Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Musings, 24 November 2012

Good morning,

The sun shines higher than usual as I sit at my old writing desk, my computer slightly listing when the wobbly legs occasionally shift. I hear mild coughing from a downstairs bedroom, signaling that one of the sentient beings in the house stirs. I've slept later because the demands of the last few weeks have taken a terrible toll on my aging bones. With a little pharmaceutical boost, I managed to reclaim some needed rest.

The annual food fest on which we gorge ourselves and then spend too much on material goods of dubious quality passed with muted fanfare this week. I cooked a passable turkey, less monstrous than normal but still tasty rolls, that ubiquitous green bean casserole, and dubious bread pudding, all of which we hauled to my in-laws' house. The service and grace seemed strange to me but apparently comported with the traditions of my husband and his family-of-birth, so I smiled and silently relinquished my own preferences. But tonight the friends who normally gather at my table this time of year will do so again, and there will be a round of "thankful-fors", and the serving dishes will pile up on the table, and I will have the best of both worlds.

The only shopping I did this Black Friday involved a stolen moment at Prospero's, a used bookstore which recently opened a new location near my office, and a couple of stops to find shoes with my visiting son. The latter journey took place within the small, clean confines of the Kia that Patrick just purchased from our neighbor, with the CD emitting strains of his favorite music and he behind the wheel. Either his driving has improved or my backseat driving has diminished. I found myself relaxing as a passenger for the first time since he got his license five or so years ago. I even liked some of the songs on the mix CD he played. Some. Not all -- but some.

I don't need to close my eyes to see my mother standing in the doorway of our living room, surrounded by the blaring notes of Joe Cocker, or Frank Zappa, or maybe Jerry Garcia, coming from the long, low stereo she had purchased with the proceeds of many weeks of saving S&H Green Stamps. My brothers sit on the floor, on the thin grey carpet, and I recline in a yellow wing-back chair with worn arms. I cannot imagine that I am older than twelve or thirteen; my brother Kevin is four years older than I am, and left home straight away after high school. So we are teenagers, on this afternoon in my memory, probably on break from school, Thanksgiving perhaps, with the steely sky outside our windows.

I was sitting in the breakfast room trying to balance my checkbook and pay bills, my mother says. And as I gritted my teeth, striving to concentrate despite the blaring of this -- do you call it music? -- I told myself, "Oh, Lucy, it's not so bad. They could be out robbing banks. My mother pauses, laughs, shrugs her shoulders. And then I looked at my bank balance and I thought, What's wrong with them?! They could be out robbing banks!!!

One of the boys turns the volume down a notch, and another rises from the floor and crosses to where my mother stands. They had both surpassed her height by then, and she looks up to the face of whichever one has come to cajole her back to good humor. He takes her hand and pulls her into the open area in front of the couch and twirls her around, a waltz timed to the hard beat of rock and roll. He dips and spins her small frame, and as she dances, her skirt swirls around her sturdy legs. It is a denim wrap-around skirt, one of a dozen she made from the same pattern in different fabrics. Soon, they are all three dancing, my brothers and my mother, while I sit in my mother's favorite chair singing along with the stereo.

Someone recently asked me if I had a happy childhood. I could not answer the question. I had a strange childhood, with peaks and valleys. I traveled through childhood strapped in the middle car on a crazily high roller coaster, plunged to terrifying depths and thrown to exhilarating heights. If my life had a soundtrack, it would include tracks by Dvorak, Livingston Taylor, Willie Nelson, and always, the Grateful Dead. The liner notes would pay special attention to those who taught me cruel lessons as well as those who gave me safe harbor from the ravaging of the winter winds. And to the loss of those in the forward cars: Fare thee well, Fare thee well, I love you more than words can tell.

I tried to give my son less for which to be grateful in the starkness of its lessons, and more to appreciate for the sweetness of its scenery. I do not know if I was successful. He stomps in and out of the house as though either driven by demons of his own or propelled by a fantastic ambition which he can barely contain. Or both, maybe. His writing shocks and astonishes me with its deft combination of irony and joy, its overtones of presumed defeat tempered with abiding hope. But it's okay, I tell myself. He could be out robbing banks.

I am thankful that he is not. And there is so much for which I feel gratitude, including, I must admit, the heart-wrenching memory of my mother dancing with my brothers, to the pounding rhythms of Casey Jones.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Musings, 17 November 2012

Good morning,

The stretch down Truman Road between the Independence square and I-435 can be driven on auto-pilot. A day or two ago, as I made that sweeping pass towards the highway that would take me back to my office, the rambling tones of Steve Kraske, a Kansas City Star reporter who interviews local celebrities on public radio, filled the chilly confines of my car. A lilting laugh rose to meet his deeper, friendly chuckle. Kraske asked Joyce DiDonato, the opera star who hails from Prairie Village, Kansas, about her new recordings. I barely attended to their chatter. I do not like opera.

But he switched gears: Another new release, this one filled with more colloquial tunes. And I nearly drove the Saturn into a curb as Ms. DiDonato's voice threw me back to 1973. When you walk through a storm, Hold your head up high. And don't be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky, And the sweet silver song of a lark.

I stood again beneath an arching, raised roof amid painfully modern contours of Corpus Christi Church. The middle section in the vast space held row on row of parents clad in Sunday finery. They twisted to watch the back of the church, where I and my classmates have submitted to being adorned with the ragged petals of a giant, white chrysanthemum. We each hold a single yellow rose. We've been aligned in our customary alphabetical order, a few dozen eighteen-year-old girls whose fate awaits on the other side of the gloom. The notes of the organ start, and the first girl, the girl who has always been first by the coincidence of alphabet, steps forward.

Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone; you'll never walk alone.

With my surname, I found myself grouped in the first third of any line. I followed the swishing skirt of the girl ahead of me, pulled forward by the music, as the chorus repeated. Some one's mother, or a nun, or maybe a junior, sang the lyrics standing in front of a microphone at the far side of the nave. The size of our class, the last graduating class of the doomed high school, allowed us to finish the journey before the brave notes subsided. Our Baccalaureate Mass began. Fragrance rose around us, a curious, cloying mixture of mums, roses and burning candles. At some appropriate moment, each of us tendered the yellow flower to our mothers, long stems catching on our sleeves, thorns lightly scratching the tender skins of our hands.

When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high.

To the communion rail, to our seats, down the aisle through the doors at the back of the church. The strains of the organ sent us on our way. A great noise arose, voices of my classmates, their laughter, their unbridled whoops of self-congratulation. The din of disorder overcame me. I pulled away. My eyes spanned the throng of exiting parents, searching for my own mother, who had sat in the church by herself, a bit away from the others, in a pale blue dress with frayed cuffs and collar, clutching a vinyl navy handbag.

Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.

I spied my mother's mottled brown countenance, the worn face broken only by a thin line of mauve lipstick, her plucked brows slightly drawn. I could not see her eyes behind the reflections on the lenses of her glasses. By the set of her jaw, and the arch of her chin, I knew she despaired of finding me. The voices of my classmates and their proud parents swelled and filled the vestibule. I stood apart, near the door, unable to force myself to advance towards her. A cluster of students in pretty frocks flanked by their mothers and fathers barred my mother's way. Thus did we hover, a world apart, separated by something more dire than a mere gaggle of girls.

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart.
And you'll never walk alone. You'll never walk alone.

Just before my mother surrendered to defeat, just before the moment when she might have turned and left the building by another exit, an avenue opened in the chattering crowd, and she saw me, standing alone, watching her.

Our eyes met. Her hand fell, slowly, to her side, the petals of the rose I had given her brushing the wrinkled skirt of her dress. I cannot know what she thought, in that moment. I cannot know if she understood what held me back. I cannot say whether the treachery rising in my heart had reached my face.

She stepped towards me before I could summon myself to move. But I met her halfway. In the center of the crowd of exuberant graduates, my mother and I embraced.

The strains of Joyce DiDonato's beautiful rendition of the Rogers & Hammerstein classic died away as I made the final swoop onto the highway. I shook off the bittersweet memories of the past, and signaled my lane change. By the time I got to my office, only the lovely hopefulness of the song lingered in my mind, entwined with the memory of the widening smile on my mother's face, just before I took her in my arms.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saturday Musings, 10 November 2012

Good morning,

Another trial crashed against a cliff of stone, the rising jagged bluff of justice that stands on the western side of the state. Thirty days to draft proposed findings and the rest of the night following yesterday's conclusion to rethink each decision, each strategic choice, the potential rise or fall of my client's prospects eternally tied to the wager he made in retaining me and the thousands of dollars he spent in the year since he did so. Another sleepless night.

I rose this morning an hour later than my usual Saturday, two hours after the standard time on my alarm for the last month. I drank my morning coffee on the porch, pleasantly half-shaded from the sun's sweet rays, surrounded by the swirl of leaves from the neighbor's tall, aging oak. Pages of the morning paper drifted under my tired eyes, half-veiled by the shimmer of white that the eye doctor says will eventually recede as my brain adjusts to its presence. The absence of political rhetoric in the pages of the Star both delights and confounds me: Where is the news?, I find myself thinking, but all I am given is paragraph after paragraph of the accidents, robberies, plays, and street improvements around my town. Another election forgotten; another turn of history's wheel, another inch closer to eternity.

As I draw in the fresh air outside, I feel the sweetness of every November, the unpredictable weather that Missourians smugly claim as their particular province. I feel again the gentle chill of Novembers of my childhood: Thanksgivings spent huddled in wool sweaters, deliciously shivering on my parents' front porch while my brothers played football in the front yard. I hear my mother's voice singing in the kitchen, she standing at the window over the sink, watching the sway of the neighbor's tree. She would turn to smile as I kneaded the dough from which our Thanksgiving clover-leaf rolls would be made. She would place one worn, brown-spotted hand over my smaller, paler fingers, and push down, giving the dough what it should have without scolding me for doing it wrong. The warm fragrance of yeast rose around us, mingling with the fragrance of roasting turkey and the sweet tang of whole berries simmering on the stove.

My mother made the pies ahead of time, perhaps on Wednesday night. She seemed to know what pies had to be refrigerated and which ones could rest on the counter, knowledge that I never gleaned from her, a distinction that still confuses me. My father watched television in the living room while she cooked. I see my sisters in the kitchen with us, taller than me, moving around the small space between counter and stove, the creation of Thanksgiving dinner orchestrated like the best ballet. Three times each year we used my mother's good china: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The sterling came out from the bottom of the china cabinet on such holidays, the flatware and the napkin rings, the small plates from Grandmother Corley on which dessert would be served. We polished the silverware, simmering badly tarnished pieces in baking soda water on a burner set to low. The linen table cloths had to be ironed, water sprinkled from an old dish washing liquid bottle in those days before steam irons. After the table cloth came the napkins themselves, one daughter ironing, one daughter folding, and I with my little girl hands sliding them into the rings, each one with an engraved name. Richard, Lucille, Ann, Adrienne, Joyce, Kevin, Mark, Mary, Francis, Stephen.

Every dish had to be completed at the precise moment when the dinner would be served, at the correct temperature. The cranberry sauce might have been made a day earlier, so that its tangy chill could set. The turkey came out to rest while the rolls baked and the casserole of that green bean stuff heated through and the marshmallows cut in half to adorn the yams melted and took on their golden glow. The older girls helped my mother put the dishes on the table, and someone raised the camera to photograph the feast. Then the boys were called to come into the house; while their clamoring rose, and the pounding of their feet hammered on the stairs, my father stood sharpening the knife at the kitchen counter. I hear the sharp whisk of steel against steel, each draw of the knife sending wicked shivers through my body.

The table in our breakfast room held ten. Its Formica expanse hidden beneath linen transformed the humble dining set. Each child took their assigned seats: for most of my childhood, I sat to the left of my father at the far end. My parents waited for our chattering to stop, and then we murmured the grace: Bless us, Oh Lord, and these they gifts, which we are about to receive. . .Then the first draw of the knife through the turkey's crisp skin sent the steamy fragrance heavenward, and the blessings became obvious indeed.

As the serving bowls went around the table, and butter got smeared on warm rolls straight from the oven, we said our Thankful-Fors. Each person, youngest to oldest, disclosed that for which they felt gratitude. The boys often opted for their special dish; the girls, something more sweet. My mother's thankful-for varied with the times: Her job, the health of a child who had been particularly ill, or something more vague, a cryptic reference about which I do not believe I ever wondered: "prayers answered", and I never asked my mother, not once, what it was for which she had prayed.

In my memory, the Thanksgiving meal stands as the most special of each year. Easter's fragrant, yeast-dough-wrapped ham; the roast at Christmas; the backyard barbecue at the Fourth of July -- nothing compares to the richness of dressing roasted in the bird, fresh-whipped cream, and the first bite into the crisp brown exterior of gooey marshmallow over the brown-sugar glazed sweet potatoes. My childhood days held frightening turbulence, which coalesced as flinty memories that pierce my nights at times, recollections I should have let slip into the morass of age. But I remember nothing unpleasant about any Thanksgiving. I recall only the warmth of my mother's body standing behind me in the kitchen, guiding my hands; my father holding a heavy, china serving dish while he coaxed me to accept more food than he knew I would eat, my brothers clamoring to claim the turkey legs and the biggest ladle-full of thick, salty gravy.

Thanksgiving 2012 approaches, and I am already beginning to contemplate the things for which I am thankful. As I grow older, my thankful-fors gravitate between two categories: Things for which I am thankful that make me cry; and things for which I am thankful because something that made me cry didn't happen. I'm thankful that my retina isn't detached; I am thankful for my children, the one to whom I gave birth and the two whom I acquired when I married; I am thankful that the doctor who said I had six months to live, fourteen years ago, got it wrong.

The yammer of the Car Guys tells me that I've lingered too long at the keyboard. My coffee has completely cooled, forgotten on the gilt-edged plate that I use as a coaster on my little desk. I've raised the wood-slat blinds, and I can see the clearness of the day and the blueness of the sky, against the wintry leaves. The winds has risen, and the neighbor's patio umbrella tosses its green canvas as a small brown critter skitters on the surface of the table. I should be doing something constructive, like laundry, or Yoga, or cogitating on the likely outcome of this week's trial. Instead, I think that I will gather all of the books I have read in the last two weeks, and take them to the Mystery bookstore. I'll tender them for store credit, order an Americano from the coffee bar, and browse the shelves of international writers. By and by, I'll choose the next in a series of which I am fond, or maybe the first in a series that I haven't read. I'll take a chair in the far back of the reading room, and lose myself in the pages of other people's lives.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saturday Musings, 03 November 2012

Good morning,

The week floated to a smooth ending with a bookstore opening and a pleasant dinner with a young lady who became my daughter when I married a year and a half ago. I don't dismiss the importance of my son, but the two young people whom I call my children-in-law enrich my life. Having a daughter had always been a dream of mine. Having several children stood next on my bucket list, and now I have them: my "actual" son sandwiched in age between my two "step" children. The pictures scattered through my living room show that our family has grown.

The mother-son energy that crackled and livened my home had just begun to ebb when these two joined the fold: my stepson in his junior year of high school, my stepdaughter just finishing her four-year degree which she deftly pursued while working full-time. Before my recent marriage, I had gathered my son's friends, and the children of my friends, to comprise my flock. They know who they are -- these pseudo sons and daughters that deepened my appreciation for young people. They maintain their importance to me; my son's best friend of many years, Chris, will always be "my second son"; his sisters, Caitlin and Jennie, will never lose their place as the girls whom I took shopping for several teenage rites of passage, which their mother allowed with her heart of gold. And then there is Laura: Laura, daughter of my friend Elisabeth, who worked for me for several years, who cleaned my house time and time again, and who orchestrated my entire wedding with radiant joy and tireless dedication.

All of these young people hold a special place in my heart, each their own, each indispensable, like wooden blocks slid into a tower, integral and crucial.

All of them crowded around me as I read a lengthy transcript this week full of accusations leveled at a father trying to secure his own place in the life of his daughter. The deposition burned with the mother's scorn. Page after page filled with accusations about his preference for the children of his second marriage. Answering my questions, she spoke to him: You've got them now, why do you need my baby? she chided him, thinly disguised as her venomous litany of reasons she should be the custodial parent. Never mind that my client and she had not been a couple for ten years. Never mind that he has been fighting for a more active role in their daughter's life for most of that decade. Never mind that he has never missed a child support payment, or failed to provide extra funds when the child needed them. Never mind that their child has an entire room full of her own clothes, books and toys at his house, each identical in quality to those of his other children. He left us! she did not say, and though my heart felt heavy for her grief, I could not help but conclude that she resented his abandonment of her.

Orderly piles of trial documents adorn the window sills in my office. Judgments hit my inbox; motions pepper my files. The black and white belie the true color of their contents: Green for envy, red for rage, blue for sorrow. Give me more money! scream parents who really only desire the restoration of their failed marriage. You can't have more time with our children! comes the vicious cry of a parent who really wants to know why the other parent does not want to spend time with the grieving spouse. If I can't have him, he can't have them, they never say, though their true sentiment escapes no one.

I tell my clients that I understand. I'm on my third marriage! I proclaim, never mentioning that my child came from neither of my first marriages, and I raised him without his birth father through no choice of mine, through no choice of my son. I never had to share holidays except with the family-by-choice whom we gathered around us. I never had to get any one's approval for haircuts, or school choices, or medical procedures. I walk around my house, lifting small framed pictures and dusty objects from tables or wall hooks, thinking, Here is Patrick in the sixth grade; here is the stained glass he made for me in kindergarten; here is the award he won for writing; here is the fragile bird he made from leaves, the poem he wrote of his name, the sketch of us done at the Farmer's market in Rochester. Through some of those years, a stepfather took the pictures. Through some of those years, a surrogate aunt provided his summer berth. Through some of those years, the halls of our home held no one's footsteps but his and mine.

Client after client sits across from me with bewilderment stamped on weary faces, and anxiety spilling from red-rimmed eyes. They crave answers that I can only fabricate with reasonable conviction. They ask whether they will get time with their children, whether the other parent will consult them before choosing activities, whether they will witness the glory of their children's endeavors. I do not guarantee the success of my efforts or the reasonableness of their former spouse's decision-making. My only promise lies in the many paragraphs of my six-page contract, distilled to one two-word commitment: hard work.

I stood in the doorway of my office last evening, cross-body leather bag pulling one shoulder, tablet cradled in the crook of my arm. I ran my gaze around, checking to see if everything that needed to be done before the week's simpering end had, indeed, been done. Outside my windows, the chattering folks of Westport Friday night already drifted to and from the nearby bars, on foot, in cars, on bicycles, by bus. Down the hall, my analyst husband still crunched his numbers; any minute, the phone would ring to announce the arrival of my stepdaughter. But still I stood.

I tried a three-day motion-to-modify several weeks ago, pending cross-motions filed by ex-partners over the parenting and custody of their son and daughter. The case had been pending for four years. Grief flew in each direction; cross-accusations, psychological testing, denials of access, anger, fury, rage, resentment. In the end, the judge punted. He found for neither, and reinstated a five-year-old custodial decree. I spent only a year with the case; the other party's attorney had been in the case off and on for its life; the guardian saw the entire expanse and recommended the judge's decision. Did he do the right thing? my client asked me, when I talked with him about the order. I honestly don't know. But he did something; and now they can all continue living, especially the children.

I never wanted to be a lawyer, let alone a family law practitioner. I set out to be a writer. My high school yearbook, if it still exists on the cluttered shelves of any 1973 graduate of Corpus Christi High School in Jennings, Missouri, bears my life-long ambition: To get a poem published in The New Yorker. I only went to law school to have a paying career. I became a divorce lawyer after learning how important fathers are, by contrast with my child's lack of his. I did not predict the awful sorrows I would witness, nor the gallons of happiness that I could engender with one small result.

The judgment from that terrible trial sat in the middle of the oak table that serves as my desk last evening, awaiting the drafting of a long letter to my client, something I meant to do before the last mail of the day but had failed to finish. At the very moment when its accusing presence caught my eye, the phone rang. Snatching up the receiver, I pressed the button that activated the security lock on the front panel, admitting my dinner companion. I turned out the light, and quietly closed the door.

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.