Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Musings, 24 January 2015

Good morning,

A small article on the second page of my morning newspaper announces what the Internet has already told me:  Alabama ban on same-sex marriage fails.  And for some reason, this article sends me back 35 years, more, maybe; to a time when I longed to be desired by a straight-laced young graduate student.

I lived at the time in an apartment building south of St. Louis University.  Grand and old, the U-shaped brick structure flanked a grass expanse rimmed with a sidewalk.  Neighbors regularly crossed from one entrance to another, visiting, socializing, sharing wine and dinner.  My closest friends lived in the middle section, two men who formed a couple back in an era when same-gender couples still seemed novel.  The one with whom I became the closest was named Lloyd; and from this distance, I do not recall the other's name -- not because I did not like him, but because I am old and my brain works rather less well than it used to work.

Those were the early days of the appearance of AIDS in the Midwest.  HIV had already gripped each coast and squeezed, slaughtering its victims without regret.  In St. Louis, homosexuality still carried an embarrassing taint.  Heterosexual men and women alike still twittered about it, still told jokes, still ribbed each other by calling ugly names supposedly casting aspersions on each other's sexuality.  As for myself, in those days I was called names that the  users thought ugly, but I wore like a badge of honor because to me, they meant that my friends had depth, character, and variety.  To some, they meant that I had friends in low places, but I did not care about their opinion.  They meant that some of my friends were gay; and that I enjoyed their company.  Let's leave it at that.

I liked the apartment which I had in those days.  The building had not yet been renovated.  I had a studio, behind the doors of which I made a one-bedroom with judicious use of a wooden screen.  In the cubby which had once held a Murphy bed that could be lowered into the living room, I put a desk and lamp.  I scribbled poetry on the wall; in fact, I once wrote a poem called On the Wall.  I drank too much Scotch and wrote lamenting essays in long hand on loose-leaf paper.  I tucked my writings in folders and binders.  I slipped the folders and binders into a metal lock-box.  I don't know why; I cannot imagine anyone stealing such maudlin passages, nor would the box have withstood a fire.  A decade later, maybe two, the box became immersed in a basement flood and the yellowing paper on which I chronicled my alcoholic grad school years thankfully succumbed.

In that period, I fell in love with a grad student whose name I shall withhold.  From farm country, Conservative, Catholic, the man had deep brown eyes and thin curls.  His studious manner charmed me.  He gifted me with small smiles, chin downwardly tilted, upcast eyes.  My heart invariably melted.  But he looked right through me.  Perhaps, perhaps:  I was not pretty enough.  I've never felt pretty enough.

I held parties in that little apartment.  We put canapes on metal TV trays borrowed from my mother, and cold bottles of Piesporter in an ice-filled dish pan in the sink.  We drank from jelly jars.  We laughed:  Principally, we described our lives and loves  in broad, rowdy tones and goaded each other into personal admissions, confessions of situations in which we daringly placed ourselves and from which we barely escaped.  Had there been no escape, the stories would not have amused.  Only slight bouts of discomfort or embarrassment could make the tales amusing.  We told them on each other and on ourselves.  Gay couples, straight single girls, clumps of misfit men who ogled everyone regardless of gender.  And at the edge of it all:  My grad student stood, invariably looking uncomfortable, probably wishing he could vanish.

One night, we all decamped to the Central West End.  We had come to the end of our wine but not of our money.  Rather than make a beer run, we decided to invade the bars on Euclid.  It was July: Hot, sticky; we wore shorts, low-cut sun-dresses, and sandals.  My grad student wore jeans and a button-down shirt with its cuffs folded to just below his elbows.  We took four cars; my grad student drove me in his car, and I sat close, letting the wind through the open window blow my long hair into his face.

On the sidewalk, under a make-shift tent, we grouped around several tables.  Lloyd and his partner shared a table with my grad student and me.  When we had drinks, Lloyd dragged his friend out to the street to dance to the band at the restaurant next to where we drank.  I eyed my grad student, assessing whether he might be persuaded to step onto the pavement and put his arm around me.  I adjusted the skimpy bodice of my thin dress and took a drink.  He spoke, then, saying, Your friends are a little weird, Corinne.

I tried to play it off with a high giggle.  But  he pressed.  They don't exactly follow tradition.  I threw back the last of my first Scotch and looked around for the waiter.  He continued, suggesting immorality, decadence, undesirability.  I felt something rising in me.  Not nobility but kinship.  The offbeat were my people.  The weird were me.  I slammed my fist on the table, knocking over his beer and scaring both of us.

Look, I snapped.  It comes down to this.  Either you are my friend, and accept my other friends; or you reject my friends in which case, you reject me.

I felt rather than saw that Lloyd had reappeared at my elbow.  The three of us stood still, frozen in that moment.  My grad student, my friend, and I:  waiting.  And the soft reply, I guess I reject you, then.  I rose.  Lloyd's hand went out to me, and pulled me away from the table.  I did not take my eyes off the man from whom I retreated.  Lloyd's partner appeared behind  me, and they turned me toward the street, toward their car, toward our home, and walked me to my apartment.

They enfolded me in a circle of their arms.  We love you,  they murmured.  I let them hold me.  Then I went into my little home, and lay on the mattress that was my bed.  I did not cry.  But neither did I sleep.

Across the country, men and women whose only difference from their neighbors is their attraction to their own gender finally begin to see their loves and their alliances acknowledged.  My grad student, who resurfaced in my life years later, seems to have changed -- to soften.  I don't see him much, but when I do, I see the virtue and not the ugly past; I hear the goodness, and not those almost whispered, ugly words.  I have not ask him if he's had a change of heart. I simply assume that like the courts across our land, he has come to see that love should be enough.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley



Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Musings, 17 January 2015

Good morning,

As I made my coffee this morning not in the coffee maker but in a French press, with water poured from a tea kettle, I thought about the first cup of coffee that I drank for purposes of staying awake.  A long time ago it was; in a turreted building in North St. Louis County, St. Vincent De Paul Psychiatric Hospital. And I am taken back to that time, as I nibble half of a half of a gluten-free bagel with sunflower seed butter here in Kansas City.  I close my eyes and I am seventeen again, and a ward clerk on 3-South.

The head nurse on my floor, Sister Kenneth Anne, stands in front of me in a starched white habit with its small modern collar.  Her smooth face and arched eyebrows regard me as I transcribe orders.  I don't know what she wants; I feel a shudder run through my body.  I cast my glance around to see if I have done something to displease her.  Then she says, in her dry unruffled voice, "Have you had your break?" and I feel my stomach unknot. 

I shake my head.  She gestures toward the half-open Dutch door and tells me that I had better go now, we're expecting several admissions in the afternoon.  I put my pen down on the table and stand, smoothing the stiff polyester of the uniform that I wear as a clerk on the acute ward.  It's ugly,  pale blue but made from indestructible fabric that  hides the female form.  I don't care.  I'm stick-thin and look awful in it.  I haven't yet begun to fill out, something I won't do for several years and then only when a Brown recluse spider bites me, sends me to bed with prednisone for company, and I start to fill out in places that will disturb me. 

But then, in 1972, I look boyish.  My long hair is braided and wrapped around my skull.  I have no hips, no bosom, no curves.  And the uniform, which does not bend, renders me even more flat and unappealing.  

I take myself down the hallway and let myself out the door with a fat key on a laden ring.  I walk the dingy corridor to the old elevator and descend to the floor where the break area is located in a large, high-ceilinged hall.  I slot some coins in a machine, get a diet soda and a packet of peanut butter crackers, and sit at a table far in the back of the huge room.  Clusters of nurses come into the area and sit together with their packed lunches.  They pay me no attention.  I pass the twenty minutes in solitude and then drop the plastic wrapper of my crackers into a trash bin and go to the third floor, letting myself in, walking past the dining room where a few lethargic patients still linger over lunch.

When I get back to the nurse's station, Sister Kenneth Anne stands with Dr. Craig, the head psychiatrist.  Big-boned, ginger-haired, Irish, Dr. Craig flirts unabashedly with everyone: Me, the nuns, the patients.  As I enter the station, he drops his loose frame into the closest swivel chair and pulls a pile of papers towards him.  He scribbles orders, glances at records, shrugs and mutters while Sister Kenneth Anne stands unmoving and I busy myself straightening the supply cabinet, since the doctor is at my station in my chair, writing at my desk with my pen.  A fact that all three of us know but no-one mentions.

When Dr. Craig has finished writing admission orders for one of the new patients he turns his eyes towards me.  I squirm under his gaze.  I feel Sister Kenneth Anne's poie stiffen, as she continues to stand placidly just a few feet from the doctor.  The three of us maintain our positions.    Finally Dr. Craig carelessly tosses my pen on the table and pulls his frame upright, brushes past me in the narrow space, and tosses a glance over his shoulder at the silent nun.  "Good luck with this one," he tells her; and neither of us is quite sure who he means.  Then he exits and we watch  him walk unseeing down the long hallway to the ward's exit.

Sister Kenneth Anne says nothing but she shakes her head, a small motion but plain enough for me to see.  She lifts the orders from the table and hands them to me, bends down and swipes the chair with a tissue before she gestures for me to sit.  I am afraid to smile.

Just then, before I can take my place and start working on the new admission, a cry rises and we rush into form.  Sister Kenneth Anne heads to the door and says, with urgent authority, "Call the code," and I do so, Code red 3 South, over the phone to the operator who echoes it through the entire building.  The crew comes running.

I see the team rush into the dining room and do my part:  I lock down the station, secure the little medicine room, and monitor the phone.  Through the glass I watch the commotion until it subsides.  When everything has calmed, Sister Kenneth Anne comes back to the nursing station, her face passive, the only sign of the struggle in which she's engaged being a slight tremble in her upper lip.  She goes to the back counter, takes two Styrofoam cups down from the shelf above, and dispenses thick black sludge from the twenty-cup pot into each one.  She moves towards me, hands me one of the cups, and says, "Those people are crazy out there.  You better stay alert."

I drink, feeling the burn as the liquid passes down my throat and into my stomach.  We stand, Sister Kenneth Anne and I, behind the locked door, while the patients of 3 South settle back into their comfortable, crazy routine.

My coffee cools on the place mat beside the small table on which I write.  Its fragrance wafts towards me.  I think about how to describe the scent of coffee; I have no words for it.  I wonder whether Sister Kenneth Anne lives in some retirement community somewhere; but realize that she would be in her nineties by now, or maybe older; probably she has died.  I lift the blue ceramic cup from which I drink my coffee most mornings, the one Trudy gave me.  I raise it, heavenward, in a silent salute to the woman who got me started on this most pleasant addiction:  A woman who glared daggers at a lecherous doctor and held the hands of patients intent on doing themselves harm; with equal aplomb.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Musings, 10 January 2015

Good morning,

The wind rises, now low, now loud; and the dog turns her eyes towards me.  She can feel it.  She ran into the yard and then quickly back to the porch, barking and threatening the neighbors' Saturday sleep.  She has curled into a defiant, determined ball:  I will not go out again!  I smile at her.

I'm thinking of a long winter's evening in Winslow, Arkansas, a night spent huddled in a recliner near the wood stove, listening to the wind howling between the old mountains down the corridor of Highway 71.  I had piled my great-grandmother's quilt over my legs and added heavy split logs to the stove.  My clumsy hands had not  mastered the trick of stacking wood in the carrier so I brought them one at a time into the living room.  After eight or nine trips, I reached to turn the back-up baseboard heaters to high.  Outside, the unrelenting wind pounded on the shingles and slammed the mudroom screen door.

I wore three layers of clothing and an extra sweater tucked around the small bulge growing high in my belly.  Four months pregnant, cold, worried; I wondered if a February had ever passed so frigidly in the Boston Mountains.  The phone had rung at ten.  Friends from Fayetteville checking:  Yes, I'm fine.  The wife's voice called to the husband, Shouldn't you go get her? but I declined.  I had bought a house in the country before I knew that I would winter with child growing in me, but here I had staked my claim and here I intended to remain.

I could not sleep.

With a cup of tea on a table at hand, I stared into the flames through the glass door.  I saw no images there; I only saw warmth and possible destruction.  The fire controlled me.  Without it, I could die.  But it could kill me and I knew that.  Its flames could leap out into the room or send deadly smoke to curl around my face and smother me.  I watched it burn until I felt water trickle down my cheeks -- not tears so much as the sting of staring.  I shook my head and struggled from beneath the quilt, to go into the kitchen and make another cup of tea.

I heard a banging then, from the weird, half-finished deck at the back of the house.  I strained to peer through the darkness to see what critter might have taken shelter at the apex formed by the addition, also incomplete, which had drawn me to see potential in the dwelling when my friend Carl had offered to sell it to me.  I sensed a presence but could see nothing in the starless night.

I closed my eyes and pulled an image of the back lot into my mind.  Long, low and sloping, the yard ended at the far side of the flat-bottomed creek.  Dry now, in the height of spring it had sent a flood that reached the house.  But as summer claimed the waters, I could walk barefoot on the flagstone, southwards into the woods, north towards the neighbor's cleared acreage.  Something had come up to the house from the stand of trees flanking the creek, I felt sure.  A deer, perhaps; or something less benign.  I pulled the curtain further back and leaned against the glass sliding door, blinking, trying to sharpen my gaze.

And then a shape loomed, straight against the glass, dark, thick.  I staggered back into the room and dropped the cup which shattered and sent a shower of hot water towards my feet.  We stood still, the creature and I, caught in that moment, me in the chilly kitchen and it in the frigid air of its domain.  I could not see its eyes. I could not discern the contours of its body.  It could have been anything.

As I stood frozen, it lowered its body back to the planking and hovered on the deck.  I could not breathe.  I felt its indecision.  Then it rose, turned, and lumbered over the side.  I lost sight of it as it ambled away into the unbroken darkness.

I did not sleep at all that night.  In the morning, I pulled back the French doors and gazed across my yard, down to the dry creek and the bare trees.  I saw a flicker of white that I thought might be the tail of a deer.  On the deck, my wooden reading chair lay  splintered, crushed beneath the weight of whatever had sought shelter in the shadow of my home.

In an hour or so, a friend will arrive to work with me on some chores that need stronger hands than mine.  The little dog will be banished to the backyard and I will brew another pot of strong coffee.  In Hawaii, my autumn roommate Jessica starts her first Saturday as an Island girl.  Eight hours northeast of me in Evanston, Illinois, the child who grew within me during my strange Arkansas winter will make his own pot of coffee before setting out for his day's adventures.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Saturday Musings, 03 January 2015

Good morning,

The quiet of the room around me ripples only with the voice from the radio and occasional inexplicable electronic noises.  The blips and squeaks of modern life evoke the world of Walter Mitty. I smile; I wonder how many people in my son's generation know anything about Walter Mitty except the failed movie of recent years.

My place in the continuum of time announces itself more loudly in the silence of the house.  Even if I live to be 103 as I threatened once to do, I've passed more than half my days.  Two-thirds or more, likely as not.  Aching muscles and nervous legs remind me that I've pushed myself too far, too far, and have farther to go.  I remember my grandmother saying, "Put your best foot forward," and asking her, "Which foot is my best foot, Nana?"  She smiled, inevitably, and gently replied, "Whichever one is going first."  I would follow her off the curb, watching my feet, wondering which one is going first?  Tall above me, Nana's face carried her radiance all the way across South Sixth Street in Springfield, down the block, back to the office where she and Grandpa had their business.  I marveled as she greeted the other business owners on her street and thought When I'm grown, I want to be like Nana.

Last night, I talked for a while with my ex-husband in Ohio, someone with whom I never dreamed I could find myself remaining friends after the turmoil of our break-up in 2008.  But our connection testifies to a theory of mine:  Love doesn't dissipate.  I have been forced to admit that the thing we call love can change character -- you can be friends one moment and lovers the next; married today and friends tomorrow; good friends today, and less close months from now. So it has gone with Dennis and me.  When I am hurting, he sends messages or calls.  They make me laugh.  He castigates those whom he perceives as wronging  me, in strong, coarse terms that I could never use but which, typed or spoken by him, give me a little secret pleasure.

And all of this leads me to think about some of the times we had together.  Inevitably:  I recall a vacation we took with my son and the youngest boy of the Alongis, neighbors whom we called "the Christians".  The odyssey on which the four of us embarked took us all the way to Asheville, North Carolina; to Fort Knox and the George S. Patton Tank Museum; and home again.

On our first morning in Asheville, we loaded Patrick and Phillip in the van and drove up into the wooded mountains.  I brought a book to read; Dennis had packed a rifle and ammunition.  He had decided to teach the boys to shoot.

The lushness of the trees nestled around us as we parked in a small clearing beside the rural route.  A nervousness crept over me.  I'm a city girl; the concept of just pulling over to the side of the road and firing a weapon seems odd to me.  In the city, guns get stuck in people's backs, wallets stolen, rings jerked off trembling fingers.  In the country, guns are carried easily by one's side as people move to and from their vehicles, and ride in racks at the back of people's truck cabs.  I have a city-dweller's guarded respect for guns.

But I voiced no objection to the boys learning.  I settled myself in the back seat, coffee at hand, granola bars at hand, as the three of them maneuvered themselves into a shooting format.  Dennis decided that they should shoot from the clearing to the other side of the road.  I steeled myself not to interfere but questions rose in my mind:  What if there is someone down below, at a house we cannot see? What if someone calls the sheriff? I bit the questions back and watched their progress, one eye on my book, the other on the two boys, who at ages 11 and 12 projected starkly different attitudes. Phillip looked the more eager of the two. Patrick, who had gone shooting with Dennis at the range,  looked determined --- or, possibly, resigned.

By the time the three had attained the grouping and set-up that Dennis thought most functional, I had dropped all pretense of reading.  I found my nervousness gathering, tight in my stomach.  I chugged the rest of my coffee and ate both granola bars, feeling my jitteriness instantly accelerate,  My nerves jangled.  On coffee and carb overload, I sat straight in the back seat and stared through the open door daring the scenario to degrade into disaster.

Phillip begged to go first and Patrick conceded.  I saw the struggle on his face.  It was his rifle.  Dennis had given it to him for Christmas and while he might not have wanted it, nonetheless it was his rifle.   But he acquiesced and Phillip took a stance, with Dennis in his wheelchair along side.  The first shot rang out and my stomach clenched.

The boys rotated and fired, one after another.  The brown of a tree's bark across the way began to shatter as the occasional shot found its mark.  A flutter of wildlife rose in the brush; birds squawked,  rodents skittered.  I studied the faces of the three males.  Dennis's features seemed stamped by a kind of euphoria.  Phillip's smile had grown as his shot got more sure. His eyes shone; his face, smooth, open, broad, turned toward Dennis after each round.  Patrick's brow had become furrowed, his eyes narrow, his mouth set in a straight line.  Stance, fire, stare.  Both boys got better as they practiced.  I began to feel ill.

I got out of the van.  I stood a few feet from the line from which the boys were shooting and leaned against the van door, my eyes closed.  I remembered something from Patrick's toddler days.  I had not gotten a toy gun for him.  He had no father; no cable TV; no male influence except my law clerk, a gentle man who wouldn't have had a gun in his house for anything.  But one day I heard noises from the other room, Pow, pow, pow, and came around the corner to see my eighteen-month old son holding two forks, the tines of which he had jammed together to former a weapon.  One fork clutched in his little hand, he aimed the protruding fork at the furniture.  Pow, pow!

I took a few steps toward my husband and said, I'm hungry, I need protein, can we go back to town?  He pivoted and cast a glare toward me and I fell back against the side of the van.  No, he snapped.  We're not done.  The boys stood still.  The four of us froze.  But then the moment passed.  They spent another twenty minutes, maybe fifteen, taking aim at the poor tree and then Dennis relented though not without complaint.  They tidied up the forest floor and we climbed into the van.  All the way back to Asheville, Phillip chattered:  How good the rifle felt in his hands, how well he shot.  I said nothing.  In the afternoon, we toured the Biltmore Mansion, and I snuck the boys a taste of wine while Dennis flirted with the ladies at the bar.

Here in the Holmes house, yesterday's newspaper announces that the murder rate in Kansas City fell 23% in 2014.  I don't like guns, I have to admit; and I will never understand the expressions on the faces of those male personages, twelve years ago, in a clearing in the North Carolina mountains.  But I understand the nausea of their mother, their wife, their neighbor, as I stood and watched the perennial ritual of boys learning to shoot.  Nothing but fear.  Cold, stark fear.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Folks:  I make no apology for the tone of my musings today.  They write themselves.  Sometimes they trickle out as what one reader called "warm, fuzzy fluff" and sometimes, other emotions crowd any tendency towards frothy sentiment.  This piece came out nearly whole-cloth.  With only two interruptions in writing -- a message from a friend, to which I responded, "Wait Please Writing"; and a phone call from my doctor with test results and medication adjustments, this poured from me over an hour.  To Dennis, who will, with two or three others, understand; I say:  "Life is complicated; put aside blame; embrace the good in every experience."  And if you are one who finds yourself stuck on the question of "Who the heck is Walter Mitty?", read here.  


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saturday Musings, 27 December 2014

Good morning,

I hear the recycle truck revving its engine outside, on the street which is lined with heaped trash on this last pick-up day of the year when households of the city can pile the trash and paper as high as they like without penalty.  Inside my home, I'm the only sentient being awake.  Even the dog sleeps; and it's near eight. The cat has come and gone, gobbling his dish of food without complaint before slinking back under the deck where he prefers to live.  I sit at the end of a table littered with the debris of merry-making:  A pewter bowl of fresh fruit, wadded cloth napkins, a coffee cup wrapped in cellophane filled with Christmas candy and packets of good tea, a Santa bag of home-made goodies, and a smattering overall of cheesecake crumbs.

On the buffet, a plate of chocolate-dipped pretzels which Jessica made sits beside a Snowman bowl of Jordan almonds.  My amaryllis in its stone pot, an annual gift from my best friend Katrina, rises among the displayed Christmas cards.  Boxes of Russell Stover truffles, half-empty; and red tapers in crystal candle holders, complete the tableau.

I'm not wealthy but my earnings adequately provided for a merry holiday for all of those on whom I choose to bestow gifts.  We ate a rich dinner on Christmas Eve and brought three large bags of gifts to the family with whom we spent Christmas.  And now I'm sitting with the newspaper discarded, glad of what I've been able to do to show my love for those whom I hold dear.  At the same time, I think about others, with less, with little, with nothing.

A little girl's face rises in my mind.  I might have written of her before now, but her story crowds the others, begging to be told again, again, again, and again.  Theresa, her name; I think, though if I am honest, I cannot say for certain.  It's been too long.

Forty years.

Nineteen-year-old Corinne, two years away from college graduation, living in Laclede Town, St. Louis, Missouri. A housing development east of St. Louis, the first of its kind in the country, block after block of town homes rented to federally subsidized families and St. Louis University students.  I share one with two roommates and I have the biggest bedroom.  But they have friends, and boyfriends, and full calendars while I skip class, drink too  much Scotch at the pub in Busch Student Center, and covet their lives.  On Saturdays, I go to a church hall near 14th and Mallencrot to tutor in the program where I've been a teacher since my senior year in high school.

My student has blond hair, pale skin, and the large blue eyes of an angel.  She stands  as tall as the middle of my chest if she tips her head back to peer at me.  She struggles to understand the simplest math, with which I am little help, but together we plow through the problems so we can spend time doing what we really want, which is reading.  Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Anne of Green Gables.  All books from my mother's home.  We had quickly exhausted the meager selection that the nuns provided, her fair head resting against my arm, which I wrap around her frail body in order to hold both sides of the book.  She raises one small hand to trace the words as she sounds them.

On the last Saturday before Christmas, we bring our students presents and the nuns lay out hot chocolate and cookies.  As she gobbles down the store-bought sugar cookies with the unnatural pink frosting, my little charge stares at the package which I'm holding.  A flat box, about three inches deep, ten across and as many length-wise, it fascinates her with its red and green paper and gold ribbon.  My mother, who has talents for which I've not gotten the gene, has done that scissors-trick which causes the ribbon to curl.  I co-opted her wrapping assistance over hot tea that morning, on one of my rare visits out to Jennings in this period, when relations between my mother and I still bore the strain of an argument about which neither of us has apologized.  But she did the ribbon anyway, while I brewed tea, and told her about my little girl.  She asked how much the gift had cost and when I told her, made me take ten dollars from her to cover half.

When the children had consumed their treats, we open gifts.  Theresa falls silent when she sees what her package holds:  Matching hat, scarf, and mittens in bright red knit.  She raises her eyes to my face and asks, Are these all for me? and I feel my heart spasm.  I nod, my voice suddenly failing me.  She traces the edge of the hat with one tiny finger, then moves the fabric, pulling her hand back suddenly, not lifting the items nor making any move to claim them.  My mother won't let me keep them, she tells me sadly.

Of course she will, I assure her, and then I take the hat from the box and settle it on her head.  I wind the scarf around her neck and step back.  The girl closes her eyes and puts her hands on the edge of the scarf.  Wonderment settles on her features.  It's so soft, she says.  I feel the clench in chest again.  The set had come from a discount store.  The yarn wasn't wool, or silk, or even cotton, but some cheap synthetic.  I wish, suddenly, that I had gotten something of a higher quality, something better; but I shopped where I bought my own things without thinking.

Theresa opens her eyes as the bus driver calls out across the room.  It is time for her to don her coat, a worn, short wool jacket.  I help her arrange the long scarf around her neck again, tilt the beret, adjust the little ball on its crown.  She pulls each mitten on with such care that tears spring to my eyes.  I take her hand and walk beside her to the loading place, and stand while she climbs the steps of the bus and takes her seat.  As the bus pulls away, I can still see the bright red hat on her small head, and the piercing sapphire eyes in the small tender face.  She stays twisted in her seat, one mittened hand raised toward me, as the bus pulls away and carries the children home.

The next Saturday, class is cancelled for the New Year holiday. When we resume the following week, Theresa comes with bare head, bare hands, and three inches of uncovered neck rising above her jacket.  Where is your new hat, I ask her, gently.  Children can lose things, I know.  She shrugs.   I probe no further.  That afternoon, I volunteer to take Theresa home, determined to find out what happened to the things that I had given her.  At the door of her apartment building, we rap several times on the broad, scratched wood, until we hear footsteps echo in the hollow empty stairwell.

A gaunt, rangy woman pulls the door open.  I don't notice  that she wears two coats and a sweater over a dress,from under which protrudes a pair of men's green serge pants rolled to her ankles.  What I see:  On her head, a red knit hat; around her neck, wound twice, a matching scarf.  Both too small for her; both made for a child.  Theresa turns, suddenly, and pushes at me as her mother stares with sunken eyes in her haggard face.  Go on, go away! Theresa snaps in the shrill voice of a nine-year old.  She rushes past her mother and clamors up the stairs, her small body barely making enough noise to signal her passage.  The woman gapes at me.  I stand my ground, summoning courage, trying to find the right words.  But she breaks the silence in a raspy voice:  You heard my girl, she says.  Go on, go away.

She closes the door.  The stale frigid air of the building wafts to my face in the wake of the heavy sound it makes as it meets the bent frame.

On the coat rack here at the Holmes house, four decades later, hangs four or five coats and as many scarves.  In my closet several more pull down the cheap hangers with the weight of the wool from which they are made.  Though I've spent only pennies on the dollar of their original price, buying most at consignment shops, still, I have so many winter jackets that I could outfit a small army of size two women.  Theresa, who would be nearly fifty now, might finger the edge of each coat and look at me with sorrow.  And her mother, though probably long dead now, might clutch greedily at the bounty, hugging their mass against her thin chest, burrowing in their warmth. I would be able to do nothing but let her take them and vanish, with her daughter, into the cold of the Missouri winter, huddled in my best coat, while I am left with only my memories to warm me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley



Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Musings, 25 December 2014

Good morning,

Christmas Eve at the Holmes House marked the breaking of tradition:  Presents opened before morning.  But I don't care.   Gifts remain under the tree, which Patrick and I will exchange in a bit; and another pile will go to the Taggarts for giving there.  Last night, our hearts overflowed with love, and joy, and comfort; and the gift exchange among us only symbolized our unity -- it did not cause it.

I am reminded of another Christmas; no, not the day that a baby in Bethlehem came into the world, being gently placed in a manger by his weary, contented mother.  But one in Jennings, in the home of my birth, in the late 1960s when my little brothers Stephen and Frank wanted nothing more for Christmas than a pair of sleds.

I helped  my mother wrap presents after the little boys had fallen asleep.  At 8 and 9, they could still be sent to bed early.  My father carried from the basement, two small sleds, gleaming, with pristine runners and red writing.  Not second-hand.  Mother and I exchanged glances and kept wrapping.  The air outside, cold, sharp, but dry, stubbornly refused to yield the snow lingering above us.  We knew it would come, soon, but the ground still sat dry and hard.

I crouched to stack gifts under the tree, on the old white sheet with which we had wrapped the tree stand.  Dad closed the Bible and replaced it in the glass front bookcase.  He had read outloud for us, the story of the Christ child's birth, just as he always did.  Frank had placed the cookies for Santa on the tray by the door, and I had lit the Mary candle, which would light the way for the Christ child.  The first visitor on Christmas Day would receive our blessings, and a place at our table.  We would not turn the travelers away, nor send them to the stable, claiming no room.

Mother and I stood in the doorway of the living room.  Dad took a photo of the tree with presents for eight children and a small pile, from us to our parents, sitting to one side.  Mom put  her arm around me and said, Too bad there's no snow, and we both looked at the sleds standing against the wall near the back of the tree.  Then we went to bed, and soon, no one in our home stirred.

The little boys rose first and I just behind them.  Our parents still slept, as did the older kids.  Steve and Frank jostled each other to get into the living room.  No one could touch presents until Mother gave the signal, after everyone awakened, coffee had been poured, and a tray of candy cane cookies had made its way to the living room.  But the first children awake could go into the living room and gawk, and so Frank and Steve did that day.  A few minutes passed before they saw the sleds.  And I, their next-oldest sibling, found out that they had a keen understanding about Santa Claus when Frank turned to Steve and said, Mom is going to feel so bad, giving us sleds when there's no snow.

But then: the boys moved beyond the tree, opened the front door, and peered outside.

And together, the three of us beheld the winter wonderland which had descended upon our neighborhood while we slept.

Frank and Steve started dancing, their voices rising, as they proclaimed, It's a miracle!  It's a miracle!  A Christmas miracle! and their clamoring brought my mother running, as the sound of loud children brings every mother dashing to see if someone has been hurt.  She stopped, unmindful of the cold air pouring through the open door, seeing only her joyful baby boys and the blanket of snow which would let them use the sleds which God knows how she found the money to buy.

The rest of the family awakened then; and the morning unfolded as Christmas mornings did. The opening of presents took a while, with each child exclaiming over the perfectness of each gift.  When Mom and Dad opened their presents, the child gift-giver would anxiously stand nearby while the wrapping paper got torn away and the gift revealed.  We consumed the whole tray of cookies, and thick slices of buttered Reindling.  Later, when all the presents had been admired and my father had sorted through the torn wrapping paper to be sure none of them got thrown away, my mother served, "real breakfast".  Only after bacon and eggs had been eaten did Mother release the boys to try their sleds.

As they pulled snow pants on over their blue jeans and rubber galoshes over their shoes, Mother's eyes met mine across the kitchen, and she smiled.  For just that brief moment, I felt happiness radiate from my mother.  Her eyes held mine until the sound of the boys tromping down the basement stairs and slamming the outside door faded.  And then,  she turned towards the kitchen counter with its pile of dirty dishes.  And I saw a small shudder course through her body.  But neither of us spoke.  Without saying anything, my mother and I started to do the dishes, while everyone else lounged wherever they had fallen, and outside the kitchen window, the morning sun glistened on the newly fallen snow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Merry Christmas,  Everyone.  
May this Christmas Day bring a miracle to your lives, and love, joy, prosperity; 
but most of all -- may this day bring you peace.

In Memory:

Richard Adrian Corley, 12/27/22 -- 09/07/91
Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 09/10/26 -- 08/21/85
Stephen Patrick Corley, 12/25/59 -- 06/14/97

Always In My Heart

*****************************************************************



Jessica says grace just before dinner last night.






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.



The Missouri Mugwump™

My Photo
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.