Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Musings, 31 July 2010

Good morning,

The sleeping form on my couch reminds me that three young men trooped into my house at 3:00 a.m. One claimed his birthright bedroom; another went back home; the third bunked in the living room. Awakened from blissfully unaware sleep, I had organized the search for an extra blanket, a sheet and a pillow; then trudged back up the narrow, wood-paneled stairs to my room. Just before I fell into a week's-end coma, a cat thudded onto the mattress beside me; and I heard a small, contented whimper from the foot of the stairwell, as our dog stopped fretting and settled for the night.

The blond curls barely visible beneath the orange blanket belong to my son's most long-standing friend Chris. They met in pre-school, just before Patrick's third birthday and Chris' fourth. They are now nineteen and nearly-twenty. Although they haven't attended the same school together since each started kindergarten, they have remained friends. We haven't seen Chris this summer, until last night, when he materialized in the driveway. Chris is here, Pat told me, twice. They went off with Pat's more recent closest friend, Jacob, to do whatever it is that young men do until 3:00 in the morning these days, leaving me to hope, with no small sum of trepidation, that they would return unmaimed, still at large, and only slightly worse for wear. Now they sleep with the reckless abandon of the nearly independent, and I tiptoe through the first floor, grinding beans as quietly as possible, shushing the boycat who insists on emitting fierce yowls until I get whatever it is he wants.

I am left breathless by the memory of these tall boys crowding into my living room. My fifteen-hundred square foot home seemed more than spacious to me when I first came to dwell in it with my toddler son, and now I feel its inadequacies. They rise above me, sweetly, goofily, sheepishly. I don't inquire as to where they spent the last five hours; I don't inquire as to what they did. I just push them to their rest, and bid the departing neighbor boy safe journey two blocks to his house, idly wondering if Chris' family knows he is here, ruminating on how early I can call to confirm that they are not fearfully ignorant.

With coffee in hand, I contemplate the week just past. My life evolves with breath-taking rapidity these days: divorce, son off to college, new man, new suite, new couch, a piano in the living room. The accouterments of my daily existence seem to sprout as though drawn by animators, with me a caricature of a fifty-four year old woman wandering in a daze from panel to panel. I pull old reliable characters along behind me; I hoist a few new ones from the strip below on the Sunday pages, in slightly crooked colors. Mostly I race, headlong, towards the last sight gag, the heavy-handed pun, the unexpected groaner. I pray for soft landings.

Life has gifted me with many slow rides through crystalline sky dangling from a billowing parachute. I took Patrick, Chris and a third boy, Maher, to Chicago for Game Day as a present for Patrick when he turned thirteen. They earnestly packed their gaming equipment in the matching black carriers for which their mothers had given no small number of hard-earned dollars, then carelessly threw extra jeans and socks into grungy backpacks. Clothes did not matter; what mattered rested in the foam-padded squares in their gaming cases. Painstakingly painted Warhammer figurines; small boxes of pieces that I had learned to call "bits"; tiny bottles of regulation paint colors. Warhammer accounted for all of their pocket money in those days, and quite a bit of mine, but its analog nature and the chance it afforded them to commingle with a good group of guys around a table at the game shop seemed worth the investment.

I drove the three of them to Chicago, in a climate of excitement so palpable that I could have sworn it influenced my gas mileage to the good. We wandered the western suburbs until we found the hotel, then slogged through the lobby, to our room. I had taken only one, which I came to mildly regret over the next three days; I still thought of them as children, but I do not suppose they really were, even then.

We crossed a sky walk to the convention center for the first session, just an hour or so after our arrival, still tired from the drive, but unable to contain the boys' anticipation. When we entered the atrium, above the holding area for participants, the shock of what we saw brought us short. Beneath the rail, on the floor below, thousands of animated teenagers and young adults, many accompanied by parents in various stages of obvious reluctance, awaited the signal for the start of Game Day. Each participant wore a pass, the gamers of one color, the financiers -- parents like myself -- of another. The horde stood at the foot of three escalators, oddly quiet, mostly respectful, orderly. And when the red ribbon fell, allowing them to ascend into the gaming floor, no one succumbed to the temptation to stampede.

I spent the entire convention hovering in the parents' area. Each boy wandered back to me from time to time -- to get money for soda, or ask about lunch; share a victory, or lament a loss. I became acquainted with parents from Iowa, and Indiana, and Illinois. I read two novels. I went back to our room and napped.

On the evening of the first day, we ventured into the city and found a restaurant for dinner. As was our custom in those days, we also found the nearest Game Shop, although anything they wanted to purchase could be had at the convention for a ten percent Game Day discount. I recognized Game Day for the marketing device it really was, but did not mind. In the immortal words of Lucille Corley, on balancing her checkbook to the banging sound of hard rock emanating from the living room, I told myself: Oh well -- they could be out robbing banks.

I have photographs from our visit to my aunt in her nursing home that trip, the boys talking patiently with her, she somewhat confused as to which grandchild or nephew each was. They let her call them by her sons' names, and the names of her son's sons, and they walked her around the corridors in her wheelchair. Aunt Del is nice, they said, as we loaded back into the car.

When the last bell had sounded, for the last round of Warhammer, we packed their armies, and their ragtag lot of blue jeans, and headed to St. Louis. We descended on the Arch at 8:00 p.m., and discovered that the hotel had lost our reservation. The concierge rose to the occasion and gave us a suite, and the boys grabbed my laptop and settled into their separate sleeping room behind French doors, logging on to the World Wide Web through the hotel's connection, murmuring long into the night, as I drifted to sleep, closing my eyes with a lingering image of their three earnest heads bent together over delicate, painted warriors.

And now those eager boys have become hulking figures that tower above me. One of the three, Maher, has long since decamped to Florida with his long-time girlfriend, where they pursue degrees in something too complicated for me to grasp. Chris studies Arabic, in which he is fluent, which I find ironic since Maher's mother is from Beirut. And Patrick, who gravitates between writing, music and theatre, still remembers the best birthday ever, in Chicago, when time stood still, and his mother did not once, for three days, say no, we can't afford that.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Musings, 24 July 2010

Good morning,

Darkness soothes me as I struggle to pull myself back to consciousness this morning, on a day when I had intended to sleep well past the dawn. Instead I nurse my first cup of coffee before the sun rises, and I see its soft light behind the stained glass lighthouse and the china angels which perch beside the picture of my son at 5, playing on the Easter rabbit statues on the Country Club Plaza. His mischievous look beckons me; his smile warms me.

Beside the frame that houses his picture squats a sweet angel holding a star. Under her, the word "Hope" appears". Hope. This word, too, sends an invigorating sensation through me.

I found myself in an uncharacteristic quarrel with a colleague via e-mail this week. I am perplexed by the bitter passion that seems to choke her when she deals with the parties involved in the case we currently have together. I try to tell her this: try to find out why she raves and chortles over the rise and fall of the sobriety of the parents whose children's lives she controls. She shrugs away my query and disdains to address what lies beneath her ardor. My efforts to neutralize her anger fail. I grow discouraged.

Late yesterday, I appeared before a judge and listened as he telephoned my opposing counsel to query as to the reason for his absence. We stood in the courtroom during the exchange, the judge on the bench, the parties and I flanking the rail in front of him. I heard the querulous tremble of the elderly lawyer explaining his infirmities and inability to bring himself to court and I thought, Please, God, do not let that be me, twenty years hence. The Court left the resolution of our dilemma to me, and I found our collective way to a happy ending. Doing so ultimately served both justice and my client. I could not bring myself to take advantage of the other party, whose lawyer could not appear; who stood alone, unprotected, before the bar.

I went home in the stifling heat, nibbling a protein bar, wondering how my world had come to this. Shuffling papers; applying some strained combination of good sense and legal precedent; searching for the humanity behind the enumerated paragraphs; closing the file; sending my bill.

I never meant to be an attorney. I planned to teach kindergarten and write. I majored in psychology because my university did not offer a special education degree and I wanted to teach mentally retarded children. In the first semester of my second year, I did a pre-teaching lab, which sent me into an inner-city program for disabled children.

On the first day, a small huddle of children whose bodies and minds had been smudged by some cruel genetic accident crowded around me. They touched my hair, and the cloth of my skirt, and pulled at my earrings. I reached down and held a dozen hands at once, small hands, with tiny fingers, some of them twisted, all of them tugging urgently for attention.

A few feet away, the classroom teacher watched the melee for a few minutes, then turned away. She began to lay paper on the picnic tables that stood in a ring around the large room. I tried to steer the circling mass of energy towards the table and became further entangled in their frenzy. I stared at the teacher, helpless, until she took pity on me and pulled the outer layer of children towards her, distributing them amongst the benches to start their morning finger-painting session.

I seated myself in a small chair at the end of one of the tables, beside a small brown boy with a shaved head. He turned staring eyes toward me and clutched more tightly at a rolled towel, thrusting the thumb of the hand which held the towel into his mouth. I smiled at him and he responded by collapsing onto the table in tears.

It proved to be a long day.

On the second day, I wore blue jeans and a plain white shirt. I exchanged my dangly earrings for simple studs and braided my long hair, wrapping it around my head, securing it with large brass pins. I left nothing free; nothing to fascinate and lure that cluster of desperate, reaching curiosity. When the body of children made for me, I extended my arms and grabbed the outer hands of the group, and pulled. The ball of children unwound itself and I sorted them out into their individual beings. The teacher's eyebrows raised but she said nothing. We headed for the pots of paints and started into an earnest session of smearing primary colors on smocks, and newsprint, and the floor.

The little boy with the towel edged towards me, shifting his eyes sideways to see if I noticed. I continued painting with the girl whom I had been helping, but scooted over a bit on the bench, to give him more room. He sucked furiously on his thumb and swiftly tore his gaze from me, wild eyes glancing around at the other children, his free hand banging on the table. But at nap time, he pulled his mat close to where I sat reading a book, and fell asleep with one hand on my foot, the other close to his face, holding his grubby cloth, sucking his thumb. I gazed down at his small body; the painfully frail legs; the thin arms; the sunken stomach. I closed my own eyes, trying to imagine what might have happened to this child, in utero or after, to bring him to this state -- where he took comfort from an unwashed bit of toweling and the sandal-clad foot of a stranger.

On the third day, I brought a Polaroid camera. I had to document my work at this center in order to get a grade in the pre-teaching lab. During my six weeks there, I was to keep notes to accompany the pictures, and write a paper about my experiences.

The teacher pulled a folder of permits down from a crowded shelf, to identify the children whom I would be allowed to photograph. My little boy with the towel fell in the group, and I gathered him and the other children towards me. I'm going to take your picture, I said. They stared at me. I showed them the camera. I took a snapshot of the teacher, and held it for them as it developed. They gasped as the ghost image solidified into the familiar face. Then I formed them into a crooked line, and took each of their photographs, setting the small squares in a row on a table. They stood in silence, each before their own picture, as their images emerged. Their faces grew radiant as they recognized themselves, and they giggled, and raised the small squares, and ran around the room to show everybody. Look! Look! It's me!

The boy with the towel was last. As his frail form appeared, one hand near his chin holding his towel, the other twisting an ear, he fell back, away from the table on which the photograph rested. He clutched at my legs, drawing me towards the image, pulling at my hand. I bent beside him and he wrapped his arm around me. I felt the small, fierce beat of his heart; the long draw of each breath; the shudder as he sank against me. I stood, and he held more tightly onto me. I carried him over to a rocking chair and sat down, snuggling him against me. I sang whatever song I could think to sing, the songs of my childhood, the songs my mother sang to me, the songs my grandfather sang as we crowded around him, in the cool of an Illinois night, long ago, when I was young.

I did not return to the pre-school. In fact, I did not return to the class; as far as I know, I still have an Incomplete in the pre-teaching lab at St. Louis University. I finished my degree in psychology but never took another education class, and never returned to teaching. My first poem was published that spring, and I harbored, for a few years, the hope that I could write. Eventually, by some road that I can no longer see when I turn around, I came to this, to this place, to leather attache cases and courtroom attire; to pages and pages of complicated drivel; to clients who complain about my bill and beg me not to quit, even though they cannot pay me. To eating a protein bar, stuck in traffic, on I-70, on a Friday afternoon, wondering if I will be making excuses for failing to come to court, when I am 82.

The sun's light is fuller now, outside my dirt-streaked window. The warmed-over coffee in my cup has grown cold, and I should make a new pot. I'm sure the paper delivery person has come and gone; and my neighbor, whose car got hit yesterday morning, has already photographed the delivery truck's bumper and gone back inside to write a letter to the Star's circulation department. The black cat probably waits patiently on the porch, to be let into the house, so he can drink water from his special dish, and curl up on my chair at the table.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday Musings, 17 July 2010

Good morning,

Everything around me seems to be humming. The CPU flanking my chair whirs and emits a cold blue light. I can hear the air filter purring in the dining room, and the sound of the compressor outside my window rises in the warm air of the morning.

I prefer the sounds and sights on my porch, but I have left the laptop unplugged all night. An orange light glows from its port, and the warning of drained power admonishes me for my carelessness. I resign myself to writing without the surroundings that I so love: the emerald expanse of our yard; the charming cracks in the shared driveway; the long sweep of the maple's branches; the occasional, quiet greeting from a passing neighbor sharing the morning air.

Beside me on the window sill of my computer nook is a framed copy of the poem "Warning", by Jenny Joseph(1). I wonder when I will get to the age when I can flounce around in purple, with a red hat or its functional equivalent, disdaining of the opinions of others about how I look and dress. I used to wear flowing skirts and muslin dresses; I used to wear crushable straw hats and carry wide floppy handbags in soft leather. Somewhere along the last year or so, I began to think about what color might appeal to those who had to look at me; and whether I should tweeze my eyebrows; and what I should do about the lines on my face. Inexplicably, I have grown more worried about what others think of my appearance, rather than less. I don't think I could yet join the Red Hat Club. Self-acceptance seems, in the final analysis, to be a function of mind-set rather than age, and I struggle to recapture the casual confidence that I lost along the way.

Christopher Robin closed his eyes to see his nursemaid's robe hanging on the door.(2) I close my eyes to see my mother's face, hear my brother's laughter, smell the French fries at Pickwick's, the Famous 'n' Barr restaurant.

Those fries were thin, coated with salt, flash-fried and delicious. My girlfriends Trini and Mary and I walked from my home, up Kinamore Avenue, to visit a friend who worked at that department store and drink Cokes with plates of those fries. In our Campbell-plaid skirts with inverted box pleats, and the white blouses we pulled out to hang around the folds that hiked our skirts higher than the nuns allowed, we flounced passed tables of disapproving women with crabby children. Our eyes flashed back in disdain, though whether real or assumed, I can no longer say. When those women were watching us, we talked louder, and laughed with more gusto, and pulled soda through straws with more vigor. Their shifty eyes did not deter us.

I made the walk from McLaran to the Northland shopping center often. We bought our groceries at Bettendorf-Rapps, which later became Schnuck's. My mother worked at Famous 'n' Barr. My sister worked at the Kresge's. I had public school friends who lived on Kinamore, halfway between my home and the mall, whose daring always amazed me and whose freedom had a lurid allure.

The heady taint of attending public school fascinated me. Girls who went to public school had boyfriends, whom they kissed and, I suspected, with whom they did other things that I could not even imagine. They had jobs -- real jobs, not just baby-sitting or working in their high school cafeteria, but jobs at restaurants and in offices, where they went on early release from high school. I knew only one Catholic school girl who got early release, and that was because her mother had died and she was helping her father raise a much younger brother.

The summer of the year in which I turned fourteen, I became friends with a girl who smoked, chewed Juicy Fruit and lived across from the public grade school at Kinamore and Willet. She had dishwater blond hair, a thin frame, and angular shoulders. She wore crop tops and black pedal pushers and put the hair above her ears in pin curls, which she wore while she sat in the living room next to the box fan and talked to her boyfriend on the telephone. I can't remember her name but I remember the grey, worn carpet in her living room and her boyfriend's long, knowing gaze.

That girl gave me my first designer pocketbook -- a castoff, but new for me, a square purple purse, a Villager, I think. I had craved such a bag but never dared asked my mother to buy one, and my small earnings could not finance its acquisition. This girl tossed a barely used one in my direction, thoughtlessly, as though she could not be bothered with it anymore. I did not pay attention to her dismissive air. I eagerly deployed it and felt a little thrill.

With the same casual attitude, that girl also provided my first drink: harsh red wine from a bottle with a screw top that she poured into a Dixie cup, on a night so hot that she tied her blouse up and sat in short-shorts on the steps of her house. I am not sure where the girl's mother spent most of her time; I rarely saw her. The girl seemed to come and go with no limits. She had no father, no siblings, just the haggard mother who supplied her with cigarettes and left her alone for long stretches, to loll in the muggy night air, one arm around her boyfriend's outstretched legs, her eyes half-closed as she drew in smoke and blew it back out across my face.

At my house, the music on the stereo rotated between Broadway shows and early Rock, depending on who commandeered the long low stereo in the living room. At this girl's house, I heard blues, and jazz, and the mournful, sexy tones of saxophones. I fell in love there, too, with a friend of her boyfriend, a clean cut boy who never so much as touched my hand.

One night the four of us sat on her porch and she serenaded me. She had a decent voice but I squirmed beneath the strange attention. Her eyes danced as she held a hairbrush under her mouth like a microphone and pulled me from the glider to force me to dance with her. I can hear her voice now, though I strain, without success, to remember her name. Black pearl, pretty little girl, let me put you up where you belong.(3) Her boyfriend smiled, and encouraged this diversion with his indolent tone. The subject of my crush straightened his back and told her to leave me alone. She ignored him, and I let her pull my body around, in the dark, the only light provided by the occasional passing car. The shadows flickered across the hard planes of her face. I felt sick, but I succumbed. She sang; we danced; and her boyfriend lit cigarette after cigarette as the night waned.

She grew bored of me at last and shooed me home. I left the three of them and went down the stairs, holding onto the pipe rail, ignoring the flaked paint crumbling under my grasp. At the foot of the stairs, I nearly turned around to wave goodbye, but I heard her voice -- murmured, intimate words followed by a sharp, careless laugh. A sheet of winter ice gripped my heart. I did not look back.

Half a block away, I stood at the crest of the hill at the bottom of which our house sat. I saw our wide porch, with the light that would stay illuminated until the last child had come home for the night. I could see my mother sitting in a lawn chair, watching my younger brothers in the driveway. They were rolling Match Box cars down its rough contours, gleefully aiming for the gate to the back yard and the sidewalk which ended at the stump of the elm tree where I had learned to climb. I can't remember when disease took that tree; I can't remember when we had to take it down. But I remember the sight of my mother that night, and the little boys. I remember the quickening of my steps, as I stumbled down the hill, in the stifling air, amidst the sounds of crickets, and the occasional, eager flash of a firefly.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Dedicated to my mother, Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 10 September 1926 - 21 August 1985.
"My child and my heart will never part."(4)


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Saturday Musings, 10 July 2010

Good morning,

A fine layer of dust lifts and drifts as I walk through the living room to get the paper. The rain finally relented; the sky arches above my house: unbroken blue, unbidden beauty. I slept, last night, finally, though not unmedicated; this morning, I shake a slight grogginess from my brain as I push the stiffness from my limbs. The week brutalized me -- too many appointments, too many demands, too many worries.

But the cleanness of the morning invigorates me. With my cafe cup, embellished with a sketch of a Parisian waitress, and a little grey plate holding a toasted crumpet, I survey the slightly over-grown yard and the tangle of thriving vinca. I see nothing that displeases me, and a complacent existence which holds much of what motivates my daily struggle.

I drive through neighborhoods more wealthy than mine and gawk at houses that I will never own. That one! That one! My companion favors Tudor and Traditional, but I raise my hand to gesture at the Craftsmans, with their intricate gables, their unmistakable pillars, their wide front porches. I am not grand, nor are they. Humble, and sturdy, and enduring.

My son turned 19 this week. We celebrated at a Plaza restaurant but otherwise, the day held only rest for him. His job depends upon good weather, and Mother Earth did not cooperate this week. He spent the week doing chores for me, perfecting a Bach Prelude on both piano and guitar, and talking with his girlfriend who has been sentenced to a summer in Texas. This morning, as I came downstairs, I caught a glimpse of his lean, sprawled sleeping figure flanked by a trio of guitars on stands or in their cases.

I close my eyes, and Missouri fades. I stand, again, in a large bathroom, before a wide mirror. On the counter in front of me, the home pregnancy kit supplied by my friend Marjorie's pharmacist husband confirms what I had already concluded. I raise my eyes, and confront my self. I see no fear in the reflected eyes. I see knowledge, and excitement, and certainty.

My body grew to accommodate the life inside with alarming eagerness. After a brief, awful interlude that left Patrick without his intended twin, I suffered nothing abnormal in the way of pre-natal discomfort. I endured the distressed, discouraging warnings of others. My friend Valerie remarked, Single motherhood will be difficult. I shot back, Well the first 35 years of my life were sheer hell -- difficult will be an improvement. A relative, deliberately here unnamed, ungendered, unrelationshipped, suggested that I give the baby to a real family. No definition given -- but I knew that a "real family" included a husband. I barely spoke to that relative for years.

Because I had conceived two fetuses, and despite the loss of one, I grew enormously large. I had sufficient amniotic fluid for both babies, and the one which survived barely needed to move, floating instead in a comfortable sea of cradling fluid. I continued working, flying around America in impossibly small planes, walking farms saved by my shenanigans in court, picking at the heavy meals offered by grateful farmers, in true country kitchens -- in Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee. On a cold January night, ice on the windshield of a Cessna 150, me in a mechanic's jumpsuit beside the pilot, I experienced a staggering slide across a frozen field, because the nearest air strip to Brookfield, Missouri lay under a shroud of unploughed snow. I rode to the motel in a truck that had been hauling pigs, wearing rubber waders, wrapped in a canvas tarp.

The baby did not complain. In fact, many times, I called my doctor in panic because I could not feel him move. Because of Bill Clinton and Jocelyn Elders, health insurance covered 100% of any physician-ordered pre-natal care, and due to my age and disability, my obstetrician ordered everything. Amniocentesis, monthly sonograms after the 18th week, genetic testing at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. I had it all. And through it all, the baby grew, and pushed against me, in his wonder ball of water, letting me know that he controlled everything, as he would for the next two decades.

My first experience with labor startled me in a courtroom in Natchitoches, Louisiana. I did not recognize the tensing of my abdomen as labor until halfway through the day-long hearing at the end of which I had obtained a restraining order against the Federal Land Bank, prohibiting them from foreclosing on two-thousand rich acres just outside the city in Natchitoches Parish. The banker muttered to his lawyer as they exited, casting dark glances towards me. I grabbed my co-counsel's hand and hurried him down the courtroom aisle to our waiting pilot. We had the 206 this time, somewhat more comfortable than the 150, and I urged us forward, forcing the plane with the will of my protestations. I'm not happy about having this baby in Arkansas, I told my traveling companions. I'm damn sure not having it in Louisiana.

Our pilot flew for Sam Walton most of the time, just moonlighting with my firm, and he called his office. With the weight of Wal-Mart, he arranged an ambulance and an attendant, and I found myself squired with amazing efficiency to Washington Regional Medical Center from the Springdale, Arkansas airport. With sixteen weeks left in the normal forty-week gestation, the doctor stopped my labor and ordered me to bed rest. My firm responded by moving my entire office, computer, secretary, law clerk and file cabinets, to the bedroom of the small apartment that I had taken in town, leaving my Winslow home to renters who later stole my cherished, brand-new Earth stove.

For a few silly weeks early in my pregnancy, the doctor allowed me to contemplate natural childbirth. The third time my right hip spontaneously dislocated under the weight of my growing girth, that ridiculous plan fell from the agenda, and she scheduled a primary C-section for Monday, 08 July 1991. I went into labor on the morning of the sixth, contractions five minutes apart, and I summoned a friend to take me to the emergency room. The pains continued, unproductive -- the words they use to describe women's bodies astound me! -- until midnight. When I realized it was the 07th, I became enraged. I am not spending the rest of this child's life celebrating his birthday on the 07th! I wailed, clutching the mid-wife's arm. Stop this labor! Stop it now! She did not understand, but summoned the OB/GYN. I explained that his father's birthday was July 07th, and I did not expect to see or hear from the man who had made it clear that he wanted no part of this project. Sweat dripped from my forehead and fell on my friend Paula's hand as she stroked my cheek. They stopped the labor, but not because I demanded it; they reasoned that after 14 hours, if I had not been "productive", I was probably not going to be. I did not care why. I collapsed on the sweat-soaked sheets, grateful, exhausted.

I spent Sunday at home, pacing, restless. I repeatedly folded the tiny shirts in the white-painted dresser. I tied and re-tied the ribbons of the bumper in the crib. I fixed the tiny pillow in the cradle. I counted onesies.

At 9:00 a.m. on Monday, my secretary, Laura Barclay, and her husband Ron, came to get me. Laura served as my labor coach in the absence of male validation. She and Ron had no children at the time. Several years later, their joyful adoption of a sibling group would give them several marvelous years as "a real family" before Ron's premature and tragic death, from a hidden clot that had lurked in his brain since a minor traffic accident involving the unexpected appearance of a deer on a narrow side street in the town where he worked. But at the time of my childbirth odyssey, they did not have children, so my child became their child, just as he has become the child of every adult whose life he has touched in the nineteen years since his birth.

With Ron as photojournalist, Laura scrubbed and gowned, and I allowed myself to be pre-opped. I had not been given much choice -- I had an epidural, and would experience the procedure awake but desensitized. There came a moment of uncertainty when the doctor could not be found, but she hurried into the OR and apologized. She had been waiting for the Roto-Rooter man. The first half-hour of the procedure included a detailed account of the water in her basement -- how it looked, smelled and rose to the kitchen steps, and what the guy had done to rid them of it.

The midwife stood on the left; the doctor on the right. They cut through the various layers, and the midwife, in soft, lilting Irish tones, described the process for me. Though my hands were restrained in an apparent attempt to avoid contamination, I could move my upper torso. I could not see over the drape but Laura could, and I could see Laura, and that told me all I needed to know. Her eyes grew large, and round, and shiny. And then, at 1:50 p.m., on 08 July 1991, I felt something like a pop, like the sudden, giddy release of a cork, and I heard the doctor say, Well, look at this little guy, he almost looks like he's smiling at me, and then I heard my baby's first sound: laughter.

In the nineteen years since that moment, he has laughed, cried, mourned, and trembled with both fear and anticipation. I have become too familiar with doctor's waiting rooms, and the niceties of tax deductions for medical-care-related travel. He has excelled, and failed, and fallen in between the two extremes. He has grown tall, although not as tall as he would probably like. In my drive to earn enough money to support us, I have often gotten distracted from the daily business of parenthood. I have overlooked the need for haircuts, and new shoes, and have been gently reminded by a succession of teachers, the parents of his friends, and later, my son himself.

It has all been worth everything I have sacrificed. When a doctor gave me six months to live, I rejected his prognosis. My son is only five, I told him. I have to at least survive until he finishes high school. And so I have, and to my right, on the keeping shelf, is a 5 x 7 card announcing that Patrick C. Corley has made the Dean's List at DePauw University for Spring Semester 2010.

Once more, my coffee grows cold as I write. Someone asked me this week, to my amazement, why I became a lawyer. I answered with the honest truth: I wanted to write, and this seemed like a profession in which I could, perhaps, write and earn money. I laughed after I admitted this, reflecting on how wrong I had been on both accounts. But nearly two decades after that EPT told me that I was going to be a family, real or not, I have no regrets. The fullness of time has revealed the rightness of my decisions -- the big ones, at least -- and has given me anything I could have wanted, and more.

Happy birthday, Patrick. Thank you for making everything that I have suffered pale in comparison with everything that I have gotten in return. To those who stood by me -- Laura, and Ron; my sisters Ann and Joyce, who have always been here for me and usually before I knew that I needed them; Alan who has buried the bodies and persuaded me to accept that I gave birth to a musician; Penny, who persuaded me to accept that I am a good mother; Katrina, who took Patrick on many marvelous childhood adventures that my crooked legs could not pursue; and countless others, who should be named, but the naming of whom would make these musings much more maudlin and overly long than they already are -- to each of you, I can only offer eternal thanks, and relentless devotion.

Mugwumpishy tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Saturday Musings, 03 July 2010

Good morning,

I turned the alarm off before sleeping last night, but I could not extinguish the internal bells, and so I awakened, as usual, just before six. As I stretched before rising, each muscle protested the brutal week's legacy of tension. My neck has stiffened; the diagonal nerve running under my left shoulder tingles, nagging me, announcing the onset of a shingles outbreak. I am weary.

Last night, I rested, for a few sweet, brief moments, on a bench in English Landing Park, on the banks of the Missouri River, as the sun sank, and the children played, and the swift, sure current pushed its sweep of backwater under the bridge to my left. With my companion's arm across my shoulders, I watched a fisherman cast his line over and over, in a wide, sweeping arc. Walkers quietly passed on the trail behind us, some pushing strollers, others holding leashes from which eager dogs bounded. The heat of the day dissipated. A cool breeze caressed my face. I closed my eyes, and the river in front of me could have been any river, any where, at any time of my life.

I have always been fond of water. When I was 8 or 9, my mother discovered an unused beach near the Alton Dam in Illinois. Thus began a perfect year of impromptu outings after she finished her shift at Famous-Barr. She preferred to picnic in early spring and late autumn, when nobody else in their right mind would think to swim, or throw a blanket down to partake of wax paper-wrapped peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and jars of cold, home-made lemonade. There is an official park near the Dam these days, but in my childhood, the area we preferred was just a stretch of grass with no designated purpose, abutting a stand of scraggy trees and spanning a long undeveloped stretch of water. Alton sits at the confluence of three rivers -- the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Illinois. I close my eyes and picture the dam to my right, over a small hill, rising with its rusted, frightening edifice that my brother Mark dared me to scale as my mother smoked Kents and lazily scolded him in tones so casual that no one took her seriously.

I see the river in front of me; and I cannot say which river, or where in the confluence configuration this little haven sat. I don't know how my mother found the place. I can't remember how old I was, or whether my little brothers accompanied us. But I remember putting on my old Keds and walking across the packed, wet sand into the river, wearing a faded one-piece swimming suit, my hair tied in braids around my head. Mother required us to swim wearing our shoes. My brothers protested, but I obeyed without question. I believed her stories of other, less loved children with their bleeding, unshod feet, stepping on debris, or being nipped by small, blind creatures that lived deep in the murky water.

We rarely encountered other picnickers during that first year. We went weekly, through the hot days of summer and into the cool of the fall. We had our last outing there in late October. We could not swim; we wore jackets, slacks, socks and heavy shoes. The thermos held hot cocoa. My mother sat wrapped in a sweater, in an aluminum lawn chair with green webbing. She smiled and smoked, as we dragged sticks across the sidewalk and wrote our names in crooked letters that extended the length of the sodden sand next to the overgrown grass.

During that school year, the Post-Dispatch ran an article about the Dam, and my mother fretted over the story. There goes our picnic spot, she complained. And she was right: When we went there for the first time in the spring, several families had arrived ahead of us, and they had already claimed the lone wooden table. We took to making our picnics during the week, hoping to avoid the growing Saturday crowd. My mother disdained the commonplace and the popular -- she preferred to forge new paths rather than follow those worn by the trodding of others. I did not understand her moods at the time, though I think I do now, with the clear, unfettered vision of hindsight.

At the time, we only knew that we loved those picnics; we loved the cold bite of the river when we first waded into it, and the sweet ooze of jelly as we bit into our sandwiches. We did not want to sacrifice the wicked thrill of climbing up the side of the dam and staring into the docks, or the exhilaration of running too far along the riverbanks, while my mother called warnings after us -- warnings that even she knew we would ignore.

A sense of urgency settled on my brothers and me. We knew that our visits to the dam would occur with increasing infrequency until eventually, we would stop going altogether and my mother would find some other place for our picnics. Our tones became desperate, relentless, as we wheedled and pleaded. Can we go to the beach? Can we? Oh come on Mom -- it won't be crowded! Come on! It's early! Nobody but us goes on picnics at seven in the morning, Mom!

On an especially hot Saturday, we started begging before breakfast. We nagged our mother until she capitulated and agreed to take us despite her misgivings. The air of the day hung in humid sheaths around us as we clamored out of the car in the expanse of gravel south of the beach. We snatched the canvas bag of towels and the picnic basket, barely stopping to close the car doors as we ran towards the picnic area.

The sight around the corner brought us to a staggering halt. A group of thirty or forty children, about our age, with a small clutch of grown-ups, swarmed the shrinking stretch of sand flanking the river. Mark, Kevin and I stood, a mixture of awe and horror spread across our faces. The children in front of us streamed towards the river, boys in cut-off shorts, girls wearing mostly just underwear and T-shirts, having discarded their britches in piles next to the folding chairs on which their mothers and fathers lounged in the heavy heat of the late morning air.

My mother struggled to remain cheerful as we found a small spot on which to spread our blanket. Silently , with some reluctance, and worried glances -- backward, to our mother, outwards, to the noisy group -- my brothers and I got ready for a swim. Mother settled into her chair and poured a glass of lemonade. We took this as her unspoken permission to enjoy ourselves, and ran towards the water.

I don't know which one of us heard the children's wails first. We had been swimming for long enough to wrinkle our skin; I remember standing on the beach, gazing without comprehension at the disturbance near the bend around which the river met the dam. I looked down at my hands, seeing the flesh of my fingers bunched in tight, white whorls. My brothers pulled me towards children huddled on the side of the river as our mother ran up behind us, calling our names, bidding us to stop, stop, stop.

I cannot help but recall that all of the other people at the beach that day were black. Their color had no importance to me at the time but it haunts me now. I remember how dark they were, how different from me. I do not know from where they came; whether they came from the City; or even, who they were. I had been raised without prejudice, so I had not noticed this at first. And in truth, their skin color has no significance to me other than this: I remember their eyes: stark brown against bold white, as they watched a man carrying the small, still body of a little girl from the silent river. I remember the color of her skin -- a horrid, dull grey, without the rush of her blood, the beat of her heart, the draw of air through her small lungs. And I remember the bright red plastic clips in the many, sodden braids on her tiny, delicate head, which fell, lifeless, against her father's heaving chest.

I have found solace near the river. I have slept, in my own home, in the still of the mountains, with a river rushing past at its height, in the shank of an Ozark spring. I have waded in cold water on smooth flagstone, and I have set myself down and let the water comfort me. But I have not forgotten that the river once claimed the life of a little black girl, in Alton, in my childhood, while my mother smoked and worried about things of which I had no real understanding, and my brothers and I fretted over the loss of our special, private place.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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.