Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saturday Musings, 25 December 2010

Good morning,

The house still sleeps -- all the sentient beings, including any crickets still breeding in the walls from the long-ago days of the African fat-tailed leopard gecko named Galadriel, to whom we fed great globs of the gleaming, wiggling critters while many more escaped into the cracks of our hardwood floors. I grind the coffee, check the weather, and slip the gaily wrapped trinkets into the stockings hanging from the mantel. It is Christmas.

In my son's childhood, I created and perpetuated many rituals which have now become passe: The first present, a gift from the Tree Elf to my boy, which appeared the morning after we decorated the tree, resting on an ornament-laden branch. A train running beneath the tree every Christmas morning. The decking process itself, when Patrick and his friends would haul each ornament from the many boxes in which they lived all summer, exclaiming over the ones they remembered, puzzling over ones since forgotten. The annual acquisition of one special new ornament.

These little celebratory gestures supplanted those from my own childhood. I often felt like a cheat creating them, because they had no history -- only that which I fabricated for my only child of a single mother. Even in the years during which we had a resident stepfather, the habits of our holidays arose from my imagination rather than either of our pasts. With no living grandparents, and only far-away aunts, uncles, and cousins, my little household fended for itself.

We borrowed other people's rituals: the occasional Midnight Mass; an extra chair at someone else's family meal. I wrapped a plethora of wine bottles to bring as hostess presents, and we straggled into other people's houses, my little boy wearing a small red suit, or a green sweater, or a corsage of bows from his morning present frenzy. We resembled the ragamuffin children of the dust bowl days: dragging an old bunny, holding one of his mother's hands, my child entered other people's lives for a day, blending with their families, borrowing their laughter.

As he grew older, the gatherings at our own table finally evolved. A family with whom we became close shared a meal with us, if not on Christmas Day, then close to it, and for Patrick, these good friends somewhat compensated for the distant, absent family. I do not think he realized that other people had more family surrounding them during the holidays than we did, largely because I developed a healthy cadre of family-by-choice.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of celebrating Christmas here at the Holmes House (our name for the house in which we live, which is on Holmes Street) centers around the decided lack of Christianity in our world. I confess to being a cradle Catholic, and my son was baptized. However, I have through conscious choice abandoned that religion and even a true belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ -- although, as one good friend knows, crossing a bridge during a flood summoned a litany of long-forgotten prayers from the depths of my fear-wracked belly.

My son has always been told the origins of Christmas. I sometimes entertained him with descriptions of the rituals of my childhood that centered around the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

We would group around the couch on which my father sat. My father always gave off a slight odor of stale sweat, beer and Old Spice. On Christmas Eve, I willingly took my place at his side, watching as he turned the pages of the Bible, listening as he read in his quiet St. Louis twang:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed , every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered . And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

My father's voice always hesitated there. And always, he would glance at my mother, and say, Should I go on? And she would look at him with something close to love, and gently assent, and then he would continue.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. ."

When he finished, no one spoke, or moved, for a long stretch of time. Then my brother Frank, ever earnest, ever serious, carried a small plate of frosted cookies from the kitchen to the table in front of the couch, and one of the older children set a mug of milk beside it. Stephen came forward, his pale blue eyes round above a smattering of freckles. He unwrapped his fingers from the little ceramic baby, lowering it to its place between Mary and Joseph in our old Nativity Scene, under the angel who eternally spread her chipped wings and stretched her tiny hands to beckon the wise men coming from afar. Last of all, I moved to the window and lit the Mary Candle with a match struck by my father. The candle illuminated the path for the travelers -- the carpenter and his pregnant wife, coming to be counted. The next person to knock on our door would symbolize the Christ Child.

As all this unfolded, year after year, my tired mother hovered in the background. Her furrowed brow gradually relaxed, and she gathered us to her, briefly encircling a little gaggle of her own babes with her endlessly comforting arms. Then, with a laugh and a tickle, she ushered the little ones to bed while the older kids got ready for church. On Christmas Eve, in silence, in peace, we slept, and in the morning, we rose to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the heady smell of freshly-baked candy cane cookies and hot raisin bread.

My son and I never did any of those things, except perhaps leaving cookies and milk for Santa. We never stayed up late for Midnight Mass, or marveled over the shepherds keeping watch while the Babe slept. We borrowed the day, but not the reason for the day. So, having no other reason to celebrate, we made of it our opportunity to give every friend a gift, and welcome them into our home, sort of an annual Holmes House Appreciation Day, with reindeer.

This year, the day will be different. I have a fiance', and he has parents, and children, a sister and brother-in-law, and a couple of nephews. There's an extra pile of presents by the tree, to be taken to my future in-laws' home; and the booty to be opened at the Holmes House this morning has mushroomed by three-people's worth. I have an engagement ring on my hand, without which I once laughingly told him that he should not dare suggest marriage, way back when we first started dating: If you ever propose, I said, you better bring a big damn diamond. And so he did.

His people are Episcopalian, sort of a "Catholic-light". I'm not unfamiliar with that faith, as my best friend and her family are long-time practitioners of it. My son and I have even spent a number of Sundays at their church, and Patrick did his community service there during high school. But for many years, I have kept myself distant, and insulated, from all things formally holy; yet here I am, marrying into a family that has long-standing ties to an actual organized religion, and it's not even Roman Catholicism.

It's been a long, intriguing year. Between last Christmas and this, so much has happened that I find myself uncharacteristically quiet more often than usual, fascinated by the turning of the world, the shifting of the sands, the changed direction of the wind. Friends have drifted west by northwest; others have fluttered east. I've closed cases, and opened new ones. I've burned a bridge or two, but not without long thought and immutable reason. As I float into the last week of 2010, I will be cleaning closets, moving boxes on the basement shelves, and re-arranging furniture in anticipation of adding new occupants to our home.

While the coffee finishes brewing, and the little beagle yawns and whines in the kitchen, I'm sitting at my old iBook G4, listening to the rise of the winter wind and thinking about the hours that I have spent here musing about the kaleidoscope world in which I have grown to middle-age. In a little while, I will break eggs into a mixing bowl for Schmarren, and cut the Christmas bun that my friend Katrina gives us every year. I'll make hot cocoa for the boys, and they, in turn, will patiently listen to me reminisce about other breakfasts, on other Christmases, in the home of my parents, when we were young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

25 December 2010
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Musings, 18 December 2010

Good morning,

I have been relegated to the scarred oak table in the dining room, for the old Formica-top modified Singer sewing table on which I generally write when the weather forces me inside has been rolled on ancient casters into the spot in my son's bedroom where his little desk would be, had it not been hauled five hundred miles to the east to nestle under a drafty window in the SAE house. My tousle-headed boy strolled off an airplane an hour late on Friday afternoon, rounding the corner to exit the gate with his usual nonchalance, catching me by surprise once again. That head now rests on a plump pillow, weary from working all night on his last take-home final. God's in his heaven; all's right with the world.

I'm slightly battered today. An inconsiderate delivery person from Holmes Drywall co-opted the handicapped parking space in front of my building yesterday, forcing me to choose a more distant parking space, and I struggled too far down the sidewalk carrying clothes gathered by a friend for one of my clients who has children in need of them. I over-estimated my ability to stagger carrying bulky bags and tumbled onto the pavement, wrenching my artificial knee. I swear, had I known how much trouble joints made of metal can be, I would have declined the operation. Concrete rises to ram itself against the very spot where the surgeon's knife has three times been inserted, judging by the long angry scars. Acchh. Yesterday, in my wrath, I summoned the gendarmes, who reluctantly arrived and only upon my insistence cited the driver. Two pairs of masculine eyes companionably rolled at each other when they thought I did not see, causing me to tip another domino and write to the city prosecutor's office, pre-emptively voicing my objection to dismissal. And the knee swelled, and the temper simmered.

On my way to the airport, I listened to Science Friday on NPR. The guest scientist spoke of the upcoming total eclipse of the moon. Excitedly, I telephoned a friend who has eagerly joined Patrick and me in other crazy expeditions, suggesting a late-night visit to the Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kansas. Tossing the cell phone back into its little cubby, I accelerated into the curve where 169 meets 29, happy, eager. God's in his heaven, and the moon smiles upon him.

The expert reminded us that we may gaze upon the lunar eclipse without concern for our eyes. Imagine you and your friends are in a movie theatre, waiting for the film to be projected onto the white screen. The casting of the earth's shadow on the moon resembles the projection of the movie onto the fabric of the screen, the expert's eager voice tells me. I am thrilled. Road trip to Louisburg! Never mind that it will occur many hours after my customary bedtim -- in fact, closer to my customary time of waking.

I enter a long stretch of 29 with which I am sufficiently familiar to allow my mind to wander with a corner or two of its capacity. I stand in the front yard of my youth, which sat on McLaran Avenue in Jennings, Missouri. Two old, tall trees graced our yard, obscuring our view to the sky, so at night, to find the Big Dipper, we ventured out to the middle of the street, gazing upward. Around me, a pleasant, playful wind moves, rising to toss the heavy branches of the oak trees. My little brothers grab at the shoe box at the bottom of which my mother has pricked a tiny hole. She shushes them, soothingly, for a couple of more are forthcoming. We situate ourselves, faces covered, gazing upward from the highest point in the yard, straddling the tar-painted curb. Mother signals, and the cluster of gathered children raise their make-shift viewers, and gaze in wonder as the moon passes in front of the sun.

With alarming accuracy, one of my brothers jostles me at the height of the eclipse, and my legs, not strong, not steady, stagger. My box falls from my hand as I land on the concrete pad at the top of the stairs which lead down to the sidewalk spanning our yard. With a cruel, innate instinct, my eyes dart around to find a handhold, and for just the briefest of seconds, I glance upward, and gaze upon the sun with no protection. Just as quickly, I wrench my face downward, and breathe, waiting for blindness to overtake me.

It does not, of course. I sit on the top step, and the voices of my brothers swirl around me, proclaiming the coolness of what they see through the home-made goggles and, maybe, the coolness of our mother for having fabricated them. I venture a glance toward the front porch, and see my mother watching me. She never rushed to pull me off the ground, not once in the thousands of times that my spastic legs failed me. She waited, allowing me to struggle to my feet or call out, as I chose. I meet her gaze, wondering if she will punish me for looking at the sun without protection; wondering if she realizes that I did. I become vaguely cognizant of a stinging sensation, and look down at my bony knees. I am not startled to see a riff of blood along the jagged line of a scrape. I had grown accustomed to such occurrences.

I sweep one long pigtail back behind my shoulder, and settle more comfortably on the stairs. The voices of my four brothers -- two older, two younger -- recede into the background as I focus on remembering what I had seen: A stark, solid circle of black, surrounded by a fierce, bright ring of light. With the sight of a rapid shooting star, and the feel of water on my legs as it streams down the ancient boulders in Elephant Rock State Park, that eclipse, viewed without the impediment of a home-made protective apparatus, burned itself into my mind's eye even if it did not do likewise to my retina.

After a fashion, the boys tire of the sport as boys will do. The shoe-boxes become receptacles for rocks gathered along the road, and they take to pitching hunks of broken asphalt at the stop sign, My mother intervenes, then, not with admonishment but with the offer of lemonade, and their noise moves away from me, as they sink onto the chairs flanking the front door on the wide, brick porch of our home.

I am drawn back to the present by a crunching sound from the TV room, the noisy eating of our old cat, who has been yowling. The house has filled with the acrid smell of coffee simmering too long on an old burner. In her grubby old bed, the little dog sleeps, emitting a soft pleasant snore as she dreams, perhaps recalling her unbridled joy at last night's return of the prodigal son.

God is, indeed, in his heaven, and all is right with my world.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley
Proud birth-giver of Patrick Corley,
DPU Class of 2013

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Musings, 11 December 2010

Good morning,

Before me hangs a wooden star, on the front of which is the profile of an angel's head and wings, dark hair, elongated lashes, a small mouth beside a gentle splotch of red, possibly representing the kiss of a frosty morning. On the other side, a golden line, above which my name appears, and below which, the word "Christmas" and the year, "1958". I believe there are other stars like this, hanging in other homes, with the names of other Corley grandchildren. As mine gently rocks back into place, I cannot stop a slow smile from spreading over my face.

Beside the star is a more modern ornament, a red fish with blue polka-dots. This is a 2009 acquisition, from my friend Z, now decamped to parts northwest. My smile widens. To the left of the star is a glass bulb that Paula brought me from World's Window; to the right of the fish, a delicate paper circle, inside of which are what I take to be star flowers, a paper-cut-out from my sister Ann.

These are the decorations which hang year round in my nook, and what I see as I write, as I read e-mail, as I listen to the soft eulogy for Elizabeth Edwards delivered by an NPR commentator. I raise my coffee. I did not know her, but from what I have heard, she deserves the praise.

I've always had a weakness for selflessness.

Yesterday, a client sat in my office attempting to explain how one relapse did not change her claim of fifteen months' sobriety. I've been clean since July 2009, she said. A few minutes later, she admitted a November relapse. I shook my head. You have to start over, I told her. She looked down at the floor, having the gentle grace to be ashamed. I turned a page in her file, the slender batch of reports from the Juvenile court that came with my appointment. She'll never get her son back if she continues to drink, but her desire for the child has not overtaken her craving for cheap whiskey.

I close my eyes, briefly, with her still sitting in front of me. I think of a client in long-ago Newton County who walked down the mountain to save her son from her father's incestuous ravages. I see the face of the social worker who conducted that home visit and found the child's thirteen aunts and uncles, all mentally disabled, all drawing Social Security deposited into their parents' account, digging a latrine with spoons. The lines of his face deepened as he described the grime in the kitchen, the stench in the bedrooms, the standing pool of filth in the old outhouse. My last sight of that client when she tendered her son to adoptive parents has never left me: Joy mixed with resignation as she turned back towards her own enraged parents who had been denied custody of her eight-year-old for whom she made the ultimate choice.

I left that courtroom and trudged the two blocks to our home off the square, shedding my briefcase on the entry floor, tossing my purse on a chair, never stopping until I had exited onto the wide screen porch. I sat in my Shaker rocker, oblivious to the ringing phone in the little office at the front of the house. Below, the Buffalo River made its journey toward the slopes above the town. I could hear the swell of its spring flow, and smell the breeze coming off the trees rising from the river's banks. I could feel the cleansing water as though I had plunged my suit-clad person into its depths and surrendered to its pull. After a few miles, I would come to the River's beginning, and lay my body on the roots of the old trees there, leaving my feet in the stream, my shoes long since lost, my hose shredded and falling away. I could sleep at the source of the Buffalo; no houses lined the river's contours there, no camps, no roads. Certainly, no one wields a gavel onto planed and varnished oak high above the river's point of origins, nor anywhere along its route back down the mountain to the town.

If I persist, in three years, I will have served three decades at the Bar. In addition to hundreds and hundreds of private clients, I will have stood beside scores of appointed ones, mostly in Juvenile Court, mostly parents barely capable of dressing themselves let alone raising children. I have convinced mothers to sign over rights to children; I have required judges to preside over four days of trial before involuntarily taking such rights. On rare occasions, I have hammered a square peg into a round hole, and managed to pry a client's children out of the system. This week, I withdrew from the appointed case of a paranoid schizophrenic who loves her children but cannot bring herself to take the medication that would control her symptoms. I've represented her for two years, and managed to keep her visits scheduled for nearly two-thirds of that time, before she disappeared into the woodwork of the homeless. I did not feel triumph as I left the courtroom, nor relief. I felt only sorrow, and defeat.

I close my eyes, and summon my memories of that young woman in Jasper who saved her son. I see her oily skin, her stringy hair, her grubby clothes. And I see the light in her eyes, as her Joey reached to take the hand of his new mother.

The wooden star sways slightly in the draft from the window. The white cat is yowling to be released into the dampness of the day. I reach my hand to steady the dangling ornaments, and, with a shudder, and a long sigh, surrender my discontent to the contemplations of another day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Musings, 04 December 2010

Good morning,

I've surrendered to winter.

The furnace roars. I've abandoned the front porch for my breakfast nook, where my laptop is staged on a table comprised of a laminate top added to an old Singer sewing machine table, found at one of my favorite used furniture haunts years ago. This table has traveled from Missouri to Ohio to Iowa and back again, and I daresay, it has several years of use left. Speakers flank my Mac, to the right and left, a five-dollar pair from Best Buy that delivers Morning Edition on local station KCUR as I write.

I am stunned to find myself in December. I have purchased but one Christmas present. My tree still snoozes in its box. No ornaments have been hauled from the basement to deck my halls. I've just discovered a trial conflict in January that I'm trying to resolve, and I have four hearings between now and the day my son returns for the Christmas break, one of which is out of town. What happened to 2010?

I heard someone admit yesterday that Christmas had become increasingly important for her because of the birth of her child. You get to do stuff you haven't enjoyed in a long time, she noted. She didn't mention attending church, or lighting the Mary candle to place in the window for the Christ child. She referenced going to see Santa, and wrapping presents, and decorating her house. I understand her point. Though raised Catholic, I'm not particularly religious, espousing instead the 20th century label "spiritual". I find most telling the tender, guileless words of my son, at age 3, when asked if he knew whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas. "Oh yes," he chirped. "Uncle Steve's!"

I have a confession to make. I miss my brother. Yes, he was born on Christmas Day. As I recall, his impending arrival spoiled our Christmas morning. My mother winced when we exclaimed over each present. She must have been in labor. One particularly spectacular gift, a child's desk with a peg-board top and a lovely hammer, could not be deployed until she left for the hospital. I might be imagining that he was to have been called "Christopher" because of being born on Christmas Day; but he got the name of Stephen Patrick and Stephen made everything even -- fourth boy, balanced by four girls in the Corley family.

My friend Paula recently asked: How long does it hurt, losing your mother? A long time, I admitted to her; but losing your brother hurts forever. My only solace is thinking about the Christmases that I spent with him,

And so, sitting here, little nuggets of guilt, and glee, and glory, all rattling around in my gut, I think about one Christmas after another. The year my grandmother Corley sent matching pajamas for all eight of us: The boys got Cowbow PJs, the girls got red PJs embroidered with the phrase, "I'm a Little Devil". Eight bundles wrapped in reindeer-covered paper, in a huge box mysteriously delivered to our doorstep. The year that Frank and Steve snuck into the living room before my parents awakened, spying sleds beneath the tree, whispering, Mom is going to feel so stupid! because there was no snow -- and then, when they opened the living room curtains to reveal a white wonderland, hopping around with unbridled delirium. Watching my brothers stringing tinsel from branch to branch on the tree, playing made-up games with the elf ornaments. His last Christmas with us, when he and I shopped together in Clayton, and he bought an Alien catcher for my son complete with a plastic replica of that creature that burst from the astronaut's chest in the terrifying movie that the eight adult Corleys saw together one year on New Year's Eve. Thirty-seven years of German chocolate cake. A dozen years of celebrating Steve's half-birthday on July 25th, a practice invented by my mother to give him one special day when no one else got gifts. His bright eyes; his snapping fingers; his dancing feet.

Strains of violin now waft from my computer speakers. I've lost track of the program that I'm hearing; evidently, a violinist is being interviewed and is playing selected pieces. The poignant, haunting notes lift me, taking me away from the reverie into which I've fallen, higher, to a place in which dancing feet can never be stilled.

At last night's First Friday Gallery opening of Scott Anderson's powerful photographs, one of the models told me that she had no wishes for Santa Claus because she had everything she needed. Then wish for something for someone else, I suggested, playing her game, watching children flock to Santa at the tree-lighting ceremony outside the Gallery doors. Head tilted, serious for a moment, she agreed. I will, she assured me. So many people need things. That's a good idea.

I can't claim Christmas as a religious holiday, for I've strayed too far from my heritage to return on anything save the path of hypocrisy. But viewing Christmas-time as a season of love, I can stake my birthright with anyone. I know several people for whom this holiday will be particularly joyful -- children have been born, grades have been made, romantic alliances forged. But I know some for whom this year holds particular pain: parents, spouses, and children have been lost. Before the madness of shopping overtakes me, before the swags obscure the vision through my windows, before I swoon, overcome by the heavy fragrance of cedar and incense, I look around, trying to memorize the reasuring contours of the framework of permanance beneath the seasonal trappings.

My life has many ironies. One particularly amusing twist of fate consists of the cumulative effect of spasticity. The very spasticity which plagues me also allows me to remain vertical. Removing the spasticity in my legs eliminates pain but disenables me from walking. Now that is one Catch, that Catch-22, isn't it? But in those little ironies, I find immutable truths.

And so, as the icy drizzle strikes my window pane, and the last simmering coffee cools in my cup, I'm counting my blessings, being careful to wish for only that which I really need, asking the Universe to give others endless bounties to sustain them, and looking forward to another Christmas, another New Year's Eve, another burgeoning year dawning with its nascent hope.

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.