27 May 2017

Good morning,

It’s six-oh-six and I’ve been awake since four a.m.  The dog has been fed, medicated, and reassured that humans still care for despite her age and the slight annoyances she causes.  I’m casting an eye at the chores that demand attention before I can head east for the weekend.  I take another bite of leftovers from JULIAN, pausing to lament that Chef Tio has decided to hang up her towel and put away her knives.

By noon, I will be nearing my birthplace.  I plan to make my second annual foray to Calvary, where my little brother lies in a hole beside my parents and my brother’s daughter.  I brought a small jar of flowers to my mother on Mother’s Day in 2016 and tramped around for twenty minutes looking for their graves before calling the office for help.  The man who rescued me stood in respect while I pulled weeds and dusted the headstones.  As I balanced the flowers on my mother’s grave, he said, as gently as he could, They will throw that jar away, just so you know.  I nodded in his general direction but kept my eyes downward.

That was more than a year ago.  I think I will be able to find the spot now, after trudging from section to section perhaps but I hope to do better.  I don’t know what compels me to visit; perhaps my bi-monthly trips to my in-laws’ resting place at Mount Moriah; or maybe something in my gut, some deep need for resolution.

I call the place “my mother’s grave”, and acknowledge as an aside that my brother Stephen also lies in that ground.  That my father shares the spot comes as an after-thought.  This morning, in my sleepless hours, I summoned his face and met his eyes, seeking their truth or perhaps straining to impart my own.  His ghost turned from me, denying what he saw, depriving me of what he knew.

My dad fought in World War II, in the Burma theatre as a Missouri mule-skinner.  One of the Mars Men of Burma, he served as his company clerk.   When I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, I sought in vain a display about the Burma Road and the men who served their country on its rugged contours.   But my father swelled with pride when he spoke of his service.  I realized years ago that combat shattered my father’s psyche; his alcoholism, his abusive behavior, his personal hell started on the battle field.  Today he would have been diagnosed with service-connected PTSD and given help.  Decades ago, no one recognized or acknowledged the devastating impact of war.

I’m not sure it would have helped his children to understand the legacy of my father’s service.  We felt its brunt.  Some of us never overcame it; and I include myself in that group.  I have not healed, although I’ve written thousands of words about my own shortcomings, dancing around my inability to foster self-respect.  I’d like to say that I forgave my father.  I’d like to travel each May, carrying a new flag to my father’s grave, just as I do for my favorite curmudgeon.  A better woman might.  I am not that woman.  But I will lay a flower there, and wipe away the mud, and trim the weeds with the same scissors that I use here in Mount Moriah when I go to visit my in-laws.  That much, I can do; that much, I can spare him.

I will bend down and trace the words of my mother’s name.  I will remind her that I still miss her, even now, in words of lament that will ripple on the muggy St. Louis air.  As for my brother, I might sit cross-legged on his headstone and turn glazed eyes toward the cemetery grounds.  I will  ask him for the thousandth time, Why, Stevie Pat, why oh why?  I know the answer he would give:  To stop the pain.  But it’s not enough to know; I want it to be untrue.  I want to travel back in time, twenty years next month, and stay his hand before it pulls the trigger.

I understand that Stephen’s death has nothing to do with my failures.  I also see the twisted complexity of our childhood and the domino effect of what my father did and who my father was.  Who my mother was.  Who we all became or did not become, because of who they were and what they both did and did not do.

I recently took a seminar on the neuro-biological impact of trauma.  I listened to the earnest explanations of how early exposure to abuse changes the neurological pathways of those who experience it.  I took copious notes, striving to understand how to better serve the clients whom I represent who have survived family violence.  Afterwards, I reached my fingers to my face, shocked to feel tears and taste their salt.

The sun lights my neighborhood.  I’ve tarried longer than I intended.  Perhaps it’s just as well; I won’t obsess over the grammar of these paragraphs as I normally do.  I’ll just put it out to the internet.  Those who wish to read, will do so.  Those who would rather wait for next week’s fluffy sentiment may do that as well.  I will not condemn you either way.

For those who of you who served in our Armed Forces, no matter the branch, no matter the duty, I offer thanks.  If you saw combat, I hold a special place for you in my tattered heart. War is hell.  If you have walked through hell and come to its far side, I honor you; but I also send my most tender hopes that you recognize the dangers you face because of what you’ve seen and done.  No one travels through hell unscathed; and there is no shame in needing help to overcome the damage that it’s done to you.

So now I let my father’s spirit return to wherever it sleeps.  I cannot hate the man.  I wear his stamp on the face which I see in the mirror.  He taught me to read.  From his genes came this gift which enables me to write.  He took pride in what I did as no one else has ever done.  He accepted me.    I can do no less for his memory.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

My father’s war memorabilia.

DO YOU WANT THE TRUTH OR SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL?

By Ed Harcourt and Paloma Faith; performed by Paloma Faith

20 May 2017

Good morning,

In three hours, I will help the artists whose work has been showing in my professional space strike their show.  Tomorrow the next show comes to Art @ Suite 100, and life clicks another quarter towards eternity.  I look around the house and think of the drawers, shelves, and cupboards filled with the flotsam and jetsam of my life.  I don’t know where to begin.  Inertia overcomes me.

Another little miracle happened here yesterday.  My lost copper hair pin reappeared.  When I crossed the living room to take my coffee outside, I paused and glanced down at the floor.  My hairpin lay on the floorboards about two feet in front of the threshold.  I had eaten my dinner on the porch the previous evening, stepping over that very threshold.  I had entered and exited the house all week via the front door.  The pin had not been lying on the floor or anywhere near that spot.  I have no clue how it managed to find its way from wherever I lost it to my living room but there it sat, waiting to be discovered by me.

I said a silent prayer of thanks to St. Anthony out of ingrained habit. Holding the pin, feeling its smooth contours, I wondered if my mother had found it; or my favorite curmudgeon; or perhaps the house ghost.   I smiled.  I suppose it doesn’t matter what spirit occasioned its return.

This is far from my first experience with weird happenings.  As I sipped my coffee, I thought about my last apartment in St. Louis before I left for law school.  I would come home from work to find the record player scratching across an album, mournful notes drifting through the place.  I’d wake some mornings to discover that all of my pictures had been turned face down in their frames.

My father changed the locks and installed deadbolts, precautions stemming from his insistence that someone would enter my apartment while I was away.  As for myself, less sure of the nature of the miscreant,  I took to unplugging the radio.  Nothing impeded the imp who deployed the blender, rattled the window shades, and moved my jewelry.

One summer night, I struggled to fall asleep.  The apartment had no air conditioning.  The full July heat poured through the window, still and heavy.  Finally I drifted into a sluggish unconsciousness.

I woke with a start to the cool breath of a figure bending over me.  White and shapeless, vaguely human, no eyes, no mouth but a gentle, urgent voice.  Wake up, wake up, there’s someone in the apartment.  Wake up!

I jerked upright, eyes darting around the seemingly empty room.  I pulled myself from the bed and ran through the house, screaming as loud as possible.  Sounds of scuffling hurried feet — the sight of an open back door — I stopped, hands to my mouth.

The police found that both my apartment door and the backdoor to the building had been smashed.  A garbage bag  lay across the rear sidewalk with its contents spewed over the cracked cement, booty dropped in the burglar’s haste.  Whether my sudden noisy entrance or the appearance of my ghostly sentry had driven the intruder from my apartment, I cannot say.  In fact I did not explain to the officers what had actually awakened me.

They scolded me for not calling for help from the phone on my bedside table.  I allowed as how they were probably right and I would do that — next time.  Let’s hope there isn’t a next time, one of them muttered.  You got somebody who can fix this door?

They hammered a board across the splintered door frame, and told me to call the landlord in the morning.  I assured them that I would.  I hugged my upstairs neighbor and declined his offer of a couch for the night.

I never again complained about the sound of my record player greeting me after work.  I figured even ghosts deserve entertainment.

Four years later, I walked with my mother in her garden after her cancer diagnosis.  She told me that she had dreamed about an angel coming to her.  He told me that I have a year left, she said, in a voice so matter-of-fact that I stopped to examine her face.  She shrugged.  I’m all right with that, she continued.  He also said everyone would be with me when I left here to go home.  

I thought for a few minutes and then asked her what the angel looked like.  A white form, with no face, vaguely human, but with an endlessly gentle voice.  My mother paused.  You think I’m crazy, don’t you, she asked.

I thought about that record player at my apartment on Maury Avenue.  I shook my head.  I wrapped my arm around her waist and said, If you’ve only got a year, we better make the most of it.  Let’s go have some ice cream.

Here in Kansas City, more than three decades later, I listen to the silence and glance out the window at the grey sky.  A sudden peace overcomes me.  I smile, and head downstairs to get another cup of coffee.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

 

13 May 2017

Good morning,

On the phone yesterday my son said, Be sure to watch the mail, and just like that — BAM — I remembered once again that Mother’s Day  has rolled around for the 31st time since my mother died on 21 August 1985.

To anyone whose mother passed away more recently, I wish I could say that eventually you stop mourning.  You don’t.  I still move towards the phone to call her though not as often.  Every decision I make must be held against the Lucy Corley ruler.  Luckily I have her values instilled in me if not actually imprinted on my DNA.  Even when I make a choice that I know would send her eyebrows skyward, I do a jig to induce her imaginary image to giggle.  I get that from her:  once I start laughing, you’re forgiven.

Mother memories flood into my mind this morning.  I recall again the wistfulness with which she raised her wedding dress to show her father as she said that she wished one of her daughters could wear it.  I argued with her later about what she meant — was she accusing me of not being tiny enough or not qualifying for  a white wedding?  She shrugged, the only answer that I needed.

She spoke her mind, did Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley.  One time she told a woman that her mother should have had an abortion.  The woman had shushed my mother during church, when my mother turned to me, then 17, to comment on Father O’Fallon’s stand on birth control.  On another occasion, she herself leaned down to quiet two women at Powell Hall during a classical performance.  Later they explained that they were reviewers trying to help each other keep track of the pieces.  She gave her classic shoulder lift and looked heavenward.  God forbid that anyone should interrupt Dvorak.

My mother picketed the convent when they fired me for being the sister of hippies, and made her own bumper stickers to protest the war during the late 1960s.  “Vietnam. . . Laos. . . Cambodia. . . But I have FOUR sons!” She got a scolding from the HR person at County Hospital where she worked for driving a political pronouncement onto government property.  She told them that her First Amendment rights protected her.  They let her be.

She once returned extra cash that a bank teller had dispensed at the drive-up window.  I needed that money, she disclosed.  I was tempted but I thought about her job and went back.  Ambivalence dripped from her voice.  At thirteen, I learned the value of honesty from that episode.

My mother nurtured every creature that crossed her path and a few which she gathered around her with deliberateness.  Her eight children, her alcoholic husband, other people’s teenagers, every plant that grew in her garden.  She brought meat from our grocery store to the housekeepers at the hospital who didn’t have cars or markets with quality food.  They thanked her with tins of welfare butter, perhaps realizing that she struggled just as much as they did.

I  remember one time when my mother out-right discouraged a dream of mine.  At eight or nine, I asked for dance lessons.  She sat me down at the breakfast room table.  My baby girl, she whispered, before launching into an explanation of why crippled legs can never glide across a stage beneath a tutu. I didn’t understand.  Shame burned my face. I gleaned from her speech that I did not meet some standard.  I pushed the chair back and ran into the sunroom, throwing myself on my bed and burying my face to sob.   My mother followed, sitting on the bed beside me, patting me on the back.  I fell asleep to the sound of her comforting voice.

Years later my mother steered me away from trying to write for a living so I applied to Master’s degree programs.  When I floundered along the way, she listened to my rants and rationalizations.  She bought my first suit when I neared the conclusion of law school  and paid for a plane ticket to New Orleans so I could try to get a job there.  The firm at which I interviewed had no intention of hiring me, something that my mother probably predicted before I left.  She let me fail on  my own.  She remained silent on the telephone line as I vented about their callousness.  She had no words but murmured something soft towards the end of my lament.

The elephant in any discussion of my mother centers on the chaos in our home in which,  it must be said, she was complicit.  We now understand family violence but in the era of my mother’s marriage, it had no name.  As a Catholic convert, my mother would not have dreamed of divorce, though my father’s brother got her a legal separation so she could be the recipient of my father’s monthly checks from his share of Grandma Corley’s estate.  We had no other money.  Uncle Bob used his law license to protect his sister-in-law.  She held him in high regard ever after, as did I when I started practicing and realized what that meant.

My parents came to visit me in Kansas City in 1984, shortly before my mother’s cancer diagnosis.  I took them to Stroud’s.  Mom wanted to buy a T-Shirt for my brother Kevin.  I re-read the Stroud’s motto — “We Choke Our Own Chickens” — and chided my father for his snickering.  My mother had no clue what double entendre hid in the slogan until I told her.  All the better, she declared.  Kevin will love it!    In some box in the basement I have a picture of my brother  opening that gift on Christmas.  The broad grin on his face attests to the accuracy of my mother’s prediction.

Mother died six years before my son’s birth.  He never got to know her brand of relentless hopefulness, her wicked sense of humor, or her daunting liberalness.  He missed the fury of her stern face, the warmth of her throaty laugh, and the wild enthusiasm of her make-shift New Year’s bashes with their pots and pans, popcorn, and kitchen-burner-S’Mores.  He never walked in her garden on a sun-kissed summer morning, listening to her identify the butterflies and the plants to which they flitted.  As much as I miss her, even more do I lament Patrick’s loss of her presence.

I don’t look like my mother except in the shape of my body, the natural color of my curls, and the curve of my right eyebrow.  She had the brown-hued stamp of her Syrian father while I wear the pug-nose Irishness of mine.  But I think I have her heart.  If I could call myself half the woman that my mother was, I would gladly lay down and die tomorrow, satisfied that I did not walk this earth in vain.

With my mother dead and my son in Chicago, I have no plans for tomorrow.  So I will sit on my porch with a cup of tea in the gentle air of early morning.  Later I will walk down the driveway to water the flowers on the little peninsula, with its fledgling volunteer mimosa and the struggling female holly.  I’ll sit on the decrepit park bench which my son gave me for Mother’s Day two decades ago with the help of a neighbor.  As the shadows fall around me, I will listen to the robin’s evening call.

Just now, I heard a bobwhite, whose song I would not recognize if my mother had not taught me about the birds of North America.  I close my eyes.  I smile.  Perhaps I am my mother’s daughter after all.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

06 May 2017

Good morning,

My schizophrenic tendencies overwhelmed me today.  I found myself sitting over Twitter trying to recover from the shock of reading analytics about the American Health Care Act and the impact it would have on millions of Americans.  As my coffee cooled, I realized that I couldn’t complain about Congressional callousness (See myyearwithoutcomplaining.combut any decent human being would rise and do so.  I started cogitating about how I can write about the potential devastation which could result from the legislation for my political blog (See myeyesarewatchingyou.comand suddenly lurched from chair thinking, Oh my gosh!  The Musings!

It’s Saturday morning.  These are the Musings of a Missouri Mugwump, delayed a few hours due to the nauseating effects of reading the news.

So:  It’s May.  The merriest month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother.  I’ve imagined her skipping across her front yard in one of her wrap-around skirts.  I have a photo of her doing just that.  A friend printed it decades ago in a photo lab where she worked at the time.  It’s in sepia tone and but for the twentieth century Midwestern vibe, it has a certain timelessness that could put it anywhere, any year.

Somebody’s mother; anybody’s mother.

My mother always wore a slightly puzzled expression.  Her lips with their faded Revlon lipstick could smile beneath eyes that questioned whether another step forward could land her on hazardous footing.  My most vivid memories of her involve hospital rooms:  My grandmother lying motionless; my father with his hospital gown twisted and sweaty; me, trussed in a harness protecting my shattered leg; and finally my mother herself, telling me not to scold the nurses.  But mom —- She shook her head.

Even cancer is no excuse for rudeness, Mary, she said, with a quiet grace that I have never captured.

Even urine leaking from the site of your catheter, Mama?  Even that.

Even a botched surgery that delayed your radiation and will doubtless hasten your death?  That too.

Even a twenty-one year old girl in starched whites suggesting that my mother doesn’t talk to her husband the way she should?

Especially that, my dear; she has no idea what Daddy and I have experienced.  She sees only that he’s my husband and she thinks I should defer to him.  Let it be.

Believe me when I say that these conversations occurred between my mother and myself in the mad year between diagnosis and dying.

It has been 32 years since my mother died, from which you can deduce that I was just shy of 30 at her funeral.  As Mother’s Day draws closer, I look for her in the delicate irises blooming in my yard.  I see her face in the mirror; I grow more like her every day.  I would skip down the driveway if I could, but I celebrated her by spending three hours yesterday assisting Trish and Mary Beth as they restored my yard to something like respectability.  My mother would so love the hostas.  She would approve of the cedar mulch with which we surrounded them.  She would have been on her knees weeding alongside my friend Trish and her sister.

After the ladies left, I sat in a rocker on the porch thinking about my mother and her lovely garden.  In the fall of 1984, I walked with her in the backyard.  I steadied  a gardening stool so she could sit and prune one of her flowering bushes.  We stood together, enjoying the light breeze of early evening.  She seemed at peace.  Though the next year would ravage her body, in that moment, she seemed completely at home and complacent.

Peace; comfort; complacency:  Three conditions of my mother’s heart to which I aspire.

The Google Fiber guy just called. He’s due in 30 minutes.  A pile of dishes glares at me from the kitchen sink and the accusatory emanations of the laundry accumulated in my walk-in closet wash over me in waves.  And yes:  By and by, I’ll be violating my pledge not to complain as I write that blog entry about the treachery of the Congressional Republicans.

But just now, I’m going to pour another cup of coffee and go out onto the porch, where my mother’s spirit lingers on the morning air.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley