Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Musings, 27 March 2010

Good morning,

As I listen to the insistent sweep of an early morning wind, fatigue flows into the cramped contours of my awkward muscles, down to the weary tips of my lily-white spastic hands. I do not know how it is elsewhere, but as a sponsor of the VALA Gallery, I sweep floors, rifle through table cloths at the Salvation Army Family Store, and haul canvas. I am the Coffee Goddess. I am the last-minute purchaser of paper towels and deli platters.

I squint one bleary eye at the glowing face of the clock across the still-dark room. Seeing its small numbers, I allow myself to sink into the wide, welcoming expanse of my futon. I am one with the rising blisters on the backs of my heels. I live in the throb that traverses the tendon twisting through the unyielding confines of my artificial knee.

Such are the sweet sensations of an art patron six days before the grand opening of new space.

For the most part, I spent last evening watching this month's featured artist hang her show. I do not necessarily support the VALA Gallery because I am a raging art aficionado. The allure for me consists almost exclusively of my kinship with the Gallery's coordinator and one of its artists-in-residence, Penny Thieme. I don't even care much for modern art, much less understand it.

But I found myself drawn to one of the pieces in the upcoming show. A thirty-foot, mixed-media drawing, it spans one wall of the first of three showrooms. I did not expect to like it, and certainly did not anticipate that it would disturb my equilibrium. Both proved true.

Sitting on an oak bench, running one finger over its decorative inlays, I closed my eyes and thought about paintings. I've made the obligatory periodic forays to the Kemper, and I've done First Fridays in the Crossroads. I've even enjoyed an afternoon now and again at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, during which I usually press my glasses-less face against the lithographs that line one hallway. But otherwise, my most memorable museum experiences occurred four decades ago with my mother.

Admission to the St. Louis Art Museum was free on Sundays during my childhood. I am getting old now, and even though I strain myself, I cannot truly recall if these Sunday trips occurred with regularity, or just a handful of times; but they occupy a solid place in the fabric of my memory. We walked the cold stone floors of the museum, stopping at the pictures that interested my mother, trailing behind her in a state of perpetual discomfort: overheated in our coats during the winter and shivering from the air conditioning during the summer. After this undeniable suffering punctuated by brief distractions -- the Impressionists, the mummies -- our reward came in the form of being allowed to purchase a post-card at the gift shop.

I strain to separate what I remember from what I yearn to have happened. I picture myself and my brothers standing in front of a display of merchandise, our grubby fingers drifting over each tempting item. I recall the sharp edges of the thin bag into which the clerk slipped our carefully selected souvenir. Somewhere, surely, I still preserve a smal cardboard image of an M C Escher print, with its tightly drawn angles of a cinder block building, flanked by an unexpectedly obtuse stairway.

I think we rode the city bus to and from the museum. We must have; I remember it. I remember clutching my delicate, brown-paper-clad prize against my chest to keep it safe from the push of other passengers, on the long route home. I remember smelling someone's leftover lunch, and feeling the fetid, discouraged air of people who are coming back from work in wrinkled clothes and pinching shoes.

A small noise distracts me from my reverie. I cannot tell if it is the cat trying to come through the bathroom window or the wind asserting itself into the stillness of my early-morning bedroom. I think about the three of us -- the featured artist, Penny, me -- standing on the concrete floor of the VALA Gallery, in silence, turned toward the great expanse of that major piece, each of us wondering if the fancy magna-tabs with which it is hung would endure for the next twenty-four hours. The images in the work dance in the dark of my mind as I lie awake now, images bi-sected with straps of painters tape temporarily applied to hold the heavy paper against the wall or slow its fall if gravity has its way. I cannot separate the shapes in the drawing from the lines of the tape; the two will forever co-exist for me. Picture. . . tape. . . picture. . . tape. . . Flashing by like brief painful glimpses of people in trains on the neighboring tracks of the underground in Boston. People I will never know; smiles I will never share; stories I will never hear.

In the dark of my bedroom, I can just barely discern the framed images with which I surround myself. An embroidery piece done by my mother as she sat vigil at her mother's hospital bedside; haiku written by my son; the sketch of him and me done at a Rochester street fair, the summer he was seen by the Mayo Clinic; my uncle's prize-winning photo of two Chinese children, beneath which is a photograph of him with a tiny boy in traditional clothing; my friend Caroline's sketch of Patrick as a toddler. None of it would be appreciated by many other than me, but here, in my wood-panelled attic room, in the early morning hours of a spring day, these are the pictures that tell my story.

When the show is fully hung, and the Gallery cleanly swept; when the caterers have arranged the crab Rangoon and petits fours on the long stretch of counter leftover from the storefront's days as a coffee shop; I will stand, as I always stand, near the refreshments and the guest-book. The doors will be thrown back, the ribbon will be cut, and visitors will flow into the Gallery's three wide sections. I will beam, and nod, and press my hand into the hands of scores of people who have come to Mission to find something that only gazing with rapt attention upon the fruits of another's creative labor can give them.

They will line against the far wall of the first room in order to appreciate the entire length of the main piece. Each visitor will examine the picture's intricacies; there is much to see, and some will take the time to inspect the disparate components before considering their interrelationship. As the people fill the Gallery, I will hide behind my patron's smile, sip my coffee, and secretly observe each person, watching for one who sees the work through my eyes.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday Musings, 20 March 2010

Good morning,

Silence rises from the driveway to greet me as I deactivate the alarm and open the front door. I do not see the black cat on my stoop, but I see a long stretch of white unbroken by anything more than the faint groove made by my neighbor's tires as she came home late last evening. Winter has played its last trump card.

I fill the glass carafe to the twelve-cup mark, then pour the clear water into the back slot on my newly acquired coffee machine. In gleaming stainless steel, the waxy mark of the second-hand price still faintly marring the right front corner, this modern brewer puts my simple 8-cup, two-setting Proctor-Silex to shame. I will have to find a corner of my basement shelves on which to store the failing coffee maker until I can convince myself to trash it. One never knows; Old Faithful sputters at times, but might still prove useful in a clutch.

I did not sleep last night. For some days, too many to number, I have been haunted by a ghost that I had thought I had put to rest. A friend lamented watching his parents age, helpless to reverse his mother's frailness, and, forgetting, had said surely you went through this? But I did not; my mother died before her 59th birthday. His query triggered my reveries, and now I cannot shake the recollection of my last glimpse of her, just before the undertaker slipped the garnet pin from the Sunday dress in which she had lain in state.

That pin occupies a slot in my jewelry box now. My mother had four daughters and four good pieces of jewelry. As the youngest girl, I was the last to get my dower, and I was loathe to take it until she had quite finished with it even though she had given her blessing for me to do so. I waited until I could wait no more, then held it in my mildly sweaty palm, standing at her graveside, her brooch tucked into the pale green handkerchief that my sister Adrienne had ironed for me, my hand pressed against the crisp green of my linen dress.

It is Spring Break, but such is not apparent in the fierce bite of the morning's wind or the dull scrape of the heavy branches of my cedar against the upper floor windows. I glance at the computer clock and calculate the time in California, where my only son has gone with friends. As I tried to sleep, at eleven p.m. central time last evening, the familiar trill of Verizon-Wireless-Assembly-LIne, Patrick's ringtone, sounded in the quiet of my bedroom. I'm in Sunny San Diego! It's 66 here! I'm safe! I love it! I've got to go! I'll write to you tomorrow!

I'm skeptical, but that is as it should be. The child leaves the mother; the mother leaves the child.

I shopped for new clothes yesterday at one of my favorite consignment shops. I had no choice: I am officially a size zero now. My size-2s hang at my waist, and drag on the floor because nothing impedes their helpless fall towards gravity's inevitable attraction. I have long been an advocate of recycling in all things fabric, so I spent the end of my Friday, after a morning of trial prep, downstairs in the ladies' clothing section of Pete n Repeat, the last bastion of decent second-hand clothing before you enter Kansas.

A stirring in the rack of dresses startled me. From its depths, a small boy emerged, grinning his gap-toothed grin and waving his arms. On seeing someone other than his minder, he stopped, a scowl gathering, just behind it, no doubt, a wail. But his mother spoke from where she stood, a few feet from me, reassuring him. It's okay, I'm right here, she said; and, suitably comforted, he launched back into his solitary round of hide-and-go-seek. She had not lost him; he had tagged home base.

My mind floated beyond the store's basement. Another time, another child. Darkness gathering in another basement. A little girl stirs beneath fluttering eyelids, panicking at first, unsure. Smothered in billowing dankness, she struggles to raise her small frame, to fathom her surroundings. Pulling, pushing, wiggling, she finally clutches smooth wood and pulls herself upright, small feet driving against the piles of clothing in which she has awakened.

She knows this place now. A large, always-full clothes hamper in their laundry room. She is too close to the old coal room in which she has been told, for the five, shaky years of her life, that a red-bearded pirate lives. She had felt brave, hours before, when the summer sun shone through the windows of the garage door; she clamored into the one place she thought her brother would not expect her to go, and had gleefully listened as he counted, nine, ten, ready or not, here I come!

And he had not peered into the hamper. She had listened as he scrambled through the adjacent rooms, capturing first one sibling, then another, but not her. She had felt a tiny thrill, deep in her little stomach; and still he did not espy this clever space. She had remained silent, even as the bunch of them called her name, summoning her with the familiar chant that meant you were the victor: Come out, come out, wherever you are! She would not come out; she would show them; she had found the best hiding place of all.

A lethargy had descended over her while her brothers and sisters still moved about the basement, repeatedly shouting her name with increasing annoyance. As drowsiness overtook her mind, she thought about how proud her mother would be. Perhaps the pinched look on her mother's face would fade; perhaps she would set the baby down and place a hand on each of the girl's thin shoulders, and pull her into an embrace, and praise her cleverness. She fell asleep envisioning the smile on her mother's face, feeling the warmth of her mother's shoulder, the cloud of fragrance rising from the sweep of auburn hair that hung down her mother's back much like the dark fall of her own curls.

With a last, desperate pull against the sides of the large hamper, the girl, now fully awake, hoisted herself over the top and lowered herself to the cold cement floor. The thrill of winning left her timid soul, and she thought only of getting to safety. In the dimness of the room, she struggled to remember the way out, past the deep, dark closet where her mother kept the Christmas ornaments, to the stairs that would lead upwards, to the bright green linoleum of the kitchen floor. Her clumsy feet knocked against each step, and she reached to push open the kitchen door, hearing the familiar slap as it hit the cabinet on the far side of the kitchen wall.

She winced against the brightness, shuddered at the acrid smell of a burnt supper, shrank back from the distant, muffled tones of frantic grown-up discourse. Her steps slowed; she heard the voices of people whom she did not know. Reluctance overtook her, but she slowly rounded the corner of the hallway, and dragged herself through the tall arch, into the construction mess of the conversion underway to make the dining room into a nursery for the newest child in the family.

A policeman stood by their front door in his dark blue uniform, with its row of gold buttons, a round hat with a dark chin strap rising above the crown of his thick head. She stopped, afraid to place her grimy saddle shoes on the sheet rock abandoned on the living room floor. She looked around, and noticed the man from their church who had been coming every day to build a wall for them standing beside the couch on which her mother sat. The frown had not left her mother's face as the girl had dreamily imagined while waiting for her brother to find her. In fact, it had intensified, and beneath pinched brows, tears fell. What could be wrong, the girl thought. Why is my mother crying?

The policeman saw her first. There she is, he called, in a large, deep voice. She stopped, and turned to look back into the hallway. There who is,she thought, in confusion, before seeing her mother jump from the sofa and stride across the mess to lift the small child into her arms. She realized, then, that the worried group of adults had been looking for her, and a warm rush of guilt spread through her body. She cringed against her mother's chest and peered out at each of them, dutifully thanking them as her mother urged. Thank you for rescuing me, she told them, one by one, as they pressed a hand against her shoulder and pushed their scratchy faces into the creased skin of her cheeks. They ignored the odor now rising from her soiled clothing, but, mortified, she burrowed farther into her mother's arms. When the last of the searchers had left, her mother, finally, took her into the bathroom, stripped the damp clothing away and slid her, ever so gently, into a warm, sudsy bath. She sighed and closed her eyes, and leaned against the smooth enamel of the tub's high back. She closed her wide blue eyes, and smiled a secret smile.

I'm the best hider
, she whispered to herself. Nobody found me.

The cat is yowling, calling me, complaining that I will not let her go outside. I know that she would only sniff the air and look at me with reproachfulness in her eyes. She does not like the cold, and she likes the snow even less. The boy cat is somewhere in the wilds, seeking adventure; but the girl cat, like her owner, is something of a homebody. She will watch the snow from the safety of the living room window, and will only emerge onto the open porch when the earth remembers that spring has arrived.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Saturday Musings, 13 March 2010

Good morning,

The sizzling sound of the last blast of coffee knifing through the plastic spigot into the pot reminds me that too few hours have past between dark and dawn. My spindly fingers reluctantly hammer on the home keys and instantly the letters appear on the screen in front of me, one after another, ticka tap ticka tap, flickering in the dim room around me.

Soft light encourages my old eyes to rest. I lean back against my maple desk chair and feel the warmth of the furnace's gentle heat flowing around my shoulders. I drowse, my mind drifting to other mornings, other chairs, other rooms. I am reminded of the smooth feel of my porch rocker, something I have not been able to enjoy since late fall when relentless cold seeped into my bones, driving me indoors. Soon, I will be able to take my morning coffee outside, snuggling my small frame into the contours of my beloved rocker, and musing, to myself, in the sweet coolness of the early morning.

On an oak shelf above me is a clutch of soup cups, collected in my college days, each one found in the dusty recesses of a thrift store, or in a ramshackle stall of a flea market. At the back of the topmost row is a small Haviland dinner plate,with delicate pink flowers and a thin gold rim.

The plate came from a funny little antique store at the Northland Shopping Center near my childhood home. My brother Mark and I purchased it on Mother's Day in 1967 for $8.50. We walked the five or six blocks from our house to Northland, and stood in the dark storefront, gingerly running our clumsy, clammy fingers over each item that we considered. We had $11.00, the proceeds of two Eagle Stamps books redeemed at Famous-Barr in the customer service center on the 3rd floor, around behind the fabric department, where a squint-eyed woman, recognizing us as the children of a former co-worker, had overlooked a skipped page or two and tendered the money with uncharacteristic gentleness.

Mark found the plate. He reached both hands to retrieve it, hands rough as boys' hands are always rough, from softball, and bike riding, and throwing stones. Slowly lowering the plate from its precarious perch just over his head, he urged me to come see. It's Haviland, he whispered. It's perfect, I replied.

In other homes, other worlds, the Haviland might clutter the china cabinet or fill zippered cases in a linen drawer. In our home, its fragile essence meant a thrilling discovery in the backwoods of Illinois, in barns where tired women presided over the sale of their parents' estates, or bright-eyed young men snapped their fingers at lean hounds and nodded to visitors. To find an unchipped plate, a sugar bowl with its lid, an intact cup and saucer -- these little victories pleased our mother and enlivened the mood of each homeward journey.

Mark carefully carried the plate to the counter. How much is this, he asked, and we turned our eyes toward the proprietor. Seventeen dollars, came the answer, behind a heavy cough and a waft of rancid cigarette smoke. Mark look at me, and I returned his gaze. Two years older, several inches taller, blond to my brown, sturdy to my frail: my brother Mark, who in my younger days had paid me fifty cents each holiday to approach relatives and loudly proclaim Between my brother Mark and me, we know everything. He knows everything, and I know he knows everything. I worshipped him. At age 12, I still expected him to extricate us from every corner into which we unwittingly backed ourselves.

He faced the store owner again. He did not release the plate, and in that instant, I expected it to shatter beneath the firmness of his grip, breaking into long fierce shards of bone china with scatters of pink, and gold, and wispy green. We only have eleven dollars, Mark said. It's for our mother.

I cannot see the shopkeeper's face in the scrapbook recesses of my mind. I do not remember if it was a man, or a woman. I remember only the raspy voice, and the billowing furls of smoke, and dark, bottomless eyes. A long moment passed, with Mark holding the plate, his earnest face turned towards the murky space beyond the cash register, his lean shoulder against my slender arm. The cigarette lowered into a bent aluminum ashtray, bright blue, with a pile of butts, and a drift of grey matter that settled around the stained fingers of the owner's hand. Time did not pass. None of us moved. The staleness of the crowded store settled around us, rising first from stacks of old National Geographics and the undusted surfaces of heavy, dark furniture culled from the abandoned homes of the long dead.

The eyes turned away from us. Well, I might let you have it for half, said the voice, and Mark placed the plate, carefully, slowly, on the counter. He pulled the crumpled bills from his pants pocket, and spread each one out, turning it in the proper direction before handing over the thick stack of ones. The owner wrapped our purchase in that day's Everyday Magazine and slid it into a paper bag printed with the name of a nearby grocery store, and handed it back to my brother. I do not remember saying anything.

The store where we purchased the plate was on the lower level of Northland. To go home, we cut through Kresge's, up the escalator, and walked down Kinamore Avenue. I stopped at the entrance to the shopping center, pulled my white cardigan sweater close around me, smoothed the skirt of my church dress, pulled at my knee-hi socks, bent to tie my brogues. Mark walked on, and I came second, always a few steps behind, always following.

When my father died, we divided our parents' belongings in up-rounds and down-rounds. Oldest to youngest, youngest to oldest, moving through the house with decreasing energy. Half of us sipped strong coffee; the other half, beer. We told stories as we worked -- why this one wanted our mother's wooden spindles; the significance of a certain shelf of books to another. When we reached the Haviland plate, I watched my brother before picking it on one of the up-rounds. He did not seem to notice.

I see the plate as I type, in this poorly-lit nook, crowded with my memories. It has been on that shelf for 17 years, and I daresay, it might well be there for another 17, and perhaps, it will remain there until my son drags down the lot, and sells it all at an estate sale without so much as a backward glance.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday Musings, 06 March 2010

Good morning,

The screen in front of me is wide and bright. The box in which I write contains odd graphics, bright blue lines, and a plethora of confusing choices that I largely ignore. To the left is a list of my most frequent correspondents, which tells me who among my friends is awake and cruising the Internet, or checking email, or viewing a pirate movie downloaded in a quest to watch all the nominees before tomorrow's award ceremony.

Sitting at a small, five-year-old laptop last week, I succumbed to the urge to drill through Facebook to the Find Friends search feature, and looked for people from my past. I found a few of them: My cousin in southern Missouri; my artist friend in St. Louis; a man in Massachusetts who was pursuing his Masters in Philosophy when I was an undergrad at SLU. With strains of "music like Bonnie Raitt" coming from through my five dollar speakers in one window, I read messages from them in another. Married. . .five years in Europe. Divorced. . . three kids. . . doing murals and mosaics. . .a bout with cancer last year. . .yes, I remember you. . .Their words, in white, blue-framed boxes, coming from places I have never been and might not ever go.

I close my eyes, and hear the wild rumble of roller blades on a hardwood floor. I feel the slick surface of a green leather recliner, and battle the cumbersome weight of a cast that ranges from stem to stern. I see the tall ceilings of my 43rd Street apartment, feel the cold of another March, another early spring, through the open French doors of my mid-town balcony. I hear the excited chatter of young men who have clomped up the fire escape in their skates to check on me, coming through the back door left unlocked for just that purpose. Deep in my chest, I shudder under the burden of my helplessness as I watch them skate out again, the lunch they have brought untouched on the TV tray beside me. March, 1982, seven weeks or so after my terrible defeat in a car versus pedestrian battle.

This morning I saw eight slender grackles on a power line as I drove back to my house after an early errand. The sight of them reminded me of my first trip to northwestern Arkansas, late one spring, more years ago than I care to realize. Dazed by love, or something like it, I had falsely claimed to enjoy camping, in the eager, breathless voice that no one could possibly find credible. During that week, much of which I spent huddled in a broken sleeping bag on a wooden platform between the narrow confines of an impossibly small tent, I allowed myself to be convinced that snakes could fly. As I walked the length of a mucky, marshy creek bed, I ducked, darting a haunted glance towards the long branches above me, shaking broken, damp leaves from a long fat braid at the base of my neck. Only the warm chuckle of my companion, and the sight of the bright gleam in his eye, told me that I had been played for a city slicker.

Later, as the sun rose somewhere beyond the thick, uncut forest, I folded my good leg beneath me, and stretched the crooked knee, extending my foot beyond the plywood. dangling over the edge of the raised bed on which our tent had been pitched. I ran one finger along the rough denim of my blue jeans, and idly wondered at the source of an earnest rustle in the brush. Just some little raccoon or something, I told myself. I was alone, having declined an invitation to hike down the side of the hill in search of firewood. Nothing big. There can't be bears.

I did not recognize the animal which emerged from the undergrowth. Feline, and small, with black-tipped ears and mottled brown fur, long legs and wide, sturdy paws. I could not see its teeth but presumed their sharpness. I snatched my foot back before I remembered the offending knee, then clutched my gut as pain seared through my limbs. This can't be happening. I am not alone in godforsaken Arkansas about to be eaten by a mountain lion.

The cat stood still, its eyes intent, its muscles rigid. No more than five feet separated us, five feet on a slight incline, with I at the upper end. Still unsure of myself after the flying snake debacle, I searched my memory for a clue as to what this creature might be, and how I should react to it. Every fiber of my carbon-monoxide enriched urban being cried out for flight, but that blasted knee could never carry me to anything resembling safety. The air vibrated with alarm, emanating from the pit of my stomach and spanning the distance between my quivering body and the lithe, agile form of the beast.

It sensed the return of my companion before I did, and, with a long, last look at me, silently, slowly, moved back into the undergrowth. My stiff muscles reluctantly relaxed, so that by the time I heard the returning clatter of the only other human for fifty miles, I could nonchalantly grouse about the minimal potential for a satisfying lunch anytime soon. I brushed at my pants, feeling the slightly sickening jolt of pain in my right knee, and struggled to stand, lifting my arms high above my head, as much to open my airways to the freshness around me as to signify my general disdain of all things rustic, from mountain lions to flying snakes.

As I drove beneath the wire this morning, I tapped my horn, just barely, and slowed in the middle of 83rd street to watch the little band of migrating birds rise into the morning sky. What do they know that I do not, I asked myself. Why do they have no need for computers, cellphones, Facebook? Why do they not yearn for reconnection with old friends whom they might have known when they were young and still hopeful?

The insistent horn-blast of an impatient citizen called me back to the stale environs of my Saturn Vue, and I signaled, to take the cutaway down Lee Boulevard, and back to Brookside, where the morning's chores and my cold cup of coffee awaited me.

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.