Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Musings, 16 October 2010

Good morning,

The house around me attempts to cast off its autumn chill, stirring and shaking its old but sturdy bones. I feel less resilient than this squat bungalow, creaking down from my bedroom with slow and dogged steps. The dog whines in her bed and urges me to get the alarm de-activated and release her into the bright green haze of the backyard -- a double-edged sword for her, since she is allergic to grass. As the little brown beagle gallops down the stairs of my ragged back porch, the black cat slinks in behind her, sparing me a brief, enigmatic glance before strolling to the water dish that resides under the spigot of my spring water dispenser to await his morning drink.

I am awake. I grind the beans and pour tap water through my brewer, then lean against the counter, gazing at the flotsam and jetsam of my life on the counters of my kitchen and the shelves of the built-in cupboard in the adjacent breakfast nook. Hanging on the back of what we call the Keeping Shelf are two clay hand-prints, side by side. One is glazed, marked "Steve 1965" in carved letters. The other is unglazed, and has "Patrick, May 2, 1994" in sharpie on the back. My brother, Stephen Patrick; and my son. Below these, in a small red vase of hand-blown glass, are two roses -- one of paper, made by a lawyer at last year's conference, on the deck outside the hotel bar; and one made of metal, purchased for me by my son at a Renaissance Festival perhaps a decade ago. Stretching beyond these are a row of the various baby cups that I used for my son, and a rather motley collection of other items, including the Haviland cup,minus saucer, in which I keep my rings.

The coffee is finished, and I take a cup out onto the porch. The neighborhood lies still. The morning dog walkers have already passed, and the children who will ride their bicycles down the sidewalk still sleep, not yet dragged from dream by their parents, or the rumble of their tummies.

Yesterday, when I came home from the wars, I spied a long-haired man in his early 50's walking a strong, insistent mutt, followed by a child of about five wearing a helmet and carrying a branch that spanned about ten feet in front of him and perhaps five feet into the air with its auxiliary branches. I stopped, drawn to the sight of this incongruous pair. The man spoke, I like your house colors, I always have -- very cool. And I like 'It's a Beautiful Day', he told me, gesturing with his chin to the small sticker on the back of my car. "It's a Beautiful Day" is an old hippie store, where credit cards are verboten but they take checks without identification and sell band shirts, incense, and jewelry made in Thailand. I smiled.

Where do you live, I asked him. He identified his house by its paint scheme, one a tad more unusual even than mine. Ah, you must be Hannah's stepfather, I replied, referencing a girl from my son's 7th grade class. His face brightened and he acknowledged that status. We talked a bit about his eldest child with Hannah's mother, who is now 11; and about the little guy waiving his humongous branch around and impatiently jiggling on one foot. He mentioned an upcoming gig for his still-working rock band, and listed Hannah's current endeavors. The child, with a bit of prompting, spoke a smattering of French learned at Academy Lafayette in the kindergarten class, and I expressed suitable praise. Then I bade the man a good evening, sent greetings to Hannah from "Patrick's mother", and, shifting my clutch of jacket, pocketbook and groceries, made my way into the house as he, his dog, and his son continued on their journey home.

I have only to quiet my mind to a state of semi-rest to transport myself back to a time when I walked the same path with my son, our dog, and a succession of other companions, including one cat that followed us for the entire circuit of our walk every night. I know the cant of each tree; the likelihood of unshorn grass at various houses on the two-square-block route we always took; and the location of each deep crevice that tripped me or caught on the wheels of my son's riding toys.

A dozen years ago, or more, my son was invited to a birthday party at the home of a little classmate. When I saw the address, my middle-class values bristled. The child lived west of Wornall Road; west of Ward Parkway Blvd.; in that stretch of Missouri that yearns to be Johnson County, Kansas. Parallel with my modest stretch of Brookside but in a more fashionable zip code.

I pulled into the driveway, glancing at the instructions. Pull around to the back door, the mother had scrawled under the pre-printed verbiage. Oh, yeah, right, I thought, with no small measure of sullenness. I surveyed the grand edifice of the home, and every fibre of my being shuddered. What am I doing, I asked myself. I did not want to expose my son to the corruption of wealth.

I briefly considered backing away and making some excuse to the radiant, eager face in the back seat. Mommy's sick, I would say. Or the birthday boy threw up, from over-excitement or previously undetected influenza. But I resisted. I convinced myself to suppress the bias that I have always had against those whose lives carry more expensive trappings than mine. I think I figured that he could form his own dislike, at his own pace, in his own time.

As I recall, he enjoyed that party. I made polite goo-goo eyes at the hostess both coming and going; I declined her invitation to hover during the in-between, as other mothers seemed to have chosen to do, standing about with Dansk mugs of tea in the coolness of the October air on the rather over-blown back deck. I also demurred at the invitation to see the house -- how much could I be expected to withstand, I reasoned -- and dragged my son away, at party's end, his free hand clutching his large bag of goodies. I buckled him into the back seat with much less patience than usual, and backed my old Buick out of the driveway so rapidly that I think, to this day, that I ruined a peony bush.

For a few weeks after this birthday party, I slammed around my Brookside bungalow with petulant disgust. Shabby, shabby, shabby, I told myself. Not shabby chic, just shabby. I snapped at my support staff, grumbled over client billing, and spent no small number of hours perusing classified advertisements for entry-level associates in firms where I would not normally be caught dead, the requirements for which certainly fell short of my own experience. A secretary gets paid more than me!, I told myself, and, taking into consideration the size of the firms for which some of the positions were intended, I was probably not too far from right.

In time, the dusky days of autumn yielded to the clinging cold of winter. Snow piled around my grassless lawn, and drifted on the holly bushes that spanned the front of my house. The toboggan got dragged from the garage, and our daily walk around the block included a sled, on which my son sat while I pulled, or his Batman reclined while he did. My spirits improved, and I forgot, fairly completely, the dissatisfaction that had besieged me as a result of taking my son to that party.

Just before Christmas, I fetched my son from school a bit earlier than usual, and ran into the mother of the fall birthday celebrant. Thank you again for bringing Patrick to the party, she said; and, too late, I lamely thanked her for having invited him. As I bent down to retrieve a dropped mitten, she spoke, softly, almost too softly for me to hear. If you ever need anything, just call me. And then she was gone.

Need anything? I could not imagine what she thought. Did she speak out of pity? What did she think of me -- what did she know about me? Her husband and I share a profession, but we did not know one another -- he certainly did not matriculate in the riff-raff crowds that I frequent, solo practitioners and single mothers. What could the woman possibly mean?

I fretted about this for weeks. I concluded that she had obviously drawn some inference from the age of my car and the address of my home, respectable but certainly significantly less grand than hers. My puzzlement turned to anger with very little encouragement; anger at her cheek, anger at her apparent arrogance; anger at the implication of my ineptitude. I stewed in these fetid juices for some months, trying out various avenues of revenge.

That spring, I volunteered to chaperon the only field trip that I would ever attend in my son's elementary school years. As fate would have it, that mother also volunteered, and we stood side by side in the school's small office while the school's owner handed out insurance forms and child assignments to each parent. As I surveyed the rules, I glanced over at the woman's bright, eager face, and then back at the paperwork. With all of the innocence and plausible deniability that I could muster, I asked, in a loud voice -- So, let me just be sure. Is duct tape an approved method of discipline, should the kids get out of control in the car?

I heard a gasp. I did not have to look to know that it came from the little rich girl. I released a rueful laugh, playing off my snotty comment as though I had intended it to be a joke. I trooped down the stairs with my allotted children, watching her shepherd her own group into her Mercedes. My son sat in the back with two of his friends, and a little girl occupied the front position due to being tall enough to do so. I heard my son say, The good thing about my mom is that she's deaf, so we can play the radio LOUD. I turned it up for him, and pulled out of the parking space, just ahead of the shiny, silver vehicle in which my self-chosen nemesis drove.

I have grown only slightly less petty over the years. I have abandoned my belief that others judge me harshly because I dwell solidly in the middle of socio-economic classifications. I like my life. I like my neighborhood. I would, and do, stay here by choice. I shop at the same grocery store as those folks in that rather more desirable zip code, and occasionally, I even see that woman, whose hair is now grey, but who still smiles at me with a slightly knowing, somewhat sad facade.

As I watched my musician neighbor continue his walk with his son last night, I could not help but think about another parent, walking another son, down the same path. I went about my evening, doing what I had planned -- fixing dinner, visiting with my gentleman friend, shushing around the house in that way I have on Friday nights after a long and difficult work week. And this morning, gazing around me, at the kitchen floor in need of replacing, and the grime on the baseboards, and, after a fashion, at the tender trinkets on the Keeping Shelf, I find myself, once again, standing in stern judgment, wondering, in the final analysis, if what I have attained is worth the rejection of that which I have disdained.

And then, in the precise moment at which I decide that it is, I hear a tiny voice, ghost-like and faint, reminding me of those whom I have hurt along the way. I realize that my journey has not been as noble as it could have been. I get up to pour myself another cup of coffee and stand beside the counter, watching the faint stirring of the piece of stained glass hanging in the window. I listen to the whine of my dog, as she digs around at her tortured skin, unable to resist scratching herself. I glance down, at my Dansk mug, and close my eyes. I will never have a chance to tell that woman how badly I misjudged her, but I hope she knows.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

1 comment:

  1. You transported me "back" to the bungalow and that time when the kids were young. Walking often down those streets, noting all the variety, and watching Austin run ahead of me block after block came back vividly in my mind's eye... Realized our affinity as "on the fringe" of many worlds and our chosen path to be "just ourselves..." Thank you for the lovely morning sharings... marcella


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.