Mothers & Daughters

Flannery O’Connor believed that southern women of a particular generation enjoy using good clichés when the moment is right.[1] Of the brilliant author’s relationship with her very traditional mother, a fitting cliché could be, “opposites attract” or maybe, “family over everything.” No matter the situation and despite their multitudes of differences the O’Connor women would go through their lives as somewhat of “a package deal.”

Andalusia Collection 2019.1.73

Flannery, the only child born to Edward and Regina O’Connor who were themselves each one of several siblings, was completely adored and doted upon. In Brad Gooch’s Flannery,  he says, “Regina’s devotion to her daughter often took the form of trying, unsuccessfully, to mold her into the perfect Southern-style little girl.”[2] While Edward was the easy-going parent who encouraged Flannery’s creativity, Regina could be overbearing and particular. When Flannery was a young child in Savannah, Regina held her hand as she walked her to school each morning and determined who were the appropriate children for young Flannery to befriend. Regina, often pushed to tears after punishing the young girl for refusing to don the appropriate stockings, could not bear for her to be out inappropriately.[3] Social standing and first impressions were of the utmost importance.

When the family moved to Milledgeville, Regina went to the high school paper advisor and requested Flannery become part of the staff. Regina cared deeply about Flannery and, while she did not always connect with her creativity, knew she needed an outlet. And so young quiet Mary Flannery found a spot to flourish, creating linocut cartoons because she did not yet consider herself a writer.[4] After Edward died in 1941, it was hard for both women, but they – and their significant differences-would carry on together. Regina “was a genteel Southern lady, full of graciousness,” while Flannery maintained a constant “face fixed in a look of utter boredom.”[5]

Andalusia Collection 2018.1.114

A decade later, when the two grown women found themselves again living together at Andalusia for the sake of Flannery’s health, Regina once again took on the role of an overbearing mother. Flannery’s Lupus diagnosis came with many fears for Regina after losing her husband so suddenly to the same disease. At the start, Regina hid her adult daughter’s diagnosis, managing the doctors and treatments, for fear Flannery may not have the strength to regain her health. For the next 13 years, Regina took on running both the farm and as primary care-taker for Flannery, handling each with ease, as she came from “a family of powerful women, all givers-of-orders, not takers.”[6] Regina liked to have control and feared Flannery’s desire to travel, visit friends, and live an everyday life would push her to exhaustion.

Throughout her illness, Flannery continued to write. Regina was not what Flannery would describe as literary,[7] though she did rely upon her to read and offer an opinion on her work. After their noon-time meals, the O’Connor women would lie down to rest. On one such occasion, Regina requested to read Wise Blood (1952) before publication. While she waited for an explosive reaction, Flannery recounts that after 30 minutes, she only heard soft snoring.

“The other day she [Regina] asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing I do write. Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something a lot, a LOT, of people like? This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”[8] 

Regina may not have engaged in Flannery’s work, but, as a mother, she committed to reading it all. When Flannery gave her the manuscript for The Violent Bear It Away (1960), Regina would read a page or two, then meet with the farm help, read some more, then go out to the barn—taking an entire day to get through one chapter. Flannery then writes, “All the time she is reading, I know she would like to be in the yard digging. I think the reason I am a short-story writer is so my mother can read my work in one sitting.”[9]

The two women valued their time at Andalusia in differing ways. While Regina worked to manage the farm operations, Flannery began drawing out the details. Characters in her stories derived from her extended imagination after witnessing situations on the farm or in town, with Regina herself, often seen in the details of the ever-present overbearing mother-figure. While critics assume this meant the two women had a contentious relationship, it is arguable that most young adults have points of contention with their parent – much more so ones who unexpectedly find themselves once again living at home. Regina relied on Flannery as much as Flannery relied upon her. Though different in every way, they united in the foundations of their relationship.

Andalusia Collection 2018.1.165, ed

Over the course of 13 years, the off-and-on severity of Flannery’s lupus established several hospital stays in which Regina would also attend. In a letter, Flannery states, “She [Regina] claims that when she isn’t around, nothing is done and she finds out nothing and money is wasted. So I suspect she will superintend my future hospital visits and wring the information out of them.”[10] On one of Flannery’s last stays at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Regina would sit by her door throughout the day, only leaving at night to rest nearby at her sister Cleo’s home. Regina would guard the doorway, allowing no one, not even monks who had come to visit from a local monastery.  The doctor’s orders, held to the highest regard, allowed her once again to be the overprotective mother.

When Flannery died on August 3, 1964 at the age of 39, it devastated Regina. Flannery was buried the following day immediately in a plot adjacent to her father. After Flannery’s death, as executor of her will and estate, Regina provided the privileges for posthumous publications such as Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), The Complete Stories  (1971), which would then win the National Book Award, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969), and The Habit of Being (1979). Thirty-one years after Flannery’s passing, in her own will, Regina left a provision for the establishment of an organization to care for and protect Andalusia and all that Flannery accomplished there,[11] a legacy we at Georgia College continue today.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, Good Things Out of Nazareth, ed. Benjamin B. Alexander, (United States: Convergent Books, 2019), 290.

[2] Brad Gooch, Flannery, (New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009), 27.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 72.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6]Good Things Out of Nazareth, 314.

[7] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1988), 33.

[8] Ibid., 326.

[9] Ibid., 340.

[10] Good Things Out of Nazareth, 216.

[11] “A Literary Legacy,” Emory Magazine Online, Autumn 2004, Accessed December 15, 2020,

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