Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday Musings, 30 June 2012

Good morning,

The week provided numerous opportunities for one's blood pressure to soar or sink. The Affordable Care Act received Supreme Court blessing, as did lying about one's service. A judge looked on me with amusement, providing a brief glance of humanity that I desperately needed at just that moment. An old friend and I sat over coffee for a near-record three and a half hours. My son posted on my Facebook timeline. Yet another of our cars got bashed by speeders using Holmes for a closed course, this time, thankfully, an honest one who stayed to provide his information. And the white cat, aging, sweet and small, began sleeping in the driveway, necessitating a stop-and-search each time we traverse the asphalt.

Among all the hot summers that I have spent, Kansas City in 2012 affords some of the more trying times. My car's air conditioning failed a few weeks ago, and I have been too busy to make an appointment for its repair. I have arrived at distant hearings with my blouse clinging to my skin, grateful to slip on a jacket to hide my discomfort, shedding the outer layer before climbing into the driver's seat for the long ride home. A mixed bag, busy-ness: I'm sure to "make my month" but less sure to survive it.

I have reinvented myself so many times in my five-plus decades that I feel as though I'm just hitting my stride in this version of myself. A younger woman would be thrilled at the serge in client-base and the reliability of payment exhibited by this current batch. A younger woman would thrive on the ten-hour workdays and early morning coffees. But I am not a younger woman, and while my hair might be properly tinted to disguise my age, I feel it in every step, every reach, every twist of my wretched ankles. I'm not complaining, God, just wondering if I can earn this bounty you've seen fit to send my way. And keep it coming. Knock wood.

I closed my eyes to pull some strength from the bowels of my body yesterday, as I tried to clip a 14-page brief down to the five-page limit in the rules. I made it to ten, and edited the title, body and prayer to include a request for leave to file over-length Suggestions. I glanced at the motion to which I was responding, wondering how my opposing counsel had managed to keep within the locally dictated limit. Ah. Single-spaced! I could not resist adding a footnote to my own plaintive plea, noting the sneaky, possibly impermissible dodge. I deleted the footnote, re-added, deleted, then finally left it. Catty, but perhaps it will tip the scales in my favor. I recalled a judge who once hefted a brief-in-a-binder filed by a fancy St. Louis firm. Ms. Corley is granted leave to file a 5-lb opposition, with or without binder, he intoned, and if I had not already witnessed his wicked sense of humor, I might have missed it.

Heat seeps into your skin here in the city. But in the mountains, the occasional stirring of the air by a breeze coming through tall old evergreens saves you. On a screen porch, overlooking the river, as the night falls and the small animals skitter through the underbrush, summer settles like a tired guest in the gathering dark. Heat shimmers in the day but whispers after nightfall, yielding to the earth's need for temperance. The rocking chairs stir the air.

By morning, in the mountains, in the summer, the air registers seventy. A few hours after breakfast, your hair falls in lanky strings to your shoulders, and you hitch your shirt in a knot above your belly. You slide your feet into shoes that barely earn the name, and roll your jeans to your knees or tear them into ragged shorts. You walk along the dusty roads, around the square, to sit in the last open restaurant and drink Pepsi-Cola. The ladies in their cotton skirts pour endless cups of coffee, and the men in overalls complain, with utter lack of conviction, about the heat and what it might do to the crops. They watch for clouds to gather in the distance, and speculate on what those puffy images might hold.

You shuffle back to your home, and glance at the box on your door to see if anyone has been by. You know that running a small-town law office out of your house has little to commend it and much to suggest that a city girl should not attempt it. But the heat has taken hold of your common sense and wrung it dry, so for the afternoon, you visit the library in the basement of City Hall next door and play jacks with the mayor's granddaughter. You've read all the books but you borrow one or two anyway, just to give the mayor something to do. She writes your name carefully on the borrowing card, as though there are lots of strangers wanting to check out books and she might lose track. You thank her, ruffle the little girl's hair, and go back to your home, to the empty rooms and the wilted plants on the rail.

And you take endless showers, even though you're only three houses down from the city water treatment plan, and your hair has long since taken on a funky hue, where L'Oreal meets Chlorine. You don't care. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, you've heard.

Then the night settles again, and you slip onto the screened-in room at the back of the house, and listen to the soft sound of the river below rising to meet the rustle in the endlessly rising, aging pine trees. You lean back against the chair and let yourself be lulled into quietude, as the heat of the day dissipates, and in the distance, the sound of a summer storm rolls into town. You close your eyes and smile, knowing that in the coffee shop tomorrow, you'll hear the men arguing about whether the rain helped the crops or not.

The Kansas City heat of 2012 has not yet been broken by thunder. We reached 107 two days ago, but tomorrow we should drop into double-digits. We've taken to leaving water on the porch for our cats, and in the early afternoon, our eighteen-year-old, home between work and his evening's activities, lets our silly old Beagle into the house to spend the hottest part of the day. She moves more rapidly than she should, flops down onto her bed, and glances around, confused, no doubt, at the sudden opportunity to be cool.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Past Revisited: From August 2009

On Mon, Aug 24, 2009 at 6:16 AM, Corinne Corley wrote:

Good morning,

It is still pitch black, too dark to venture onto my porch, so I am writing this from the breakfast nook of my airplane bungalow in Brookside.

For those of you who have not visited Kansas City or who are otherwise unfamiliar with the Craftsman Airplane Bungalow, this is a style of house that has its porch on the side, making the house resemble a one-winged airplane. In all of the houses in my neighborhood, the living room and dining room form an "L" shape, and there is a small nook, usually with original built-ins, between the dining room and the kitchen.

When I bought this house, the nook contained a white formica-top table, custom-built by the previous owner's father. Four sturdy white ladder-back chairs surrounded it, and at that table, my son ate most of his meals until 1997, when a small bequest from his uncle Stephen allowed us to get our first computer. Thereafter, meals were taken in the dining room, and the nook became Corinne's grotto.

You could not call this a room, although we often refer to it as my "office", in the Les Nessman sense of a private space that no one can invade without permission. I keep my angel collection on a shelf on the west wall, and to the east is a two-tiered wooden cabinet containing some Limoges and Haviland pieces that I inherited from my mother, including the seven-inch salad plate that my brother Mark and I purchased for eight dollars and gave her for Mother's Day forty years ago. My writing desk and an oak printer stand are crammed against the northwall, where the window opens onto the neighbor's rose trellis.

On the wall to the left of the window in front of me is a picture of my son at age 8, beneath which is a picture of a radiant Uncle Steve taken years ago, when we were all too young to know what the future held. To the right of the window is a small plaque that Patrick made, which reads, "Many hands make light work,". Beneath this wise observation is a picture of my son at age 6, framed with a poem written in his hand, constructed from his the letters of his name, which reads, "Patient, Adventurous, Talented, Remarkable, Intelligent, Casual, Kind".


You knew I'd get there, didn't you -- how could I not?

But let me tell you something else first. Let me tell you about a cartoon called "Ed, Edd and Eddie", which is the story of three boys who are constant companions in one wild adventure after another. My son and I used to watch this cartoon together. In one episode, Ed is going to move out of the neighborhood and Edd laments the impending departure, wailing: "Who will push me on the swings? Who will butter my toast?" We found this line amusing, mimicking it whenever one of us left for the store, or work, or to go to the movies. Who will butter my toast, we had only to say, and peals of giggles or laughter would follow.

Patrick left for college this weekend. Penny Thieme and I drove him to Greencastle, Indiana. It is only fitting that Penny should be the one who accompanied us, since his summer and winter breaks during elementary school were spent with Aunt Penny and Uncle Ben. The two of them are golden threads shot through the tapestry of his life, and hers weaves long and strong through the patterns emerging from each motion of the shuttle. All of his aunts, by birth and by choice, have had special places in Patrick's formation, but Aunt Penny in particular imparted many lessons to Patrick that mothers just cannot convey. They share art, and they share memories of late-night movies, and they have an ease of being that I quite frankly envy. And she is calm and accepting, a perfect foil for my fussy personality. I knew I would need her strength on this trip.

The mound of stuff that we jammed into the Saturn astounded me. A refrigerator, a microwave, a cofee pot, a suitcase, three jam-packed duffle bags, an amp, two guitars, the pedal for the electric guitar, $150.00 worth of food from Costco, a butterfly chair, bedding, towels, a lamp, a waste-basket, and every drug store item that Katrina or I imagined he might need. I cleverly packed all the little things inside of containers that could serve duo purposes in a dorm room, and with Patrick and Penny, I leveraged each item into a nook, cranny or airpocket.

Only a few things got left behind, most of which were replaced in Greencastle. The electric guitar stand, I discovered on the hearth on my return last evening, and it will get shipped, along with his Dali posters, in the first care package.

The trip from Kansas City to St. Louis was uneventful. We found the Iron Barley without incident, and enjoyed an hour or so with my sister Joyce and her daughter Lisa. By seven Friday evening, we had arrived at the Holiday Inn in Cloverdale, where the three of us, hyped to the gills with road buzz, ate bananas, reminisced about Patrick's childhood, and talked of college until much later than we should have.

The system for off-loading freshman belongings is pretty remarkable at DePauw University. The parent is instructed to pull up as close to the student's dorm as possible, and to then deposit all of the student's possessions onto the sidewalk. The student -- or an auxiliary family member -- stations himself by the pile while you park the car, and then you commence sequential trips with armloads of boxes, bundles and baggage to and from your allocated square of cement. In that way, everything you've gathered to make the next nine months as comfortable as the first nine, gets transferred from sidewalk to room with an efficiency that amazed me.

In case you haven't seen a dorm room at DePauw University -- or anywhere else -- a single is 7 feet, 5 inches by 11 feet, 4 inches. It is a cement-block cube which contains a super-long twin bed, a plain desk with obligatory hutch, a bookshelf and a dresser, all made of solid, very heavy wood. As arranged by the housing staff, the dresser flanks one wall, across from which are the desk with its chair and two-shelf hutch, next to the dresser topped by the bookshelf. There are 18 inches of floor space between the two ordered rows of furniture spanning the length of the room.

While Patrick and I engaged in some parent-and-entering-freshman task, Penny decided that a different arrangement would be more commodious, as a consequence of which, the desk, bed and dresser formed a "C" and allowed for three square feet of moving room. With that framework, we were able to unpack everything, including shoving the bookshelf into the closet to serve as shelves for all that food, while stacking the fridge and microwave on the dresser. A corner was co-opted for the folding canvas chair; and the six inches between the bed and the dresser held the amp.

With everything unpacked, hung up, stashed and stored, we left the room to go to the convocation. As he locked the door of his room for the first time, I remarked to Patrick, "It's like you have your own apartment." Came the rapid reply: "Yes, a really really tiny one." As I laughed, he asked, "Do you know how many square feet the room is?" I had to confess that yes, I did -- about 77-1/2. "Yeah," he sighed. "But at least my amp fit."

We all have our priorities. I had felt the same way about the Costco goods -- my boy can surely survive the first month, I kept telling myself. Club crackers and peanut butter.

The students separated from their parents for the convocation. Penny and I drifted casually down to the performing arts center. A large volunteer, the first nominally unfriendly one I saw, tried to prevent me from entering the auditorium. "You can go to the balcony," she said. I looked at the two steep flights of open metal stairs. Impossible. She then gestured to a side room. "Then go over to Moore Annex, and you can view it on video."

Video? Watch the convocation on video? They had to be joking.

Of course, I did not yet know what a "convocation" was. Had I been quick, I might have explored the Internet to learn the meaning of this word. However, I knew from the weekend activity guide that the school president would be speaking, so I assumed it was an important event. This, I would not watch on video.

I am not ashamed to say that I played the ADA card, and got a seat on the main floor.

There we were ushered, Aunt Penny and I, into the midst of parents who had arrived early enough to get a seat in the best section without being pushy. Luckily, several chairs were still empty in the middle of the second row beyond the bank of seats reserved for the students, and into these the chastened volunteer led us. As we waited, the lights dimmed, and a huge screen dropped from the ceiling. A video began to play, depicting various members of the academic community talking about DePauw in reverent tones, or with animated voices, or with quiet confidence. I found their enthusiasm intriguing, and began to suspect that Patrick had chosen a very good place indeed.

And then the screen went blank. A hush descended over the assembly.

Seconds later, live feed commenced. I didn't understand what I was seeing, at first. But the parents around me began murmuring, and the sound of applause swelled. I squinted, furrowed my brow, peered intently at the images before me and suddenly, I realized what was happening -- and my friends, I began to cry.

The entire faculty of DePauw University had formed two lines in the long hallway outside of the auditorium in which I sat. The doors to the Center stood opened. Through those doors, one by one, in slow single file, came the Class of 2013, and as they processed into the building, they were given a standing ovation by their professors.

As the eight-hundred members of my son's class entered the auditorium, the waiting families began to clap as well. The acclamation resonated through the high-ceilinged room; the thunderous praise rang from the seats of parents, grandparents, guardians, siblings, uncles and aunts in the lower rows, rising to meet the roar from the balcony. My hands ached from clapping and still the students came, and still the faculty applauded, and still I cried, until each freshman had entered. Then the faculty entered and the students returned the ovation as the stage filled with professors, and deans, and assistants, and even the student body president. The applause continued until each and every one of them reached their designated place, and then, in one grand moment, everyone sat -- and the hall was silent.

Speeches followed, some of which were tender and poignant. Poetry was read; advice dispensed; greetings spoken. In due course, we exited the hall and our children continued with freshman activities while we shoved soggy handkerchiefs into our pockets and marveled among ourselves that DePauw surely knows how to do things right.

At the appointed hour, we returned to the smallest apartment on the planet, for the hour designated on the written agenda to Say Goodbye to Families. The last few items had been purchased at CVS in a mad dash, and promises had been extracted -- take your medicine, wear your glasses, listen to your mentor, study hard, take good care of yourself. I walked out of his dorm room, followed by his beloved Penny.

I would not have heard him if the suite had not been empty, but it was. And so, I did hear him when he said, in the very quietest of little-boy-whispers, from inside his allocated seventy-seven square feet,

"Who will push me on the swings. . . who will butter my toast?"

We laughed, then, my nearly-six-feet tall son and I; and he let me hug him, and we all went down to the car. A few last things were shoved into his hands -- more cash; the paper from the freshmen service project; a copy of the housing contract. We scrambled to find his glasses; Penny teased him about girls; and, too quickly, with a casual flick of his hand, he turned, and walked back into Hogate Hall. I was left standing on the sidewalk where once his pile of stuff had been, wondering what on earth I was thinking, leaving my only child in a strange place eight hours from home, with nothing more to protect him than his inherited charm and unlimited Verizon Wireless texting.

In my heart of hearts, I know my fears are unfounded. He will suffer no more indignities than any young man starting college; and he will have as many glorious moments of stunning self-discovery. He will come home taller, more self-confident, and with a new hair cut that some cute freshman girl decides to make him to get. There will eventually come a holiday that he does not spend with me; and then he will do a winter term abroad; and, eventually, I will turn his bedroom into a sewing room, or a library, or a storage space for broken suitcases.

The weaver chooses her patterns, and the threads from which her work will be constructed. Not so the parent. We are more akin to the sculptor -- or perhaps the puppeteer. Like Giuseppe, I wanted a real boy, and that is precisely what I got. He has come to life now -- and I would not stop his dancing if I could.

Mugwumpishly tendered, written on my iBook G4, in my empty nest, in Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri, on this 24th day of August, in the year 2009.

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Musings, 23 June 2012

Good morning,

As I write, the sounds of joyful creatures fill the air. I hear crickets, I think, or perhaps cicadas, although I think of katydids as more talkative in the evening. But something chirps, rhythmically and loud; and the birds sweep from branch to branch in a style that I find comforting in the face of the nastiness on the front page of my morning paper.

At dinner last evening, with friends, we played the "Leisman Lunch Game", courtesy of our friend Matthew Leisman, with whom we dined along with his lovely lady Sara Madson and a friend of theirs. The game consisted of identifying people, alive, not relatives, not friends, with whom you would have lunch on the five weekdays. We went round the table, identifying increasingly interesting choices. Then we played another game: What was the worst job you ever had? What was the best? I close my eyes now, and think back, to the days when I had a job -- before I discovered the monumental freedom and calamitous curse of self-employment, when I still had to toe lines and meet the stifling expectations of others.

My worst job. . . It's hard to choose between being the maid in a convent and an otherwise pleasant job as a unit secretary in a psychiatric hospital which included the duty of observing electro-shock therapy sessions, a grim task that seared itself on some otherwise harmless corner of my brain, never to be forgotten.

My best job. . . leaving aside the banal, knee-jerk response of motherhood, unquestionably the most rewarding position that I've held is saving family farms from foreclosure. The thrill of setting foot down upon land that would have gone into bank inventory but for my deft and sometimes disingenuous legal maneuvering cannot be gainsaid. I've had the privilege of casting my gaze in a wide circle over the tops of gentle mountains, from the vantage point of acreage nestled on the peak of one of them where a small herd of cattle would continue to graze, for another cycle of interest payments at the very least.

I've hustled from a Louisiana courtroom, four months before my son's due date, labor pains having started hours before, my pilot and co-counsel each reaching for burdensome trial bag and pocketbook, hearing the outraged mutters of a Federal Land Bank officer telling his attorney: I can't believe we got beat by a pregnant crippled girl from Arkansas.

A fancy lawyer from St. Louis once moved to have me barred from humming in the presence of the jury in a civil suit in Dade County, Missouri, in defense of a farmer who had invented a unique apparatus for cultivating but lost the patent rights and subsequently stood to lose his land. The judge tilted his head, and asked me if I had been humming, and what the song had been. On hearing that I had actually been humming "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", the judge overruled the motion. We got that jury verdict, and settled in the hallway to save the homestead and avoid a likely reversal on appeal.

I argued jury instructions until midnight in Brookfield, a country code-phrase for striving to avoid the evisceration of our case through directed verdict. I heard the judge chide my boss for his seeming indifference to the process, and smothered an ill-timed smile at my employer's response: I already know what I'm going to say to the jury, Your Honor, so it doesn't much matter to me what you say to them. Left with a sole count of breach of contract, we nevertheless got to the jury and again, negotiated in the conference room across from their sequestered deliberations to save our client's homestead and a small parcel of surrounding land. We got the jury verdict once again, but it had no meaning other than to wet our appetites for the next case.

Through the 1980s we cut a swathe across the country, negotiating debt restructuring, attacking the feeble credibility of bank officers who handed out loads of cash and then pulled the plug when drought hit, and finding ways to let land go without sacrificing homes. We were reviled by fiscal conservatives who blamed the farmers for mishandling their businesses and castigated by government employees who felt they had no part in the pending demise of the American family farmer. We crafted causes of action that seemed dubious to many, and might have been. But in the process, we found a few smoking guns, including, most famously, a Farm Credit in-house private memorandum of which I still, somewhere, have a copy, in which it was said that no client of ours should ever be offered a deal, lest our efforts be validated and encouraged.

Looking back on that day, from the advantage of twenty more years of law practice, two decades of talking to others, reading the newspaper, and listening to the occasional pundit from both sides of the political spectrum, I understand both the pluses and minuses of what we did back then. Our work at times gave a second chance to a competent farmer, but some times merely prolonged inevitable failure. While we did find evidence of what could be called predatory lending practices, at times dramatically revealed in full-size exhibits in front of judge and jury, more often we found sad, unfortunate turns of events that no one could have foreseen -- the devastating droughts of the mid-1980s, the growth of commercial agri-business, the evolution of society away from rural life with new generations decamping and leaving aging fathers, mothers, and grandparents with no one to take up the plough from their tired hands.

The faces of those days still loom large in my memory. Careworn, worried and gray, most of the men and women who hired us bore themselves with dignity tinged with resignation. I followed my boss into the well-scrubbed kitchens of farm wives across America. I pretended to eat their land-raised beef, pulled hip-boots over my Mary Janes and toured pig sties, and hoisted myself, with assistance from a rough-skinned but gentle hand, to the backs of tractors. I shook the dust of their fields from my suit before taking my place at the counsel table in courtrooms throughout the Midwest and the South, with folders on my table and a full retinue of somberly clad bank lawyers opposite me. Most of the time, I could find a soft spot in the heart of someone, and it was often the bank officer, who in many instances attended the same church as my clients, whose children sat in the same small school house as my clients' children, and whose father and mother were buried in the same cemetery as my clients' people.

In one courtroom, a bank officer turned to his lawyer and said, Enough. Enough. I can't do this. You go sit outside, and let me talk to Miss Corley. I think me and her can figure this thing out without your fancy double-talk. Just step outside there, Bob, and let us work. And work we did. He wrote the debt down to the value of the land, culled out the family home and ten acres, and forgave my client anything above the value of the remaining property. My client lost his farm but kept his home. He took the deal. It's been a long time since that happened, and I do not know if he regretted following my advice. But the banker and I knew that what we did was right, and so, I hope, did God.

I held that job from 1989 to 1992, when I left the sinking ship that was the law firm where I had these magnificent experiences. It fell from grace to grief six months after I quit, toppled by some bizarre fee practices that cost my boss his law license in the end. I understood the folly and the fury of the place. The lawyers who started the firm had all gone to law school after suffering foreclosures, and their goal was to prevent others from experiencing the same sad fate. The goal's virtue got lost in the utilization of indefensible means to serve laudable ends, a course of action in which I was not asked to engage and of which I was unaware until after the fact.

On account of my job with that firm, I learned some of the best lawyering tactics that I've ever known. I also learned some of the worst. I got involved in wildly impractical efforts that sometimes shocked even us by succeeding, and I met characters, including Gerry Spence and Willie Nelson, of whom my opinions radically changed because of standing in their shadows. I sat in some of the smallest air craft imaginable, and landed in some of the worst airports on earth. I once gripped the right arm of a pilot as I huddled in a pair of coveralls, pregnant, skinny and scared, as he set the Cessna 150 down in an icy cornfield, bringing it to a shuddering stop beside my client's pick-up truck, on a clear, dark January night in northern Missouri.

Several of the people with whom I worked at that firm have since died. The rest are scattered, in private practice or social service jobs. Occasionally, I hear about one of them, and I've connected with a couple on Facebook. I rarely reflect on that time, except to remember the birth of my son, and our journey home. But when asked, despite the fact that my last few paychecks never cleared, and even though, a year after leaving, I sweated through an hour-long interview with an FBI agent, I can honestly say that saving American family farms from foreclosure was the best job I ever had.

Except, of course, for being a mom.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Musings, 16 June 2012

Good morning,

The white cat stalks me as I settle onto the table, outside, on our lovely deck. She wants the raspberries on my plate, or the fat-free cream cheese thickly spread on my toasted crumpet. She disdains the indoors during this lovely weather, but we cannot leave food for her outside because of other, less worthy animals whose visits we discourage. I hobble over to the front door to allow her into the house, where the dry cat food, though less attractive than my breakfast, will sustain her.

The morning air still feels sweet, though June does not mind gathering its sweltering power to flag my energy. Obligations await me: My in-laws, our daughter and her adorable boyfriend, my husband, our youngest son and I will dine on a meal that our daughter and I will cook this evening. Father's Day arrives twenty-four hours early at the Holmes house, because my husband and our youngest travel tomorrow to Memphis, for two days of college enrollment. Life turns another click towards twilight.

I find myself struggling to make sense of the idea of celebrating Father's Day. My own father died in 1991 after a less-than-auspicious five decades as a parent. My son's father departed my life on learning of my pregnancy, appearing only once a month in the form of a very small child support check that stopped thirty days before my son's eighteenth birthday. He responded to few attempts at contact, none in the last fifteen or more years, and could be considered a father by genetics only. Two men have filled what should have been his shoes. His first stepfather did his best, and for the good that he did, we are grateful. This second time around, Patrick had already decamped to college. Though he admires my husband, and appreciates having family by way of my husband's children, his sister and her family, and my parents-in-law, still, Father's Day does not carry quite the same meaning for us as it does for my stepchildren.

I cast my mind backwards, trying to reclaim some sense of loss for my father's death. I see him at various stages of my life: Early, in a frightening fury; the middle years, frustrated and bitter; and towards the end, assuming the role of grandfather with an ease that he had never shown when dealing with our generation. On his death, one of my nephews described him as a giant, and I can see that to my siblings' children, he stood tall. He built wooden replicas of kitchen appliances for one of my nieces, a wagon filled with blocks for a nephew that eventually came to my son, and collected -- relentlessly -- every boxtop imaginable when asked to do so for one of the grandchildren's schools. He died as he lived: Sadly, ironically, and alone, on the floor of a men's room at a MacDonald's in St. Robert's, Missouri, with one of my brothers sitting at a table awaiting him, and me, oblivious in Arkansas preparing for their arrival to attend my son's baptism.

The only time that I ever received a punishment in grade school came when I refused to say the "Our Father" at morning prayers. My third grade teacher, Mother Rosamund, chastised me for remaining silent while my classmates stood and intoned this tribute to the Catholic concept of one prong in their trinity. I shook my head. She gestured for one of the children to continue leading the Rosary while she marched me to the principal. I stood in eight-year-old defiance, long pig-tails hanging nearly to my waist, uniform falling in heavy, lopsided waves to my calves. I twitched inside the oppressive cloth but stood my ground. When asked why I would not say the prayer, I replied, in small, determined tones: I already have a father at home. I sure don't need another one.

In those days, one did not publicly discuss family turmoil. I didn't have a phrase for what we experienced until I hit college and first heard the term, "Domestic Violence". I knew my father "drank", whatever that meant, and I knew what happened when he came home late at night. But I am not sure what those nuns knew, and by their consternation, I suspect precious little.

I remained unyielding. I stood, my tiny frame rigid, my face resolute. The nun towered over me, in the dankness of her closed office. She folded her arms across her chest, under the wide white wimple, against the black serge of her habit, just over the beaded belt from which hung the heavy crucifix. I cast my eyes down to the scuffed tips of my saddle shoes, examining the frayed laces, the dark linoleum, the straggling socks. We stood in seeming stalemate for some time. I offered no further explanation. She sought none. Perhaps she prayed. I did not.

I felt the gentle touch of her hand on my forehead, and released a breath that I had not realized I had been holding. I closed my eyes, shuddering, overwhelmed by a rising mixture of grief and relief. She finally spoke. Go on with you then, back to class, and try not to give Mother Rosamund any more fits.

I scampered away, not even pausing to say thank you, skittering down the hall, clinging to the walls, finding my way to my classroom. It might have been in the old building across the parking lot; I can't recall. I only remember sliding through the door which I had opened just enough to admit my thin body, and sinking soundlessly into my chair. Mother Rosamund had her back to the room, writing arithmetic problems on the chalk board. I scrambled beneath my desk in the chamber that held my books, pulling what I needed from the neatly stacked pile with as little noise as I could manage. Mother Rosamund turned to face the class just as I got my book opened. She let her gaze fall on me, nodded briefly, and continued with the lesson.

I never again said the "Our Father", not at any point in the next decade of attendance at Catholic schools, nor in the three-and-a-half years that I spent at St. Louis University, nor since. I never spoke to any of the nuns about why I so disliked the prayer, and I have no idea if any of them ever found out.

My husband and I bought bags and bags of groceries for the Father's Day dinner that we'll have this evening -- pork roast, and home-cooked apples, asparagus, a green salad, and fruit compote with gluten-free cake made by Cara and Ben. I've arranged a Father's day surprise that is supposed to be delivered some time this afternoon, the potential success of which I question. My son and I conspired a bit on that note, and I am hoping he will phone home during the gathering, to wish his stepfather a Happy Father's Day. I will resist the slight detachment from it all that I feel. My husband is not my son's father; my husband's father is not mine. But these are the closest we've had to people willing and able to adequately fill those roles, and we are determined to make the most of it.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Happy Father's Day to all the fathers on this list and to all my friends who are fathers. To my father, Richard Adrian Corley: May you rest in the peace you so desperately craved, Pops. I know you did your best. With all my love, your baby girl, Mary-Corinne.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday Morning Musings

Good morning:

The chirping birds awakened me far earlier today than I would have predicted, given the happy fatigue that settled in my muscles on the long drive home from this year's "Destination: Success" Solo and Small Firm Conference, for the first time held at the Hilton Convention Center in the Branson Landing in Branson, Missouri. Down less than 10% from last year's record attendance, the conference afforded solo and small firm practitioners the opportunity to complete more than a year's requirement of substantive, technical, quality of life and ethics continuing legal education, while socializing and networking with others of their breed and visiting vendors whose services can assist in our practice, and whose vendor-fees partially subsidize our conference. I walked, talked, listened and laughed with 900 of my close personal friends and their spouses and children. We are, when all is said and done, more than a family: We are a tribe.

A glance at the calendar reminds me that an anniversary has come. Fifteen years ago, my brother Stephen let go of the gossamer thread by which he remained tethered to us, and floated away. I see his face as though I only parted from him a few hours ago, but it is the face of the man he was then, 38 years young, rather than the 53 years old he would be had he not taken his own life. I see him striding through Lambert-St. Louis Airport to meet me on a journey home in 1980; I see him snapping his fingers as he struts into the bar at which he worked near the end of my mother's life in the mid-1980s; I hear his voice calling across the room and feel the life and vibrancy that I did not realize masked profound depression and a raging battle with addiction.

At the conference, an old classmate and I reflected on those whom we know took their own lives from his law class and mine, and a few whom we suspect probably did. We shook our heads; we averted our eyes then raised them to exchange glances. We're the lucky ones, we both thought, though neither of us said. Survivors.

I recently talked to an acquaintance who had had a family member commit suicide. He quietly talked about the grief that each of the survivors felt. He used words like confusion, and regret, and guilt. I offered a few lame comments about how suicide is a selfish act, and it is no one's choice but the one who died. I did not convince him. I am not entirely convinced myself.

I look back at my brother's life, and see signs that I missed or ignored over the years. A chaotic childhood. Two traumatic divorces. Fury levied at our father after our mother died. Drug use. One failed attempt. The wince in his eyes, the shrug of his shoulders. The weak evasion in response to the lukewarm probing questions. I'm doing okay. I'm doing okay.

I scour my son for signs that his genes carry those of my lost brother for whom he is named. I watch for that same tilt of the head, the same cavalier attitude, the same jaunty step masking the same terrible pain. All the while, I beat back the tendency to imprint these things on what I see, to project the uncle's personality and choices onto the nephew's image. I have mostly stopped wondering why I didn't reach out to my brother, and have mostly decided that there was nothing that I could have done to change the course of his life. Mostly. I have mostly convinced myself that my son can overcome whatever traits he shares in common with my brother. Mostly.

We don't know when my brother died. We know the date that someone last saw him alive, and we know the date on which a friend found his body. We know, from the coroner's report, that he died in a seven-day span which roughly occurs from June 7 to June 14. We buried him, I think, on June 21st.

If anyone reading this has been the survivor of a beloved family member or friend who took their own life, know that I speak to you as much as anyone. I know your pain. The suffering you experience at the loss and lack of understanding will diminish. You will, eventually, accept that the choice was his or hers, although I cannot really attest that you will stop sharing the blame for his or her exercise of that particularly final form of self-direction. But lay down your guilt. It can destroy you.

My husband places a fresh mug of coffee on the saucer beside me. I hear the air conditioning start, and assume that the morning has grown warmer. I've trolled the Internet for little tidbits of news from those whose lives I follow in the virtual world, due to time and distance or the circumstances of our respective existences. The sounds of the television drift from the first floor, up the narrow stairway at the top of which is the pleasant bedroom in which I write, with its 90-year-old knotty pine paneling and its cathedral ceiling. A gentle wind blows through the trees surrounding the homes behind us, and in a nearby driveway, I see one neighbor coming home from church, slinging his jacket over his shoulder, glancing at my window. I imagine that he can see me, and that, like me, he feels the comfort of knowing that nothing, really, has changed in his absence.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

RIP, Stephen Patrick Corley, 25 December 1959 - 14 June 1997. We miss you, Stevie Pat, every day, in every way.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Saturday Musings, 02 June 2012

Good morning,

At hand on the table stands a china cup filled with an Americano. A Nutty Girl sandwich provides my breakfast. I awakened this morning to the sincere and noble offer of my husband to let me have two of the three cups' worth of coffee that he managed to squeeze from the remaining beans in our silver canister. I met his willingness with raised eyebrows, imagining him playing tennis against an assistant U. S. Attorney with killer instincts on only one cup of coffee. Oh no, honey, you have it, I'll just take my laptop to One More Cup. Meeting his nobility with my generosity gives me the perfect excuse to throw on jeans and get out, skirting the Hospital Hill Run by taking back streets and parking in front of this lovely little shop in Waldo, the neighborhood south of my Brookside home.

In a week filled with happenings, I forgot to buy groceries, get coffee, and pick up my prescriptions. In addition to a successful quarterly art opening at my professional suite, the last seven days held something that distracted me in a way that any mother will understand: My son drove three days cross-country to spend the summer in Los Angeles.

His traveling companion, Alex Thompson, arrived Monday evening from Lexington. Alex's reputation as an accommodating friend preceded him by several hours, when Patrick and I discussed whether to cook dinner at home or go to a restaurant. He told me that whatever we did would be fine: Alex is agreeable, Mom, and I'm malleable, so you pick. We went to a Japanese restaurant, and, astonishingly, Alex not only enjoyed himself but actually made a friend. Our waitress hailed from Louisville and went to high school with people whom Alex had known.

It's a small world.

On Tuesday morning, both of their cars loaded and the gas tanks filled, a cooler stocked with snacks and sandwiches, coffee mugs beside them and water bottles at hand, Alex and Patrick took to the highway. They each hugged me, as I stood on our steps, heart in my throat, trying to look brave. I thought about my son's trepidation over the last several weeks, while he waited to hear from the agent for whom he hoped to be interning and the management company through which Alex's family had arranged for the two of them to sublet. Before the confirming emails hit our inboxes, on a morning two or three days before their scheduled departure, he confided that he had had a sort of recurring waking nightmare that both fell through, and he found himself unemployed and homeless in L.A.

Both internship and sublet arranged, and Alex's career set to launch, the two of them prepared to caravan across the country. But just before they slipped behind their respective steering wheels, Alex handed me a CD. Patrick made this for you last night, he told me, and I saw, in my son's writing, a single word written on the compact disc: Graceland.

Many things separate my son and I: his nature is calm, where mine rises to the Type A level; he stands by his beliefs but instinctively tolerates those of others, a wise choice with which I still struggle; he defaults to sweet and serene, at least outwardly, where I incline to defensive prickliness. But we share a love of music, and in particular certain artists, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male vocal group whose strong, serene voices flavor the Graceland album.

When I left for work an hour or so after the travelers departed, I slipped the CD into the player in my Saturn. By the time I hit the Plaza, I had played Diamonds in the Soles of Her Shoes twice, my head and hands keeping time to the amusement of drivers in adjacent cars at stop lights. As I drove up Broadway, and rounded the corner at 40th street to make the dog-leg to my customary parking space in front of our building, I hit the track selection button to find my favorite. The haunting lyrics filled my car:

Webaba silale maweni
Webaba silale maweni
Homeless, homeless
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake
Homeless, homeless
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

And at the turn, with the voices of these singers from South Africa flooding my car, my eyes raised to the sight of the Revolution Church, on whose sidewalk a gathering of lonely souls collects each morning, waiting for the soup kitchen to open.

They stood, in twos, or threes, wearing layers of clothing that seemed senseless in the heat of our early summer. Some sat apart, on the curb. All had clutches of belongings beside them, or tucked between their feet. None of the men were clean-shaven. Most seemed dirtier than I would ever find comfortable. And as the harmony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo spilled out into the street through my open windows, the eyes of the men and women waiting outside the church turned toward my vehicle.

We are homeless, we are homeless
The moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake
And we are homeless, homeless, homeless
The moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. . .

Strong wind destroy our home
Many dead, tonight it could be you
Strong wind, strong wind
Many dead, tonight it could be you

Ten hours from that point in time, my son and Alex would check into a fifty-six dollar hotel in Aurora, Colorado, and nosh on the sandwiches I had prepared for them. Later, after surveying their Facebook friends for dinner suggestions, they would find a Ruby Tuesday's. On the evening of the second day, they would learn what "next services 100 miles" might mean to them, and that evening, they would enter the Castle Valley, Utah, home of my oldest friend in all the world, and talk until midnight about peregrines and life, flicking cardboard into the chimera on her flagstone patio, sleeping in her small home beneath her lofted bedroom, drinking from a spring-fed water system and using a chemical toilet. On the third day, they would deal with over-aggressive cruise control on my son's Blazer that would trick us all into thinking his transmission had failed, and, finally, they would come down from the side of a mountain and merge with a hundred other cars on an L.A. freeway heading for home. He would text me a picture from his 7th floor sublet, with just three words: This is amazing.

As I stepped from my car on Tuesday morning, with the events of my son's journey still in the future, I looked to the north. The eyes of the homeless watched me. I averted my own, and slipped into the building, hoping with every inch of my being that they did not, for one moment, think that I had been mocking them.

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.