Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Musings, 27 October 2012

Good morning,

A small victory: I slept all night without waking. Feeling refreshed is too much for which to hope, but staying asleep for eight hours signals that at least, my conscience rests.

Grey crowds my face, beaten back only by the skillful hand of a kind stylist. I wrench my elbow, and groan for hours, days, weeks, no longer cheerfully rebounding from every spill. I manipulate my neck and feel a crunching that causes me to wince. Middle age claims me; I stand on the brink of the downhill stretch.

Into this state seeps a trigger for memory. My son's friend Alex Thompson, who has written a screenplay about his Greek grandmother in which Olympia Dukakis has agreed to star, sends a tweet into the happy abyss of the internet: I've written about my yiayia -- send me stories about YOUR yiayias. Oh, memory: you rise to haunt me.

I'm back in a ranch house, the first built in the subdivision called Lake Knolls, sitting on the bend of a highway halfway between Chatham and Springfield, Illinois. My nana, the strongest, surest, finest woman that I have ever known, then or since, has been felled, slowed, bested, by a series of gruesome strokes. She stands in the living room, flanked by a worn recliner, a pale-colored sofa, and a console television, in this summer of my thirteenth year, one leg in a brace, her arm lifeless and withered by her side, and tries to tell me something. Ddddd-er, ddd-eer..she stammers, my Nana, the woman who taught me to always put my best foot forward, who bought me shoes that I could be proud to wear, who read to me summer, after summer, after scary summer, when my brother and I had been sent to the safe harbor of her Gillespie home. Dddeerrrrrr -- ddddeeerrrrr!!!, her urgent demand.

It wasn't fair that I should be tasked with trying to determine what Nana wanted that day. My grandfather had gone to work; I don't know where my brother had gone, possibly for a walk, down to the scraggly banks of the nearby creek, at the end of a dirt road beyond the cornfield next to our grandparents' home. I glanced around, desperate, worried, fearful. What does she want, I asked myself, a cold knot forming in my stomach. Still she stammered, stuttered, a frenzied look in her eyes, pleading with me to figure out the word that escaped her.

I couldn't. I turned, pretending that I didn't know, didn't understand, that Nana needed something. I'm going to my room, I told her, with a false, cold cheeriness. I went into the den in which I had been sleeping, where the fold-out couch had been restored to the guise of seating and my small suitcase held a handful of books brought from the public library at home. I grabbed one of them and curled into the farthest corner of the sofa, scrunched against the arm, under the window. I opened the book to a random page and held it resolutely against my bent knees, unable to read for the tears forming in my eyes.

I heard the painful steps of my grandmother pulling her ravaged body through the hallway to the bathroom. What followed could only be the sound of a person with just one functioning arm rummaging through a medicine cabinet. Grief stamped my face, dampened my cheeks, spilled to the surface of the book. I threw it across the room, my chest heaving with a terrible mix of self-righteousness and self-loathing.

When I went back out into the living room, Nana stood in the place where I had left her, holding a bottle from which she drank without benefit of spoon or dispenser. Her three-pronged cane discarded against the chair, she teetered, unstable, her internal resolve the only thing keeping her upright. I crossed to stand beside her, and put my own thin arms around her, lowering her heavy frame into a chair, easing the bottle from which she had drunk from the tight, frantic clutch of her one good hand. A brief glance at the bottle: castor oil. My disgust with my own obstinate unwillingness to help the woman who had given me so much rose in sickening waves. I sat on the arm of the chair, one arm across her shoulders. Neither of us spoke.

Late that night, with the cool summer air surrounding us on the patio, my grandfather calmed me with his deep, low, soothing voice. It's okay, little one, don't worry, he told me, holding me, petting my arm, singing the songs with which he had lulled me to sleep in the long-ago days of my babyhood. My Nana had gone to bed, her body ravaged and her bones weary, and my brother sat with us in the dark, having no words to help me forgive myself for failing our grandmother.

I remember the last time I saw Nana. My mother had come to retrieve me after my annual summer visit. I would have said it was 1973, though a quick search of the Social Security death records tells me otherwise. In any event, we left Nana and Grandpa's home while my grandfather was not there; I'm sure he was at work. Nana had cajoled my mother into cleaning her house, and sweeping the patio, and taking some leftovers to eat in the car. She stood at the door, waiving her one good arm, and my mother let the engine idle. Do you think she knows we are leaving? I asked, and my mother shook her head. She couldn't say; no one could. We waited, and Nana smiled, the sweet smile that I had always seen on her face, for all of my life, every time she had come to take care of us and every time she had taken us into her home. She knows something, my mother finally remarked, and we backed out of the driveway.

A short while after my grandmother died, my grandfather bought a new car. I had gone to stay in the dorm room to which I was assigned for that fall semester, a week or so early. We planned a family Sunday dinner for the next day, and my grandfather was to come down to St. Louis, the first visit since her death. I felt uneasy, unsettled, and I dreamed of my Nana. I saw her, sitting in the back of Grandpa's new vehicle, her face smooth, her arms strong, her eyes clear. Tell Lucy not to cry, she told me, in my dream, Tell her I'm just fine now. Lucy -- my mother.

The decades since my grandmother's strokes and her ultimate death sit heavy on my bones. I assume that by the time I am a grandmother, I will be older than my mother ever got, but younger than my Nana when she died. In that long heavy stretch of late middle-age, I will gather my memories around me, and weave them into a model of the best grandmother that a child could ever have, one who tells stories, dispenses advice, and buys the expensive shoes, and who lives in a brick home, with a cornfield, a patio, and a fold-out couch for a visiting grandchild.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

For more information on Alex Thompson's project:

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Musings, 20 October 2012

Good morning,

It's dark, darker than a Saturday should be, the kind of creeping darkness that holds the threat of chill, and dampness. I have awakened early because I have a journey planned, and a few last minute chores await.

Nothing much happened on Friday. I loitered at home until my husband and our daughter had left for their respective obligations, using the ostensible need to launder towels as my excuse. Once the house settled into weekday lassitude, I took a long, hot shower and conditioned my hair, then puttered around, pretending to be occupied, just for the pleasure of being home alone.

I got little done at the office, enjoyed lunch with my father-in-law, and sent out October billing a week or two early; in some cases, September billing, a week or two late. Around 4:30, having had enough of being responsible for the live of people with whom I have only a contractual connection, I abdicated. Throwing my bag on the back seat to join the clutter of two weeks' worth of court jackets dangling from hangers, I started south, to Brookside.

A text message from my son distracted me. It said something about money, one of the few subjects that can startle me into instant action. I clicked the button that rings his cell phone, which no doubt rested in the change well of his Blazer as he traveled from St. Paul to Greencastle by way of a toll road. I drew from his reluctant voice, the fact that nowhere between Indiana and Minnesota, had he found a Bank of America, so his paychecks still had not been deposited. I levied a few salty measures of motherly castigation on his head, before agreeing to transfer some funds from my account to his. He endured my admonishments for longer than I expected, then suddenly, tellingly, with artificial urgency, spoke a familiar phrase: I'm going through a tunnel, Mom; I'll have to call you back.

My car continued its descent to the Plaza, towards Brush Creek, our local storm sewer with its odd concrete walkways. But my mind drifted back to another phone call, in 1977, when a younger version of Patrick's mother stood in the kitchen, talking to her own parental unit. I had paced back and forth in the galley kitchen of my shotgun apartment, holding the receiver with its long spiral cord, wedged between my shoulder and my ear. Uh huh, I muttered, time and again. Yeah, yeah Mom, I will. Yeah, Mom, I know.

Suddenly, I looked down at the floor. Oh, Mom, I gotta go; the cat's on the telephone wire. I hung up the phone, scooped my little kitten into the crooked of my arm, and went out onto the porch. A few minutes later, the phone rang. What was that supposed to mean, my mother snapped. Really, Mary? "The cat's on the wire?" I laughed nervously, but the silence at the other end of the phone signaled that apology, not laughter, should be forthcoming. I'm sorry. . .really. . .I'm sorry.

She forgave me, of course; and for the next eight years, until her death, when either of us had grown tired of a conversation, we would trill: Oh, sorry! Gotta go! The cat's on the wire! She would chuckle, deep, resonate, and I would answer with my higher voice, more of a giggle. We would say our goodbyes until the next time. Oh, sorry! Cat's on the wire! and neither of us harbored any resentment.

I vividly recall my mother's telephone voice. I could lift a receiver right now, dial her number, and expect to hear the same cadence. And I have replayed, over, and over, and over, the last telephone call I had with her: Oh, Mary, the X-Ray technician broke my arm. Can you please come home? And I did. I couldn't do much for her; drive to St. Louis every weekend to spell my sister and my brothers; sit by her side, endlessly playing Willie Nelson albums and the New World Symphony, while I read from her favorite novels or the Book of Ruth.

One afternoon, she turned her head towards me, and focused her liquid brown eyes on my face. She might have been searching for something; she might have been wondering where she could find herself in my pale Irish skin and my own blue-grey eyes. But maybe not: for she whispered, with a ghost of a smile, The cat's on the wire, just before she fell into a sweet, simple sleep.

I watched her for a while, the rise and fall of her thin chest. Then I pulled her bed jacket closer around her shoulders, and just sat, whatever book I had been reading falling idle to the side of the bed. And the room quieted down around us, around my mother and me.

I don't remember when Patrick started using the oncoming tunnel dodge to terminate a call of which he has grown weary. But this time, this Friday, at the end of a strange week filled with missed cues, anxious clients, and impatient judges, I felt the warmth of a mother's peace settle on my face as I laughed, telling him to drive carefully through that tunnel, and to call me when he reaches the other side.

I'm going to Arkansas. Some friends from my Fayetteville days have invited me down. Last night, I finished washing the towels, took our daughter out to a comfortable restaurant, and bought a new coat. There's nothing to keep me from this journey. I'm going alone, down 71, to the place where my child was born. I haven't been there in fifteen years. As I glide into town, with the gentle slope of the Ozarks on my left, I am sure that the changes will astound me. I don't think there are any tunnels, though you never know. I am keeping the phone fully charged, just in case.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Musings, 13 October 2012

Good morning:

The week has drained slowly from the pages of my calendar, swirling around my feet, crunching beneath my heavy shoes. I shrug away the days, push them from my face like an unwelcome scarf. I sling my bag -- this bag, the bag that I left in the coffee shop, the bag with my phone, and my notebook, and my insurance card -- I sling my bag onto the seat of my car for the short journey home. Friday. . .and my pajamas await, and a man sits on my couch, watching his spooky serials and scrolling through the messages on his phone.

Night settles into my bones. I close my eyes. Morning threatens from a short distance. When it comes, I will slide the flat strap of my bag back across my chest and shuffle down to the car. I will drive to a coffee shop to meet with a client, and spend several hours explaining why the offer we got is a good one. If my explanation falls on deaf ears, I will prepare her to testify, while her anxious father watches her children, and the coffee cools in our cups.

Between my heavy obligations, I will do laundry, and make dinner, and slurp down some fat-free yogurt. And my heart will beat in its regular rhythm, a bit out of sync. It's always been that way. I've been asked: Do you know you have an arrhythmic heart? And I answer, Yes, I know that. I already know that.

Perhaps my heart beats the way that it does because of the hundreds upon hundreds of steps I have walked. My malformed feet have taken me so many places. . .

. . . Through corridors, beside black girls called ugly names at my high school: I hear the hard echo of hatred in the voice of a senior. She looked at the name I had drawn for "Secret Santa", the name of the classmate for whom I would anonymously leave little presents and cards for the three weeks until Christmas vacation. My upperclass friend spat out an unfamiliar word. I cannot bring myself even to type it. I had to ask my mother what it meant. She threatened to wash my mouth out with Ivory soap just for repeating the terrible syllables. She explained that it was a horrible label for people whose skin was considerably darker than mine. I felt a warm flush spread through my body. I didn't know, I told her. I cried. I befriended the girl for whom I served as Secret Santa, and abandoned the student who had used the awful slur to describe her.

. . .Up the steps of my first apartment in St. Louis, with my friend Hank, while the incredulous landlady stared, and the next-door-neighbor emitted an evil snicker. Later, when she gave me notice to vacate, the landlady said, We can't have none of them kind hereabouts. I wasn't sure what kind she referenced. She uttered another word to describe people with brown skin; a different label, just as vicious. My stomach lurched; my face flamed. I filed a complaint with the city and won; enough to pay for the deposit and first month's rent in a new apartment. I don't know where Hank is now; or what became of him. I don't know if he knows that I took a stand in his honor. The landlady didn't flinch as she answered the hearing officer. She admitted what she had said, confessed the grounds for eviction as being Associated With Persons Protected by the Equal Rights Provisions of the Relevant State Statute. I don't think she understood why she lost.

. . .Into a Plaza restaurant, with my friend Joyce, at lunch time. Our names on the waiting list, we watched party after party seated ahead of us. When we finally inquired, the hostess sneered. We don't do salt and pepper here. 1980. Kansas City. The Plaza, for crying out loud. Another complaint; another recovery; this time we donated it to Freedom, Inc.'s not-for-profit Impact Development, which matched minority, poor, or disabled residents with needed services.

. . . To a county clerk's office, where the clerk himself, when asked the minority population, replied, with a complete lack of guile, We got one family, but they don't give us no trouble. I met that family: White grandparents, a white mother, and two bi-racial children. The treatment they received at the local public school drove them to attend school one county to the north. Arkansas, 1987. Not Atlanta in the 50's. But not much different.

. . . Around and around the streets of Kansas City, in a high-top Dodge with a wheelchair lift, looking for a curb-side parking space, in a world that had only parking garages and nothing available into which we could fit the vehicle and drop the lift. One more complaint, twenty-seven spaces designated, but quietly, with no fanfare, lest the city have to admit its remission. 1999, Missouri, nine years after the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

. . . Into a courtroom behind two women who had joined together to raise a child, only to be shunted back out. The law would not recognize their co-parenting of their daughter, an orphan from China who would otherwise have had nothing but a small cot in a room with twenty other cots, tended by a minder responsible for room upon room of children, each with a pile of neatly-folded clothing on a cot such as this girl had had. It's the twenty-first century, people! Get over it!

. . . In the lobby of Juvenile Court, with family after family struggling to reclaim their children. Well-meaning, tired, with empty pockets, tattered bus passes, a dusty wallet containing nothing but food stamps. Haunted eyes, strained foreheads, worn shoes. How do we treat the poorest among us? That is how we shall be adjudged.

I'm still reeling from a meeting that I had this week, in which I learned of something terrible that a client of mind did --- years ago, it is true; but the thing was so terrible, and his attitude towards it even worse. It isn't that he thought he had engaged in acceptable conduct. It's that he thought nothing of it; he regarded it with indifference. He had not even mentioned it to me. I read a report during the meeting in which I learned of his awful act. I held my tongue. After the meeting, I took him aside, and I said, Did you do this? and he shrugged. He actually shrugged.

When you come home one autumn night, after a journey of a thousand steps through a life of passionate engagement, having just discovered that you are fighting for the rights of a man who committed an atrocity of which he himself speaks dismissively, every other brave act you have undertaken loses meaning. And so I am left, at the end of this cold, bitter week, with nothing to show for my life but a sore throat, a slightly elevated temperature, and a packet of forgotten dreams.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Saturday Musings, 06 October 2012

Good morning,

The paper lies idle beside me, no headline worth the effort to turn its pages. A text back and forth from my neighbor shows that I am not the only one awake and deploying electronics this morning. I await a reply from my son as to whether my spouse can discard the old electric street light that my son scavenged years ago and which now resides on an otherwise useful shelf in the basement. It's Dumpster Day in the neighborhood.

I wish there were such a thing as Dumpster Day for my mind. A legion of old, troubling images crowd each other, vying for my attention when I sit down to write. No one wants to hear about you! they scold each other, while I strain to see around them to pleasant memories of rainy days spent building Lego cities on the dining room table. These stale tributes to my burdened psyche scowl at each other, one more determined to prevail than the next. I shake my head and turn from all of them, wandering down more pleasant paths, with comfortable nooks and rocking chairs, besides which photograph albums lie waiting on tables with cups of steaming tea.

Halloween draws near. A cluster of costumed boys in varying sizes fills an entire wing of my mind. Batman, Ninja Turtles, faceless zombies and vampires mingle, all incarnations of my son and the two or three boys from whom he was inseparable in the trick-or-treating years. No princesses for this boy-mom, as I came to be known. Eyeliner streaked on a small cheek mimics dirt and unshaven jowls. They gathered candy in pillow cases and pennies for UNICEF in a colorful canister. We decorated the front porch with cobwebs and candlesticks, pumpkins and witches. We put a significant dent in the goody bowls in three separate neighborhoods, starting and ending at my home. The tired, satisfied heads of my son and his friends nodded over the collection of treats until they fell asleep and I could turn out the lights, set the alarm, and collapse. Where they walked, I trudged behind them, with the flashlight, my car keys, and an extra paper bag, just in case someone needed an emergency candy receptacle.

We don't even give out candy any more at my house. A few years ago, I began to notice that the trick-or-treaters after seven o'clock did not even bother with costumes and stood inches above my height. I started extinguishing the porch light earlier and earlier, to fend off kids who had no connection with my neighborhood, whose parents drove them farther and farther afield, hoping for a bigger and better haul. Now I only buy Halloween candy for the dishes in our office, and if I go out on Halloween, I don't leave the porch light burning, preferring to stumble up the stairs rather than face the destruction that my unanswered door might invite.

A few years ago, before my cynicism drove me to abandon the dispensing of treats, a particularly small ballerina knocked on my door, holding a plastic pumpkin, gazing the three feet up to my face with unbridled awe. Her father stood behind her, down on the steps, letting her venture out by herself but hovering close enough to protect. He looked familiar, like someone I had seen in a different guise, not that of proud papa. As I let his little pink-clad daughter rummage through the bowl of candy, I mentioned my impression. A grin dawned. Oh, yes ma'am, he assured me. I came to your house on Halloween myself for years. You always had the best candy. My parents lived over on Charlotte, and I remember you so well! I just had to bring my baby here! Charlotte is the street behind my house. A neighborhood kid then, grown, raising the next generation.

I gave him and his daughter a smile of my own, one that I had been saving for a special occasion. As he hoisted the little girl on his shoulder, and turned to descend to my sidewalk and on out to his car, the little girl raised her hand, spreading her five delicate fingers in a definite wave. Then she rested her head on her papa's shoulder, and closed her eyes.

Autumn reclaims my neighborhood. The heat-stressed hollies in my front yard are brown and straggly, and the maples' leaves began to turn too soon. But the earth has raised itself from the slump of summer, and shimmied its shoulders. Cool air soothes the bedraggled gardens. On the surrounding porches, new pots of spider mums brighten the drabness of dead annuals in their dusty pots. October has come, and will soon reach its end, the brief fall giving way to winter all too soon. I have already started running the heat, and unpacked my winter garments, for the nineteenth time since I bought this house. And, though I won't light the porch for Halloween, it will be crowded with ghosts nonetheless, and the echoes of tricksters clamoring for candy from the best house on the block.

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.