Saturday, October 31, 2015

Saturday Musings, 31 October 2015

Good morning,

Scott Simon tells me that it's Weekend Edition on NPR news. I munch on a rice cake with chunky almond butter and eye my coffee with suspicion.  I have at least two medical conditions which will protest my ingestion of this French Market chicory roast, but it pleases me to drink it.  I take the risks.

Last night's loss by the Royals to the Mets only slightly dampened the gathering which I attended.  Hard-core  believers, Rotarians and their spouses, ordered pizza and blue drinks (on special) and chatted as only folks in their middle-age can chat.  I drifted between the clusters of four or five, welcomed at each table but staying nowhere for long.  I do not feel excluded but I do not feel like inserting myself.  I'm fine with flitting.

Now it's Halloween and the day of Game four of the World Series.  I've been invited to a costume party.  I don't have a plan but I have five or six hours to devise one.  I'll get a mask and wear a long dress.  People can ruminate over what I portray.  While I'm at the paper goods store, I'll buy a bag of candy to give the little kids who will knock on my door before seven, if any remain in the neighborhood.  Whatever is left, I will take for the children sure to be at the party with their parents.  I'm practicing to be a grandmother; grandmothers always carry treats for the kiddos.  Grandmothers and old maids.

I think about Halloweens gone by: My son as Batman; Power Ranger; a hobo; a zombie.  One year we trick-or-treated with his daycare provider in her neighborhood with her husband and their children.   She left a large tin bowl of candy bars on their stoop before we trudged away to start door-bell ringing.  I questioned the wisdom of that but said nothing.  What would stop the first kid to arrive from taking the whole lot?  Nothing, I supposed; nothing but manners.  I wondered about that.  I must have been more of a skeptic than Diane.

The last year that anyone went out into the neighborhood from my home must have been 2004.  I had a  rule that begging for candy stopped at 13.  That year, my son and his friends put on costumes and trick-or-treated for UNICEF with the Alongis, a family which lived on nearby Rockhill Road whose boys were near the age of mine.  Kathy Alongi came dressed as a lion.  I painted the faces of my son and his friends.  Dennis, my husband at that time, clipped a tail to the back of his wheelchair.  Kathy's husband Joe did not wear a costume but he carried a large flashlight.

I stood on the steps of our porch and watched them walk into the night, holding the collection cans.  Kathy wore a padded coat over her lion's fur to guard against the light rain.  The five boys scampered ahead:  Phillip and James Alongi, my son Patrick, and the friends who formed my son's village, Chris and Maher.  Kathy's frail arm linked through Joe's sturdier one.  Dennis in his power chair brought up the rear, twitching tiger tail catching a swirl of leaves from time to time.

A wave of tenderness washed over me as I stood on the steps of the Holmes house, watching that funny little group walk into the night to collect coins for charity.  When they had vanished around the corner, I went back into the house and raised the shades, so that any children who ventured into the night would know that they were welcome.

Now I hear a story of a man's death in one of our most recent terrible wars, described by his brother. U. S. Marine Rafael Peralta received the Navy Cross for shielding several Marines from a grenade in November 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I switch over to a Wikipedia site and read about the varying accounts of Sgt. Peralta's death.  I think, It doesn't matter which version is accurate.  This man, an immigrant from Mexico who enlisted as soon as he had his green card, died fighting as a member of our Armed Forces.  When I realize that this man died two weeks after my family's UNICEF Halloween, I wonder about life.

While we were counting the money which the boys raised that day, Rafael Peralta prepared to go into a situation far from home.  He willingly strode out into the frenzy, into a fight which he did not inspire but in which he engaged wearing the uniform of his adopted country.  He took his last breath on the sands of Iraq, far from home, far from the nation which he embraced, far from my little house, where I now sit, furnace roaring, radio playing, autumn leaves drifting to the ground outside my open blinds.  What a world.  What a world.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Musings(tm), 24 October 2015

Good morning,

Except for the ringing in my ears, the neighborhood has fallen silent.  Jackhammers assaulted our air far into Friday evening, shattering the silence, driving me off my front porch.  I closed windows and doors, turned the television volume higher, and called the police.  But progress evidently marches forward despite the ruination of the environment of those who've made Astor Place home for decades.

And now I am thinking of progress; of houses raised, of buildings demolished, of trees torn from their roots.  When I get back to St. Louis, I search for apartments where I laid my head after nights of drinking or late hours at the library but all have succumbed to the whimsical dictates of urban planners.  I wonder what my parents' house looks like now; I remember my house in Winslow, Arkansas which Brian, Trudy, and I saw a few years ago.  On Monday work begins on my upstairs bathroom here.  I'll take pictures before the contractor starts his work.  Future owners of this house will want to know where it began.

Where it all began.

A by-the-week apartment on Russell Blvd, east of Jefferson, St. Louis, Missouri.  Summer 1974.  I enter the stairwell with a bag of groceries, my pocketbook, a handful of keys.  The apartment door opens on the front stoop of the building into a stairwell the leads directly into my living room.  I kick the door shut with one foot, rattling the glass, and start my climb.  I'm 18; as strong as I will ever be, because I'm working as a camp counselor out in Jennings where my parents still live, using their address to qualify for the job.  The soccer coach has taken me on as a mission and is teaching me tricks on the weight machine.  The stairs to my apartment seem almost easy.

A little group of neighbors had been standing in the yard of the four-family flat when I parked on Russell.  My landlady stood among them.  They eyed me but offered no help.  I twitched the sheaf of hair on my back and smiled as I walked beyond them.  Their conversation resumed when I unlocked the door. They probably find me arrogant but I don't care.  I know I'm not.  I'm just  a different kind of person than they are.

It's that way, in St. Louis, in the 1970s.  If you come from the County, the folks in the City find you perplexing.  And vice versa.  North Countians like me don't evoke as much suspicion as those from West or South County, but we're still considered oddballs.  Outcasts.  Interlopers.

My friend Hank has invited himself for dinner.  I like Hank.  We met during my first year of college and became friends over drinks at the Pub.  He's strong and smart and funny, and we've never even hinted at dating or romance; we're just friends.  An eighteen-year-old girl who's moved from Jennings to the city to go to SLU needs man-friends; he's walked into a few tense situations and steered me out of trouble.

I need a friend more than ever, this particular evening.  I've ended my first-year-of-college relationship with a man who accused me of dumping him because of his race.  "You think I'm breaking up with you because you're black?" I asked.  He glared at me.  "Do you think it took me a year to notice?"  

Three days later, the exchange still stung.  Hank understood.  He listened for hours on the phone.  He knew first-hand that I had no prejudice based on skin color. He'd heard about Ray's insecurities, about my concern that dating me had lulled him into overlooking his medical school studies and his obligation to the Army which paid his tuition.  He knew that I had made my decision after agonizing debate, mostly with him on the receiving end of my logic.  He'd asked me, finally, the day that I did the deed:  "Do you want to keep dating him?  Because all that sounds like flim-flam to me.  You want the man?  Find a way.  You don't want him?  Let him off the hook now."

A rap on the door breaks my reverie.  I look down the stairwell, see Hank, start down.  I reach the entry just as the argument erupts.  The landlady and two men from down the street have confronted Hank.  I can hear the harshness in their voices as I open the door.

Hank looks at me.  I meet his eyes; grey to brown; knowledge passing between us.  He shakes his head just enough for me to see, slightly enough for me to ignore.

"Is there a problem," I ask.  Three voices start; two stop.  The neighbor men defer to my landlady.

"We didn't want this. . . guy. . . to bother you, Miss Corley," she simpers.  She doesn't say "guy".  She uses a word that never crosses my lips.  A word that starts with "N" and ends with "Not-Our-Color".

I gaze at her stocky figure, the lopsided hem of her cotton dress, the piles on her sweater, the stiff pincurls marching across her head.

"He's not bothering me," I reply, voice quiet.  "He's my dinner guest."

I  open the door wider and gesture for Hank to enter.  He shakes his head, touches my arm, moves to the stairs and start to climb.  He knows me well.  He knows both that I will say something and that it would do no good to caution me.

"Something wrong?"  Just two words, from tenant to landlady, spoken beneath her shocked stare and the snarls of the men standing with her.

"We don't like that kind here," she snaps.  She trembles; powder falls from her cheek to her bosom.

I assume the look of someone determined to resist.  "What kind," I ask.  "Handsome? Young? Smart?  Or is it cops you don't like; my friend is a police officer.  Which kind is it you don't like here?"

"A good girl oughtn't put herself out for one of them kind," she tells me, and her condemnation hangs in the air between us.

I hear my name called, and turn.  Hank stands at the top of the stairs.  "Come on up here, woman, I'm starved and you know I don't cook."  He's willing me to avoid the confrontation.  I let him have his way; I close the door.

At the end of the week, the landlady gives me a notice to vacate.  She's dumb enough or bold enough to state the real reason on the hand-written letter shoved in my mailbox.  I take it to the city.

She's made to pay my moving costs and a fine, which I offer to split with Hank.  He declines.  But he's proud of me. Funny thing:  The note she wrote complained that I had a black boyfriend.  And she meant Hank.  We both find that hilarious.  As for Ray, I don't get to tell him.  He drops out of medical school and leaves the area.  It's Hank who helps me pack; Hank who comes to the city housing hearing; Hank who carries my boxes up to my next apartment. 

Every young woman needs a friend like Hank.

Forty years later, I can still tell you Ray's whole name but I've forgotten Hank's surname.  I can picture them both: I see Hank most clearly standing in the doorway to my apartment stairwell.  The yard and the landlady and the neighbor men loom beyond the glass of the front door.  Hank wears a blue polo shirt, jeans, and a brilliant smile.  It occurs to me, now, looking down on him from this greater distance, that Hank might have been gay.   Wouldn't that have shocked the old biddy.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Musings(tm), 17 October 2015

Good morning,

I challenged myself yesterday and as a consequence, every fiber of my being screams with a weird combination of fatigue and wonder.  In the midst of my third or fourth mid-life crisis, I joined the newly-formed Waldo Brookside Rotary Club, volunteered to be its secretary, and in that capacity, came to the District Governor's Conference for District 6040 of Rotary International.  Yesterday, I walked among Rotarians sporting years and decades of Service Above Self, perpetual smiles, and staggering volumes of palpable goodwill.  Now  I sit in my hotel room, at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the day's plenary session, paper cup of bad single-brewed coffee at my side, and ponder.  I cannot recall joining anything for decades and the experience confuses me.

This entry properly belongs in my other blog, "My Year Without Complaining", and perhaps I should post it there.  I have no lovely memory rising to be told today; no pithy lesson crowding to flow from my fingertips.  Just the weather report, more of what graced us yesterday:  Sunny with a slight threat of doggedly-determined, localized, salty rain.  Like Eeyore, my perpetual inner gloom breaks to the surface so often that I wear it like a coat of fur, in need of a thorough brushing, tangled with old burs and brambles.

When I arrived at the conference at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, a man strode forward with hand outstretched.  Welcome, welcome!  So glad you came.  I suppressed the desire to ask him why on earth my arrival would evoke delight.  I grasped his warm hand and let him pull me forward to the registration table.  Within minutes, I had been counted, labeled, and sent into the lounge to await the first session.  Soon other Rotarians began to gather, mostly in clumps of three or more; many pairs of spouses; all with easy smiles and pleasant airs.

A group of six pulled me into their midst; also from Kansas City, but downtown, an old club.  They greeted me with the mantra that I would soon hear from every mouth:  Oh, you're in the NEW club; we've heard about you all!  You meet at night!  In a bar!  And you have fifty members!  But these folks expressed no envy, nor apprehension that our success might threaten their clubs' images.   Their family grows with each addition and that pleases them.  It is not a competition.  It is a collaboration.

And here among these Rotarians, I have no failures to hide.  They do not judge me; and not just because they do not know me, but because judgment does not come naturally to them.  All day, people opened their groups to include me, or moved to my table so that I would not be alone, or took my arm to lead me to where their companions had gathered.  Here among these people, I might harbor feelings of loneliness but I could never say that I have not been deliberately included.  These people take me into their fold not because of anything that I have done or failed to do; nor because of any status that I have assumed.  Are they like this because they are Rotarians?  I suspect they are Rotarians because their natures compel them to be this open, and the core values of Rotary tolerate nothing less.

By evening's end, I found myself in the hospitality room sponsored by one of the St. Joseph clubs, eating a cherry mash and watching the Royals shut-out Toronto.  When the game ended, one of their members took a group photo.  I moved to get out of the way, being the only stranger in the room by that time.  Oh no you don't, get back there; you're an honorary St. Joseph Rotarian now! exclaimed the photographer, and I stood beside a man in a Royals shirt with a large grin on his face.

Many facets of my existence trouble me.  The looming shadow of my failures hovers overhead, a perpetual storm warming.  But  among these Rotarians, a new sensation begins to ease itself through the thunderous bank of clouds.  I do not recognize it.  It might be peace.  I'll need to muse on that a while.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Yours truly, with Mark Landes, Waldo-Brookside Rotary Club VP/Pres. Elect and Elizabeth Usovicz, the KC Plaza Rotarian who helped organize WBRC.  Both of these folks have been so kind to me that I wanted anyone who reads these musings to meet them.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Musings(tm), 10 October 2015

Good morning,

In a living room just west of Main, in a home on our historic preservation registry, two musicians traded songs last evening.  One hailed from Chanute, Kansas; the other from down in Springfield.  I let their music roll past me, let the deft picking and the light strumming caress me but not linger.

One of them introduced a song by mentioning a small town with a store advertising sandwiches, beer, and bait.  His words caught my mind and sent me careening back in time.  I leaned against the tall back of the wooden chair, rested my hand against the grey soft fabric of my sweater, and remembered.

I squirm on the thinly padded, unrelenting metal of the trolley car seat.  My eyes close; I let the rhythm of the trundling train rock me.  We're above ground, now; but somewhere near Copley Square we'll go underground.  My unfocused eyes face the window but the images on the other side of the glass make no impression on me.  Piles of dirty snow battle with pedestrians on Commonwealth Avenue; the cars of morning rush hour nudge each other forward, downtown; and the opposite way, to Boston College perhaps, or maybe home, eagerly, after the graveyard shift.  

The massive line of ancient train cars screeches to a stop, somewhere, not yet underground, but I'm not sure where.  I press my face against glass tinged with the Massachusetts winter.  I wonder why I've come so far from home, just to languish in this wicked lonely place, this January of snow.

I see a sign on the far side of the roadway, spanning the top of a store which bustles with morning commuters.  The sign broadcasts the store's offerings:  NEWSPAPERS MILK FRIENDS DRUGS GIFTS ETERNAL LIFE. No punctuation.  Just a string of words.  I turn away.  The train moves forward and then, down below the surface, flickering lights signalling that we've engaged the underground.  Passengers begin to collect themselves to disembark as we journey to our last stop.

I see that sign every day.  I edit it in my head.  I add verbs; I make paragraphs; I write a poem.  When I come above the subway station at the stop for my dreary office job, I sit on a stool at the Mug n Muffin, writing haiku about finding friends while reading the newspaper, standing in the aisles of that store.  I imagine touching the shelves of candles, candy, and cigarettes.  I pretend that I've been invited to a party and stop at that store to buy a hostess gift.  What would I get her, this Boston lady who simply had to have me complete her dinner table in her elegant home on Beacon Hill?  Something fragile, something edible; a bottle of wine.  All available at the store which I see from my window as I make the commute from 27 South Street down the B branch of the Green Line towards what I did not want to do but which seems to be my destiny. Or at least, my fate.

One Saturday, I take the trolley to Copley Square and wander off Comm Avenue.  I stumble on a small string of stores with kitsch names and stylized window-dressings.  One bears the announcement, i natural, in large lower-case letters like an e e cummings title.  I push its door inward and step into a fog of fragrance.

The woman coming towards me clearly has her feet firmly planted in the sixties.  Her dress flows further than any dress I have ever seen except at a wedding; and her hair streams in long golden curls down her back.  I stop in the middle of the showroom and let her come to me.  

She does not speak but places one hand beneath my chin.  "Oh you are so young," she says.  I consider that she speaks more rightly than she knows but do not comment.  "Your skin needs these products!"  She cradles my elbow in the crook of her arm and draws me to the counter. 

She coaxes me to a chair and takes a series of bottles from beneath a glass counter.  A lid lifted; the odor of almonds; the scent of sea.  Cucumber scrub; flower petal lotion; citrus cleanser.  All the while she coos and flatters, quietly though, not too overwhelming, seemingly sincere.  I know I am being boondoggled but the cold of a Boston winter far from family sneers at me and this woman, this holdover hippie chick -- she stands between me and the icy silence of this frightening new world.

I leave with a little bag filled with the products which will keep me looking twenty-two, for which I've paid nearly a week's wages.  Before taxes.  I'm slightly ill when I board the trolley back to Brighton.

In the apartment which I share with Melanie and Marian, I stow the meager collection of skin-care products in my uncle John's old yellow suitcase which serves as my dresser.  It stands on a wooden chair inside the closet.  Another wooden chair holds a lamp and my journal, next to the bed.  I lie down, fully clothed.  I curl under the quilt that Mom Ulz made from tailor's squares and close my eyes.  

NEWSPAPERS MILK FRIENDS DRUGS GIFTS ETERNAL LIFE. . .I fall asleep reciting this mantra over and over, in the cold Massachusetts winter, in a room with no heat, not two months after finishing college.  No one disturbs me.  I sleep until Sunday and wake to an empty apartment and a note from my roommates who have gone to brunch.  "We tried to wake you," they had scribbled.  I'm skeptical but I make coffee and eat a cup of yogurt, watching the snow fall, wondering why the hell I came here.  

That afternoon, I take the trolley downtown and have my hair cut short, razored, shorter than Liza Minelli's famous style, shorter than a man's in the back with an upsweep of bangs that I had her paint blonde.  As I watch the winding locks of my natural auburn fall to the floor of the salon, I close my eyes and breathe the lingering fragrance of cucumber on my face.  It is a smell which I will never again be able to bear.

Jessica and Addao have already left for their camping trip.  The Holmes house fell silent as soon as we had the bundles of food, sleeping bags, and pillow loaded into the back of the Prius.  Now I have a day of possibility.  Laundry stares at me from two baskets in the bedroom; the winter sweaters still peak from their plastic bins.  I've had a half cup of coffee.  The dog is outside but she has not been fed, nor have I eaten breakfast.  But I sit at the secretary, feeling again the sway of the subway car, the frigid glass against my skin, the tightness of my muscles as I learn to pull myself inward during the crowded commute.  The stores flash past with their boasting lures:  NEWSPAPERS MILK FRIENDS DRUGS GIFTS ETERNAL LIFE. . .and I wonder, still, what the hell I'm doing here.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saturday Musings, 03 October 2015

Good morning,

It's been quite a week.  The microwave died, I succumbed to the claustrophobia of too much furniture, and I lost my temper with a client.  I lay on the couch like a beached whale at five o'clock yesterday, tension gripping my bruised rib and the damaged muscle beneath it.  Two Advil and three Tylenol four hours apart had yet to ease the pain.  I knew that I should not get one more restaurant meal but the refrigerator held only yogurt, bottled water, and some wrinkled cherry tomatoes.  My hair hurt. I wanted nothing more than an order of something hot and fried; and sleep.

As I lay there, waiting for Jessica to come home and provide some moments of distraction, a sudden flash of my mother's face seemed to light the room.

Standing in the doorway of our Jennings home, as she had stood a hundred thousand times.  She wears her uniform: a stiff white polyester dress, scuffed worn nurse's shoes.  Her cloth purse hangs from one shoulder, dragging her cardigan down along her arm.  A pained expression mars her olive skin, clouds her brown eyes.

Three of her children lounge in the living room with the Grateful Dead blaring from the stereo.  None of us could be called lazy.  We have jobs; we do reasonably well in school.  But at that moment, no scent of cooking wafts from the kitchen and my two older brothers and I lay around listening to loud music.  There's no sign of the little boys; my father has retreated to his workshop in the basement.

Kevin stirs first.  He's seventeen and by far the most responsive to my mother's needs in general. He pulls his lanky frame vertical and reaches for a bundle in my mother's arms.  She yields to him; but the easing of this burden does not pull the worry from her face.

"Will somebody start dinner," she says, and walks past us through the door into what used to be a dining room before the Corleys outgrew such luxuries.  She walks through that bedroom to the back bedroom beyond it and clicks the adjoining French doors shut.  The boys and I look at each other without speaking.  We do not need words.

The three of us go into the kitchen and rummage in the fridge.  We take out a package of ground beef, pull some spaghetti from the shelf and start water boiling.  The meat goes into a cast iron skillet with bacon grease.  Mark breaks the red clumps so they'll brown evenly while I start taking down plates to set the table.  Kevin has gone outside to find Frank and Steve.  Silence emanates from the basement, a sign that my father has discerned my mother's arrival and sits on a stool smoking, waiting for the next thing.

I'm laying the silverware when I hear the sound which we all dread:  My mother's sobs.  I slip through the linen closet door into her bedroom from its back entrance and stand in the dimness, watching her form shake under an afghan on the bed.  She's discarded her shoes and uniform, lying in her slip and stockings.

"What's wrong, Mom?" I ask, not really wanting to know.  I sit on the edge of the bed and place my hand n her forehead.  By thirteen, I understand her life enough to know that the reason for her tears might be simple, but it might be so complex as to frighten me.  

I wait.  Finally she pulls herself up, leans against the headboard, and pulls me to her.  Neither of us speaks for a few minutes, then she lets go of me and dabs her eyes with a handkerchief that she's clutching.

"I cashed my paycheck on the way home," she begins.  "I pulled away from the teller and stopped in the parking lot to count the money.  I realized that she had given me six hundred dollars too much."

She stops.  I think about that sum, six hundred dollars.  I do not know then what six hundred dollars might buy, what burden it might ease for my overworked mother but it seems like a lot.  I wait for her to continue.

"I looked at that money.  I thought about you kids.  You need shoes.  You need clothes.  You need food.  I held that six hundred dollars and sat in  my car and thought."  She pauses.  "Then I got out of the car, went into the bank, and told the manager what had happened.  He took the money and thanked me.  He turned away.  And that was it."  A long sigh riffs through her body.

Just then, the sound of the dinner bell breaks the dimness of the room.  My mother hugs me.  "Go wash  your hands.  I'll be there in a minute," she says.  I move to do as she directs, but as I start to slip  through the makeshift back passage through the closet, my mother speaks my name.  I stop and look over my shoulder at her small body, standing now in the unlit bedroom.

"Don't say anything," she whispers.

And I never did.

This morning I calculated all the money that I've spent on restaurant food in the last twenty months, during this time when my emotions raised a wall between me and the kitchen; when I've stood in grocery stores feeling so desolate that I could not push the cart nor fill it with items that I would be unable to cook anyway -- vegetables which would be doomed to rot, bread which would grow mold.  A month ago I began to feel able to cook again; able to slice, dice, saute and simmer.  Doubtless what kept me from the kitchen could be called depression.  I labelled it "situational sadness" and resigned myself to eating out instead of getting therapy.  But today I feel differently.  Today I think of my mother anguishing over her meager salary, crying about her choice between honesty and groceries.  I feel ashamed by the hundreds of dollars that I've wasting indulging myself on pakora, Panera's, and pizza.

The sun floods my neighborhood with the sweet light of an autumn morning.  Cool air wafted through the open window all night, while warmth drifted through the register.  I have to schedule routine maintenance for the furnace.  Piles of laundry stand in my closet.  The crowded furniture must be weaned and the living room made comfortable again.  I stretch my shoulders and feel a twinge of pain beneath one breast, where the healing rib still protests.  I think about my mother, though -- imagine the smattering of age spots on her hands, the deepness of her brown eyes, the lock of hair which always fell across her forehead.  I have her strength in me.  I carry on.

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.