Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saturday Musings, 26 October 2013

Good morning,

Swirls of orange and brown leaves begin to pile around the pillars, posts and trees in the neighborhood where I live.  Soon their golden carpet will spread before me as I trudge from car to house.  Rain will erode their dry contours and turn them to sludge as winter draws itself closer around us, along with the ghosts who cast benign, enigmatic glances at me as I hurry by.

On Halloween, I turn out the porch light and dim the lights in the living room.  The houses of my block have no children, and the only trick-or-treaters who trod our steps come late and from far away.  My neighbor's grandchildren have moved to North Dakota.  If I bought candy, my husband and I would be hard-pressed to resist the pile of leftovers.

A little image floats upward from a deep recess.  A tiny velour-covered critter, with a cherub face and brown whiskers formed from the stroke of an eye-liner pencil.  I lift him from his car seat and clutch him to me as I walk to his babysitter's house.  We're going around her neighborhood with her family.  She and her husband wait on their porch with their children, a couple of little angels and a devil.  She's position a huge metal bowl full of miniature chocolate bars on their stoop, with a plastic witch clipped to its rim and a hand-lettered sign inviting children to help themselves.  She's a trusting soul.  She's written "One To a Customer" and made a smiley face.

We set off down the block, the two youngest in a wagon.  We send them to each door hand in hand, while the three adults hover a few feet back.  Halloween has turned scary; we don't want to be the parents whose children came to harm because we didn't look out for them.  Diane puts one hand on her son's head and tells him to hold his sister's hand.  My own little own toddles ahead, clutching his tiny bucket and chortling "trick or treat" with only a trace of a lisp.  It's 1992 and he's been walking for just a couple of months but talking practically from birth.

By the end of the block, the kids have lost their enthusiasm for walking and don't resist our  urge to head towards home.  We hit a couple of houses that straddle the corner, venturing near  the main street but not approaching it.  We see a carload of children emerge from a van near the curb and spread out towards the neighboring houses.  One lone adult leans on the open door, his face visible in the dome light.  He looks weary.  He lights a cigarette and huddles into his jacket as we move beyond him.  We trade smiles.

Back at my car, we all hug and I buckle my son back into his car seat.  Diane's husband has already taken their three into the house and I'm anxious to get home.  But Diane stops me with her hand on my arm, the same slender hand I had just seen her use to propel her son forward to each house displaying a beckoning light.  I look into her face and see grief that hadn't been obvious before now.  I wait.  "We're getting divorced," she says. I know there's more; but we both know this isn't the time or place for what lies behind her statement.  I fold her into my arms and we stand without speaking, in the dark, on her street, while my son rummages through his loot and sings a little song.

A few weeks later Diane closed the daycare in her home.  I put Patrick in pre-school and bought a house.  When I toured the place, for the first time, in the January after that Halloween, I noticed pictures of familiar children on the mantel.  "I know these people," I told my realtor.  "Their kids used to go to the same babysitter as my son."  We stood in the living room, looking at the photographs, until one of us shifted and the world started spinning again.

My husband has gone off to tennis and my son still sleeps.  Yesterday counts as a good day:  My friend Penny Thieme and I launched an Indiegogo to raise funds for the VALA Gallery, an artists' community which she founded and manages.  There will be a pumpkin painting contest there today, and my son, well beyond the age of trick-or-treating, plans to go help with the children.  As for myself, I'm doing fall cleaning, and when the night falls, I'll be a half-mile from here, celebrating an anniversary with some friends of ours, and wondering where all the little goblins have gone.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Saturday Musings, 19 October 2013

Good morning,

I don't dare venture onto the porch in the sharp cold winter morning.  I huddle in the dining room, tablet perched on the five dollar wooden folding table which, with its mate, I scored at an estate sale years ago.  The furnace whirrs; the dog pants, lying on her bed; and periodically my son tells me something clever that he sees on The Onion.  Morning, late fall, Brookside.

My brain clenches and my son's voice melds into that of his long-ago uncle.  I've played this scene before; Stephen hugging a coffee cup, me slouching around in velour pajamas; my mother long gone for work, my father in the basement.  "You don't look much better..."  Steve mumbles as I smirk.  Expletive deleted.  My poison of choice doesn't give me hangovers like his does.  1977, both of us stuck in the family home at the same time, me back from Boston licking my wounds; him between high school and college, before his wild ride into his last two decades.

I take my coffee cup out onto that porch, the porch in Jennings, wide and brick, fronting a street that I know so well.  Tall oaks provide a canopy for the yard.  Wind whistles through their branches; golden leaves flutter to the ground.  I sit on a slightly damp metal chair and settle my feet onto the porch's low wall.  I take another sip of coffee, acrid and strong.  I try to bring myself to full consciousness but the coffee hasn't hit my veins yet.

The door opens and my brother comes out.  He settles into the chair beside mine and sets his coffee cup on the brick pillar.  "Welcome to winter," he says, and we share a short, rueful laugh.  We sit in a silence broken only by the sound of rain  and the occasional rush of a passing car.  We sip our cooling coffee and set the cups onto the brick in unison, glancing towards each other.  No doubt, we are Corleys.  He lights a cigarette.

"So, Boston didn't do it for you," he remarks.  If anybody else had raised this subject, I would have tensed. My little brother accepts my imperfections because they mirror his own.  I tell him no, it didn't do it for me.  "You were going to grad school," he adds.  I shrug.  I was.  I got accepted.  I panicked.  But he knows that, so I remain silent.

"Now what," he asks.  I turn and meet his eyes.  I don't know what happens next, I tell him.  St. Louis U had put my entrance on hold and would take me in January, might even refrain from snickering in the direction of Boston College, which I had planned to attend.  He nods.  Grad School.

"I thought you wanted to be a writer?"  Now he's treading close to rocky waters and neither of us know where the iceberg lies.  He finishes his cigarette and lights another.  I toss my coffee dregs over the south wall onto the neighbor's driveway and don't speak.  The weight of a half-dozen years of stupid choices settles on my shoulders:  The AP classes down the drain because I did not complete the paperwork; the college years swirling round in gallons of Scotch; the seven months in Boston lost in a haze of partying with folks who sobered up faster than I did and excelled at their day jobs.

"Yeah," I tell him. "I wanted to be a writer."  The rain quickens; the sky darkens; and my brother and I sit on the porch with the smoke from his Marlboro rising around our heads.

"It seems to me," he says.  "It seems to me that if you want to be a writer, you should just write."  He finishes his cigarette and stands.  He juggles both our cups by their handles and looks down at me.  His strong jaw juts out from under his pale blue gaze.  "Just write," he  repeats, and goes into the house.

Last night, I got notice that I lost I trial.  I didn't expect to win; the facts turned against my client.  But the decision had been delayed so long that a flicker of hope rose from the ashes of the three-day trial.  Earlier that day, I had learned that I have to try a case on Monday that all the lawyers involved thought would be continued.  We kicked into high gear, and I expect that I will be ready.  My bones ache; I've had a long week, my second funeral this month and the periodic bleating of my heart monitor all soured my faith in the angels.  But here I am, nonetheless, just writing.  And I think the sun has come out.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Saturday Musings, 12 October 2013

Good morning,

The begonias on my porch have burst forth in bloom again.  Each spring, I trot off to Soil Service and return with a flat of the carefree plants.  I dig my hands in my huge bag of soil and gently set each small begonia in a new bed of dirt, in a clean pot.  I fill my old plastic watering can and soak their roots.  They boldly raise their leaves towards the sun, unfurling their colorful adornment, until late July, when the Missouri heat scalds their greenery and shrivels the delicate petals.  But this year, only my shy little gardenia bush withered; the potted plants grew tall, and full, and sent out blossom after blossom.  I sit looking at them, and thinking of the most recent gardener in my life, my mother-in-law, Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, who slipped away from us this week.

She spent the last six months of her life in comfort at a facility aptly called The Sweet Life.  Though at first, she wanted only to go home, nonetheless she felt the room to be comfortable and pretty.  She would pat the table which stood under the window, and gesture to the matching chairs and the wide dresser.  Jay bought these things for me, she told me, time and again, as though perhaps I might have forgotten.  And he bought that lamp, too, she would add, and smile at me.  The smile told me, I am loved, you know; Jabez MacLaughlin loves me.  She didn't need to say the words.  The sweep of her hand, encompassing the tangible  proof of his adoration, said them for her.

I tried to visit her as often as I could.  The "speech therapist" -- a Sweet Life code word for the folks who prompted her to strain her failing memory -- urged us to keep her mind stimulated.  I tried bringing her books in the genre we both enjoyed, but she could not focus.  Then, one clear blue Saturday, I went to Suburban Lawn and Garden, and found a willing clerk.  I want to put together a portable gardening kit, I told him.  I want to garden with my mother-in-law, but we only have a four-foot table on which to work, and one window sill's worth of space.  The man smiled, and pulled a cart over.  He told me to push, and walk with him.  He found a window box, some sturdy hand tools, a good-sized bag of soil, and a flat of begonias.  I added gloves, and a small, long-spouted watering can, and away I went.

I loaded it all on the same dolly that I use to take my trial bag into the courthouse, a small silver carrier which unfolds to the perfect size for one banker's box.  I wheeled it into the Sweet Life and past the wide-eyed, covetous glances of the other residents.  I made my way to Joanna's room, where she sat in a chair, gazing out her window.

She turned her eyes towards me and the corners  of her mouth curled upward.  But the light in her eyes turned radiant when her glance fell on my burden.  You've got begonias, she exclaimed, and extended her hand towards my little four-wheeler.  I hauled the plants, and the window box, and soil, and the shiny new tools, to the dining room table that Jabez MacLaughlin had bought for his beautiful bride.  I spread some newspaper down to protect the table's surface, remarking that the paper probably wasn't good for much else, so bad had its writing gotten.  Joanna laughed, a small, gentle sound; but she did not join me in criticising anything, even the local rag.

I situated the supplies within Joanna's reach.  She looked over the pile without speaking, as though assessing and planning.  Then she picked up the canvas gloves and pulled them over her slender fingers.  She turned her eyes towards me and gestured for me to put some rocks into the bottom of the container.  I held open the bag of soil and she took a handful of good rich dirt, and covered the stones.  She eased the plants from their plastic cups, aligning them in a row within the long rectangle, on top of the first layer of soil. To that point, she had been sitting; but she seemed impatient with my manner of doling out the dirt.  She raised herself from the chair, and dug both of her hands deep into the bag, then changed her mind.  She lifted the bag and dumped a generous mound of dirt, enough to surround the flowers.  She patted the mound level, added more, then looked up at me.  And at that precise moment, I took her picture: Joanna -- making a tiny but lovely garden, on the table that Jabez MacLaughlin got for her.

A few minutes later, her fatigue overcame her and she lowered herself into the chair.  She let me fill the watering can and bring it to her.  It took both of her arms to lift it, but she soaked the soil, then pressed it firmly down around the slender stalks.  I hoisted the finished box to the window sill, situating it under the stained glass piece that Joanna's sister Patt gave her, which dangled from the window lock.  I cleared away the debris, and repacked the gardening tools.  She sat by the table, with a sweet, contented expression molding her delicate features.  I like to garden, she remarked, her face glowing.  We sat in silence for a while, surrounded by the flowers and, restored to their places on her table, the photographs of her daughter Virginia, her son Jim, her grandchildren, and her beloved Jabez.  At that moment, we had no need for words.

I only knew Joanna for a little more than four years.  Like all great ladies, though, she taught me much.  She smiled whenever anyone came into the room.  When she first saw you, she would invariably mention something pleasant -- some little thing about you that she remembered:  a class you were taking, a new job you had, or something she remembered doing with you.  She offered you something refreshing, to eat, or drink; and listened to your stories with an air of interest.  She'd tuck those stories away, and trot them out the next time she saw you, to ask you how things were, and whether you had managed to succeed at something you mentioned intending to try.  And you would go away thinking, what a nice lady, and for the rest of the day, you would wear the smile that she had given you. And that, I would say, is the mark of a wonderful person.

It stormed last night.  The wild release has cleared the air.  I hear my husband's tread upon the stairs, James, the son of Joanna and Jabez.  It's a sound I love.  He's just about to come around the corner; and I feel Joanna's smile, rising to my lips.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

In Memory:  Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin, 08/17/30 - 10/08/13.  Rest easy.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Saturday Musings, 05 October 2013

Good morning,

At 12:30 a.m. today, a rapid screeching awakened me. I fumbled for my glasses, the small blue flashlight at my bedside, and the little black box clipped to my nightgown. Through groggy, glazed eyes I saw it: A "1" where there had once been a zero. Event recorded. I reached for the phone, punched the 800 number, and imparted this news to the reassuring voice at the other end of the line. I performed the reporting procedure, bolstered by my husband's gentle touch on my arm. Then I hung up the phone.

In the last few weeks, I've answered a slew of questions about my medical history. I'm not sure why I've had to repeat myself, over and over, to techs and doctors whose computer systems merge with one another. Perhaps, like the sly prosecutor or the clever psychologist, they strive to see if my answers change. But that  disembodied voice wanted only to comfort me. A rapid heartbeat for 4.7 seconds provides good information, just what your doctor wants to know, he told me. But nothing about which to feel immediate alarm. The soft cadences of his voice take me back more than three decades, to a waiting room outside of a surgery theatre in North St. Louis County.

A huddle of Corleys stand or sit in small groups. My mother rises, paces, plunks herself back down onto a square vinyl cushion which releases a sharp puff of air with the impact of her body. A couple of brothers stand together in the corner, murmuring in tones too low for me to follow. My boyfriend of the year leans against a wall somewhat apart from them, not accepted, not expecting to be.  

We sit vigil for my father, on whom a cardiac surgeon works, pulling veins from his legs to create bypasses buried in his chest.  

I gaze out a broad window, eyes not seeing the parking lot or the tops of neighborhood trees. I've come from Kansas City, where I'm due to start my first semester of law school. I've been there since May, starting a job that would pay for the first year's expenses, getting situated in an apartment two blocks from the hookers' favorite stroll, trying to decide what to do about the boyfriend. I feel mild resentment at being called home.

I shift from foot to foot. I close my eyes, and let the indistinguishable mutterings of my brothers and sisters wash around me. I prepare to mourn, in case the surgery fails. I do not know if I can. I am twenty-five, and I have yet to forgive my father for his awful sins. That won't come for another five years or more. At this juncture, I cannot summon any sorrow from my belly.

A door swings open. A doctor joins us, wiping his hands on his scrubs, pushing a smile to his weary face. He's fine, he tells my mother. Your husband's a fighter. And funny. My mother stands. Her children move closer, our foreheads pinched, our eyes narrowed. Neither relief nor disappointment floods us.  I experience just some vague emptiness. What do you mean, 'funny', my mother asks. The doctor shakes his head. When he woke in Recovery, he asked the nurse how many bypasses he got. 'Seven,' she told him. The doctor chuckles. 'What's the record for one surgery?', your husband asked. 'Nine', the nurse said. Your husband laid there for a moment, then replied, 'Wheel me back in, I want three more.'  

A wave of something close to amusement ripples through the room. My mother laughs, then, and drops the tightness of her shoulders, and the gaggle of her children present follow suit. I study her face; I realize she would have mourned him, despite everything he has done to her. I do not know, standing beside her small, tired body in that brightly lit waiting room, if she would have mourned my father alone.  And I will never know, as she will die five years later, and he not for another six after that.

The doctor is thanked, his hand shaken, and he tells us we can see our father, two by two. My oldest brother goes first, with my mother, and the rest of us pour ourselves more cups of bad coffee, in little styrofoam cups, and sit down to think our various thoughts, which we do not share.

The tech who did a cardiogram on me yesterday told me that some of the problems for which all the tests searched could be hereditary. Did someone in your family have a heart condition, she asks. I think a moment. My father, I admit. But I have my mother's heart. She spares me a small glance, but doesn't ask me what I mean.

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.