Saturday, April 27, 2013
There is a special place in hell for child abusers. As I sit in this gorgeous, wood-lined room, with its peaked ceiling and slatted blinds, I find comfort in knowing that I have occasionally made a difference to a child who might otherwise have suffered an extra day.
My week has reeled from client-crisis to client-crisis, starting with a hearing at which I managed to expand the time that a frail girl spends with her father, my client, for whom I had won residential placement months ago. Delay after delay has kept the trial from putting a permanent stamp on the situation, while the girl's school work suffers on the days she spends with her mother, and her emotional health declines because of the mother's unstable household.
A day later, I stood before the same judge representing a mother whose children have suffered repeated, continual abuse at their father's hands, and we fretted about how to navigate the morass of the system in which they now find themselves. The judge's brow line deepened as the lawyers wrangled. My stomach clenched. Later, in a friend's office, I realized that some of my tension stemmed from old memories, stirred by patient listening to my client's accounts of what she has seen and suffered. I gazed out my friend's window while she sat, quiet, caring, as patient with me as I had striven to be with my client.
I tell my friend that when I was a prosecutor, defense attorneys would whine that their clients had had bad childhoods. I should give them a break, I was often told, because of their terrible suffering as children. I would make each one this offer: Bring your client up to my table. I will match them story for story about bad childhoods. If I run out of stories before they do, I will dismiss all charges.
No one ever took me up on it.
On the night before my mother died, I stood in her kitchen, gazing, almost sightlessly, upon the counter my mother had re-tiled just a year or two before. My sister Joyce sat on the little bench that our Austrian great-grandfather had made. "I keep thinking, 'this will be our year for only good things to happen'", she said. I heard a note in her voice that I recognized but could not define, a little wisp, an elusive, smokey scent of sorrow. "That year, our year, I guess it's not going to be 1985," she said, soft and low. I put my hand on her shoulder. I could not think of anything to say.
Some one recently asked me what my earliest memory was. I shrugged, and changed the subject. But that memory rose in me like that smokey note in my sister's voice: Walking the streets of Jennings at night, with my seven brothers and sisters, in pajamas, with coats thrown over them, holding my mother's hand. I asked my mother when we could go home. "In a few minutes," she said. "When Daddy falls asleep." She sang as we walked, in a low voice, while people slept in the houses which loomed on either side of us. I tightened my grip on her hand so I would not be lost.
Page after page of memories come to me over the internet from my clients who have experienced violence in their homes. I encourage them to write. Better to send the memories to me than to their adult children, or their siblings, or their friends who stare helplessly at the words, not understanding. I read what they write, and put their letters in a file. If we ever come to trial, what they have shared will help them prepare to testify. If we settle, as we should, as we usually do, their words remain unspoken. But the writing of them leaves behind a clean space for new memories to flourish.
As my week drew to a close, I joined a hundred other folks in honoring the clients of the Johnson County, Kansas District Attorney's Office's Crime Victim Rights art therapy program. I walked around the VALA Gallery, overwhelmed with the starkness of the pain in the drawings, paintings and poems. But something else shown through the canvas: Hope. The flip side of despair.
Saturday dawns grey and gloomy. I've little to do but laundry, and later, I will meet my friend Penny Thieme for coffee. She of the VALA Gallery, she who has shown me the vibrant colors of a dawning day when glory triumphs over desperation. In the meantime, I'll drink another cup of tea, and maybe, go back to bed for an hour or so.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Good intentions to the contrary, I awakened at six this morning, in the barely lightened room, surrounded by a blanket of quiet, chilly air. Small noises drifted from the downstairs. Outside my window, baby birds had just begun to proclaim, hunger, or joy, I could not tell which. I had fallen asleep after staring with fascination at the scrolling, swiftly accumulating tweets about the second of two suspects in the Boston marathon bombing. So many dead, so many wounded, so many terrified. The last clip I watched showed hundreds of Watertown citizens standing in the street, singing our national anthem. Their voices echoed as I drifted to sleep. And in my dreams, I am transported back.
I am six, I am tiny and frail. I stand in the concrete room in the farthest corner of my parents' basement. The shelves would sag with their burden, had they not been built strong and sturdy by my father's hands. They hold jars, boxes and bags, with food that my mother has gathered to forestall hunger, should we spend days or weeks in the murky, musky rooms beneath our home.
In the larger room next to the fruit cellar, narrow cots have been placed. I run my fingers along the thin blankets, the flat pillows, the frayed sheets. My mother has used our oldest linens to prepare these emergency beds. It is 1961, maybe 1962. It is Saint Louis, Missouri, and new batteries have been carefully inserted into the portable radio. A stash of unopened AAs sits on the workbench beside a gallon thermos of clean water.
High windows cast the waning light of the evening sun into the gloomy rooms. No one remains in the basement but me. Did sirens frighten me? The threat of missiles from Cuba has hovered over our city for months. My mother always brings the babies down, the little boys, but the older kids often ignore the siren's wail. The air hangs close, damp and dank. I stare at a bulb dangling from a wire, with its skinny chain, a short few inches tied to a sturdy string, from which a steel nut hangs. I can reach this pull to turn the light off, on, off, on. I watch its flicker between gentle monotonous tugs. The light and I are alone.
I run my finger along the edge of my father's workbench, which lined the wall of the big main room that my mother has made into our basement retreat. I lift his hand tools from their spots, one at a time, studying the sleek darkness of their oiled surfaces. My father has taken care of these implements. They show signs of being cherished. I return them with utter care to the positions from which I have lifted them.
I wander around, staring at the shelves which hold broken toys that my father has promised to repair. My mother's ironing board stands in the center of the room, the iron's cord wound around its base. A blurry chalk mark forms a circle around my mother's work space, the demarcation of her territory. Our tricycles stand idle in a corner, next to the red wagon. They make no sound.
I open the creaky door of the large closet under the stairs. I would not normally be allowed in this closet without supervision. The air raid has ended, and my siblings have gone back upstairs, but I stayed behind. The high-pitch of their voices drifts down through the ducts, eerie and detached, taunting me from the registers. I stand in front of the closet and poke my head in its gloomy depths. Mysterious boxes sit in readiness on the shelves of the deep recess. Easter, and Christmas, and Halloween can be made from the content of the cardboard containers. I close the door.
In the next room, I stare at the piles of laundry heaped on the floor which have overflowed the huge bin. There is a washing machine at one end of what used to be our garage. Beyond the washer, a crude wall blocks off an expanse in which there is a shower head, a floor drain, and a toilet. Only my older brothers brave this rudimentary bathroom.
The crackle of the radio in the room that I have left behind me speaks of the all-clear. I pay it no heed. But hours have past since the sirens sounded and my family had come into the basement. I am tired, and hungry, and frightened. I climb into the slatted bin which holds my family's accumulated washing, and fall asleep, with the darkening of night surrounding me, and the sounds of KMOX drifting in from the fruit cellar.
This morning, I have fixed breakfast for my husband and me. I have read more of the newspaper than I might normally read, including all of the news about the capture, the lamenting of the suspect's uncle, and the bold, colorful article about the anti-anti-gay-church movement that has taken hold in Topeka. I have listened to the commentators repeatedly summarize the Friday events, and ruminate about the Justice Department's decision not to Mirandize the suspect. My coffee has grown cold. My husband has readied himself for his weekly tennis game and kissed me goodbye. In a corner of the dining room, our dog sleeps. In a few minutes, I will call the vet to refill the dog's medication. I will make another pot of coffee, and then stand on my beloved front porch, watching my American flag waive in the gentle spring breeze.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
More times than I care to admit in recent weeks, an otherwise seemingly competent adult has sat in front of me, denouncing the other parent of their adored children. I often stare at them with a fixed smile and a hopefully sympathetic air. Sometimes their proclamations of rejection have merit. Other times, they do not. Either way, I listen, nod, and push my pen across a lined pad, wondering where the truth lies.
A day or two ago, the person sitting across from me was my own ex-spouse. We conducted brief business unrelated to our short marriage. Business completed, we talked of other things. We share common friends, and both of us are involved in a local artists' cooperative. I know all three of his daughters, and regularly communicate with one. His brother works for me. Our connectivity continues, evolves, transcends the two or three years during which the law recognized our union. We are friends.
As we talk, time falls away. I stand again in a large, clean kitchen, far south of here, in Arkansas. One of my siblings talks to me on the phone in strident tones, exhorting me to come home for Christmas. I could not imagine why. I had lost contact with half of them in the three years since our mother's death. I had felt distant from them in the decade prior to her illness. I felt judged by them. I did not believe we shared common values. I did not feel that they cherished me.
I hung up the phone and turned to Chet, my then-husband. They want us to come for Christmas, I tell him. We can stay with Steve and Tracy. Steve shared my status as black sheep. I knew I was safe with him. Chester looks askance, one eyebrow arched. I don't think I like the way they talk to you, he tells me. His words have a petulant air. Socializing with people whom he believes mistreat me pains him. I shrug. There is nothing I can say.
We pack a few things for the drive to St. Louis. I cast about for presents for my brother's new baby, a house gift for my brother and his wife, something for my father. We plan to get gifts for other family members once we get there and find out who we will see. Money is tight.
In the apartment where Steve and Tracy live, we throw our bags down in the extra bedroom. We take turns holding the baby, wonder in our eyes. This child unmistakably wears the Corley stamp. My brother bounces her, cooing her name over and over. Chelsea Rae, Chelsea Rae. I do not see beyond his pleasure, ignore the tightness in his jaw and the dark circles under his eyes.
At some point, the camera captures a perfect image of Chester with the baby in his lap, his head turned towards someone just out of the frame. His hand rests in the baby's arm, gently holding her, making sure she sits firmly but without any restraint. Her perfect smile, her tiny fingers, the Corley chin. Chelsea Rae, Chelsea Rae.
On Christmas, we hand around the presents, some hastily purchased in the Central West End and wrapped on Steve and Tracy's kitchen table. My other brothers scoff at the site of "Corinne" written in Chester's feathery script on his gift to me. "Who's this person?" they ask. "Our sister's name is 'Mary'." No one thinks they are teasing. Chester refrains from engaging them in a game the rules to which he can never be privy. But we don't stay too long. The way I have fallen into my old role as the semi-disrespectful baby sister troubles him. He knows that if we stay, eventually, he will tell them what he thinks of their derisiveness over the name that I had been using since the age of 15. It is, after all, he would tell them, my great-grandmother's name.
We drive back to Arkansas not knowing that we will never again visit my family together. I went alone the next Christmas, because he had a tour. By the following year, he and I had split. But all of that had not yet happened, as we coasted into town in the dark, quiet hours, that first Christmas. I really don't like the way your brothers talk to you, he tells me, in the stillness of the car. I recognize his tone. I lean my face against the cold glass of the window and let a faint smile arise.
The years, which had fallen away as I listened to the careful cadence of my ex-husband's voice, crowd again around me. I rise from my desk, and he also stands. We've concluded our business, and we've mused about the various potentials for his next life move. He's told me about the beautiful boxes he has begun to build, with his agile artist's hands, and the keen eye with which he guides those hands to make cuts so perfect it takes your breath away. We talked about his daughters, the two he lost, and the one given to him as a second chance. He's described the move that he and his wife contemplate. We've speculated on the potential that the lost daughters might one day let him back into their lives, and I've stared into the deep, flawed gleam of his eyes, and seen the longing. It's lived there for so long, I'm sure he mistakes it for an old friend.
We walk out to the lobby, and I touch his arm, just for a moment. Then we nod, and he strides down the stairs, bracing his shoulders against some unseen burden. I watch until the door closes behind him and he disappears around the corner.
As I settle back at my desk, and skim a message from a client who seethes with rage against her former spouse, the father of her son, I find my eyes drifting to the window. I see my face reflected in its pane, relieved of twenty-five years of life's travails, in the dark of an Arkansas night, the highway passing in silence as a soft melody fills the car around me, lulling me to sleep.
I cannot bring myself to endorse any more hatred. I push my chair back and take up my old ceramic cup, and go in search of something hot to drink.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
While Morning Edition personalities muse online, I struggle with the clash of my old computer with the new G-Mail. My apologies in advance if this email bears your name in the "to" list instead of the "bcc" list, a phenomenon that I usually correct but cannot, this day, because the top of the email is lost in a morass of pixelation. I'm not even sure how to "save". I can see the "send" button but not the "from" line. Note to self: Learn how to find "contacts" in G-mail on the tablet or get a new laptop.
The grey day threatens to spoil the construction of a concrete pad on my husband's oil lease and the transfer of furniture to the little suite into which my mother-in-law will be moving on Monday. I hear the dog jiggling her collar downstairs, a signal that she wants to go snuffle the grass in our backyard. The barometric pressure affects her, just as it does me. Our arthritic joints creak and crackle. My vet says that the 7 to 1 calculation of dog years to human has no basis in veterinary reality, but in any event, our dog is 12 or 13 in human years but still loves to pace the perimeter with a Buzy Bone in her mouth, waiting for the rain. Thunder terrifies her, but the soft cool spring rains seem to invigorate instead.
We got this dog after the memorable ice storm, nine or ten years ago. We found out about her seizure disorder a week later when she started walking funny, her hind quarters stiffening, her head rigid. She's been a good pet for many years, and everyone in the neighborhood loves her, except for the neighbors to the north who claim that she barks continually when we are gone. Of course, no one else hears her; and we often find large, gnawed objects thrown over the fence by their own huge retrievers, so we're skeptical about their claims. When a "For Sale" sign arose on their lawn, we cheered.
I never liked dogs before I had a boychild. Our first dog was a purebred Beagle who climbed fences and roamed for miles. My son begged me to find him, to find the dog he named Chocolate when a client gave him to my son, the year Patrick turned four. "Chocolate" went with "Sprinkles", the name he had given to the cat acquired on his third birthday. I walked our block at midnight many times, calling "'Chocolate! Chocolate!" while my son stood on the porch or huddled around steaming mugs of hot cocoa with his friends. I often sat on a porch rocker at three in the morning, in the cool night, or the summer heat, worrying, wondering, wanting to be able to tell Patrick that his dog had come home. I paid more than one city fine, often to jurisdictions miles away in Johnson County, Kansas. Mission, Leawood, Overland Park. That dog could run.
We got our current dog from a client who did dog rescue, and then there were two. But I accidentally killed Chocolate by leaving him on his lead one night, a lead constructed to keep him from escaping. We found our new rescue dog, Little Girl, huddled against Chocolate's cold body in the morning. We buried him, had Lamar's donuts at the wake, and my son didn't speak to me for days. Patrick was 12 that year, just coming into a difficult time of his life, from which he would not emerge for several years and a couple of visits to the Mayo Clinic. Killing his dog didn't help.
In August of 2009, Aunt Penny and I took Patrick to his first semester of college. One of his last admonishments to me? "Don't let any of the pets die before I graduate." He did not laugh as he said it. He drew his brow into a deep furrow and stared intently into my face. I promised.
I've already broken that promise. Sprinkles died in August of 2012 from old age, lying on the driveway, under my hands, as I wept. Pablo, the black Tuxedo cat that my son raised in his bedroom in the fall of 2007, has taken to living somewhere else. He spent more and more time outside as he matured, unneutered and adventurous, but when we catch glimpses of him, he is sleek, fat, and well-groomed. We think he's been adopted.
So that leaves Little Girl, our pathetic brown epileptic Beagle-Lab mix. I take pictures of her and message them to my son. I buy the expensive dog bones she likes, and mix eggs in her dried dog food. She goes to the vet two to four times per year, for well-dog checks, Phenobarb levels, and potassium bromide adjustments. I'm not strong enough to walk her, and my husband doesn't have the time, but we have a big back yard and occasionally we co-opt a visitor to take her for a brisk trot around the block, usually clutching a leash and stumbling after her, having accidentally let her out. But if you call her name, she lies down on the sidewalk and waits for you to approach. In the old days, she actually wanted to run; but nowadays, she just wants to prove she can still escape if she chooses to do so.
On a recent evening, I sat in the rocking chair in my little nook, downstairs. This nook has evolved over the twenty years in which I have owned this home. At first, my son and I ate our casual meals on a white table left behind by the previous owners. In 1997, when my brother died and left his nieces and nephews small bequests, we bought a computer and put it on that table, and the breakfast nook became the family computer site, where we played one particular game for hours together. I can't recall the name, but my son, my nephew Nick, and I, spent many evenings typing commands and comments into a little window to make the hero walk, find treasure, and hunt for a way back home. When I later got my own computer, that first unit moved upstairs to my son's room, and the nook became Corinne's office, with an invisible fourth wall, and a shelf for my angel collection.
Over the years, sitting in a chair in the breakfast nook became my way of finding solace in a hectic day. I also talk on the phone from that nook. I have spent hours there in the last twenty years. Early on, I held a wired phone to my ear and talked to my aunt about my parenting woes. I've sat there to hear bad news from distant callers. I've laughed at my son's efforts to cheer me, and listened to my sister's worries, and sought advice from my friends.
Invariably, if our little, pathetic, brown Beagle, hears me crying, she comes into the nook and puts her head on my knee. On this night, this recent night when I sat in the rocking chair, not on the phone, not on my Tablet using the internet, not talking, the dog skittered on her too-long nails across the hardwood of the dining room floor. She stood in the doorway, watching me. She turned her head this way and that, straining to gauge my mood. Is she crying? I could hear her thinking. I sighed. She walked a few more steps, and let her body fall prone at my feet. I spoke to her, out loud, and she raised her head again, eyeing me sideways, a bit reproachfully, a bit guardedly. I patted her head, and she let it fall back onto the little pile made by her crossed paws.
I never meant to be a dog owner. I got the first dog because a client wanted to do something nice for my child. Little Girl came to us because another client talked me into taking her. I wanted a house full of cats and kids, and maybe a reptile or two, but never a dog. And now, here I am, the cats gone, the kids gone, the lizard given away, the pair of mourning doves stolen from my front porch, left with this damn brown dog to whom we have to administer pills and liquid drugs twice a day, who pees on the kitchen floor in the early hours of each day, and barks a slow, steady bark that drives the neighbor lady bonkers. Instead of being the crazy old cat lady, I've become the lady with the epileptic Beagle, who uses her son's old beach towels to give the dog a bath with anti-allergy shampoo significantly less often than I should. I'm not sure what that says about my life. If I figure it out, I'll let you know.
The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- 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.