Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Musings, 30 April 2011

Good morning,

A vague ache clings to the spot between my shoulder blades where I store stress. I spent Friday in court, listening to a pair of parents, who formerly loved one another, present their differing views on where the child should reside, and who should control the major decisions in her life. That I represent one of the two gives little comfort; the mere fact of the fight still saddens me. Not even the collapse of the other parent's carefully scripted lies, which came, I note, before she left the stand, unclenched my tightened jaw.

I hear the unmistakable noises of a burgeoning spring, rising above the soft whirring of the air filter in the living room. A determined bird describes its pleasure with the glorious morning; the neighbor's dog sounds reveille. Cars lumber over some debris in the street; steel plates have vanished from our landscape, but litter still occasionally accumulates in the dips and cracks of the aging asphalt. Morning in the city; day 120.

A thousand days ago, a thousand times a thousand, more maybe -- another morning, on a balcony above a dirtier street in a noisier city. I sat on a webbed aluminum rocker, gazing down at a bunch of grubby, cheerful boys kicking something unrecognizable between the two rows of parked cars on the narrow road. Mothers occasionally leaned from their own balconies, cigarettes in hand, admonishing their sons with little enthusiasm and not much result.

My college semester had ended with no fanfare. Memorial Day loomed, and my only plans held no appeal: Yet another backyard barbecue at my parents' home, to which I would arrive late, and from which I would depart early. I clung to the workaday world with glum determination. I held several part-time jobs and one which could have been full-time, had I given it much thought. The three months between my restless contemplation of that late-spring morning and the frantic day of enrollment for the fall semester weighed heavily on my mind.

The voices of neighbor women rose from the balcony below mine. Harsh cackles followed low murmuring. I cast a glance back down to their children, who seemed to range in age from three to thirteen. I could see no little girls, but assumed that some must be lurking on the sidewalk, doing whatever little girls do, in the morning, on Saturday, when the local stations' cartoon fare has played itself out, and impatient mothers insist that they take themselves outside.

Some draw to self-destruction got me up from the chair and pulled me down the inner stairwell of my apartment building, and out the front door. Three faces turned towards the sound of my clumsy exit, and six eyes shifted away, seeking each other before closing, briefly. One of the women took a long, disinterested draw on her cigarette. Another set her coffee cup down on the porch rail, and looked toward the street. Stephen, goddammit, get out of the way of that car, you'll get yourself killed, she hollered, as an old Buick tried to wend its way through the kickball game. None of the players altered his stride. She turned away with less concern than she had held in her rough voice and caught me staring at her. What's your beef, she snapped.

Nothing at all, I assured her, hurrying down the steps to my car. Too late, I realized that I didn't have my purse or keys. I turned back to the building, gazing with confusion, maybe, or entreaty, at the women on the porch. They laughed. I hadn't fooled them. I ran back upstairs, and when I found myself safely in my living room, I shut the French doors that blocked out the noise of their amusement.

As the spring wore out, and yielded to summer, the women's gatherings on the porch below mine became more frequent and lasted longer. Their children and I shared a schedule: Nine months in school; three months out; and the time between discharge and recommencement offered too much liberty. The children roamed further and further from their mothers' lazy domain, straying north to the Park, and south to a little store which sold candy and single-bottle beer in equal measures.

Occasionally, one of the women would hoist her frame from the sunken porch chairs and bellow over the railing, and a bunch of kids would trickle into the scruffy yard, gathering on the cracked cement of the sidewalk that led into the building. When enough of them had gathered, they would get Velveeta sandwiches, or boiled hot dogs on soft white buns. The kids chewed their food where they stood, and sipped Kool-Aid from Dixie cups, before swiping a hand across their catsup-smeared faces, and scattering back out into heat of the afternoon.

On a Saturday night, one of many that summer when I had nothing better to do but show my stupidity, I ventured down to the street. The women had pulled their chairs out onto the sidewalk that ran the length of the street. Someone had jacked open the fire hydrant, and the children of the block ran through the heavy stream of water, pushing each other, lowering their faces to the gush, and screaming gleefully. None of them wore shoes, and most of the boys had discarded their shirts.

I hauled a cold six-pack of diet cola down with me, which I offered to my neighbors. None of them accepted, but one gestured to an empty chair. Sit yourself on down there, she said. I did so, and then I told them my name, and tried to pay attention as they each said theirs.

The conversation didn't go much further for a while. A child would occasionally run towards us, and the women would protest the spray of water that drifted their way in the wake of the child's passage. They smoked, and drank Budweiser, and periodically waved, without much hope, at the rising heat of June. I searched my mind for something to say, and drank soda.

After longer than I care to sit in uncompanionable silence, one of the women directed a question at me. You ain't married, are you?

I thought about lying. But I had lived there for a couple of months without so much as an overnight boyfriend presenting himself at the end of a date, so I didn't think I'd convince anyone. I admitted the fact. They laughed, and the weight of their amusement hung in the air. It seemed to say everything.

The woman, though, thought more should be noted. You're in college, ain't you? It sounded like an accusation. When I agreed that I was, she nodded -- a short, curt nod, the kind you might give if you were acknowledging a convicted felon sitting next to you in jail greens or a bunch of bugs you knew haunted your kitchen. A certain unmistakable wariness arose between me and the women. I began to reconsider my decision to join their group, and shifted in the chair.

Just then, a car slid to the curb, long, low and noiseless. A man climbed from the driver's seat, shrugging himself into a standing position, unfolding his length with an air of self-possession. I had never seen any of the husbands, and I took this to be one of them.

On my left, a woman chuckled. Don't get no ideas girl, she said. My head snapped towards her, and a slow blush rose in my face. I don't know what you're talking about, I told her. The idea that I might be gazing on her spouse with something like lust at first amused her though it shocked me. I studied the man as he strode down to their building without so much as a grunt in our direction. I returned my attention to the woman, and told her that I had no interest in her husband.

My disavowal worsened the situation. What? she demanded. You think you're better than him? You got no man of your own, you gotta work day and night to pay the rent on your cracker-jack apartment, and you got the nerve to turn your nose up at a good man what brings his pay to me and the kids, and works damn hard to do it?

Her companions moved closer to her, shutting me out from their circle. They stared at me, a solid wall of anger. I took in the lines and pits of their faces, the sharp angles of their thinness, the taughtness of their cut-off shorts and the deep plunges of their summer tops. No, no, I stuttered. I wasn't thinking anything like that, I really wasn't.

The women did not break their ranks. The wronged wife turned a corner in her fury and held on. What, you think you're so high and mighty that you could handle him better than I do? You ever seen a man come home so drunk and tired, that he can't get off the toilet or pull his head from between his legs? Retching on the floor, gorging out the beer he filled his belly with after grubbing all day, then climb in bed next to you and want what he thinks is his due? Huh? You think you could live like that? You think we got it easy?

Her venom blasted me, the charge of her hatred for whatever I represented to her. I had no chance to tell her that none of that was true, that I just got lonely and wanted a little company. I had not meant to start a war. I did not want to wage a referendum on the relative merits of our lives. I did not expect that I could win that battle, nor did I believe that she would be assuaged by my defeat.

I rose so quickly that the lawn chair on which I had been sitting collapsed backwards. The women stood, too, surrounding the one whose husband had gone unknowing into their apartment, where he probably pulled a beer from the refrigerator and flopped, still clueless, into a cracked vinyl Lazy-Boy recliner. Out on the street, I stumbled away from the wives of my street, retreating into my apartment, into the solace of my middle-class existence.

Last night, as my husband and I drove through the streets of a neighborhood from which his family comes, where they no longer live, and where I have never aspired to live, I thought about those women. I drew a measured glance across the lawns which stretched a distance that two or three houses in my neighborhood could occupy, and over the tall, locked gates that stood between the grand, ugly houses and the rest of the world.

After our evening drive, we parked in front of my bungalow, and I climbed out of the passenger street. In the dim light, I reflected on the rise of my home's roof, and the pitch of its beautiful porch. I let my eyes linger on the Japanese maple, with its delicate leaves swaying in the evening breeze. I reached for my husband's hand, and walked toward our home, with the satisfaction that comes with knowing that a journey has brought me to my proper place.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Musings, 23 April 2011

Good morning,

A wave of color catches my attention each time I turn my head. I recently acquired a temporary prism on my right glasses lens, which raised the number of corrective prisms from 3 to 9. As a consequence, I feel as though I have consumed just enough intoxicating beverages to be tipsy, feeling faintly nauseous; and the world shimmies.

Growing old might well surpass the alternative in desirability, but not because of how easy I find it. Ah, life.

Spring surrounds me, with its nippy air, and the bright, verdant expanse of lawn. The Japanese maple raises its delicate tendrils towards the pale stretch of the clean sky. My world shakes itself, rising from the fog of hibernation.

In recent conversations, I have had to confront the coming religious holiday and this morning, as it looms, I discover that I have fewer ties to Christianity than I thought possible. In the past, I have been able to ignore the religious celebrations and focus on honoring the turning of the seasons and our commitment to a fresh start. But now, I have married into the Episcopal faith, and although my husband goes to church only for the big days -- Christmas, Easter -- and when he appears on the usher schedule, still, the inevitable confrontation occurs. I am not a Christian, I remind him, not as gently as I might have. He blames Catholicism for my corruption,and he might be right. Still, re-conversion is unlikely. It troubles him, I think; nonetheless, I shudder at the thought of embracing his faith with the overtones of hypocrisy. To keep the peace, I will sit in church beside his mother, and browse through the Book of Common Prayer, and quietly talk to God, but the rituals will not affect me. It cannot be helped; so I will make the most of it, and allow myself the luxury of an hour in quiet mediation.

I think about my mother's last Easter. Cold gripped St. Louis. Her backyard still looked barren, with only a few brave flowers nudging themselves above the frost line. She had lost her hair to chemotherapy, and wore a tri-corner scarf over the smoothness of her skull, perhaps to keep out the cold, perhaps to save her grandchildren from the fright of her grim appearance. She sat on a park bench and watched the children hunt for eggs -- Lisa, Rick and Cate, in their church clothes, with serious looks as they concentrated on the search. I sat beside my mother and held her hand from time to time. I caught her glancing sideways with annoyance, and let her fingers slip from my grasp.

Later that day, after my siblings had helped to wash the dishes, and my mother and I sat at the breakfast room table in the quiet of the empty house, my mother searched my face with her warm brown eyes. Not finding an answer, she inquired, in gentle tones, if anything was wrong. Oh, not much, I replied. Only that my mother is dying, that's no big deal. I pushed back my chair and snatched at our tea cups, moving without grace into the kitchen while she sat, alone, in the darkening room. I might as well have slapped her face.

I came back and lowered myself into the chair, and looked down at her worn hands, resting on the surface of the wooden table. She moved, slightly, slowly until one of her fingers rested on my arm. The weight of her illness hung in the chilly air of the evening, in the silence which surrounded us. I fidgeted beneath her gaze, resisting the comfort that she wanted me to take from her own acceptance of her fate. Easter Sunday, 1985, and I was not quite 30. My mother would not see her next birthday, and my boyfriend and I would end our relationship a few days after her funeral. He only stayed for my sake, to help me through; and by Christmas, my grandfather would have died, and I would have slipped into a pattern of drinking, carousing, and forgetting to go to work.

I don't know if she foresaw my decline in that moment. She reached further over, to place her hand on my shoulder. It's going to be okay, she told me, in the soft tones that only a mother can use. But I did not believe her, and I slumped against the chair, falling into my misery, while the sun set outside my childhood home, and my father watched television in the living room.

The house around me has grown quiet. My stepson trundled off to work, and his father, just behind him, to his weekly tennis game. In a little while, I will start to clean the house. I will send the dog out into the yard, where clumps of grass surround the wild violets. I've bought good chocolate, and I have chosen a dress to wear to church tomorrow. There is a slight chill in the air, but spring has taken hold, with a stubborn, cheerful insistence that I might do well to emulate.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday Musings, 16 April 2011

Good morning,

Beside me at the window stands an antique rocker, draped with the scarves and shawls with which I often warm myself when sitting, peacefully, on the pillow that pads its worn seat. The shock of silver, mauve and gold fabric mingles and shimmers in the pale, determined light of a sun that refuses to concede to the cold of the rain's greater force. I see the overgrown hedges on the back fence of my neighbor's yard dancing against the wind's breath. Spring struggles to assert itself. Cold lingers.

I've spent the last two days in trial in a juvenile court matter involving my client's grandsons and their drug-addicted parents. She has no explanation for how the little ones came to test positive while in her custody but visiting their parents under the auspices of the state's workers. The juvenile officer wants to apply a res ipsa loquitor reasoning to circumvent her "clear, cogent and convincing" burden. Meanwhile, the guardian ad litem, whose appalling lack of effort would have gotten me removed, draws a county paycheck and takes cheap potshots at the defense lawyers, mainly me. Two days of being fodder for his snickering degenerated into my taking an uncharacteristic jab at the social worker's lawyer, when he rehabilitated her by feeding her leading questions that directly contradicted her earlier responses, to which pablum she responded with automatic affirmative answers, without thought, wanting only to please. The charade prompted me to snap, and I said, loud enough to be heard across the room but not, thankfully, on the bench: Uh, oh, she left the reservation to tell the truth, and he's got to rein her back in.

Not nice, I knew. But when I later apologized to the Court, I owned the faux paus, though stating, on the record, that though lamentable and discourteous, the sentiment was sincerely felt when said. The judge, with whom I have no prior personal relationship, forgave me and admonished all counsel to stop their sniping.

I rushed out of the unexpected second day of trial to dinner at my in-laws, though I wished that I could have taken a long, hot shower first, to cleanse myself of the detritus of Juvenile Court. At the start of yesterday's proceedings, when only I and the first witness, a scientist returning to conclude his testimony, sat in the courtroom, I mused out loud that the day had promise since I had awakened on the right of the grass. Really, I continued, any day I wake up is a good day in the making. And every time I come to Juvenile Court, I remind myself that I managed to navigate my son's childhood without having to appear as a litigant here instead of an attorney.

A glance at the calendar reminds me that it is my sister's birthday. I dial her cell phone, and sing the birthday song into her voice mail in flat but lusty tones. She turns 61 today. I've told her, every year since I can remember with increasing glee, that she will always be five years older than I am. This obvious truth delights me more and more as we age. I am not yet sixty; she will never be less. I am still young; she is middle-aged. As I acknowledge middle-age, she concedes to growing old. I will always be Lucille and Richard's baby girl, and she will always be the sophisticated one who wore make-up long before I did and taught me how to shave my legs. She will forever be the big sister who shared her pretty rock with me, the one embedded in the newly poured concrete of our driveway that glistened after a rainstorm. When we move beyond the counting, beyond caring about the numbers, I will still be younger, and we will both still giggle when I remind her of it.

Meanwhile, the oldest daughter in my family-by-choice celebrates her second child's fifth birthday today, and my new husband and I plan to be in attendance. The pages of my calendar flutter; the stack of keeping days grows tall and heavy. I close my eyes to summon memories of my own childhood. Did I ever have a birthday party? I recall a cake after supper,with ice cream and presents, while my siblings clustered around me. I don't remember anything more; nor do I remember that it felt deficient at the time. The effort to recall signifies that I have forgiven my parents any failings that might have scarred me, and that the scars, which long festered, have finally healed.

As I sat at counsel table these last two days, I realized that my own family would have been hauled into juvenile court had such things existed in their present configuration five decades ago. I've wasted too many otherwise decent paragraphs describing the events which would have marked us as children in need of care, and too few remembering the drives to the Johnson Shut-Ins, the bunny-shaped Easter cakes, and the magic glistening of our tinsel-covered Christmas trees. The trials of the past fade. I am left to savor the endless antics of the eight Corleys, and the deep, unassailable warmth that I felt when my sister Joyce came home from her dates, and sat on a twelve-year-old's bed, speaking in delightful whispers about the unfathomable world of boys, which I could not wait to enter.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Musings, 09 April 2011

Good morning,

My home has settled into a routine of comings and goings with its two new members. Saturday morning rings with vibrancy, rather than wearing a thin veil of solitary calm. One occupant has taken his seventeen-year-old frame off to his part-time job; another moves about the kitchen in preparation for Saturday tennis. The crotchety old single lady morphed into a contented married maven since last she sat to cogitate over the machinations of her life. The coffee still steams in the same cup, but the pot depletes more quickly now, and we mildly bicker over the true cause of the near-government-shut-down behind the raised folds of our respective newspapers -- mine the local rag, his the Wall Street Journal.

I find myself curiously focused on the present rather than the past. Time twists another click to the right, and I am one step closer to old age. The sudden presence in my home of a high school junior suggests that I can forestall the empty-nest syndrome for an extra year; and the acquisition of aging in-laws gives a happy contrast that improves my outlook. I am no longer the oldest member of my little family. I have context.

My breath catches as I review pictures of the wedding, mostly at the sight of my own son, standing eight inches taller than me, with his broad shoulders and easy smile. I hear a fiddle in the background and wonder where did my little boy go? Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. The days marched majestically, passing me on a swiftly moving conveyor belt. I expected to hold fast to his youth as I had not held onto my own, but it, too, eluded me. Now his name regularly appears on the Dean's list, and he grapples with impractical urgings to make music and write stories. I can only hope he will not sacrifice his dreams as I did mine.

We spent our honeymoon in New Orleans. I had not visited that city, except to argue before the Court of Appeals, since my early 20s. My new husband had only been to the city briefly, on business, and had not experienced its charming side. We chose New Orleans in part because we felt that New Orleanians needed our tourist dollars, and in part to have the experience of new discovery as we began our life together.

It did not disappoint. Oh, the hotel did not rise to our expectations -- and, you know me well: I have already negotiated a partial credit and a coupon for a free night, which we will use to celebrate our anniversary next year. And yes, the weather groused a bit: Torrential rain on the day we drove to Baton Rouge, and cool, damp evenings. But on balance, the city presented as the Grande Dame we expected.

We stood in line for a chance to eat hot beignets and drink chicory coffee at the Cafe DuMonde. We scoured the French Market to find "that guy -- Smoky" who sold me a blues harmonica for my musician son. I lit a candle at the St. Louis Cathedral, dipping to genuflect in the aisle, demonstrating to a hushed husband that my recovering Catholic roots still run deep. We rode the trolley; we ate raw oysters; we bit into juicy po'boys of fried clams and soft shell crab. I gamely trudged a mile or so back to our hotel on our first day; he gently helped me slide out of shoes that slightly pinched my little misshaped feet. The Blackberry clicked picture after picture, and his digital camera too: One of these days, we will locate the cable that will allow us to upload the pictures, and we will marvel over my perfect shot of the row upon row of above-ground, buried parishioners, among whom I am sure my great-grandfather sleeps.

A little known fact about me: I am a shameless Food Network junkie. Through hours of watching Rachel Ray, I kept my son from having to survive on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and endless pots of turkey spaghetti. While learning to cook from the Network's many thoughtful chefs, I developed an unabashed crush on Chef John Besh, intensified by his tireless efforts to help his neighbors and the entire Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina.

For six weeks before our wedding and honeymoon, I hammered on the Internet trying to get reservations at Chef Besh's flagship restaurant, August. I finally got them for the evening and time that I preferred: Thursday, the second-last night of our stay, 7:00 p.m. I could not wait.

That afternoon, at the end of a day in which we took a driving tour, my husband decided that we should see the Ninth Ward. With rudimentary directions from the inadequately staffed hotel concierge, and a skeletal map from Hertz, we drove in the general direction that the irritating GPS lady thought should take us to the most seriously Katrina-impacted area of the city.

As we descended down into the Ninth Ward, it first struck me as an anti-climax. The lady at the visitors center had commented, "Of course, there is nothing left to see," suggesting to us that the entire area had been flattened. But we both recalled television footage of houses being rebuilt, crews volunteering, debris being shoveled into dumpsters. So we persisted.

And then, we saw. On either side of us, row upon row of small, scarred dwellings. The siding still peeled away; the windows boarded or simply left broken, raw, torn. Yards denuded. The quiet devastation. The abandoned, failed efforts to heal.

Every so often, we saw a home with new paint, glass refitted, curtains hung. A child jumped from a school bus into the arms of a waiting father. Down one deserted row of battered homes, a witch ditch stood, surrounded by a cheerful group of yellow hard-hats. My numbers-crunching husband estimated that about twenty-five percent of the houses in the area had been reclaimed, and sat in various stages of repair.

As we drove, I realized that as breathtakingly grim as I found the hurricane damage to be, more so did I find the fact that these houses existed in the first place. Tiny, vulnerable, sitting in the sure path of destruction much like a group of trailers in Tornado Alley. Who would choose to build where one's existence had such tenuous uncertainty? I knew, but I resisted the acknowledgment. Poor people, that's who. They did not build -- they bought or rented, cheap, flimsily constructed houses in a neighborhood that awaited disaster.

But the rebuilding seemed to be in earnest, and the few occupants visible in the late afternoon on a weekday seemed not grim but cheerful. I pushed aside my middle class values, and folded the map, stashing it back in the glove compartment, and turning my attention to contemplation of the proper attire for a fancy New Orleans restaurant.

Later, though, as I sat before my half of a two-hundred dollar dinner, my social conscience prickled. How could I eat a piece of flounder crusted with almonds, beside a delectable pile of shaved truffle, while blocks away, a child ate nothing for dinner but a piece of white bread with sugar-laden peanut butter? I consoled myself with the rank rationalization that our meal ticket helped to fund John Besh's good works for the benefit of that child and the many other children who just needed a full belly and a soft bed, to find some brief encouragement to get up for school the next day.

The week concluded, and we journeyed home. On Monday morning, the usual pile of unsolved problems awaited me at my solo practice, and I spent the new few days putting out fires that had been smoldering during my absence. By week's end, I loudly lamented my decision to take two weeks' vacation, even though I had been in town and touching base for the first of those. The events of our honeymoon faded, as vacations will, into a pleasant reverie. I can no longer recall which day we rode the trolley to the National World War II Museum, or on which evening a drunk driver rear-ended us.

But I remember the drive through the Ninth Ward, and I remember the evening at August. I remember my first step onto the St.Charles Trolley line, and the tall, alien trees that we passed. I remember the regal look on the face of a cellist sitting on a cobblestone street, with her tip basket at her feet, apologizing because she had not yet hit her stride. I see the broad smile on the face of an aging hawker who lured us into a restaurant in the Quarter, and the steamy softness of the soft-shell crab into which I bit, at lunch, that first day. And I remember the strong scent of that chicory coffee, and the slight dusting of powdered sugar on my blouse, after breakfast at the Cafe DuMonde. And the smile on my husband's face, at the sight of his silly wife, biting into that fried dough, which he no doubt suspected that I would regret.

But I do not regret any of it. Not one bit.

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.