Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saturday Musings, 25 December 2010

Good morning,

The house still sleeps -- all the sentient beings, including any crickets still breeding in the walls from the long-ago days of the African fat-tailed leopard gecko named Galadriel, to whom we fed great globs of the gleaming, wiggling critters while many more escaped into the cracks of our hardwood floors. I grind the coffee, check the weather, and slip the gaily wrapped trinkets into the stockings hanging from the mantel. It is Christmas.

In my son's childhood, I created and perpetuated many rituals which have now become passe: The first present, a gift from the Tree Elf to my boy, which appeared the morning after we decorated the tree, resting on an ornament-laden branch. A train running beneath the tree every Christmas morning. The decking process itself, when Patrick and his friends would haul each ornament from the many boxes in which they lived all summer, exclaiming over the ones they remembered, puzzling over ones since forgotten. The annual acquisition of one special new ornament.

These little celebratory gestures supplanted those from my own childhood. I often felt like a cheat creating them, because they had no history -- only that which I fabricated for my only child of a single mother. Even in the years during which we had a resident stepfather, the habits of our holidays arose from my imagination rather than either of our pasts. With no living grandparents, and only far-away aunts, uncles, and cousins, my little household fended for itself.

We borrowed other people's rituals: the occasional Midnight Mass; an extra chair at someone else's family meal. I wrapped a plethora of wine bottles to bring as hostess presents, and we straggled into other people's houses, my little boy wearing a small red suit, or a green sweater, or a corsage of bows from his morning present frenzy. We resembled the ragamuffin children of the dust bowl days: dragging an old bunny, holding one of his mother's hands, my child entered other people's lives for a day, blending with their families, borrowing their laughter.

As he grew older, the gatherings at our own table finally evolved. A family with whom we became close shared a meal with us, if not on Christmas Day, then close to it, and for Patrick, these good friends somewhat compensated for the distant, absent family. I do not think he realized that other people had more family surrounding them during the holidays than we did, largely because I developed a healthy cadre of family-by-choice.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of celebrating Christmas here at the Holmes House (our name for the house in which we live, which is on Holmes Street) centers around the decided lack of Christianity in our world. I confess to being a cradle Catholic, and my son was baptized. However, I have through conscious choice abandoned that religion and even a true belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ -- although, as one good friend knows, crossing a bridge during a flood summoned a litany of long-forgotten prayers from the depths of my fear-wracked belly.

My son has always been told the origins of Christmas. I sometimes entertained him with descriptions of the rituals of my childhood that centered around the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

We would group around the couch on which my father sat. My father always gave off a slight odor of stale sweat, beer and Old Spice. On Christmas Eve, I willingly took my place at his side, watching as he turned the pages of the Bible, listening as he read in his quiet St. Louis twang:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed , every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered . And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

My father's voice always hesitated there. And always, he would glance at my mother, and say, Should I go on? And she would look at him with something close to love, and gently assent, and then he would continue.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. ."

When he finished, no one spoke, or moved, for a long stretch of time. Then my brother Frank, ever earnest, ever serious, carried a small plate of frosted cookies from the kitchen to the table in front of the couch, and one of the older children set a mug of milk beside it. Stephen came forward, his pale blue eyes round above a smattering of freckles. He unwrapped his fingers from the little ceramic baby, lowering it to its place between Mary and Joseph in our old Nativity Scene, under the angel who eternally spread her chipped wings and stretched her tiny hands to beckon the wise men coming from afar. Last of all, I moved to the window and lit the Mary Candle with a match struck by my father. The candle illuminated the path for the travelers -- the carpenter and his pregnant wife, coming to be counted. The next person to knock on our door would symbolize the Christ Child.

As all this unfolded, year after year, my tired mother hovered in the background. Her furrowed brow gradually relaxed, and she gathered us to her, briefly encircling a little gaggle of her own babes with her endlessly comforting arms. Then, with a laugh and a tickle, she ushered the little ones to bed while the older kids got ready for church. On Christmas Eve, in silence, in peace, we slept, and in the morning, we rose to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the heady smell of freshly-baked candy cane cookies and hot raisin bread.

My son and I never did any of those things, except perhaps leaving cookies and milk for Santa. We never stayed up late for Midnight Mass, or marveled over the shepherds keeping watch while the Babe slept. We borrowed the day, but not the reason for the day. So, having no other reason to celebrate, we made of it our opportunity to give every friend a gift, and welcome them into our home, sort of an annual Holmes House Appreciation Day, with reindeer.

This year, the day will be different. I have a fiance', and he has parents, and children, a sister and brother-in-law, and a couple of nephews. There's an extra pile of presents by the tree, to be taken to my future in-laws' home; and the booty to be opened at the Holmes House this morning has mushroomed by three-people's worth. I have an engagement ring on my hand, without which I once laughingly told him that he should not dare suggest marriage, way back when we first started dating: If you ever propose, I said, you better bring a big damn diamond. And so he did.

His people are Episcopalian, sort of a "Catholic-light". I'm not unfamiliar with that faith, as my best friend and her family are long-time practitioners of it. My son and I have even spent a number of Sundays at their church, and Patrick did his community service there during high school. But for many years, I have kept myself distant, and insulated, from all things formally holy; yet here I am, marrying into a family that has long-standing ties to an actual organized religion, and it's not even Roman Catholicism.

It's been a long, intriguing year. Between last Christmas and this, so much has happened that I find myself uncharacteristically quiet more often than usual, fascinated by the turning of the world, the shifting of the sands, the changed direction of the wind. Friends have drifted west by northwest; others have fluttered east. I've closed cases, and opened new ones. I've burned a bridge or two, but not without long thought and immutable reason. As I float into the last week of 2010, I will be cleaning closets, moving boxes on the basement shelves, and re-arranging furniture in anticipation of adding new occupants to our home.

While the coffee finishes brewing, and the little beagle yawns and whines in the kitchen, I'm sitting at my old iBook G4, listening to the rise of the winter wind and thinking about the hours that I have spent here musing about the kaleidoscope world in which I have grown to middle-age. In a little while, I will break eggs into a mixing bowl for Schmarren, and cut the Christmas bun that my friend Katrina gives us every year. I'll make hot cocoa for the boys, and they, in turn, will patiently listen to me reminisce about other breakfasts, on other Christmases, in the home of my parents, when we were young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

25 December 2010
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Musings, 18 December 2010

Good morning,

I have been relegated to the scarred oak table in the dining room, for the old Formica-top modified Singer sewing table on which I generally write when the weather forces me inside has been rolled on ancient casters into the spot in my son's bedroom where his little desk would be, had it not been hauled five hundred miles to the east to nestle under a drafty window in the SAE house. My tousle-headed boy strolled off an airplane an hour late on Friday afternoon, rounding the corner to exit the gate with his usual nonchalance, catching me by surprise once again. That head now rests on a plump pillow, weary from working all night on his last take-home final. God's in his heaven; all's right with the world.

I'm slightly battered today. An inconsiderate delivery person from Holmes Drywall co-opted the handicapped parking space in front of my building yesterday, forcing me to choose a more distant parking space, and I struggled too far down the sidewalk carrying clothes gathered by a friend for one of my clients who has children in need of them. I over-estimated my ability to stagger carrying bulky bags and tumbled onto the pavement, wrenching my artificial knee. I swear, had I known how much trouble joints made of metal can be, I would have declined the operation. Concrete rises to ram itself against the very spot where the surgeon's knife has three times been inserted, judging by the long angry scars. Acchh. Yesterday, in my wrath, I summoned the gendarmes, who reluctantly arrived and only upon my insistence cited the driver. Two pairs of masculine eyes companionably rolled at each other when they thought I did not see, causing me to tip another domino and write to the city prosecutor's office, pre-emptively voicing my objection to dismissal. And the knee swelled, and the temper simmered.

On my way to the airport, I listened to Science Friday on NPR. The guest scientist spoke of the upcoming total eclipse of the moon. Excitedly, I telephoned a friend who has eagerly joined Patrick and me in other crazy expeditions, suggesting a late-night visit to the Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kansas. Tossing the cell phone back into its little cubby, I accelerated into the curve where 169 meets 29, happy, eager. God's in his heaven, and the moon smiles upon him.

The expert reminded us that we may gaze upon the lunar eclipse without concern for our eyes. Imagine you and your friends are in a movie theatre, waiting for the film to be projected onto the white screen. The casting of the earth's shadow on the moon resembles the projection of the movie onto the fabric of the screen, the expert's eager voice tells me. I am thrilled. Road trip to Louisburg! Never mind that it will occur many hours after my customary bedtim -- in fact, closer to my customary time of waking.

I enter a long stretch of 29 with which I am sufficiently familiar to allow my mind to wander with a corner or two of its capacity. I stand in the front yard of my youth, which sat on McLaran Avenue in Jennings, Missouri. Two old, tall trees graced our yard, obscuring our view to the sky, so at night, to find the Big Dipper, we ventured out to the middle of the street, gazing upward. Around me, a pleasant, playful wind moves, rising to toss the heavy branches of the oak trees. My little brothers grab at the shoe box at the bottom of which my mother has pricked a tiny hole. She shushes them, soothingly, for a couple of more are forthcoming. We situate ourselves, faces covered, gazing upward from the highest point in the yard, straddling the tar-painted curb. Mother signals, and the cluster of gathered children raise their make-shift viewers, and gaze in wonder as the moon passes in front of the sun.

With alarming accuracy, one of my brothers jostles me at the height of the eclipse, and my legs, not strong, not steady, stagger. My box falls from my hand as I land on the concrete pad at the top of the stairs which lead down to the sidewalk spanning our yard. With a cruel, innate instinct, my eyes dart around to find a handhold, and for just the briefest of seconds, I glance upward, and gaze upon the sun with no protection. Just as quickly, I wrench my face downward, and breathe, waiting for blindness to overtake me.

It does not, of course. I sit on the top step, and the voices of my brothers swirl around me, proclaiming the coolness of what they see through the home-made goggles and, maybe, the coolness of our mother for having fabricated them. I venture a glance toward the front porch, and see my mother watching me. She never rushed to pull me off the ground, not once in the thousands of times that my spastic legs failed me. She waited, allowing me to struggle to my feet or call out, as I chose. I meet her gaze, wondering if she will punish me for looking at the sun without protection; wondering if she realizes that I did. I become vaguely cognizant of a stinging sensation, and look down at my bony knees. I am not startled to see a riff of blood along the jagged line of a scrape. I had grown accustomed to such occurrences.

I sweep one long pigtail back behind my shoulder, and settle more comfortably on the stairs. The voices of my four brothers -- two older, two younger -- recede into the background as I focus on remembering what I had seen: A stark, solid circle of black, surrounded by a fierce, bright ring of light. With the sight of a rapid shooting star, and the feel of water on my legs as it streams down the ancient boulders in Elephant Rock State Park, that eclipse, viewed without the impediment of a home-made protective apparatus, burned itself into my mind's eye even if it did not do likewise to my retina.

After a fashion, the boys tire of the sport as boys will do. The shoe-boxes become receptacles for rocks gathered along the road, and they take to pitching hunks of broken asphalt at the stop sign, My mother intervenes, then, not with admonishment but with the offer of lemonade, and their noise moves away from me, as they sink onto the chairs flanking the front door on the wide, brick porch of our home.

I am drawn back to the present by a crunching sound from the TV room, the noisy eating of our old cat, who has been yowling. The house has filled with the acrid smell of coffee simmering too long on an old burner. In her grubby old bed, the little dog sleeps, emitting a soft pleasant snore as she dreams, perhaps recalling her unbridled joy at last night's return of the prodigal son.

God is, indeed, in his heaven, and all is right with my world.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley
Proud birth-giver of Patrick Corley,
DPU Class of 2013

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Musings, 11 December 2010

Good morning,

Before me hangs a wooden star, on the front of which is the profile of an angel's head and wings, dark hair, elongated lashes, a small mouth beside a gentle splotch of red, possibly representing the kiss of a frosty morning. On the other side, a golden line, above which my name appears, and below which, the word "Christmas" and the year, "1958". I believe there are other stars like this, hanging in other homes, with the names of other Corley grandchildren. As mine gently rocks back into place, I cannot stop a slow smile from spreading over my face.

Beside the star is a more modern ornament, a red fish with blue polka-dots. This is a 2009 acquisition, from my friend Z, now decamped to parts northwest. My smile widens. To the left of the star is a glass bulb that Paula brought me from World's Window; to the right of the fish, a delicate paper circle, inside of which are what I take to be star flowers, a paper-cut-out from my sister Ann.

These are the decorations which hang year round in my nook, and what I see as I write, as I read e-mail, as I listen to the soft eulogy for Elizabeth Edwards delivered by an NPR commentator. I raise my coffee. I did not know her, but from what I have heard, she deserves the praise.

I've always had a weakness for selflessness.

Yesterday, a client sat in my office attempting to explain how one relapse did not change her claim of fifteen months' sobriety. I've been clean since July 2009, she said. A few minutes later, she admitted a November relapse. I shook my head. You have to start over, I told her. She looked down at the floor, having the gentle grace to be ashamed. I turned a page in her file, the slender batch of reports from the Juvenile court that came with my appointment. She'll never get her son back if she continues to drink, but her desire for the child has not overtaken her craving for cheap whiskey.

I close my eyes, briefly, with her still sitting in front of me. I think of a client in long-ago Newton County who walked down the mountain to save her son from her father's incestuous ravages. I see the face of the social worker who conducted that home visit and found the child's thirteen aunts and uncles, all mentally disabled, all drawing Social Security deposited into their parents' account, digging a latrine with spoons. The lines of his face deepened as he described the grime in the kitchen, the stench in the bedrooms, the standing pool of filth in the old outhouse. My last sight of that client when she tendered her son to adoptive parents has never left me: Joy mixed with resignation as she turned back towards her own enraged parents who had been denied custody of her eight-year-old for whom she made the ultimate choice.

I left that courtroom and trudged the two blocks to our home off the square, shedding my briefcase on the entry floor, tossing my purse on a chair, never stopping until I had exited onto the wide screen porch. I sat in my Shaker rocker, oblivious to the ringing phone in the little office at the front of the house. Below, the Buffalo River made its journey toward the slopes above the town. I could hear the swell of its spring flow, and smell the breeze coming off the trees rising from the river's banks. I could feel the cleansing water as though I had plunged my suit-clad person into its depths and surrendered to its pull. After a few miles, I would come to the River's beginning, and lay my body on the roots of the old trees there, leaving my feet in the stream, my shoes long since lost, my hose shredded and falling away. I could sleep at the source of the Buffalo; no houses lined the river's contours there, no camps, no roads. Certainly, no one wields a gavel onto planed and varnished oak high above the river's point of origins, nor anywhere along its route back down the mountain to the town.

If I persist, in three years, I will have served three decades at the Bar. In addition to hundreds and hundreds of private clients, I will have stood beside scores of appointed ones, mostly in Juvenile Court, mostly parents barely capable of dressing themselves let alone raising children. I have convinced mothers to sign over rights to children; I have required judges to preside over four days of trial before involuntarily taking such rights. On rare occasions, I have hammered a square peg into a round hole, and managed to pry a client's children out of the system. This week, I withdrew from the appointed case of a paranoid schizophrenic who loves her children but cannot bring herself to take the medication that would control her symptoms. I've represented her for two years, and managed to keep her visits scheduled for nearly two-thirds of that time, before she disappeared into the woodwork of the homeless. I did not feel triumph as I left the courtroom, nor relief. I felt only sorrow, and defeat.

I close my eyes, and summon my memories of that young woman in Jasper who saved her son. I see her oily skin, her stringy hair, her grubby clothes. And I see the light in her eyes, as her Joey reached to take the hand of his new mother.

The wooden star sways slightly in the draft from the window. The white cat is yowling to be released into the dampness of the day. I reach my hand to steady the dangling ornaments, and, with a shudder, and a long sigh, surrender my discontent to the contemplations of another day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Musings, 04 December 2010

Good morning,

I've surrendered to winter.

The furnace roars. I've abandoned the front porch for my breakfast nook, where my laptop is staged on a table comprised of a laminate top added to an old Singer sewing machine table, found at one of my favorite used furniture haunts years ago. This table has traveled from Missouri to Ohio to Iowa and back again, and I daresay, it has several years of use left. Speakers flank my Mac, to the right and left, a five-dollar pair from Best Buy that delivers Morning Edition on local station KCUR as I write.

I am stunned to find myself in December. I have purchased but one Christmas present. My tree still snoozes in its box. No ornaments have been hauled from the basement to deck my halls. I've just discovered a trial conflict in January that I'm trying to resolve, and I have four hearings between now and the day my son returns for the Christmas break, one of which is out of town. What happened to 2010?

I heard someone admit yesterday that Christmas had become increasingly important for her because of the birth of her child. You get to do stuff you haven't enjoyed in a long time, she noted. She didn't mention attending church, or lighting the Mary candle to place in the window for the Christ child. She referenced going to see Santa, and wrapping presents, and decorating her house. I understand her point. Though raised Catholic, I'm not particularly religious, espousing instead the 20th century label "spiritual". I find most telling the tender, guileless words of my son, at age 3, when asked if he knew whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas. "Oh yes," he chirped. "Uncle Steve's!"

I have a confession to make. I miss my brother. Yes, he was born on Christmas Day. As I recall, his impending arrival spoiled our Christmas morning. My mother winced when we exclaimed over each present. She must have been in labor. One particularly spectacular gift, a child's desk with a peg-board top and a lovely hammer, could not be deployed until she left for the hospital. I might be imagining that he was to have been called "Christopher" because of being born on Christmas Day; but he got the name of Stephen Patrick and Stephen made everything even -- fourth boy, balanced by four girls in the Corley family.

My friend Paula recently asked: How long does it hurt, losing your mother? A long time, I admitted to her; but losing your brother hurts forever. My only solace is thinking about the Christmases that I spent with him,

And so, sitting here, little nuggets of guilt, and glee, and glory, all rattling around in my gut, I think about one Christmas after another. The year my grandmother Corley sent matching pajamas for all eight of us: The boys got Cowbow PJs, the girls got red PJs embroidered with the phrase, "I'm a Little Devil". Eight bundles wrapped in reindeer-covered paper, in a huge box mysteriously delivered to our doorstep. The year that Frank and Steve snuck into the living room before my parents awakened, spying sleds beneath the tree, whispering, Mom is going to feel so stupid! because there was no snow -- and then, when they opened the living room curtains to reveal a white wonderland, hopping around with unbridled delirium. Watching my brothers stringing tinsel from branch to branch on the tree, playing made-up games with the elf ornaments. His last Christmas with us, when he and I shopped together in Clayton, and he bought an Alien catcher for my son complete with a plastic replica of that creature that burst from the astronaut's chest in the terrifying movie that the eight adult Corleys saw together one year on New Year's Eve. Thirty-seven years of German chocolate cake. A dozen years of celebrating Steve's half-birthday on July 25th, a practice invented by my mother to give him one special day when no one else got gifts. His bright eyes; his snapping fingers; his dancing feet.

Strains of violin now waft from my computer speakers. I've lost track of the program that I'm hearing; evidently, a violinist is being interviewed and is playing selected pieces. The poignant, haunting notes lift me, taking me away from the reverie into which I've fallen, higher, to a place in which dancing feet can never be stilled.

At last night's First Friday Gallery opening of Scott Anderson's powerful photographs, one of the models told me that she had no wishes for Santa Claus because she had everything she needed. Then wish for something for someone else, I suggested, playing her game, watching children flock to Santa at the tree-lighting ceremony outside the Gallery doors. Head tilted, serious for a moment, she agreed. I will, she assured me. So many people need things. That's a good idea.

I can't claim Christmas as a religious holiday, for I've strayed too far from my heritage to return on anything save the path of hypocrisy. But viewing Christmas-time as a season of love, I can stake my birthright with anyone. I know several people for whom this holiday will be particularly joyful -- children have been born, grades have been made, romantic alliances forged. But I know some for whom this year holds particular pain: parents, spouses, and children have been lost. Before the madness of shopping overtakes me, before the swags obscure the vision through my windows, before I swoon, overcome by the heavy fragrance of cedar and incense, I look around, trying to memorize the reasuring contours of the framework of permanance beneath the seasonal trappings.

My life has many ironies. One particularly amusing twist of fate consists of the cumulative effect of spasticity. The very spasticity which plagues me also allows me to remain vertical. Removing the spasticity in my legs eliminates pain but disenables me from walking. Now that is one Catch, that Catch-22, isn't it? But in those little ironies, I find immutable truths.

And so, as the icy drizzle strikes my window pane, and the last simmering coffee cools in my cup, I'm counting my blessings, being careful to wish for only that which I really need, asking the Universe to give others endless bounties to sustain them, and looking forward to another Christmas, another New Year's Eve, another burgeoning year dawning with its nascent hope.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Delayed Musings: 28 November 2010

Good morning,

A small, polite rap on my door signaled the arrival of my son's ride back to St. Louis, where he will connect with his friend from school for the journey back to his other life. The last inch of over-packed suitcase succumbs to relentless tugging, and, with a quick, commanded hug, he leaves. The dog and I settle back into our empty-nest routine, while the cats scurry across the dining room floor, foraging for crumbs.

The final count at last evening's Thanksgiving meal hit 24, counting three well-behaved, adorable children. Several invited guests suffered illnesses preventing their attendance, but last-minute additions kept our number from sliding below 20. I have a reputation to uphold, after all.

Every wine- and water-glass served duty, several twice, and had everyone attended, I do not believe the silverware would have held. The buffet groaned under the bounty of my friends' contributions; Katrina's gravy glistened; Caroline's chocolate cake beckoned; Sheldon's whipped potatoes shone.

In our customary way, we rounded the table, youngest to oldest, acknowledging something for which we gave thanks. With no giggling pre-teens, we heard only serious comments. I'm thankful for family. . . for friends. . . for the survival of my business. . . for being here. My tears flowed; I cannot help myself. As soon as the prodigal son spoke, I began to tear: I'm thankful that I came home this year, after missing last year. As am I, my beloved; as am I. For everyone who is here, and everyone who could not be.

The near-perfect boyfriend and his sweet sister together put a major dent in the dishes. And let it be acknowledged here: Valiant always, Jim stood at the sink until the last plate had been washed, dried and put away. He wins the 2010 Holiday Clean-Up Award. I slept a hard eight hours; and then, at 6:30 this morning, the knock on the door, and my son slipped away as quickly as he arrived.

I have folded the metal chairs, and taken the linens down to the laundry room. I've collected the rag-tag glasses scattered hither and yon, and a spoon or two from the floor beneath the dining room table.

I do not need to close my eyes to remember other Thanksgivings. We have always said the "Thankful-Fors"; we have always had clover leaf rolls; we have always crowded as many as we could in my modest dining room, and put the younger set at a folding table, on folding chairs, with their own gravy boat and basket of bread.

In my youth, sixth of eight, I clutched my Thanksgiving Day chore and awaited the timer that would call each Corley to task. Mother doled out slips of paper on which your name and duty had been carefully noted, and at the sound of the ding, you left the relative with whom you were chatting and rushed into the kitchen to help with final preparations, pigtails flying, patent Mary Janes clicking on linoleum. The laying of the plates; the filling of water goblets; the arranging of chairs. Eight Corley children; eight jobs; and then, with the raising of the dinner bell, a call to supper.

I have known Thanksgivings in other settings. One year, house-sitting in the mountains, I ate Cornish hen cooked in a pot-belly stove. The year before my son's birth, his small self quickening within me, I rode the train to St. Louis in an ice storm and sat at my brother's table, unobtrusive, alone in the din of his lively children, next to the priest who later baptised my infant. I cannot remember Thanksgiving of 1991 or 1992. For the last 17 years, I have cooked here at the Holmes house, either on Thursday or a day through the weekend, or both.

We welcome anyone who wishes to come. Our annual dinner started as a place for folks with no local family and hence nowhere else to go, but evolved into a gathering of family by choice. I stand as my guests sit; and hover near the kitchen. I cannot light and eat: my need to be sure that everyone receives what they want or need cannot be sated.

I stand on the porch as each guest departs, and call after their cars pulling away from the curb. Thanks for coming! Be careful! See you soon! As the last Tupperware is burped, and the last napkin collected, and the last half-bottle of wine re-corked and stowed on the shelf, I feel the aching in my muscles, the cramping in my feet, and the slight, heady rush of fatigue rising, drawing my eyelids downward, making my head spin, just slightly.

One bowl slides to the kitchen floor and breaks. Does this bowl have special meaning, comes the anxious cry of the dishwasher. My son carries it toward me, and I ascertain that it is nothing special. "Nothing special" means not touched by my mother's hands, or passed down to me by womenfolk of whose faces I have only fading memory. One day, perhaps, I will view my special dishes as merely being future landfill. But the mish-mash china pieces in my cupboards still remind me of those who have gone home, and I wince at the sound of crockery on tile.

I am tired, now. At ten, I will serve as substitute greeter at St. Andrew's Episcopal church, standing in for the person who left town early to get my son to St. Louis on time to meet up with his friend, and thus, to journey on to Indiana. By noon, I will occupy the desk in my office, preparing for a sad but apparently unavoidable custody trial which starts tomorrow. Although my brain will turn to other, more practical contemplations, in the background my gratitude will still hum.

I am, without question, thankful for all of my beloved friends who gathered in my home last evening. I am also thankful for my siblings, even those with whom I have only infrequent contact; and for my child, who touches my heart; and I am thankful for the hold I have managed to place on health which, though not good, is thus far good enough.

But I am also thankful for those whose faces recede into the curtained corners of my mind. My parents; both of my grandmothers; my mother's father; aunts; uncles; and my brother Stephen, whom I shall forever see as lively, and quick, strolling into any room with radiance and energy.

My friend Paula lost her mother this year; my friend Jane, her brother. Stacey's grandmother died; and there have been others. For all of them, and for myself, I offer not my own words, but those of Antoine de Saint Exupery, which I read at my brother's funeral, and for the comfort of which, I am also thankful.

In this, the 26th Chapter, the Little Prince is preparing for his journey home, and the author, who is stranded in the desert because of an engine malfunction in his plane, has discovered that "going home" for the Little Prince involves the gracious bite of a venomous snake, for the Little Prince's home is far away, and his body too heavy for him to carry. And the author is anxious at the thought of losing his friend, and thus, seeks reassurance from the Little Prince:

"Little man," I said, "tell me that it is only a bad dream--this affair of the snake, and the meeting-place, and the star . . ."

But he did not answer my plea. He said to me, instead:

"The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen . . ."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"It is just as it is with the flower. If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers . . ."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"It is just as it is with the water. Because of the pulley, and the rope, what you gave me to drink was like music. You remember--how good it was."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens . . . they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present . . ."

He laughed again.

"Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!"

"That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water . . ."

"What are you trying to say?"

"All men have the stars," he answered, "but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You--you alone--will have the stars as no one else has them--"

"What are you trying to say?"

"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You--only you--will have stars that can laugh!"

And he laughed again.

"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, 'Yes, the stars always make me laugh!' And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you . . ."

And he laughed again.

"It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh . . ."


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday Musings, 20 November 2010

Good morning,

My eyes closed at midnight, just seconds after finishing a book from a long-ago read series by one of my favorite authors. How I could have missed that particular episode, I can't say, but I discovered it in the musty shelves of "I Love a Mystery", and chortled all the way home after purchasing it for one-half of its 1969 cover price. Oh, joy.

This morning, those eyes protested being forced to function before the sun had cleared the east horizon. I dragged myself from Saturday sleep far too early, slogging through the grinding of the beans, the bad news in the Star's front section, and the lame comics. I'm expecting the cable guy -- coming to address annoying pixelation on the Food Network channel that threatens my late-evening perusal of the Thanksgiving recipes touted by the likes of Alton Brown, Giada DeLaurentis, and everybody's darling, Rachael Ray. Why this malady only affects the Food Network, I cannot say; perhaps this stands as a commentary on my viewing habits.

My little dog occasionally protests from the backyard, unsympathetic to my need for quiet. She has a predilection for jumping on visitors, and is a bit of a bigot for reasons that predate her rescue and adoption, thus being unknown to me. She must, therefore, be banished from the house when repair persons are scheduled to arrive. The black cat yowls to be released from the captivity that he sought this morning, after a night of roaming the neighborhood. I'm told he has sired numerous kittens; certainly, he arrives home with the occasional battle scar, and I suppose that one of these days, I will be forced to curtail his manhood.

Yesterday, I attended a ceremony for National Adoption Day at the Jackson County Family Court. I am one of ten adoption GALs there. I fancied myself as a potential adoptive parent decades ago, first during my 30s before the birth of my son, and then again, in his young boyhood. That never came to pass, but I have -- if my count is accurate -- seven adopted nieces and nephews, and my very first case as an attorney was the step-parent adoption by my brother of his eldest son, now a grown man. That ceremony brought tears to the eyes of all present, from the curmudgeonly St. Louis County judge presiding over the hearing, to the social worker, and the petitioner's attorney. Each time I said the petitioner's name, the child on his lap, who was the subject of the proceedings, chirped, "That's my Daddy!"

I came very close to adopting two children, at separate times. The first, an adorable toddler named Kimmy, caught my heart and my son's heart in a way that still resonates. Another, an infant called Bianca, howled all night for the first week of her tenancy in my home, but eventually lost her fear, and clung to great gobs of my hair as she chortled over my shoulder, while I moved about the house doing chores. Each lived with us during months when my son and I served as a Jackson County foster home. Each left us to be adopted by other families, chosen in our stead as preferable. In Kimmy's case, the worker preferred a two-parent home; Bianca's worker thought she should be placed in a foster home with parents of her own race. I've prayed, since then, that the families which received those lovely, plucky children cherished them as my son and I would have. One can only hope.

But the foster children whose presence, and abrupt departure, made the biggest imprint and left the biggest hole in our hearts were Mikey and Jacob. These brothers spent a half-dozen weeks with Patrick and me during Patrick's kindergarten year. Mikey had been sexually abused by his mother's long progression of men. At age six, he had three recorded suicide attempts, the most recent prior to placement with us having been an agonizing tumble from a moving vehicle. He told the police officer who rescued him that he just wanted to get away. Not die, perhaps; but escape.

Jacob looked like an angel, and often sat contently in a toddler chair, banging his spoon on the table while singing a wordless tune. I could only imagine its origins. He held his face in an intent repose when he did not realize that I watched him, and scrunched his eyes in glee if Patrick brought him toys. I could have kept Jacob, could have made his transition into our home a seamless and joyful one. But Mikey -- ahhh, Mikey. He posed challenges that I had not anticipated. He would not take a shower for anyone but his sister's foster mother at her home; he smashed dishes against the floor; he flailed and swore when I tried to get him out of the car to go to school; he lit matches in the bedroom. On the day he brandished a knife towards my chest, screeching that he would kill me, kill Patrick, kill Jacob, that he would kill himself, I wrapped my arms around the other children and called the social worker. I can't handle this, I told her. I can't bear the thought that he might actually do it. I can't help him.

Jacob and his little sister found permanent homes. I heard that Mikey aged out of the program while living at a local boys' home. I do not know what happened to him.

I have a friend who is a career foster mother. With her husband and birth children, she gives sanctuary to some of the more troubled children whom I have seen in my long career as a family law practitioner in all its phases. She runs a lively, happy, joyful home. It is not always neat and tidy, but it is clean, and its trappings are child-proof, and she displays the artwork of foster children beside the scribblings of her birth children with equal pride. She and her husband cherished some badly damaged and sad victims of parental abuse.

As I move through my week, reading my clients' e-mail about their struggles to co-parent during separation and after divorce, I experience my own struggles -- I want to lock all these divorcing parents in padded rooms and make them stay until they work out their differences. Most of them perform reasonably well as parents, and their arguments arise not from any particularly legitimate complaint about the other parent's treatment of their shared children, but from unresolved disappointment at the failure of the adult relationship. There are exceptions, of course. I do represent people dealing with legitimate abuse situations, or the aftermath of addiction -- their own or that of their child's other parent. But by and large, as a family law practitioner, I see reasonably competent parents on both sides of the courtroom, and I ache to convince them to accept each other before it is too late -- before their children become unintended victims of their bitterness.

I find myself smiling, suddenly. I think about stories I have told -- mountains I have climbed, journeys I have taken, faces I have seen and later described. I have been accused of sentimentality. I have been accused of merely relaying warm, fuzzy memories. I edit away my personal anguish, stripping my past of its intensity, serving only the sweetness, or the easy lesson. The fierce, fast events of my past are buried in the oblique metaphors of my poetry, too rough for general audiences.

But my own suffering and the pain of the children that I serve both inform me. From it all, I take a few certain truths. In the final analysis, the human condition dictates our behavior, and our behavior molds the human condition. We become what we do. We take shape as a result of our actions. Thus, we control what we are. We know that our neuropathways change because of what others do to us, and we excuse ourselves on this basis, but we must also acknowledge that those same pathways can be redirected by our own behavior. We can change the future. We choose how we respond to adversity, and to challenge.

When the dust settles on humanity, when the last page of human history has been written, the most telling epitaph will be a recitation of the way in which we cared for those around us, especially the most helpless members of society -- the infirm, the old, the young. Our children serve both as test and legacy. I hope we rise to the challenge: In our personal choices; in our crafting of the rules that govern our collective; in the spreading of bounty; in the thoughtfulness with which we live, and work, and play, as individuals and as a society.

The white cat curls in sleep on the bookshelf beside me. She heeds my call to survival, and has even rallied. I have ordered my Thanksgiving turkey and co-opted extra chairs. In a few days, my son returns, and the house will again crackle with the intensity of youth. I have given some thought to my "thankful-for" -- the expression of gratitude that my dinner guests must acknowledge after the grace is said, as the food is passed and the drink poured. There are many things for which I am grateful: overcoming adversity; finding love; continued ability to work; the roof over my head; the school that my son attends; the help that I am given from many quarters; the air that I breathe, the sun on my skin.

I strive to distill the overwhelming emotion into one cogent thought. I have long since surrendered to the inevitable tears which will captivate me, when I take my turn. For what am I thankful? Simply put: everything.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday Musings, 13 November 2010

Good morning,

Beside me, on the top shelf of the bookcase made by my great-grandfather,the white cat sleeps. She leaves her perch only to eat, or beg for water from the bathroom sink, or, briefly, to use her litter box. She has occupied the same eight by four rectangle of inches for the last week. She grows old as I watch; her fur mats, and her eyes begin to glaze as she turns them toward me with a slightly accusatory air. Occasionally, she stretches her paws across the short distance to my chair, and lowers her thin body to my side.

When my son left for college in the fall of 2009, he extracted from me a promise that I would keep the pets alive. I only guaranteed their safety for that first year, but he insisted that I renew my pledge this past August, and I have been trying to honor his request. Now I am begging this cat, who came to Patrick as his third birthday present, to live until Thanksgiving. So far she seems willing to oblige.

Layers of sound rise in my world: The lumber of the trash truck; the dim, melodic cadence of NPR from the bedroom; the constant, low whine of the tinnitus from which I have suffered for forty years. These sounds comfort me. My hearing has backslid; I have no capacity in the critical voice range in one ear; a significant loss in that same range in the other; and my low-range hearing leaves much to be desired. Ambient noise muddles any speech. The insistent jabber of small motors drives me to hysteria. Yet as the morning unfolds, I perceive the plethora of sounds as a symphony -- my background soundtrack -- the absence of which I would lament.

I do not have to close my eyes to focus on sound. But when I do, some of the noises that rise within me are not pleasant. I remember them all. The sharp, unmistakable roar of a shot gun blast, reverberating while I stand frozen in a hospital emergency room hallways, staring at my own reflection, wondering who else could see me. The scratch of a doctor's pen across the surface of a patient's chart, as he huddled beneath a metal gurney, while a baby cried and its young mother begged it to be still, at least until the gun-wielding murderer could be located. The soul-searing sound of a small sob escaping from the doctor's lips, as he remembered his last sight of a bloody colleague, being wheeled through the back hallways to an elevator, destined for the stark, sad confines of an operating room.

Before I made my way to that room, the room with the doctor, and the teenage mother, and the crying baby, I had been alone. I started out in the hallway, just paces behind the fallen physician, the second person killed by the lunatic who terrorized us for the next six hours. I watched the doctor fall, not in slow motion but quickly, in a noiseless crumple. I darted around a corner, trembling. What is happening, I asked myself, my panicked self, the self standing stock still in the window fifty feet away. Somebody is shooting at you.

I ran into an examining room and, with a strength I did not anticipate being able to summon, I dragged a heavy table across the floor to form a barricade, wincing at the screech of its protest, the dull, heavy thud as I slammed it against the door. Good God, he will hear you, I told myself. I threw myself under a desk, and sat for a few moments, trying to control my shaking body, straining to hear anything that might tell me the fate of the friend who had brought me to this emergency room, of the doctor who I had to think must be dead, of whoever took the blast of the first shot, the one that made both me and the fated resident stop, stunned, speechless.

I think time passes more slowly from beneath an old metal desk. Crammed in its knee hole, enfolded to a size my body loathed to assume, I began to imagine I could hear activity in the hallway beyond the room in which I hid. The rustle of bodies; the scurry of feet; the murmur of fear, palpable and painful. Then a voice: Come out. Come out. Wherever you are.

I did not move. A few minutes later, the door to my room opened a half-inch, and a gruff voice summoned. Whoever is in here, move this barricade. I did not speak. It's the police. Open this door.

Perhaps I have a suspicious nature, but it occurred to me, just then, that if I wanted to corral a bunch of ragtag patients together and shoot them, I'd lure them out by pretending to be the police. I glanced at the table against the door and judged that it would hold most onslaughts. Show me your badges, I called out. I heard a mumbled exchange. Open the door, came the response, in a strong, authoritative voice. You show me your badges and then I'll open the door!

The voices went away. I learned later that they went to the room with the crying doctor and took stock. They found my friend, whom they co-opted to return to the hallway outside my door with them. Corinne, she quavered. They think you're a hostage in there. It's really the police out here, girl. Open the door and show you're alone. I heard her fear; I admired her bravery. She would not serve as bait for a bad guy. I knew her better. And so I dragged the barricade from in front of the door and was immediately sorry. A SWAT team surrounded me, pulling me down to the cold, dirty floor and ramming a gun against my temple. I heard the crash of the door as they fell into the empty room, ready to capture; and I heard the disappointment in their voices.

They herded my friend and me back to the place where everyone had been collected, and we waited there, without food, without water, without so much as the soothing inanity of piped-in music. Only the baby's low, steady whimpering, the perpetual scritch of the doctor's ballpoint pen, and the occasional, reverent whisper from one person to another, broke the silence. I watched the tears fall from the doctor's eyes, down his cheek, and onto the gibberish he wrote. I took my turn holding the baby so its mother could sleep. I rubbed an old woman's numb fingers. I leaned my head on my friend's shoulder, and, later, sat very still as she slept on mine. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the throbbing silence around me.

They released us about five hours later. In straggled bunches, the police escorted us to the parking garage which stood in the eternal darkness of the grave, all of its lights shattered by law enforcement armament as part of their attempt to isolate the gunman. No one spoke. My friend drove me home but did not leave her car. She watched me until the door of my apartment building locked behind me, flicked her lights in the early-morning gloom, then drove away. I went upstairs, poured a few fingers of Glenlivet, and sank into a rocking chair. I fell asleep with the radio blaring, and every light in the apartment illuminated, and the last sound I heard was the thunder of the trash truck, and the sharp snap of the newspaper tossed on my balcony by a passing van.

The furnace clicks into action, whirring as it spills hot air into my dining room. The cat, curled on the shelf beside me, lets one small mew escape. A light, steady mist falls from the steely sky, and as it hits my window, it does not make a sound.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday Musings, 06 November 2010

Good morning,

The leaves gather beneath the holly bushes on which the first blush of winter berries has begun to gleam. I wrap myself in my usual ragtag selection of long scarves. I wind wool over chiffon and sweep the lot behind me as I descend the three steps of the porch, in the crisp air of the clear morning, with my usual cup of black courage clutched against my chest.

Last night, at another First Friday in Mission, a fine photographer and I joined forces to create a landscape for those gathered to view his works, and the works of the incomparable Katie Dallam, and the sweet paintings of a little girl with an eye for beauty. We arranged chairs, and put out food, and made lemonade. As we poured bottled spring water into the lemonade dispenser, I found myself thinking of other water, flowing from a spring, fed by an underground river, far south of here, in another lifetime.

In the mountains of Arkansas, a man with too much money built a house inside of a cave; not a hovel, nor a crude shelter, but a true house, with floors, and carpets, and a loft library, and bedrooms deep in the bowels of the old, craggy hillside, along a curved tiled hallway. The ceiling rose high, and the inner stairway ascended to a series of upper rooms, flanked by railings of carved wood tenderly made by craftsmen who knew their art.

The first time I drove the state highway to the cave house, we stopped beside the road to fill our thermos with water trickling from a pipe protruding out of the rough sweep of rock through which the road had been carved. I had never tasted water in its unsullied form. I had not known that water has a natural taste, and its own fragrance, and a unmistakable light, as it moves within the earth. The spring flowed with the unbridled force of its own energy, out of the small length of lead, unfettered, onto my hands, into my mouth as I bent over to drink. Not before or since has water given me what that water did: pure rejuvenation, as only things untainted by the processes we impose on them can give.

When we had consumed our fill, and capped our containers, we continued on, and after a few minutes' drive along the road, we came around a broad bend and saw the cave house: windows where no windows should be, above a clearing that did not exist before wealth insisted on its creation, beside which sat an abandoned Bobcat. We parked alongside a battered pick-up and a BMW that must have belonged to the owner, for its paint gleamed, and its tires bore none of the mountain mud that vehicles can never shed once they became country cars.

We entered the cave house through a large wooden door of gleaming oak polished to an unnatural gloss and outfitted with heavy brass fittings. Inside we paused, staring, mesmerized by our surroundings. I raised my eyes and gazed upward, to the ceiling at the front part of the cave, towering fifty feet or more above me. To my left stood the stairway to the loft; its railing had not yet been installed, but the risers spanned four feet wide; to my right, I saw the hallway which curved away from us along the perimeter of the cave.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I stood on natural stone, which, I was told, would ultimately be finished with wide planks of native wood flooring. We hovered near the doorway. I pulled my jacket closer to my frame. The air beneath the mountain would need no air conditioning. After a few minutes, I became aware of a consistent, unfamiliar high-pitched sound. I asked, What is that noise? Came the reply from my companion: Water.

Water. My eyes finally adapted to the dimness of the interior, and I realized that in the great space that would someday be the grand foyer of the cave house, scores of buckets had been placed. Water dripped into those buckets, and onto the stone on which we walked with careful steps. The unbroken sound that it made as it fell signified that the mountain had not yet been tamed.

We toured the work-in-progress in silence, moving slowly, taking care on the slick, damp surface. We traversed the circular hallway, to the last point at which the workers had left their mark and then, with no backwards glance, slipped through a tall, narrow crevice into the bowels of the mountain. I held my companion's hand and sometimes reached for the cool wall to steady myself in the passageway. We had no light other than weak rays from high above us. The silence only yielded to the sounds of the ubiquitous water and our own ragged respiration.

A hundred yards beyond the first opening, we came to another, smaller crack, and without hesitation, we sidled through it. I closed my eyes and clutched my companion's hand more tightly, as we moved deeper and farther beyond any place that humans often entered. Don't worry, he said. I know where I'm going. My breathing grew more desperate, and I felt the panic of the truly claustrophobic rise within me. At that point, turning back posed just as much terror as going forward, and so I kept walking, staggering blindly on the dark path until, suddenly, unexpectedly, the narrow passage opened into a wide expanse, the height of which soared to a place I could not see.

We stopped, my companion and I, and leaned against the rock wall, feeling its eternal cold press into our backs. As my body calmed, and I grew quiet, I realized that we stood on the shores of an underground lake, on the surface of which shone a snippet of light from somewhere so far above us that I had to take the naturalness of its source on faith. We held ourselves still, beside that pool, and we breathed air that few had ever breathed, that few even knew existed to be breathed. We did not speak. My fingers opened, and I realized that I had been grasping my companion's hand so tightly that my own hand ached.

What is this place? I whispered. I could not see his face. It is the heart of the mountain, came his low reply. Neither of us said anything more. I had no use for my eyes in the moment, and so I closed them, and I attended to the touch of virgin air on my skin and the quiet throb of unbroken silence.

Gradually, the chill overtook us, and we joined hands once more. At the far edge of the water, we slipped through another crack, into the space formed by the shifting of two large segments of rock, long ago, when the earth shuddered and shook. The steady dripping of water along the walls on either side of us and over our heads grew louder as we journeyed. A hundred feet beyond the lake, the path began to rise, and my breathing grew labored from effort. My companion held onto me, wordlessly urging me forward as I struggled to climb. Finally, when I began to fear that I would have to surrender, and stay, living within the mountain like a troll, we broke through to the surface, and I gasped as I realized that once more we stood beside the spring at which we had so recently refreshed ourselves.

My companion led me to a flat rock, and I sank to its surface, eagerly lifting my face to the kiss of the summer sun. I could only silently nod as he told me that he would fetch the car. By the time he returned, I had fallen asleep, and I did not fully awaken as he guided me to the passenger's seat.

I visited the cave house many times after that, watching the workers press the trappings of civilization onto mountain's stark interior. Gleaming, man-made surfaces formed under the rough, steady hands of silent locals who barely hid the contempt they felt. Whether their contempt was for the man whose dreams fed their families or for themselves, I never did decide. When the last carpeting had been laid, and the last polished appliance fitted into the kitchen, and the last leather book slipped onto the walnut shelves installed in the loft, I came once more, to see what they had created.

I walked the length of the hallway, to the end, where we had gone that day. I stopped, stunned. But I should have known. The crevice had been closed, with brick, and mortar, and a heavy coat of something shiny -- sealant, I suppose, still emitting an acrid smell. I reached out, and ran my fingers along the smooth, hard wall. I closed my eyes and felt my body sway, just slightly, as I pressed my hand against that awful barrier.

I turned, finally, and left, and I have not gone back. I think about that lake from time to time, when the trees in my yard glisten with soft autumn rain, and I stand on my porch under its cathedral ceiling. I close my eyes, and I breathe the damp, cool air, and I am transported, just briefly, back to that inner sanctuary, to the shore of the quiet, old lake, under the ancient mountain. And I remember the delicate taste of spring water, and its soothing touch, as it fell into my hands from a pipe staked in a rock, in Newton County, when I was young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

In case you are interested:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday Musings, 30 October 2010

Good morning,

The tinge of cold on my skin signals that I might soon have to abandon the porch for warmer writing digs. But the sun still shines its feeble fall rays over the tops of the trees, though soon it will shift to provide less comfort. The yard lies sleeping under its heavy cloak of fallen leaves, and the last wilted sage on the strip of ground at the south age of my property struggles to rise above the dankness of the winter earth.

I have not decorated the porch for All Hallowed Eve. Last year, my first year of empty-nesting, I allowed myself to opt for a plastic pumpkin. But I have not even bothered with artificial trappings this year; and I have a funeral followed by a family dinner to attend on Sunday, so I will not, for the first time in 19 years, be passing out candy tomorrow night. In any case, the number of small children knocking at my door has dwindled over the years, until finally, I had to extinguish the porch light so early that it hardly seemed to matter. If I left it illuminated after eight, all of the trick-or-treaters would be taller than I; and notwithstanding their protestations of entitlement, I decline to fuel the delayed childhood of high school seniors.

Halloweens of the past crowd my memory today -- some of my son's best costumes; sorting candy on the living room floor with my brothers; the year that a group of us managed to take our sons out in all three of our neighborhoods, to their eternal delight. Score! In my son's last year of elementary school, he and several friends, along with a handful of parental units, went round our block to Trick-or-Treat-For-UNICEF, while a smaller group gathered in my living room to hand out candy and drink hot cider -- some spiked, some not -- and gasp, or squeal, or coo over the costumes at the door, and the dimpled, smiling children who stretched out their arms and their paper bags to receive our bounty. We always gave chocolate, and little packages of Smartees, and orange-wrapped taffy.

My reveries trigger a recollection of an evening at my childhood home at the foot of Kinamore Drive, on McLaran Avenue in Jennings. The year must be 1968, or thereabouts. Two boys, eight or nine years old, stand at on end of a long dinner table spread with newspapers. Resting in front of them, a large sacrificial orb, orange and smooth, awaits further degradation, having already had a lid slashed from it by our mother. Each boy -- grinning, gleeful -- has rolled up his sleeves and donned an old man's shirt over his clothes. Each boy has been given a large spoon, but they have both cast such tools aside. At a signal from Mom, they dive in, and wrench the guts from the pumpkin's belly, pulling each glob and hurling it down onto the newspaper.

I stand, as my twelve-year old self, at the far end of the table, holding a camera. I am charged with the task of photographing the finished product, but as their wild grabs at the innards reach a crescendo, I am clicking the shutter. They raise their hands, swinging the globs of seeds and pulp, roaring like the monsters that they will resemble when garbed for Halloween, eager and threatening, and I snap, and snap, and they laugh, and laugh, until finally, our mother comes into the breakfast room with a tray full of freshly baked sugar cookies and says, Okay now, that's enough, let's draw the face and I'll cut it out for you.

Six months later, my mother sorted through a box full of photographs. She was looking for a picture to put on the front of a card that she intended to send out, to celebrate the approaching holiday. Another ritual involving candy -- but in baskets, with jelly beans, and plastic grass. My mother did not let any occasion pass without a mass mailing to her family and friends. She often made her own cards, getting multiple copies of whatever family picture caught her fancy. As the last girl at home, I got the task of addressing the envelopes and writing the messages. For this spring holiday, she held up a square from the picture pile and proclaimed that she had found the perfect shot. I took it from her hand, and agreed. To the photo shop at the drug store we went, and ordered a pack of duplicates. A week later, I pasted one on each folded rectangle of note paper, and wrote the caption beneath it: Happy Easter, Happy Spring, Happy Happy Everything.

I still smile at the thought of the looks on people's faces, when they opened the envelope and saw the picture of my little brothers, Frank and Steve, with their pumpkin-smeared shirts, and their raised hands, with pumpkin guts dripping from their fingers, and their sweet boy faces frozen in terrible monster growls.

From my front porch in Brookside, on this marvelous fall morning, I send you all Halloween greetings, with special love to a dear friend whose mother got her angel wings this week. Rest in peace, Louise.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Musings, 23 October 2010

Good morning,

I stand on the porch this morning, plastic-clad paper at my feet, white cat on the far end of the wheelchair ramp railing, and gaze above my head into the pitched roof of my porch. I draw in a long, cleansing breath of rain-washed air and listen to the faint stirring of some one's wind-chime, high and gentle.

Hearing confounds me. The gentlest note in an elevated range might reach me, but a murmured endearment at a low register will not. At times when ambient noise scrambles to claim my focus, I hear nothing and everything. A voice can carry down a corridor with crystal clarity; and a whisper beside my ear can be incomprehensible.

The man who built the porch on which I stand has a commanding voice, once familiar to local theatre audiences and radio listeners, resonant and sure. Remembering its timbre, I draw another gasp of air and find myself standing not on my familiar porch but in the large kitchen of our home in Jasper, Arkansas.

The Buffalo River ran behind that house, at the bottom of a sharp drop at the back edge of our property. We rented the place. It stood on the northwest side of the town square, next to City Hall. We selected it because of its large underground garage, where saws, and lumber, and the tools of a carpenter's trade could be stowed and used.

He and I had been married for six months when we came to live in that small town. We shared its few scraggly streets with five hundred sixty-four people by the most recent census count, though six-hundred eight tapped into the water line. Our house stood one spot beyond the city treatment plant, and on water purification days, the chlorine smell made me gag and I could not shower.

By the summer of 1988, I knew that country life held no charm for me. I struggled with the vagaries of small town practice. Though our house sported a separate entrance to the room which I used for an office, everybody came to the front door and sat in our living room to share their stories. I wrote their wills; and cobbled together the shambles of their finances after divorce, and when I could not stand the mundane though poignant demands on my talent, I volunteered to represent people in chancery court whose lives had come undone.

Chester, my husband, did freelance set design that year. It had not gone well. We left Little Rock when a change in administration at the theatre company which had lured him south resulted in the wholesale replacement of the entire staff, including their most recent hire, my husband. So to Jasper we came, where he owned mountain property and had always wanted to relocate, and we staunchly tried to settle into life so different from any we had known that our folly must have been apparent to everyone but us.

And so we made our way to that summer, when we could sleep with doors and windows wide, catching the wind that lifted the day's stale air and sent it on its way. The neighbor's rooster awakened us before we might otherwise have wanted to face the daylight, and we pulled ourselves through the silence of spoiling marital discord surrounded by the bold beauty of the Arkansas Ozarks.

I frequented the library in the basement of City Hall. Though I had read most of the novels on its shelves, I found a few that bore re-reading. I grew to know the mayor, a woman whose face I can still picture but whose name I cannot recall. She ran the city of Jasper with thoughtful delicacy, and that summer, her four-year-old granddaughter visited her at City Hall most afternoons, playing on the tile of the reception room, searching for pretty rocks on the edges of the small ravine, thoughtless and simple in the ways of the very young.

On one such day, I hovered in the kitchen, disturbed by silence, wishing I had friends to visit or pubs to frequent, music to hear, smoky air to inhale. As I shifted the pans around, waiting for inspiration regarding our dinner, I heard my husband's voice, calm, but urgent, with the pitched resonance of controlled projection: One word, Corinne.

I tilted my head, listening to the ever-present tinnitus in my bad ear, straining, wondering if my lonely imagination had created the call. Then his voice came to me again: Corinne, come now. Corinne. Corinne. I started towards the door when he spoke a third time, from within a hollow block of stagnant summer air: Come slowly. Bring the .22.

One learns, in the country, in the mountains, to keep the weapons loaded. The children are taught to clean, load, and carry a rifle, and to respect both the power and danger of guns. Though I had been raised in St. Louis, I had lived in Arkansas long enough to understand the foreboding portent of Chester's directive, and I got the Winchester and exited the house, catching the screen door behind me so that its closing made no sound.

He stood outside the perimeter of our yard, in the driveway of City Hall, his back to me. In front of him, four or five feet away, crouched the mayor's small, delicate granddaughter. I moved, with unaccustomed stealth, barely stirring the dry grass beneath my feet. As I drew close to him, I saw the creature that hovered between my husband and the little girl: A snake, born of the ancient lands around us, foreign to the cracked concrete, as lost and as frightened as the child whom it faced. Poised, considering, frozen in the silent moment that it had taken me to respond to my husband's urgent summons.

Chester raised his arm and reached behind his body at the same instant that I lifted the rifle and placed it into his hand. With swift, noiseless motion, he brought the rifle to his shoulder, squinted, took aim.

In that last, long second, with the girl's pale blondness rigid in the summer air and me stock-still behind my husband, the snake swiftly shook its rattle and raised its head, whether to strike or make a better target, I cannot say, for just then, my husband squeezed the trigger, and the snake fell dead.

Chester dropped the rifle and stepped across the endless span of time and space to the child, bringing her body into the span of his arms, over the fallen foe, whose only real crime had been to venture into a world in which it had no genuine chance of survival. I released the breath that I did not know I had been holding, and dropped my shoulders. Bending, I retrieved the gun, and went back into the house, leaving Chester to tell our mayor how close she had come to one of the most brutal lessons of country life.

Twenty-two years later, I stand on the porch that Chester built, whose design had been conceived and nurtured by my second husband, and approved by an architect friend. I glance down at the concrete surface of the floor beneath my bare feet, but nothing lies in front of me other than a trampled cricket. A passing car honks, and I hear the skitter of the small animal frightened into motion by the sudden sound. My reverie broken, I turn, and go into the house, where the coffee has finished brewing, and the computer awaits me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Musings, 16 October 2010

Good morning,

The house around me attempts to cast off its autumn chill, stirring and shaking its old but sturdy bones. I feel less resilient than this squat bungalow, creaking down from my bedroom with slow and dogged steps. The dog whines in her bed and urges me to get the alarm de-activated and release her into the bright green haze of the backyard -- a double-edged sword for her, since she is allergic to grass. As the little brown beagle gallops down the stairs of my ragged back porch, the black cat slinks in behind her, sparing me a brief, enigmatic glance before strolling to the water dish that resides under the spigot of my spring water dispenser to await his morning drink.

I am awake. I grind the beans and pour tap water through my brewer, then lean against the counter, gazing at the flotsam and jetsam of my life on the counters of my kitchen and the shelves of the built-in cupboard in the adjacent breakfast nook. Hanging on the back of what we call the Keeping Shelf are two clay hand-prints, side by side. One is glazed, marked "Steve 1965" in carved letters. The other is unglazed, and has "Patrick, May 2, 1994" in sharpie on the back. My brother, Stephen Patrick; and my son. Below these, in a small red vase of hand-blown glass, are two roses -- one of paper, made by a lawyer at last year's conference, on the deck outside the hotel bar; and one made of metal, purchased for me by my son at a Renaissance Festival perhaps a decade ago. Stretching beyond these are a row of the various baby cups that I used for my son, and a rather motley collection of other items, including the Haviland cup,minus saucer, in which I keep my rings.

The coffee is finished, and I take a cup out onto the porch. The neighborhood lies still. The morning dog walkers have already passed, and the children who will ride their bicycles down the sidewalk still sleep, not yet dragged from dream by their parents, or the rumble of their tummies.

Yesterday, when I came home from the wars, I spied a long-haired man in his early 50's walking a strong, insistent mutt, followed by a child of about five wearing a helmet and carrying a branch that spanned about ten feet in front of him and perhaps five feet into the air with its auxiliary branches. I stopped, drawn to the sight of this incongruous pair. The man spoke, I like your house colors, I always have -- very cool. And I like 'It's a Beautiful Day', he told me, gesturing with his chin to the small sticker on the back of my car. "It's a Beautiful Day" is an old hippie store, where credit cards are verboten but they take checks without identification and sell band shirts, incense, and jewelry made in Thailand. I smiled.

Where do you live, I asked him. He identified his house by its paint scheme, one a tad more unusual even than mine. Ah, you must be Hannah's stepfather, I replied, referencing a girl from my son's 7th grade class. His face brightened and he acknowledged that status. We talked a bit about his eldest child with Hannah's mother, who is now 11; and about the little guy waiving his humongous branch around and impatiently jiggling on one foot. He mentioned an upcoming gig for his still-working rock band, and listed Hannah's current endeavors. The child, with a bit of prompting, spoke a smattering of French learned at Academy Lafayette in the kindergarten class, and I expressed suitable praise. Then I bade the man a good evening, sent greetings to Hannah from "Patrick's mother", and, shifting my clutch of jacket, pocketbook and groceries, made my way into the house as he, his dog, and his son continued on their journey home.

I have only to quiet my mind to a state of semi-rest to transport myself back to a time when I walked the same path with my son, our dog, and a succession of other companions, including one cat that followed us for the entire circuit of our walk every night. I know the cant of each tree; the likelihood of unshorn grass at various houses on the two-square-block route we always took; and the location of each deep crevice that tripped me or caught on the wheels of my son's riding toys.

A dozen years ago, or more, my son was invited to a birthday party at the home of a little classmate. When I saw the address, my middle-class values bristled. The child lived west of Wornall Road; west of Ward Parkway Blvd.; in that stretch of Missouri that yearns to be Johnson County, Kansas. Parallel with my modest stretch of Brookside but in a more fashionable zip code.

I pulled into the driveway, glancing at the instructions. Pull around to the back door, the mother had scrawled under the pre-printed verbiage. Oh, yeah, right, I thought, with no small measure of sullenness. I surveyed the grand edifice of the home, and every fibre of my being shuddered. What am I doing, I asked myself. I did not want to expose my son to the corruption of wealth.

I briefly considered backing away and making some excuse to the radiant, eager face in the back seat. Mommy's sick, I would say. Or the birthday boy threw up, from over-excitement or previously undetected influenza. But I resisted. I convinced myself to suppress the bias that I have always had against those whose lives carry more expensive trappings than mine. I think I figured that he could form his own dislike, at his own pace, in his own time.

As I recall, he enjoyed that party. I made polite goo-goo eyes at the hostess both coming and going; I declined her invitation to hover during the in-between, as other mothers seemed to have chosen to do, standing about with Dansk mugs of tea in the coolness of the October air on the rather over-blown back deck. I also demurred at the invitation to see the house -- how much could I be expected to withstand, I reasoned -- and dragged my son away, at party's end, his free hand clutching his large bag of goodies. I buckled him into the back seat with much less patience than usual, and backed my old Buick out of the driveway so rapidly that I think, to this day, that I ruined a peony bush.

For a few weeks after this birthday party, I slammed around my Brookside bungalow with petulant disgust. Shabby, shabby, shabby, I told myself. Not shabby chic, just shabby. I snapped at my support staff, grumbled over client billing, and spent no small number of hours perusing classified advertisements for entry-level associates in firms where I would not normally be caught dead, the requirements for which certainly fell short of my own experience. A secretary gets paid more than me!, I told myself, and, taking into consideration the size of the firms for which some of the positions were intended, I was probably not too far from right.

In time, the dusky days of autumn yielded to the clinging cold of winter. Snow piled around my grassless lawn, and drifted on the holly bushes that spanned the front of my house. The toboggan got dragged from the garage, and our daily walk around the block included a sled, on which my son sat while I pulled, or his Batman reclined while he did. My spirits improved, and I forgot, fairly completely, the dissatisfaction that had besieged me as a result of taking my son to that party.

Just before Christmas, I fetched my son from school a bit earlier than usual, and ran into the mother of the fall birthday celebrant. Thank you again for bringing Patrick to the party, she said; and, too late, I lamely thanked her for having invited him. As I bent down to retrieve a dropped mitten, she spoke, softly, almost too softly for me to hear. If you ever need anything, just call me. And then she was gone.

Need anything? I could not imagine what she thought. Did she speak out of pity? What did she think of me -- what did she know about me? Her husband and I share a profession, but we did not know one another -- he certainly did not matriculate in the riff-raff crowds that I frequent, solo practitioners and single mothers. What could the woman possibly mean?

I fretted about this for weeks. I concluded that she had obviously drawn some inference from the age of my car and the address of my home, respectable but certainly significantly less grand than hers. My puzzlement turned to anger with very little encouragement; anger at her cheek, anger at her apparent arrogance; anger at the implication of my ineptitude. I stewed in these fetid juices for some months, trying out various avenues of revenge.

That spring, I volunteered to chaperon the only field trip that I would ever attend in my son's elementary school years. As fate would have it, that mother also volunteered, and we stood side by side in the school's small office while the school's owner handed out insurance forms and child assignments to each parent. As I surveyed the rules, I glanced over at the woman's bright, eager face, and then back at the paperwork. With all of the innocence and plausible deniability that I could muster, I asked, in a loud voice -- So, let me just be sure. Is duct tape an approved method of discipline, should the kids get out of control in the car?

I heard a gasp. I did not have to look to know that it came from the little rich girl. I released a rueful laugh, playing off my snotty comment as though I had intended it to be a joke. I trooped down the stairs with my allotted children, watching her shepherd her own group into her Mercedes. My son sat in the back with two of his friends, and a little girl occupied the front position due to being tall enough to do so. I heard my son say, The good thing about my mom is that she's deaf, so we can play the radio LOUD. I turned it up for him, and pulled out of the parking space, just ahead of the shiny, silver vehicle in which my self-chosen nemesis drove.

I have grown only slightly less petty over the years. I have abandoned my belief that others judge me harshly because I dwell solidly in the middle of socio-economic classifications. I like my life. I like my neighborhood. I would, and do, stay here by choice. I shop at the same grocery store as those folks in that rather more desirable zip code, and occasionally, I even see that woman, whose hair is now grey, but who still smiles at me with a slightly knowing, somewhat sad facade.

As I watched my musician neighbor continue his walk with his son last night, I could not help but think about another parent, walking another son, down the same path. I went about my evening, doing what I had planned -- fixing dinner, visiting with my gentleman friend, shushing around the house in that way I have on Friday nights after a long and difficult work week. And this morning, gazing around me, at the kitchen floor in need of replacing, and the grime on the baseboards, and, after a fashion, at the tender trinkets on the Keeping Shelf, I find myself, once again, standing in stern judgment, wondering, in the final analysis, if what I have attained is worth the rejection of that which I have disdained.

And then, in the precise moment at which I decide that it is, I hear a tiny voice, ghost-like and faint, reminding me of those whom I have hurt along the way. I realize that my journey has not been as noble as it could have been. I get up to pour myself another cup of coffee and stand beside the counter, watching the faint stirring of the piece of stained glass hanging in the window. I listen to the whine of my dog, as she digs around at her tortured skin, unable to resist scratching herself. I glance down, at my Dansk mug, and close my eyes. I will never have a chance to tell that woman how badly I misjudged her, but I hope she knows.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Saturday Musings, 09 October 2010

Good morning,

Gingerly stepping through the accumulated grime, I navigate the driveway of my garage this morning, thinking about the dark stain of water on the baseboard of the wall adjoining the downstairs room. I feel the smooth, cold concrete under my bare feet as I drink dark, thick coffee. I'm using a heavy mug purloined from a bagel shop, which has slanted slopes and a wide, curved handle that perfectly fits my grip.

I pass through the connecting door from the garage area to the finished part of the basement, and think about uses for the former playroom room: it is large, cool, and the water problem is not as bad as it used to be. I suspect that it would disappear altogether if I added a trough drain at the base of the driveway, where rainwater enters under the old garage door.

I lean against the knotty pine wall for just a moment, and think about water. It's a powerful element. Like its opposite, water poses a difficult challenge for homeowners, and I am no exception. Since the basement of my home sits downhill from the rest of my neighborhood, it gathers more than its share of run-off, and I constantly struggle to beat back water's rotting, smelly effects.

Fire and water; water and fire. Both threaten; both hover at the perimeter of our security; both strike without warning.

In another house, another state, another age, water and fire impacted my daily life with elemental fury.

The house nestled at the base of the Boston Mountains in Arkansas, on the west side of old 71 after its long sweep out of Fayetteville and before its gradual climb above Winslow. I bought it from another lawyer in my office, who shook his head at my folly but helped me get my first mortgage. I moved before Christmas 1989, with the land still barren from cold, and the river bed on the western edge of the property still flat, its smooth flagstone gleaming in the crystal light of morning, awaiting the spring thaw.

When that thaw came, in March, it pounded down the mountain with a terrible vengeance while I slept in ignorance.

That house had mushroomed under the typical Arkansas building philosophy of blooming where one is planted. The original structure comprised1500 square feet, and boasted a 2200 square foot unfinished addition that clearly had been intended for commercial uses. At the apex of the two, in the back of the house, an ambitious but unrealistic carpenter had jammed a modern deck, and I had taken to sitting on this with my morning coffee resting on a small glass table.

The day after the sudden spring melt, I exited from the kitchen through the poorly installed French doors, as I had been doing for several weeks since the weather had begun to warm and the mountains took on the cheerful, hopeful pale green of early Ozark spring. Raising my cup to take my first sip, I turned to glance across my two-acre property with that fluttery smugness of the newly-vested landed gentry.

My gaze fell not on land but on water -- a long, dank expanse of it, reaching the half-acre from the banks that could not contain it, to the edge of my hapless decking.

In later weeks, the waters receded, and I waded in the clear water that coursed across the smooth stone surface of the riverbed. The fragile, first bloom of spring yielded to an intense verdancy, the heady scent of which wafted through my open windows. I moved into the farthest bedroom and left the door open into the new portion of the house, and slept with the caress of spring breezes surrounding me.

The flood had done its damage to the base of the back deck, and I found a carpenter to repair it. I negotiated for him to also build a front porch, a transaction that included lodging for the week it took him to build it and several six-packs along with a pitifully small amount of money. In exchange, I got a beautiful, Ozark-style wood porch which spanned the front of the old part of my house, its floorboards set at angles which I was told had their apex in the center of the highway.

By that time the water had completely receded, and summer gripped my haven. As relentlessly as the water had flowed through my property for its weeks of glory, so too did the heat descend upon me. I raised the double-hung windows and opened every door, installing box windows at strategic points in the desperate hope that I could inspire the heavy air to circulate.

Despite the heat, the grass grew, perhaps nurtured by the soggy soil beneath the outer crusts of hard, dry summer dirt. In my small front yard, the grass rose in June, and by July stood a foot high before the lack of rain overcame it. And then it turned a dull, pale brown, and I began to wonder what would happen if it caught fire.

I bought a lawnmower at the Winslow hardware store, and stood in front of my house, summoning the strength to pull the cord and start its engine. Resting my hand on the choke, I lifted my eyes to gaze the length of my property, stretching its two-acre span to the north, foot-high, brittle grass barely moving in the stagnant air. No way, I told myself. You cannot clear this entire property with a fifty-dollar mower.

As I stood, thinking, game to try, I heard the drone of a pick-up slowing to my right, out on the highway. I watched it pull onto my property, down the gravel driveway that ran alongside the house, just to the north of where I stood. A man whom I did not know, sun-wizened, dark and lanky, slid with ease from the driver's side. He nodded his head in the small, casual motion that I had come to learn meant many things. Mornin', he ventured. Yup, I replied. You fixin' to mow, ma'am? he asked. Thinking about it, I admitted.

He glanced across my yard, sparing just a brief, polite portion of his look for my small frame and spindly legs. Mighty big job, he noted. Yup, I conceded.

You reckon you'd let me help? he ventured. Just help,he clarified, which was meant to assure me that he wanted nothing more in return than a cold cup of water, or something stronger, but only if I had it.

I let him help. I fixed a pitcher of ice water, and fetched a tall metal cup from which he occasionally drank. He made surprisingly short work of the job, and then sat, for a few moments, on my new porch, and drank a bottle of beer.

When he had finished, he wheeled the mower into my mudroom, and secured it carefully alongside what remained of my last rick of winter wood. Giving me the briefest of nods, he hitched himself into the driver's seat of the battered truck, and backed out of the driveway as easily as he had pulled into it. Then, with a small flick of one finger above his steering wheel, he continued on his way, into town.

Six months later, summer forgotten as though it never happened, I huddled alongside my Earth stove and wished for the July heat. Pregnant, alone, freezing, I listened to the mountain wind howl around me. I had moved into the inner bedroom again, but usually slept, only three months gone but already big, in an old green recliner next to the wood-burning stove in the living room -- my only heat source.

I got up to add another log, wishing for the hundredth time that I had thought to have them double-split. I struggle to get the latch of the stove's glass-fronted door open, with clumsy hands made even less deft because of the chill that had settled in their joints.

I tugged on the door just as a sudden burst of flame shot out from the belly of the beast. The flame caught my face and for a terrible second, I burned, the long sweep of my waist-length hair instantly igniting, the hard plastic of my old glasses melting. I flailed, and grabbed the door, still clutching with one hand the piece of wood; and in my wild and sightless scramble, I slammed the log against the door and cracked the glass.

I staggered back, dropping the wood, jabbing at the flames on my face with one hand, cradling the unborn child inside me with the other. Still the fire soared into the room, majestic, free, victorious. I realized the danger just before the flame reached the little pile of kindling and tinder, and grabbed the box, blindly pulling it toward me. I groped for the handle of the door and when I found it, I pulled hard, and slammed the door back against the stove, securing its latch. Dumbly, stunned, I stood in front of the stove of which I had once been so proud, and wondered what on earth I would do about this latest mess.

The fire licked at the cracks in the glass, taunting me. I knew that I had to find a way to seal the door of the stove, and I knew that I had to keep the fire lit or I would freeze and with me, the child I carried. In vain, I made the only call that I would ever make for help to the father of the baby within me; and listened to the resonance of his beautiful singer's voice, as he gently reminded me that I had made this particular bed, and had chosen to lie in it, alone. I returned the receiver to the cradle.

Eventually, I went to the hardware store in the small town of which I had never really become a part. Just ten minutes before closing time, that Sunday night, in January, 1991, I bought a large roll of camper's aluminum foil, a long swatch of which I wound around the broken door. I crunched the silver mess against the frame of the firebox, and it held. I could keep a small fire through the night, though I am sure the room filled with smoke and soot.

Two decades later, far north of there, I close my eyes, and briefly sag against the hardness of the wall behind me. I draw in the musty air, listening for the hum of the dehumidifier. I cannot hear it; I assume that its well is full, and the automatic shut-off valve has been activated. Sighing, I raise my mug, and take the last, cold gulp of coffee, and then, without much thought, I go upstairs, and leave whatever there is to leave, behind me, in the darkness of my basement.

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.