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

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.