Saturday, February 6, 2010

Saturday Musings, 06 February 2010

Good morning,

Above my small patch of the world, the sky stretches with a powerful greyness that threatens to ground my spirit. I pride myself in remaining cheerful regardless of the weather, but I feel oppressed by the steely expanse. I adjust the thermostat and add a layer to my amusing assemblage of clothing -- an old pair of socks, a nightgown, a T-shirt, a bed jacket.

These snowy days remind me of the long walks between my parents' house and our grade school. "I know, Ma," my son would groan. "Uphill both ways, barefoot, in the snow.". We had three choices: down our street, McLaran Avenue, to West Florissant Road and straight through town; up our street and on to Jennings Station Road; or over a steep dead-end that took us to the railroad tracks.

Our house faced Kinamore Avenue, and to the northeast was Avis Road which ended in a stand of mulberry trees beside which lived the woman whom we called Aunt Agnes. We passed Aunt Agnes' small, white-framed home to descend the far side of the hill, and in those days, there was an old van lodged against the backside of the street, on which, if memory serves, there was a picture of a newly hatched chickie. Since we often came to that site to gather mulberries for my mother's baking, the street became known as Pick-A-Chick, and that is how I recalled it, sitting on the far side, on Carl Avenue, in a Ford Focus, on January 2, 2010.

The van has long since been hauled away, and perhaps had been at some point during my childhood. The mulberry grove has been thinned. I cannot recall the name of the family living in the large white house on the hill across from where Agnes lived with her many cats, but that family had special standing in the old days -- descendants of James Jennings, perhaps; or maybe a family whose father had relative wealth -- a doctor, maybe; a lawyer. Neighborhood legend held that the streets of the original section of Jennings were named for Mr. Jennings' daughters -- Avis, and Ada, and perhaps Carl was a son or brother. I had not realized until now that the road running parallel to the train tracks bears the name "Main Street", and I am somewhat amused -- the houses along its southern edge are small, nondescript, and anything but glorious.

To the north of that inauspicious row of dwellings, the railroad tracks run downtown and into Illinois by way of the Merchant's Bridge. They cross McLaran just before the street makes a turn and runs east, to Jennings Station Road and on into Baden, ending at N. Broadway just west of the Mississippi River, past small, old houses in crumbling neighborhoods that once held the families of children with whom I went to grade school. To the north of those railroad tracks is a short stretch of road called Huiskamp Avenue, which dove-tails into Shirley Avenue, which in turn ends at Clinton Avenue, just blocks from the site of Corpus Christi Elementary School on Switzer Avenue, which Google tells me is now called "Corpus Christi District School", a fact that my fifty-four-year-old self finds astonishing.

On a grey day much like this one, in the drab weeks between Christmas and Easter, when nothing ever happens, my brother Mark and I walked over Pick-A-Chick and descended the short stretch of cold, broken pavement, turning left on Carl to reach the place where we would climb to cross the railroad tracks and continue our journey on the back end of Switzer and thus to school. From our house to Corpus Christi was a solid mile, more by the front route, less if you took the shortcut as we were doing on that day. I wore the heavy navy blue jumper of a second grader, with a short-sleeve, Peter Pan color white shirt, a navy cardigan, heavy Brogues and knee-socks, and a coat that probably had been handed down through three sisters and doubtless had seen better days. I don't recall of what the boys' uniform consisted; probably it involved navy blue pants of some type and a white shirt similar to mine. With my old eyes closed, bowing my head a bit to concentrate, I have a recollection of Mark's blond hair, heavy black glasses, and a plaid coat, probably lined with quilting. I see the earnest expression on his face as he coaxed me up the grade to the thick, sturdy surface of the railroad ties over which the cold steel tracks ran. With two fat braids flying from under my round, flat beanie, an old knit scarf wrapped around my neck and tucked into the thin wool of my coat, I struggled to settle my foot into the spaces between the loose gravel spewing down the side of the hill.

Mark crossed the tracks and turned to watch as I made the last step up onto the tracks themselves. His face wore the heavy mixture of kindness and impatience with which the strong always greet the beloved weak. Shifting my book bag, intent, I stepped forward and slightly swayed, then stood still, in between the two rails, to get my balance.

He heard the heavy sound of the train before the whistle blew. Then came the engineer's warning, long, low and mournful. "Come on," he urged. His face lost its slackness and I saw only worry, the fleeting thoughts -- he promised Mom, I am sure, to see me safely to school; we would be late for Mass; his friends would laugh as we rushed into the back of the old brick church. "Come on, Mary, come on. You can do it," he told me, but I had lost my capacity for movement and stood, the carved statue of a seven-year-old Catholic school girl, suitably clad, red-plaid scarf dangling, mittens on their string, the strap of her book bag tenderly slipping down one arm, as the train made its inevitable approach.

I saw it. It came from the west, heading towards Illinois and the mining country, the frozen bleak farmlands, perhaps on, into Indiana. A round light shone on the front of the engine. The air around me, sharp with winter's cold, seemed to quiver with the nearing weight of the iron beast. Still I did not move, and still I heard my brother's voice, calling me to the other side and the mundane safety of our last stretch to school. The train kept coming.

Moving more swiftly than I might have expected, had my mind not been numb, Mark reached, grabbed my arm with one hand and my book-bag with the other, and pulled as hard as his nine-year-old frame would allow. I toppled, sending him backward, and landing on top of him with a quiet thump as the train raced by and the whistle blew, chiding us this time, reminding us of all the earnest warnings our mother had ever meted out. "Don't walk on the railroad tracks," she had cautioned, endlessly, often, urgently. We lay, winded, unbelieving, for some seconds, maybe minutes, before Mark shoved me away and stood, brushing dirt from his pants and turning to scramble over to the street. "Let's get going," he said, gruffly, and I followed, adjusting my clothing, replacing the strap on my shoulder, nervously smoothing the ends of my braids.

When I was a prosecutor, defense attorneys would try to wheedle special treatment out of me with whiny tales of their clients' difficult childhoods. I would push back my chair, fold my arms and invite them to bring their burglars, thieves and robbers to my table. "I'll match them, story for story, about terrible times, and if I run out of stories before they do, I'll dismiss all charges." No one ever accepted my challenge. It is true, I must admit, that we had a tough life in many ways. My father drank, rarely worked, and had a terrible temper. I could have given most of their clients a run for their money, and probably outpaced many. I have wondered, often, why such persons turn to crime, while I have not. As I pour my third cup of coffee, and nibble half a Wolferman's English muffin, I look out onto the wintry sky and think, perhaps, I understand at last.

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.