Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saturday Musings, 07 December 2013

Good morning,

Today the world remembers a catastrophic and mesmerizing event. The radio announcement resonates in the hearts and minds of Americans.  Even those of us not then born can hear that strong, clear voice: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." That date changed the lives of an entire nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor set forces in motion which would leave our country indelibly marked, from the haunting reminder of empty chairs at dinner tables to the abiding ache in the hearts of men who marched the Burma trail. War knew no color, no class, no condemnation of character. Anyone in uniform could be killed; and across the fields of France, Holland, Denmark and Poland; on the shores of Hawaii and the cities of Japan, war did not distinguish between soldier and citizen. Sixty million dead; forty million of those being civilians. The impact is palpable, measurable and everlasting.

But war does not stand alone in the ranks of devastating furies. Other forces, equally insidious but often amorphous and unseen, tear the fabric of humanity. And when I heard the news on December 05th, the day before the feast of Saint Nicholas and two days before the seventy-second anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, news of the passing of Nelson Mandela unexpectedly reminded me of the first time I encountered one of those forces.

1969. December. Corpus Christi High School, Jennings, Missouri. In homeroom, each girl received an envelope marked SECRET SANTA. I opened mine with trembling fingers. At fourteen, I remained remarkably naive. I still felt that unfettered friendship could exist; I resisted the lessons I had already been taught -- rejected the pain of standing around a corner, listening to the catty talk of mean girls. I slid out of the envelope the slip of paper on which appeared the name of the student on whom I was assigned to bestow little gifts and notes for the next two weeks, culminating in the exchange of Christmas presents. I would be her Secret Santa and somewhere in the school, someone got my name in their envelope and would serve as mine. I looked at the name. Vivian Wilson. I did not know her, but the slip described her as "Freshman" and gave her locker number. An unbidden smile rose to my face. I wanted nothing more deeply than to have friends at that place; to find people who might accept me regardless of my strange walk, regardless of my unnatural slimness and the two long, thick braids dangling from beside my ears. Perhaps "Vivian Wilson" would be such a person.

At lunch-time, I took my tray of disgusting cafeteria food to a table near the window where the dirty dishes later would be stacked. I had already humiliated myself too many times by trying to traverse the length of the cafeteria, stumbling, sending heavy plates and silverware clattering to the floor. I set my tray down, then sat on one end, far from the chummy groups of noisy females whose casual air I envied but could never imitate. I slowly ate; I rarely finished what the ladies served me, but I could nibble around the edges of sandwiches, celery, and odd piles of rice mixed with unidentifiable meat.

A few girls passed my table without glancing at me, but finally one sat, with her own tray of mess, and opened fire with a question about Secret Santa. "Who did you get," she asked. A sophomore, she was, and wise in the ways of the world. An eager little glimmer of hope rose within me. I pulled the slip out from the pocket of my uniform jacket, and offered it across the table to her. She gripped it between strong fingers, the fingers of a volleyball player, fingers that knew how to flip hair with a curling iron and roll the waistband of a uniform skirt to whisk its hem above sleekly shaven knees. Her keen eyes read the typed text. "Oh man, you got a ------------ ", and she uttered a word I cannot to this day, four decades later, abide hearing and which I will not even type as a single letter followed by asterisks.

I snatched back my paper. I shoved it back into my pocket, and stood. I had never before heard the term she used and did not even know what it meant. I would not find out until late that night, when my mother discovered me lying on my bed sobbing, unsure, uncertain, unwilling to ask. She told me though; and told me, too, what she thought of someone who would describe people using such horrible terms, a term which referenced skin-color, something as immutable as the color of one's eyes or hair, or the smattering of freckles across a little Irish lass's nose.

But there, in that moment, in the cafeteria, though I did not know what the word meant I recognized the disdain with which it had been uttered, and people's disdain for somebody just a little different from them had haunted me for all of my fourteen years.

"I don't care," I snapped. "I'm gonna be the best Secret Santa this school has ever known." And I picked up my tray, turned, and trounced away. I had never before found the strength to put bounce in my step but that day I did. I could not know, never knew, whether my skirt swayed with that sauce I'd seen other girls manage but I felt it: the unquenchable power of passion and determination.

My mother helped me understand. And she helped me, too, fulfill my promise. I rose to the Secret Santa challenge with gaily decorated cards, and little packets of candy, and streamers of red and green crepe paper carefully curled with an open pair of scissors, furling down the front of Vivian Wilson's locker, proclaiming that her Secret Santa had visited. On the last day, when everyone's Saint Nicholas brought a gift, mine exceeded the dollar limit with the aid of a smashed piggy bank and my willingness to sacrifice one of my Christmas presents to get a contribution from my mother's careful budget. I met Vivian Wilson for the first time that day, the last day before Christmas Break. The glowing look on her face more than compensated for the fact that my own Secret Santa had done absolutely nothing for me and never appeared in the whole of the Christmas party. For all I know, my Secret Santa was the sophomore who tried to shatter my happiness by throwing a rotten tomato as I stood on the stage, ready to recite my first line.

I hear my husband's tread on our stairs and turn to kiss him goodbye. He's made toast for me, and in return, I give him one of my portable packets of breakfast bars. "It's cold outside," he tells me. "Then wear a coat," I say, and off he goes, to tennis, while I am office-bound. I will sort exhibits, and prepare my cross-examination, and organize my trial box. The sky rises above our home, clear, blue and bright. The world is safe, safe for something, safe from something, and made safe by the negotiations of diplomats, the dreams of those who would be jailed for their beliefs in equality, and the bravery of those in uniform. December 7, 1941: A date that will live in infamy. But not just infamy: also, in fame, in flame, in fury and in foxholes; in history, in hearts, and in heavy shoulders, sagging at the sight of tension on the faces of the bearer of bad news. A face like yours and mine, a face which can be any color, any age, any gender. A human face.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.