Saturday, July 30, 2016

Saturday Musings(tm), 30 July 2016

Good morning,

I played hooky on Friday, save for a home visit in a guardian ad litem case.  I had personal paperwork to manage, so I re-arranged my schedule for the week, stayed home, and slogged through  it.  At four o'clock I opened the front door, bound for an errand.  I halted at the sight of a white, flat package, two inches thick, stuck in my mailbox protruding into the spider's web which had been accumulating on the wall for the past week.

The package yielded to an earnest pull.  I held it clumsily, furrowing my brow, studying the stamped return address and the addressee.  Bold and bright:  NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, addressed to PATRICK CHARLES CORLEY.

In the lower left-hand corner, a single word in half-inch letters:  DIPLOMA.

My mind instantly jumped backward in time, and I again climb the stairs from the first-floor Purple Dragon Pre-School towards PS1 Elementary.

Patrick's golden curls fall across his forehead as he cranes his neck to see his mother's face.  My weary shoulders droop.  The mysterious illness that has not yet been diagnosed as a reactivation of my old nemesis stirs in my chest and claims my breath as we move from flight to flight.  Patrick reaches for my hand and stops walking for a moment.  Mom, he says, his voice only quavering a little.  Can I ask you a question?

I drop the bag of first-day supplies on the steps and sit down so that my face levels with his.  My hands find his two small shoulders and I steady us there, halfway up the second flight.  A downward glance shows no one has started towards us; we have time for whatever pre-kindergarten jitters have overtaken my five-year-old child.

Go ahead, Buddy, I tell him, using his baby name though I know he wants to discard that label.  Ask me anything.  I'm thinking:  What do I do if I need something?  Will the teachers be nice? What if nobody plays with me? Will I get to read? What time do we get to come home?  Can I come down and see Mrs. Helmuth -- he's asked this last before now, and I've assured him that we will stop to see his beloved Magda, the owner of the pre-school, every day.

But no;  It's none of these.  His sky-blue eyes find mine and he says, Are you going to die before I'm big?  My heart clenches.

I cannot really answer him.  We do not yet know why I cannot breathe.  It will be another two years before I make my way to the Infectious Disease specialist who will identify the virus, the bug which I'll explain to seven-year-old Patrick bit me on the brain when I was a baby, and apparently now wishes to claim more territory.  But at that moment, on his first day of kindergarten, we know only that every few days I fall into a physical panic and have to go to the emergency room where they test for everything all over again, before sending me home.  So far only oxygen has helped, and a tank of that graces the living room.

I draw in air and speak.  No, Buddy, I'm not going to die before you get big.  I'm going to live to be a hundred and three, and I'm going to nag you every day of your life.

I wait.  I see that smart brain of his chewing on my pronouncement.  I feel the tension in his body under my hands, which still rest on his shoulders.  Below us, the door to the building opens and other children enter.  Another look over the railing shows them to be Purple Dragonners.  We still have time.  Patrick debates  and then, answers me:

Then I'll annoy you every day of my life, he says.  His shoulders relax under my hands, and he turns away, starting up the last few stairs, his little black cowboy boots clicking on the tiles.  I follow.  I will always follow.

I stood on my porch yesterday holding the package from Northwestern, the days between that kindergarten morning and now crowding my mind.   The travels we've made -- to the southwest, where we climbed a mountain; northward to the Dakotas, where he rode a bicycle down a mountain; to Chicago, where he found his cousin-friend Jacob; to the southeast where he learned to shoot a rifle while his mother fretted in an isolated clearing in the Great Smoky Mountains.  I remembered the night we spent in a hotel in Greencastle, Indiana, making a Venn diagram to compare the relative merits of the two universities he was considering for college -- one in Chicago with a killer honors English program and full-tuition scholarship; and the one just a half mile from our room, with its old buildings and quadrangles.

The next day he walked the paths of campus at DePauw University, from which he would eventually get his Bachelors in Creative Writing, leading to this very day, this very moment, when I would stand on my porch holding his Master's degree, in the grueling heat of the last Friday of the month he turned twenty-five.  I do not know for certain what he felt during that momentous tour, but I spent the entire time in awe -- not just at the beauty of the campus, but at the poise which overtook my son.  He shook the hand of the admissions counselor whose visit to his high school had prompted this journey to Indiana, and he left me sitting with my laptop over coffee while he went to shadow a student.  He did not look back.  I watched him go, suddenly realizing  that my life had changed in ways that no one who is not the single mother of an only son could ever understand.

In 2014, when I made my first trip to California to confer with the gurus about the newest rampage of my virus, I listened as the fancy ID guy assured me that the medicine could send the little bugger into remission.  In the sterile air of the exam room, I let him finish his diatribe about the drug's efficacy.  The lilting tones of his Colombian tongue fell silent, finally, and then, he spoke again to ask me if I had any questions.

Will this drug help me live a long life, I asked.  His brow furrowed, as though he had not quite expected such directness.  I continued.  You see, I promised my son that I would live to be 103, and I intend to keep that promise.  A smile broke across his face and he laughed.  But I was not yet ready for mirth.  I told him:  I've taken care of the first 59 years; the next four decades are on you.

Dr. Jose Montoya, of the Stanford University Medical Center Infectious Disease Clinic, rose from his chair and I did likewise.  He reached two large and sturdy hands to grasp mine.  I felt the weight of his heritage in those hands.  I knew, somehow, that he came from good people, kind people, and a long line of them.  I looked into his wide warm face and the depths of his dark eyes.  He said, then, without laughing, Mrs. Corley, you will keep the promise you made to your son.  We will do it together.

And I believed him.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Musings, 23 July 2016

Good morning,

I walked through my house last evening with a friend who had not been here except for a brief stop to retrieve me.  I saw the rooms through the eyes of a stranger, and noticed grime that I would not normally see.  The shock of observation compels me to clean today, but also sends me sliding into yesteryear.  On my counter, a plate of butter melted in the heat; and, briefly, I heard my mother's voice talking about butter.

She walks through the door in her uniform.  I am seven maybe eight.  She's been working for a year or two at a hospital as an EKG technician, a poor substitute for the nursing career she abandoned to marry my father but better than the register at Famous 'n' Barr.  She has eight mouths to feed, not counting her husband's bar bill.  She does what she must. 

She has a bag in her arms and a weary expression rippling across her face.  One of the boys, Kevin probably, will come take her burden.  He eases it to the counter in the kitchen while the rest of us crowd around her.  We must be hungry but most of all, we crave these few minutes with our mother before the evening can devolve.

She tells us, "Wait til you see what I have," and draws out a large can.  It sits on the counter because we will wait.  I stare at it, reading the lettering which tells me it is a can of butter.  Butter?  I know the creamy taste on raisin bread at Christmas, but mostly butter only comes for Sunday, and holidays.  It's too dear.  Even I know that; and I've never seen it in a can.

Someone puts food in bowls and we gather around the table.  Mother has changed out of her uniform.  My father eases himself into the chair at the head of the table.  I'm used to his moods and cast an eye sideways to see if I can tell what he'll be like.  His face looks shaved and clean; I take that as a good sign. 

My mother brings the can and a can opener to the table.  She works the little handle and the lid pops free.  We see it then:  Rich, creamy, pale yellow.  My mother says, "I took one of the maids from the hospital shopping and then home.  She wanted to pay me but when I wouldn't take money, she gave me this can of welfare butter."  The maids lived in the city where grocery stores had inferior meat.  My mother often drove them to the store out in the county and then made sure they did not have to ride the bus with meat that could spoil during the long trip.  

We passed around the tin.  My father took none and made a little face which frightened me.  I knew what his displeasure could mean; but I could not discern what angered him.  My mother saw the grimace.  She leaped from her chair and got the coffee pot from the stove to fill his cup.  One of the big boys carved a chunk of the welfare butter and slathered it on a piece of bread for Stevie, whose small hands could not manipulate the tin of butter.   We murmured grace, "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Jesus Christ, Amen."  The table fell silent as we ate.  

My father put his knife and fork across the top of the plate and cleared his throat.  Nine pairs of eyes raised from the hasty gobbling of food to cast down the length of the table.  But he said nothing.  He pushed his chair backward, stood, and left the room.  We children turned to gaze the other direction, at our mother.  I'm sure the little boys did not know what had happened or its significance.  At 3 and 4, they had not yet learned to fear my father's moods.  But the rest of us knew; and my mother knew; and she rose then and followed my father saying to us, "It's all right, finish your supper then clear the table." 

Their argument overflowed into the night.  It blurs endlessly in the morass of every fight they ever had.  Quiet first, then louder.  He tells her, "We don't need -- you should not take -- welfare!" and her soothing voice murmurs.  I'm not sure what all this means.  Then my father's voice grows harsher, heavier, and outside their bedroom, eight hearts stop, eight pairs of lungs suspend their operation.  Little hands creep into bigger ones.  I know what this means; know it all too well.

 And so it begins.

When I left home, I made myself three food promises.  I would never again eat liver; I would never again eat margarine; and I would never again eat fast.  I've kept those promises, mostly.  My son's dicey health in toddlerhood brought "fake butter" into the house because he could not absorb fat or fiber until age 4 or 5.  I'm a vegetarian, so the liver's a no-brainer.  My snail's pace of consumption testifies to my stubborn refusal to gobble my food.  No hungry boys clamber around the table waiting for my leftovers.  But I have a secret vow about dinner time which I harbor in my heart and will not violate:  No arguing.  No fighting.  No stalking from the table with a cold and sinister look.

When Jenny Rosen and I went to Colorado for Memorial Day Weekend this year, a wizened older man cooked our eggs at the hotel in Boulder.  I asked him how the scrambled eggs could be so luscious.  "Love and lard," he replied.  "I stir them tenderly, and I cook them in lots of butter."  Of course.  Of course.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

I tried to find a photo of 1960s welfare butter.
But I couldn't.  Barring that,
Here's something even better.
Enjoy! Happy Saturday.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Musings, 16 July 2016

Good morning,

My impatience reared into gear and I poured the water for my French press too soon.  With the lukewarm java beside me on the deck table, I listen to the birds who share my satisfaction with the sweetness of the morning air.  I seem to have survived yesterday's brief relapse into neurological distress, an occasional malady which I thought I had outgrown.   Early yesterday evening, my friend Brenda came by with Chai Shai carry-out.  As we noshed, she asked if my life-style changes or the California doctor's prescription might have impacted its frequency.   I speared a bit of pakora, shifted my weight and reflected.  I had not thought of that.  I had just been living, not realizing that it had been months since my disease's more intricate inflammations had come into play.

I understand my disease more these days, but have nearly lost the will to manage its manifestations.  Yesterday I left work early, came to the house and essentially shut down.  I slept, sat on the porch reading, and drank carrot juice.  At one point, my neighbor came across the street with her five-year-old granddaughter and I swear, that child's hug did more for me than all the pills in China.

Here in the cool morning, surrounded by soft sunlight, I feel my mother's presence.  I hear her voice, her lessons, her mantras:  If you walk every day of your life, you'll walk every day of your life.  So keep walking.  I have done that, Momma; I have honored you.  But I am tired.

I stretch my neck to let my gaze span the height of the neighbor's chimney, taking in the vagaries of its bricks:  red, brown. and beige against the emerald of the towering tree.  My mother speaks beside me, What a beautiful neighborhood, Mary; I'm so happy for you.  I turn to her, silent, thinking of the ocean, hearing the echo of its voice and reliving the nights I've spent in a chair beside that ocean, wrapped in a shawl.   I close my eyes.  I listen to that beckoning.

I suddenly recall sitting with my mother on a bench in her backyard, in the spring of 1985, four months before she let go of her decrepit body and allowed her spirit to soar.  She wore a bandanna to protect her bare skull from the sun's wicked kiss and a jacket to guard against the coolness of the air.  Her frame held precious little flesh.  Her cheeks stood high in the ragged contours of her face. She shivered but bore her discomfort with a breathtaking grace.

Three of her grandchildren, Lisa, Rick and Cate, hunted Easter eggs while their parents stood nearby. Rick studied the ground, intent.  Cate moved lightly across the yard.  Lisa held her Easter basket with the most incredible care, resting each colored egg in the plastic grass.  We watched from the side while the children scurried around the yard.

 My mother looped her arm through mine.  This is enough, she told me.  If I have not one second more, this day is enough.  Her oldest granddaughter Lisa came towards her, extending her hand, offering my mother a piece of chocolate.  Mother lifted her frail arms and Lisa came into their circle.  We collapsed into the stillness of the moment, yearning for it to sate us, scrambling for its sheltering edges.

Half a life-time later, now nearly two years older than my mother ever got to be, I keep a mental basket of such memories, shimmering gossamer videos of each tender time. In the midst of yesterday's unfortunate relapse, the lilting sound of Abigail calling my name from her grandmother's porch washed over me.  Now that brief respite lies on top of the burgeoning pile of sacred memories.  I clutch it against me and sit, motionless; calm, content; for once not needing more.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Abigail, fourth daughter of Sara Black, and granddaughter of Debbie and Jimmy Black.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Saturday Musings, 09 July 2016

Good morning,

Last evening I finished my salad, got my prescriptions, and took myself north on State Line to Prospero's Books.  As I entered, one of the two owners called out, Hello -- I haven't seen you in a long time, and I realized that I could not recall when I had last been out on a Friday evening doing the things that I love.  I tread across the old wooden floors, turning my head so I would not miss the sound of their warped squeak.  I ran my finger across a row of books and stopped in front of the cashier's station.  The owner smiled.  I finally replied, I don't get out much.  He doesn't know me, this one; his partner is a friend of mine.  But he nonetheless continued, asking why, asking if I had been all right.

I told him, I've gotten to be a recluse, and he nodded.  Perfectly understandable, he seemed to be saying.  Have you read the news lately?  He did not speak, though, or ask again what had driven me indoors.  He just nodded, the once, and then smiled.  I went to browse among the shelves.  I found a novel written by a Haitian woman and gave the man six dollars.  His face crinkled into a lovely expression, as though he might not have been able to pay the mortgage without my purchase.  He bade me good night, and I walked through the door nearly glad that I had come.

Down the street, I debated between a cupcake and an ice cream.  SmallCakes, a cupcakery, stood directly adjacent from where I'd parked the car.  I looked inside, thinking about the sugar content of even the smallest of cakes.  The carbs.  I opened the door and stepped across the threshold.  Calories be damned.

The woman behind the counter sported all manner of tattoos and a broad friendly grin.  She greeted me and began telling me about her selections as though introducing children.  A pang of guilt rose in my belly, the belly still carrying that last annoying bit of flab which truly causes me to tilt when I rise from a chair.  But now I stood before this kind person, who had spent three or four minutes of the last half hour of her workday talking about toppings and fillings.

I bought something that she said was her favorite and she gently nestled it into a special box, pink, with the name of the store written across it.  I mentioned my admiration for her tattoos.  I asked which one she liked best, and she turned around to show me an owl between her shoulder blades, peeking out from the top of her yellow sundress.  I told her about my friend Baylee who had answered the same question by showing me a tattoo in the same location.  I always forget it's there, Baylee had said.  The cupcake lady laughed her agreement.  Then she, too, said good night, without evening glancing at the hands of the clock creeping towards closing time.  She said it as though genuinely concerned about me; as though she might be calling later to see if I had enjoyed the rest of my evening and whether I had liked her recommended confection.

The door quietly closed behind me.  I clutched my cupcake, the book which I had purchased at Prospero's, and my little French purse.   The evening air had lightened some.  Voices drifted from the tables on the sidewalk, down the block, by the ice cream place.  A young man held the door for an older woman -- his mother, perhaps -- and a little girl stood eye to eye with a great Dane passing on the sidewalk.  She showed no hesitation.  The dog's owner held the leash steady while the child reached a small hand to pat the dog's head.  All the while, an anxious mother stood behind the girl, torn between the desire to grab her offspring out of harm's way and the sure knowledge that fear should not be one of the lessons of a lovely summer evening on 39th Street.

I crossed to the parking lot and laid the cupcake on the front seat, nestled between my purse and the small paperback.  Before reversing, I listened to a few minutes of the late news on the hour.  Around the country, demonstrations swelled to thousands.  The savage murder of two black men sparked rage; the vicious retaliatory slaughter of five police officers by a lone sniper stabbed the soul of our nation.  The departure of Great Britain from the European Union, the ludicrous behavior of the Republican presidential candidate, and the questionable ethics of the Democrat pale in comparison to a country's mourning for the loss of innocent lives.  Yet again; yet again.

Outside the windows of my car, the people of my city seemed to have taken a break from the terrible tragedies that have held us spellbound to the television, the radio, and the Internet.  A boy on a skateboard slipped down the middle of the street, arms stretched out for balance.  Behind him a pick-up truck took the street at a handful of miles per minute just to let the kid have his moment.  I could see grins on the faces of the driver and passenger, a flicker of something like jealousy, perhaps a fleeting memory of another summer night, when they, too, were young and flew through the heavy air on tiny wheels.

I put the car in gear and pulled onto the street, pointing the Prius towards home.  Along the way, I lifted my cell phone at every stop sign.  Some urgent need to capture the night drove me to look through its lens at my city.  I drove down Warwick, where I rented my first few apartments here, nearly forty years ago.  Nothing seemed to have changed.  There was no battle here; no fury; no anger.  The car behind me tolerated my starts and stops without so much as honking.  I made my way through the town which adopted me, asking myself if I am ready to leave.  I have no answer.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

Driving down Oak Street.


The back steps to my second (and third) apartment.
The front of the apartment building in which I twice lived.

John's Greenhouse, still run by his now-blind daughter.

How can one not find this city beautiful?

My house.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Saturday Musings, 02 July 2016

Good morning,

Thunder finally cascades across the sky, chasing the gentle rippling flashes of lightening, barely seen above the thick cloud bank.  Here on earth the alarm rings for the second time.  I pull my body from the futon's surface and drag myself vertical.  I tell myself, outloud to the dense air of the room, You must lose these last five extra pounds, and then I remember that I'm out of coffee.  I stand in front of the window above my desk, right hand circling left wrist, poised to slide my feet into the fuzziness of my slippers.  I fall into a stupor, landing before another window, long ago.

I stand in a sterile hallway peering through an open bedroom door.  I shift in my duty shoes, crinkling the stiff polyester uniform.  The room in front of me has only pale illumination, yet night has not descended on the hospital.  Something stirs within and I think, What am I seeing?  One step brings me closer; then I know.  

The room's occupant clings to the window sill, spread full against the glass.  He cannot escape; the bars keep him from tumbling three floors to the ground.  A thought looms:  Can he shatter the window and cut himself if he continues this relentless beating on the pane?  I tell myself, You need to call the code.  But the sight immobilizes me.

The patient's bulk fills the window.  His body heaves once, twice; I think he will fall backwards.  Then he stretches his arms and resumes banging his fists against the glass.  He turns his head, jerks his shoulders.  He cries out; I can see one side of his face.  Sweat, or tears, or blood obscure his eyes.  

Still I do not move.  Still  I stand.  His wailing pours out and fills the corridor.  

Suddenly the rush of someone  running past sends me staggering to one side.  An aide thunders into the room and hauls the patient to the ground, casting him to the floor.  Others flood the hallway:  The code team, with their crash cart, their syringes, their restraints.  Someone pressed the panic button.  The last white-clad nurse closes the bedroom door against the terrible sound of the patient's anguish.

I walk back to the nurse's station and sink into my chair.  I stare at the stack of charts on which I had been working before an unseen hand pulled me to the other side of the Dutch door, drawing me to the dimness of that awful room.

My hand shakes as I reach for my pen and resume my work.  I think:  I've got to find a different job.

A nurse enters the area and stands in front of me.  I see the trouble on her face.  She asks, Why didn't you get help?  I know I've violated protocol.  I understand.  I shrug.  I drop my pen.  My right hand sneaks across my chest, to circle my left wrist.  I hold this pose, looking down, hoping she'll go away.

She pats my shoulder, and passes behind me to pour a cup of dredge from the percolator.  My shoulders drop.  I reach for my pen, and go back to transferring meaningless gibberish into something the pharmacy can understand.

The thunder has relented now, and releases soothing rain to fall on my dry yard.  I stand in the front doorway and watch the flags fluttering in the silent wind.  My plan to weed the hostas must wait; I'll clean closets instead.  I see a pair of birds clinging to the shuddering limbs of the maple tree.  I wonder why they still sing, despite the surrounding drabness.  What do they know, that I have not discovered?  A dinging from the kitchen tells me that my mug of leftover coffee has finished warming.  I turn away, moving back into the quiet of my home to start my chores.

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.