Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Musings, 26 May 2012

Good morning,

A sweet, lilting air drifts in the open door as I slip outside to read the paper and drink coffee before fixing breakfast for our number three child. The middle child, the one child born of my body, sleeps on the other side of the window adjacent to our deck, and his aging dog lies outside his door, snuffling occasionally to indicate awareness. The world moves another click closer to our meld with another round of destiny.

Tonight, I will sit beside my husband and our tight, happy clutch of family, as his son strides across the stage to accept his high school diploma -- or, if his high school runs true to the practice of others, an empty leatherette folder, the actual piece of paper held hostage awaiting return of the rented cap and gown. His tall frame will stand out near the end of the line of 101 students. When asked if he is excited about graduating, he shrugs over his eggs. After the senior dinner and two weeks of AP exams, commencement seems a bit anti-climactic.

We'll gather at a Brazilian restaurant tomorrow, eight total: grandparents, his father and me, his sister and her beau, my son, the graduate. Praise will be levied, and he will flash the grin that he claims he learned at his mother's urging, social and party skills being two things for which she receives due credit. And then, as we groan with fullness, his high school career will fade into memory and he will start a summer of working seven days a week until it is time to take his place among the starting freshmen at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Meanwhile, his stepbrother leaves on Tuesday for two months in Los Angeles. I'll help him load his car, and stock the cooler with cold water and sandwiches. I'll caution him to tighten the straps on the bike rack. He's caravaning west with a young man who graduated from DPU last week and is relocating to L.A. This friend helped Patrick get a two-month internship. My son will turn 21 in L.A., and he's been duly warned: Don't drink and drive; don't jeopardize your freedom, your scholarship, or your school enrollment. I'll watch their vehicles pull from the curb, then get into my own and start my workday. Beneath the deftly applied color, my hair will sprout a few more greys; the crow's feet beside my blue eyes will deepen a notch or two; and I will cast a glance in the direction of the guardian angels who hover near our children. They will regard me with some amusement: Do I doubt their alertness? Have they not brought my son to this point, capably navigating through the flotsam and jetsam of life, with just a few close calls and a couple of tiny nicks?

This week, my neighbor gifted me with a fully restored rocking chair, its seat and arms reattached, new rockers, newly sanded and varnished. As I sip my coffee, leaning into its small motion, I think about the day that I acquired it, and the day, nearly thirty years later, when I wrote about my law school class mate abandoning it on the curb as she crammed her belongings into a trailer and set off for New England. I close my eyes and fall into the lull of the chair's movement: back, and forth, and back, and forth, and back, and forth. The wind tosses the chimes, and their light music dances through the stillness. For a few minutes, neither accounts payable nor accounts receivable disturbs me, and I am care-free and serene. Nothing can shake my calm.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Congratulations -- Ansel Mitchell MacLaughlin, Pembroke Hill School, Class of 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday Musings, 19 May 2012

Good morning,

The clear ring of a voice from the past heralded me as I listened to the unplayed messages on my cell phone. Corinne, it's Diana, I got your letter. . .she began, in an excited and instantly recognizable cadence. My mind flew to the past, to St. Louis, to the Central West End, where Diana and I first knew each other.

She was in college during my graduate school semesters, Fall of 1977 through Spring of 1980. We met through mutual friends, and I found myself drawn into her orbit. Small, spry and bubbly, with bright eyes and passionate beliefs, Diana went west at the same time I did. But while I stopped in Kansas City, she went as far as she could go without drowning: to Big Sur, California, where she homesteaded.

A few years later, she back-tracked a bit, landing in Moab, Utah. I heard about her exploits there over the years, by letter mostly, an endless stream of hand-made cards with hearts drawn in the margin. While I slugged from job to job, man to man, town to town, Diana built a tipi, lived without electricity, and constructed a gravity-fed water system. I worked in offices; she worked at the local co-op. Still the letters came. She called me her sister and signed each missive "love, di", in rounded, lovely printing that I would know to this day.

She struggled financially, but her difficulties did not prevent her from trying to help me. When I got run over by a car during law school and had to stop working, she stuffed some food stamps into a get-well card. She sent packages with small hand-made pretties. After the birth of my son, she made beautiful Mother's Day cards every year. And she visited, twice: Once in Arkansas, and once in Kansas City. She held my son in his infancy, and chased him around the living room in our Brookside home, when he was two or three.

I only have two photographs of my friend. She despised having her picture taken. I snapped one, once, and she turned away just as the shutter closed. Her arm is raised. She huddles into a heavy down jacket, standing next to the backroom door at the drug store where we worked during graduate school. I took her picture as an act of defiance, or maybe to goad her. My recollection of the reasoning faded with the Polaroid. The other photo shows a serene countenance, years later, when she had overcome her self-loathing.

In Moab, she lives in an area that once bore the designation Star Route, Castle Valley. At some point, the U. S. Postal Service gave her a Rural Route address but I still penned the storybook phrasing on the outside of her letters. Once, I lost the new address and called the Moab post office. I told them what I knew: Star Route, Castle Valley. After a silence, the old postal master chuckled. I haven't heard those old names in years, he said, and I felt shame. I told myself it hadn't been that long since I had written, but that was just an act of self-delusion. The fact is, Diana always honored our friendship more than I did.

Now my son plans a drive from Kansas City to Los Angeles, and I am searching for anyone whom I know on the route, to give him names, and numbers, and potential way stations. I tell myself that I had been thinking of writing to her anyway, and indeed, I did an Internet search for her a few months ago, to no avail. Now my motivation has increased, and time presses. I paid 95 cents for a People-Search online, and got the "new" address. But in the process, I learned that her mother died last year, and a shock of guilt washed over my soul. This is my oldest friend, and I let her slip away.

In writing, I only felt humility --- no sense of entitlement, no expectation that she would even respond. Though I could not imagine her tossing my letter in the trash, I would not have blamed her for doing so. I read about your mother, I hazarded, tapping my keyboard with care. I am so sorry. I enclosed a copy of my Mother's Day musing, hoping that any gap between us might be overcome with the common bond of mother-loss. It was a cheap trick, but all that I had. And then, I told her: Patrick is driving west in a couple of weeks. It would be great if he could stop to see you, maybe have a little rest from the road.

I can't say that I seriously expected the woman whom I had once known to reject such a request. The quality of her character could not have abated, even if the length of time since I last wrote would have justified silence, or a verbal shrug, a small metaphorical shake of her head. The Diana whom I knew would not stand on ceremony: A friend is a friend, a sister is a sister. And she did not disappoint. In her message, she welcomed my son to stop or to stay. She eagerly anticipated seeing him again. She thanked me for writing, she expressed joy at our reconnection. She said she loved me. She called me sister.

I could see her: Raising her hand to ward off the camera's eye; standing in my farmhouse kitchen in Arkansas; dropping a bedroll on the hardwood floor of my Kansas City bungalow. Her eyes remain bright; her skin tanned from hours spent out-of-doors; her manner gentle, like the wind that caresses your upturned face.

I listened to her message twice, three times, four times, feeling a curious mixture of unworthiness and relief. Then I dialed her number to return the call, as the tears began to flow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saturday Musings, 12 May 2012

Good morning,

A note in my electronic inbox mentions my mother. I'm happy to see this picture of my Aunt Lucy, writes my cousin Angela, who worked with my mother in the early 1970s. She briefly reflects on how my mother and she laughed and laughed. Her reminiscing strikes a note that rings true: My mother loved to laugh, and she brought joy to others with the infectious nature of her mirth.

My mother set examples that I have tried to apply in my own parenting, and whether or not I succeeded in emulating the goodness of her teaching remains to be seen. On the day before this Mother's Day, in the year that my son will turn 21, I feel as though my parenting, for better or for worse, has unfolded as far as I can take it, and the rest lies in the province of fate, or my child's own volition. The impact of his choices now will outweigh even the indelible stamp of mine.

But he will never shake the effect of several of my choices, the first among them being the choice to have him. I could have waffled in that. I could have fallen on the side of ease -- choosing the emotional trauma of abortion over the unmistakably difficult but immeasurably rewarding decision to bear a child whose biological progenitor had already made his choice to be absent. On the heals of several miscarriages over fifteen years of sporadic attempts to bear a child, I saw my pregnancy with my son to be the last opportunity to parent a biological child, and so, at age 35, I stepped into the breach.

During pregnancy, I became obsessed with having what I perceived as the accouterments of a "normal" childhood for the baby whose life I anticipated would contain many hallmarks of abnormality -- the only child of a single, disabled, middle-aged mother, this little guy would doubtless encounter endless taunts from the smug offspring of coupled twenty-somethings. Among the numerous and now thankfully forgotten fixations that I developed, I count my unnatural insistence that Patrick have a particular child's swing, which had the option of sitting table-top, running on house current or batteries, and which could provide endless, side-to-side rocking that supposedly mimicked the exact movement of cradling, maternal arms.

In other words, a battery-powered back-up to replace the second parent that he would not have.

My sister Joyce found this thing in a J.C. Penney catalog. "Online" had not yet become the ordering arena of choice, and I lived in Northwest Arkansas, which had Penney's so small they looked at me with confusion when I tried to describe what I wanted, and cast a roving eye at their own outdated copy of the company's catalog to no avail. But Joyce found it, and ordered it, and the package came a week or so after the departure of my oldest sister who had come to assist me in my first week home from the hospital.

The UPS man arrived one click after the nick of time. I had been desperate for days, exhausted from the stress of the surgery by which my son came into the world and his constant crying which we had not yet determined stemmed from lactose intolerance triggered by the gagging volumes of milk that I consumed to provide the calcium my body needed. I did not sleep. I nursed, and walked, and cajoled and begged and collapsed in a heap on the couch in the living room of my tiny apartment, questioning my decision to have him in the face of all the doubts expressed by some of my more candid friends and half of my family.

I tore into the the box with a frantic mixture of glee and relief. I pulled forth the white plastic baby-throne and its heavy pedestal. I wrenched the D batteries from their blister pack and crammed them into their slots, getting the wrong end round in my haste. Having righted them with shaking fingers, I searched for the switch to activate my salvation, and stood, awed, in front of the machine as, indeed, it shifted back, and forth, and back, and forth, with a small, nearly imperceptible hum.

Oh baby, I thought. You are gonna love this. And Mama's gonna get her some sleep.

I retrieved my fussy baby from his cradle, changed his diaper, and marveled, for a few minutes, over his sweet smile, and the smoothness of his small head with its mass of black curls. I dressed him in a fresh Pooh onesie and sang his favorite James Taylor song while I got him ready to nurse. Then I sat in the rocker given to me by friends who owned a used furniture store, and fed my boy, only slightly distracted by the thought that after he ate, I would be able to put him in the new contraption, activate the one-hour batteries, and take a nap on the couch beside my contented bundle of joy.

I didn't dare think about the possibility that after I napped, I might be able to take a shower. No point in being too hopeful.

Once he had had his fill, and burped his silly, baby burp, I approached the rocking machine and gently set my son in its curved seat, on the soft blanket that I had placed there, and fastened the plastic buckling strap around him. He gazed at me with eyes that I felt held trust, and so, without further thought, I flipped the switch.

And my precious child, this boy whom I had awaited for 36 years, a tiny bundle of happiness born six weeks before his due date but still weighing nearly 8 pounds, let out a wail that pierced my heart and sent the neighbors pounding on my door.

I wrenched him from the baby swing and held him close. After assuring my neighbor that neither I nor my child had been injured, I walked him around the small living room until his tiny chest stopped shuddering and he eased into my embrace. He was just surprised, I told myself. He'll get used to it.

But he didn't.

Over the next several days, we repeated the routine. Feed, burp, set into baby seat, activate motion, wail. Each time, I snatched him from the seat sooner and sooner, and I am not ashamed to admit that my haste had more to do with my fear that Social Services would intervene than my concern for his sensibilities. His crying between these periodic experiments grew worse and worse, but the most intense, the most anguished, occurred when I started that machine, the very moment at which, according to its marketing, he should have fallen into a contented stupor.

By the end of the week, I had not bathed for days, my son and I had become something less than uneasy allies, and the apartment looked like a war zone.

One night, late, I called my sister long distance. Not the sister who had given me the coveted baby-rocker, but the sister who had come to Fayetteville. She assured me that all new mothers go through trying times. She listened to me cry. She suggested that I get someone to come stay with Patrick while I slept. And there were people who could come, a couple of them, but they couldn't move into the apartment with me or raise my child, assuming that I did not murder him in what little sleep he got between bouts of nursing and screaming.

The next day, I called the other sister, the one who had indulged my obsession with this white hunk of battery-powered plastic. Oh, Mary, she said (and I did not even notice her using my despised first name). Just go to Wal-Mart, get a Grayco swing-o-matic, and use that.

I did as she suggested. I put my screaming son into his car seat, and drove, shabby maternity dress thrown over my sweaty body, to the nearest Wal-Mart. I bought a Grayco Swing-O-Matic for 1/5 the cost of the monstrosity that I had insisted I had to have. I put it together with the provided Allen wrench, and put my son, with his Pooh bear, into the seat, and cranked the handle.

With the first forward movement, Patrick fell asleep, his head slumping sideways, and a silly smile settling on his angelic face.

I collapsed beside the swing, and he and I slept for forty-five minutes, which is the length of time that a single full wind provides. I woke to his soft cooing, as he reached his tiny fingers to touch his bear's nose. I wound the thing again, and sank to the floor. I think I fell asleep before he did.

A week or so later, clean, long hair washed and braided, attired in freshly laundered clothing, I took the table-top, dual-powered, modern baby-rocker to the local J. C. Penney's to return. The lady at the counter noticed that I had made no entry in the box labeled, "Reason for Return". She raised her head with its tight, grey curls, and asked, in a casual, unsuspecting way, what the reason for my returning the item could be. Do I have to say? I asked. I can't file the form without a reason, she snapped.

Okay then, I told her. Write, "Whenever I put my baby in it, he screamed as though I had poured boiling oil over him."

Her eyebrows drew together. We stood looking at each other without speaking. Finally, she pulled the form closer to her rounded, matronly bosom, and said, I'll just write, "Did not live up to expectations."


Few of the events of the next twenty-one years did, quite, match what I expected them to be. Some of them wildly exceeded any dream that I might have had. Some, not many, fell woefully short of what I had hoped would occur. In the latter group, I put T-ball, Boy Scouts, and Catholic elementary school, where I forced my son to go for the fifth and sixth grades, a decision that everyone knew I would regret. But in the former group -- the category that a customer service agent might describe as "Surpassing even my wildest dreams for motherhood", I put almost everything else -- including two trips to Minnesota for treatment at the Mayo Clinic for my son, which gave me sweet memories of my son riding his bike through Rochester and of him asking, in his mild, endearing way, if we could live in the hotel forever.

Mother's Day will dawn slightly bittersweet. I lost my mother in 1985, and I would by lying if I did not say I still miss her with an intensity that I expected would have by now faded. But I have lived the whole of my life as a mother in the span of time since she went home to the peaceful eternity that she knew would cradle her. As I sit on my sun-lit porch, a porch that I know she would find as welcoming as I do, I can only hope that I have lived up to her expectations.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Happy Mother's Day, to all the mothers reading this.

In Memory of Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 10 September 1926 - 21 August 1985, and in memory of all the lost mothers, including the most recently lost mother of our friend Shelley Bishop, Shirley Ann (Little) Moon. May we all remember them with love, and joy, and the knowledge that their daughters learned to be good mothers by their example.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday Musings, 05 May 2012

Good morning,

My old Mac balances on the metal table on our lovely deck. My hair lifts and sways across my face in the gentle morning breeze. I hear birds joyfully greeting the rising spring sun. My gaze falls on the new landscaping next door, and the burst of colorful blooms in the pots on my porch.

I would have to google -- if I may use that as a lower-case verb without incurring a summons -- the history of Cinco de Mayo, but I do know that today will be honored with many celebrations, including Paddy Murphy, a gala event of my son's fraternity (SAE). In downtown Kansas City's Power and Light District, it is Derby Day. At the Holmes House here in Brookside, i am celebrating Clean Out the Closet Day, a semi-annual event that stirs my soul and provides bounty for local thrift stores, in this case, the Hope Chest, which raises money for several causes, including the VALA Gallery. Besides the boon to charity, I derive major satisfaction from an orderly closet.

The seasons change as the world keeps spinning. I dodged another bullet this week, once again receiving undeserved bounty from the Universe, where my stock rises and falls according to my own folly. I took a nasty fall last Sunday but Thursday learned I had not damaged my artificial joint. The bad news? The pain in my knee stems from a bone-on-metal situation which can only be remedied by surgery. I weigh the odds of clotting and the potential of spending two months without income against the inconvenience of sleepless nights and the increasing need for pain medication. A toss up, as far as I can tell.

As Mother's Day draws near, I think of my own mother and feel the pain of her loss as though it had happened just yesterday. I suppose time heals most wounds, but overcoming the loss of one's parent might require as many decades as you had their love. A friend watched her mother fade last week, and I feel the freshness of her agony and wish I could help. But I have found, and she will find, that the only helpful words echo in her own heart spoken in her mother's voice, consisting of the many lessons she imparted, and the many avowals of dedication she whispered over the years.

I learned also, this week, that my son will be in Los Angeles this summer. I had been expecting, even hoping for this news. I got it virtually, by way of a forwarded electronic mail from the company that has chosen him as their summer intern. I've yet to learn whether it will be paid or unpaid but it doesn't matter, because it will provide him both experience and contacts in the world in which he hopes to work after graduation next year. One step closer to independence; one step further from the nest. A friend asked if I am sad that he won't be here, and I can honestly answer, no, because not here provides what he wants and needs. I had him for twenty years. Any pain that I experience in his absence pales next to the brilliance of his accomplishments and his own satisfaction in them.

I hear sirens wailing to the east -- fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars -- their blaring urgency sending motorists skittering to the side of the road. The noise recedes as it grows distant and I find myself making a little sign of the cross on my chest, an old habit that has died hard, one that invites the God of Catholicism to send angels to watch over those at the other end of the ambulance's journey. I glance around the porch, suspicious that I've been caught in this relapse into the symbolism of my childhood religion. Only the old girl cat watches me, and with such disinterest that my sheepishness fades into laughter.

Saturday looms empty and welcoming. My spouse has journeyed north, to Omaha, to the annual Warren Buffet love-fest. My stepson never tarries long on Saturdays, between work, and working out, and hanging out with the friends to whom he will say farewell at summer's end, as they all depart for new adventures in academia, after discarding their caps and gowns. So I will clean out my closet, and take the cast-offs to donate, and then journey south, to the lock-and-pull store located very conveniently near my favorite bookstore. Perhaps I will persuade a friend to join me at Dunn Bros. Coffee but if not, I will sink into one of their large, old chairs with a good European mystery novel, and let the aroma of fresh roasted beans waft me into a hazy state of summer somnolence.

And as the day wanes, I will begin to think about dinner, and my returning husband, and what Sunday holds. For now, though, I will pour another cup of Eight O'clock coffee, and spread open the Kansas City Star, for my daily session of yelling at writers who have forgotten the rules of grammar.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
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.