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

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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.