Friday, May 7, 2010

Saturday Musings, 08 May 2010

Good morning,

The only sounds I can hear are the very softest of noises: the whirring of the air filter, the occasional sigh from the various sleeping creatures in my house. My cat clings with stubborn persistence to the afghan dangling from the edge of the bed; I am sure she will fall, but neither she nor the tattered square of crocheted patchwork have yet landed on the floor. I carefully turn the heavy brass lamp to shine on my keyboard, and think about writing something cheerful.

I find it increasingly difficult to sleep. I have finished reading a book and still I am not drowsy. I drilled around the Internet for a few minutes, looking for distraction. The novel that I have just completed was called Light on Snow, and I am somewhat disturbed by its tale of a man and his twelve-year old daughter who have moved from Manhattan to the cold hills of New Hampshire to try to forget a terrible loss. Instead, they become enmeshed in loss of another kind, before they ultimately begin to heal.

I think about healing for a few minutes, and wonder if it is really possible for the human psyche to overcome trauma. I heard someone refer to a discord between themselves and another person as "a traumatic experience" this week, and that, too, set me to thinking. In fact, I wrote a list of everything that I consider to be "traumatic", and an argument about a relatively minor incident did not factor on the list anywhere, not even twentieth, or thirty-third.

I wonder if my standards are skewed.

In the notebook that I carry in my pocketbook, I started another list: Things That Have Brought Me Great Joy. I drew two heavy lines under the title, then leaned back in the hard metal chair on the little veranda at the coffee shop next door to my office. I thought about that for a few minutes, then took another sip of my Americano. Great Joy.

My mother's parents raised their girls in the Depression. Grandpa scraped for money however he could, I remember hearing, scrunched against my mother's knees, as she rocked in the metal lawn chair, on a hot St. Louis night. Watching the fireflies in my neighbor's yard, thoughtlessly scratching the patch of poison ivy on my shin, I listened, almost eavesdropping, to my parents talking with my mother's sister and my Uncle Joe. Daddy bought a bunch of beer to sell, my mother remembered. Her voice held wonder as she recounted the mess that they found one morning, coming out to the old garage where the beer had frozen and exploded, splattering her father's plan for finally making some money all over the unpainted walls and dirty concrete floor.

Nana and Grandpa finally started a hearing aid business in Springfield, north and east of Gillespie, the town where my mother had lived as a child and where I remember catching fish in a creek and carrying them home in a bucket to hang on the spigot under the kitchen window. They sold their home in Gillespie and bought into a new kind of living, a "subdivision", the first house to be built in Lake Knolls, outside the city limits of Chatham, Illinois. Their one-story brick house stood next to a cornfield, and had a square concrete patio on which my grandmother would sit, in the dark of a summer evening, in a nylon full slip with lace at the bodice and around the hem. The pinnacle of freedom is being able to sit outside at night in the privacy of your own yard, wearing whatever you want, or nothing at all, she often said, and I believed her.

I remember Nana as a fiercely competent woman who bought penny loafers for me. I wore out a pair of shoes every month or two in those days, before the years of physical therapy, before I learned to constantly struggle to keep my right foot from rolling towards the left. Pretend your feet are angry with each other, she'd instruct me. We walked the few blocks from her office to Strong's Restaurant to eat stewed chicken and fresh biscuits with honey butter. When we came to each corner, she would say, in her gentle voice, with a very slight burr of the old country, Put your best foot forward. I would ask which was my best foot, and she would trill, The one that is going first, of course. It seemed to make sense then.

In the storefront next door to the Sonotone House of Hearing, an old man ran a bookstore. I had learned to read at an early age, and could not hide my astonishment at the endless towers of crisp, unread books pushed against the walls of the hallway in the backroom of my grandparents' business. They allowed the bookstore owner to store his merchandise in that backroom, since the hearing aids did not require much space. In the tight confines of the musty corridors, I trolled for treasure. I did not mind going to work with Nana and Grandpa, for they always allowed me to choose a new book, which I would finish in a day or two and return to the stack where I had found it.

My brother Mark and I spent week after week with Nana and Grandpa. Looking back on those summers, I realize that what seemed to be a vacation for us must have been my mother's way of thinning the herd and making it more manageable. But I didn't care. In Springfield, our needs did not go unmet. We had ice cream for dessert, and seconds at dinner time, and as summer melted into fall, Grandpa let us go into the cornfield and bring back as many sweet, ripe ears as we could carry. He would roast them, and let us slather butter all over the golden kernels, which we ate until our stomachs felt heavy and full. We wiped the smears of gold from our mouths with the backs of our hands when Nana looked the other way, giggling at the broad winks that our grandfather gave us, smirking when he shrugged his heavy, broad shoulders as though to say, How can I scold you, my precious grandchildren?

Nana insisted that every visitor hose her patio down and sweep away the grime with the water. To do this correctly, you would first drag the heavy furniture out onto the lawn, and then you went to work with a hose and two brooms. One child held the heavy hose with its powerful spray of water and wet the entire surface of the large concrete pad. Then, together, you swept the water towards the yard, both working in the same direction, sending accumulated dirt and leaves over the edge. When all the standing water had been cleared, you hosed down the cushions of the chairs and loungers, then dragged the lot back onto the patio and arranged it in the proper configuration. The task exhausted us, but my grandmother's smile more than compensated for the blisters from the thin wooden handle of the old broom.

Nana also came to our home, staying with us for days at a time when Mother had a baby or some mysterious ailment, the origins of which I can only understand through speculation, decades later. Whatever the reason, Nana's trips usually coincided with my mother's temporary absence. While Nana visited, she assumed control of the family activities, and never, anywhere, at any time, did so many beds succumb to such vigorous making. Tight as a drum! Neat as a pin! she commanded, but with kindness, so that we eagerly scrambled to comply. I should be able to bounce a quarter off the bed, she insisted. When choosing a child for bed-making duty, Nana extolled the grandness of the honoree's prowess. Nobody in the whole family can make a bed as well as you can!

To this day, we call it "Pulling a Nana".

Nana complimented the performance of delegated tasks as vigorously as she delineated the requirements for their satisfactory completion. She pulled you to her ample, comfortable bosom and placed her arms around you with deliberate, dedicated happiness. A hug from Nana meant that you had performed your chores with excellence the likes of which she might never have previously seen.

I do not remember fancy events or expensive outings with my grandparents. Mostly, we cooked dinner, and went for walks, or played in their yard with the girls who lived in the house behind theirs. When the sun had gently slid down the western horizon with its stand of young trees, we sat on the patio, while my grandparents had a cocktail and my grandmother smoked her cigarettes. In the cornfield, crickets and cicadas crooned lullabies to their young, and the occasional owl responded with a gentle, agreeable hoot. The corn stalks swayed in the teasing night air, and the smoke from my grandmother's cigarettes drifted out into the air over the lawn. Highway noises in the distance offered the only hint of intrusion from the city life that we have left behind, but they did not unduly disturb us, being dim, and far away, and possibly, not even real.

And now, as I come forward in time, I find myself surrounded by the heavy, unrelenting din of the traffic on Broadway. I look at the page in front of me, on which I intend to record my list of things that have brought me great joy. I lift my pen, clumsily adjusting it in the crook of my right hand, and carefully ink a single word: Life. Then I finish my cooling coffee, close my notebook, and go back to work.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

P.S. Happy Mother's Day to all -- especially Jennie Taggart Wandfluh, mother of four including Gavin Donald Wandfluh, born on 06 May 2010.

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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.