Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Musings, 09 April 2011

Good morning,

My home has settled into a routine of comings and goings with its two new members. Saturday morning rings with vibrancy, rather than wearing a thin veil of solitary calm. One occupant has taken his seventeen-year-old frame off to his part-time job; another moves about the kitchen in preparation for Saturday tennis. The crotchety old single lady morphed into a contented married maven since last she sat to cogitate over the machinations of her life. The coffee still steams in the same cup, but the pot depletes more quickly now, and we mildly bicker over the true cause of the near-government-shut-down behind the raised folds of our respective newspapers -- mine the local rag, his the Wall Street Journal.

I find myself curiously focused on the present rather than the past. Time twists another click to the right, and I am one step closer to old age. The sudden presence in my home of a high school junior suggests that I can forestall the empty-nest syndrome for an extra year; and the acquisition of aging in-laws gives a happy contrast that improves my outlook. I am no longer the oldest member of my little family. I have context.

My breath catches as I review pictures of the wedding, mostly at the sight of my own son, standing eight inches taller than me, with his broad shoulders and easy smile. I hear a fiddle in the background and wonder where did my little boy go? Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. The days marched majestically, passing me on a swiftly moving conveyor belt. I expected to hold fast to his youth as I had not held onto my own, but it, too, eluded me. Now his name regularly appears on the Dean's list, and he grapples with impractical urgings to make music and write stories. I can only hope he will not sacrifice his dreams as I did mine.

We spent our honeymoon in New Orleans. I had not visited that city, except to argue before the Court of Appeals, since my early 20s. My new husband had only been to the city briefly, on business, and had not experienced its charming side. We chose New Orleans in part because we felt that New Orleanians needed our tourist dollars, and in part to have the experience of new discovery as we began our life together.

It did not disappoint. Oh, the hotel did not rise to our expectations -- and, you know me well: I have already negotiated a partial credit and a coupon for a free night, which we will use to celebrate our anniversary next year. And yes, the weather groused a bit: Torrential rain on the day we drove to Baton Rouge, and cool, damp evenings. But on balance, the city presented as the Grande Dame we expected.

We stood in line for a chance to eat hot beignets and drink chicory coffee at the Cafe DuMonde. We scoured the French Market to find "that guy -- Smoky" who sold me a blues harmonica for my musician son. I lit a candle at the St. Louis Cathedral, dipping to genuflect in the aisle, demonstrating to a hushed husband that my recovering Catholic roots still run deep. We rode the trolley; we ate raw oysters; we bit into juicy po'boys of fried clams and soft shell crab. I gamely trudged a mile or so back to our hotel on our first day; he gently helped me slide out of shoes that slightly pinched my little misshaped feet. The Blackberry clicked picture after picture, and his digital camera too: One of these days, we will locate the cable that will allow us to upload the pictures, and we will marvel over my perfect shot of the row upon row of above-ground, buried parishioners, among whom I am sure my great-grandfather sleeps.

A little known fact about me: I am a shameless Food Network junkie. Through hours of watching Rachel Ray, I kept my son from having to survive on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and endless pots of turkey spaghetti. While learning to cook from the Network's many thoughtful chefs, I developed an unabashed crush on Chef John Besh, intensified by his tireless efforts to help his neighbors and the entire Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina.

For six weeks before our wedding and honeymoon, I hammered on the Internet trying to get reservations at Chef Besh's flagship restaurant, August. I finally got them for the evening and time that I preferred: Thursday, the second-last night of our stay, 7:00 p.m. I could not wait.

That afternoon, at the end of a day in which we took a driving tour, my husband decided that we should see the Ninth Ward. With rudimentary directions from the inadequately staffed hotel concierge, and a skeletal map from Hertz, we drove in the general direction that the irritating GPS lady thought should take us to the most seriously Katrina-impacted area of the city.

As we descended down into the Ninth Ward, it first struck me as an anti-climax. The lady at the visitors center had commented, "Of course, there is nothing left to see," suggesting to us that the entire area had been flattened. But we both recalled television footage of houses being rebuilt, crews volunteering, debris being shoveled into dumpsters. So we persisted.

And then, we saw. On either side of us, row upon row of small, scarred dwellings. The siding still peeled away; the windows boarded or simply left broken, raw, torn. Yards denuded. The quiet devastation. The abandoned, failed efforts to heal.

Every so often, we saw a home with new paint, glass refitted, curtains hung. A child jumped from a school bus into the arms of a waiting father. Down one deserted row of battered homes, a witch ditch stood, surrounded by a cheerful group of yellow hard-hats. My numbers-crunching husband estimated that about twenty-five percent of the houses in the area had been reclaimed, and sat in various stages of repair.

As we drove, I realized that as breathtakingly grim as I found the hurricane damage to be, more so did I find the fact that these houses existed in the first place. Tiny, vulnerable, sitting in the sure path of destruction much like a group of trailers in Tornado Alley. Who would choose to build where one's existence had such tenuous uncertainty? I knew, but I resisted the acknowledgment. Poor people, that's who. They did not build -- they bought or rented, cheap, flimsily constructed houses in a neighborhood that awaited disaster.

But the rebuilding seemed to be in earnest, and the few occupants visible in the late afternoon on a weekday seemed not grim but cheerful. I pushed aside my middle class values, and folded the map, stashing it back in the glove compartment, and turning my attention to contemplation of the proper attire for a fancy New Orleans restaurant.

Later, though, as I sat before my half of a two-hundred dollar dinner, my social conscience prickled. How could I eat a piece of flounder crusted with almonds, beside a delectable pile of shaved truffle, while blocks away, a child ate nothing for dinner but a piece of white bread with sugar-laden peanut butter? I consoled myself with the rank rationalization that our meal ticket helped to fund John Besh's good works for the benefit of that child and the many other children who just needed a full belly and a soft bed, to find some brief encouragement to get up for school the next day.

The week concluded, and we journeyed home. On Monday morning, the usual pile of unsolved problems awaited me at my solo practice, and I spent the new few days putting out fires that had been smoldering during my absence. By week's end, I loudly lamented my decision to take two weeks' vacation, even though I had been in town and touching base for the first of those. The events of our honeymoon faded, as vacations will, into a pleasant reverie. I can no longer recall which day we rode the trolley to the National World War II Museum, or on which evening a drunk driver rear-ended us.

But I remember the drive through the Ninth Ward, and I remember the evening at August. I remember my first step onto the St.Charles Trolley line, and the tall, alien trees that we passed. I remember the regal look on the face of a cellist sitting on a cobblestone street, with her tip basket at her feet, apologizing because she had not yet hit her stride. I see the broad smile on the face of an aging hawker who lured us into a restaurant in the Quarter, and the steamy softness of the soft-shell crab into which I bit, at lunch, that first day. And I remember the strong scent of that chicory coffee, and the slight dusting of powdered sugar on my blouse, after breakfast at the Cafe DuMonde. And the smile on my husband's face, at the sight of his silly wife, biting into that fried dough, which he no doubt suspected that I would regret.

But I do not regret any of it. Not one bit.

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.