Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturday Musings, 31 May 2014

Good morning,

My deck flowers preen towards the moisture lingering from the late evening rain shower.  I briefly contemplate turning their pots but let them be.  A bird flits from the highest eave of our house to the roof of the home behind us, squawking a little, screeching even, protecting the new hatchlings.  A woodpecker hammers at a tree, somewhere close. Morning becomes this place; everything seems new and clean.  I rest my feet on the flat surface of the porch rug and gently rock my chair.

I'm thinking about friendship today.  A small domestic crisis last evening sent me to the phone, reaching out to my friend Sheldon who came with his carpenter's tools and dispatched the problem with astonishing ease.  As he departed, he thanked me for calling him -- thanked me for calling him.  He imagines himself to be in my debt because I stood by his daughter in a time of need.  But what could I do?  I've known her since she was three; how could I not?  He smiled as he left, telling me they'll see me soon and I know they will, all of them,  his wife, Paula; their daughter; their two grandsons.  I can count on them.

I suddenly remember another Paula; a friend in Arkansas.  I'm thinking of another Saturday morning, in July, 1991, when that Paula and I sat in a small living room in Fayetteville, me large with unborn child, she small, slender and serene.  I felt a kind of tightness across my belly and felt panic rise within me.  The baby, due for a scheduled six-weeks early delivery on Monday, desperately yearned to enter the world and pressed downward.  Paula eased me down into the rocking chair which stood ready for motherhood, slipped my shoes from my swollen feet, and scooted my grandmother's footstool under them.  She brought me hot herbal tea, laughing at the odd request on  a day when the air conditioning strained to keep pace with the heat of the Ozark mountain summer.

I shifted the awkward weight of my body and moaned a little, leaning into the urgency of the sensation rippling through me.  Paula dialed the doctor's after-hours number and in her silken voice, described the timing of the contractions.  She listened for a moment, murmured assent, and cradled the receiver.  "Okay then, let's get you to the hospital," she said, cheerfully.  I felt panic rise on the wave of the last pain and protested but Paula, gentle, firm, guided me out to her car and buckled the belt around the baby within me, even more gently, with a touch so careful that I could barely feel it.

The emergency room personnel wasted no time in getting me upstairs to Labor and Delivery.  July 6th, I thought to myself, as a couple of nurses swiftly changed me to clothing suitable for a hospital room and Paula hovered in the background.  But the baby is supposed to be born on Monday, July 8th.  Not today.  "Don't worry, sweetie, July 6th is just fine," one of the nurses replied, and I realized that I had spoken outloud.  Paula twinkled, nodded, retreating further and further away as the pain came again in its terrible fury.

Twelve hours later, the midwife who assisted my OB GYN stood beside me and calmed me with her delicate Irish accent.  "I'm just goin' to let you go a bit more," she told me.  "You're just not quite ready, but I'm here, I can wait."  Beyond Moira, in a corner of the room, I saw Paula.  I looked into the brownness of her eyes, took in the smooth olive of her skin, felt the comfort of her unflagging smile.  I fell back on the pillow.  Paula came forward to stand on the other side of my bed, resting one thin hand, with its olive skin and slender fingers, on my arm.  The night droned onward, me clenching and shuddering every ten minutes, crying out; Paula soothing me, freshening the wet cloths for my forehead.  The midwife made several trips into the room but at midnight, with labor still -- as she said -- "unproductive" -- she gave me something that made the whole thing stop.  I slept.  

When I awakened late on Sunday morning, Paula sat in a chair beside me. She wore fresh clothes and held a cup of tea.  As my eyes opened, a smile broke across her face.  "Good morning, sleepyhead," she sang out, and held the cup towards me.  I took it and drank, a long draw which spread warmth throughout me.  I fell back on the pillow, gazing around me, at Paula, at the sight of morning through the window, at the board with the names of the dayshift nurses and  my room numbered scrawled across it.  I felt no pains.  But the child stirred within me and I knew his time drew closer.  I drank Paula's herbal tea and held her hand, til the nurse came and told me I could get dressed, go home, and report for delivery on Monday  morning as scheduled.

A few years ago, I looked for Paula on the Internet.  I found the man to whom she had been married back then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I had lived in Arkansas.  We traded e-mails, and he told me that Paula had divorced him, moved to Florida, and died under mysterious circumstances.  I read his words over and over, thinking about Paula, who once changed her surname to "Everywoman" and who had held my hand through a dozen hours of unproductive labor, that Saturday in July, more than two decades ago.  

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Musings, 24 May 2014

Good morning,

I've made my way through a sudden downpour and now sit in a Brookside coffee shop, an Americano on one side, a dish of fruit on the other, and the paper, unread, in front of me.   My neighbor's houseguest dashed into the place a few minutes behind me.  We traded smiles; then I retreated to the keyboard.  I'm  hiding from the day, hiding from the machinations of my life and even though he's a perfectly nice fellow, I'm not up to small talk.

The rain soothes me.

On a porch far away from here, a lifetime ago, I sat in a rocking chair and listened to the rain hammer on a flat roof.  Springtime on the Buffalo River, Arkansas, 1988.  I was alone: my husband of the time on tour, summer visitors not yet arrived.  Below me, the river swelled and rushed.  Trees hung down to its dangerous waters, dancing, teasing.  The wind rose and the water fell and I sat, in my rocker, watching it all.

I had nothing to do but watch.

In those days, I could still pretend that I might possibly succeed as a small-town lawyer.  I had survived the brutal mountain winter, with its stark sky and its frozen pipes.  I had wangled my way to a contract with the county. In a town with four lawyers and as many government law jobs, each of us had one.  As the newest arrival I got the worst by default but I didn't care; it paid enough to cover our rent.  I sat once a week in the county council meetings and tried to keep them from doing anything criminal.  They had much to fear; the last county judge now sat in a federal penitentiary,  victim of a zealous attorney general.  The word from Little Rock:  Don't use county equipment to grade private roads.  His wife ran for the balance of his term and lost, only one of two elections, ever, in which I voted for a Republican -- her opponent.

On this day, this spring storm morning, I isolated myself with bleak deliberation.  I could have gone somewhere.  I could have driven to the mountains and sat in any one of a dozen kitchens where the tea would be freshly-brewed from broad leaves and the pastries rolled on a board just hours before my arrival.  I sat, instead, and watched the water pour from the side of our house and run down the hill, to the river, to its swollen banks.  A notebook lay idle on a small metal table beside me, my pen resting cross-wise on a blank page.

A small brown critter scurried along the ground below the house.  I leaned towards it, wondering why it had ventured from whatever hole would shelter it.  At the same time, someone knocked on the door and I jumped.  I wasn't used to visitors.  I hesitated.  I was far enough back in the house that my presence wouldn't be obvious.  But in a moment, for unclear reasons, I rose from the chair and made my way back into the house, listening to see if the knock came again, trying to determine whether to go to the front door or the side entrance which led to the room we used as an office.

I opened the front door and saw a man standing a few feet away, about to rap for a second time on the other door.  I cleared my throat, warning him, gently signalling my presence.  Still, his shoulders tensed; he hadn't expected me to appear behind him.

"Can I help you," I asked, in my quiet Northern voice.

He turned and I got my first look at him.  He wore a clean, pressed, but thread-bare shirt; unshaven, nonetheless his hair had been slicked back with the purposeful sweep of a wet comb.  His rough workpants looked washed but terminably filthy, with engine oil and grime that even the most diligent  housewife could never remove.  But he smelled clean.  Behind him, beyond the metal roof on which the rain pounded, the town of Jasper sat silently outside the hedge which rimmed our yard.

"I'm looking for that lady lawyer, the one from Missouri." He met my cadence with his Southern drawl, hitting the end of Missouri with a broadened "a".  I smiled.  I couldn't help but smile; and his face relaxed just the smallest bit when I did.

I stepped back, beckoning him to my living room even though my husband and I had agreed that clients would come only through the separate entrance.  I couldn't bring myself to force this man to wait while I came around to the door on which he had knocked.  I couldn't bring city manners to this country encounter.  "I'm the lawyer," I told him, and invited him to sit.

He perched on the edge of a chair and folded his hands, gnarled hands, a working  man's hands.  I offered him a cup of coffee and watched as he wrapped those hands around it and took a long sip of its warmth.  When I saw the set of his jaw ease with the pleasure of the coffee's taste, I said, softly, "What can I do for you?"

He carefully placed the coffee cup on the table beside his chair.  He raised his eyes then, to look at me, and I suddenly felt that I had never been studied with such unassuming  clarity.  A moment passed; two; more.  And then he spoke, and began to tell me a long, complicated story about his land and the ownership of it, of a debt he owed and had not paid, and the impending futility of his spring planting with a bank hovering nearby waiting to take it all from him.

I raised my hand and he stopped speaking, abruptly.  His eyes tensed and he put his hand up to match mine.  "No, no," I hastened.  "I just want to get a pad to take notes."  I stood, walked back out onto the porch, and snatched up my notebook and pen.  I returned to the living room.  He had also risen and stood by his chair.  I gestured but he wouldn't sit down again until I had done so.  When we both had settled, I said to him, in the gentlest of tones, "Start over, from the beginning, and let's see what we can figure out together."  And so, he did.

The rain outside the coffee shop window has slowed.  Pools of clear water stand on the empty patio.  Cars pass and now and then, a tiny bird makes its way to a nest in the eaves of the building.  My cup is empty.  My fruit dish, likewise.  The tables of people have shifted over the hour, and I don't see my neighbor's houseguest though he might be in one of the easy chairs beyond my view.  It's cold.  I wonder, idly, if I'm entitled to a refill.  I glance at the headline but it could be any headline, on any day, in any of the last twenty years.    Outside, a group of runners pass in their drenched T-shirts and their squishing shoes.  I smile, and let my hands fall idle.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Good morning,

The week has roller-coastered to a close, coincidental with yet another anniversary of what might have been.  I live my life stepping from one slippery stone to the next, surrounded by waters sometimes  raging, sometimes soothing. Wild and gorgeous vegetation rises above me cast against a wide sky, in which clouds gather at times; but which at times shudders with the beauty of its blueness.  Small creatures skitter on the banks, and I'm not sure if their chatter warns me of danger or spurs me to continue.  Or both.  I move forward nonetheless.  Only recently have I realized that the stones lead not to the other side of the river but forward, perhaps to a broad beckoning ocean, perhaps to paradise, perhaps to a plunging waterfall.

Over the last few weeks, I've been corresponding with several St. Louis University staff members.  I'm trying to track down a copy of an issue of Eads Bridge, a literary review from SLU's past in which several of my poems appeared, in 1978 or 1979, during my failed attempt to get a PhD.  (In my defense, I did not fail; the program lost its funding and I remain, to this day, ABD.)  I've talked online with a resource librarian and traded e-mails with the professor who supervised the student staff of the magazine.  I learned that SLU cancelled the publication to save its $1,500.00 annual budget, a fact I found astonishing.  The professor searched his old files but could not find issues from the years in question, though he appreciated hearing from me and I shared his pleasure in the exchange.

The librarian referred me to the school archivist, John Waide.  Mr. Waide identified himself as a fellow SLU alum -- though a few years after my December 1976 graduation, but smack dab in the middle of my grad school days there.  He, too, had some issues of the old publication but not from my era.  Intrigued, I suppose, or maybe just courteous, Mr. Waide has now reached out to someone in the English Department and asked them to transfer all remaining copies of Eads Bridge to his archives, for inventory, cataloging, and search to see if my name appears in any still in existence.

All of this made possible with a few keystrokes and a casual review of the SLU website, fueled by unwavering sparks of human kindness at the other end of those stepping stones between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Yesterday, at the end of a brutal week, I visited a client of mine at the foster home where she lives.  Fifteen, mother of an eight-month old, daughter of a woman with some as yet  unidentified mental illness, half-sister to two little girls who look to her for their suppers and bath-times.  I talked to her about the hearing which will be held on Tuesday, of the offer from the Juvenile Officer's attorney.  She just wants to know when she can go home, when she can have her baby back.  I spoke to her of the future, and how hard it is to finish high school, go to college, get a job, with a toddler clinging to one's skirts.  Not that I know; not that the young people of today wear skirts.  I confessed to her that I didn't have a child until I was 36 and practicing law; that I hadn't a clue what she must be feeling; but I told her, in the strongest of terms and gentlest of voices, that I knew for certain that life is difficult enough without adding the sorts of complications she now faced.

I drove home, on the phone with a friend, who'd called on learning by e-mail of some of my more gnarly problems from this week.  Are you having a better week than I am? I asked him.  He admitted that he was, and said, But when I have bad weeks, all I can do is laugh.  Just laugh.  I parked my car in front of my house, and listened to this advice.  Laugh.  I thought about the last thing my client had asked me:  Do you think you could get them to let me go to the park with my baby and my best friend Atlanta and her baby? In other words:  Girls just wanna have fun.  To laugh.

I stepped out of the car, still talking to my friend.  I locked the car securely, since one of the week's debacles was the theft of my car keys and the computer from my car.  I'm still not sure how it happened; I have a vague memory of being jostled by a passerby on the sidewalk in front of my building.  It must have happened then.  I'm lucky the guy didn't steal my car.  So now I'm locking it securely with a key until the fob can be replaced, and tucking the key in my purse before I move away from the vehicle, so I know where everything is, before I move to the next stepping stone, and the next bend in the river.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Musings, 10 May 2014

Good morning,

I have made it through a difficult night and sit now in my rocking chair.  My husband walks from kitchen to porch, checking on me.  Coffee brews; I can't smell it from here, but I heard the grinder and can almost taste the richness, feel the warmth.  It's later than I usually rise even on Saturdays, and cars pass our house with more frequency than I would like, disturbing the quiet.  But the nesting birds still sing as sweetly; they still rejoice in the morning, and the dew has not yet dried on the grass of our yard.

I'm thinking so much of my mother; of motherhood; of lessons that she taught me and lessons that I failed to learn before she died.  My husband asked me, this morning, if I discussed intimate things with my mother.  I don't recall conversations like that.  We talked about God, and politics, and gardening; but not the relationships between men and women or between friends.  I don't know if she would have shared her feelings, if I had approached her.  The fact is, neither of us tried, even when I was still young enough that such lessons would, today at least, have been natural subjects for a mother and daughter.

I inherited my mother's frankness.  She rarely sugar-coated anything she told us.  But she also had an incredible gentleness about her.  She yearned to be buried with the unbaptised infants in a nearby cemetery.  She couldn't stand to think that they had no mother to protect them, to comfort them, to sing to them.  She walked among their stones, scattering flowers, singing softly in her mother's voice.

When I was twenty-two, I had a miscarriage in my mother's bathroom.  I hadn't told her that I was pregnant but I think, in retrospect, that she must have known.  I hadn't lived at home with any regularity for five years, when I had decamped following a senseless quarrel between my mother and me.  "Dinner's at five," she had snapped.  "If you're not home by then, don't bother coming home at all."  That was in September of 1973, when I had just turned 18, and except for a few random Sunday dinners, I took her at her word all through college.

But by January of 1978, we had reached a kind of peace.  My post-college sojourn in Boston had brought me to my knees in many respects, and she had put aside her bitterness at my ungrateful ways.  On this evening, the evening I lost my first pregnancy, I had come out to the county for dinner.  I had intended to confide in her afterwards, to ask her advice.  I had only two meaningful choices at the time:  Quit grad school and raise a child; or give the child up for adoption.  I was four months pregnant and sinking fast into a quagmire of uncertainty and gloom.

I felt sharp pains during dinner which I dismissed.  But afterwards, in the bathroom, the controversy came to a sad end.  My mother, hearing me sobbing I suppose, stood at the bathroom door and quietly called my name.  When I did not respond, she let herself in and locked the door.  She looked at the sad mess that results from such occurrences and said, "If I didn't know better, I'd guess you were having a miscarriage."  I don't quite know what she meant, but I collapsed, sobbing, in her arms and she held me, standing between the sink and the tub, until my body grew weak and still.  And then she cleaned me, with her soft mother's hands, and led me to my old bedroom.  She helped me into a pair of pajamas that might have belonged to any of her children, and tucked me under a quilt that her grandmother had made from tailor's scraps.  I slept for twenty hours.

I got that quilt when my mother died.  I haul it out sometimes in the winter and spread it over me, letting its warmth meld around me until my mind releases whatever troubles have taken hold of it.

All that I have been as a mother came from my mother, both the good and the bad.  My tenderness, my tenacity, my sweetness and my ferociousness -- all of it came to me through her.   I have drawn upon her lessons and also, I can admit, I have repeated her mistakes.  Whatever I am, whatever I have done or not done, I am Lucille Corley's youngest daughter.  I make no apologies for what I have been.  I am a tribute to my mother, to the pain she endured, and the children she bore, and the dreams she harbored, for herself and for them.  When I die, as we all die, I hope that the first face I see beyond heaven's gate is hers, and that she wears the same smile I last saw upon her face.  I hope she speaks to me, and welcomes me home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Happy Mother's Day to everyone who has been a mother, however that motherhood transpired.  In honor of my mother, Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 09/10/26 - 08/21/85.  May she rest in the peace she deserves.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday Musings, 03 May 2014

Good morning,

I've talked with several people about their genealogical research lately; my husband's cousin, sparkling eyes telling story after story of finding old graves, inspiring me to share the news that I had located my great-grandmother's wedding record.  He met my enthusiasm with his own, describing the exchange of efforts among users of various ancestry research websites.  Days later, my husband's business partner showed me some old pictures, tintypes in gold frames, of long-dead members of his family whose faces he had yet to put to names.  His eyes, too, filled with light and joy.  I listened to him talk, marveling at the simple pleasure of connecting ourselves with those who have come before us.

And then, in this morning's paper, a very brief mention of the Austrio-Hungary war raised in my mind, a memory of sitting on my great-grandfather's lap watching him whittle.

His name was Konrad Ulz, but we called him "Dad Ulz".  Family legend said that he shot off his trigger finger to avoid fighting for Austria, and emigrated to America in 1907.  His wife Bibiana stayed behind with their two little girls and came a year later, passing through Ellis Island and leaving her name on a ship's manifest where I would later find it, misspelled as starting with an "L" but there nonetheless: A brave 23-year-old, traveling with children aged 1 and 3, no doubt with the same hope that had dwelled in her husband's heart as he stood on the ship in the New York harbor.

The smell of Dad Ulz's working man's sweat wafted from his worn shirt  as I leaned against his chest.  My feet grazed his shins.  I traced my finger along a wooden rail, a porch perhaps, or a bannister.  His large hands raised a scrap of wood and a whittling knife.  I watched the shavings fall to the ground, waited for a shape to emerge under the sharp blade.

I lifted my eyes to his face.  Its round, smooth contours under the dim light seemed set in concentration.  His hat settled over his forehead, worn felt, molded to the shape of his crown.  He sang softly, so quietly that the song has faded over the last five decades,  but  I must have known its words back then because I hummed along.  And so we sat, a five-year-old St. Louis girl and her Austrian great-grandfather with his heavy accent and rough clothes, until my mother beckoned me  into the house for bedtime.

Ten years or so later, I cam upon my great-grandmother in my grandmother's living room on a summer afternoon after my grandmother's debilitating strokes.  My great-grandmother, "Mom" Ulz, had come to take care of her daughter, a disturbance of life's natural balance.  My brother Mark and I spent a few weeks with Nana and Grandpa each summer, but on this trip, I had come alone.  I stopped at the edge of the living room.  Mom Ulz's figure never changed:  the long skirt of her flowered apron grazed her shins, over the fullness of a cotton dress; her red hair gone snow-white pulled taut in a bun.  But today her face seemed to sag into a state of sorrow as she gazed through the living room window.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

Her reverie broken, she turned to me.  "No, no, little one," she assured, in the sweet, lilting tones that she had never lost in all her years of living in America.  "A ghost just walked over my grave," she said.  She went back to her vacuuming, leaving me to wonder who the ghost had been, and whether he held a piece of wood in his hands, waiting to be whittled.

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.