Friday, December 20, 2013

Saturday Musings, 21 December 2013

Good morning,

I pulled into a space in a crowded parking lot, late Friday afternoon, a handful of days before Christmas. Cars passed as I slid out from behind the wheel, one hand on my cell phone, the other securing my keys. "Do you need anything from Target?" I texted to my son, and the reply came: "Oatmeal?" I stopped, oblivious to the traffic, and without so much as a moment to stop the flood of memory, I sank into 1970.

I stand in the hallway of my parents' home. The hubbub of Christmas surrounds me; my little brothers chattering about the prospect of snow, the rustle of wrapping paper, the gentle thud of a glass ornament hitting the carpeted floor. Tears rise to my face. Everything triggers the relentless flow of emotion: My father's words, sharp in tone but slurred from alcohol; the taunt of the neighborhood boys following me down the roadway home from school; the backwards glance of unthinking teenage girls; the casual flick of a dismissive hand in my direction. My body surges with the new unbidden flush of hormones, and the old, frayed edges of everything that has gone before.

I see my mother's face; heavy lines cross her forehead and a shadow lies under her half-closed eyes. "What's wrong, Mom," I ask, and she raises her head, leaning in my direction. "Nothing, nothing, just tired," she replies, in a paper-thin voice, and moves away, towards her room in the back of the house. I briefly stand absolutely motionless, then go into my own room and close the door.

I pull a box of presents from under my bed. I've spent all of my babysitting money to buy something for everyone. At a dollar an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, for most of the year, I earned enough to do my own shopping for the first time. I ease each item from the box and organize them side by side on the quilt. I brush my fingers across the soft scarf for my mother and trail them down the side of a box holding notecards for one of my sisters. I lift each one onto a swatch of paper covered with glistening stars. When they have all been wrapped, I nestle them back into the storage box and under the bed where they will stay until Christmas Eve. I lie on the bed beside the window, and stare into the night at the silent snow falling on our yard.

On Christmas morning, a jubilant din surrounds me, but I exist inside a thick wall which muffles my family's joyful noises. I look at the small stack of presents by my feet. I wait while the little boys tear through their haul, then start to open my gifts while my mother hovers a few feet away, an unchecked gleam in her eyes.  

One package stands out. It's a cylinder, about eleven inches tall and five inches in diameter. 
I glance at my mother but her face reveals nothing. I cannot tell what might be in this tube. I know the one thing that I want: a pretty blouse. One that will make me look like a young lady and not a little girl; with buttons, and a collar, and some delicate decoration. Other than school uniforms, underwear, and the pajamas our grandmother gave us each year, I had never, to that point, owned a single piece of clothing purchased brand-new just for me. But blouses do not come in tubes. Hope fades.

I ease the paper from it and see what I've got. "Quaker Oats". I draw in a quick sharp breath. 
Is this a joke? I hate oatmeal and everyone knows it. I meet my mother's eyes and she raises her brows. Oatmeal? I hate oatmeal! I feel the tears begin to rise. I touch the edge of the lid, and slowly pull the long peel of Scotch tape away. My mother watches me as I gingerly lift the lid. The last thing I want is a shower of Quaker oats spread across my long flannel nightgown.

But there are no oats in the box. I pull on the tissue in the cardboard tube and unfurl the most beautiful garment that I've ever seen. I raise the loosely coiled blouse and gently shake it, letting the soft edges fall. I have no words; I cannot breathe. I am fifteen. In my battered wooden dresser lies folded piles of hand-me-downs; my father calls me his Secondhand Rose after the Streisand song. I caress the silk. I throw my arms around my mother and we laugh about her joke. Oatmeal! I forgive her. I wear the blouse to church and cannot stop myself from fingering the tiny pattern embroidered in its cuffs. I feel divine.

A few weeks later, our furnace fails. Every inch of the house holds gleams of oil, black grime in thick unbearable sheets. We stand outside in the cold of a January night while a gruff man in denim overalls sees to the safety issues that the aging oil-powered heater poses. We look absurd, a dejected, straggling lot shivering on the sidewalk in front of our house in filthy clothing. The next day my mother dumps everything we own into the bathtub and runs the water for hours, ringing each garment out again and again, sending swells of dark water down the drain. Some things cannot be saved. My beautiful blouse has been ruined. Grey and stained, it lies among the casualties in a sodden heap on the bathroom floor.

Friday night, amid the throngs of gleeful shoppers, I filled my cart with contributions to the surprise for a family that my friends at the VALA Gallery and I have adopted this Christmas. The girls, Jasmine, age 9 and Lily, who is 2, each get a complete outfit, jackets with hoods, cute little blue jeans, and colorful tops. The 9-year-old's shirt bears a colorful unicorn, scrawled beneath which are the words "Peace" and "Love" in rainbow glitter. I pressed it against my cheeks, feeling the unbearable softness of the fabric, breathing its newness, before wrapping it. There's no adequate gift I can give their son, who sleeps in the neonatal intensive care unit, born four months too early, still only weighing a bit over two pounds. Nor can I ease his mother's fears. I don't know how much what we're able to do will help; but none of us can stand idle while they grieve and worry. 

When each gift had been wrapped and tagged, I stacked them in a new laundry basket, tucked a gift card into an envelope with the parents' names on it, and added some chocolate foil-wrapped Santas. Before going upstairs for the evening, I stood for a few minutes in the living room, next to our Christmas tree with its twinkling lights. I touched the wooden star with my name and the year of my birth which hangs beside the St. Lucia ornament. The sound of the wind rose outside, and in its wake, I heard the echo of my mother's low, husky laugh. 

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.