Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maternal Musings: 18 April 2010

Listmates and others:

I promised myself that I would remain calm: I would not cry, I would not gasp. I would hold within me the pain of his birth, the pleasure of his growth from tiny being to tall man. For myself, it would be a way of managing the shock of realization; for him, it would be the gift of a mother's release.

And yet, when I saw him on the simple thrust stage for the first time, I did what I had vowed not to do, and did not do what I had vowed to do.

As I sit now, with my iBook where it was intended to be, where its name directs me to use it, the silence of the hotel room beckons me towards contemplation. My writer's genes urge progression from the personal to the profound. I hear the gentle, steady slipping of each car past this small hotel, the citizens of Greencastle en route to church, or Mama Nunz', where we will later break our own fast. I lift the paper container of re-heated Fair Trade coffee for a scalding microwaved sip and think about the cheerful faces of the young people in the hubbub of the room in which I purchased the cup yesterday. I think of the earnest profile to my right, at a square metal table, lifting his own cup to slightly shuddering lips. A profile seen at a distance, a cheek I have stroked, a chin I have seen tremble.

I held my shock within me until the Talk-Back. Even then, cast in their places on the stage, flanking the writer and the director, rapt audience in front, me and my companion second row, stage center -- even then, I waited. But then an audience member commented on the similarities between the actor playing "Ellis at 13" compared with the actor playing "Ellis at 43", asking, "They look and acted so much alike -- are they brothers?" I could not help myself. I don't think so, I blurted out, because the first one is my boy and I have never met the second one!

Everyone laughed, including -- I tell myself now, the morning after -- Ellis At 13, sitting in a life-like tree, the vantage point from which many of his lines had been spoken. The writer went on to address his reason for using the particular actors selected for each role, and I resumed snapping photos of each cast member. Though tears fell, slowly, trickling down the side of my face unheeded, I did not need to worry in the still-dim theatre with the safety of the borrowed apparatus to shield me.

Polvadera, an original play by Steve Timm, theatre professor at DePauw University, startled me with its intensity and its virtue. My son had not spoiled the script; I did not know, before the lights came down to signal the start of the first act, that he had one of two male leads; I did not know the plot; I did not know the ending. I certainly had been unaware that he appeared in nearly all of its scenes, and uttered the words of its most intense metaphor short of the metaphoric portent of its title. The little scamp had hidden all of this from me, even as he vacillated between wanting me to come, and fearing failure if he knew that his performance would be judged through his mother's eyes.

On Saturday, we had strolled through the campus with Patrick. We had started the day with two lovely hours at the charming apartment of his advisor, listening to her lilting voice, never quite shy of its Lebanese beginnings, describing her work, her life, her travels, and the passion of her profession. From there, three short blocks away, we found the student center, with its Green Mountain Coffee in reclaimable cups. We fidgeted for two hours -- or, shall I admit, I fidgeted while my companion patiently followed, holding the camera bag, the hot cup, the heavy handbag. And then, my companion's cell phone announced the imminent arrival of my progeny, as we stood a few feet from the famous boulder around which neither of us had run, clothed or unclothed.

As shocked as I was at my first glance of my son's pearly skin, nearly nineteen years ago, so am I surprised anew with each sighting after time apart. I know my reaction finds parallel in the breast of every mother. Did this creature grow in me? Did I cradle him in my arms? Is that the shin, once tiny, into which the rusty bolt of a playground had thrust itself? The skull that split against the marble window sill? The hands that had pushed against my mouth, urging me to stop singing, once, years ago, when I had not breath to sound the notes without coughing?

The chill of a perfect spring day surrounded us, its gentle wind raising the hair on my arms and lifting the edges of his curls. I tilted my head back to see the entire height of him, noting the slope of his shoulders, wanting to bid him to stand up straight but remembering my own embarrassment when my mother had done so, in reversed circumstances. He let me hug him. Then we walked, the companion keeping a gentle distance, letting me have my moments.

Other students passed us -- some stopping to be named, others calling from offshoots of the path we traversed. Great job last night, man, we heard, time and again. His smile widened. Your son did a great job, several gushed to me, on learning that I was Patrick's mother. I smiled, accepting my due, the maternal payback. Each word of praise affirms my procreational prowess.

The afternoon opened to receive us, and ultimately, my companion flagged, so we left him at the hotel as a reward for shouldering the Saturn's wheel for the eight hours across the flat Midwest. We made the obligatory trip to Walmart and the Verizon Store. Later, this cup of coffee now warmed and set before me then newly purchased, I listened to the quiet words of my only-born, spoken in the student center, words of wonder, words of worry, words thought or spoken by every actor, every child, every man, to every listening mother since time began.

I had feared the play would not be good. My son had said that the cast teased the writer about his words being poetry, but as a visiting parent of a cast member, I knew that I would have to utter words of praise regardless of the play's strengths or weaknesses. Ultimately, my biggest worry rested in the shared DNA with the actor I had come to see. My cursedly honest nature fought the age-old question: Should I praise him, regardless? He and I shared more than our genetic composition: we shared the same naked, mind-numbing, consuming fear.

What if he is no good?

If I tell you that I need not have worried, you will smile. You will sip your own coffee, glance over at your own oblivious children, playing on the lawn as you read, sprawled in front of the TV, romping on the worn living room carpet. You will push away the laptop and pull your own son toward you for a stolen hug, from which he will squirm, muttering -- oh come on Dad! -- and you will ruffle his hair before he gets away. Of course she thought he was good -- he's her son.

But therein lies the crux of it. I have acted, and I have written, and I have directed. I have been on both sides of the stage and behind its heavy curtains, dressed in black, moving the stage props into position, laying the marks on the worn floorboards. I have spoken lines and written them; I have moved through stage directions and given them. I know, ultimately, when the universe shifts, and clicks into place, that the characters on stage are actors giving them life, though at the same time, those characters have a life within the fluttering pages of the script.

After the first shock of seeing my son, after the first lines were spoken and the first scene unfolded, my mother's mind released him. Somewhere between the first joke and the last line, both of which he uttered, I forgot I had birthed this six-foot creature. And then, to my surprise, I forgot he was acting.

Polvadera disturbed me. Its words resonate. Poetry aptly describes the rhythm of its message. I will not spoil it for you -- because I believe it will find greater audience, and it should come unspoiled into the world. In the playbill of its first publication, the names of the first actors to perform it will appear, and in that list, one name will carry its simple message. I have arrived, Mother; and you were here to see it.

I have stayed too long at the Inn. I must pack my bags, and awaken the sleeping thespian, and buy him one last good meal. I must throw some of his belongings into my vehicle, and give myself one last moment to gaze at his form before I journey back to Kansas City, across Indiana, and Illinois, and then Missouri. I am comforted by the acquisition of a souvenir that I could not have planned on finding in the campus bookstore, or the little shop along the highway. As I lean my head against the glass of the passenger's window, I will carry that souvenir deep within me: the knowledge that, at last, my job is done, and I can rest.

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.