Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday Musings, 28 January 2012

Good morning,

In an ironic twist of universal humor, my local paper carried an article on the newly identified benefits of caffeine this morning, which I spied shortly after discovering that we are out of real coffee. I gazed at the offending bag of decaffeinated beans that my otherwise wonderful husband insists on buying, and poured his oatmeal into the boiling water, resisting less noble intentions. An hour or so later, dog fed, husband off to tennis, number two son still sleeping, I am at Dunn Brothers Coffee -- not mine, my lovely shop in Kansas with its marvelous fireplace; I could not rationalize such a drive. I've come to the one nearer my home with rowdy music playing overhead and chairs shoved up against the fake mantle. But their coffee emits its welcome fragrance from a mug by my computer, and I am saved.

I've never disputed the benefits of coffee. Many of my life's most poignant moments involve the steaming liquid: my first cup after a self-imposed abstention, following the birth of my child; a hot Americano spilled on my shoes at my first coffee date with my husband; the noise of the percolator on many a morning-after.

I became a coffee drinker as a senior in high school. My weekend job involved serving as the unit secretary for 3South, the acute ward of St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in north St. Louis County. At the time, the hospital occupied an imposing turreted edifice, and 3S housed the patients whose condition warranted the most intense security. Sister Kenneth Anne, our head nurse, would ask me to pour the scalding liquid from the 20-cup urn into a paper cup and bring it to her. It's us or them, she'd caution. We've got to stay alert. Before many weekends had passed, I found myself addicted to the murky sludge.

Sister Kenneth Anne resigned a year after I started working at St. Vincent's. I had not realized that nuns could quit their jobs, but apparently the order allowed them to do so. I can't take this any more, she told me, on her last day. The bad coffee is killing my stomach. She glanced out the open top half of the locked Dutch door. Not to mention the crazy people.

I poured myself another cup of coffee.

I never saw my parents without a cup or mug of coffee near their elbows. My father hovered over the stove while the coffee brewed on the electric burner, the smoke from his Camel straight circling his weary head. I skittered around him in such moments; he never felt well in the morning, and the bent of his body increased on days when his disposition particularly suffered from his antics of the previous evening. But once the coffee finished perking and he poured his first cup, the Irish twinkle returned to his eyes, and the thin edge of his razor wit mellowed.

My parents drank coffee at all times of the day or night. Before breakfast, with meals, in the evenings in their twin arm chairs, my mother knitting or crocheting and barely minding the noise of the television while my father worked the crossword puzzle and smoked. The images which I now recall come from the later years of their marriage; I have no such pleasant memories of our early history. But even in the most tumultuous days, coffee stood on the stove. Eight O'Clock coffee ground in a machine at Bettendorf-Rapps; Maxwell House in 5-lb cans, the fragrance of which filled the kitchen just as soon as the can opener started around its rim. This was not coffee-shop fare, but a staple nonetheless.

When I was a child, my mother drank her coffee from Melamine cups on matching saucers. The honored child carried it from the kitchen to wherever she sat, and it did not matter if a little spilled because she could tip it back into the cup. She rewarded our slow trudge from the kitchen with a kiss on our cheek, and my skin still sings, fifty years later, with the thrill of that brand. I have one of those cups: small, dark green, smooth. I serve myself fat-free ice cream in it, and feel nostalgic.

My mothers' parents used heavy ceramic mugs, but my father's mother served coffee in china, from a matching pitcher into which the coffee was poured in the kitchen, for service in the dining room, on white linen. I preferred to eat at Nana and Grandpa's house, on a Formica table, where the coffee steamed in heavy mugs and someone would let me dip a piece of bread into their coffee to eat for my dessert. If I tightly close my eyes and hold myself very still, I remember further back, to my great-grandmother's home, and a heavy wooden table. I would sit in my great-grandfather's lap and knock for him while they played pinochle, drank strong coffee, and smoked endless cigarettes. I used to know what that sharp rap on the table signified in the game, but that knowledge has sunk into the pleasant morass of all the useless information that I acquired before the age of five.

Coffee figures in the more tense moments of my life as well as the pleasant times. I had a foreshadowing of my brother's death two decades before it actually occurred, standing in my mother's kitchen, watching him hunch over the electric coffee-maker with a cigarette in his hand. Ten years later, he and I spiked the coffee at the family gathering following my grandfather's funeral. I've made a pot of coffee at every tense vigil that I have ever kept, from the storm during which my brother Kevin had a terrible accident to the vacuum of pain surrounding my mother's death, to the morning after the last fight I had with my second husband, just before our final parting.

I did not read the article in today's paper. I did not need a scientist to warn me that coffee makes my heart pound and raises my blood pressure, and I do not need a scientist to cheerfully tell me that coffee has positive side effects. I like coffee. I take it straight, strong and unadulterated. I always have, and I always will. I extend a cup to friend and stranger alike; I proudly sport a Dunn Brother's Coffee sticker on my American-made car. My addiction to coffee does not disturb me, unless, like this morning, I cannot appease it.

It's ten o'clock, and the music has mellowed. The coffee in my heavy mug has grown a bit cold, but I'll drink that last inch anyway, and maybe another. When I feel adequately fortified for the morning, I'll buy a bag of beans, and go back home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Happy 35th birthday to my niece Lisa Corley Davis, born 01/29/77. I love you more than words can tell.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Musings, 21 January 2012

Good morning,

Nearly a year ago, maybe a bit more -- I can't recall -- a young man lowered himself into the orange-upholstered chair facing my desk. He had come to me by way of a former client who had sat in a courtroom, on a matter unrelated to the service I had performed for him, and observed as this young man tried to represent himself in a status conference on a paternity matter in Jackson County. My client stopped the fellow outside of the courtroom and offered him my telephone number. Call my lawyer, said my client. You need the kind of help she can give.

That afternoon, the young man and his mother visited me. He wore a T-shirt and P-coat, above nondescript work pants. Red circles rimmed his eyes, and he held his arms close to his chest as he spoke in low tones about the little girl, born of a brief relationship, for whose support he paid without being allowed much contact with her.

I sensed an unspoken story. How old is she, I asked. Four, said his mother, from the second client chair, and I briefly turned my gaze in her direction. But hers was not the tale that I needed told, and I looked back at her son. I waited.

When he spoke, I strained to hear his words. I've been in Iraq, he said, without elaboration. I glanced down at the creased papers that his mother had pulled from her purse. I thought about the Service Members Relief Act, and the rights he might have under that statute, and the snowball's chance in hell that he would have had to enforce those rights, as the clock kept ticking on his time to respond to the mother's two-pronged attack: Administrative child support request; circuit court petition to adjudicate paternity in which she sought sole custody and limited rights of visitation for this lonely soldier.

We talked about the proceeding, and I took his mother's slowly-written check for my initial fee. I showed him the method in which our state calculates child support, a misguided formula that wrongly presumes that two people living apart have spend the same amount to raise a child that they might budget if their two incomes really combined to support a single household. I gestured to the space in which some mindless child support technician had inserted his pre-discharge pay, and talked about percentages, and overnight parenting credits, and the cost of health insurance. I felt my voice trailing, until I ran out of words, and the three of us sat entangled in the heavy morass of my depiction of reality.

He looked at me across the oak expanse of my desk, and did not blink for several long seconds. Then he turned his head toward the weak light of a winter window. I don't have a job, he finally said, in a tone so close to inaudible that I might have imagined it. How can I pay that much money?

I shuffled the papers, and moved my coffee cup to a place less useful than the one it had been occupying. I shot a glance towards his mother, and another toward the closed door, before replying. What did the Army train you to do? I asked.

He did not reply at first. I repeated the question, raising my voice a bit to project over the sound of his mother's muffled sniffles. His head slowly rotated towards the smug seat in which I sat, and he said, with no remorse, no lament, and very little tone at all: What the Army trained me to do, no private employer needs.

A few weeks later he returned, alone, to sign the response and counter-petition that we sought leave to file out of time. I asked how the job search had gone. He shrugged, and told me, about some short-term work for the client who had referred him to me. I just couldn't do it, he said. I didn't ask why, or what the job had been. He told me he had been thinking about returning to active duty. My mom doesn't want me to do that, because if I do, she'll never get to see my daughter. He looked out the window at the convergence of gray asphalt and winter sky. I don't care what the papers say except I want my mom to be able to see my daughter if I get called up again. He met my eyes, and held my gaze with a fierce intensity. That's the most important thing.

Six months later, I saw him again at the pre-trial conference. In the interim, we had done a temporary order for parenting time and support. He had gotten a job working private security for a defense contractor. He seemed more comfortable with the layer of skin exposed by the turning of the year. My daughter's so wonderful, he whispered, holding out a small photograph of her. This is her kindergarten picture. Even if the genetic testing had not proven paternity, I would have known her: The intense blue eyes, the curve of her cheeks, the straw-colored hair.

We set the trial date but it had to be postponed due to the illness of the mother's lawyer and our inability to overcome two issues: My client's request for the child's surname to be hyphenated, and my client's insistence on a provision that if he returned to active duty, and was called to service out of the country, his mother would receive visitation of one weekend each month and a half-day at Christmas. We agreed on everything else: joint custody, his parenting schedule, continued child support. But she balked at the last two requests so we got ourselves a trial date, and the autumn months faded into memory. I did not hear from my client. I assumed he fared well.

I spent the first half of this week fighting for joint custody and a respectable parenting schedule for another client, having foolishly set two trials in one week, an occasional oversight which I lament each time it occurs. My assistant had been trying to reach our soldier client for several weeks to confirm his current situation. He did not answer our calls or return our e-mails and letters. Finally, I located his mother's e-mail address and reached out to her. Please ask your son to call me. She responded, I'm sure he isn't calling because he knows he owes you money. I fired off an answer: Tell him to call. We can work out any money that he owes me; just get him to call.

He finally did, this past Tuesday morning. He said that he and the child's mother had agreed that he would drop his request for name change in exchange for her consent to the provisional grandparent visitation clause we sought. Great, I told him. I'll send her lawyer an e-mail and get the paperwork ready.

We appeared on Friday, and by then, the mother's lawyer had gathered together a small collection of what she felt was fatal ammunition to sabotage the deal that my client believed the parties had struck. We sat in the judge's chambers, and she made her pitch to my astonished ears. This is not a grandparent visitation case, she said. I've told my client that the grandparents aren't a party to this case and she doesn't have to agree to the visitation clause.

The judge leveled a long look in my direction. You aren't asking that the paternal grandparents have Father's time if he is unable to exercise it, are you? he asked. No sir, I confirmed. He kept his eyes on my face. I could not have anticipated his mood, or his position, since he is a fairly new judge and I've not had the issue in front of him, nor had it arisen in many of my cases over time. I waited. He turned his steady look towards my opposing counsel. So what Ms. Corley is asking, is that in the eventuality that her client is called to active duty, and is defending the interests of the United States of America in a foreign country, for example, Afghanistan, his mother would be allowed one weekend per month to see his child. He darted his eyes back in my direction. Is that what you're asking, Ms. Corley? I confirmed that he had correctly stated our request. So if I get this right, he continued, her client only wants a provision that says that if he is off protecting America, fighting, in some place like Afghanistan, his mother would get not his allowed parenting time, but a mere one weekend each month, and four hours at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I think that is a very reasonable request in this unique situation, and surely there is some point of agreement here.

The woman's lawyer went off to talk to her client about writing and walls, and I went out to the hallway where my client awaited the outcome of our in-chambers discussion. A long stretch of time went by, during which I reached out to touch a silver bracelet with black writing that circled my client's wrist. I asked about the names on it, and he told me that the two soldiers whose names he wore were members of his platoon. He whispered the tale of their deaths, which he had witnessed. We sat in silence because I had no words with which to express my sympathy and no genuine basis for an empathetic response. Nothing I have experienced could compare.

In the end, we agreed to the one weekend per month, and four hours at either Christmas or Thanksgiving, depending on which holiday was allocated to the father that year. The mother took the stand, replying, That is correct, to every question, in a cold voice with a little toss of her head. I pitied her child.

When it was my client's turn, I stood before the podium. I knew that there were a few jurisdictional questions that needed to be addressed, including the fact that at the time that the case had been filed, he was a member of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, serving on active duty. Yes, ma'am, I was, he acknowledged, and the red rim around his eyes intensified and tears arose, hovering as he struggled with the pain that had too long stopped in his heart. On cross-examination, the mother's attorney asked him about his potential return to active duty. I'm thinking about it, he admitted, in a voice that reproached her for asking and me for telling him that he would only have to answer most questions by saying yes or no. The lawyer looked down at her legal pad, and asked how long his reserve contract lasted. I signed a two-year commitment last July, but this reserve thing is not really working out for me. She had no further questions.

The judge told him that he could stand down. A few formal words were spoken, and the logistics of judgment-drafting were discussed. When the hearing had concluded, I told my client that I would get a copy of the judgment to him and that he should not need to do anything further. He murmured his thanks. Then he shook my hand, and exited through the heavy door of the courtroom. The judge, his court reporter, and I stood motionless in the lingering shroud of silence. Then I, in my turn, thanked the judge. I did not say why. My statement could have been the meaningless expression of appreciation uttered by any lawyer, any where, at the conclusion of any case.

But we both knew it was not.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Musings, 14 January 2012

Good morning,

The radio murmurs in the background, emitting the gentle cadences of the morning commentators who people my world and have for many years. Their voices soothe me as I stumble around the kitchen, grumbling about the poor quality of my sleep, trying to keep my focus on the blessings in my life but momentarily distracted from that endeavor by self-pity. A man describes a hiking trip and the vibrant color of the woods through which he walks in the Adirondack Mountains. I stretch my neck and think about an upcoming Yoga class, hopeful for its positive impact. Another Saturday, another week, another seven days of tallying -- one for the W column, one for the L column or maybe just for the grey space in between. I never stop second-guessing my efforts -- as lawyer, mother, wife and friend. I never stop feeling that I fall short of a goal so painfully unattainable that my fingers ache as I stretch toward it and I only understand its virtue in the cold pit of my stomach.

I heard a story on the local public radio yesterday about a production at the Theatre for Young America. The subject of the play strikes close to home: bullying of disabled children. The idea of a hearing-impaired actress in a wheelchair playing a lead role so engaged me that I nearly struck a construction barrel and had to jerk my wheel hard to avoid collision.

I swear I experienced a flashback, to West Florissant Avenue, the long mile through Jennings, Missouri from the Catholic elementary school that I attended to the small bungalow in which I lived with my seven siblings and my parents. All those years ago, I huddled into my coat, book satchel thudding against my thin legs, and tried to ignore the gaggle of boys behind me. The trio staggered, arms swinging to and fro, guttural sounds emitting from their skinny necks. They called my name, and laughed, falling against each other as I quickened my tortured pace. I watched the houses as I passed, hoping for an adult to come out, see my tormentors and scold them.

Across the four-lane roadway, I saw the shamrocks on the shutters of the Clarke home and silently pleaded to Mrs. Clarke: Come on, come out, and call me over! Come on, I begged Marie and Carolyn, the daughters of the family, one my age and one that of my older sister. Born in Ireland, the Clarkes had clear and definite ideas about the proper behavior of children, and I felt certain that the conduct of the three boys who followed me would not rise to their strict expectations. But the door stayed closed; the house stood silent and forbidding. Keep walking, it told me. You'll have no safe harbor here.

I rounded the corner of my street, and the boys went by, hooting and dancing, thrilled with the impact that their behavior obviously had on me. I stood and watched them as they climbed the hill, beyond the corner gas station with the familiar figure of its attendant on a metal folding chair near the front door. He watched them, too, and then, with a quizzical glance in my direction, lit another cigarette. I turned away and trudged home.

The following Sunday, my mother and I walked home from church together. I felt the familiar lurch in my gut as my three torturers fell in step a half block behind us, oblivious to the potential of my mother's wrath. Their laughter drifted forwards. I quickened my pace, my legs jerking harder, protesting the strain of my speed. Slow down, my mother cautioned. You'll fall. No one had heard the word "disabled" in the early 1960's. My sister and I had a "walking problem", which the doctors claimed had "unknown origins of a genetic component". On that Sunday, I had no concern for labels, and only cared about whether my mother would realize that the children walking behind us created their entertainment by imitating me.

Three or four blocks into our walk home, my mother figured out what was happening. She stopped, turned, and stared at the boys. They stood still, wide-eyed and aghast. She took a step toward them, and they flung themselves in reverse and ran towards the church, their derisive laughter floating back towards us and settling on my miserable shoulders.

My mother looked at me. Does that happen often? she asked. I shrugged. She took my answer for confirmation and placed one hand on my face, cradling my cheek. I'm so sorry, she whispered. I knew she blamed herself. How could she not? She thought that she had failed to give me sturdy genes, and she knew that she had failed to give me a life that afforded me a chance to ride home in the sheltering confines of an automobile. It's okay, I insisted. Don't worry about it. I don't mind those guys, they're stupid anyway. I come from a long line of comforters. I spent my life lying to my mother. I never stopped. I never told her how I really felt, not once, not in all the 30 years we shared this earth. It's no big deal, I repeated.

She put her arm around me, and we started home again. After a few blocks, I realized that our physical proximity had caused her to limp in step with me, and I began to smile. I snuggled against her, poking her ribs, swaying my hips in time to her broken step, until she got the joke and began to giggle. We capsized against each other, chortling, holding on and howling. We slowly made our way down the street this way, sashaying, laughing, high-stepping, as the thin Sunday traffic slipped by, and the man at the gas station sat in his rickety chair and smoked his cigarettes, calmly gazing on us as though, perhaps, he understood.

The news has ended, and the Car Guys are now dispensing automotive wisdom. The morning rises around me, with its sharp clear air and its breathtaking freshness. With a long sigh, I glance at the clock, and think about the day ahead of me. The house sighs with me, and on the first floor, the old white cat curls on my son's abandoned pillow, and settles down to sleep.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Saturday Musings, 07 January 2012

Good morning,

In a small, erstwhile TV room, the sprawled form of my sleeping son announces the folly of laying plans. Deterred from his departure back to college by his mother's spotting of a small puddle of anti-freeze in the driveway where his car had idled while being loaded, he has had to find pursuits to distract him from his impatience. Our mechanic toiled late into last evening, striving to complete the job so that Patrick could resume his journey this morning, while I secretly have enjoyed the extra three days of his companionship.

I am reminded of other young folks, lively and excited about their pursuits: my friends' children, my younger brothers, myself. But I also think of many whom I have encountered who have not had such opportunities; whose choices have taken them down gloomier paths, or whose parents have made choices that crowded their own way with brambles and baggage, over which each successive generation will stumble. We all make choices, a friend recently observed.

I thought of these choices as I sat beside a slender young woman yesterday, who huddled inside a heavy man's jacket, her long, streaked hair haphazardly pulled into a clip, cheap black glasses slipping down her small nose, a dainty bud flanked by stark cheekbones, above chapped lips. In a tiny voice, she testified, yes, I want the court to accept my consent to termination of my parental rights, and another child slipped from her mother's reaching fingers, into a life that might be better but might be worse.

The girl is two years clean, on her fifth child, a child whom she supports alone. The child whom she surrendered yesterday was conceived while my client participated in drug rehab, in a hospital south of Kansas City, under circumstances that I can only imagine. Her oldest three and her youngest share a father, but the fourth one, a little girl, is the child of a man who has not stepped forward to help, or even voiced much thought as to the child's destiny. He talked of taking the child but failed to act consistently with his stated intentions, and so his rights, too, will doubtless be forfeited.

My client fought the state's removal of the child, and got herself clean, and visited the child every week for the last year. But she has reached the end of her ability to struggle to regain custody while raising the last baby alone. Her husband keeps using cocaine and she does not want the baby to be taken so she has finally left him. Do I want to do this? No, she adamantly insisted. Do I see myself getting my child back? Do I see myself being able to prove that I can care for both of them? Do I see the court giving her back to me? No, and no, and no. So she signed, and I notarized, and the Court accepted her consent, and my last sight of her narrow frame as the elevator door closed tore my heart out.

We all make choices, my friend said, and we do. We choose to drink alcohol to excess, or to limit our intake. We choose to smoke cigarettes, or marijuana, or snort cocaine, or not. We choose to pursue college degrees, or to take our high school diploma and cast ourselves on the sea of society, barely employable, our lack of knowledge and training meagerly offset by our enthusiasm.

But what of those who have few choices? What of the little girl whose mother conceived her on a narrow bed, in a rehab facility, and whose father vanished into the morass of a southern state where another woman, and other children, awaited him, without knowing that the simple act of desperate joining had formed life? That child did not choose her beginning, nor did she choose the circumstances which might well lead to feelings of unspeakable loneliness a decade hence, when she looks at her adoptive parents -- loving, caring, with a biological connection through her mother's side -- and thinks, why am I here? Did my real mother not love me? Did my real father not want me? Her tears might fall, silently, as she lies on her own bed and wonders what her life might have been, had she been born of different parents, or if the parents who gave her life had not then given her away.

I hear my husband moving in the upstairs room of our home. The old floorboards creak beneath his feet. Neither sleeping child has stirred; they have their own social spheres, and each came home after I succumbed to the fatigue of yesterday. In a little while, the phone will ring, and our diligent mechanic will announce that the Blazer is cured, and Patrick will resume his place in the driver's seat, adjust his glasses and the rear view mirror, and start the music which he needs to propel him eight hours east. And I will stand on the sidewalk, and think about the circumstances of his birth. I, too, chose to bear a child to whose father I was not wedded, and I, too, was cautioned that my life as a single mother would be difficult. Oh, good, I replied. The first 35 years were sheer hell. Difficult will be an improvement.

As he backs out of the driveway, careful to avoid the neighbor's car, I will wave, and he will smile, and I will silently pray that all his choices will be the right ones, and then, when the car has disappeared around the corner, I will go back into the house, and make myself another cup of tea.

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.