Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saturday Musings, 27 December 2014

Good morning,

I hear the recycle truck revving its engine outside, on the street which is lined with heaped trash on this last pick-up day of the year when households of the city can pile the trash and paper as high as they like without penalty.  Inside my home, I'm the only sentient being awake.  Even the dog sleeps; and it's near eight. The cat has come and gone, gobbling his dish of food without complaint before slinking back under the deck where he prefers to live.  I sit at the end of a table littered with the debris of merry-making:  A pewter bowl of fresh fruit, wadded cloth napkins, a coffee cup wrapped in cellophane filled with Christmas candy and packets of good tea, a Santa bag of home-made goodies, and a smattering overall of cheesecake crumbs.

On the buffet, a plate of chocolate-dipped pretzels which Jessica made sits beside a Snowman bowl of Jordan almonds.  My amaryllis in its stone pot, an annual gift from my best friend Katrina, rises among the displayed Christmas cards.  Boxes of Russell Stover truffles, half-empty; and red tapers in crystal candle holders, complete the tableau.

I'm not wealthy but my earnings adequately provided for a merry holiday for all of those on whom I choose to bestow gifts.  We ate a rich dinner on Christmas Eve and brought three large bags of gifts to the family with whom we spent Christmas.  And now I'm sitting with the newspaper discarded, glad of what I've been able to do to show my love for those whom I hold dear.  At the same time, I think about others, with less, with little, with nothing.

A little girl's face rises in my mind.  I might have written of her before now, but her story crowds the others, begging to be told again, again, again, and again.  Theresa, her name; I think, though if I am honest, I cannot say for certain.  It's been too long.

Forty years.

Nineteen-year-old Corinne, two years away from college graduation, living in Laclede Town, St. Louis, Missouri. A housing development east of St. Louis, the first of its kind in the country, block after block of town homes rented to federally subsidized families and St. Louis University students.  I share one with two roommates and I have the biggest bedroom.  But they have friends, and boyfriends, and full calendars while I skip class, drink too  much Scotch at the pub in Busch Student Center, and covet their lives.  On Saturdays, I go to a church hall near 14th and Mallencrot to tutor in the program where I've been a teacher since my senior year in high school.

My student has blond hair, pale skin, and the large blue eyes of an angel.  She stands  as tall as the middle of my chest if she tips her head back to peer at me.  She struggles to understand the simplest math, with which I am little help, but together we plow through the problems so we can spend time doing what we really want, which is reading.  Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Anne of Green Gables.  All books from my mother's home.  We had quickly exhausted the meager selection that the nuns provided, her fair head resting against my arm, which I wrap around her frail body in order to hold both sides of the book.  She raises one small hand to trace the words as she sounds them.

On the last Saturday before Christmas, we bring our students presents and the nuns lay out hot chocolate and cookies.  As she gobbles down the store-bought sugar cookies with the unnatural pink frosting, my little charge stares at the package which I'm holding.  A flat box, about three inches deep, ten across and as many length-wise, it fascinates her with its red and green paper and gold ribbon.  My mother, who has talents for which I've not gotten the gene, has done that scissors-trick which causes the ribbon to curl.  I co-opted her wrapping assistance over hot tea that morning, on one of my rare visits out to Jennings in this period, when relations between my mother and I still bore the strain of an argument about which neither of us has apologized.  But she did the ribbon anyway, while I brewed tea, and told her about my little girl.  She asked how much the gift had cost and when I told her, made me take ten dollars from her to cover half.

When the children had consumed their treats, we open gifts.  Theresa falls silent when she sees what her package holds:  Matching hat, scarf, and mittens in bright red knit.  She raises her eyes to my face and asks, Are these all for me? and I feel my heart spasm.  I nod, my voice suddenly failing me.  She traces the edge of the hat with one tiny finger, then moves the fabric, pulling her hand back suddenly, not lifting the items nor making any move to claim them.  My mother won't let me keep them, she tells me sadly.

Of course she will, I assure her, and then I take the hat from the box and settle it on her head.  I wind the scarf around her neck and step back.  The girl closes her eyes and puts her hands on the edge of the scarf.  Wonderment settles on her features.  It's so soft, she says.  I feel the clench in chest again.  The set had come from a discount store.  The yarn wasn't wool, or silk, or even cotton, but some cheap synthetic.  I wish, suddenly, that I had gotten something of a higher quality, something better; but I shopped where I bought my own things without thinking.

Theresa opens her eyes as the bus driver calls out across the room.  It is time for her to don her coat, a worn, short wool jacket.  I help her arrange the long scarf around her neck again, tilt the beret, adjust the little ball on its crown.  She pulls each mitten on with such care that tears spring to my eyes.  I take her hand and walk beside her to the loading place, and stand while she climbs the steps of the bus and takes her seat.  As the bus pulls away, I can still see the bright red hat on her small head, and the piercing sapphire eyes in the small tender face.  She stays twisted in her seat, one mittened hand raised toward me, as the bus pulls away and carries the children home.

The next Saturday, class is cancelled for the New Year holiday. When we resume the following week, Theresa comes with bare head, bare hands, and three inches of uncovered neck rising above her jacket.  Where is your new hat, I ask her, gently.  Children can lose things, I know.  She shrugs.   I probe no further.  That afternoon, I volunteer to take Theresa home, determined to find out what happened to the things that I had given her.  At the door of her apartment building, we rap several times on the broad, scratched wood, until we hear footsteps echo in the hollow empty stairwell.

A gaunt, rangy woman pulls the door open.  I don't notice  that she wears two coats and a sweater over a dress,from under which protrudes a pair of men's green serge pants rolled to her ankles.  What I see:  On her head, a red knit hat; around her neck, wound twice, a matching scarf.  Both too small for her; both made for a child.  Theresa turns, suddenly, and pushes at me as her mother stares with sunken eyes in her haggard face.  Go on, go away! Theresa snaps in the shrill voice of a nine-year old.  She rushes past her mother and clamors up the stairs, her small body barely making enough noise to signal her passage.  The woman gapes at me.  I stand my ground, summoning courage, trying to find the right words.  But she breaks the silence in a raspy voice:  You heard my girl, she says.  Go on, go away.

She closes the door.  The stale frigid air of the building wafts to my face in the wake of the heavy sound it makes as it meets the bent frame.

On the coat rack here at the Holmes house, four decades later, hangs four or five coats and as many scarves.  In my closet several more pull down the cheap hangers with the weight of the wool from which they are made.  Though I've spent only pennies on the dollar of their original price, buying most at consignment shops, still, I have so many winter jackets that I could outfit a small army of size two women.  Theresa, who would be nearly fifty now, might finger the edge of each coat and look at me with sorrow.  And her mother, though probably long dead now, might clutch greedily at the bounty, hugging their mass against her thin chest, burrowing in their warmth. I would be able to do nothing but let her take them and vanish, with her daughter, into the cold of the Missouri winter, huddled in my best coat, while I am left with only my memories to warm me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Musings, 25 December 2014

Good morning,

Christmas Eve at the Holmes House marked the breaking of tradition:  Presents opened before morning.  But I don't care.   Gifts remain under the tree, which Patrick and I will exchange in a bit; and another pile will go to the Taggarts for giving there.  Last night, our hearts overflowed with love, and joy, and comfort; and the gift exchange among us only symbolized our unity -- it did not cause it.

I am reminded of another Christmas; no, not the day that a baby in Bethlehem came into the world, being gently placed in a manger by his weary, contented mother.  But one in Jennings, in the home of my birth, in the late 1960s when my little brothers Stephen and Frank wanted nothing more for Christmas than a pair of sleds.

I helped  my mother wrap presents after the little boys had fallen asleep.  At 8 and 9, they could still be sent to bed early.  My father carried from the basement, two small sleds, gleaming, with pristine runners and red writing.  Not second-hand.  Mother and I exchanged glances and kept wrapping.  The air outside, cold, sharp, but dry, stubbornly refused to yield the snow lingering above us.  We knew it would come, soon, but the ground still sat dry and hard.

I crouched to stack gifts under the tree, on the old white sheet with which we had wrapped the tree stand.  Dad closed the Bible and replaced it in the glass front bookcase.  He had read outloud for us, the story of the Christ child's birth, just as he always did.  Frank had placed the cookies for Santa on the tray by the door, and I had lit the Mary candle, which would light the way for the Christ child.  The first visitor on Christmas Day would receive our blessings, and a place at our table.  We would not turn the travelers away, nor send them to the stable, claiming no room.

Mother and I stood in the doorway of the living room.  Dad took a photo of the tree with presents for eight children and a small pile, from us to our parents, sitting to one side.  Mom put  her arm around me and said, Too bad there's no snow, and we both looked at the sleds standing against the wall near the back of the tree.  Then we went to bed, and soon, no one in our home stirred.

The little boys rose first and I just behind them.  Our parents still slept, as did the older kids.  Steve and Frank jostled each other to get into the living room.  No one could touch presents until Mother gave the signal, after everyone awakened, coffee had been poured, and a tray of candy cane cookies had made its way to the living room.  But the first children awake could go into the living room and gawk, and so Frank and Steve did that day.  A few minutes passed before they saw the sleds.  And I, their next-oldest sibling, found out that they had a keen understanding about Santa Claus when Frank turned to Steve and said, Mom is going to feel so bad, giving us sleds when there's no snow.

But then: the boys moved beyond the tree, opened the front door, and peered outside.

And together, the three of us beheld the winter wonderland which had descended upon our neighborhood while we slept.

Frank and Steve started dancing, their voices rising, as they proclaimed, It's a miracle!  It's a miracle!  A Christmas miracle! and their clamoring brought my mother running, as the sound of loud children brings every mother dashing to see if someone has been hurt.  She stopped, unmindful of the cold air pouring through the open door, seeing only her joyful baby boys and the blanket of snow which would let them use the sleds which God knows how she found the money to buy.

The rest of the family awakened then; and the morning unfolded as Christmas mornings did. The opening of presents took a while, with each child exclaiming over the perfectness of each gift.  When Mom and Dad opened their presents, the child gift-giver would anxiously stand nearby while the wrapping paper got torn away and the gift revealed.  We consumed the whole tray of cookies, and thick slices of buttered Reindling.  Later, when all the presents had been admired and my father had sorted through the torn wrapping paper to be sure none of them got thrown away, my mother served, "real breakfast".  Only after bacon and eggs had been eaten did Mother release the boys to try their sleds.

As they pulled snow pants on over their blue jeans and rubber galoshes over their shoes, Mother's eyes met mine across the kitchen, and she smiled.  For just that brief moment, I felt happiness radiate from my mother.  Her eyes held mine until the sound of the boys tromping down the basement stairs and slamming the outside door faded.  And then,  she turned towards the kitchen counter with its pile of dirty dishes.  And I saw a small shudder course through her body.  But neither of us spoke.  Without saying anything, my mother and I started to do the dishes, while everyone else lounged wherever they had fallen, and outside the kitchen window, the morning sun glistened on the newly fallen snow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Merry Christmas,  Everyone.  
May this Christmas Day bring a miracle to your lives, and love, joy, prosperity; 
but most of all -- may this day bring you peace.

In Memory:

Richard Adrian Corley, 12/27/22 -- 09/07/91
Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 09/10/26 -- 08/21/85
Stephen Patrick Corley, 12/25/59 -- 06/14/97

Always In My Heart


Jessica says grace just before dinner last night.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Musings, 20 December 2014

Good morning,

A pleasant mess surrounds me.  Jessica's hat lies on top of some paperwork on which she worked last evening, next to Friday's Star.  On the buffet, opened boxes of Russell Stover's chocolates sit beside a Christmas candy bowl of Jordan almonds.  My knitting, a project started last year and still underway, flanks my favorite rocker, shoved into a blue re-useable Half-Price Books bag.  A swarm of plastic Disney snow globes spans the length of the mantel, and a pile of wrapped presents surrounds the tree.  The tree itself has been set to always lighted and one strand blinks on, off, on, off, over and over, casting a soft flickering glow on the pale yellow paint of the living room walls.  It's Christmas at the Holmes house.

I awakened this morning thinking of another Christmas, 1990. Memory flowed through me and I lay, half-asleep, thinking about that year.

By Christmas 1990, I was only two months pregnant but already large.    At two months pregnant I looked six-months gone, and the world responded.  Due any day? the old ladies would cackle, leaning forward to pat my belly.  I gave them a smile which could have meant anything.  They'd stand up, put one hand on my arm, and say, your husband must be very proud.  Then, without realizing that I still stood mute, they would tell me Merry Christmas! and stride back into the shopping crowd while I gathered my coat around me and moved off.  I did not care about the mistakes made by these women; not then, at least.  I had my baby growing inside of me and nothing else mattered.  Not their confusion over how long until the baby came nor their supposition of my marital state.  All that mattered to me:  At age 35, I finally had a chance to be a mother.

But the absence of that man beside me prompted me to pack a suitcase and drive north, to Kansas City, to spend the holidays.  The mother of my friend Alan's children, Janine, offered a place on her living room futon and I gladly accepted.  And then, just before Christmas Day itself, one of my siblings called.  Mary, Mary -- why aren't you here?  St. Louis.  Jennings, maybe; where it all began.  I called my father and asked if I would be able to stay with him, knowing the answer he would give, not knowing the one which might echo in my heart.  My mother's house, pregnant, without my mother?  I looked out the window at the grimness of the Missouri winter and shook my head.

I bought a train ticket.

I left my car at the train station and stood, shivering, in the small ante-room of the train terminal.  I pulled my coat closer and wished that I had found a ride.  Train-travel had changed.  No conductor waited to take my bag for me.  I straddled it, wondering how I would get it into the passenger car, hoist it above my seat, settle myself beneath it.  I'd gotten to be a good planner in thirty-five years of having a broken body, but now I had to shelter a little babe inside me and could not easily weather jars, jerks and jostling.

A body-less voice announced boarding time, and I shouldered my purse, anchoring it firmly against my chest. Then I pulled a glove off and grasped the handle of my suitcase, the smallest suitcase I could find, with clothing for a week and the barest collection of toiletries.  I felt a twinge as I raised it and looked down, worried, wondering.

And then I felt the warmth of another human, standing close.  Fear flushed through me but his quiet voice followed the nearness of him:  Can I take that for you, Ma'am? he said, and I turned, grateful, to look at him.  Tall, young, strong, dark-skinned, clothed in military garb.  I nodded and we made our way to the train.  The soldier put my suitcase directly above my seat and settled himself across from me.  He asked, How far are you going, and I told him, St. Louis, well, West County anyway. He pinched his forehead and told me, I'm getting off at Jeff City, but someone will help you.  I gazed at him.  He smiled and I found myself relaxing, convinced, willing to trust.

I fell asleep with my cheek against the cold window, the thin glass my only buffer from the ice and wind of the middle land between two sides of the state.  I didn't wake in Jefferson City nor see the soldier leave.

When my stop came, I rose and stood, helpless, worried, in the aisle.  I suddenly regretted bringing anything but a backpack with a single change of clothing.  But as the people around me also rose, grabbing their own belongings, a man strode down the aisle and reached over my head, I've got it, Miss, he told me.  This time, I neither questioned nor hesitated.

The man stood back to let me walk down the aisle, shielding me from the long line of travelers waiting to exit.  He blocked them with  his body, then moved my suitcase and his own towards the door and called down to a waiting train employee, Help this lady, will you? She's pregnant.  And two hands reached for me, two arms lifted me down, setting me on the pavement.  The man followed with my suitcase and behind him, the long, impatient row of travelers flowed, descending, moving around us.  I felt a stillness settle in my belly, followed by an awareness of the cold.

The man said, Is someone meeting you? and I nodded, my lips unable to move enough to let sound escape.  Then I saw my brother Mark on the other side of a small fence, casting his eyes over the group of twenty or so passengers who had gotten off at this stop so near the train's final destination downtown.  I told the man, There he is now, and the man put one hand on my arm and began moving toward my brother, bearing my suitcase, tendering me to someone else who would keep me safe.

The pregnancy advanced, as pregnancies tend to do.  The reasons for my unusual girth revealed themselves and got my doctor's attention.  By and by, my baby came into this world, enter laughing.  Though he was born in the summer, I always think of Christmas when I think about being pregnant:  Of celebrating my baby brother's Christmas birthday that year, him teasing me about being an unwed mother; going shopping with my brother in Union Station; talking with my father about what kind of cradle I might like him to build.  At that juncture, I did not know the baby's gender; nor that I carried two babies in my body on that Christmas journey, only one of whom would survive.  I only knew that ice had overtaken the world; that I was loved; and that a soldier in Jefferson City had found someone to carry my suitcase, before disembarking to share Christmas with his family.

I had intended to name my child "Elizabeth Lucille Johanna", giving the daughter which I expected three venerable names from my family.  When they told me that I would be giving birth to a boy, I struggled to decide what to call him.  But then I thought about my Christmas journey through howling wind on a cold train, and I decided to name him "Patrick" after my brother who was born on Christmas.  When that boy was two or three, we were out Christmas shopping and a lady with unnaturally curly hair bent down to ask him if he knew whose birthday came on Christmas.  Sure I do, my son chirped.   Uncle Steve's!

Happy Birthday, Stephen Patrick Corley. I hope you're having a white Christmas on the banks of the river where you rest.

And to that soldier who helped me -- wherever he is -- and the man who carried out the soldier's mandate to insure my safe disembarkment from that train, my belated but nonetheless sincere thanks for your assistance.  Though only one of the babies who slept within me made it through that strange pregnancy, your efforts kept me from falling on the pavement, or tumbling over the suitcase, or feeling completely desolate, on the long journey home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Stephen Patrick Corley
HS Graduation Picture, 1978 -- Jennings High School
Our Christmas basket and table cloth make the dining room festive.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
From Your Missouri Mugwump.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Musings, 13 December 2014

Good morning,

Rubble surrounds me on the dining room table:  Jessica's old computer sits beside her new one; a box which came from St. Louis and holds Christmas presents for wrapping lies at the opposite end; two plants expire quietly in their pots flanking either side of Trudy's bowl full of shells, shells given to me by friends Jane and Diana albeit decades apart.  I sit amid the happy mess and eat lemon-flavored yogurt from the carton, drink re-heated coffee, and gaze around with pleasure.  I like my house.  It quintessentially and perfectly reflects my little plebeian soul; the soul of the great-granddaughter of a peddler, the daughter of a dreamer, the mother of a writer.  I could not feel better than I do right this moment.  

I close my eyes for a few brief seconds and realize that this table could be the table in my mother's home; that this  morning in Kansas City could be a morning in Jennings; the whirring furnace could be the one in my parents' basement.  And I close my eyes again, and I am there, not on one of the ragged nights when my father let the noose of alcohol tighten around him; nor on Saturday, when he dragged himself from bed with bleary eyes; but on Sunday, when the world started anew.  

I stand now, gazing into a kitchen fragrant with sizzling bacon and perking coffee.  My mother's back is toward me, She wears an apron and I see she has tied the bow upside down.  My heart twinges at the sight of the lopsided loops.  She pivots, then, and the pale brownness of her face smooths beneath my glance.  Her eyes brighten before her mouth becomes a smile.  Mary, she says.  Hello, how was church?  I feel for a moment as though no morning will ever be as peaceful.

She's holding an egg in one hand, my mother is.   I see the yellow Pyrex bowl on the counter beside the canister of flour.  I'm making Schmarren, my mother comments.  Do you want to mix it?  I cross the kitchen to the cabinet drawer where my mother keeps the kitchen linens.  My mother has not gone to church with us this day; she might have gone to five o'clock mass the night before, or to an earlier service.  She's stayed behind, in any event, to make breakfast.  I hear the two little boys clamoring for the comics in the living room, their sudden laughter quieted by a deep-toned chide.  My father.  I shake my head a little and tie an apron over my dress. 

I am thirteen; the little boys are 9 and 10; I feel tender towards them in ways that I will never understand but accept.  As I take up the wooden spoon, they begin to play with the tinsel on the Christmas tree and my father speaks more sharply to them, cautioning them against breaking the glass balls.  My mother and I exchange a glance which neither of us explain.  For myself, I'm thinking, that's something fathers do, right?  I tell myself the answer lies on her face but I do not ask the question out loud.

My mother speaks the recipe again, as though I haven't been making Schmarren since I could stand on a bench to reach the work space.  I don't need the bench now nor the lesson, but I let her remind me:  four eggs, a cup of flour, a half-cup of milk, a half-cup of sugar.  Four to one to one-half to one-half.  And stir, just lightly:  yes.  I follow her voice and the eggy batter appears in the bowl, and I look to her for approval.  She touches my arm.

A cast iron pan has been heating on the front burner, and now I put two tablespoons of butter in it, turning the electric heat down to medium as the yellow squares melt.  When the bottom of the pan glistens, I slowly pour in the batter and scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  My mother reaches around me, to turn the bacon, and for a moment her scent surrounds me and I am taken into her pores, where her being lives, where the pain she feels and the joy she gives and the life of her gathers.  I do not move.  

Then my mother shifts, and turns back to the counter for the forks which she's laid there.  I move aside, reaching to the shelf above the stove for a bowl of cinnamon sugar.  And as my mother breaks the Schmarren into pieces with the forks, I sprinkle the sweet mixture into the pan.  Soon the pieces of the Austrian pancake have browned, and they shine with drops of butter to which the sugar clings.  My mother turns the heat off and sets down the forks.  She smiles at me.  My heart soars.

Now I am older than my mother ever lived to be.  I am older than she was on that Sunday morning, when she showed me, for the thousandth time, how to properly cook an Austrian pancake.  The Christmas tree twinkles in my living room; and the dog sleeps in her bed.  I have no church at which to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  But this evening I will sit at the Stony Point Church and listen to Elizabeth Carnie sing "I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas", and afterwards, I will sit in the living room of Ellen Carnie's farmhouse.  We will drink wine, and talk about whatever friends may share.  I will sleep in the spare bedroom, surrounded by the muslin curtains, the old dolls, and the scent of a home where love flavors every dish cooked in the warm bright kitchen.  In the morning, perhaps Ellen will let me make a pan of Schmarren, and I will tell her about mornings in Jennings, and she will hold me if I cry.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

I googled "schmarren" and clicked "images", and this appeared.  This closely resembles my mother's Schmarren. The page on which this photo appears is in German, so I don't know if the recipe is the same.  Ours came from a little card in my mother's cookbook, but I also have found it in a book called "Cooking the Austrian Way".

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Musings 06 December 2014

Good morning,

It's Little Christmas, known to Roman Catholics as "the Feast of St. Nicholas".  As a child, I was told that St. Nicholas brought cold coins for girls who could not marry because of being too poor to pay dowries.  We left our shoes out at night (boys and girls alike) and in the morning, gold-wrapped chocolate coins nestled in the heel of the shoe.  We'd bargain with our mother for leave to consume them for breakfast.

I'm tardy with my Musings today because last evening was the Holiday Open House at my office suite.  This successful gathering followed on the heels of my whirlwind trip to Stanford for evaluation by an Infectious Disease doctor there who specializes in the virus which has re-activated in me and now tromps all over various parts of my innards with glee.  The long and short of my medical journey to San Jose:  I qualify for the new drug; they have ordered it for me; and I gifted them with 13 vials of blood.  I'll return in 90 days, give them another 13 vials of blood to see if the little pill has done its job; and continue putting my best foot forward.

But the more intriguing part of my journey happened the day after my eight hours on the Stanford campus, when I embarked on the eastward voyage back to Kansas City.

I had succumbed to one inevitable and acknowledged that I would have been foolish to try to walk the length of the San Jose airport unassisted.  I checked a bag and self-identified as needing assistance.  Immediately, a slender gentleman, no taller than me and barely weighing more than my carry-on bag, appeared with a wheelchair and a smile.  I settled myself into the seat, balanced my bag on one of the footrests (I'm too small to need two), and away we went.

My escort whisked me past two long lines and through security.  I already get body scans due to having metal in my legs, so the biggest benefit to being "wheelchair-assist" lay in being first.  The San Jose airport would give a track star pause to consider if she had consumed enough carbs to traverse its length without flagging, so priority at the various points of access meant a quicker trip. My attendant took me to the proper counter, and I was given a preboarding pass, and then the man wheeled me to the gate, where I settled for a two-hour wait.

Minutes later, I heard the gate attendant tell someone, "All flights to Las Vegas have been canceled, they've been announcing it since six-thirty this morning."  My stomach clenched:  I was routed through Las Vegas to KC.  I released the brakes on the chair and inched myself over to her counter.  I extended my paperwork and asked for assistance; within minutes, the gate attendant had moved me down the concourse to Kristen, a Southwest Airlines customer service agent, and I had been rebooked through LAX on a flight which landed at 4 and a connection which would normally leave at 4:15 but which Kristen assured me had already been downgraded to 'three hours late', allowing me to make the connection with ease.  I had never been glad to hear about a late flight before that instant!

As Kristen handed me the new ticketing, she apologized for the problems and for the fact that I'd be arriving in KC at 12:40 a.m. instead of 9:40 p.m.  "Oh don't worry," I told her.  "The person meeting me won't be upset."  She looked startled, then let a smile creep across her tired face.  "Please tell that person that Kristen from Southwest Airlines says, Thank you."  I told her I would, and in a few minutes, another tiny human had wheeled me to my new gate, Gate 24, and parked me in the Designated Pre-Boarding Area.  I looked around for the Group W bench but alas, nowhere to be found.

A woman trudged over to the seat beside my wheelchair and landed in it with a thud.  I glanced over at her pinched face, noticing deep lines around her eyes, the furrow of her brow, and the downward tilt of her mouth.  I noticed, too, that she carried a Vera Bradley, so I led with that:  Nice handbag.  She looked down at it and said, Thanks, but it's old.  Ah, me.  Not a bright-sider, this one.

I asked her if she lived in San Jose.  I wish I still did, she told me.  I'm living in Los Angeles now, in a condo on the beach. It's miserable.  She shook her head.

I don't know much about Los Angeles, condos, or beaches, but I've seen enough reality shows to know that the combination is much to be desired by Californians.  I asked her, Why do you live there if you don't like it? and she replied, I wanted a fresh start but I hate it.  A friend was supposed to move out there with me and came but left after two weeks. He said he missed San Jose and his girlfriend. Now he's my ex-friend. She shook her head again, and I saw pain and bitterness mar her face.  I'm sixty-seven, she continued.  I'm not supposed to be alone.  I'm going to need help soon and I'm supposed to have help.  This wasn't the way my life was supposed to go.  And I swear, a tear rolled down her face and I thought, Oh my dear, oh my dear:  I totally understand how you feel but we must just forge new paths, my dear.  I bit back that thought and instead asked how she spent her time, in the condo, on the beach, in Los Angeles.

The tightness of her face eased a fraction.  I've taken up painting, she tells me.  I never painted before but I bought supplies and I'm painting.  I like happy paintings best.  I'm going to paint until every inch of the walls of the condo is covered with a canvas that I've painted.  Just then, a woman wearing a Southwest Airlines employee badge and a backpack crossed in front of us.  The woman next to me said, That lady is going to Disneyland with her family but she works for the airlines and she's been answering questions for everybody all morning.  We contemplated this for a while, and then the lady sighed and stood.  I better go to the bathroom, she told me, and trundled off.

A few minutes later, a heavy-set man in work-out clothing settled into the chair which she had vacated.  His face blazed with good humor; he met my eyes and broke into a grin.  Did you see those guys over there, he asked  me.  They play for the Warriors, I'm sure they do!  I didn't know who the Warriors were and said so, and he explained -- basketball.  His face continued to shine as he settled a small duffel under the seat and dropped a page of newsprint and his pre-boarding pass on the chair beside his.  I asked what ailment allowed him to preboard and he said, I got a bum knee, and stretched his feet as though to prove it.  He had sturdy, solid legs and massive calves.  He looked like someone who pounded pavement, or a treadmill, or a football field.  But I let it go.  Some disabilities cannot be seen.

The man said, What you going to LA for? and I briefly shared about the Las Vegas airport, fog, connecting flights.  Oh, sister, that's too bad! he replied, and shook his head.  His head shake evoked the opposite of his words.  On him, the motion said, But here you are!  And that's a good thing! and I felt my mouth twitch with good humor.  A few minutes later, I realized that the free hotel breakfast had not sufficiently caffeinated me and I asked the man to watch my bag while I got coffee.  He said, Sure, sure; can you manage that thing? meaning the wheelchair, and I said, I'm going to walk, watch the chair, too; I don't think I could go anywhere without it.  He beamed.  I walked the short distance to the Peet's Coffee and threw all caution to the wind. I ordered a Carmel machiatto with almond milk just because I'd never had one.

While I stood waiting, another miniature being wheeled a heavy-set, scowling woman to the counter.  The woman in the wheelchair surveyed the cooler and said, Is that all the bottled water they have?  I don't want that bottled water!"  And she hollered across the counter:  You got better bottled water than this?  I don't want this kind!" and everyone within a ten-foot radius cringed.  I put a dollar in the tip jar and moved to take my coffee and hobble back to Gate 24 and the cheerful guy with the bum knee.

He said, Okay, it's my turn, I'm gonna go find a hot dog, will you watch my bag?  Just then, the recorded voice announcing flights reminded us, If any unknown person asks you to carry anything for them, please decline, and the two of us started laughing.  He took out an ID wallet and showed me a license with his name and picture.  We shook hands and declared ourselves known, and then he went off to find a hot dog.  Five minutes later he came back with a fish taco and the information that the basketball players were from the Warriors' D-league team and were going to LA for a game against LA's D-league team.  I asked him how he knew and he said that he had just walked up to one of them and started a conversation.  No strangers to this guy, no siree:  Everybody is a future friend to Vic, the part-time body guard from Los Angeles.  (Part-time body guard, full-time Verizon employee.)

When our flight was called, another short airport employee whisked me over to the door and down the walkway to the plane.  I refrained from commenting on his stature but thought to myself, Maybe being small is in their job description.  The flight attendant asked me if I could walk from the chair to a seat on the plane and I told him yes, the chair was just to get sympathy from other passengers, and we all had a good laugh.  I took a middle seat because I, too, am short and sitting in the middle is not uncomfortable for me.  Soon members of the San Jose Warriors D-League team started filing past me.  People high-fived them, wished them luck and, in the case at least of the part-time body guard, started schmoozing them for tickets.  I'm not sure people realized they were not the Warriors themselves, as they all wore Warriors warm-up jackets. But nobody really cared.  We had a plane full of very tall, good-looking young men and we all gawked shamelessly. They grinned back and settled down with their head phones and iPads.

We landed in Los Angeles on the smoothest wheels I've eer felt.  Vic looked across the aisle from me, raised his eyebrows, and grinned.  We do it better here, he seemed to be telling me.  I wondered if the lady with the condo on the beach might like Vic but I didn't see her in the departing passengers and anyway, Vic deserved someone a little more cheerful.

When all the Warriors had sauntered past me, the flight attendant told me that my ride had arrived.  He reached down and easily lifted my computer bag while I clutched my pocketbook, and moved myself across the plane's threshold to lower myself into yet another wheelchair.  I said, Don't worry, I won't fall, that would mean too much paperwork, and we all chuckled, including the elf behind the chair.  Yes, folks, you guessed it:  I outweighed my assistant by at least ten pounds, and I only weigh 106 (110 fully clothed, with shoes).  I think they breed wheelchair assistants for diminutive size in a mill somewhere in northern California.

But the guy knew his stuff and started down the concourse with a deftness that had  the wind whipping in my face.  I must admit, it felt exhilarating.  Sure, I can walk, as you all know -- but why walk when you can fly?

 As we sailed past the weekend travelers at an astounding speed, my guide told me he had come from Viet Nam six years ago, lived in a rented room in some one's house while he saved money, and that America is the best place to live "in the world".

My new friend parked me by a pillar and scooted himself to the edge of the customer service counter.  I saw a Southwest Airline employee move towards him.  A slender blond head leaned towards a small brown face; and a pre-boarding pass crossed from hand to hand.  Only in America!

With my special ticket now stapled to my original boarding pass, we started off towards Gate 12 which I am here to tell you, is a "far piece" from the customer service counter where we had secured the pre-boarding pass.  By that time, my broken tooth had started to ache.  My assistant (I never got his name, sad to say) asked me if I needed to stop "for the Ladies' room, for food, or for anything else Madam might need" en route.  I thought, instantly, Tylenol, and into a store we went, with the clerk breaking her routine to smile at my attendant and point to the little rack of tiny boxes of medical necessities.  I got a tube of Tylenol, a bottle of water, and off we went, my wallet seven dollars thinner.

At the gate to my KC flight, the little man from Viet Nam almost didn't accept my tip but I insisted.  Perhaps that's his normal routine:  A show of protest, then a grudging acceptance and a heartfelt thanks.  But it seemed genuine.  I watched him speed off while listening to something in an earpiece, and thought, Off to help someone else.  Lucky someone else! 

With two hours until boarding, I gazed around for a diversion.  I could always read but talking to people passes the time more quickly.  The guy in the wheelchair next to mine had a large blue bag in his lap, a John Grisham novel, and an old flip phone.  Is the book good, I asked; and twenty minutes later, knew the whole plot.  I shifted my hips, shook my shoulders, and started looking around for someone that might know where the ladies' room was hiding.

The man in the Southwest Airlines uniform standing next to me asked me if I needed anything.  I admitted my need and he walked over to the gate attendant and whispered.  When he came back, he said, they'll call for someone, and asked me if I was on the next flight.  I shook my head.  "Kansas City," I told him. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I knew that flight had been delayed.  I assured him I did and asked him what he was waiting for, and he told me, I fly airplanes, and I'm piloting the next flight out of this gate.  We shared a few minutes of silence then he spoke again:  It's funny, he said.  Fifteen years ago, a doctor gave me six months to live.  Now I have a nine-year old daughter and fly planes all over the country.  I felt the joy exuding from him.  When the doors opened for the crew to walk down to the aircraft, I told him, Godspeed, and he replied, Every day.  Every day.

The lady who came to wheel me to the restroom couldn't have weighed more than eighty pounds nor stood taller than four-feet-ten.  But she eased me through the evening travelers with a lilting cry of, Coming through!  Excuse me please!  Coming through!  Excuse me please! and parked me at the door of the women's room from which a long line snaked.  But when I stood to walk to the end of the line, the person closest to the entry said, Come on in! and took my elbow.  She guided me through the sea of tired women, with their heavy handbags and their wrinkled jackets, saying to the group at large, This lady needs the accessible stall.  When I exited, she was waiting, and parted the sea of ladies to see me safely back to the waiting airport attendant.  Within minutes, I was parked back in my old space, this time by a man traveling to see his niece get married,  who had five hours to kill before the next flight to Las Vegas, and intended to spend it talking to anyone who sat beside him, because why not?  It beats feeling sorry for myself!  He told me that his sister didn't know his niece had invited him; that his husband had warned him not to go because the mother of the bride would be angry; but he was going anyway.   Because Why Not?  I'm her only Uncle! and I could see the wisdom in that.

I can still walk, and plan to walk every day of my life just as my mother instructed me so many years ago.  If you walk every day of your life, you will walk every day of your life, she would say.  So keep walking.  And  I do:  on my lily white spastic legs, in varying degrees of good humor; sometimes gritting my teeth; sometimes wincing; sometimes just pulling up my big-girl panties, sucking it up, lacing the Doc Martens, and trundling on.  I resist using a cane, a walker, and, God forbid, a wheelchair.  I fight the slow but steady progress of the decline of my ability and intend to live to be one-hundred and three, just as I promised my son when he was five and asked me if I would die before he got old.  And I plan to nag him every day of his life, as I said I would, though I see less and less opportunity to do so as he soars above me in his quest to live a wonderful life.

All of that said:  As I settled into my seat on the flight from LAX to MCI, which would, ultimately, land at 12:45 a.m., I found myself grateful for a day spent in a wheelchair, riding in various corridors, in two airports, in rainy California.  What a wonderful opportunity, after a long year full of personal trials and national tragedies, to meet so many pleasant people with smiles to spare, and moments of generosity to give me.  The lights dimmed in the airplane as we started into the air, and the young man sitting by the window leaned toward me.  Can I help you with that packaging, he said, gesturing to the granola bar that I had taken out to be my supper.  As I handed it to him, I realized that I had been smiling since I left my hotel room at 10:00 a.m.  I was smiling still when we landed in Kansas City, and another person, smaller in stature even than I am, moved towards me with a blue wheelchair.  Welcome to Kansas City, ma'am, he said, and away we went.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Musings, 29 November 2014

Good morning,

I'm in St. Louis.  Though it's been a night to prove that gluten does impact my neurology, nonetheless, I'm feeling fine.  I have much for which to be thankful, starting with a Eureka! moment which I had in January of 2013, in the middle of a winter's night.

I awakened suddenly, sitting ramrod straight in bed, exclaiming, Didn't my brother Stephen have another daughter?  I couldn't wait for sunrise; I called my sister Joyce immediately and demanded that she tell me if she knew.  You woke me at 5:00 a.m. to ask this question, she all but grumbled.  She cleared her foggy brain and then said, in wonder, Yes, yes, I think he did.  Wasn't his girlfriend back then named Sherry?

I pondered for several days.  All I could recall fit into a five-minute recitation.  Steve's girlfriend Sherry had a baby; the baby had something wrong with her; my mother bought the baby some medical supplies; the baby came to our house a few times.  Following that: a void.  My brother Stephen, dead these 17  years, could not easily be consulted.  My mother, gone for 29 years, remained silent.  My brain could not pull any more details from its morass of forgotten family tales.

So I did what any red-blooded twenty-first century American with a quest would do:  I got on Facebook.

I didn't announce to the entire world that I was striving to determine if my deceased baby  brother had a daughter and where she might be, if so.  I exercised just a smudge of discretion.  I found a Facebook page for graduates of my brother's high school and posted there:  If anyone here was friends with my brother Stephen Corley, please message me.  I got a note within a day from Jane Neske-Beckerle, who identified herself as having gone to school with Steve but not having known him very well.  She offered to ask others, privately; people whom she believed had known my brother better than she had.  

Two months later, she messaged again.  She had a name, she knew someone who knew my long-lost niece, and they had talked to my niece's mother's sister and decided that I should give them my contact information and they would give it to my niece.  Amy.  My niece Amy.  Amy Marie Barrale, now married to Harlan Broch and now known as Amy Marie Barrale Broch.  My niece.  My brother's other daughter.

It's a delicate thing, reaching into the past to talk to children of a man who did not raise them.  I had done this previously, with a beautiful girl who had been his daughter and who had been adopted by her stepfather.  The initial foray into that terrain had been nearly disastrous, and seventeen years had been needed to mend the battle scars, assuming that they have ever healed.  I did not want to cause anyone else to suffer just because I had a desire to see a face which bore my brother's stamp.  So I acknowledged the wisdom of the course of action which Jane suggested and tendered my information.

A few weeks later, I had my answer, and timidly reached out to Amy through her Facebook page.

Later that year, my son and I drove to Washington, Missouri where Amy and her husband live, and we four met for the first time.  I would have found her in any crowd.  Though she has her mother's Italian coloring and small stature, the contours of her face are pure Stephen Patrick Corley.

This Thanksgiving, my son Patrick and I are back in St. Louis. We had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat on Thursday mid-day, at the home of the incomparable Puma, Joyce Kramer.  We journeyed slightly west, to St. Peter's, to share a meal that evening with another Joyce, my sister Joyce Corley.  We got up on Friday morning and drove out to Ferguson, to see some of the ruination of the riots  in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision not to charge the officer who shot Michael Brown, who, like my brother, cannot speak for himself.  Part of his story met us in the graffiti on the restaurants and shops of Ferguson, which spoke of love conquering hate.  We drove slightly east, to Jennings, to see my childhood home; and then to my old high school, once teeming with laughing girls and now an immense, lonely edifice with boarded windows.  Afterwards, we sat, with the Puma, eating her scrumptious tuna salad and listening to a teleconference on the emotional whiplash of the events in Ferguson and how the world might start to change, hosted by a trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication.  And then we went west, to Kirkwood, and had dinner with Amy and Harlan.

They make good dinner companions.  They tell funny stories and relate to one another with palpably genuine affection.  They exude warmth, compassion and tenderness.  Amy has Sherry's sassy, saucy smile but she also has the contours of Stephen's face.  She feels like family.  She calls me "Aunt CC" and remembers my siblings' names.  As we talked last evening, I suddenly realized that even more than what I recall of Sherry Barrale and the occasional, poignant flash of Stephen's smile, Amy reminds me of my mother.  My mother.  Her grandmother.

The four of us hugged in the parking lot of the Italian restaurant where we  had dined rather more lavishly then we might have intended.  We agreed that the accidental find of the place had pleased us all.  We vowed to meet there again, perhaps at Christmas.  We talked about a visit that they might take to Chicago where Patrick lives; and the hope that in the spring, they would come to Kansas City.  And then my niece, my brother Stephen's long-lost oldest daughter, got in her husband Harlan's pick-up truck and drove away.  

I'm still smiling.  I am immeasurably thankful for whatever force prompted me to waken, suddenly, from a deep sleep, eighteen months ago, remembering that she existed.  I'm even more grateful for the chain of people who drew her back to me.  Ultimately, I suppose, I am thankful that she welcomed me into her life, and that she holds me and my family no ill will.  For she smiled last evening when she told me that in her jewelry box at home, she has her father's class ring, which her mother gave her five years ago just before she herself died unexpectedly.  And she was still smiling as we parted.  She put her arms around me, in that parking lot, at Thanksgiving time, and I realized that I had come to a restaurant where I could indeed get anything I wanted.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

(with apologies and thanks to Arlo Guthrie)

My niece Amy Marie Broch and myself.

A sign on a boarded building in Ferguson, Missouri, 28 November 2014.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Saturday Musings, 22 November 2014

Good morning --

For it nears morning, this night does, with its quiet almost soothing traffic noises drifting upward toward my hideaway atop this Brookside bungalow.  My constant friend, the ringing in my ears, fills my head and blocks most other sounds.  Tonight its symphony soothes me though at times the crescendos which crash through the corners of my mind deafen, driving me to pause, to look around, to wonder, Are these noises bothering anyone but me?  I don't think they do but I'm never really sure.

The witching hour approaches.  Darkness presses against the window panes.  Amidst the violins which keen inside this dim brain of mine, I hear another echo:  A muffled voice, garbled, as though struggling to reach me from within a heavy shroud, saying, I cannot bear to cause you any more pain. Losing myself in those words, I fall back into the pages of time and I am twelve again.

I lie on a stiff sheet, atop a thin pad which in turn skims the cold surface of a metal table.  The surrounding air carries no speck of warmth.  The gown into which a nurse has slid my small body pools around me though still, for all its excess fabric, I am barely covered.  My legs tremble.  I have been placed on the table and left, alone.  No mother; no nurse; not even a faceless being to stand over me and hold my hand.  I shiver.  I know why I am there.  I complained about the pain in my legs, and suddenly, I found myself in a bed, in a room, with a curtain around me; and now, this.

From somewhere behind me a door opens, then closes with an ominous crash.  Two white-coated figures swiftly move into my field of vision.  Both men, both wearing name tags which I cannot read because the same person who stripped off my nightgown and pulled the drape around me had taken my glasses.  I strain to focus the blur which I know to be their faces.  I can't tell if they are smiling.

One pulls a stool towards my table and perches on it, shifting back and forth.  The other stands to the right, and they murmur to each other.  I long to know what they are saying but I cannot hear them; they speak in whispers, their faces angled away from my gaze.  Finally they turn to me and I see their mouths curve. I think, They are not smiling, just as the one who has remained standing speaks.

We're going to do the procedure now, he intones.  I wonder, Is he talking to me? and barely finish my thought when the other man suddenly raises his arm in a swift motion that I think will turn into a slap but turns out to be a reach, instead:  for a cloth on which some instruments have been placed.

I stare at what he's holding:  A needle, the biggest I've ever seen.  I'm suddenly frightened.

The man on the stool tells me to turn my back towards him.  Something cold brushes against my skin and I jerk.  The man says, "you have to hold still" and I close my eyes.  "This won't hurt," he tells me and then I feel something plunge into the small of my back and I know, I am sure, that I am going to die because there is fire in my back, shooting down my legs.  I start to cry.

The standing man moves around until he can see my face.  No one speaks for a minute.  The inferno in my back begins to lap upwards, toward my shoulder blades.  I feel tears falling on the sheet.  The man behind me says, "this is the first time I've done this" and I heave; I feel the bile rise and the standing man says, "now honey you can't move" and places  both hands on my shoulder and squeezes me.

I close  my eyes.

I give myself to the pain.

It's over in a little while.  The vise that's held me down relaxes and I sag against the examining table.  The one who jabbed me comes around to the front, snapping off the plastic gloves he has worn, tossing them into a waste basket.  I study him; the smooth forehead, the short hair, the lone curl slipping down over his forehead, almost to his eyebrows.  I see that he carries uncertainty in the red rims which surround his hazel eyes.

"For the record."  I finally speak.  They both turn to me, astonishment on their faces.  I hesitate:  perhaps I have died; why else would they look so puzzled to hear my voice.  "For the record," I continue, "it does hurt."  Neither of them respond.  The one who used me as his experiment, his trial run at doing a pediatric spinal tap, lets the dark rise within him.  We stare at each other until a nurse comes to take me back to my room where I sit up to talk to a candy striper a half an hour later and learn what pain really is:  No one told me about spinal tap headaches, no one warned me to lie perfectly flat.  I wonder, as the night attendant brings me morphine, whose job that was.

Now, nearly fifty years later, I listen to the howl of the night wind and close my eyes. I can no longer recall the face of that doctor.  All I can see are his eyes, murky green pools with pinpoint black irises.  I can't remember his voice.  It has faded, lost among the choruses, the rising swell of all the voices telling me something would not hurt, promising that they would not cause me any more  pain.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Note:  For some reason, the Neko Case song "Nearly Midnight in Honolulu" triggered the memory which I recount for you today.  The spinal tap, the first of several I have had, took place in 1968 at Children's Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.  I do not know who the doctor was -- perhaps he was only an intern.  I have often wondered what became of him.  I hope he forgave himself for lying to me.  Or, if not actually lying, then reassuring me from ignorance.  I have forgiven him.

Here is a YouTube link to a beautiful live performance of the Neko Case song:

Neko Case singing, "Nearly Midnight In Honolulu"

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Musings, 15 November 2014

Good morning,

The begonias wave their leggy arms at me, searching for light from the unopened curtains.  My dog snores in her bed, an unwitting reminder that I must dash to the vet's office before the snow accumulates and get her medication.  My bones protest each shift in my chair and I think:  Remind me again why you like winter?  I tell myself, It's the clothes.  I look better in winter clothes.    I laugh out loud, the sound of my brief amusement blending with the dog's gentle rumbling.

I think about Thanksgiving and begin to ruminate over that for which I'm thankful.  I bend against the list of disappointments, straining to shift my focus from that which clamors to the surface: what I lament.  I close my eyes and will myself to draw the gratitude from within me.  And as I wait, memories flow into the vacuum.

It's 1977.  I have come home.  I've failed in Boston:  I've abandoned my place at BC, quit my job, packed my metal rocking chair and boxes of clothes which don't fit and ridden west in my mother's car, my brother Kevin behind the wheel.  I've spent the fall cajoling SLU into giving me my spot back in its non-master's track PhD program in the poli-sci department, and found a job with the Knights of Columbus' not-for-profit development program as a secretary in the three-person office.  I'm living with my parents.  My brother Stephen, 18, lives there as well, and the two of us grouse around the house feeling sorry for our sad selves, me drinking too much Scotch at night and both of us burning our mouths each morning with my father's over-perked coffee.  

Fall wanes.  Winter settles on Jennings, on its old asphalt streets and its cracked concrete sidewalks.  My mother has me help her spread mulch over the garden beds and bundle yard debris which my father ties with strong twine.  I sit on the wide brick porch in an old flannel shirt that one of the older boys left behind, covered with an afghan, working crossword puzzles and complaining.  My mother comes and goes and largely ignores my belly-aching.  She does not indulge me but neither does she challenge me.  I'm letting my hair grow again and losing weight, the weight of nine months in a city with a Mug and Muffin shop at every T-stop.  

November rumbles forward. My brother Frank lights fires in Minnesota as a freshman at Carleton College.  My mother keeps me updated on him, causing envy to unfurl within me and tear my innards with its relentless claws.  I read "The Bell Jar" for the hundredth time and wonder if it's too late to be a writer.  I scribble self-indulgent poetry in a notebook and avoid my mother's amused glances.  

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mother forces me to go to the grocery store with her.  We fill the cart with cans of broth, a large turkey, flour, bags of cranberries, whole sweet potatoes.  I push the buggy along beside my mother as she crouches to retrieve raisins, reaches for whipping cream and butter.  Salted and unsalted.  I idly wonder why we need both.

On Thursday, my mother raps on the bedroom door shortly after dawn.  I've been out late, drinking with my leftover boyfriend from college who should be with his real girlfriend but finds my sullenness perversely attractive and has taken up with me again instead.  So I ignore her first knock and she pushes open the door.  "Mary," she says, softly.  "It's time to get the clover leaf rolls started."  

I can't refuse.

In a short while, hands washed, jeans tugged on, flannel shirt wrapped around me, I'm elbow deep in flour and my mother has put on the John Phillips Sousa marches on KMOX radio.  I hear my father talking to the dog in the living room, and close my eyes.  The sweetness of butter fills my nostrils, mixed with the acrid coffee fragrance, the scent of Pine-sol from the kitchen floor, and the bite of cinnamon from pies cooling on the shelf above the kitchen counter.  

There, in my mother's kitchen, with my arms covered in flour, I begin to weep.  My tears drip from the curve of my cheek and fall into the dough.  My mother reaches over and dabs my face with a paper napkin.  We do not speak.  I knead the mixture which I have created, for the clover rolls that I have eaten every year for as long as I can remember, certainly for the two decades since my crooked teeth came into the small cavern of my toddler mouth.  Paul Harvey tells The Rest of The Story and I shape the dough into its three balls per roll, placing them in the greased wells of the cupcake tins, covering the pans with clean towels and placing them out of the way so I can start to peel potatoes.  My mother says, "Let's have some Reindling," and I stop what I'm doing, sit down at the breakfast room table, and let her bring me a piece of buttered raisin bread on a purple Melmac plate.  She refills my coffee cup and we just sit, eating, drinking, while the dough rises in the kitchen and the radio plays.

The snow has not yet started.  My coffee has grown cold and I'm feeling that the yogurt which I ate two hours ago might not be enough.  I'm regaining my appetite after a month when the sight of food sickened me.  The furnace roars into life and I look out the front window, at the greyness of the sky looming above my barren yard, with its blanket of fallen leaves.  I see, just over the edge of the sill, the purple leaves of my Japanese maple.  I suddenly wonder if there's anything I can do to insure that it survives another winter under ice.  As the silence of the house surrounds me, I notice that it is not yet snowing.  Somehow, the clearness of the air encourages me, and I head to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Saturday Musings, 08 November 2014

Good morning,

In  my ears the radio talks of violence in Mexico and murdered students.  As the reporter's voice floods my head, the ghost of complaints which crowded my soul on waking slip away.  My aches, my pains, my grief, my loss: they feel slight compared with the concept of a mass grave and burning bodies.  I tell myself that life is not a competition, it's an exhibition; but I do not believe that in this moment.  And so I pour my coffee, and let the dog out into the yard, and pour some food into the cat's dish, and sit down at the computer to try and make some sense of what I feel.  Or what I have experienced.

Someone recently told me that I do my best writing when I speak of persons other than myself.  When you write about yourself....he began.  Then he shook his head.  I stood mute and wondered:  When I write about myself the quality of my writing degenerates?  The stories bore you?  The events disturb you?  The joys fill you with envy?  I did not speak the questions nor receive any answers and the moment passed.

I'm thinking this morning not of myself but of a man whom I knew thirty-five years ago, when I worked at a drug store in St. Louis's Central West End.  I can see him when I close my eyes: Over six feet tall; over seventy years old; thin body hung with an old serge suit:  Jacket, vest, pants, tie.  The material had been pressed so many times that its surface shone.  The man's skin defined black and stretched taut across his bones.  He wore a brown Fedora with a tattered feather in its rim.

I worked in the make-up department on one side of the store.  Across from me, beyond the ten or so aisles, the pharmacist handed out prescriptions to the stores' customers including the old man.  Several times a week, the man would push open the front door and turn left, towards Pharmacist Arthur Perry's domain with its platform full of work tables, from which the pharmacy students counted pills and listened to their client's woes.  Art did not own the store.  The other pharmacist, Bernie Kuntz, owned it; but no one in the neighborhood timed their stops to be served by Bernie.  They all wanted Art and the old man was no exception.

He made his slow journey from door to the pharmacy window, his head straight and motionless, his narrow shoulders level and rigid.  From the make-up department I tracked his progress.  He would stand without complaint until everyone else had been served and then reach his hand to receive the bottle of pills.  Because the pharmacy had been elevated, I could see Art bend down to shake the old man's hand in the cheerful way Art had.  I could not hear what the old man said but I could see Art and follow the conversation from experience.  How are you today, sir?  (I'm okay, Mr. Perry.) What can we do for you today, my friend? (Oh, I'm just fine sir, fine; this here bottle is just what I came for.)  All right then, thank you; and please let the ladies know if they can help you.  (I will, Mr. Arthur, yes sir, I surely will.)

Then the old man turned, each time, and inched his way to the front register.  He handed the bottle to the girl at the counter, who held it while he drew a thin worn wallet from his pocket.  He placed the wallet on the counter, unfolded it, and extracted a ten-dollar bill which he handed, with a slightly shaking hand, to the cashier.  When she gave him back his change, he slid the silver into his right front pocket and the paper money back into the wallet, and reach beneath his jacket to return the wallet to his back pocket.  Then he'd extend his hand for the bottle. He did not want a bag.

I would watch him turn to his left and catch my eye.  A lively twinkle rose.  Each time:  I threw my glance far across the store to the place where Arthur Perry still stood, watching.  He would give me a brief, sure nod: each time.  Then Art turned back to his duties, to the measuring, and counting, the pouring, the greeting, the hand-shaking; while the old man made his slow way to me.

He'd ask how I was:  each time.  And I would tell him fine: each time.  Then I, in turn, would inquire after his health, and he would allow as how he'd been getting by well enough, he reckoned:  each time.  Then he would raise his hand just as I lifted my own, and into my hand he would gently place the bottle.  And I would open it for him, taking off the cap.  I'd shake one pill from the bottle and tender it to him to place in his mouth.  I'd hand over a cup of water that I would have already poured for him.  While he drank, I would replace the cap, turning only half-way, so that when he went home, alone; when he rose in the night with an attack of the pain which the pills relieved, he could open the bottle himself.

When the old man had drunk his fill -- enough to swallow without difficulty -- his dry hand reached for the bottle and I gently placed it in his palm.  He'd curl his fingers around the small brown bottle and I would watch, time after time, as he slid it straight up into the right-hand pocket of his worn suit coat.  It would not spill.  Then he'd take one of my small white hands in his two black, arthritic hands and he'd say, each time, each time:  Thank you, my dear.  Thank you.

Then the old man would softly slide his hands off of mine and step back, almost as though he'd gotten one minute too close to me.  Invariably I raised my eyes to look into his but could not help seeing Arthur Perry observing me from across the store.  We nodded as one.  I would pull from my belly a weak acknowledgment and then the old man would gaze at me for a few more minutes, letting his cloudy brown eyes absorb whatever timid emotion crept across my face.  As Arthur watched the back of the old man's head from the pharmacy, the old man would turn, raise one hand in a brief salute, and slowly walk to the door through which he had come; through which he would go; and through which we always believed he would return.

I  left St. Louis in June of 1980.  Sometime between then and the mid-1990s, that drug store succumbed to the unrelenting  march of progress.  The building is gone.  The restaurants in which I ate dinner and scribbled poetry have been closed, and re-opened as other restaurants with more modern themes.  Arthur Perry went to work for Eli Lily doing pharmaceutical research.  I saw him once in the decade during which my mother died, when I had come home for her funeral and my brother Stephen and I went to the Central West End for dinner.  Art sat at a table of elegant people, none of whom I knew.  We briefly spoke and I saw that while his eyes still pierced, he did not recall the poignancy of the days when we worked at the same place, a place where an old man came in order to be treated with dignity, at the end of a life that none of us understood nor even attempted to know.

Symphony music plays in my ears now; a piece on the radio about a composer from the 1930s.  The bars flow and the violins keen and outside of my house, the sun shines with an intensity that I feel sure it cannot maintain.  Winter draws near.  The drums roll and I think, whatever became of that old man?  And I wonder, for the thousandth time this week, what will become of me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death of My Favorite Curmudgeon: Special Edition of the Saturday Musings

Good afternoon,

This is not Saturday.  I realize that.  It is Thursday.  I had intended to write this and send it out on Saturday morning and if you get this on Saturday, know that the writing, editing, and crying consumed me for long enough to have this arrive in your inbox more or less on time.  If you get it before Saturday and insist on waiting until Saturday to read it, you will be perfectly within your rights.  I am not Douglas Adams; I do not misname my creations with deliberateness.(1)

Most of you who are reading these Musings know that my father-in-law, Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin, died yesterday, 05 November 2014.  I would like to share the story of my relationship with Jay by way of my own private but publicized eulogy for him.  I plan to attend his service but Jay had an aversion to funeral proceedings which included family members popping up and down to moan over the departed. He found it tacky. However, he liked my blog, and often read it, so I think I am safe in telling this story, here, today, in my way.

I first met Jay in the summer of 2009 when his son, James, and I started dating.  Jay shocked me with his irascible nature and the somewhat dated views which he held and freely expressed.  But he made a killer flan and always served a special, non-red-meat entree for me when Jim and I came to his house for dinner.

In the early years of my relationship with Jim, I struggled to get my footing with his father.  I once had a complete and total meltdown in his kitchen when he scolded me for stirring caramel and causing it to crystallize.  His daughter, Virginia, placed her hand on my arm and counseled me to "shake it off".  But shaking off the scoldings of the men in the generation above me does not come easily to me.  It's no secret that my father, rest his soul, ruled our house with a leather belt, an abusive manner, and a volume level that would scare the paint off an old stairwell.  Though I got the least of his wrath, being sickly and something of his favorite, still, I suffered enough of it and heard it all. I came to middle-age with a tendency to shiver and retreat when faced with an angry man.

Over the next three years, Jay and I fenced our way to an ability to tolerate, if not like each other.  And then, as fate sometimes dictates, something arose to bind us inexorably to one another.  His beloved wife Joanna became ill, and Jay and I, along with his children, became her care-givers.  In the seven months between the onset of her last illness and her death, Jay and I became fast friends.  I grew to love him, to listen to him, and to respect him.  Over that year, I found a new way of understanding Jay.  He never raised his voice to me though we did not always agree with one another.  He treated me in that "old-fashioned" way that men of his era treat women, and as time passed, I no longer saw his proclivity to pay my way and hold doors for me as a sign that he thought me less significant due to my gender.  In fact, it meant quite the opposite, and I learned that from him.

Jay received his diagnosis of cancer in June of this year.  I found this development unsurprising.  Joanna died on 08 October 2013 and he longed for her presence with an intensity that rendered me breathless.  I felt he wanted to go to her, as she was clearly unable to return to him at least in any largely satisfying sense.  And so, when he took me to lunch and talked about his cancer, and his inclination not to undergo chemotherapy, I reached the conclusion that he had no objection to death even if he hoped not to suffer in the dying.

Still, speaking strictly for myself, I did not want to lose my favorite curmudgeon.  I loved him.  I looked to him as a father and felt honored that Jim and Virginia willingly tolerated my doing so.  We had lunch and dinner outings, explored the Internet, and had our own personal happy hours.  He called me several times a day in the year after his wife died.  He would call to check on me, to talk about a future dinner date, to share some idea that he did not want to forget, or just to hear my voice.  By the end of his life, he had taken to calling me sometimes six or more times each day and I would stop nearly any  pursuit (as long as there was not a judge involved) to take his calls.

As the fall progressed, I found myself increasingly fearful that he would let himself slip away long before the year that he had been given.  I found myself bargaining with him to prolong his life.  The biggest pay-off would be the running of the 90-day exclusion period for his Long Term Disability policy.  Jay liked nothing so much as the thought of sticking it to that company and the mere mention of that potential caused him to salivate.  "Oh yes," he would say.  "Got to get my money's worth for that policy."  I'd cast my nervous eye on him and wonder if he meant what he said.  He held his body in a still, silent way which suggested otherwise.  But I chose to believe him.  I had no recourse:  To concede his impeding demise would cause me to lose my composure, and Jay hated to see me cry.

By September, no one believed Jay should continue to live at home alone, so off to a respite center for evaluation he went.  On one of his five nights there, I brought a fancy Happy Hour kit, assembled by a clerk at the Plaza's Better Cheddar.  Jay loved Happy Hour. "It's five o'clock," he would say; and any whose attendance had been summoned had better be present or the drinks would be poured in their absence and weak upon arrival.

I brought smoked salmon, and slices of expensive hard salami; fat ripe blackberries; good crackers; and a bottle of wine. His cousin Anne Jones arrived with her service dog, Katie, and a box of chocolates.  We laid out the spread on the hospital bedside table and Jay ate the entire package of salmon and most of the salami.  He drank the whole bottle of wine himself, save the half-inch that he allocated to me, allowing me to pretend that I drink without actually having to do so.  Anne Jones called Katie to hop on the bed and Jay placed one spotted, worn hand on her head and smiled, with absolute tenderness.

Jay moved into assisted living at Brighton Gardens at the end of that week.  We talked.  He told me that he wanted to die at home and hoped that he could do so.  He planned to use the sojourn in BG to "get strong" and move back to the house that he and Joanna had shared for nearly two decades.  I indulged that dream.  As far as I was concerned, I would fetch him back to his house in my car and stay 24/7 if that would give him an easy death.

But his decline continued.  I'd tell him, "You can't die yet, Jay; we've got 60 more days til we can stick it to the insurance company," and he'd reply, "Don't worry about that!  I'm getting their money!"

In mid-October, I asked Jay if anyone had arranged for him to vote.

Now, the mere inquiry should cause your eyebrows to shoot skyward.  I am by way of being a yellow-dog Democrat, Missouri-born and bred, daughter of a union organizer.  I've actually been accused of being a Socialist, and but for the sheer unworkability of the philosophy, I find it appealing.  Jabez J. MacLaughlin, on the other hand, was a life-long Republican who crossed party lines once to his deep regret and would never do so again.  He broadcast that fact publicly and firmly, even vehemently, though never disrespectfully at least not in conversation with me.

But Jay was my father-in-law and I loved him dearly.  I knew that he had taken a strong dislike to the candidate running against Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas; and that he scorned the process by which he believed the race came to be narrowed to two, with the withdrawal of the weak Democrat candidate for pretensive reasons and the resultant strengthening of the chances of the Independent.

So I told him that I would handle his application for an absentee ballot, but on one condition:  That he promised not to die before the election.  You see, I saw the look of death begin to gather round his eyes a month before he passed, and I longed to stave off the certain surrender as long as possible, because I am both greedy and shameless.  I did not want to lose him.

I don't think Jay's zest for life  prompted his to promise to live until November 4th.  He yearned to be with Joanna, whom he knew waited for him.  I often visited her resting place and told him of my visits, showing him pictures of the flowers which I brought.  "Tell her that I will see her soon," he'd instruct me.  And I did.  Every time.

No, Jay strove to endure because he wanted to vote against Senator Roberts' opponent by voting for Roberts.

 I filed his application and the election board mailed the ballot.  But it didn't come.  On October 23rd, at my request, they mailed a second one.  It still didn't come.

On the morning of Monday, November 3rd, Jay called me.  We had discussed his voting in each of my visits the prior week, and I assured him that he would vote if I had to put him on a stretcher and push him to his polling place.  But he grew weaker and I feared that voting in person would be hopeless.  Had we thought, we could have changed his address to the facility, but that might have hastened his demise by destroying the charade which he liked to maintain that he would return home one day to die in his own bed.  So the absentee ballot looked like the only option, with the potential for its receipt dwindling.

In that Monday morning call, Jay said, in a craggy voice which showed the gathering weakness, "I don't suppose there's much chance of my voting now, is there, honey?  I'm getting weaker."  My heart clenched and my stomach turned but I kept that out of my voice and said:  "I will get you a ballot if I have to walk to Olathe myself and bully someone into giving it to me.  So hold on, Jabez J. MacLaughlin.  You promised me."  And my favorite curmudgeon replied: "I'll try, honey; but hurry."

I placed a call to Olathe and talked to my contact there.  She passed me to a supervisor who passed me to someone else.  I explained what had happened and Jay's situation and she said that I should come ahead and she would get things started.  I got on the highway, weak eyes and all, and drove like the wind, following the directions which the lady had given me.  I arrived at the Election Board and discovered a line of early voters which extended the length of the building.  I told one of them why I was there and the line parted.  Like Moses, I crossed the Red Sea.

At the counter, I told the woman that I needed to speak with Cheryl.  She instantly replied, "Are you the lady with the dying father-in-law?" and I burst into tears held back since Westport.  I did not need to answer.

Twenty minutes later, I had been certified as Jay's Election Assistant and slid back behind the wheel of my car, sparing only a few moments to fear getting stopped for my long-expired plates. I leaned my head on the steering wheel and remembered my mother's death in 1985 when, with expired plates, I drove from my cousin Theresa's house to my parents' house at 7:00 a.m. to see my mother's dead body, passing a police officer going 50 in a 35 with four months' gone tags.  He stopped me but gave me a warning when I told him the nature of my errand.  I prayed for such leniency on I-435 and took off.

At my father-in-law's bedside, I completed the forms for his voting process:  my pledge, his designation of me, a copy of his driver's license.  Then we started the ballot completion, with Jay too weak to fill in the black circles and me, the Democrat from St. Louis, doing it for him.  With my help, he voted for Mr. Roberts and a score of other Republicans, and cast a vote against a couple of taxes and a judge with liberal tendencies which he described in a spat-out sentence which I will not here repeat.  I take some credit for reminding him of that judge being on the ballot, for he had already said, in a fading voice, that he did not know or care about any of the judges.

Jay took the pen in his hand to sign his name to the ballot, and I steadied both page and pen.  And when he had done, he laid back against his pillows and told me:  "When Senator Roberts wins by one vote, I want you to call him and tell him that it was my vote, and that I voted for him in spite of himself."  And then he closed his eyes, his meager allotment of energy for the day spent.

I took the ballot to Olathe and return to his room.  I spent several more hours with him, just he and I.  And the next day, Election Day, I abandoned my Democratic Party Certified Poll Challenger duties after only two hours to go and sit by his side until his son could arrive.  He held my hand.  He told me that he knew I loved him.  I laid my head on his arm and wept; and he told me not to cry.  He hated it when I cried.

By 1:30 on Tuesday, November 4th, 2014, Jay had slipped into a kind of sleep from which he would not emerge.  His son and I sat by his bedside for that day and through the night.  I kept my hand on his heart while he slept.  And once again, the irony rose thick and full:  I watched the election returns with Jim on Fox News, and injected my voice with enthusiasm as I kept my favorite curmudgeon apprised of the results.  And when the tables turned, and the senate went red, I took his hand in mine and told him, "You did it, Jay; Senator Roberts won; and your party has taken the Senate." And he smiled at me.  I swear on my mother's grave:  The news of the election results drew a smile from my favorite curmudgeon, as he lay in a sleep that would carry him to his Joanna's arms.

Forty-eight hours nearly to the moment from when he performed his last act, signing his name to that ballot, Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin slipped from us.  His wife's love filled the room.  One of his children held each hand.  His death came easy.  The deaths of good people should always be easy.

This morning, I crafted a letter to Pat Roberts.  I told him a sanitized version of Jay's voting for him -- I pulled no punches about how Jay felt about him but left out the bits about my tears.  I gave him Jay's message, and one of my own.  I charged him with the responsibility of making Jay's endurance worthwhile.  I asked him to do his duty, in honor to those who entrusted it to him,including and most especially my favorite curmudgeon..

Jay gave me something that I thought I would never have.  He gave me the relationship of a father to a daughter.  He loved me.  He cherished me.  He taught me, by example and by word; by action and by the smallest most meaningful gestures:  The slight wave of his hand; the tilt of his eyes; the set of his jaw.  That his son married me and gave me the most precious gift of being Jay's daughter-in-law endears him to me far beyond any love that I feel for my husband, far beyond any strain that our marriage has had, far beyond the cracks which might never be repaired.  On the night that Jay died, I said that my words about Jay were mixed with the salt of a thousand unshed tears.  And so they are:  and so they shall stay, when the tears have fallen and dried; when the handkerchiefs have been re-washed; when the calendar's pages have fallen and withered.

When I go to visit them in their resting place --- Jabez and his Joanna -- I will place the roses on their headstones, and I will touch, briefly, their names engraved in the stone.  And I will know, as surely as I know the enduring nature of their love, that I will never feel anything but gratitude for my curmudgeon and his beautiful bride.  At the same time, though, I will never overcome the hole in my life where Jay once was, beside the hole that was once Joanna.  A gossamer sheen might sweep itself over the rending.  I can hope for little else.

But I will hold my head at the tilt which he taught me:  Chin up; eyes bright; and smiling.  For my tears hurt him; and he has suffered enough.  His was a noble life though in many senses, a humble one.  He raised two children and provided for them in a confident manner.  He spent the last twenty years of his life traveling, and cooking, and caring for his Joanna.  And me.  He cared for me.  Any goodness that still blooms in me, abides in part because of his tender nurturing of my spirit.  And so, I bid farewell to my favorite curmudgeon.  I will miss you.  We never got to Lourdes, as we planned; but by God, we voted.  We voted.  And that's something of which we can both be proud.

Mugwumpishy tendered,

Corinne Corley

Joanna Mitchell MacLaughlin
Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin

(1) For those who do not catch this reference -- Douglas Adams wrote "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", the "increasingly misnamed trilogy" which had five books.

The Missouri Mugwump™

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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.