Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Musings, 19 July 2014

Good morning,

Another week stumbles to a close with me clinging to the spinning merry-go-round and trying to resist the urge to jump.  The world looks strange in circular succession: tree, car, house, building, yard, tree, car, house, building, yard -- over and over in a blurry pool.  Faces of people in the path of the whirling machine meld into a stream of color as I whirl past.  I see them over and over and over, each time measuring how long I have to blurt out some message before I rocket past them.  The vehicle which propels me becomes the only constant.

As a child, I lived near a public school on the playground of which were two merry-go-rounds, one big, one little.  The smaller one required the rider to stand and grip metal piping while someone pulled and sent the merry-go-round in orbit.  The ride, though made on one's feet for the most part, usually stayed serene.  Only with a tremendous  push and a series of smaller pulls, could the little merry-go-round build  much speed.

The larger vehicle had some sort of pumping pedal beneath each seat.  Strong legs and a little side assist could get it flying, and only the fact that smaller children could sit and hold a long bar rendered it even tenable for the likes of me.

My older brothers insisted on trying to get these two merry-go-rounds to fly.  Working together, they could get the little one to dizzying acceleration, never mind what they could do on the larger merry-go-round.  They made me stand on either one, made me through guilt and goading, and I invariably complied because my nature didn't allow me to refuse either brother.  Mark would coax me and Kevin would assure me that it would be fine, this time, that this time, I would not fall or get hurt.  Invariably, I scraped something, or bumped my head; inevitably, I ended up crying.

One hot June afternoon, in the mid-1960's, the big boys -- as my mother called them -- decided that I should stand in the middle of the flat, low disk of the smaller of the two merry-go-rounds and not hold onto anything.  The middle had the upright to which the various hand-holds were attached and the gear that allowed the whole thing to turn.  Standing there took no small amount of skill.  I crawled between the bars and positioned my feet  "You can't hold on, though," said Kevin.  I didn't know what the rules of the game were; I'm not sure they did either.  

They stationed themselves on either end of a diameter of which I occupied the frightening middle.  "Ready," one of them said and I felt my stomach lurch.  They started running, chasing each other it seemed, holding opposite handles and propelling the entire structure into orbit.  At the center, I stood, terrified, motionless, rigid, and they ran, and ran, and ran and the merry-go-round went faster and faster and faster and at the eye of the storm, a terrible feeling began to rise in my body until it escaped in an endless scream.

The boys fell back onto the ground.  I grabbed the piping and waited for the disk to slow.  The world passed me: building, ball field, panting brother, driveway, parking lot, panting brother, building, ball field.  .barely discernible, white blurs.  The merry-go-round lost momentum and I could identify what I passed: Mark, the school, the fence, Kevin, the asphalt, the street beyond the schoolyard.  At last, the merry-go-round stopped.  My brothers still lay in the dirt, one on either side of me, watching me.

I crawled out from the center of the merry-go-round, sliding through the grease and grime, tearing my shorts.  Holding onto the nearest  piece of pipe, I set one foot onto the ground, feeling my legs shudder, feeling the slight sway of my body.  I eased myself off the wooden platform and stood, still holding on, still steadying myself.

My brothers dragged themselves off the ground.  One of them came forward and brushed some dirt off the back of my shirt.  The other used a smear of spit to take some grease from my cheek.  "You okay?"  I couldn't hear which one of them asked.  I nodded.

"Let's go home," one of them suggested. I didn't know which one; it didn't matter.  We walked the two blocks down the hill to our house without saying anything more.  When my mother got home from work, we all ate dinner, and the big boys took my turn at the sink, one washing, one drying.  I felt my mother's eyes on me but I didn't say anything.  I hid the torn shorts under my mattress, where they stayed for a long time.  I never said anything, even after I realized that the shorts had been removed, probably when my mother took the sheets off to wash.  No one said anything.  No one needed to say anything.

The air coming in my dining room window here feels sweet and cool.  A few friends will be here for dinner this evening, and I have a lot to do to get ready.  The radio plays in the background, and on the table, a disturbing headline blares from the local newspaper.  The world still spins outside  my door.  Inside, though, everything is calm, quiet, and still.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saturday Musings, 12 July 2014

Good morning,

My hands hover over the keys and stray back to the coffee mug or the spoon in the cup of yogurt.   Something about summer saddens me and draws my mind to murkier pools.  My mother died in the summer, and my brother did as well.  People tend to leave me in the summer: lovers, and spouses, and children.  I glance in each mirror as I pass and wonder:  Maybe I'm not pretty enough in the summer?  Maybe the heat makes me cranky and forgetful, and I don't attend to the needs of those far and near whose lives I could enrich?  In cooler days I know that at least the summer deaths which I've experienced had nothing to do with any shortcomings of mine, but it's hard to keep hold of that when the heat index hits one hundred.

I place my glasses down on the table.  Once the room has blurred, it could be any room, any where.  It could be the library at St. Louis University, in the summer of 1974, and I could be 18 again and living in a summer sublet on Russell, just east of Grand.

It's just a room, and not big at that.  One side has French doors which lead into the hallway and don't securely lock.  Two sides flank the street and have windows.  The fourth wall consists of two large bookcases shoved against the archway which leads to the kitchen of this old house.  The owner, a lonely  widow with steel grey hair and a nervous air, has done her best to make something habitable out of what had been her dining room.  The student who normally lives here has gone home for the summer, and I've dragged my two suitcases full of clothing and my box of books down from the dorm room which I had inhabited for a semester to take her place.

The lady herself lives in what used to be the living room.  A handful of male students live in the upstairs, in the actual bedrooms.  They share the upstairs bathroom and the kitchen.  I use the bathroom on the first floor, and have to go through the landlady's space to get to it.  It's less than optimal and I use it only when absolutely necessary.  I take my shower there, then get out of the house as soon as possible, off to my summer job where the bathrooms have private stalls and no one listening.

At night, the landlady stands outside my bedroom door and hisses that she's going to lock the front, am I inside for the night?  I pretend I am asleep though I don't think I fool her.  This ritual repeats itself every night; every night she alerts me, in her cold, lonely voice; and every night I hold my breath and don't respond.  I never go anywhere.  She figures that out some time in June but still asks the question; and still gets my silent answer.

I have no summer friends.  My handful of college compatriots have all gone back to their East Coast homes.  The local kids live up north, in Jennings, near my mother's house where I won't go because we haven't yet resolved the anger which drove me to leave in September.  I know I could go home; I know she would welcome me.  But I need my misery; I pull it around me like an afghan in winter, and curl on my sublet bed, and re-read Henry James novels and weep.  I write bad poetry and wonder why nothing seems to be the way I imagined it.  There's no phone in my room, but if there were one, it would never ring.

One night, in early August, there is a sharp rap on one of the panes of my door.  I watch the curtains, which are on the outside, and think I see one of them twitch.  Whoever is there knows that I'm here, lying on my bed.  They probably know the precise depth of the pool of pity in which I have immersed myself.  There's no reason not to drag myself over to the door and respond to the knock but still I hesitate.  The rap repeats; the twitch follows.  "Can you come?" I hear, in the old lady's hoarse hiss.  I can't ignore that request; my breeding wins out and I rise.

She's standing in the hallway in a dark robe and delicate, embroidered slippers.  I think they must be Daniel Greens, and tell myself that I have a similar pair in my suitcase, never unpacked.  "I need your help," she says.  I look at her face, then.  It wears the mark of time, the erosion, the cleaving of its planes, the stamp of sorrow.  "Of course, of course," I tell her.  She turns and enters her own room, with its matching curtained doors, and stands in front of an open closet.  "Can you get that box down?"  She tightens her robe and closes her face.  The request pains her.

I look on the shelf.  It's a big box, and deep. It looks heavy from where I stand.  I glance down and see she has placed a black tapestry footstool in front of the closet.  I'm thin but the thing looks fragile and I'm a little hesitant to stand on it.  I glance back at the lady and she nods, tersely I think.  She trusts the stool.  So I set my right foot on it and hoist my weight behind that, settling my left foot and steadying myself on the door frame.

As I slide the box towards me I wonder -- just briefly -- why she didn't get one of the men upstairs to help her.  But there's not much time for speculation; the box is heavier than it looks and I need to concentrate to keep myself from staggering back against the old woman.  I get it down and set it where she tells me, on the bed, and draw a deep breath.  The lady moves me out of the way and opens the box.

It's full of pictures, letters, old receipts, and yellowed documents.  I'm forgotten as the lady scrambles in its depths, murmuring to herself.  I creep out, back to my room, back to my sad, pathetic state, and eventually, I fall asleep.

I'm awakened the next day by another sharp tap on the glass.  I'm groggy, but I pull on a robe and open the door.  It's my landlady.  "The tea is ready," she says.  She turns and shuffles into the kitchen.  As though I'm her daughter; or her sister; as though she's ever made tea for me.  As though she makes it for me every day and I just forgot, the once.  I follow her.

It's properly brewed tea; leaves in an earthen pot.  She stands with her back to me at the stove and she's cooking eggs by the smell of it.  She lays a plate for me and one for herself.  She places whole wheat toast on a little plate, beside a small bowl of preserves.  We eat in silence.  Afterwards, I wash the dishes while she sweeps the floor.  When we've finished, she stands in the doorway and says, "Will you put it back for me?"  And I do, carefully, standing on the old black footstool, with the lady watching me.

And then I go about my day.

My landlady never made breakfast for me again.  She continued hissing at me, every night, that she would be locking the front door.  "Good night," I would call.  She did not answer, but I could tell she heard.  The curtain would twitch, and I would see her fingers, with their arthritic knuckles, rise a little.  And then I'd hear the soft sound of her slippers on the hardwood floor, and the quiet click of her own French door.  I would smile, then I would sleep.  The summer passed this way, until its warm days waned, and the coolness of the fall began to creep into the city, and my summer sublet ended.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Saturday Musings, 05 July 2014

Good morning,

My bones ache this morning, a good feeling, the kind of feeling you get from climbing to the top of a football field to watch fireworks.  Surrounded by the growing family of my best friend Katrina, I surveyed the perimeter of the high school grounds, looking out high above the city.  First one display, then the other, for forty minutes.  By chance or unusual government foresight, three grand finales occurred not simultaneously but sequentially, spurred by the "oohs" and "aahs" of our little group.  When the last flare had died, we made the downward journey, the three little children trailed by their mother, Jennie, who had wrapped her slender body in a quilt to ward off the night air.

I hung back, in the soft darkness, and watched Jennie walk across the track, her head rising above the regal contours of the quilt, which fell like a train to her feet and trailed behind her as she stepped forward.  She wore a 4th of July sparkling tiara, for the amusement of the children, and from the few paces that I stayed behind her, she looked like a princess.

And without warning, I found myself transported back in time.  The football field fell away and I stood on Main Street Disney World, with sixteen-year-old Jennie dancing in front of me and five-year-old Patrick, my son, gripping my hand.  Ahead of us, the castle; to our right and left, a wide expanse of streets flanked with shops and signs decorated with the faces of Disney characters.  And Jennie's shining eyes, the light of a Disney childhood beaming from them, drew me forward.

On our first evening, we attended Mickey Mouse's luau, and someone should have told me the fruit drinks were spiked because I let Jennie have one of mine.  We both got giggly, two small females in charge of an innocent little boy, but the giggling of our slightly intoxicated psyches looked no different than the sheer joy we felt at being in the Magic Kingdom.  We watched the dancers, nibbled on the bountiful fare, and led Patrick through the crowds, to the bus, the three of us forming an impenetrable clutch.  We slept late, perhaps because of whatever had been in the drinks; perhaps because we dreamed of Disney princesses and Tinkerbell.

Our second day held no less pleasure.  We sang "It's a Small World After All" with lusty glee, as we rode through the ride featuring that theme.  We gasped at the pirates alongside our ship, and ate pancakes with Mickey's face while Minnie hovered nearby.  On the second evening, Jennie got scolded by Mom ostensibly for not eating her vegetables, at the 1950's themed restaurant, and cheerfully submitted to the wait staff's chastisement while Patrick and I watched, smiling, eating apple cobbler.

We spent a whole day at Epcot, incapable of letting even one feature of that glorious site go unexplored.  Back at the main park, Jennie took Patrick on the rides that I would have been incapable of tolerating, while I sat in the wheelchair that we co-opted, my legs having gotten too wobbly to make easy navigation an option.  That wheelchair, and a special pass, got us  through designated gates at every ride, and our visit became exponentially easier on account of my reluctant concession.

Our hotel room, on site, had a beach theme,  and we strolled down the edges of water in the coolness of the evenings.  On  the third night, Jennie met a boy, and Patrick and I walked back to the room alone.  She slipped through the patio French doors past midnight, beaming, happy; a normal teenager having had a little time away from prying parental eyes, to sit on the sand and talk about high school, and home, and music with an attentive male.

By the last day, Patrick had grown cranky, and I found myself wondering if I could see anything more.  At the same time, I loathed the loss of even a single memory.  Jennie gathered into her own arms, all those things we mothers carry with us: the bag of snacks, the extra jacket for our little one in case of rain, my pocketbook.  She took Patrick's hand and somehow managed to wrap her other arm around my shoulders.  She propelled our little gang forward, to a soda shop, to a candy shop, through every alley of the Magic Kingdom, as we drank in our last view of the park's wonder.

On the plane going home, Jennie and I talked about a return trip: with everyone in the family, for longer, at a closer-in hotel.  With sturdier shoes.  With starrier eyes.  I fell asleep halfway to Kansas City, my head tilting over Patrick, who sat in the middle seat, and landing softly on Jennie's slender shoulder.

Last night, as we all paused at the edge of the field to greet some friends of Katrina's husband, I slipped into a space between Jennie and her son Benton.  "You look like a princess," I told her.  "With your royal cloak, your fine tiara, and your adoring minions."  Her small, heart-shaped face, with its fine brows and its wide eyes, glowed in the darkness of the summer night.  Perhaps the aftermath of fireworks lingered there; perhaps my eyes played tricks on me in the unbroken darkness.  But as I gazed at Jennie, something inexplicable  danced across her face: a lively, radiant never-ending gleam like that from a guiding star.  For a moment, just for the briefest of breathless seconds, time fell away and I found myself back in the Magic Kingdom.  And suddenly, I could believe in fairies.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday Musings, 28 June 2014

Good morning,

My technology tries to betray me; the keyboard refuses to cooperate with the browser, the windows randomly open.  I squint, tap, peer at the tablet's surface and wonder:  Should I go back to pen and paper?  I smile and lift the "Owl Cafe" mug which my neighbor abandoned on his back deck when he and his wife and baby daughter moved to bigger digs.  I keep meaning to return it, but it's so nice, you know?

I contemplate why the shape of a mug's handle changes the entire experience of enjoying coffee.  Unquestionably, it does, at least for me.  When guests come, I ask them, "What type of mug do you want?"  They come and stand before the cabinet and survey the options.  Even those who have demurred find one they prefer.  I smile and pour; I understand.

I started drinking coffee in earnest when I worked as a unit secretary at St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis, but my earliest memories date back to age three or four.  My mother would pour a little coffee into her saucer and  let me slurp the warm liquid.  I don't recall when she switched from Melamine cups and saucers to ceramic mugs but I do remember regretting the loss of that ritual.

My cupboard holds an odd collection.  The Harvard mug my stepson brought me after his summer studying at Harvard between his third and fourth year of high school rests beside the commemorative mug from DePauw University that I'm holding hostage until my son replaces it with one just for me.  He got it working a function, his senior year in college.  I found it when I cleaned his car for him and consider it fair bounty.  The blue fired mug from Trudy holds a special place, as do the mugs from Taos and the two finely thrown vessels with thin round handles from my stepdaughter and her fiancee.  I can wander through the shelf and tell you the origins of everything.

I used to have two mugs which had belonged to my brother:  One dark green with a thumb rest built into the handle, which I used for pens and pencils; and the other navy blue, with the name of the last hospital at which he worked embossed in stark white letters.  I never drank from either of them; I feared breaking items which my brother had held.  Last year, I gave each of his daughters one of those.  I don't miss them; I'm happy knowing where they now reside.

I have a separate lot of cups for drinking tea.  I don't like to intermingle the lingering flavors which never quite succumb to washing, especially since I won't use soap for my coffee and tea mugs.  Tea requires a more sensual container -- thinner, lighter, easier to hold.  I drink hot tea at times of stress; days when work or life overwhelms me.  I brew Earl Grey in an earthen pot from loose leaves and steep it for four or five minutes.  It turns out strong and fragrant, the smell of Bergamot rising from the cup.  I sit on the porch and let its scent waft around me and mingle with the coolness of the morning air.

On the shelf in my breakfast nook with my china soup cup collection, I have one tea cup, no saucer, which belonged to my great-grandmother.  It has two dainty black stripes around its rim, between which the maker painted small rose buds and delicate swirls.  My mother gave it to me and said it had been Mom Ulz's cup.  I took her word for this, just as I did everything.  It matches a bowl that also came to me in just that way, from mother to daughter to granddaughter.  I don't use this cup; it gathers dust.

When I find myself most tired, I gravitate towards a smaller cup, which my clumsy hands can grip.  Instead of raising the mug by the handle, I wrap both hands around its body and drink full and long, letting the warm liquid fill me.

I despise Styrofoam.  Nothing good can come in it.  Paper cups rank only slightly higher.  Disposable drinking vessels suffice for coffee purchased simply for the caffeine, for the fix, for the boost.  When I spend three dollars for a beverage, I want the tall mug on the high shelf, the one many baristas grumble about using.  They can't write your name on it; they have to look at the desperate gaggle of waiting customers and figure out which one ordered the Americano for here, three shots, no room for cream needed.

I'm going to brew a fresh pot of coffee and take a full mug out onto the porch, in the sweet morning air, the soft light of the hour after dawn.  The newspaper will soon arrive.  I'll sip my coffee and contemplate the tasks which await me, and then, when that contemplation threatens to rock my composure, I'll pour another cup, sit back down, and ease myself slowly into the rest of the day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday Musings, 21 June 2014

Good morning,

Potted plants surround me, with their mixture of fading blooms and emerging buds.  I realize that I need to trim the dead blossoms, and idly reach over to nip one or two with my fingernails.  I hear the call of a bird which I've been trying to identify by its song since it nested in my gutter.  I know it's not a bobwhite, a robin or a whippoorwill.  Its notes hit high and sweet, rapid and rhythmic.  I think I might find a website with clips of bird songs, and see if I can match it.

It's the Summer Solstice.  I think of this day as being the day we buried my brother.  I believe it was June 21st; I could be off by a day.  Since we don't know when he died, only the day someone found his body and the day of his burial stand as anniversaries of his death.  Seventeen years.  I still miss him; but then, my mother died in 1985, and I sometimes engage the phone to call her. Still.  I wonder if her number has been re-assigned.  Perhaps whoever has it now would listen.

My mother listened to me, regardless of how crazy my thoughts and ideas became.  She listened; and when I needed her, she never failed me.

1975.  Saint Louis, south side.  I'm living in a second-floor flat with a woman named Mary Ann who turned bad on me, some months later, but she'd just moved into the back bedroom that June and I hadn't yet figured out that she had a mean and sadistic streak.  That Saturday, I awoke feeling ill.  I stood in the bathroom, swaying and retching, sweaty and dizzy.  Mary Ann wasn't there, I didn't know where she had gone or when she might return.  So  I called my mother.

An hour later, I lay in my bed writhing and shivering.  Out on Maury Avenue, children with nothing to do but hammer the fire hydrant with baseball bats had finally succeeded in sending a gush of water across the asphalt.  They shrieked as they ran through the spray, and my head pounded with each peal of laughter.  I struggled out of bed, onto the balcony, and shouted down to them,  "Please, please, can't you be quiet??"

As I stood there, in my sweat-drenched nightgown, my mother climbed out of her car and tilted back her head.  "Oh honey, go back inside," she called to me.  "They're just having fun."

I resented her taking their side but complied.  I closed the balcony door, shutting the stale heat and motionless air of my apartment against the laughter-tinged breeze.

My mother dumped an armload of supplies on my dining room table and promptly pulled the French door back open, letting in a stream of fresh air.  She got the backdoor open, and several windows. She walked past the closed door to Mary Ann's bedroom and ran cold water  the kitchen sink.  She filled a glass and made me drink the whole thing.  She shushed me when I gagged.  "Now go take a shower," she instructed.  Again, I did as she told me.  I could not resist my mother's commands, even at nineteen, even when I'd been living on my own for a year.

When I returned, clean, clothed, she had sanitized the kitchen and dining room.  She moved into my bedroom, stripped the sheets, and shoved them in my laundry hamper.  With one hand, she sprayed Lysol on the mattress; with the other, she shook out the pillow.  The air smelled like medicine, like a  hospital, like the aftermath of a motherly tornado.  I sat down on a dining room chair and closed my eyes.

I think I slept.

Another scent lured me back to consciousness:  Tea, hot, in a china cup.  I curled my hands around it, raised it to my nose, and pulled the fragrance of it into my lungs. The smell of home.  The odor of love.

I heard the whirring of my electric can opener and knew that a bowl of soup would soon be on the table.  Crackers would follow, on a little china plate, and there would be a napkin.  I leaned back and drank the tea.  I surrendered to the inevitable recovery.  By morning, I would be fine.  My mother's care had a relentless, driven edge to it that would tolerate no dissent.  I found myself smiling.  All was well.

Here in Brookside, in 2014, I lean back and let my gaze travel the full height of the front maple which rises high above the roof line, lush and green.  The last few weeks of rain have set our yard to shimmering, tall grass, out-of-control shrubs, a rash of wild green onions.  I might be in the forest surrounded by native undergrowth, with the chattering of monkeys signalling the approach of a predator.  I let my hands fall idle and surrender to the soothing sounds of the unknown bird, high above me, on the branch of the neighbor's cedar.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Musings, 14 June 2014

Good morning,

I hear the round cry of a strange creature, whoo, whoo, whoop, something I don't recognize.  Above this mournful note, a chitter bursts -- chhhttchhttchtttchttt, and I lie in this guestroom bed and wonder what lovely beings make these noises.  The low foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks surround me.  Here in Fayetteville, in the home of my friends Brian and Trudy, I have no responsibility and I let myself linger near sleep.  The sun has risen but lazily, as though it has not quite committed.  I share its slothful, gleeful reluctance.

A half-memory drifts into my mind.  Little Rock, 1987.  I'm alone on a porch, watching the cars pass.  I haven't moved yet; everything I own still sits in Kansas City, except a suitcase full of unsuitable clothes.  I have misjudged the weather; Missouri still lingers in winter while here in the south, spring reigns.  I've just entered the first of what will ultimately be three marriages though I had no way of knowing that; I said then, "I'm newly wedded," and my heart rose in gladness.

Chester, my new groom, is at work.  We're supposedly on our honeymoon.  What's actually happening is that he is working and I'm nursing the foot I broke dancing at our reception.  The emergency room doctor did not believe my account of the chicken dance during which the injury occurred.  He found evidence of prior breaks and segregated me from Chet to ask:  Is someone mistreating you at home?  Apparently the shape of my feet lends itself to spontaneous stress fractures.  Didn't your feet ever hurt, he inquires, with that incredulous tone saved for the demented.

Always, I tell him, smiling.  He is not amused but he lets us both go home with a prescription for painkillers.  I throw it in the glove box.  I've plenty of those.

I shift on the porch and gaze out at the dirty city.  A figure draws near, a man walking down the sidewalk.  He's thin; his clothes hang from his shoulders with barely a ripple for the body beneath the fabric.  He turns his angular face towards me and pauses for a moment.  Our eyes meet.  I think he must intend to ask for food, or money, or to spit out some foul curse.

But he does none of these.  He nods, briefly; a short, spare movement.  I return the silent greeting.  He pauses for less than a second, almost too short a time to believe he's really broken the rhythm of his walking, and then continues, past me.

I linger on the porch.  The warm afternoon air ripples around me.  I strain to see down the block, but the man has vanished.  He didn't vary from his straight path to enter one of the yards and no trees obscure my view.  I can't figure out where he has gone.  I rise from my chair and walk down to the curb.  It's been just minutes; I should be able to see him.  But the street is empty.   I stand on the sidewalk and wonder what has just happened, who or what I have just encountered.  After a few moments, I go into the house to start fixing dinner.

Years later, on the street where I live in Kansas City, I saw the man again.  As I drove down Holmes Road, I glanced across at the sidewalk and there, walking towards me, I swear, was the man I had encountered in Little Rock.  Same lean frame; same angular face; same clipped grey hair.  The car drove itself for a dozen feet as our eyes locked.  The man deliberately moved his head from left to right, telling me no, no, not today before my vehicle moved beyond him.  Just for a moment,  light shimmered around him, some splintered, fragmented light, bursting from the rags he wore and then my car moved beyond him.  I tightened my hands on the wheel and dragged my eyes to the front and drove on, wondering, again, who or what I had seen.

I hear the bird's cry,  long and low.  It's nearly seven.  I close my eyes and wait for the answering chitter and when it comes, I find myself smiling.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturday Musings, 07 June 2014

Good morning,

As I write, my coffee cup and the newspaper sneak a bit of space on the dining room table.  Most of the surface has been co-opted as a staging area for the items being considered for this trip to Evanston, the one taking my son to the next phase of his life.  The precious last year that we'll share as co-occupants of the same residence draws to a close; in less than twenty-four hours, he will be wending his way north by northeast with most of his belongings wedged in the little Kia.  What he doesn't take, I will bring in the fall when the summer sub-let ends and he and his roommate find their own digs.

I have no regrets.

My son's life progresses as it should.  I pushed him to find a college out of town, wanting him to have a life outside of his normal sphere, wanting him to see that the world holds something beyond the familiar.  That worked, more or less; and he got a taste for "elsewhere, elsewhen".  The months he has spent back in Kansas City have given him what he needed:  A job that allowed him to pay off his car without taxing him too much; emotional space to ferret through some whiplash of events the facts of which I don't know, but the impact of which I could plainly see; and a dozen months during which he defined and refined his goals for himself.

I took a passive role in all of that.  I listened but strained to bite back comment.  I brewed coffee; bought the almond milk; journeyed with him as he examined, sometimes only through internal dialogue, choices he had made and people  who had drifted away from him.  As the days unfolded, I also evolved:  from a mother worried if her son would rise above adversity, to a woman curious about the tools he possessed which I had done nothing to engender; and, finally, to a student, humbled, astonished, dizzy with the dawning recognition of how far my son had traveled beyond the fledgling enlightenment of which I was once so proud to have myself attained.

And now, here, on the brink of possibility, I suddenly find myself again walking up a stairway in the small elementary school that Patrick attended.

I clutch his hand.  He's just turned five, a month before; and has only been accepted to kindergarten early because his pre-school teacher -- on the first floor of the building in which his new school sits -- has recommended that he do so.  He can read, and write, add, subtract and divide, and write his own name in cursive.  He's ready, Magda Hellmuth has told me, and told Punky Thomas, the owner of the grade school on the second floor.  He's ready.  But was I?

We walk, together.  It's 1996, five months before I will suddenly collapse, unable to breathe, and be rushed for the first of scores of emergency room visits and hospital admissions.  But we don't yet know what lies ahead of me.  I've slung my pocketbook over my right shoulder; Patrick has his Spider Man backpack securely positioned over his own narrow shoulders.  He still wears curls; still clumps in the black cowboy boots that he has worn nearly constantly for a year or two; still wears a serious, studious expression.  For a child whose first sound at the doctor's urging was laughter, he's become nearly fierce in the composition of his features and the set of his brow.  I find it charming.

With just two more steps before we reach the top and I have to relinquish him, Patrick pauses.  I look down; he raises his eyes.  "Mom," he says, in a soft voice.  "Mom, are you going to die before I am old?"

My insides clench.  Until that moment, I suffered under the blissful delusion that my son had no notion of my mortality.  An urgency rose within me:  I fought to find words to reinstall his ignorance.  "Oh no, Buddy," I assured him.  "I'm going to live to be 103, and I'm going to nag you every day of your life!"

Stillness fell over us; the chatter from the other upstairs students did not reach us; the calls of parents in the downstairs passageway subsided.  My son looked down at the scuffed toes of his boots.  A minute passed; two.  Then he raised his eyes again and said, without hesitation, "Then I'm going to annoy you every day of YOUR life!"

And the world righted itself, and we climbed those last two steps, and I let go of his hand.

Tomorrow morning, I will let go of that hand again.  But this time, the letting go will cost me a safety net, not the other way around --- for these last twelve months have seen a turnabout.  My son has taught me more about compassionate living since he's been home from college than I learned in the first fifty-eight years of my existence, by which I mean no one -- not my mother, not those whom I have met and loved during my six decades, not my siblings or my most cherished friends -- any disrespect.

Despite my best efforts, my son has turned into the kind of man of whom any parent on the face of this planet would be astonishingly proud.  He's fought and largely conquered his habit of using sarcasm when he feels threatened, really coming to understand that the comments made about him say more about the speaker than about him.  He has embraced principles of communication which recognize both his own feelings and needs and those of the other.  He has learned about social principles and values which I could never have defined before he explained them to me, such as restorative justice and the idea of honoring our collective social compact.  This man, this child who questioned every instruction that I  or any other adult gave him and only complied when the virtue of the task could be certainly explained, has taught me more about graciousness and charity than I learned in twenty-two years of Catholic education, including the five-and-a-half I spent in the clutches of the Jesuits.

I will stand on the porch when he drives away, as I have done a dozen times before this weekend.  This time, unlike the other times, the potential of his return has sharply diminished.  But I am fine with that.  He has the skills both to survive and to thrive.  In him, he has the hundred-thousand-dollar-script potential; and the potential to walk in grace, for the rest of his life.

And I don't think that I will have to nag him any more.

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.