Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday Musings, 26 April 2014

Good morning,

On a drive through Kansas City's northeast section last night, my husband gestured to block after block and building after building, telling me what used to be on empty lots and in barricaded, burnt-out structures.  We drove around mansions and the old museum, stately, eerie, rising in the darkness.  He slowed the vehicle as we skirted the eastern border of the Elmwood Cemetery, in which his great-grandfather and great-great grandfather sleep.   I  gazed mutely out the window onto the Paseo, at a figure clad in layers of clothing far beyond the need on a spring night, piles of bags in a shopping cart, bony hands gripping its cracked handle.  Friendless, genderless, the bent form slowly trudged north under the moonless sky.  I closed my eyes and felt the wind through the open window.  I did not see the face turned toward me as our car moved on.

I spent a few wicked hours in Juvenile Court this week, and the grime of that experience clings to my soul.  I shudder and shake the dust from my hands, letting the coating of another's grief fall from me.  A fifteen-year old girl, child of a child, with a child of her own.  The pattern persists like a broken genetic code.  Four lawyers deep, we bobbed out of our chairs in turn, while my client sat scared and silent, tears barely contained in her wide eyes.  She's warned on the record, by a judge who tries to speak her language but uses metaphors from a different world than she will ever know:  "You're skating on thin ice," he tells her.  "Come back to the shore with the rest of us."  She looks at him with her bottomless eyes and nods, but I know she feels only fear, only pain, only the overwhelming burden of a life started far too soon.  I pull my tablet back into its case and gesture that she can wait outside.  I speak to the other lawyers for a few minutes and then stand by my client and tell her, "I know you don't like this foster home, but girl,  it's better than jail."  Tears roll down her face.

Her only crime is being born to a woman with a dangerous wandering mind.  My client did what she could to help her little sisters, but with the lights out and the cupboards bare, she went begging.  The state's duty to protect its children brought a cadre of social workers into the dingy apartment.  My client must regret that she knocked on one door too many, a door behind which a compassionate neighbor dwelled.  "I should have just stole us some food," she mutters, as the tears gently fell on her sweater.  I place my hand on her arm.

The foster mother's voice penetrates my reverie.  "Why would she want to go back home," she demands to know.  I marvel at her naivety.  I try to explain:  "She knows only that way of showing love; the mother only home once in a while, no rules, no restrictions.  She knows only the body against hers of that boy who impregnated her; the small hands of her sisters, their arms around her neck.  Those four walls: you and I might have found them uncomfortable, but for her, they meant home."

The foster mother shakes her head.  I see she has forgotten everything the trainers taught her.  "Look," I say.  "Children crave love, and safety.  But they don't judge by the same measure that we do.  What they have always known, they call safe.  What they have always been given, they call love."  I can tell my words mean nothing to her.  She talks of expectations, and structure, and the need for my client to do what she is told. I see her point of view, but I can't accept the blame she wants to cast on my client's slim shoulders.  "She's never had boundaries; you can't expect her to value what you're doing in just the few weeks you've had her," I say, finally.  I stop asking her to let my client have a little leeway, and go back over to where my client stands against the wall, still silent, still crying.

I suggest that I come to her high school one day next week and take her to lunch.  I ask her if she's doing better there, at the city school.  "It's too ghetto," she tells me.  I smile, then; and she acts like she might too.  "But with all your gorgeous self there, maybe you can bring something special on," I suggest.  I see just the small flicker of a smile cross her face.  I ask her where we should go for lunch, and she shrugs. She doesn't know the neighborhood yet.  But I do; it's not that far from my home in Brookside.  I'll figure something out.  I promise.  I give her one of my pens and remind her to keep it, so she'll have my phone number.  I say:  If she plays by the rules, even if she doesn't like them, I can keep her out of jail.  She flicks her eyes up, meeting mine.  She takes that promise, I can tell.  Maybe it will be enough.

As I walk away from the courthouse, lyrics from a Kasey Chambers song rise in my mind:

If I was good,
I'd tell everyone I know
If I was free
I wouldn't be so keen to go

If I was wrong
I would take it like a man
If I was smart
I would get out while I can

If I was broken
I would probably let it be
If I was dying
I wouldn't go out quietly

If I was lost
Well my heart would feel the same
If I was honest
I would probably be ashamed

But if I were you
I would notice me
If I were you
I would  wait for me

If I were you
I would easily hold me
And say, It's all gonna be okay.(1)

In the car, I turn on talk radio and play it, too loud, as I drive through the streets of Kansas City, back to my office, willing myself to banish the sight of my client's crying face to the grey, foggy corners of my mind.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

(1) Kasey Chambers, "If I Were You"

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday Musings, 19 April 2014

Good morning,

From my rocker on the porch, I hear the cheerful twittering of spring birds, no doubt happily nesting in our gutters.  The neighbors still run their furnace but I sit outside in my pajamas, listening to its mild hum, watching our new flag sway in the wind, gazing at the quiet street and the greening yard.  Spring seems finally to have completely embraced our neighborhood, though my bare feet cringe from the cold.

Our scruffy boy cat sat on the porch chair this morning when I came out for the paper.  He stretched, eyed his empty dish and hopped to the ground. He skirted the delivered water which no one has bothered to bring into the house and crouched expectantly.  I let my hand graze his fur, then snagged the dish and spoke to him, assuring him of my imminent return with food. I went back inside, set the paper on the table, let the dog out, started coffee, and went back out to the porch where he waited.  He cast his eyes up at me; though we speak different languages, I got his message: "What took you?"

I like feeding critters.  Human ones, most of all.  Yesterday I taught my son to make lentil carrot soup so he could feed himself cheaply and well, once he's ensconced in his new life in Evanston.  But sometimes the boy children need me to fix their dinners, or their midnight snacks.  And as this thought occurred to me, standing in the dining room last night listening to the music from Patrick's laptop. I thought of two little boys whom I babysat many years ago.

Robbie and Wade.  The sons of a nurse, whose name I confess to have forgotten.  I met her at Incarnate Word Hospital in St. Louis, where I worked as a unit secretary.  She needed someone to watch the boys during her Saturday shifts.  She brought them to my home in Laclede Town, slipping through the patio door with Wade's hand in hers, Robbie's carrier held firmly by her side with her other, strong arm.  She'd give five solid minutes of instructions for every minute of the eight hours they would spend with me, while Wade stood completely still.

The first time they came, I lifted Robbie from his seat and held him to kiss his mother.  She raised one hand and touched his nose, but wouldn't move towards his face.  She walked briskly back out of my townhouse, across the patio, down the sidewalk to the street.  Wade and I waited until her compact form could no longer be seen before we closed the screen and went into the living room.

"What shall we do?" I asked.  I hadn't babysat in years, but my last gig, in high school, had been considerably more challenging:  I watched nine children from 3:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. while their parents ran a  restaurant.  I figured, two years later, that I could summon my latent skills and amuse two small boys.

Wade looked around my living room.  I followed the sweep of his gaze.  Plain couch, table for four, rocking chair.  My roommates had gone their respective ways earlier and the house waited some new source of noise.  Wade walked, slowly, to the table.  "Do you have any books," he asked, in a tone which told me that he would not be upset if I didn't.  I returned the baby to his carrier and crouched in front of the bookshelf, extracting my childhood Christopher Robin set.  "Indeed I do, young man," I announced.  I led him to the couch and for the next several hours, while Robbie slept, I took young Wade on a tour of Pooh Corner.

By eleven, I had completed the first two volumes.  Wade had sat next to me on the couch without complaint, one small hand on my arm, occasionally tracing the  lines of a picture or asking a question.  His small body barely dented the couch; his feet did not touch the carpet; he scarcely moved.  I realized he must surely be hungry.  The baby had awakened, and seemed to be watching everything I did with something resembling guardedness.

I stood.  "Goodness, you must be starving," I ventured.  I watched the boy.  He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, stiffly ironed with each button engaged clear to the collar.  I leaned down, rummaging in the backpack that their mother had left, hoping to find something less fussy for the child to wear.  But the bag held several diapers, the baby's bottle in a thermal storage container, baby wipes and talcum powder.  Nothing for a four-year-old to don for rough play; no rattles; no board books.  I began to wonder about the mother, but pushed the thoughts aside.

"What would you like for lunch?" I asked the child, and he tilted back his head to bring his eyes to my face.  I saw his brow pucker, felt the intentness of his contemplation.  Finally, he lifted his small shoulders in the tiniest of shrugs.

"Whatever you fix," he said.  "Whatever you pick out."  A long moment passed, in which nothing more came, except a small noise from Robbie.  I raised the baby, checked and then changed his diaper, and brought both into the small kitchen to see what there might be with which I could feed a cooperative young man.

Robbie and Wade continued to spend their Saturdays with me for many months.  Robbie gave me no trouble. He slept,  mostly.  Wade and I ploughed through all of my childhood books and moved on to some that I bought at the thrift store just to amuse him.  I acquired crayons and coloring books; water colors and paper; and looted  my mother's basement for leftover Fischer price animals and alphabet blocks.

When I moved from that apartment, Wade and Robbie's mother kept bringing them, to the new place, a second-floor flat on the south side of town.

One Saturday, Wade and I decided to build a cave out of blankets, chairs, and my dining room table.  Robbie had gone to sleep, surrounded by pillows on  my double bed, and the little boy and I created a make-believe world in which we huddled in the dimness of the under-table waiting for the dragons that would storm our hideaway.  He shrieked and stabbed at the monsters with his imaginary sword, and we danced around the room, victorious, when he slayed the dragon and saved me.

And then I realized that the baby had vanished.

Frantic, I tossed the pillows aside and pulled each cover back, fearing what I might find, scrambling to get to him before he suffocated.  But no Robbie to be seen, no crying baby to be heard.  I stood next to the bed in complete dismay, Wade by my side.  His hand crept up my leg and held one of my fingers.  His eyes found my face.  Neither of us spoke.  Helplessness overcame me.

I noticed, finally, that the bed stood several inches from the wall.  I couldn't recall if I had moved it while looking for the child.  I walked slowly to its foot, and pulled it further out.  The baby's still form lay on the floor under the window sill.  My heart stopped.  I lowered myself down, on my knees, and reached out to touch him.

Warm.  His skin felt warm, not cold.  I put my hands around his torso and lifted him from the floor.  His eyes opened, and he smiled.  I held him against my chest and sank back down, leaning against the wall, feeling him mold his body to mine and snuggle his head on my shoulder.  I felt a long shuddering sigh course through him; felt his body relax back into sleep; heard the soft whisper of his breathing.

Wade and I spent the rest of the day in the rocking chair, reading books, holding Robbie.  We left our cave structure untouched, abandoned the lunch dishes, didn't change Robbie's diaper.  When their mother came, she looked around at the mess.  In her immaculate nurse's uniform, her hair pinned securely, her face smooth and clean, she beheld the scattered books and pillows and did not even ask how our day had been.

She never brought the boys back.

From 1976 to 1991, I had a total of four pregnancies.  During the one which resulted in the gift of my son, I had  the most intricate of the prenatal care at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  There, I participated in genetic testing and had my amniocentesis.  The technician asked me if I wanted to know the gender.  "No, I don't," I admonished, right before she said, "It's a boy."  I had been sure it would be a girl; I had convinced myself that I would never have to fight another dragon, nor worry about the motionless form of a little boychild lying under a windowsill while I neglected him.

But I had a boy.  We slayed dragons.  We climbed mountains.  We rode bikes.  He scraped his knees, earnestly swung a small bat at a T-ball, strode with heartbreaking determination out onto the floor at a martial arts school week after week, had his heart broken by little girls, and listened to me read about the House at Pooh Corner.  He's a man now; done with college; about to embark on his own life, pursuing his MFA, and he knows how to make lentil soup.

I find myself wondering about Wade and Robbie from time to time.  They would be  middle-aged  now; Wade must be 42, Robbie nearly 40.  I wonder if Wade remembers me, and the macaroni from a box that I made him on that first day.  "From a box," he said, wonder in his voice.  "My mother says that kind isn't good for you."  He ate three bowls full, with great scoops of cottage cheese, and peaches from a can for dessert.

I wonder, what did he feed his own children?  And does he remember the crazy lady who bought T-shirts for him to wear, while he played at her house, careful to have him change back to his button-down shirts, before his mother came to get him.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Saturday Musings, 12 April 2014

Good morning,

I lie in a dark hotel room, the dimness broken only by the blinking lights on various chargers.  My son and I have come to St. Louis to visit family.  The sound of early morning travelers on Highway 40 has wakened me.  Only briefly do I fight the morning.  My mind moves from sleeping to that state of alertness which defies return to dreams.

We spent three hours on a deck overlooking an erstwhile farm yesterday, with my cousin Paul and a friend of his, trading stories, laughing, marveling at the intricacies of two generations disparate enough to be from different planets.  Paul's breathing grew labored as the afternoon waned. Little else drew attention to his fading health -- certainly not his air, bright and uncomplaining.  We came away with the warmth of his smile still lingering on our own faces.

We drove to the city for dinner.  I knew my old breakfast place had closed, but had not heard about Duff's, where I'd spent so many nights in college and graduate school.  The news of its demise dismays me.  Even though my visits to St. Louis occur infrequently, I want to imagine that, like Brigadoon, it never changes.  Perhaps my disappointment at not being able to have their fish and chips spoiled my appetite; whatever the reason, I did not enjoy my meal at Bar Italia.  But the company saved the evening: my friend Joyce Kramer, the New York expat, with her stories of meeting "Bobbie DeNiro" before he reverted to his full name and embraced fame.  We strolled down to her home on Maryland  for coffee afterwards, making our way past the crowded tables of Central West End cigar smokers and chess players.

About thirty feet from Joyce's front walk, three tiny children broke away from their mothers to fling their arms around our legs and greet us.  Clad in minuscule coats, wearing backpacks no bigger than wallets, none could have been more than two feet tall.  They toddled back and forth between us and the two women who stood adjusting a baby carriage, murmuring, watching for anything alarming.  Joyce leaned down to zip one of their jackets, clucking, fussing.  I lifted one and hugged him, feeling his lightness, wondering what genetic code produces children no bigger than dolls.  The mothers reclaimed their offspring; we cooed over the baby; and they moved beyond us, towards the frozen yogurt shop.

After coffee, my son and I reversed that path, passing, in turns, the hostess from Bar Italia and one of the waitresses, off-duty, oblivious to us now, morphed into their better selves.  The swarm of humanity on the sidewalks amazed me.  I strained to imagine where all those people lived.  Some most certainly came from the suburbs, packing into cars, enduring bumper to bumper traffic, passing three times around the block before finding a space in which to squeeze their vehicle.  The women's shoes baffled me with their tall heels, thick platforms, and rounded toes.  I watched them walk, picking their way around cracks in the sidewalk, chins held parallel to the ground, shoulders squared.  I can't recall ever being so young, so bold, so comfortable with myself.

The sun's rays sneak under the curtain, and the roar of traffic has increased.  In a little while, we'll breakfast with my sister, in St. Peters, and later on, we'll dine at the restaurant where one of my nieces works.  We're stepping our way through this trip, restaurant to restaurant, embrace to embrace. I crave coffee, but don't want to awaken my son before time.  So I linger in the darkness.

I think about the contours of this city where I spent my youth, which I can no longer navigate without the GPS on my son's phone.  I ponder the poignancy of my memories, of Paul's memories, of his faith, of the words he spoke, looking skyward, to my lost brother.  "We love you, Steve," he said.  I touched his arm; his eyes found mine, and in that moment, in the silent exchange between my cousin Paul and me, I realized that I truly had come home.  I might be a stranger here; I might not recognize the highways and the corridors of this town.  I might have a place where I belong that lies distant from here.  But the roots which anchor me germinated in this ground.

In the darkness of the parking lot of our hotel last night, we spoke to a family gathered around the back of their SUV, drinking, eating, talking.  "Who won?" I called out, referring to the baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.  "We did," came the glad reply.  "And who would 'we' be," I asked.  "We're from Wisconsin," they told me, leaving me to infer their Northern allegiance. I waved my hand in the dim air, saying, "But I was born and raised in St. Louis!"  They chuckled; and I responded with another little wave. As I turned away, one last comment drifted across the asphalt:  "Maybe tomorrow!"


Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Saturday Musings, 05 April 2014

Good morning,

I won't pretend to be surprised that frost clung to the grass and the furnace kicked on just as I rose to make coffee this morning.  I've walked through snow in Easter shoes and told the same old story about not liking the weather, and waiting a minute, for my entire life as a Missourian.  Still, I can see my vincas peeking from under the rotting leaves that we let lie on the parkway at autumn's end.  Spring slowly creeps into our neighborhood, and my next few blog entries might be written from the wide expanse of our front porch.

A few piles of clutter surround me; there's housework to be done.  But I feel lazy this morning; and thoughtful; and so I sit gazing through the curtains, at the neighbor's trellis which soon will bear great masses of climbing rose.

And I think of other views, from other windows, in other springs.

My rental house in Fayetteville had windows all around it.  On top of what passed for a mountain in town, the house seemed luxurious to me, with its open first floor layout and wide French doors.  I could afford more house there, in that town; I didn't need three bedrooms but had them, and an L-shape living room with a long area for a dining table adjacent to the kitchen.  A balcony off the kitchen and a patio beyond the lower-level  gave me a feeling of grandeur.

There, in that house, with a Calico cat named George, I lived very well on my own.

I had lived thirty-four years in Missouri without seeing frozen pipes and our pipes had frozen the previous winter in Jasper where I lived with my husband before coming to Fayetteville by myself.  But I had seen many spring storms in St. Louis, and so I knew the still feel of the air when a twister approaches.  I knew the cold silence of emptyy trees, with birds hunkered down and squirrels skittered into hidden holes.  I held George in my arms on that little balcony and watched the sky.  My stomach sank; I knew that color, knew what lurked in the gloom on the horizon.  I hastened back into the house and, for some reason, locked the glass doors behind me, shaking their knobs, throwing the burglar latch as though the wind would rattle the frame and, finding it locked, relent and move on.

I stood in my glass-wrapped house, surveying the view, nearly 360 degrees of a watchtower's perspective on the storm that would hit Skyline Drive.

I ran the options:  Closet? Bathroom? The bedrooms all hugged the perimeter, with their own windows, and the open floor plan that I had found so inviting would soon creak beneath the storm.  The cat growled, my own little miner's parakeet, feeling the dropping pressure, or maybe its rise.  Storm's coming, her low rumble told me  Take shelter.

The rooms, painted pale yellow, seemed to dim as the clouds gathered and the tornado neared.  And from somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a  picture from "Life" magazine emerged:  Hurricane-lashed towns, houses demolished, nothing left standing except the chimney, the fireplace, and the hearth surrounding it.  

I pulled the cat inside my sweater and buttoned her against my chest, feeling her claws sink into me, her head snuggle against my throat.  On my own hearth stood a thick Alpaca rug, a patchwork of square fur pieces, with their cured leather backing.  I scrambled into the deep old fireplace, the cat huddled against me, and pulled the rug over the opening just as the storm slammed into us.

The wild noise outside and the yowling of the frightened cat deafened me.  The wind's fury crashed into my home with the force of the devil.  I shrank back against the brick and curled into a ball, while the wind raged and the cat screamed and the thunder roared.

Minutes later, a great stillness surrounded us; falling over my house, and me, and the shivering cat, as we cowered there beneath that Peruvian rug.

I waited.  The cat's body trembled, but I felt her claws retract and only when she had released her grip did I realize that she had plunged those claws into my skin so tightly that I knew I must be bleeding.

When I felt sure the storm's wrath had moved on east, I pushed the fur away from us.  As it fell, I heard the light, tinkling sound of a thousand little beads falling, the rapid, light trail of a shattered rainbow on smooth flagstone.  George and I emerged, and I saw that what had clung to the fur rug now lay scattered across my living room -- a great pile of broken glass, from the windows, the empty frames of which now looked out upon the tree which had fallen on my little balcony.  The rain fell straight, soft, and cool, and the room had the pleasant air of an outdoor cafe.

I stood in the middle of the rubble oblivious to the dampness, my arms wrapped around the cat, who quietly purred against my skin.

Once again my coffee has cooled in its cup while my mind wandered through its dusty scrapbooks.  The room has grown too warm; I realize that the furnace's blast has outlived today's need for it, and the day grows warmer.  Across the state, my nieces, my brother, and a handful of friends hunkered down through the first tornado of this spring, the spring of 2014.  I wonder, not for the first time, what happened to that fur rug.  George, the cat, moved with me to the country when I bought a house later that year; and finished her life in splendor, where she could roam my seven acres, keep my country kitchen clear of field mice, and stretch contentedly by the wood-burning stove to ward off the chill of early winter or the bluster of a sudden spring storm.

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.