Friday, December 27, 2013

Saturday Musings, 28 December 2013

My friends,

I write this late Friday night, hoping it will greet you with your first cup of coffee or tea on Saturday morning. I have settled myself, quiet now, after a pre-birthday-party birthday party for my dearest friend Penny Thieme, she of the silver hair and the shining smile. Her original birthday party has been rescheduled due to weather and many of us cannot make the new date, so we gathered this evening, on her "real" birthday, to insure that she knows we love her. Now I am weary, but feeling content. Tomorrow, the family with whom my son and I socialized all through his childhood will come for their usual Christmas celebration with us. My heart lies with these people, these friends, these dear souls who cradle my heart and watch my back.

In addition to being Penny's 50th, today would have been my father's 91st. The feast of St. Stephen, two days after Christmas. When I think of my father, I think of forgiveness. I traded comments with a friend online yesterday, about the pain and passion we meld with our writing. "I have to censor my blog," I remarked. "One or two of my siblings sometimes read it, and I can't say too much about my childhood or my father." I watched the dialogue window, waiting for her reply. A minute or two ticked past, and finally her words appeared on the screen. "I understand," she said. A sense of connection flowed through me, a flood of unbridled joy. 

But now I think of the events that never make it to the page, and I see my father's face, always in profile. He sits in the recliner in my parents' living room, in a short-sleeved shirt with a crossword puzzle in his hands. His head tilts slightly; the paper trembles; he carefully marks a row of letters and pushes his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. I sit on the couch and watch his efforts. He seems unaware of my presence, even though I am just a half dozen feet away.  

My mother comes into the living room with a cup of coffee and sits in her chair, which flanks the table next to my father. I have come for Sunday dinner, in my second semester of college. Only the two youngest children still live here but they ate in sullen, teenage silence and have slipped off to their room. 

In a few minutes, I will have to go back to school, to the dorm room that my boss in the financial aids office pulled rank to get me, last September, when I quarrelled with my mother and she told me not to come home. Now we have an uneasy peace between us. She will run me back to the city, and we will speak, quietly, without rancor, for most of the trip.

My father finishes the puzzle and lays the paper on his little table. He crosses his legs, and suddenly looks at me. A ripple of tension flows between us. My mother is knitting but lets the piece drop to her lap. I hold my hands still and my shoulders straight. My father opens his mouth and tells me that he is proud of me. My blue eyes meet his; and I feel a kind of flutter in my chest that I cannot explain. My mother takes up her knitting again and the three of us sit for a while, with only the sound of the six o'clock news breaking the silence.

On the way back to school, my mother touches my arm. "He really is proud of you," she tells me. "And I am too." I face forward in the car, thinking about the time I refused to let my father take me to a Father-Daughter dance. When he asked if he could, if I wanted him to, I look at him with astonishment. "Why on earth would I do that?" I gasped, turning away oblivious to the cost he might pay for my candor. In the car, driving down Kingshighway Boulevard, the rush of evening traffic surrounding us, I tell this story to my mother. "What I don't understand," I say, with a hollow voice, "is why he thinks it matters whether he's proud of us, after everything he put us through." We lapse back into silence as the siren of a passing squad car slices the brittle cold of the winter air.

Someone to whom I am close recently admitted to me that she'd had difficulties in her childhood. A raging, alcoholic mother. "But nothing as bad as what your dad did," she quickly added. I assured her that there was no competition, that the degree of chaos in my childhood had no bearing on how difficult it might be for her to move past her own pain. She asked me if I had forgiven my father for the abuse he levied on my mother, my siblings and me. I did not hesitate in my answer: "Yes," I told her. "I look at it this way: My mother forgave him, and she suffered much more than I did. How could I do any less?" She stared beyond me. "I never forgave my mother," she whispered. "She never asked me to." She turned and walked away, the tension of her unforgiving heart riding the rigid muscles of her shoulders. I pitied her.

The pages of another calendar will drift to the forest floor around us, just four short days from now. I'm gathering my intentions, and sharpening my pencil, to make my list of promises. When the fireworks flare, and the crackle of the firearms sound in the night, I will be ready to embrace my resolve.

Happy New Year to all, from your devoted Mugwump,

Corinne Corley

Friday, December 20, 2013

Saturday Musings, 21 December 2013

Good morning,

I pulled into a space in a crowded parking lot, late Friday afternoon, a handful of days before Christmas. Cars passed as I slid out from behind the wheel, one hand on my cell phone, the other securing my keys. "Do you need anything from Target?" I texted to my son, and the reply came: "Oatmeal?" I stopped, oblivious to the traffic, and without so much as a moment to stop the flood of memory, I sank into 1970.

I stand in the hallway of my parents' home. The hubbub of Christmas surrounds me; my little brothers chattering about the prospect of snow, the rustle of wrapping paper, the gentle thud of a glass ornament hitting the carpeted floor. Tears rise to my face. Everything triggers the relentless flow of emotion: My father's words, sharp in tone but slurred from alcohol; the taunt of the neighborhood boys following me down the roadway home from school; the backwards glance of unthinking teenage girls; the casual flick of a dismissive hand in my direction. My body surges with the new unbidden flush of hormones, and the old, frayed edges of everything that has gone before.

I see my mother's face; heavy lines cross her forehead and a shadow lies under her half-closed eyes. "What's wrong, Mom," I ask, and she raises her head, leaning in my direction. "Nothing, nothing, just tired," she replies, in a paper-thin voice, and moves away, towards her room in the back of the house. I briefly stand absolutely motionless, then go into my own room and close the door.

I pull a box of presents from under my bed. I've spent all of my babysitting money to buy something for everyone. At a dollar an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, for most of the year, I earned enough to do my own shopping for the first time. I ease each item from the box and organize them side by side on the quilt. I brush my fingers across the soft scarf for my mother and trail them down the side of a box holding notecards for one of my sisters. I lift each one onto a swatch of paper covered with glistening stars. When they have all been wrapped, I nestle them back into the storage box and under the bed where they will stay until Christmas Eve. I lie on the bed beside the window, and stare into the night at the silent snow falling on our yard.

On Christmas morning, a jubilant din surrounds me, but I exist inside a thick wall which muffles my family's joyful noises. I look at the small stack of presents by my feet. I wait while the little boys tear through their haul, then start to open my gifts while my mother hovers a few feet away, an unchecked gleam in her eyes.  

One package stands out. It's a cylinder, about eleven inches tall and five inches in diameter. 
I glance at my mother but her face reveals nothing. I cannot tell what might be in this tube. I know the one thing that I want: a pretty blouse. One that will make me look like a young lady and not a little girl; with buttons, and a collar, and some delicate decoration. Other than school uniforms, underwear, and the pajamas our grandmother gave us each year, I had never, to that point, owned a single piece of clothing purchased brand-new just for me. But blouses do not come in tubes. Hope fades.

I ease the paper from it and see what I've got. "Quaker Oats". I draw in a quick sharp breath. 
Is this a joke? I hate oatmeal and everyone knows it. I meet my mother's eyes and she raises her brows. Oatmeal? I hate oatmeal! I feel the tears begin to rise. I touch the edge of the lid, and slowly pull the long peel of Scotch tape away. My mother watches me as I gingerly lift the lid. The last thing I want is a shower of Quaker oats spread across my long flannel nightgown.

But there are no oats in the box. I pull on the tissue in the cardboard tube and unfurl the most beautiful garment that I've ever seen. I raise the loosely coiled blouse and gently shake it, letting the soft edges fall. I have no words; I cannot breathe. I am fifteen. In my battered wooden dresser lies folded piles of hand-me-downs; my father calls me his Secondhand Rose after the Streisand song. I caress the silk. I throw my arms around my mother and we laugh about her joke. Oatmeal! I forgive her. I wear the blouse to church and cannot stop myself from fingering the tiny pattern embroidered in its cuffs. I feel divine.

A few weeks later, our furnace fails. Every inch of the house holds gleams of oil, black grime in thick unbearable sheets. We stand outside in the cold of a January night while a gruff man in denim overalls sees to the safety issues that the aging oil-powered heater poses. We look absurd, a dejected, straggling lot shivering on the sidewalk in front of our house in filthy clothing. The next day my mother dumps everything we own into the bathtub and runs the water for hours, ringing each garment out again and again, sending swells of dark water down the drain. Some things cannot be saved. My beautiful blouse has been ruined. Grey and stained, it lies among the casualties in a sodden heap on the bathroom floor.

Friday night, amid the throngs of gleeful shoppers, I filled my cart with contributions to the surprise for a family that my friends at the VALA Gallery and I have adopted this Christmas. The girls, Jasmine, age 9 and Lily, who is 2, each get a complete outfit, jackets with hoods, cute little blue jeans, and colorful tops. The 9-year-old's shirt bears a colorful unicorn, scrawled beneath which are the words "Peace" and "Love" in rainbow glitter. I pressed it against my cheeks, feeling the unbearable softness of the fabric, breathing its newness, before wrapping it. There's no adequate gift I can give their son, who sleeps in the neonatal intensive care unit, born four months too early, still only weighing a bit over two pounds. Nor can I ease his mother's fears. I don't know how much what we're able to do will help; but none of us can stand idle while they grieve and worry. 

When each gift had been wrapped and tagged, I stacked them in a new laundry basket, tucked a gift card into an envelope with the parents' names on it, and added some chocolate foil-wrapped Santas. Before going upstairs for the evening, I stood for a few minutes in the living room, next to our Christmas tree with its twinkling lights. I touched the wooden star with my name and the year of my birth which hangs beside the St. Lucia ornament. The sound of the wind rose outside, and in its wake, I heard the echo of my mother's low, husky laugh. 

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Musings, 14 December 2013

Good morning,

I have survived another Friday the 13th.  I even tempted fate, changing some Saturday morning plans to yesterday, thinking to avoid the vicious weather we expected but, it seems, have not gotten.  I fooled around the office all day, doing small things and not very well; and then mingled with scores of cheerful faces at an annual Christmas party that my husband and I attend.  Home; warmth; one young man back from college and full of stories, the other off at work.  Murmurings of television through the house; on my tablet, messages and letters from friends, then a book I have been slowly reading, a few percentages each night, to help me find a better way to communicate.  Friday, Brookside, quiet comfort.

This morning I awakened to find an article in the Kansas City Star about a pervasive pain syndrome plaguing teenage girls, the symptoms of which sound shockingly like one entire set of problems that I've had my whole life. My earliest memories are of sitting upside down on the couch telling my mother that I have to sit that way, it's the only way that doesn't hurt.  I might have been four.  I read bits of the article to my husband, then let the pages of the paper fall to the table, my mind lost in years past.  But not lost in the pain.  Rather, lost in the lengths to which my mother and sister Adrienne would go to help me deal with that pain.  Their instinctive actions, their stumbling through the dark morass of my childhood without guidance, sounds just like the therapies described in the article.

Maybe I just stopped too soon.  My neurologist at Children's Hospital in St. Louis prescribed Darvon and Valium when I started high school, and I went down the path of painkillers, a crooked road with jagged stones embedded along the smooth pavement, with gnarly roots and crevices too terrible to avoid.  I managed the journey, though not without a few turned ankles and skinned knees. Decades later, I see my self, my younger self, my current self, between the lines of the article and wonder, is there still hope?

I glance through the e-mails waiting in this morning's inbox.  On my lawyer's listserve, which I have rejoined, a debate has arisen about political discussion, the very bogeyman which drove me off the list earlier this year.  One poster pleads for civility in discourse, for abandonment of hostilities, for pursuit of pleasantries.  She's bothered by the press of time. She cites the pain of loss, the pressures of the passing days, as inspiration for a call to camaraderie. A rapid rejoinder signals a decline to heed her request, and the debates roll on. I feel what she feels: The painful sight of the empty chair, the abandoned instrument with silent strings, the book with its page marker that never again will advance. The fullness of time. The squandering of our most precious commodity.

My memories flail around me. They vie to leap to the page, clamoring to be the tale told to illustrate my idle musing. They overwhelm me. A life well-lived has a plethora of stories. Some amuse. Some instruct. Some reveal. I know what I want to say but I cannot join its telling to one triggering event today. I count on every leaf to make the tree.

Like the children in today's story, I find myself plagued by the merest touch. Fingertips on my skin send shocks through my body. A caress meant to soothe raises fire upon my flesh. So, too, do the soothing words, the conciliatory cluckings, threaten my composure. Like the reader who sees the call to civility as a threat to freedom: I wrap my independence around me and close my heart.

But in this moment, I raise my hand, with its tight, contracting fingers, and stretch the tips toward the keyboard. I flex the taught tendons and stare at the result: My reaching hand. What lies beyond its short traverse, I cannot say. Fire, perhaps. A shocking slap. Like my conciliatory colleague, who calls for peace because she's seen the passing days slashed from a calendar by the fury of rage and the silence of an unforgiving heart, I choose to raise my hand, risking rejection, but knowing that the risking is its own reward.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saturday Musings, 07 December 2013

Good morning,

Today the world remembers a catastrophic and mesmerizing event. The radio announcement resonates in the hearts and minds of Americans.  Even those of us not then born can hear that strong, clear voice: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." That date changed the lives of an entire nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor set forces in motion which would leave our country indelibly marked, from the haunting reminder of empty chairs at dinner tables to the abiding ache in the hearts of men who marched the Burma trail. War knew no color, no class, no condemnation of character. Anyone in uniform could be killed; and across the fields of France, Holland, Denmark and Poland; on the shores of Hawaii and the cities of Japan, war did not distinguish between soldier and citizen. Sixty million dead; forty million of those being civilians. The impact is palpable, measurable and everlasting.

But war does not stand alone in the ranks of devastating furies. Other forces, equally insidious but often amorphous and unseen, tear the fabric of humanity. And when I heard the news on December 05th, the day before the feast of Saint Nicholas and two days before the seventy-second anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, news of the passing of Nelson Mandela unexpectedly reminded me of the first time I encountered one of those forces.

1969. December. Corpus Christi High School, Jennings, Missouri. In homeroom, each girl received an envelope marked SECRET SANTA. I opened mine with trembling fingers. At fourteen, I remained remarkably naive. I still felt that unfettered friendship could exist; I resisted the lessons I had already been taught -- rejected the pain of standing around a corner, listening to the catty talk of mean girls. I slid out of the envelope the slip of paper on which appeared the name of the student on whom I was assigned to bestow little gifts and notes for the next two weeks, culminating in the exchange of Christmas presents. I would be her Secret Santa and somewhere in the school, someone got my name in their envelope and would serve as mine. I looked at the name. Vivian Wilson. I did not know her, but the slip described her as "Freshman" and gave her locker number. An unbidden smile rose to my face. I wanted nothing more deeply than to have friends at that place; to find people who might accept me regardless of my strange walk, regardless of my unnatural slimness and the two long, thick braids dangling from beside my ears. Perhaps "Vivian Wilson" would be such a person.

At lunch-time, I took my tray of disgusting cafeteria food to a table near the window where the dirty dishes later would be stacked. I had already humiliated myself too many times by trying to traverse the length of the cafeteria, stumbling, sending heavy plates and silverware clattering to the floor. I set my tray down, then sat on one end, far from the chummy groups of noisy females whose casual air I envied but could never imitate. I slowly ate; I rarely finished what the ladies served me, but I could nibble around the edges of sandwiches, celery, and odd piles of rice mixed with unidentifiable meat.

A few girls passed my table without glancing at me, but finally one sat, with her own tray of mess, and opened fire with a question about Secret Santa. "Who did you get," she asked. A sophomore, she was, and wise in the ways of the world. An eager little glimmer of hope rose within me. I pulled the slip out from the pocket of my uniform jacket, and offered it across the table to her. She gripped it between strong fingers, the fingers of a volleyball player, fingers that knew how to flip hair with a curling iron and roll the waistband of a uniform skirt to whisk its hem above sleekly shaven knees. Her keen eyes read the typed text. "Oh man, you got a ------------ ", and she uttered a word I cannot to this day, four decades later, abide hearing and which I will not even type as a single letter followed by asterisks.

I snatched back my paper. I shoved it back into my pocket, and stood. I had never before heard the term she used and did not even know what it meant. I would not find out until late that night, when my mother discovered me lying on my bed sobbing, unsure, uncertain, unwilling to ask. She told me though; and told me, too, what she thought of someone who would describe people using such horrible terms, a term which referenced skin-color, something as immutable as the color of one's eyes or hair, or the smattering of freckles across a little Irish lass's nose.

But there, in that moment, in the cafeteria, though I did not know what the word meant I recognized the disdain with which it had been uttered, and people's disdain for somebody just a little different from them had haunted me for all of my fourteen years.

"I don't care," I snapped. "I'm gonna be the best Secret Santa this school has ever known." And I picked up my tray, turned, and trounced away. I had never before found the strength to put bounce in my step but that day I did. I could not know, never knew, whether my skirt swayed with that sauce I'd seen other girls manage but I felt it: the unquenchable power of passion and determination.

My mother helped me understand. And she helped me, too, fulfill my promise. I rose to the Secret Santa challenge with gaily decorated cards, and little packets of candy, and streamers of red and green crepe paper carefully curled with an open pair of scissors, furling down the front of Vivian Wilson's locker, proclaiming that her Secret Santa had visited. On the last day, when everyone's Saint Nicholas brought a gift, mine exceeded the dollar limit with the aid of a smashed piggy bank and my willingness to sacrifice one of my Christmas presents to get a contribution from my mother's careful budget. I met Vivian Wilson for the first time that day, the last day before Christmas Break. The glowing look on her face more than compensated for the fact that my own Secret Santa had done absolutely nothing for me and never appeared in the whole of the Christmas party. For all I know, my Secret Santa was the sophomore who tried to shatter my happiness by throwing a rotten tomato as I stood on the stage, ready to recite my first line.

I hear my husband's tread on our stairs and turn to kiss him goodbye. He's made toast for me, and in return, I give him one of my portable packets of breakfast bars. "It's cold outside," he tells me. "Then wear a coat," I say, and off he goes, to tennis, while I am office-bound. I will sort exhibits, and prepare my cross-examination, and organize my trial box. The sky rises above our home, clear, blue and bright. The world is safe, safe for something, safe from something, and made safe by the negotiations of diplomats, the dreams of those who would be jailed for their beliefs in equality, and the bravery of those in uniform. December 7, 1941: A date that will live in infamy. But not just infamy: also, in fame, in flame, in fury and in foxholes; in history, in hearts, and in heavy shoulders, sagging at the sight of tension on the faces of the bearer of bad news. A face like yours and mine, a face which can be any color, any age, any gender. A human face.

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.