Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saturday Musings, 18 September 2010

Good morning,

I've a good, stout cup of freshly brewed coffee beside me, made from beans ground just as I like them -- until the scritchy sound of the grinder vanishes and the blade whirrs smoothly and unimpeded. I use tap water, as I always have done; I don't use the delivered water that I keep for drinking, though purists would scoff. My second-hand coffee pot delivers 10 cups of perfect brew, through unbleached filters, into a glass carafe never cleaned with soap. I am fussy; I like my coffee brewed just so.

Yesterday, a lab technician ironically named Lance drew several vials of blood with just the same degree of effortlessness that I make coffee. I look for him, on my monthly visits to the vampire's lair. He demonstrates an unusual deftness.

Journeying from the elevator, looking for the proper door, I see handwritten signs encouraging me to continue my search for the recently relocated lab in the bowels of the medical building. Yellow, lined paper stuck here and there, on which someone has scrawled messages such as NOT ROOM 140 and KEEP GOING, THIS WAY TO THE LAB. I stop beside one such sign, swaying slightly, and close my eyes.

I hear again my mother's voice, and the sound, calling me from the past, draws me closer.

My mother spent nearly twenty-five years working in the EKG department at St. Louis County Hospital. In her first days there, she "was" the EKG department; by the time she left, she was "the head" of that department. She performed her job the same way in either guise: with diligence and dedication.

Several afternoons each week, she had "clinic hours", during which patients came to her office for EKGs as outpatients. The hospital served mostly lower-income persons, many of whom were uneducated, and my mother treated them with kindness and courtesy. But she also learned that many of them had difficulty understanding her directions and explanations, and she spoke with gentle tones, slowly, modulating her vocabulary to ease their confusion.

At the end of every work day, Mother hurriedly divested herself of the clothes she had worn to the hospital; lab coat into the hamper, dresses back onto hangers; then a quick shower. She wanted fresh clothes, unsullied by exposure to disease, in which to assume her guise as parent for the evening. After she had changed, we ate dinner, then gathered somewhere to hear about her day and share stories of ours. In the living room, on the porch, grouped around her, we listened to her talking.

My mother had liquid brown eyes and the olive skin of her father's Lebanese heritage, and coarse, wavy brown hair. Her slender shoulders bore the weight of her life choices with gentle ease; her voice, deep, throaty, and silken, lulled me into believing that life did not threaten, just outside the door.

I remember a particular summer evening, sitting on our wide front porch, lightening bugs flashing in the yard. My mother gazed across the street, seeing something other than the empty expanse of the neighbor's driveway. I waited, sitting on the brick wall in front of her, watching as she absent-mindedly rocked the painted metal lawn chair in which she sat.

Today a man came up to me and asked where the Lab was, she began. I said, "Okay, the Lab. You go way down this hall. Way, way down this hall. " I pictured my mother, her tones slow and careful, the wide sweep of her arm gesturing towards the location of the laboratory. "You might think you missed it, but keep going", I told him. "Go way, way down the hall. You'll see something that looks like a lab, but isn't -- that's the Blood bank, don't go there. Keep going, way down the hall, until you come to a set of doors." My mother emphasized the word, "doors", and my mental image of her deepened. I knew that tone, the one she reserved for people who needed extra explaining.

I waited. My mother shifted in her seat, and focused on my face, perhaps to see if she still had my attention. And the man looked at me, and said, "Doors. You mean those things with handles?" and I started to say, "No, these are swinging doors --- " and then I looked at the man, really looked at him, and saw the stethoscope around his neck.

A decade and a half later, four days before my mother died, I bent over her still, frail form. We had been schooled by the hospice worker to stroke her throat to stimulate her muscles while feeding her. I tried this technique, but her pre-comatose mind did not respond. Swallow, Mama, swallow, I admonished, over and over. Swallow, come on, Mama, swallow, I repeated. Suddenly, a bony hand reached and grasped mine; and her face moved, her eyes momentarily focused on my face as they had been focusing on my face for thirty years. I am still your mother, she said, don't patronize me.

And then she swallowed, slowly, deliberately, and carefully, the morphine-laced applesauce that I had been feeding her.

In the hallways of the Plaza I Medical Building, in Kansas City, I opened my eyes. I looked for the next yellow sign, and ventured forward until, at the end of the hallway, I found a set of doors which I entered, into the Lab. The woman at the desk greeted me in loud, rounded tones, telling me to sign the clipboard, although the two-inch bold letters on the hand-made sign in front of her unmistakeably announced the same directive. Now sit down, she admonished, repeating, loudly, the final instruction of the glaring black letters on the clipboard itself.

I sat. I closed my eyes, and thought about my mother, and the Lab at St. Louis County Hospital, and the startled doctor to whom my mother spoke in the same voice that this Lab attendant had just used with me, and so I bit back a snotty retort. I'm sure that -- like my mother -- she meant well.

The sun creeps higher, warming the air, inviting me to pull the weeds dying on my back fence before my neighbor's yard party this evening. After a while, I will ease the furnace filter from its cradle to find the model number, and travel to some large, impersonal store where a disinterested clerk might help me find the proper replacement, for which I will pay an ungodly sum. Later, we'll heat some coals, and grill a couple of pieces of chicken, and fight against the mosquitoes on the patio before surrendering to the inevitable lure of air conditioning. And still later, when the sun has set, and the dog has curled in her bed, when the house is still, I will sleep again, and awaken to the thud of the Sunday paper landing on my porch.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Saturday Musings, 11 September 2010

Good morning,

Morning crept softly for me today. I am grateful for this kindness. The last images of my nocturnal reading disturbed me more than I realized, and I slept badly. I hear a quiet whine from the foot of the stairs; my dog insists that I let her out into the dewy yard. A few minutes later, I retrieve the newspaper but do not unfurl it; I have not forgotten the horrible anniversary we celebrate, and I delay viewing today's headline as long as possible -- at least until the coffee finishes brewing.

I contemplate the human tendency to mark our lives' milestones. Yesterday would have been my mother's 84th birthday; a few weeks ago, the anniversary of her death coincided with the birthday of a friend's son. As the timer of our lives tick down to zero, we carve notches on its perimeter. Births; deaths; marriages; divorces. The first day of kindergarten. Auspicious meetings. We measure our lives by the distances between these memories.

As I drove to work yesterday, I tried to recall some sillier events; perhaps the day I got my first leather purse, or when I bought my first car. I can't remember this last date but I do recall the car: A British racing green MG Midget.

I loved that car. Of the two or three pictures of myself that I concede might be pleasurable to view, one shows me behind the wheel of that car, in huge sunglasses, a bandanna tied around my hair. Nothing invigorates quite the same way that a convertible can.

During the time that I owned the MG, I dated a police officer. He worked the evening shift, and our liaisons often began when he finished for the night, just before the witching hour. One Friday, he knocked on my apartment door with uncharacteristic diffidence, and when I opened the door, expressed astonishment that I did so. When I didn't see your car downstairs, I figured you had stood me up, he remarked. My stomach heaved -- yes, I discovered, after frantically dashing down four flights of stairs to the garage, my little convertible had been stolen.

I got it back, and my brother installed a fuel line kill switch. Periodically, I found it a block or two from my apartment. I stopped locking it after I replaced the window twice and the top once, lamenting the savage disregard for its diminutive beauty that could lead a thief to slice the fabric. I finally sold that car to my brother after I burned out the clutch for the third time. I bought a 1970 Chevy Nova, the principal virtue of which was a paucity of moving parts, so that I could, and did, repair it myself.

I drive a Mom-car now, a Saturn Vue, and I do not attach much significance to the anniversary of its acquisition. I strive to cull out the less important commemorations as I age.

But well do I recall sitting at my computer on 11 September 2001, just before 9:00 a.m. My secretary burst through the door of the outer office calling to me, turn on a radio! Somebody bombed New York! With only the Internet available, I immediately summoned, just as live coverage showed the unbelievable, seemingly effortless slip of an airplane into the second tower.

Nothing I experienced before or since compares to the surreality of what happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that day. No terror that I have endured; no grief I have suffered; no loss that has confronted me; rises even close to what the families and friends of the 9-11 victims experienced. But others -- quietly, less publicly, and poignantly -- felt pain in the aftermath of the devastation: My friends from Beirut, who turned inward each time they heard jeers directed towards them; my son's playmate, half-Lebanese-American, who got into his first schoolyard scuffle defending his mother, a naturalized American citizen with absolutely no ties to terrorists whom Maher's classmates called by one of the most vicious names, that I will not here repeat.

While it is true that the prejudice inflicted on Arab-Americans cannot truly compare to the loss of a husband, wife, father, mother, or child in the vicious attacks of 11 September 2001, still, that prejudice reflects an awful reality that must be counted as collateral damage. I do not pretend to understand it, any more than I could profess to understand the motivations of the men who steered those planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the earth outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The motivations of the Americans who took control of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania come closer to what I feel -- a drive to salvation, to courageous behavior, to virtue.

I argued a case before the U.S.District Court in Washington, D.C. in late September of 2001. My client wore a uniform, being a colonel in the United States Army at the time, and his attire enabled us to breach the first couple of barriers outside the Pentagon. Still at a distance, I viewed the immense hole in our military center, and the enormous American flag suspended from the building's edge. I had no words to describe what rose within me. My client seemed to understand what quelled my voice. He stood at attention, eyes on the symbol of the country that he loved and served. When I had seen as much as I could bear, he raised his arm in a crisp and perfect salute, and we turned back towards our rental car, still silent, still awash with a curious mixture of sorrow and pride. As we pulled away, a strong wind lifted the flag, and the wide swathe of fabric rippled in the morning sun. I twisted in the passenger seat and watched until the Pentagon, with its horrible wound and that majestic covering, disappeared from view.

"To Absent Friends". Memento mori. We will not forget you.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Saturday Musings, 04 September 2010

Good afternoon:

As we pulled into the driveway, twenty-four hours after backing out from it and beginning the trip to Hermann, Missouri, to attend my neighbors' wedding, the sun reflected from the architectural shingles on my bungalow with a poignancy that their manufacturer probably never predicted. The yard itself lies in the steep shadows of the old maple; and the porch, with its cathedral ceiling, and oak beams, casts its own shadow -- but one tinged with the light of the early afternoon, shining through high, arched windows, onto my front door.

We have made the gentle swoop into Kansas City from Sedalia, our last leg being on old Hickman Mills Road, through the city, past block after block of small, rundown houses. We made a brief pass through the Sedalia square, but its shuttered buildings and closed hotel coffee shop fell short of our expectations, so we went instead to the Starbucks on 50 Highway, sitting at a table next to a parking lot, with the sounds of traffic reminding us more of the hustle of Overland Park than rural mid-Missouri. The world turns, and the past of our grandfathers recedes beyond our reach.

I am still serene, though; still savoring the sweetness of Ivan and Phyllis' wedding. I have rarely seen love that shines from a man's eyes as Ivan's love for Phyllis shines; rarely seen a woman so brightly glowing with the knowledge, deep in her soul, that she can do no wrong in some one's eyes. We need not begrudge their happiness, because it is so effusive that it encompasses everyone who stands in their path; the seven groomsmen, the six ladies of honor, the parents, the precious flower girl casting red petals at the bride's feet through the entire ceremony. In our places, at the far right, in the auxiliary seating -- not family, exactly, just neighbors -- we catch the wide swathe of their passion for one another, and I find myself crying, which I swore I would not do.

We left when the dancing started, piles of food eaten, delicate cake nibbled up to the heavy, inedible fondant, champagne raised and sipped. We drifted out of the parking lot, passed rows of sturdy grapevines, down the road where families slept, in a small river town where dogs still roam at night, unfenced, unchained. We found the highway that took us to our waiting hotel room and spoke only quiet words, remarking on the coolness of the night, the sweetness of the ceremony, the clean good looks of another neighbor there with his own new wife.

Then my phone blipped -- a random text message, or an e-mail plopping into the inbox --and I was reminded of my son's request, the day before, for stories of situations from his childhood that he and I shared which I would describe as inherently comical. He was collecting a list for his acting class, and had eight, but needed ten. With my lily white spastic hands, I had texted back. Remember the time I left your Batman collection on the trunk lid, and drove that way for ten miles before we figured out why everyone was gesturing wildly to us? He quickly answered, Oh yeah, that was pretty funny! This sparked a memory of the night that an actual bat had gotten into our house. . . and your stepfather was racing around in his electric wheelchair with a broom, while I screeched, Get it out of here! Get it out of here! My son's reply came swiftly: I don't remember that at all, but it must have been hilarious!

My companion chuckled, deep in his throat, and I could not help but laugh along with him. We fell into an easy silence, neither of us feeling the least bit of discomfort sharing my story about my ex-husband, about something funny that happened while we were married, during a time when we could still be described as happy. You should have seen it, I remarked. I can really screech when I feel threatened, and that dang bat had swooped into the living room right onto my head. His amusement pleased me; and I hammed it up a bit, describing my son jumping from chair to chair, swinging a mop around, while the cat leaped on the mantle and I hovered in the middle of the room, pleading, Get it out! Get it out! Get it out!

What ever happened to the bat,
he finally asked, as my giggles subsided. I thought a minute. We found it under the couch a couple of weeks later, dead and shriveled. I drew a long, deep shudder of air, and settled back against the window, gazing into the night, seeing beyond the passing blur of farms on the side of the road.

Watershed happenings do not rise to slap us against the sides of our heads, like a board wielded by a cynical messenger of fate. In fact, I have concluded that we rarely notice them as the occur; and often, only from the clear-sighted calm of later hours do we recognize our turning points. I see mine now, so surely: A moonlit night in Haiti Heights, when I slept in a truck bed and wrote my best poem; an afternoon when I heaved a bellyful of wine over a fire escape in Brighton, my roommate's sister holding back my limp, dirty hair; the dark of a St. Louis summer night, at Kingsighway and Vandiventer, when only the screech of brakes and the grim, wide eyes of the driver in the car that did not hit me brought home that I had run a red light. During none of these experiences did I realize the full portent of my actions, and only decades later, in the quiet of my own private post-apocalyptic lull, did I see the profundity of these moments.

And so, home from a glorious, simple, beautiful wedding that I am too fond of the couple to bitterly envy, I find myself closing my eyes and whispering, to someone, I am not sure who, and asking that we all find our own peace. My two ex-husbands; my boyfriend's former wife. The man who walked out on my only successful pregnancy. My cursed, tragic, doomed father. The law-school friend who cut me off for having too many problems after I got run over by an uninsured Iranian in a VW Cirroco. The Jersey girl, now a middle-aged woman with grown children teaching in Phoenix, who stole the curly-headed boy who later died of lymphoma, on whom we were all sweet in college, but for whom she had the more pure devotion. The callous, insensitive boss who fired me from the only job that I did not leave through my own volition. My first boyfriend -- Bradley Stephen Magee, who chose Suzie Travers over me because she got the gold star that should have been mine for memorizing and reciting Trees, by Joyce Kilmer, one Friday afternoon in kindergarten.

As the warm air kisses my skin, and the slight breeze dances across my face; as the sun slides, just slightly, slowly, into the west, and my little brown dog sleeps on the kitchen floor; on the day before my 55th birthday, slightly road-buzzed, and a bit maudlin, I forgive them all.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
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.