannery O'Connor wrote the forward to A Memoir of Mary Ann, the story of a young girl dying of cancer that was written by the Dominican Sisters who cared for her as her disease worsened.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Daniel J. Sundahl

This slim little book is unlisted in most O’Connor bibliographies and when mentioned at all is assumed to be written by her. But the title page explains that it’s by the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta Georgia. In smaller italic type is “Introduction by Flannery O’Connor.” It’s a slim, little book that never went beyond a 1961 First Edition published by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. Its Roman Catholic Nihil Obstat is by the Reverend G. Cassidy and the Imprimatur by the Most Reverend Francis Hyland, Bishop of Atlanta and certified on March 28, 1961; the book is not objectionable as to doctrine or moral grounds.

Interestingly the book’s dedication is to the memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

A word about that is helpful since there’s some argument that Hawthorne’s daughter may some day be canonized. Her name was Rose and she was the third child of Nathaniel and Sophie. She married George Parson Lathrop a bit after Sophie’s death. He apparently was a heavy drinker. She was forty when husband and wife converted to Catholicism, but the marriage faltered. Rose left the marriage in 1895; George was dead three years later.

The story becomes more interesting when Rose, then in her mid-40s, was affected by the death of her friend Emma, a cancer victim. As the story goes, Rose began to nurse cancer victims, especially those in poverty, and eventually established a home in Manhattan, a free home for incurable cancer patients. She became a Dominican nun in 1900, founding also a religious order, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. She’s known as Mother Mary Alphonsa.

The order is now known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne with a location in Atlanta, Georgia, and is still devoted to caring for incurable cancer patients, its charism and apostolate all for free.

South and then east, the distance between Atlanta and Milledgeville is a bit more than 90 miles, say an hour-and-a-half drive on Highway 278.

The Sisters’ story concerns Mary Ann Long, born in Louisville in 1946. She had an inoperable cancer tumor on her face. The doctors predicted she would likely die in six months. She survived beyond that death sentence date for thirteen years. At issue was the poverty of her family, who made the journey from Mary Ann’s home to Atlanta and the home of those Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. What develops over the years is a simple, gentle, comforting story, the recollections of the Sisters who cared for Mary Ann, who became a young girl with an extraordinarily vibrant spirit, and whose presence in the home brought a remarkable interior beauty to a place beset with so much suffering.

She lived well beyond the time given her parents by the doctors, passing away and off to be with God in 1959, all the while with the incurable cancer that made her face more and more grotesque over time, but still a young girl of tender age.

After her death, the Dominican nuns at the request of Sister Evangelist, the Sister Superior at the home, began to document episodes recalled from the life of Mary Ann Long, an inspirational life lived daily in Christ and who died in Christ with the unsentimental life of acceptance of the mysteries of suffering, which we know was a concern for O’Connor, for whom suffering children were a clue to the overall human condition. She does not over-sentimentalize children but explores the redemptive dimensions of their earthly travails.

So what should she do when the letter from Sister Evangelist arrived in O’Connor’s mailbox out there at the end of the driveway in Milledgeville?

One can imagine O’Connor shaking her head and tsk-tsking on her walk back to the home, paying homage to the peacocks and the mule she gave her mother as a present.

The letter begins, “This is a strange request… but we will try to tell our story as briefly as possible.” Sister Evangelist continues to narrate that Mary Ann was admitted to “our home as a patient” at the age of three and “lived until she was twelve. Of those nine years, much is to be told, since patients, visitors, Sisters, all were influenced in some way by this afflicted child,” who never thought of herself as afflicted. The tumor was present largely on the side of her face such that one eye had been removed and always covered by a large bandage. But the other eye, Sister Evangelist writes, “sparkled, twinkled, danced mischievously,” and after meeting her “one was never conscious of her physical defect but recognized only the beautiful brave spirit and felt the joy of such contact. Now Mary Ann’s story should be written but who to write it?”

Muttering to herself, “Not me.”

But why?

Such stories are written to edify, and what is written to edify usually end by becoming merely amusing. For her part, O’Connor says she never “cared to read about little boys who built altars and play they are priests or about little girls who dress up like nuns.”

“Stories of pious children,” she writers in her introduction, “tend to be false.” But to make a novel of Mary Ann’s life, she writes, “Horrors.”

Sister Evangelist persisted in her letter, inviting O’Connor to the home in Atlanta, a short drive, to spend a few days and “imbibe the atmosphere where the little girl had lived for nine years.”

Miss O’Connor did not wish to imbibe, although she had quickly put aside the photograph of Mary Ann that Sister Evangelist had enclosed with her letter.

She had put the photograph aside, but now she picked it up for a cursory look before returning the letter and photograph to the sisters.

The photograph showed “a little girl in her first Communion dress and veil.” She was sitting on a bench holding something O’Connor could not make out. Her small face was straight and bright on one side. The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, and her mouth crowded sightly out of place. The child looked out at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure. “I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it.”

One might suspect something of an epiphany beginning in O’Connor’s narrative; she might be recalling Lily Hawks’ story of childhood suffering in Wise Blood, cruel stories of rejected and even murdered children, the fate of goodness in a world of evil. Then, too, the misfit murders children in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and in “A View of the Woods” Fortune murders his granddaughter. Neglected ten-year-old Norton is driven to suicide in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Tarter drowns Bishop, that holy idiot in The Violent Bear It Away.

There’s a motif present in those stories which seems to suggest that the suffering of children for O’Connor calls our attention to a moral-spiritual flaw, akin perhaps to the murder of the Holy Innocents which surely owns a redemptive dimension.

O’Connor continues to question herself in the preface. “It is always difficult to get across to people who are not professional writers that a talent to write does not mean a talent to write about anything at all.” More so, she adds, she “did not wish to imbibe Mary Ann’s atmosphere.”

After studying the picture, O’Connor meandered to her bookcase and removed a volume of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. The child’s picture had brought to mind Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark.” She quotes at length the section where Aylmer first mentions his wife’s defect to her.

Her next thought is that Mary Ann’s defect could not have been mistaken like that charm-like mark upon Georgiana’s cheek. Mary Ann’s was plainly grotesque, belonging to fact and not fancy.

Negotiating then began with Sister Evangelist that if anything were to be written about Mary Ann it should be a factual story and that if anyone should write such an actual story it should be the Sisters themselves… O’Connor also thinking that the quickest way to get out of a job is to prescribe it for those who prescribed it for you.

But she left the door open a smidgeon by suggesting that should they take her advice she would be glad to help with the manuscript preparation and do any “small” editing that proved necessary.

It was, she added to herself, a safe generosity, and she had no doubt she would not hear from them again. There’s an interpolation, then, in her preface where she returns to Hawthorne and his story “Our Old Home” in which a fastidious gentleman is going through a Liverpool workhouse but is followed by a “wretched and rheumy child… so awful looking that he could not decide what sex it was.” The issue that develops is when the child puts itself in front of the gentleman in a “mute appeal to be helped.” After a pause, “he picked the child up and held it.” Hawthorne himself commented on this in his Notebooks, especially the struggle in the gentleman’s mind.

“So, I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest, and seriously of the opinion that he dreamed of his final salvation when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father.”

What Hawthorne neglected to say in his Notebooks was that the gentleman was Hawthorne himself: “It was as if God had promised the child this favor on my behalf, and that I must needs fulfill the contact. I held my undesirable burden a little while, and after setting the child down, it still followed me holding two of my fingers and playing with them just as if the child were my own…. I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances.”

O’Connor’s preface becomes a bit more thoughtful when she recalls how Rowe Hawthorne became Mother Alphonsa in religious life. She later wrote that when she read this account by her father, this incident in Liverpool “seemed to contain the greatest words her father ever wrote.” O’Connor adds that what he thought were the hidden desires in his life and that which he feared most would be the ice in the blood. Those hidden desires led Rose to initiate action, which became in time seven free cancer homes around the country.

O’Connor still, however, minimizes the possibility of a book on Mary Ann by suggesting that the Sisters do the book themselves. Sister Evangelist, plucky as always, responded to O’Connor that they would be about it. Connor believed that a few attempts would lead them to think better of such an arduous process as writing a book, more so since it was unlikely any of them had literary talents.

A paragraph ends followed by a white space. And then this sentence: Their manuscript arrived the first of August. She began to read.

It’s unclear who among the Sisters may have compiled the first chapter, and we do not have the unedited version. O’Connor’s edited version, however, begins with the statement that

Mary Ann Long was three and a half years old when the doctor at the Tumor Clinic in Louisville, Kentucky, broke the news to her mother: the child had a malignancy. The removal of her eye, the blood transfusions, the radium, the x-rays, everything that had been done for her during the past three years had been in vain. The tumor on the left side of her face would continue to grow and would cause her death. It might take six months or more, perhaps less—but even though the child required skilled nursing care, she could not longer be kept at the hospital.

The tone and mannerism are characteristic of an O’Connor short story, which suggests a pessimistic outlook on life and humanity but is more likely an introduction to her usual theme: the subdued action of grace, suggesting that O’Connor saw enough in the unedited manuscript to move her editing toward a spiritual dimension.

She writes again in the preface that as she read she became convinced that the imperfections in the Sisters’ writing should become forgotten since what was emerging was the mystery of Mary Ann, a creation like the seventh day to be finished by others—the Sisters and O’Connor being the others. And it was Mary Ann’s face which was unfinished but which was also the material of her death.

And it’s here that O’Connor considers the story within the fine points of Catholic theology: “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ,” which in Mary Ann’s case became not a lesson in endurance but to build upon that endurance. “She was,” O’Connor writes, “an extraordinarily rich little girl.” She had wise blood.

When Mary Ann arrived, Sister Loretta became her nurse and was at once entranced by the child’s smile, which suggested also “deeper poise, an unusual kind balance for so young a child.” The first day wore on, and things settled down. Mary Ann’s mother had to leave that evening; the Sisters felt deeply what the mother must have been suffering. Her mother slipped away while the Sister, to make it easier, carried Mary Ann through the wards.

The Sister who was on duty that night thought Mary Ann would surely cry all night, but she slept quietly and in the morning she trailed around “in her little nightgown keenly watching the routine of the wards. She moved to a bed where a very sick patient lay and climbed up on it. A smile broke over the patient’s face as the child looked at her sympathetically and after a moment stroked her hand. Mary Ann’s mission had begun.”

***

O’Connor notes that Mary Ann’s prognosis when first arriving with the Sisters was six months. But again she lived twelve years, and her day-to-day living was an education for death, but one carried on unobtrusively. Her days were full, what with a dog (Scrappy) party dresses, Sisters, Coca Cola, Dagwood sandwiches, and her many and varied friends: Mr. Slack, Mr. Connoll, Lucius the yard man, patients afflicted and, she writes, “children who were brought to the home to visit her and were perhaps told when they left to think how thankful they should be that God made their faces straight. It is doubtful if any of them were as fortunate Mary Ann.”

The Sisters had written all of this down artlessly and largely devoted the space sent to O’Connor detailing Mary Ann’s “many pious deeds.” In time the prognosis changed, six months having little value and the life that entered the Home with Mary Ann became a new and noisy one. And she had Scrappy to care for, but one fall, Ginny, a three-year-old girl, came to the home and to share Mary Ann’s room. She would never walk but could be propped up in a stroller; Mary Ann would wheel her around and call herher little sister. One night, one of the Sisters was on night duty and heard the two girls talking. Mary Ann asked Ginny, “Do you love me, Ginny?” Cantankerous, she said, “No”. There was silence. Mary asked,” Do you love the sisters? “No,” said ginny. Then she asked,“Do you love the patients?” And again “No.” “Don’t you even love your Mama?” This being too much for Ginny, she conceded, “Yes.”

When Ginny died, the memoir continues, Mary Ann felt the loss keenly but with the consolation that Ginny was in Heaven, but still the place in the room they shared was empty. She began to pray that another sick child would appear to be taken care of. She kept a little picture of Ginny on her dresser. She was always most anxious to be good.

Here’s a child brought up by seventeen nuns who had given O’Connor the right to edit whatever she wished. Such would have given her satisfaction, but she was concerned about how to fill in any gaps created. Then, too, she “felt” the Sisters had been “affected by traditional hagiography and even a little by Parson Weems. Still they had set down what had happened and “there was no way to get around it. The itchy finger of the fiction writer would have to be stayed.”

A visit to the Sisters seemed in order.

During that visit and in good order, one of the Sisters asked why she wrote about such grotesque characters and why the grotesque seemed to be her vocation. They had “inspected some of my writing.” They had her on a hook. But then another guest responded, she writes, in a mantra “that would make it immediately plain to all of them. ‘It’s your vocation, too.’”

Her very interesting response to herself was that “this opened up for me also a new perspective on the grotesque. Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue. But good is another matter.”

She continues: “Few have stared that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The nods to good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing over that will soften their real look. When we look into the face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary’s Ann’s, full of promises but still a grotesque.”

In Chapter Six, Sister Loretta recalls that on September 30th, day dawned bright and clear. She entered into the children’s room to find that Mary’s bed was bloody everywhere. The cancer was hemorrhaging. Mary Ann woke and said to the Sister that she felt something wet but then fell asleep again. Her gray pallor was startling—the havoc that the loss of blood had caused.  She turned her one bright eye to Sister Loretta completely devoid of fear and then began to help as best she could to change the bed. She was too weak to stay awake for long. Her “hold on life seemed very faint.”

Throughout that summer, Sister Loretta writes, Mary Ann’s strength gradually weakened as the tumor became more of a monstrosity.

Monsignor Dowel was summoned, and when Mary Ann awoke he told her she could receive the Sacrament of Divine Unction. She followed carefully every detail and then asked forgiveness of the Lord for whatever wrong she had done.

Sister Superior remembered as Mary Ann’s life was coming full circle that she had always wanted to be a Sister, a Dominican. She asked Mary Ann if she still waited to be Dominican. Mary Ann glowed.

The Sisters agreed that Mary Ann’s last request should honored, and so it began with a procession into the chapel with Mary Ann in the lead, wearing a beautiful white dress she had worn during the May procession. Monsignor Dowel received her into the Third Order of St. Dominic as a Dominican Tertiary. Mary Ann became Sister Loretta Dorothy and received the scapular of the Order of St. Dominic. At the end of the Benediction all voices swelled in singing Mary Ann’s favorite Hymn, Holy God We Praise Thy Name.

Sister Loretta Dorothy went back upstairs to bed one again, holding tightly to her little white Dominican Scapular.

A few weeks later, the Sister on watch herd the tinkle of a little bell given to Mary Ann to summon help. The Sister appeared at Mary Ann’s room and noticed that the hemorrhaging was severe but had finally stopped. Matters appeared to be normal for a few days but the disease was running riot. “A large growth appeared inside Mary Ann’s mouth such that it was grotesquely stretched beyond its full width.” She drew an endless procession of visitors but her gaiety in the face of discomfort was natural. Still eating became a painful and discouraging process.

A telephone call brought the news that Mary Ann had merited the highest of Catholic Girl Scout honors, the Marian Award. It was an award sponsored by the Bishop, who sent a priest to confer the award at Mary Ann’s convent home. A Girl Scout troop was present, and a wheel chair took her to the chapel. She was ablaze to answer the qualifying  questions with a weak voice.

The bleeding became more frequent and severe. The Sisters gathered in Mary Ann’s room to sign the Salve Regina at her bedside. “While the Sisters were singing, the happiness and peace on the little disfigured face was something never to be forgotten.”  Mary Ann was speaking of Heaven as casually as if she were speaking of Louisville. She wished not to die, however, until after Christmas, but the Sisters wondered how she could continue to stand the suffering and the strain.

The Sisters then thought it might be best if Mary Ann’s dog be taken away for awhile but brought back occasionally. They tried, but when the dog would be brought back she would go tearing into Mary Ann’s room. Mary Ann’s expression became more and more serene and more so when a Sister would light the candle on the table beside her bed. She lost consciousness now and again but when awake and seeing the candle would repeat over and over, “Dear Jesus I love you.”

She held on to the thread of her life, although she could no longer eat or drink anything except over cracked ice. Sister Loretta once poured a bit of sherry over the ice, after which Mary Ann asked if she could have a little more sherry with what little grin she could manage with her stiffened lips.

January was slipping by; a faith healer appeared in her room but was sternly rebuked by Mary Ann: “I know Jesus can help me. I know he can do anything. It doesn’t make a bit of difference whether He heals me or not. That’s his business.” The faith healer went away.

Her good eye was now half-closed and there was a film on it.

When she couldn’t sleep she would ask Sister Loretta for her Rosary. About half-past-three in the morning, Sister Loretta was in her watchful position and asked Mary Ann if she wished her Rosary. She said no, but then changed her mind, “Maybe I’d better.” As she slipped her hands through the beads she fell asleep.

Sister Loretta sat beside her watching the regular breathing. Sister relaxed a bit but then started up. Mary Ann’s eye was bright and open wide. She had died quietly in her sleep.

***

Chapter Seven narrates Mary Ann’s funeral mass, which was squeezed into the chapel of the home. The pews were filled with her friends. Bishop Hyland delivered the funeral sermon. One viewpoint, he explained, was that of the world, in which the argument would be that the fatal illness that struck Mary Ann in life deprived her of a great deal of happiness. But, the bishop said, this is the viewpoint of the world and is one-sided The primary purpose of our life on earth is to know, love, and to serve God, and thereby prove our worthiness for eternal happiness with him in Heaven. The world fails to take into account the loving and fatherly Providence of God.

The Bishop ended his sermon with the words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

Mary Ann was buried in her Dominican habit in the Long family plot in Louisville. On her grave is the inscription:

Mary Ann Long

1946 + 1959

Sister M. Loretta Dorothy

O’Connor sensitively concludes her preface to the book, which she edited with extraordinary tenderness, worrying that Mary Ann’s goodness would come across as a cliché, a smoothing-down of the reality. “When we look into the face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann’s, full of promise.”

Those who knew her had stories to tell and knew she loved life, knew that the grasp she had on a hamburger “had once been so strong that she had fallen through the back of chair without dropping it.”

One of the tendencies of our age, O’Connor writes, “is to use the suffering children to discredit God [but] once you have discredited his goodness you are done with him.” Karamazov cannot believe as long as one child is in torment, and Camus cannot accept the divinity of Christ because of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. The result is the multiplication in the modern world of Hawthorne’s Aylmer, the hubristic scientist who seeks to make himself God.

One might think of it as a gain in sensibility which is merely popular pity and our loss of vision. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, the outcome, O’Connor writes, is terror, forced labor camps, and the fumes of the gas chamber. The Church of the Communion of Saints is created out of human perfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.

All of this would have escaped notice, O’Connor writes near her conclusion—which she finished on December 8, 1960—if the Sisters had not been affected by Mary Ann’s life and wished it written down. They let on that they believed they had failed to show her as she was. But O’Connor thought that they had done enough and done it well. She does not mention what she did to illuminate the lines that make up the story.

O’Connor would be 39 years old when she died in August 1964, after suffering from disseminated lupus since her mid-20s. She lived nine years longer than the doctors predicted. And she lived knowing that her illness was attacking her body with a dismantling violence and that her affliction would kill her.

She likely made that walk to the mailbox with her crutches.

I suspect that when Flannery O’Connor began to read the memoir of Mary Ann, a certain urgency emerged: that she believed this story could help articulate the paradox that suffering a disability—in O’Connor’s case, bone trouble and crutches—might enlarge rather than dissipate an ability, especially a literary ability.

After all, if the mind is not confused, well, why not keep pen and paper under one’s pillow?

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