Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Musings, 20 December 2014

Good morning,

A pleasant mess surrounds me.  Jessica's hat lies on top of some paperwork on which she worked last evening, next to Friday's Star.  On the buffet, opened boxes of Russell Stover's chocolates sit beside a Christmas candy bowl of Jordan almonds.  My knitting, a project started last year and still underway, flanks my favorite rocker, shoved into a blue re-useable Half-Price Books bag.  A swarm of plastic Disney snow globes spans the length of the mantel, and a pile of wrapped presents surrounds the tree.  The tree itself has been set to always lighted and one strand blinks on, off, on, off, over and over, casting a soft flickering glow on the pale yellow paint of the living room walls.  It's Christmas at the Holmes house.

I awakened this morning thinking of another Christmas, 1990. Memory flowed through me and I lay, half-asleep, thinking about that year.

By Christmas 1990, I was only two months pregnant but already large.    At two months pregnant I looked six-months gone, and the world responded.  Due any day? the old ladies would cackle, leaning forward to pat my belly.  I gave them a smile which could have meant anything.  They'd stand up, put one hand on my arm, and say, your husband must be very proud.  Then, without realizing that I still stood mute, they would tell me Merry Christmas! and stride back into the shopping crowd while I gathered my coat around me and moved off.  I did not care about the mistakes made by these women; not then, at least.  I had my baby growing inside of me and nothing else mattered.  Not their confusion over how long until the baby came nor their supposition of my marital state.  All that mattered to me:  At age 35, I finally had a chance to be a mother.

But the absence of that man beside me prompted me to pack a suitcase and drive north, to Kansas City, to spend the holidays.  The mother of my friend Alan's children, Janine, offered a place on her living room futon and I gladly accepted.  And then, just before Christmas Day itself, one of my siblings called.  Mary, Mary -- why aren't you here?  St. Louis.  Jennings, maybe; where it all began.  I called my father and asked if I would be able to stay with him, knowing the answer he would give, not knowing the one which might echo in my heart.  My mother's house, pregnant, without my mother?  I looked out the window at the grimness of the Missouri winter and shook my head.

I bought a train ticket.

I left my car at the train station and stood, shivering, in the small ante-room of the train terminal.  I pulled my coat closer and wished that I had found a ride.  Train-travel had changed.  No conductor waited to take my bag for me.  I straddled it, wondering how I would get it into the passenger car, hoist it above my seat, settle myself beneath it.  I'd gotten to be a good planner in thirty-five years of having a broken body, but now I had to shelter a little babe inside me and could not easily weather jars, jerks and jostling.

A body-less voice announced boarding time, and I shouldered my purse, anchoring it firmly against my chest. Then I pulled a glove off and grasped the handle of my suitcase, the smallest suitcase I could find, with clothing for a week and the barest collection of toiletries.  I felt a twinge as I raised it and looked down, worried, wondering.

And then I felt the warmth of another human, standing close.  Fear flushed through me but his quiet voice followed the nearness of him:  Can I take that for you, Ma'am? he said, and I turned, grateful, to look at him.  Tall, young, strong, dark-skinned, clothed in military garb.  I nodded and we made our way to the train.  The soldier put my suitcase directly above my seat and settled himself across from me.  He asked, How far are you going, and I told him, St. Louis, well, West County anyway. He pinched his forehead and told me, I'm getting off at Jeff City, but someone will help you.  I gazed at him.  He smiled and I found myself relaxing, convinced, willing to trust.

I fell asleep with my cheek against the cold window, the thin glass my only buffer from the ice and wind of the middle land between two sides of the state.  I didn't wake in Jefferson City nor see the soldier leave.

When my stop came, I rose and stood, helpless, worried, in the aisle.  I suddenly regretted bringing anything but a backpack with a single change of clothing.  But as the people around me also rose, grabbing their own belongings, a man strode down the aisle and reached over my head, I've got it, Miss, he told me.  This time, I neither questioned nor hesitated.

The man stood back to let me walk down the aisle, shielding me from the long line of travelers waiting to exit.  He blocked them with  his body, then moved my suitcase and his own towards the door and called down to a waiting train employee, Help this lady, will you? She's pregnant.  And two hands reached for me, two arms lifted me down, setting me on the pavement.  The man followed with my suitcase and behind him, the long, impatient row of travelers flowed, descending, moving around us.  I felt a stillness settle in my belly, followed by an awareness of the cold.

The man said, Is someone meeting you? and I nodded, my lips unable to move enough to let sound escape.  Then I saw my brother Mark on the other side of a small fence, casting his eyes over the group of twenty or so passengers who had gotten off at this stop so near the train's final destination downtown.  I told the man, There he is now, and the man put one hand on my arm and began moving toward my brother, bearing my suitcase, tendering me to someone else who would keep me safe.

The pregnancy advanced, as pregnancies tend to do.  The reasons for my unusual girth revealed themselves and got my doctor's attention.  By and by, my baby came into this world, enter laughing.  Though he was born in the summer, I always think of Christmas when I think about being pregnant:  Of celebrating my baby brother's Christmas birthday that year, him teasing me about being an unwed mother; going shopping with my brother in Union Station; talking with my father about what kind of cradle I might like him to build.  At that juncture, I did not know the baby's gender; nor that I carried two babies in my body on that Christmas journey, only one of whom would survive.  I only knew that ice had overtaken the world; that I was loved; and that a soldier in Jefferson City had found someone to carry my suitcase, before disembarking to share Christmas with his family.

I had intended to name my child "Elizabeth Lucille Johanna", giving the daughter which I expected three venerable names from my family.  When they told me that I would be giving birth to a boy, I struggled to decide what to call him.  But then I thought about my Christmas journey through howling wind on a cold train, and I decided to name him "Patrick" after my brother who was born on Christmas.  When that boy was two or three, we were out Christmas shopping and a lady with unnaturally curly hair bent down to ask him if he knew whose birthday came on Christmas.  Sure I do, my son chirped.   Uncle Steve's!

Happy Birthday, Stephen Patrick Corley. I hope you're having a white Christmas on the banks of the river where you rest.

And to that soldier who helped me -- wherever he is -- and the man who carried out the soldier's mandate to insure my safe disembarkment from that train, my belated but nonetheless sincere thanks for your assistance.  Though only one of the babies who slept within me made it through that strange pregnancy, your efforts kept me from falling on the pavement, or tumbling over the suitcase, or feeling completely desolate, on the long journey home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Stephen Patrick Corley
HS Graduation Picture, 1978 -- Jennings High School
Our Christmas basket and table cloth make the dining room festive.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
From Your Missouri Mugwump.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Musings, 13 December 2014

Good morning,

Rubble surrounds me on the dining room table:  Jessica's old computer sits beside her new one; a box which came from St. Louis and holds Christmas presents for wrapping lies at the opposite end; two plants expire quietly in their pots flanking either side of Trudy's bowl full of shells, shells given to me by friends Jane and Diana albeit decades apart.  I sit amid the happy mess and eat lemon-flavored yogurt from the carton, drink re-heated coffee, and gaze around with pleasure.  I like my house.  It quintessentially and perfectly reflects my little plebeian soul; the soul of the great-granddaughter of a peddler, the daughter of a dreamer, the mother of a writer.  I could not feel better than I do right this moment.  

I close my eyes for a few brief seconds and realize that this table could be the table in my mother's home; that this  morning in Kansas City could be a morning in Jennings; the whirring furnace could be the one in my parents' basement.  And I close my eyes again, and I am there, not on one of the ragged nights when my father let the noose of alcohol tighten around him; nor on Saturday, when he dragged himself from bed with bleary eyes; but on Sunday, when the world started anew.  

I stand now, gazing into a kitchen fragrant with sizzling bacon and perking coffee.  My mother's back is toward me, She wears an apron and I see she has tied the bow upside down.  My heart twinges at the sight of the lopsided loops.  She pivots, then, and the pale brownness of her face smooths beneath my glance.  Her eyes brighten before her mouth becomes a smile.  Mary, she says.  Hello, how was church?  I feel for a moment as though no morning will ever be as peaceful.

She's holding an egg in one hand, my mother is.   I see the yellow Pyrex bowl on the counter beside the canister of flour.  I'm making Schmarren, my mother comments.  Do you want to mix it?  I cross the kitchen to the cabinet drawer where my mother keeps the kitchen linens.  My mother has not gone to church with us this day; she might have gone to five o'clock mass the night before, or to an earlier service.  She's stayed behind, in any event, to make breakfast.  I hear the two little boys clamoring for the comics in the living room, their sudden laughter quieted by a deep-toned chide.  My father.  I shake my head a little and tie an apron over my dress. 

I am thirteen; the little boys are 9 and 10; I feel tender towards them in ways that I will never understand but accept.  As I take up the wooden spoon, they begin to play with the tinsel on the Christmas tree and my father speaks more sharply to them, cautioning them against breaking the glass balls.  My mother and I exchange a glance which neither of us explain.  For myself, I'm thinking, that's something fathers do, right?  I tell myself the answer lies on her face but I do not ask the question out loud.

My mother speaks the recipe again, as though I haven't been making Schmarren since I could stand on a bench to reach the work space.  I don't need the bench now nor the lesson, but I let her remind me:  four eggs, a cup of flour, a half-cup of milk, a half-cup of sugar.  Four to one to one-half to one-half.  And stir, just lightly:  yes.  I follow her voice and the eggy batter appears in the bowl, and I look to her for approval.  She touches my arm.

A cast iron pan has been heating on the front burner, and now I put two tablespoons of butter in it, turning the electric heat down to medium as the yellow squares melt.  When the bottom of the pan glistens, I slowly pour in the batter and scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  My mother reaches around me, to turn the bacon, and for a moment her scent surrounds me and I am taken into her pores, where her being lives, where the pain she feels and the joy she gives and the life of her gathers.  I do not move.  

Then my mother shifts, and turns back to the counter for the forks which she's laid there.  I move aside, reaching to the shelf above the stove for a bowl of cinnamon sugar.  And as my mother breaks the Schmarren into pieces with the forks, I sprinkle the sweet mixture into the pan.  Soon the pieces of the Austrian pancake have browned, and they shine with drops of butter to which the sugar clings.  My mother turns the heat off and sets down the forks.  She smiles at me.  My heart soars.

Now I am older than my mother ever lived to be.  I am older than she was on that Sunday morning, when she showed me, for the thousandth time, how to properly cook an Austrian pancake.  The Christmas tree twinkles in my living room; and the dog sleeps in her bed.  I have no church at which to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  But this evening I will sit at the Stony Point Church and listen to Elizabeth Carnie sing "I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas", and afterwards, I will sit in the living room of Ellen Carnie's farmhouse.  We will drink wine, and talk about whatever friends may share.  I will sleep in the spare bedroom, surrounded by the muslin curtains, the old dolls, and the scent of a home where love flavors every dish cooked in the warm bright kitchen.  In the morning, perhaps Ellen will let me make a pan of Schmarren, and I will tell her about mornings in Jennings, and she will hold me if I cry.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

I googled "schmarren" and clicked "images", and this appeared.  This closely resembles my mother's Schmarren. The page on which this photo appears is in German, so I don't know if the recipe is the same.  Ours came from a little card in my mother's cookbook, but I also have found it in a book called "Cooking the Austrian Way".

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Musings 06 December 2014

Good morning,

It's Little Christmas, known to Roman Catholics as "the Feast of St. Nicholas".  As a child, I was told that St. Nicholas brought cold coins for girls who could not marry because of being too poor to pay dowries.  We left our shoes out at night (boys and girls alike) and in the morning, gold-wrapped chocolate coins nestled in the heel of the shoe.  We'd bargain with our mother for leave to consume them for breakfast.

I'm tardy with my Musings today because last evening was the Holiday Open House at my office suite.  This successful gathering followed on the heels of my whirlwind trip to Stanford for evaluation by an Infectious Disease doctor there who specializes in the virus which has re-activated in me and now tromps all over various parts of my innards with glee.  The long and short of my medical journey to San Jose:  I qualify for the new drug; they have ordered it for me; and I gifted them with 13 vials of blood.  I'll return in 90 days, give them another 13 vials of blood to see if the little pill has done its job; and continue putting my best foot forward.

But the more intriguing part of my journey happened the day after my eight hours on the Stanford campus, when I embarked on the eastward voyage back to Kansas City.

I had succumbed to one inevitable and acknowledged that I would have been foolish to try to walk the length of the San Jose airport unassisted.  I checked a bag and self-identified as needing assistance.  Immediately, a slender gentleman, no taller than me and barely weighing more than my carry-on bag, appeared with a wheelchair and a smile.  I settled myself into the seat, balanced my bag on one of the footrests (I'm too small to need two), and away we went.

My escort whisked me past two long lines and through security.  I already get body scans due to having metal in my legs, so the biggest benefit to being "wheelchair-assist" lay in being first.  The San Jose airport would give a track star pause to consider if she had consumed enough carbs to traverse its length without flagging, so priority at the various points of access meant a quicker trip. My attendant took me to the proper counter, and I was given a preboarding pass, and then the man wheeled me to the gate, where I settled for a two-hour wait.

Minutes later, I heard the gate attendant tell someone, "All flights to Las Vegas have been canceled, they've been announcing it since six-thirty this morning."  My stomach clenched:  I was routed through Las Vegas to KC.  I released the brakes on the chair and inched myself over to her counter.  I extended my paperwork and asked for assistance; within minutes, the gate attendant had moved me down the concourse to Kristen, a Southwest Airlines customer service agent, and I had been rebooked through LAX on a flight which landed at 4 and a connection which would normally leave at 4:15 but which Kristen assured me had already been downgraded to 'three hours late', allowing me to make the connection with ease.  I had never been glad to hear about a late flight before that instant!

As Kristen handed me the new ticketing, she apologized for the problems and for the fact that I'd be arriving in KC at 12:40 a.m. instead of 9:40 p.m.  "Oh don't worry," I told her.  "The person meeting me won't be upset."  She looked startled, then let a smile creep across her tired face.  "Please tell that person that Kristen from Southwest Airlines says, Thank you."  I told her I would, and in a few minutes, another tiny human had wheeled me to my new gate, Gate 24, and parked me in the Designated Pre-Boarding Area.  I looked around for the Group W bench but alas, nowhere to be found.

A woman trudged over to the seat beside my wheelchair and landed in it with a thud.  I glanced over at her pinched face, noticing deep lines around her eyes, the furrow of her brow, and the downward tilt of her mouth.  I noticed, too, that she carried a Vera Bradley, so I led with that:  Nice handbag.  She looked down at it and said, Thanks, but it's old.  Ah, me.  Not a bright-sider, this one.

I asked her if she lived in San Jose.  I wish I still did, she told me.  I'm living in Los Angeles now, in a condo on the beach. It's miserable.  She shook her head.

I don't know much about Los Angeles, condos, or beaches, but I've seen enough reality shows to know that the combination is much to be desired by Californians.  I asked her, Why do you live there if you don't like it? and she replied, I wanted a fresh start but I hate it.  A friend was supposed to move out there with me and came but left after two weeks. He said he missed San Jose and his girlfriend. Now he's my ex-friend. She shook her head again, and I saw pain and bitterness mar her face.  I'm sixty-seven, she continued.  I'm not supposed to be alone.  I'm going to need help soon and I'm supposed to have help.  This wasn't the way my life was supposed to go.  And I swear, a tear rolled down her face and I thought, Oh my dear, oh my dear:  I totally understand how you feel but we must just forge new paths, my dear.  I bit back that thought and instead asked how she spent her time, in the condo, on the beach, in Los Angeles.

The tightness of her face eased a fraction.  I've taken up painting, she tells me.  I never painted before but I bought supplies and I'm painting.  I like happy paintings best.  I'm going to paint until every inch of the walls of the condo is covered with a canvas that I've painted.  Just then, a woman wearing a Southwest Airlines employee badge and a backpack crossed in front of us.  The woman next to me said, That lady is going to Disneyland with her family but she works for the airlines and she's been answering questions for everybody all morning.  We contemplated this for a while, and then the lady sighed and stood.  I better go to the bathroom, she told me, and trundled off.

A few minutes later, a heavy-set man in work-out clothing settled into the chair which she had vacated.  His face blazed with good humor; he met my eyes and broke into a grin.  Did you see those guys over there, he asked  me.  They play for the Warriors, I'm sure they do!  I didn't know who the Warriors were and said so, and he explained -- basketball.  His face continued to shine as he settled a small duffel under the seat and dropped a page of newsprint and his pre-boarding pass on the chair beside his.  I asked what ailment allowed him to preboard and he said, I got a bum knee, and stretched his feet as though to prove it.  He had sturdy, solid legs and massive calves.  He looked like someone who pounded pavement, or a treadmill, or a football field.  But I let it go.  Some disabilities cannot be seen.

The man said, What you going to LA for? and I briefly shared about the Las Vegas airport, fog, connecting flights.  Oh, sister, that's too bad! he replied, and shook his head.  His head shake evoked the opposite of his words.  On him, the motion said, But here you are!  And that's a good thing! and I felt my mouth twitch with good humor.  A few minutes later, I realized that the free hotel breakfast had not sufficiently caffeinated me and I asked the man to watch my bag while I got coffee.  He said, Sure, sure; can you manage that thing? meaning the wheelchair, and I said, I'm going to walk, watch the chair, too; I don't think I could go anywhere without it.  He beamed.  I walked the short distance to the Peet's Coffee and threw all caution to the wind. I ordered a Carmel machiatto with almond milk just because I'd never had one.

While I stood waiting, another miniature being wheeled a heavy-set, scowling woman to the counter.  The woman in the wheelchair surveyed the cooler and said, Is that all the bottled water they have?  I don't want that bottled water!"  And she hollered across the counter:  You got better bottled water than this?  I don't want this kind!" and everyone within a ten-foot radius cringed.  I put a dollar in the tip jar and moved to take my coffee and hobble back to Gate 24 and the cheerful guy with the bum knee.

He said, Okay, it's my turn, I'm gonna go find a hot dog, will you watch my bag?  Just then, the recorded voice announcing flights reminded us, If any unknown person asks you to carry anything for them, please decline, and the two of us started laughing.  He took out an ID wallet and showed me a license with his name and picture.  We shook hands and declared ourselves known, and then he went off to find a hot dog.  Five minutes later he came back with a fish taco and the information that the basketball players were from the Warriors' D-league team and were going to LA for a game against LA's D-league team.  I asked him how he knew and he said that he had just walked up to one of them and started a conversation.  No strangers to this guy, no siree:  Everybody is a future friend to Vic, the part-time body guard from Los Angeles.  (Part-time body guard, full-time Verizon employee.)

When our flight was called, another short airport employee whisked me over to the door and down the walkway to the plane.  I refrained from commenting on his stature but thought to myself, Maybe being small is in their job description.  The flight attendant asked me if I could walk from the chair to a seat on the plane and I told him yes, the chair was just to get sympathy from other passengers, and we all had a good laugh.  I took a middle seat because I, too, am short and sitting in the middle is not uncomfortable for me.  Soon members of the San Jose Warriors D-League team started filing past me.  People high-fived them, wished them luck and, in the case at least of the part-time body guard, started schmoozing them for tickets.  I'm not sure people realized they were not the Warriors themselves, as they all wore Warriors warm-up jackets. But nobody really cared.  We had a plane full of very tall, good-looking young men and we all gawked shamelessly. They grinned back and settled down with their head phones and iPads.

We landed in Los Angeles on the smoothest wheels I've eer felt.  Vic looked across the aisle from me, raised his eyebrows, and grinned.  We do it better here, he seemed to be telling me.  I wondered if the lady with the condo on the beach might like Vic but I didn't see her in the departing passengers and anyway, Vic deserved someone a little more cheerful.

When all the Warriors had sauntered past me, the flight attendant told me that my ride had arrived.  He reached down and easily lifted my computer bag while I clutched my pocketbook, and moved myself across the plane's threshold to lower myself into yet another wheelchair.  I said, Don't worry, I won't fall, that would mean too much paperwork, and we all chuckled, including the elf behind the chair.  Yes, folks, you guessed it:  I outweighed my assistant by at least ten pounds, and I only weigh 106 (110 fully clothed, with shoes).  I think they breed wheelchair assistants for diminutive size in a mill somewhere in northern California.

But the guy knew his stuff and started down the concourse with a deftness that had  the wind whipping in my face.  I must admit, it felt exhilarating.  Sure, I can walk, as you all know -- but why walk when you can fly?

 As we sailed past the weekend travelers at an astounding speed, my guide told me he had come from Viet Nam six years ago, lived in a rented room in some one's house while he saved money, and that America is the best place to live "in the world".

My new friend parked me by a pillar and scooted himself to the edge of the customer service counter.  I saw a Southwest Airline employee move towards him.  A slender blond head leaned towards a small brown face; and a pre-boarding pass crossed from hand to hand.  Only in America!

With my special ticket now stapled to my original boarding pass, we started off towards Gate 12 which I am here to tell you, is a "far piece" from the customer service counter where we had secured the pre-boarding pass.  By that time, my broken tooth had started to ache.  My assistant (I never got his name, sad to say) asked me if I needed to stop "for the Ladies' room, for food, or for anything else Madam might need" en route.  I thought, instantly, Tylenol, and into a store we went, with the clerk breaking her routine to smile at my attendant and point to the little rack of tiny boxes of medical necessities.  I got a tube of Tylenol, a bottle of water, and off we went, my wallet seven dollars thinner.

At the gate to my KC flight, the little man from Viet Nam almost didn't accept my tip but I insisted.  Perhaps that's his normal routine:  A show of protest, then a grudging acceptance and a heartfelt thanks.  But it seemed genuine.  I watched him speed off while listening to something in an earpiece, and thought, Off to help someone else.  Lucky someone else! 

With two hours until boarding, I gazed around for a diversion.  I could always read but talking to people passes the time more quickly.  The guy in the wheelchair next to mine had a large blue bag in his lap, a John Grisham novel, and an old flip phone.  Is the book good, I asked; and twenty minutes later, knew the whole plot.  I shifted my hips, shook my shoulders, and started looking around for someone that might know where the ladies' room was hiding.

The man in the Southwest Airlines uniform standing next to me asked me if I needed anything.  I admitted my need and he walked over to the gate attendant and whispered.  When he came back, he said, they'll call for someone, and asked me if I was on the next flight.  I shook my head.  "Kansas City," I told him. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I knew that flight had been delayed.  I assured him I did and asked him what he was waiting for, and he told me, I fly airplanes, and I'm piloting the next flight out of this gate.  We shared a few minutes of silence then he spoke again:  It's funny, he said.  Fifteen years ago, a doctor gave me six months to live.  Now I have a nine-year old daughter and fly planes all over the country.  I felt the joy exuding from him.  When the doors opened for the crew to walk down to the aircraft, I told him, Godspeed, and he replied, Every day.  Every day.

The lady who came to wheel me to the restroom couldn't have weighed more than eighty pounds nor stood taller than four-feet-ten.  But she eased me through the evening travelers with a lilting cry of, Coming through!  Excuse me please!  Coming through!  Excuse me please! and parked me at the door of the women's room from which a long line snaked.  But when I stood to walk to the end of the line, the person closest to the entry said, Come on in! and took my elbow.  She guided me through the sea of tired women, with their heavy handbags and their wrinkled jackets, saying to the group at large, This lady needs the accessible stall.  When I exited, she was waiting, and parted the sea of ladies to see me safely back to the waiting airport attendant.  Within minutes, I was parked back in my old space, this time by a man traveling to see his niece get married,  who had five hours to kill before the next flight to Las Vegas, and intended to spend it talking to anyone who sat beside him, because why not?  It beats feeling sorry for myself!  He told me that his sister didn't know his niece had invited him; that his husband had warned him not to go because the mother of the bride would be angry; but he was going anyway.   Because Why Not?  I'm her only Uncle! and I could see the wisdom in that.

I can still walk, and plan to walk every day of my life just as my mother instructed me so many years ago.  If you walk every day of your life, you will walk every day of your life, she would say.  So keep walking.  And  I do:  on my lily white spastic legs, in varying degrees of good humor; sometimes gritting my teeth; sometimes wincing; sometimes just pulling up my big-girl panties, sucking it up, lacing the Doc Martens, and trundling on.  I resist using a cane, a walker, and, God forbid, a wheelchair.  I fight the slow but steady progress of the decline of my ability and intend to live to be one-hundred and three, just as I promised my son when he was five and asked me if I would die before he got old.  And I plan to nag him every day of his life, as I said I would, though I see less and less opportunity to do so as he soars above me in his quest to live a wonderful life.

All of that said:  As I settled into my seat on the flight from LAX to MCI, which would, ultimately, land at 12:45 a.m., I found myself grateful for a day spent in a wheelchair, riding in various corridors, in two airports, in rainy California.  What a wonderful opportunity, after a long year full of personal trials and national tragedies, to meet so many pleasant people with smiles to spare, and moments of generosity to give me.  The lights dimmed in the airplane as we started into the air, and the young man sitting by the window leaned toward me.  Can I help you with that packaging, he said, gesturing to the granola bar that I had taken out to be my supper.  As I handed it to him, I realized that I had been smiling since I left my hotel room at 10:00 a.m.  I was smiling still when we landed in Kansas City, and another person, smaller in stature even than I am, moved towards me with a blue wheelchair.  Welcome to Kansas City, ma'am, he said, and away we went.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Musings, 29 November 2014

Good morning,

I'm in St. Louis.  Though it's been a night to prove that gluten does impact my neurology, nonetheless, I'm feeling fine.  I have much for which to be thankful, starting with a Eureka! moment which I had in January of 2013, in the middle of a winter's night.

I awakened suddenly, sitting ramrod straight in bed, exclaiming, Didn't my brother Stephen have another daughter?  I couldn't wait for sunrise; I called my sister Joyce immediately and demanded that she tell me if she knew.  You woke me at 5:00 a.m. to ask this question, she all but grumbled.  She cleared her foggy brain and then said, in wonder, Yes, yes, I think he did.  Wasn't his girlfriend back then named Sherry?

I pondered for several days.  All I could recall fit into a five-minute recitation.  Steve's girlfriend Sherry had a baby; the baby had something wrong with her; my mother bought the baby some medical supplies; the baby came to our house a few times.  Following that: a void.  My brother Stephen, dead these 17  years, could not easily be consulted.  My mother, gone for 29 years, remained silent.  My brain could not pull any more details from its morass of forgotten family tales.

So I did what any red-blooded twenty-first century American with a quest would do:  I got on Facebook.

I didn't announce to the entire world that I was striving to determine if my deceased baby  brother had a daughter and where she might be, if so.  I exercised just a smudge of discretion.  I found a Facebook page for graduates of my brother's high school and posted there:  If anyone here was friends with my brother Stephen Corley, please message me.  I got a note within a day from Jane Neske-Beckerle, who identified herself as having gone to school with Steve but not having known him very well.  She offered to ask others, privately; people whom she believed had known my brother better than she had.  

Two months later, she messaged again.  She had a name, she knew someone who knew my long-lost niece, and they had talked to my niece's mother's sister and decided that I should give them my contact information and they would give it to my niece.  Amy.  My niece Amy.  Amy Marie Barrale, now married to Harlan Broch and now known as Amy Marie Barrale Broch.  My niece.  My brother's other daughter.

It's a delicate thing, reaching into the past to talk to children of a man who did not raise them.  I had done this previously, with a beautiful girl who had been his daughter and who had been adopted by her stepfather.  The initial foray into that terrain had been nearly disastrous, and seventeen years had been needed to mend the battle scars, assuming that they have ever healed.  I did not want to cause anyone else to suffer just because I had a desire to see a face which bore my brother's stamp.  So I acknowledged the wisdom of the course of action which Jane suggested and tendered my information.

A few weeks later, I had my answer, and timidly reached out to Amy through her Facebook page.

Later that year, my son and I drove to Washington, Missouri where Amy and her husband live, and we four met for the first time.  I would have found her in any crowd.  Though she has her mother's Italian coloring and small stature, the contours of her face are pure Stephen Patrick Corley.

This Thanksgiving, my son Patrick and I are back in St. Louis. We had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat on Thursday mid-day, at the home of the incomparable Puma, Joyce Kramer.  We journeyed slightly west, to St. Peter's, to share a meal that evening with another Joyce, my sister Joyce Corley.  We got up on Friday morning and drove out to Ferguson, to see some of the ruination of the riots  in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision not to charge the officer who shot Michael Brown, who, like my brother, cannot speak for himself.  Part of his story met us in the graffiti on the restaurants and shops of Ferguson, which spoke of love conquering hate.  We drove slightly east, to Jennings, to see my childhood home; and then to my old high school, once teeming with laughing girls and now an immense, lonely edifice with boarded windows.  Afterwards, we sat, with the Puma, eating her scrumptious tuna salad and listening to a teleconference on the emotional whiplash of the events in Ferguson and how the world might start to change, hosted by a trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication.  And then we went west, to Kirkwood, and had dinner with Amy and Harlan.

They make good dinner companions.  They tell funny stories and relate to one another with palpably genuine affection.  They exude warmth, compassion and tenderness.  Amy has Sherry's sassy, saucy smile but she also has the contours of Stephen's face.  She feels like family.  She calls me "Aunt CC" and remembers my siblings' names.  As we talked last evening, I suddenly realized that even more than what I recall of Sherry Barrale and the occasional, poignant flash of Stephen's smile, Amy reminds me of my mother.  My mother.  Her grandmother.

The four of us hugged in the parking lot of the Italian restaurant where we  had dined rather more lavishly then we might have intended.  We agreed that the accidental find of the place had pleased us all.  We vowed to meet there again, perhaps at Christmas.  We talked about a visit that they might take to Chicago where Patrick lives; and the hope that in the spring, they would come to Kansas City.  And then my niece, my brother Stephen's long-lost oldest daughter, got in her husband Harlan's pick-up truck and drove away.  

I'm still smiling.  I am immeasurably thankful for whatever force prompted me to waken, suddenly, from a deep sleep, eighteen months ago, remembering that she existed.  I'm even more grateful for the chain of people who drew her back to me.  Ultimately, I suppose, I am thankful that she welcomed me into her life, and that she holds me and my family no ill will.  For she smiled last evening when she told me that in her jewelry box at home, she has her father's class ring, which her mother gave her five years ago just before she herself died unexpectedly.  And she was still smiling as we parted.  She put her arms around me, in that parking lot, at Thanksgiving time, and I realized that I had come to a restaurant where I could indeed get anything I wanted.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

(with apologies and thanks to Arlo Guthrie)

My niece Amy Marie Broch and myself.

A sign on a boarded building in Ferguson, Missouri, 28 November 2014.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Saturday Musings, 22 November 2014

Good morning --

For it nears morning, this night does, with its quiet almost soothing traffic noises drifting upward toward my hideaway atop this Brookside bungalow.  My constant friend, the ringing in my ears, fills my head and blocks most other sounds.  Tonight its symphony soothes me though at times the crescendos which crash through the corners of my mind deafen, driving me to pause, to look around, to wonder, Are these noises bothering anyone but me?  I don't think they do but I'm never really sure.

The witching hour approaches.  Darkness presses against the window panes.  Amidst the violins which keen inside this dim brain of mine, I hear another echo:  A muffled voice, garbled, as though struggling to reach me from within a heavy shroud, saying, I cannot bear to cause you any more pain. Losing myself in those words, I fall back into the pages of time and I am twelve again.

I lie on a stiff sheet, atop a thin pad which in turn skims the cold surface of a metal table.  The surrounding air carries no speck of warmth.  The gown into which a nurse has slid my small body pools around me though still, for all its excess fabric, I am barely covered.  My legs tremble.  I have been placed on the table and left, alone.  No mother; no nurse; not even a faceless being to stand over me and hold my hand.  I shiver.  I know why I am there.  I complained about the pain in my legs, and suddenly, I found myself in a bed, in a room, with a curtain around me; and now, this.

From somewhere behind me a door opens, then closes with an ominous crash.  Two white-coated figures swiftly move into my field of vision.  Both men, both wearing name tags which I cannot read because the same person who stripped off my nightgown and pulled the drape around me had taken my glasses.  I strain to focus the blur which I know to be their faces.  I can't tell if they are smiling.

One pulls a stool towards my table and perches on it, shifting back and forth.  The other stands to the right, and they murmur to each other.  I long to know what they are saying but I cannot hear them; they speak in whispers, their faces angled away from my gaze.  Finally they turn to me and I see their mouths curve. I think, They are not smiling, just as the one who has remained standing speaks.

We're going to do the procedure now, he intones.  I wonder, Is he talking to me? and barely finish my thought when the other man suddenly raises his arm in a swift motion that I think will turn into a slap but turns out to be a reach, instead:  for a cloth on which some instruments have been placed.

I stare at what he's holding:  A needle, the biggest I've ever seen.  I'm suddenly frightened.

The man on the stool tells me to turn my back towards him.  Something cold brushes against my skin and I jerk.  The man says, "you have to hold still" and I close my eyes.  "This won't hurt," he tells me and then I feel something plunge into the small of my back and I know, I am sure, that I am going to die because there is fire in my back, shooting down my legs.  I start to cry.

The standing man moves around until he can see my face.  No one speaks for a minute.  The inferno in my back begins to lap upwards, toward my shoulder blades.  I feel tears falling on the sheet.  The man behind me says, "this is the first time I've done this" and I heave; I feel the bile rise and the standing man says, "now honey you can't move" and places  both hands on my shoulder and squeezes me.

I close  my eyes.

I give myself to the pain.

It's over in a little while.  The vise that's held me down relaxes and I sag against the examining table.  The one who jabbed me comes around to the front, snapping off the plastic gloves he has worn, tossing them into a waste basket.  I study him; the smooth forehead, the short hair, the lone curl slipping down over his forehead, almost to his eyebrows.  I see that he carries uncertainty in the red rims which surround his hazel eyes.

"For the record."  I finally speak.  They both turn to me, astonishment on their faces.  I hesitate:  perhaps I have died; why else would they look so puzzled to hear my voice.  "For the record," I continue, "it does hurt."  Neither of them respond.  The one who used me as his experiment, his trial run at doing a pediatric spinal tap, lets the dark rise within him.  We stare at each other until a nurse comes to take me back to my room where I sit up to talk to a candy striper a half an hour later and learn what pain really is:  No one told me about spinal tap headaches, no one warned me to lie perfectly flat.  I wonder, as the night attendant brings me morphine, whose job that was.

Now, nearly fifty years later, I listen to the howl of the night wind and close my eyes. I can no longer recall the face of that doctor.  All I can see are his eyes, murky green pools with pinpoint black irises.  I can't remember his voice.  It has faded, lost among the choruses, the rising swell of all the voices telling me something would not hurt, promising that they would not cause me any more  pain.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Note:  For some reason, the Neko Case song "Nearly Midnight in Honolulu" triggered the memory which I recount for you today.  The spinal tap, the first of several I have had, took place in 1968 at Children's Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.  I do not know who the doctor was -- perhaps he was only an intern.  I have often wondered what became of him.  I hope he forgave himself for lying to me.  Or, if not actually lying, then reassuring me from ignorance.  I have forgiven him.

Here is a YouTube link to a beautiful live performance of the Neko Case song:

Neko Case singing, "Nearly Midnight In Honolulu"

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Musings, 15 November 2014

Good morning,

The begonias wave their leggy arms at me, searching for light from the unopened curtains.  My dog snores in her bed, an unwitting reminder that I must dash to the vet's office before the snow accumulates and get her medication.  My bones protest each shift in my chair and I think:  Remind me again why you like winter?  I tell myself, It's the clothes.  I look better in winter clothes.    I laugh out loud, the sound of my brief amusement blending with the dog's gentle rumbling.

I think about Thanksgiving and begin to ruminate over that for which I'm thankful.  I bend against the list of disappointments, straining to shift my focus from that which clamors to the surface: what I lament.  I close my eyes and will myself to draw the gratitude from within me.  And as I wait, memories flow into the vacuum.

It's 1977.  I have come home.  I've failed in Boston:  I've abandoned my place at BC, quit my job, packed my metal rocking chair and boxes of clothes which don't fit and ridden west in my mother's car, my brother Kevin behind the wheel.  I've spent the fall cajoling SLU into giving me my spot back in its non-master's track PhD program in the poli-sci department, and found a job with the Knights of Columbus' not-for-profit development program as a secretary in the three-person office.  I'm living with my parents.  My brother Stephen, 18, lives there as well, and the two of us grouse around the house feeling sorry for our sad selves, me drinking too much Scotch at night and both of us burning our mouths each morning with my father's over-perked coffee.  

Fall wanes.  Winter settles on Jennings, on its old asphalt streets and its cracked concrete sidewalks.  My mother has me help her spread mulch over the garden beds and bundle yard debris which my father ties with strong twine.  I sit on the wide brick porch in an old flannel shirt that one of the older boys left behind, covered with an afghan, working crossword puzzles and complaining.  My mother comes and goes and largely ignores my belly-aching.  She does not indulge me but neither does she challenge me.  I'm letting my hair grow again and losing weight, the weight of nine months in a city with a Mug and Muffin shop at every T-stop.  

November rumbles forward. My brother Frank lights fires in Minnesota as a freshman at Carleton College.  My mother keeps me updated on him, causing envy to unfurl within me and tear my innards with its relentless claws.  I read "The Bell Jar" for the hundredth time and wonder if it's too late to be a writer.  I scribble self-indulgent poetry in a notebook and avoid my mother's amused glances.  

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mother forces me to go to the grocery store with her.  We fill the cart with cans of broth, a large turkey, flour, bags of cranberries, whole sweet potatoes.  I push the buggy along beside my mother as she crouches to retrieve raisins, reaches for whipping cream and butter.  Salted and unsalted.  I idly wonder why we need both.

On Thursday, my mother raps on the bedroom door shortly after dawn.  I've been out late, drinking with my leftover boyfriend from college who should be with his real girlfriend but finds my sullenness perversely attractive and has taken up with me again instead.  So I ignore her first knock and she pushes open the door.  "Mary," she says, softly.  "It's time to get the clover leaf rolls started."  

I can't refuse.

In a short while, hands washed, jeans tugged on, flannel shirt wrapped around me, I'm elbow deep in flour and my mother has put on the John Phillips Sousa marches on KMOX radio.  I hear my father talking to the dog in the living room, and close my eyes.  The sweetness of butter fills my nostrils, mixed with the acrid coffee fragrance, the scent of Pine-sol from the kitchen floor, and the bite of cinnamon from pies cooling on the shelf above the kitchen counter.  

There, in my mother's kitchen, with my arms covered in flour, I begin to weep.  My tears drip from the curve of my cheek and fall into the dough.  My mother reaches over and dabs my face with a paper napkin.  We do not speak.  I knead the mixture which I have created, for the clover rolls that I have eaten every year for as long as I can remember, certainly for the two decades since my crooked teeth came into the small cavern of my toddler mouth.  Paul Harvey tells The Rest of The Story and I shape the dough into its three balls per roll, placing them in the greased wells of the cupcake tins, covering the pans with clean towels and placing them out of the way so I can start to peel potatoes.  My mother says, "Let's have some Reindling," and I stop what I'm doing, sit down at the breakfast room table, and let her bring me a piece of buttered raisin bread on a purple Melmac plate.  She refills my coffee cup and we just sit, eating, drinking, while the dough rises in the kitchen and the radio plays.

The snow has not yet started.  My coffee has grown cold and I'm feeling that the yogurt which I ate two hours ago might not be enough.  I'm regaining my appetite after a month when the sight of food sickened me.  The furnace roars into life and I look out the front window, at the greyness of the sky looming above my barren yard, with its blanket of fallen leaves.  I see, just over the edge of the sill, the purple leaves of my Japanese maple.  I suddenly wonder if there's anything I can do to insure that it survives another winter under ice.  As the silence of the house surrounds me, I notice that it is not yet snowing.  Somehow, the clearness of the air encourages me, and I head to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Saturday Musings, 08 November 2014

Good morning,

In  my ears the radio talks of violence in Mexico and murdered students.  As the reporter's voice floods my head, the ghost of complaints which crowded my soul on waking slip away.  My aches, my pains, my grief, my loss: they feel slight compared with the concept of a mass grave and burning bodies.  I tell myself that life is not a competition, it's an exhibition; but I do not believe that in this moment.  And so I pour my coffee, and let the dog out into the yard, and pour some food into the cat's dish, and sit down at the computer to try and make some sense of what I feel.  Or what I have experienced.

Someone recently told me that I do my best writing when I speak of persons other than myself.  When you write about yourself....he began.  Then he shook his head.  I stood mute and wondered:  When I write about myself the quality of my writing degenerates?  The stories bore you?  The events disturb you?  The joys fill you with envy?  I did not speak the questions nor receive any answers and the moment passed.

I'm thinking this morning not of myself but of a man whom I knew thirty-five years ago, when I worked at a drug store in St. Louis's Central West End.  I can see him when I close my eyes: Over six feet tall; over seventy years old; thin body hung with an old serge suit:  Jacket, vest, pants, tie.  The material had been pressed so many times that its surface shone.  The man's skin defined black and stretched taut across his bones.  He wore a brown Fedora with a tattered feather in its rim.

I worked in the make-up department on one side of the store.  Across from me, beyond the ten or so aisles, the pharmacist handed out prescriptions to the stores' customers including the old man.  Several times a week, the man would push open the front door and turn left, towards Pharmacist Arthur Perry's domain with its platform full of work tables, from which the pharmacy students counted pills and listened to their client's woes.  Art did not own the store.  The other pharmacist, Bernie Kuntz, owned it; but no one in the neighborhood timed their stops to be served by Bernie.  They all wanted Art and the old man was no exception.

He made his slow journey from door to the pharmacy window, his head straight and motionless, his narrow shoulders level and rigid.  From the make-up department I tracked his progress.  He would stand without complaint until everyone else had been served and then reach his hand to receive the bottle of pills.  Because the pharmacy had been elevated, I could see Art bend down to shake the old man's hand in the cheerful way Art had.  I could not hear what the old man said but I could see Art and follow the conversation from experience.  How are you today, sir?  (I'm okay, Mr. Perry.) What can we do for you today, my friend? (Oh, I'm just fine sir, fine; this here bottle is just what I came for.)  All right then, thank you; and please let the ladies know if they can help you.  (I will, Mr. Arthur, yes sir, I surely will.)

Then the old man turned, each time, and inched his way to the front register.  He handed the bottle to the girl at the counter, who held it while he drew a thin worn wallet from his pocket.  He placed the wallet on the counter, unfolded it, and extracted a ten-dollar bill which he handed, with a slightly shaking hand, to the cashier.  When she gave him back his change, he slid the silver into his right front pocket and the paper money back into the wallet, and reach beneath his jacket to return the wallet to his back pocket.  Then he'd extend his hand for the bottle. He did not want a bag.

I would watch him turn to his left and catch my eye.  A lively twinkle rose.  Each time:  I threw my glance far across the store to the place where Arthur Perry still stood, watching.  He would give me a brief, sure nod: each time.  Then Art turned back to his duties, to the measuring, and counting, the pouring, the greeting, the hand-shaking; while the old man made his slow way to me.

He'd ask how I was:  each time.  And I would tell him fine: each time.  Then I, in turn, would inquire after his health, and he would allow as how he'd been getting by well enough, he reckoned:  each time.  Then he would raise his hand just as I lifted my own, and into my hand he would gently place the bottle.  And I would open it for him, taking off the cap.  I'd shake one pill from the bottle and tender it to him to place in his mouth.  I'd hand over a cup of water that I would have already poured for him.  While he drank, I would replace the cap, turning only half-way, so that when he went home, alone; when he rose in the night with an attack of the pain which the pills relieved, he could open the bottle himself.

When the old man had drunk his fill -- enough to swallow without difficulty -- his dry hand reached for the bottle and I gently placed it in his palm.  He'd curl his fingers around the small brown bottle and I would watch, time after time, as he slid it straight up into the right-hand pocket of his worn suit coat.  It would not spill.  Then he'd take one of my small white hands in his two black, arthritic hands and he'd say, each time, each time:  Thank you, my dear.  Thank you.

Then the old man would softly slide his hands off of mine and step back, almost as though he'd gotten one minute too close to me.  Invariably I raised my eyes to look into his but could not help seeing Arthur Perry observing me from across the store.  We nodded as one.  I would pull from my belly a weak acknowledgment and then the old man would gaze at me for a few more minutes, letting his cloudy brown eyes absorb whatever timid emotion crept across my face.  As Arthur watched the back of the old man's head from the pharmacy, the old man would turn, raise one hand in a brief salute, and slowly walk to the door through which he had come; through which he would go; and through which we always believed he would return.

I  left St. Louis in June of 1980.  Sometime between then and the mid-1990s, that drug store succumbed to the unrelenting  march of progress.  The building is gone.  The restaurants in which I ate dinner and scribbled poetry have been closed, and re-opened as other restaurants with more modern themes.  Arthur Perry went to work for Eli Lily doing pharmaceutical research.  I saw him once in the decade during which my mother died, when I had come home for her funeral and my brother Stephen and I went to the Central West End for dinner.  Art sat at a table of elegant people, none of whom I knew.  We briefly spoke and I saw that while his eyes still pierced, he did not recall the poignancy of the days when we worked at the same place, a place where an old man came in order to be treated with dignity, at the end of a life that none of us understood nor even attempted to know.

Symphony music plays in my ears now; a piece on the radio about a composer from the 1930s.  The bars flow and the violins keen and outside of my house, the sun shines with an intensity that I feel sure it cannot maintain.  Winter draws near.  The drums roll and I think, whatever became of that old man?  And I wonder, for the thousandth time this week, what will become of me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.