On a rare evening with no family, I stood in a crowd close to 200 circulating between the two locations of the VALA Gallery -- to the west, "411 Weeping Women" in the Gallery proper; to the east, a photographer, two ceramicists, and one of two resident artists in the VALA Community. I watched my friend, Gallery founder / director Penny Thieme, move among the visitors, beaming, still awash with happiness at the afternoon's technical run-through in preparation for the Evening with Richard Bach that she has planned for May. I marvel at the wonder of this powerful woman who rose from the ashes of disbelief in her capabilities to become a successful photographer, painter, and a one-woman dervish who has brought art to Mission, Kansas with a zeal that has left an indelible mark that will transcend any future fate of her Gallery itself. She might move, lock, stock and easel, to the Crossroads; she has her eyes on New Mexico; there is a trip to another continent for a major project in the not-too-distant future. But wherever she goes, one thing cannot be erased, and that is the change that Mission has experienced because of the awakening that Penny Thieme coaxed this sleepy Johnson County burg into accepting.
I stood on Johnson Drive as the crowd began to collect, outside my Saturn parked at a blue-painted curb. I watched the visitors drifting into the open door of the Gallery, and thought of my friend sitting amidst boxes in the first house she rented after leaving the home she had made with her husband. A divorce she resisted loomed in the not-too-distant future at that point; tears flowed down her cheeks as she asked herself, asked me, asked her absent husband, why can't you just be the man that I love? a question not susceptible of satisfactory reply. She would not stop asking that question for a year or more, until the Court had put its signature on the end of their marriage and she had moved, yet again, further north, away from Olathe, the southern Johnson County town where she had lived during the years when she believed herself to be happy.
Where she might have been happy.
Where she stopped being happy.
Last week, two clients spent a couple of hours apiece sitting in the same chair in my office, back-to-back appointments separated only by my record-fast ingestion of a Panera's salad. The first client, a woman, lamented the vagaries of her ex-baby-daddy, whom she perceived as hounding her, taunting her. There is some factual basis to her contentions: he and his friends sent her pictures by text of a wildly exciting Key West vacation. Having a great time! their messages said. Glad you're not here, she read into them. She consumed a full box of Kleenex before we got to the real purpose of her visit: a pro se motion to modify that she had filed last month, which she had suddenly realized she could not prosecute without my help.
Round two, a man trying to get divorced. His soon-to-be-ex wife had spewed her fury on page after page of unvetted materials attached to the back of her interrogatory responses. Her endless castigation of his character means little in the broader context of the disposition of their meager assets. He wouldn't let me go to graduate school, she complained. "She wanted to get a Master's Degree in Musicology and go to other countries as an unpaid Music Missionary," he explained. "If I had had the money to pay for graduate school, I wouldn't have supported that goal at that time in our lives, when we had children at home." He was emotionally distant from the kids, she accused. "I probably wasn't a touchy-feely kind of Dad," he countered. "And I worked long hours so she could stay at home." A cracked mirror, a distorted reflection, with no possibility that I can cast a backwards light to understand how close to "reality" either recollection comes.
In the early afternoon yesterday, I volunteered to help prepare the Gallery for its Second Friday opening. While my head bent over a task, the better to see it with my aging eyes, the door opened. I heard someone greet me and looked into the sunshine streaming through the picture windows at the front of the Gallery. I couldn't determine the identity of the back-lit figure until he spoke my name, and I realized that my first ex-husband stood just a few feet from me. This frequently occurs: His brother still works with me; I am still friends with others in his family; he is, when all is said and done, the best carpenter in Kansas City and he built the porch on which I love to sit year-round. Hello, Chester, I responded, and then each of us went back to our respective pursuits -- he lends his skills to the Gallery on the same volunteer basis as I, each of us but two in the flock of moths who gather around Penny Thieme's flickering flame.
A while later, a friend of his daughter lent her own hand to the clean-up, grabbing a mop to rinse the hard-wood floors. Amy, do you know Corinne? Chester asked, and she shook her head. Meet Corinne Corley, my ex-wife, he said, gesturing in the broad way that only a theatre person can successfully employ. I saw the shock cross her face. A seventeen-year-old doesn't think about someone being friends with their ex-wife, nor does she consider that her friend's father might casually introduce a former spouse that she didn't even realize he had. I laughed. His ex-wife, and a person in my own right, I countered, and then the tension slipped and harmlessly splintered on the damp floor as Amy laughed with us.
An hour or so later, I called my stepson, who, with my husband, traveled to Minnesota for a scholarship interview at St. Olaf's set to occur this morning. Tell your Dad that I spent the afternoon working at the Gallery with my ex-husband, I said, a request that he promptly and dutifully fulfilled. Chester? came the query. I confirmed the guess. He doesn't seem too worried, said my stepson, and I assured him that a state of unworriedness was a proper response.
One thing I have learned from a couple of decades as a family law practitioner is to open my life to changing relationships. No one is perfect, and everyone disappoints us if our expectations of them exceed their capabilities within the context of our relationship with them. When the relationship reconfigures, the person will likely fulfill our reconfigured expectations, and shine in the new context within which they fit.
Some relationships, however, cannot reconfigure. A parent might not be as crucial to a child's daily life when the child attains adulthood, and the child might consider the parent "more friend than father", but the relate is still one of parent to child and will always be. If a parent does not meet the child's expectations, a schism eternally lies between them. Only forgiveness can span the gap, and even forgiveness cannot replace what the child has lost.
As I sat across from my weeping client this week, I found no words to comfort her. I did, however, find a piece of advice that might help, and I shared it. You need to take back the power, I told her. You've given him control and you need to reclaim it. She protested, I don't care about him! As I handed her a fresh Kleenex, I suggested to her that she was deceiving herself. You don't cry this much because of someone about whom you don't care, I gently observed, and her sobbing increased.
To two children who reached out to me in recent days, lamenting the distance and cruelty lying between them and their parents, I had less sure advice. She's your mother, she loves you, I told one. He's your father, he loves you, I told another. I don't think I convinced them, and they went away less comforted than my distressed client had done. I am left, at the end of the week, with the feeling that I should have gotten a Ph.D. in psychology to accompany my J.D., and to wonder if there is a university which will accept my on-the-job training in place of a dissertation.
Saturday, March 10, 2012
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- 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.
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