Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Musings, 23 July 2016

Good morning,

I walked through my house last evening with a friend who had not been here except for a brief stop to retrieve me.  I saw the rooms through the eyes of a stranger, and noticed grime that I would not normally see.  The shock of observation compels me to clean today, but also sends me sliding into yesteryear.  On my counter, a plate of butter melted in the heat; and, briefly, I heard my mother's voice talking about butter.

She walks through the door in her uniform.  I am seven maybe eight.  She's been working for a year or two at a hospital as an EKG technician, a poor substitute for the nursing career she abandoned to marry my father but better than the register at Famous 'n' Barr.  She has eight mouths to feed, not counting her husband's bar bill.  She does what she must. 

She has a bag in her arms and a weary expression rippling across her face.  One of the boys, Kevin probably, will come take her burden.  He eases it to the counter in the kitchen while the rest of us crowd around her.  We must be hungry but most of all, we crave these few minutes with our mother before the evening can devolve.

She tells us, "Wait til you see what I have," and draws out a large can.  It sits on the counter because we will wait.  I stare at it, reading the lettering which tells me it is a can of butter.  Butter?  I know the creamy taste on raisin bread at Christmas, but mostly butter only comes for Sunday, and holidays.  It's too dear.  Even I know that; and I've never seen it in a can.

Someone puts food in bowls and we gather around the table.  Mother has changed out of her uniform.  My father eases himself into the chair at the head of the table.  I'm used to his moods and cast an eye sideways to see if I can tell what he'll be like.  His face looks shaved and clean; I take that as a good sign. 

My mother brings the can and a can opener to the table.  She works the little handle and the lid pops free.  We see it then:  Rich, creamy, pale yellow.  My mother says, "I took one of the maids from the hospital shopping and then home.  She wanted to pay me but when I wouldn't take money, she gave me this can of welfare butter."  The maids lived in the city where grocery stores had inferior meat.  My mother often drove them to the store out in the county and then made sure they did not have to ride the bus with meat that could spoil during the long trip.  

We passed around the tin.  My father took none and made a little face which frightened me.  I knew what his displeasure could mean; but I could not discern what angered him.  My mother saw the grimace.  She leaped from her chair and got the coffee pot from the stove to fill his cup.  One of the big boys carved a chunk of the welfare butter and slathered it on a piece of bread for Stevie, whose small hands could not manipulate the tin of butter.   We murmured grace, "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Jesus Christ, Amen."  The table fell silent as we ate.  

My father put his knife and fork across the top of the plate and cleared his throat.  Nine pairs of eyes raised from the hasty gobbling of food to cast down the length of the table.  But he said nothing.  He pushed his chair backward, stood, and left the room.  We children turned to gaze the other direction, at our mother.  I'm sure the little boys did not know what had happened or its significance.  At 3 and 4, they had not yet learned to fear my father's moods.  But the rest of us knew; and my mother knew; and she rose then and followed my father saying to us, "It's all right, finish your supper then clear the table." 

Their argument overflowed into the night.  It blurs endlessly in the morass of every fight they ever had.  Quiet first, then louder.  He tells her, "We don't need -- you should not take -- welfare!" and her soothing voice murmurs.  I'm not sure what all this means.  Then my father's voice grows harsher, heavier, and outside their bedroom, eight hearts stop, eight pairs of lungs suspend their operation.  Little hands creep into bigger ones.  I know what this means; know it all too well.

 And so it begins.

When I left home, I made myself three food promises.  I would never again eat liver; I would never again eat margarine; and I would never again eat fast.  I've kept those promises, mostly.  My son's dicey health in toddlerhood brought "fake butter" into the house because he could not absorb fat or fiber until age 4 or 5.  I'm a vegetarian, so the liver's a no-brainer.  My snail's pace of consumption testifies to my stubborn refusal to gobble my food.  No hungry boys clamber around the table waiting for my leftovers.  But I have a secret vow about dinner time which I harbor in my heart and will not violate:  No arguing.  No fighting.  No stalking from the table with a cold and sinister look.

When Jenny Rosen and I went to Colorado for Memorial Day Weekend this year, a wizened older man cooked our eggs at the hotel in Boulder.  I asked him how the scrambled eggs could be so luscious.  "Love and lard," he replied.  "I stir them tenderly, and I cook them in lots of butter."  Of course.  Of course.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

I tried to find a photo of 1960s welfare butter.
But I couldn't.  Barring that,
Here's something even better.
Enjoy! Happy Saturday.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Musings, 16 July 2016

Good morning,

My impatience reared into gear and I poured the water for my French press too soon.  With the lukewarm java beside me on the deck table, I listen to the birds who share my satisfaction with the sweetness of the morning air.  I seem to have survived yesterday's brief relapse into neurological distress, an occasional malady which I thought I had outgrown.   Early yesterday evening, my friend Brenda came by with Chai Shai carry-out.  As we noshed, she asked if my life-style changes or the California doctor's prescription might have impacted its frequency.   I speared a bit of pakora, shifted my weight and reflected.  I had not thought of that.  I had just been living, not realizing that it had been months since my disease's more intricate inflammations had come into play.

I understand my disease more these days, but have nearly lost the will to manage its manifestations.  Yesterday I left work early, came to the house and essentially shut down.  I slept, sat on the porch reading, and drank carrot juice.  At one point, my neighbor came across the street with her five-year-old granddaughter and I swear, that child's hug did more for me than all the pills in China.

Here in the cool morning, surrounded by soft sunlight, I feel my mother's presence.  I hear her voice, her lessons, her mantras:  If you walk every day of your life, you'll walk every day of your life.  So keep walking.  I have done that, Momma; I have honored you.  But I am tired.

I stretch my neck to let my gaze span the height of the neighbor's chimney, taking in the vagaries of its bricks:  red, brown. and beige against the emerald of the towering tree.  My mother speaks beside me, What a beautiful neighborhood, Mary; I'm so happy for you.  I turn to her, silent, thinking of the ocean, hearing the echo of its voice and reliving the nights I've spent in a chair beside that ocean, wrapped in a shawl.   I close my eyes.  I listen to that beckoning.

I suddenly recall sitting with my mother on a bench in her backyard, in the spring of 1985, four months before she let go of her decrepit body and allowed her spirit to soar.  She wore a bandanna to protect her bare skull from the sun's wicked kiss and a jacket to guard against the coolness of the air.  Her frame held precious little flesh.  Her cheeks stood high in the ragged contours of her face. She shivered but bore her discomfort with a breathtaking grace.

Three of her grandchildren, Lisa, Rick and Cate, hunted Easter eggs while their parents stood nearby. Rick studied the ground, intent.  Cate moved lightly across the yard.  Lisa held her Easter basket with the most incredible care, resting each colored egg in the plastic grass.  We watched from the side while the children scurried around the yard.

 My mother looped her arm through mine.  This is enough, she told me.  If I have not one second more, this day is enough.  Her oldest granddaughter Lisa came towards her, extending her hand, offering my mother a piece of chocolate.  Mother lifted her frail arms and Lisa came into their circle.  We collapsed into the stillness of the moment, yearning for it to sate us, scrambling for its sheltering edges.

Half a life-time later, now nearly two years older than my mother ever got to be, I keep a mental basket of such memories, shimmering gossamer videos of each tender time. In the midst of yesterday's unfortunate relapse, the lilting sound of Abigail calling my name from her grandmother's porch washed over me.  Now that brief respite lies on top of the burgeoning pile of sacred memories.  I clutch it against me and sit, motionless; calm, content; for once not needing more.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Abigail, fourth daughter of Sara Black, and granddaughter of Debbie and Jimmy Black.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Saturday Musings, 09 July 2016

Good morning,

Last evening I finished my salad, got my prescriptions, and took myself north on State Line to Prospero's Books.  As I entered, one of the two owners called out, Hello -- I haven't seen you in a long time, and I realized that I could not recall when I had last been out on a Friday evening doing the things that I love.  I tread across the old wooden floors, turning my head so I would not miss the sound of their warped squeak.  I ran my finger across a row of books and stopped in front of the cashier's station.  The owner smiled.  I finally replied, I don't get out much.  He doesn't know me, this one; his partner is a friend of mine.  But he nonetheless continued, asking why, asking if I had been all right.

I told him, I've gotten to be a recluse, and he nodded.  Perfectly understandable, he seemed to be saying.  Have you read the news lately?  He did not speak, though, or ask again what had driven me indoors.  He just nodded, the once, and then smiled.  I went to browse among the shelves.  I found a novel written by a Haitian woman and gave the man six dollars.  His face crinkled into a lovely expression, as though he might not have been able to pay the mortgage without my purchase.  He bade me good night, and I walked through the door nearly glad that I had come.

Down the street, I debated between a cupcake and an ice cream.  SmallCakes, a cupcakery, stood directly adjacent from where I'd parked the car.  I looked inside, thinking about the sugar content of even the smallest of cakes.  The carbs.  I opened the door and stepped across the threshold.  Calories be damned.

The woman behind the counter sported all manner of tattoos and a broad friendly grin.  She greeted me and began telling me about her selections as though introducing children.  A pang of guilt rose in my belly, the belly still carrying that last annoying bit of flab which truly causes me to tilt when I rise from a chair.  But now I stood before this kind person, who had spent three or four minutes of the last half hour of her workday talking about toppings and fillings.

I bought something that she said was her favorite and she gently nestled it into a special box, pink, with the name of the store written across it.  I mentioned my admiration for her tattoos.  I asked which one she liked best, and she turned around to show me an owl between her shoulder blades, peeking out from the top of her yellow sundress.  I told her about my friend Baylee who had answered the same question by showing me a tattoo in the same location.  I always forget it's there, Baylee had said.  The cupcake lady laughed her agreement.  Then she, too, said good night, without evening glancing at the hands of the clock creeping towards closing time.  She said it as though genuinely concerned about me; as though she might be calling later to see if I had enjoyed the rest of my evening and whether I had liked her recommended confection.

The door quietly closed behind me.  I clutched my cupcake, the book which I had purchased at Prospero's, and my little French purse.   The evening air had lightened some.  Voices drifted from the tables on the sidewalk, down the block, by the ice cream place.  A young man held the door for an older woman -- his mother, perhaps -- and a little girl stood eye to eye with a great Dane passing on the sidewalk.  She showed no hesitation.  The dog's owner held the leash steady while the child reached a small hand to pat the dog's head.  All the while, an anxious mother stood behind the girl, torn between the desire to grab her offspring out of harm's way and the sure knowledge that fear should not be one of the lessons of a lovely summer evening on 39th Street.

I crossed to the parking lot and laid the cupcake on the front seat, nestled between my purse and the small paperback.  Before reversing, I listened to a few minutes of the late news on the hour.  Around the country, demonstrations swelled to thousands.  The savage murder of two black men sparked rage; the vicious retaliatory slaughter of five police officers by a lone sniper stabbed the soul of our nation.  The departure of Great Britain from the European Union, the ludicrous behavior of the Republican presidential candidate, and the questionable ethics of the Democrat pale in comparison to a country's mourning for the loss of innocent lives.  Yet again; yet again.

Outside the windows of my car, the people of my city seemed to have taken a break from the terrible tragedies that have held us spellbound to the television, the radio, and the Internet.  A boy on a skateboard slipped down the middle of the street, arms stretched out for balance.  Behind him a pick-up truck took the street at a handful of miles per minute just to let the kid have his moment.  I could see grins on the faces of the driver and passenger, a flicker of something like jealousy, perhaps a fleeting memory of another summer night, when they, too, were young and flew through the heavy air on tiny wheels.

I put the car in gear and pulled onto the street, pointing the Prius towards home.  Along the way, I lifted my cell phone at every stop sign.  Some urgent need to capture the night drove me to look through its lens at my city.  I drove down Warwick, where I rented my first few apartments here, nearly forty years ago.  Nothing seemed to have changed.  There was no battle here; no fury; no anger.  The car behind me tolerated my starts and stops without so much as honking.  I made my way through the town which adopted me, asking myself if I am ready to leave.  I have no answer.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

Driving down Oak Street.


The back steps to my second (and third) apartment.
The front of the apartment building in which I twice lived.

John's Greenhouse, still run by his now-blind daughter.

How can one not find this city beautiful?

My house.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Saturday Musings, 02 July 2016

Good morning,

Thunder finally cascades across the sky, chasing the gentle rippling flashes of lightening, barely seen above the thick cloud bank.  Here on earth the alarm rings for the second time.  I pull my body from the futon's surface and drag myself vertical.  I tell myself, outloud to the dense air of the room, You must lose these last five extra pounds, and then I remember that I'm out of coffee.  I stand in front of the window above my desk, right hand circling left wrist, poised to slide my feet into the fuzziness of my slippers.  I fall into a stupor, landing before another window, long ago.

I stand in a sterile hallway peering through an open bedroom door.  I shift in my duty shoes, crinkling the stiff polyester uniform.  The room in front of me has only pale illumination, yet night has not descended on the hospital.  Something stirs within and I think, What am I seeing?  One step brings me closer; then I know.  

The room's occupant clings to the window sill, spread full against the glass.  He cannot escape; the bars keep him from tumbling three floors to the ground.  A thought looms:  Can he shatter the window and cut himself if he continues this relentless beating on the pane?  I tell myself, You need to call the code.  But the sight immobilizes me.

The patient's bulk fills the window.  His body heaves once, twice; I think he will fall backwards.  Then he stretches his arms and resumes banging his fists against the glass.  He turns his head, jerks his shoulders.  He cries out; I can see one side of his face.  Sweat, or tears, or blood obscure his eyes.  

Still I do not move.  Still  I stand.  His wailing pours out and fills the corridor.  

Suddenly the rush of someone  running past sends me staggering to one side.  An aide thunders into the room and hauls the patient to the ground, casting him to the floor.  Others flood the hallway:  The code team, with their crash cart, their syringes, their restraints.  Someone pressed the panic button.  The last white-clad nurse closes the bedroom door against the terrible sound of the patient's anguish.

I walk back to the nurse's station and sink into my chair.  I stare at the stack of charts on which I had been working before an unseen hand pulled me to the other side of the Dutch door, drawing me to the dimness of that awful room.

My hand shakes as I reach for my pen and resume my work.  I think:  I've got to find a different job.

A nurse enters the area and stands in front of me.  I see the trouble on her face.  She asks, Why didn't you get help?  I know I've violated protocol.  I understand.  I shrug.  I drop my pen.  My right hand sneaks across my chest, to circle my left wrist.  I hold this pose, looking down, hoping she'll go away.

She pats my shoulder, and passes behind me to pour a cup of dredge from the percolator.  My shoulders drop.  I reach for my pen, and go back to transferring meaningless gibberish into something the pharmacy can understand.

The thunder has relented now, and releases soothing rain to fall on my dry yard.  I stand in the front doorway and watch the flags fluttering in the silent wind.  My plan to weed the hostas must wait; I'll clean closets instead.  I see a pair of birds clinging to the shuddering limbs of the maple tree.  I wonder why they still sing, despite the surrounding drabness.  What do they know, that I have not discovered?  A dinging from the kitchen tells me that my mug of leftover coffee has finished warming.  I turn away, moving back into the quiet of my home to start my chores.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday Musings(tm), 25 June 2016

Good morning,

Like the little child sitting halfway up the stair, all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head this morning.  My brother's face has haunted me all week.  He died nineteen years ago this month, alone on a piece of land in St. Charles County, amid the trees and columbine.  I see his face in my son's face; I hear his voice in Patrick's speech.  I don't know if the kinship between them really exists or if I imagine it.  I strain to follow every nuance, watching for dire connections between my only child and my baby brother -- in June, especially, the time of year when my brother laid down the burden of his life and walked away.

I heard an interview this week with a writer who talked of being cautious in mentioning the living in her essays.  She would tell her side of any story of her life, but leave out mention of the other person or his point of view.  She dealt with how she felt about divorce but never touched on what her former spouse might have experienced.  It's not my story, she said, or words like that.  I understood what she meant.  Here I talk of how I feel and what I experience but the other characters in my plot stand like cardboard cut-out figures.  I describe my roller coaster emotions but avoid the events which push the cars over the curves, fearing that I will embarrass someone.

Embarrassment.  I ask myself, Is that an emotion?  Something said on social media this week resonated with me:,  I have spent much of my life embarrassed or being an embarrassment, the person wrote.  A warm flush overtook me.  Oh, lady, me too, I cried outloud into my empty bedroom.

Me too.

A locked room inside my head holds my most humiliating moments.  My first period -- crimson soaking clear through my uniform skirt; me stumbling down the hall supported on either side by teachers.  Falling during high school graduation; again when I received my college degree.  My mother strode towards me after my law school commencement, loudly proclaiming, I couldn't tell which one was you, because you did not fall -- until the very end, on the stairs.  Then I recognized my little girl! She thought herself clever.  My face froze.  My classmates, clustered around their own parents nearby, turned away. Their voices dropped.  I imagined what they must be saying, but I never knew for certain.

After my knee replacement, I struggled in the physical therapy room.  I had pneumonia but had not been confined to the hospital bed.  Fever burned in my chest; snot ran from my nose.  I sat on the exercise table straining to comply with the therapist's request.  She bent her own healthy leg to demonstrate, handed me a tissue, urged me to keep trying.  I blotted my nose and willed myself to quell the despair.  But I could not.  Great sobs wracked my body and I fell forward, hopeless, helpless, into the arms of a woman half my age.  She wrapped her body around me and let me cry.  I felt the room stir; an aide came forward but the young woman holding me gestured him away.  I let myself go and wailed until I felt the anguish subside.  Then she helped me scoot into a wheelchair and they took me back to my room.  I buried my face in my hands as we passed the other patients.

I spent seven weeks in that hospital trying to reach the requisite bend.  I never succeeded.  I went home with the instruction to keep trying.  The therapist who had been so kind to me had gone on maternity leave long before my discharge.  She left without coming to say goodbye.  I never got to thank her.

The winter we lived in Jasper, the external, above-ground pipes froze with me alone in the house.  I had no idea what to do.  I called my father and he instructed me to get a bale of hay.  I went to the local feed store and stared in dismay at the stack of bales.  I had no idea how to get it home or open it once there.  Tears rose in my throat.  I can only imagine how I looked to the clerk but within an hour he had loaded a bale of hay in his own pick-up.  He broke it over the frozen pipes and spread it to warm them.  He refused the twenty which I held out to him as discreetly as possible. He shook his head and told me to call the store if I didn't have heat by the afternoon.

I stood in the driveway huddled in my city coat and watched him drive off, wishing my brothers were there, wishing my husband had not gone on the road, wishing I were stronger.

A light year ago, in high school, at the Father-Daughter dance, I took pictures of the girls in their pretty dresses with their handsome fathers.  I was the only one who had no companion.   Each of my classmates in turn stood before my camera, posing for the yearbook, preening, striking that girl pose while leaning on their fathers' arms.  After I finished, I sat on the steps between floors of the high school, listening to the music.  I closed my eyes and pretended that my father had come home sober and had put on a suit coat to take me to the dance.  Two girls entered the stairwell above me. I heard them snickering; I heard my name.  I did not turn around and after a while, they left.

Truth told:  My father had stopped me on my way out of the house and asked if I didn't want him to take me to the dance.  His stale breath assaulted me.  I stared at his unshaven face.  God, no, I spat at him, and walked away.

I only peak inside the lock box in which these memories live.  Beside them dwell so many more; darker ones, times when I miserably failed as a human being.  Yellowing sheaves of paper bearing long letters of apology that I've penned.  Hurt looks on others' faces.  Sinking feelings in my stomach.  I let these memories stay buried.  I pull through the tiny crack of the barely opened lid, all the lessons that I have learned but I quickly snap it shut against the faces of those whom I have wounded.

It's 7:30 on a Saturday in June.  In a few hours, a friend will come to stay at my house.  I've fretted all week about this visit, because  I have stayed at her beautiful home.  This house, though cute and sweet, and all of those things that people say when they come here, pales in comparison with hers.  She dismissed my worries.  She says she does not judge people by their furniture, and I believe her.  But still.  I keep on cleaning, hoping that the smell of Pine-Sol will redeem whatever faults lie beneath its pungent mask.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

A snapshot taken on my porch this morning.

Today's blog goes out to JANE WATKINS, who knows how I feel.
Jane, Jane:  Your beauty and your goodness flow from you. Fear not.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday Musings, 18 June 2016

Good morning,

The boy has been back for a nearly a week but leaves this morning.  Sleep came easily last night, despite the pounding of my heart, the swelling in my feet, and the heaviness in my chest.  The symptoms seemed more related to the salt in my dinner than that little electric current which riffs through my chest and defies the demands of two different medications.  I breathed through it and I survived to the dawn.  Sixty can pose challenges; but here I sit, with my crystal mug of coffee and the keyboard in front of me on the secretary's pull-out desktop.  I'll take the gift of another day.

Yesterday we watched our neighbor's grandchildren running in her yard, blowing bubbles and darting beneath the spray of the hose.  Patrick said, we played like that didn't we, and I nodded, Yes, indeed, you did.   We stood shoulder to shoulder on the front porch, except that his shoulders stand six inches higher than mine and he towers over me.  My little boy.

Brenda came to dinner and a better companion for my intellectual son could not be found.  They share a love of literature and linguistics; and they fell into a discussion of a Japanese film maker from the 1940s which required consultation with Google twice.  I think my son was shocked that one of my friends could know so much about subjects of such interest to him.  I sat and listened.  I know nothing of any of it except I'd seen The Seven Samurai, a hundred years ago, in college.  I got a check-mark for effort and the conversation continued with a technical discussion of the cinematography.  I could not stop smiling.

For several days this week, Patrick filled my dining room table with folded laundry and "dry flat" blue-jeans.  I drifted in and out, watching him sort, discussing job-interview attire, looking at websites of places with which he has interviews scheduled.  We watched the online Bernie Sanders speech.  We went to breakfast at the Opera House.  He hung my Rainbow flag and carried my recycle to the curb.  The dog sat at his feet for four days and slept in the back bedroom to keep an eye on her master, whom she greets with as much eagerness every time he returns -- even now, even with visits six months apart.  Patrick makes his home in Illinois now, in an apartment in Evanston not far from Northwestern where he's just earned an MFA.  Depending on the job search, he'll be there for at least another year.  Nothing remains of him in this house except a box of artwork from elementary school, a few mementos on the keeping shelf, and a basket of clothes that I'm authorized to donate.

Oh, and his mother's heart; the fluttering, jittery, dancing heart that beats in the chest of the woman who gave birth to him twenty-five years ago next month.

I pad around the house with my mug of coffee.  I stand over this small laptop and think of several stories that I could tell about the prodigal son.  Once he got stung by a bee, and when I ran outside to help, he calmly advised me that I should call the neighbor kids' mother, because "she would know what to do".  Another time -- age 4 -- he walked through a dark, snow-filled night to that neighbor's home to get help because I had fallen in the backyard.  He'd often stand in the breakfast nook making faces at me when I cried over bills, hoping that his mother would laugh.  Later, much later, he drove me to the emergency room with a broken ankle; and another time, with a gashed head.

Now he sits at the dining room table discussing Akira Kurosawa with my friend Brenda and sipping a California Merlot which he selected for our Chai Shai carry-out dinner.

In a couple of hours, Patrick will pack his Kia with the clean, folded laundry; and load his bike on  the rack we bought a decade ago for a trip to North Carolina.  I've already stuffed some cash in his pocket, as did his aunt Joyce.  I know he does not need my money; he's been frugal, and he works, and he's been self-supporting for two years.  But that's what parents do.  We give our children what we can.  We teach them our values, and our tricks for survival, and shower them with love.  In the end, what is left we fold and press into their hands just before they depart, hoping it keeps them safe all the way home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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.