Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday Musings, 28 June 2014

Good morning,

My technology tries to betray me; the keyboard refuses to cooperate with the browser, the windows randomly open.  I squint, tap, peer at the tablet's surface and wonder:  Should I go back to pen and paper?  I smile and lift the "Owl Cafe" mug which my neighbor abandoned on his back deck when he and his wife and baby daughter moved to bigger digs.  I keep meaning to return it, but it's so nice, you know?

I contemplate why the shape of a mug's handle changes the entire experience of enjoying coffee.  Unquestionably, it does, at least for me.  When guests come, I ask them, "What type of mug do you want?"  They come and stand before the cabinet and survey the options.  Even those who have demurred find one they prefer.  I smile and pour; I understand.

I started drinking coffee in earnest when I worked as a unit secretary at St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis, but my earliest memories date back to age three or four.  My mother would pour a little coffee into her saucer and  let me slurp the warm liquid.  I don't recall when she switched from Melamine cups and saucers to ceramic mugs but I do remember regretting the loss of that ritual.

My cupboard holds an odd collection.  The Harvard mug my stepson brought me after his summer studying at Harvard between his third and fourth year of high school rests beside the commemorative mug from DePauw University that I'm holding hostage until my son replaces it with one just for me.  He got it working a function, his senior year in college.  I found it when I cleaned his car for him and consider it fair bounty.  The blue fired mug from Trudy holds a special place, as do the mugs from Taos and the two finely thrown vessels with thin round handles from my stepdaughter and her fiancee.  I can wander through the shelf and tell you the origins of everything.

I used to have two mugs which had belonged to my brother:  One dark green with a thumb rest built into the handle, which I used for pens and pencils; and the other navy blue, with the name of the last hospital at which he worked embossed in stark white letters.  I never drank from either of them; I feared breaking items which my brother had held.  Last year, I gave each of his daughters one of those.  I don't miss them; I'm happy knowing where they now reside.

I have a separate lot of cups for drinking tea.  I don't like to intermingle the lingering flavors which never quite succumb to washing, especially since I won't use soap for my coffee and tea mugs.  Tea requires a more sensual container -- thinner, lighter, easier to hold.  I drink hot tea at times of stress; days when work or life overwhelms me.  I brew Earl Grey in an earthen pot from loose leaves and steep it for four or five minutes.  It turns out strong and fragrant, the smell of Bergamot rising from the cup.  I sit on the porch and let its scent waft around me and mingle with the coolness of the morning air.

On the shelf in my breakfast nook with my china soup cup collection, I have one tea cup, no saucer, which belonged to my great-grandmother.  It has two dainty black stripes around its rim, between which the maker painted small rose buds and delicate swirls.  My mother gave it to me and said it had been Mom Ulz's cup.  I took her word for this, just as I did everything.  It matches a bowl that also came to me in just that way, from mother to daughter to granddaughter.  I don't use this cup; it gathers dust.

When I find myself most tired, I gravitate towards a smaller cup, which my clumsy hands can grip.  Instead of raising the mug by the handle, I wrap both hands around its body and drink full and long, letting the warm liquid fill me.

I despise Styrofoam.  Nothing good can come in it.  Paper cups rank only slightly higher.  Disposable drinking vessels suffice for coffee purchased simply for the caffeine, for the fix, for the boost.  When I spend three dollars for a beverage, I want the tall mug on the high shelf, the one many baristas grumble about using.  They can't write your name on it; they have to look at the desperate gaggle of waiting customers and figure out which one ordered the Americano for here, three shots, no room for cream needed.

I'm going to brew a fresh pot of coffee and take a full mug out onto the porch, in the sweet morning air, the soft light of the hour after dawn.  The newspaper will soon arrive.  I'll sip my coffee and contemplate the tasks which await me, and then, when that contemplation threatens to rock my composure, I'll pour another cup, sit back down, and ease myself slowly into the rest of the day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday Musings, 21 June 2014

Good morning,

Potted plants surround me, with their mixture of fading blooms and emerging buds.  I realize that I need to trim the dead blossoms, and idly reach over to nip one or two with my fingernails.  I hear the call of a bird which I've been trying to identify by its song since it nested in my gutter.  I know it's not a bobwhite, a robin or a whippoorwill.  Its notes hit high and sweet, rapid and rhythmic.  I think I might find a website with clips of bird songs, and see if I can match it.

It's the Summer Solstice.  I think of this day as being the day we buried my brother.  I believe it was June 21st; I could be off by a day.  Since we don't know when he died, only the day someone found his body and the day of his burial stand as anniversaries of his death.  Seventeen years.  I still miss him; but then, my mother died in 1985, and I sometimes engage the phone to call her. Still.  I wonder if her number has been re-assigned.  Perhaps whoever has it now would listen.

My mother listened to me, regardless of how crazy my thoughts and ideas became.  She listened; and when I needed her, she never failed me.

1975.  Saint Louis, south side.  I'm living in a second-floor flat with a woman named Mary Ann who turned bad on me, some months later, but she'd just moved into the back bedroom that June and I hadn't yet figured out that she had a mean and sadistic streak.  That Saturday, I awoke feeling ill.  I stood in the bathroom, swaying and retching, sweaty and dizzy.  Mary Ann wasn't there, I didn't know where she had gone or when she might return.  So  I called my mother.

An hour later, I lay in my bed writhing and shivering.  Out on Maury Avenue, children with nothing to do but hammer the fire hydrant with baseball bats had finally succeeded in sending a gush of water across the asphalt.  They shrieked as they ran through the spray, and my head pounded with each peal of laughter.  I struggled out of bed, onto the balcony, and shouted down to them,  "Please, please, can't you be quiet??"

As I stood there, in my sweat-drenched nightgown, my mother climbed out of her car and tilted back her head.  "Oh honey, go back inside," she called to me.  "They're just having fun."

I resented her taking their side but complied.  I closed the balcony door, shutting the stale heat and motionless air of my apartment against the laughter-tinged breeze.

My mother dumped an armload of supplies on my dining room table and promptly pulled the French door back open, letting in a stream of fresh air.  She got the backdoor open, and several windows. She walked past the closed door to Mary Ann's bedroom and ran cold water  the kitchen sink.  She filled a glass and made me drink the whole thing.  She shushed me when I gagged.  "Now go take a shower," she instructed.  Again, I did as she told me.  I could not resist my mother's commands, even at nineteen, even when I'd been living on my own for a year.

When I returned, clean, clothed, she had sanitized the kitchen and dining room.  She moved into my bedroom, stripped the sheets, and shoved them in my laundry hamper.  With one hand, she sprayed Lysol on the mattress; with the other, she shook out the pillow.  The air smelled like medicine, like a  hospital, like the aftermath of a motherly tornado.  I sat down on a dining room chair and closed my eyes.

I think I slept.

Another scent lured me back to consciousness:  Tea, hot, in a china cup.  I curled my hands around it, raised it to my nose, and pulled the fragrance of it into my lungs. The smell of home.  The odor of love.

I heard the whirring of my electric can opener and knew that a bowl of soup would soon be on the table.  Crackers would follow, on a little china plate, and there would be a napkin.  I leaned back and drank the tea.  I surrendered to the inevitable recovery.  By morning, I would be fine.  My mother's care had a relentless, driven edge to it that would tolerate no dissent.  I found myself smiling.  All was well.

Here in Brookside, in 2014, I lean back and let my gaze travel the full height of the front maple which rises high above the roof line, lush and green.  The last few weeks of rain have set our yard to shimmering, tall grass, out-of-control shrubs, a rash of wild green onions.  I might be in the forest surrounded by native undergrowth, with the chattering of monkeys signalling the approach of a predator.  I let my hands fall idle and surrender to the soothing sounds of the unknown bird, high above me, on the branch of the neighbor's cedar.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Musings, 14 June 2014

Good morning,

I hear the round cry of a strange creature, whoo, whoo, whoop, something I don't recognize.  Above this mournful note, a chitter bursts -- chhhttchhttchtttchttt, and I lie in this guestroom bed and wonder what lovely beings make these noises.  The low foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks surround me.  Here in Fayetteville, in the home of my friends Brian and Trudy, I have no responsibility and I let myself linger near sleep.  The sun has risen but lazily, as though it has not quite committed.  I share its slothful, gleeful reluctance.

A half-memory drifts into my mind.  Little Rock, 1987.  I'm alone on a porch, watching the cars pass.  I haven't moved yet; everything I own still sits in Kansas City, except a suitcase full of unsuitable clothes.  I have misjudged the weather; Missouri still lingers in winter while here in the south, spring reigns.  I've just entered the first of what will ultimately be three marriages though I had no way of knowing that; I said then, "I'm newly wedded," and my heart rose in gladness.

Chester, my new groom, is at work.  We're supposedly on our honeymoon.  What's actually happening is that he is working and I'm nursing the foot I broke dancing at our reception.  The emergency room doctor did not believe my account of the chicken dance during which the injury occurred.  He found evidence of prior breaks and segregated me from Chet to ask:  Is someone mistreating you at home?  Apparently the shape of my feet lends itself to spontaneous stress fractures.  Didn't your feet ever hurt, he inquires, with that incredulous tone saved for the demented.

Always, I tell him, smiling.  He is not amused but he lets us both go home with a prescription for painkillers.  I throw it in the glove box.  I've plenty of those.

I shift on the porch and gaze out at the dirty city.  A figure draws near, a man walking down the sidewalk.  He's thin; his clothes hang from his shoulders with barely a ripple for the body beneath the fabric.  He turns his angular face towards me and pauses for a moment.  Our eyes meet.  I think he must intend to ask for food, or money, or to spit out some foul curse.

But he does none of these.  He nods, briefly; a short, spare movement.  I return the silent greeting.  He pauses for less than a second, almost too short a time to believe he's really broken the rhythm of his walking, and then continues, past me.

I linger on the porch.  The warm afternoon air ripples around me.  I strain to see down the block, but the man has vanished.  He didn't vary from his straight path to enter one of the yards and no trees obscure my view.  I can't figure out where he has gone.  I rise from my chair and walk down to the curb.  It's been just minutes; I should be able to see him.  But the street is empty.   I stand on the sidewalk and wonder what has just happened, who or what I have just encountered.  After a few moments, I go into the house to start fixing dinner.

Years later, on the street where I live in Kansas City, I saw the man again.  As I drove down Holmes Road, I glanced across at the sidewalk and there, walking towards me, I swear, was the man I had encountered in Little Rock.  Same lean frame; same angular face; same clipped grey hair.  The car drove itself for a dozen feet as our eyes locked.  The man deliberately moved his head from left to right, telling me no, no, not today before my vehicle moved beyond him.  Just for a moment,  light shimmered around him, some splintered, fragmented light, bursting from the rags he wore and then my car moved beyond him.  I tightened my hands on the wheel and dragged my eyes to the front and drove on, wondering, again, who or what I had seen.

I hear the bird's cry,  long and low.  It's nearly seven.  I close my eyes and wait for the answering chitter and when it comes, I find myself smiling.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturday Musings, 07 June 2014

Good morning,

As I write, my coffee cup and the newspaper sneak a bit of space on the dining room table.  Most of the surface has been co-opted as a staging area for the items being considered for this trip to Evanston, the one taking my son to the next phase of his life.  The precious last year that we'll share as co-occupants of the same residence draws to a close; in less than twenty-four hours, he will be wending his way north by northeast with most of his belongings wedged in the little Kia.  What he doesn't take, I will bring in the fall when the summer sub-let ends and he and his roommate find their own digs.

I have no regrets.

My son's life progresses as it should.  I pushed him to find a college out of town, wanting him to have a life outside of his normal sphere, wanting him to see that the world holds something beyond the familiar.  That worked, more or less; and he got a taste for "elsewhere, elsewhen".  The months he has spent back in Kansas City have given him what he needed:  A job that allowed him to pay off his car without taxing him too much; emotional space to ferret through some whiplash of events the facts of which I don't know, but the impact of which I could plainly see; and a dozen months during which he defined and refined his goals for himself.

I took a passive role in all of that.  I listened but strained to bite back comment.  I brewed coffee; bought the almond milk; journeyed with him as he examined, sometimes only through internal dialogue, choices he had made and people  who had drifted away from him.  As the days unfolded, I also evolved:  from a mother worried if her son would rise above adversity, to a woman curious about the tools he possessed which I had done nothing to engender; and, finally, to a student, humbled, astonished, dizzy with the dawning recognition of how far my son had traveled beyond the fledgling enlightenment of which I was once so proud to have myself attained.

And now, here, on the brink of possibility, I suddenly find myself again walking up a stairway in the small elementary school that Patrick attended.

I clutch his hand.  He's just turned five, a month before; and has only been accepted to kindergarten early because his pre-school teacher -- on the first floor of the building in which his new school sits -- has recommended that he do so.  He can read, and write, add, subtract and divide, and write his own name in cursive.  He's ready, Magda Hellmuth has told me, and told Punky Thomas, the owner of the grade school on the second floor.  He's ready.  But was I?

We walk, together.  It's 1996, five months before I will suddenly collapse, unable to breathe, and be rushed for the first of scores of emergency room visits and hospital admissions.  But we don't yet know what lies ahead of me.  I've slung my pocketbook over my right shoulder; Patrick has his Spider Man backpack securely positioned over his own narrow shoulders.  He still wears curls; still clumps in the black cowboy boots that he has worn nearly constantly for a year or two; still wears a serious, studious expression.  For a child whose first sound at the doctor's urging was laughter, he's become nearly fierce in the composition of his features and the set of his brow.  I find it charming.

With just two more steps before we reach the top and I have to relinquish him, Patrick pauses.  I look down; he raises his eyes.  "Mom," he says, in a soft voice.  "Mom, are you going to die before I am old?"

My insides clench.  Until that moment, I suffered under the blissful delusion that my son had no notion of my mortality.  An urgency rose within me:  I fought to find words to reinstall his ignorance.  "Oh no, Buddy," I assured him.  "I'm going to live to be 103, and I'm going to nag you every day of your life!"

Stillness fell over us; the chatter from the other upstairs students did not reach us; the calls of parents in the downstairs passageway subsided.  My son looked down at the scuffed toes of his boots.  A minute passed; two.  Then he raised his eyes again and said, without hesitation, "Then I'm going to annoy you every day of YOUR life!"

And the world righted itself, and we climbed those last two steps, and I let go of his hand.

Tomorrow morning, I will let go of that hand again.  But this time, the letting go will cost me a safety net, not the other way around --- for these last twelve months have seen a turnabout.  My son has taught me more about compassionate living since he's been home from college than I learned in the first fifty-eight years of my existence, by which I mean no one -- not my mother, not those whom I have met and loved during my six decades, not my siblings or my most cherished friends -- any disrespect.

Despite my best efforts, my son has turned into the kind of man of whom any parent on the face of this planet would be astonishingly proud.  He's fought and largely conquered his habit of using sarcasm when he feels threatened, really coming to understand that the comments made about him say more about the speaker than about him.  He has embraced principles of communication which recognize both his own feelings and needs and those of the other.  He has learned about social principles and values which I could never have defined before he explained them to me, such as restorative justice and the idea of honoring our collective social compact.  This man, this child who questioned every instruction that I  or any other adult gave him and only complied when the virtue of the task could be certainly explained, has taught me more about graciousness and charity than I learned in twenty-two years of Catholic education, including the five-and-a-half I spent in the clutches of the Jesuits.

I will stand on the porch when he drives away, as I have done a dozen times before this weekend.  This time, unlike the other times, the potential of his return has sharply diminished.  But I am fine with that.  He has the skills both to survive and to thrive.  In him, he has the hundred-thousand-dollar-script potential; and the potential to walk in grace, for the rest of his life.

And I don't think that I will have to nag him any more.

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.