24 June 2017

Good morning,

My foggy brain carries me downstairs and into the kitchen just behind the old dog.  I wrench open the backdoor and she spills into the yard, scampering down the stairs.  I stand staring outward, trying to remember the day, the year, my name.  But I turn to the fridge anyway and soon, I’m cracking eggs into a bowl.

When I get to the step of pouring yesterday’s leftover coffee into a crystal mug bound for the microwave I pause to think about my baby brother.

I can’t recall the date on his headstone.  It might be 14 June 1997.  It might be 20 June 1997.  Either way, he left us twenty years ago this month.  I’ve been mourning him for the last three weeks — secretly, like an abandoned lover yearns for the absent smile.

A repeat This American Life on NPR about suicide reminded me of the conversation that I had with Steve after his penultimate suicide attempt.  We stood at a bar in Webster Groves, quiet amid the cousins and our siblings.  I asked him why he called 911 to save himself when he awakened from his overdose with failed kidneys.  His long look preceded his response:   I wanted to stop the pain, not worsen it.  

Maybe I’ve told you that story before now. Maybe I tell it every year, every June, not just on the twentieth anniversary of his passing.

When I called St. Louis that June to tell my nephew’s mother that he had safely arrived on the train for his annual summer visit, my sister-in-law choked out two words:  Call Mark.  My brother.  I snapped:  Was it Stephen or Kevin?   The two brothers whom no one expected to live.  Just call Mark, she sobbed.  I knew someone had died.  I assumed that the death had been violent, probably self-inflicted.

I told my nephew and my son, whose ages spanned a decade of disparate abilities to understand.  Nick fell into desolation.  My son, Patrick, looked serious for age five.  Then he asked, Uncle Steve is the one who gave me the alien catcher for Christmas?  He’s the black-shirt Uncle?

Yes.  He’s the uncle who gave you the alien catcher on Christmas, wearing a black shirt, sitting on the couch with you and Whitney because that’s what uncles do.  They throw their little nieces and nephews high in the air and tumble them on couches.  They give the coolest presents.  They wear the fancy shirts and smoke cigarettes and let you sip their beer behind your mother’s back.

Your mother, who would forgive him almost anything.

I think it was that same Christmas that Steve and I went shopping at Union Station in St. Louis while some aunt watched my son.      We strolled on the mezzanine and got a drink at a bar overlooking the crowds of shoppers.  Steve bought a pair of socks for himself.  I remember those damn socks cost about fifteen bucks and I felt a serious gut kick.  How can somebody spend so much money on socks?  I filled a shopping bag with  presents for the cousins while he carried a little plastic sack with an elegant pair of socks for himself.

But by Christmas morning, I saw that he had already gotten a boatload of toys for his nieces and nephews.  He sat amid he rubble of wrapping paper and showed my son how to assemble the alien catcher.  I remembered the year that my siblings all went to see Alien on Christmas Eve.  I huddled in Steve’s shoulder when that jumpy thing shot out of the man’s chest.  He laughed and told me I was a pussy.  My sister Ann scolded us.  She said, Be quiet, that people were watching the movie and we should settle down.  Steve reached over and ruffled her hair and she sighed, Oh Steve!

We all laughed.  The people in front of us told us all to shut up.  Some one, maybe Steve, stuck out their tongue.  But we settled down.

As I recall my brother’s birth on Christmas, my parents intended to name him “Christopher” or “Christian”.  But they settled on “Stephen”, because with his birth, we had the same number of boys as girls, and “Stephen made everything even”.  The year he died, we became odd again, seven of us:  Three boys, four girls.    I felt a kind of desolation that I imagine people feel when they lose a hand.

When Patrick was about three, we visited a friend’s church on Christmas Day.  A lady leaned down and asked him if he knew whose birthday it was.  Oh yes, he announced.  It’s Uncle Steve’s birthday!

My little heathen got it right.  I’m sure I’ve told you that story before now; haven’t I?  But it’s a good one.  A good story about a good guy, who lived fast, loved hard, and died too young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

‘BROKEDOWN PALACE’ – The Grateful Dead

17 June 2017

Good morning,

The whir of the fan establishes the season — summer in Kansas City.  I lean forward to peer around the second monitor to see what the sky says about the chances of rain.  This morning I had to walk the dog down to the yard on her leash.  The bent gate had blown open in last night’s storm.  My sleep had not been interrupted by the crash of thunder but by the text alert telling me to beware.  Funny old world; technology warns me of the very weather raging outside my window while I lie in an oblivious coma.

Someone told me yesterday that I was brave.  I don’t feel particularly courageous, though I understand that I might seem foolhardy and eager for adventure.  I’m pushing the boundaries of what might be expected.  Never quite fitting the suit that I’ve tried to wear, I’m shedding that skin and wandering naked for a while, looking for a new wardrobe or at least a comfortable cloak.

I’ve tried changing wardrobes before now without making much difference in how the world perceives me.    Every role I’ve played for six decades seems to have been written for another actor.  Casting directors let me walk onto the stage and try the lines before their weary voices summon the next hopeful.  I stumble away, clutching the pages of the script from which I’ve been reading.  Let me try again!  I can do that voice!  But the hand gives  a careless wave.  I’m no longer wanted.  I don’t look the part.  I have no star power.  I’m not what they thought I would be.

For some reason I think of a boss that I had at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri so many years ago.  I recall her face but cannot recall her name.  She and I had our work space in an empty unused expanse of the old building  which housed the LSEMo offices at the time.  Velma?  Was that her name?

What do I remember? Smooth cheeks the color of cinnamon, with straight black  hair hanging on either side of a round expanse.   Black, maybe; maybe Indian?  It’s a blur, a smudge caused by the sands of time falling across the images.

My insides quivered whenever she approached me.  A few months earlier, I had come crawling back to St. Louis from a disastrous relocation to Boston.  Huddled against the window of my mother’s car, my brother Kevin in the driver’s seat and my few belongings crammed behind us, I had gazed on the Arch like a long-lost daughter.  I wanted to leap from the moving vehicle and baptize myself in the muddy Mississippi.  I had come home.

Come January, I found myself ensconced in an old studio on Russell Blvd., stacks of grad school books on an old desk crammed in the crawl space actually meant for a Murphy bed.  I let misgivings creep from their cobwebs and settle beside me.  Velma — was that really her name? — mistrusted my enthusiasm and chastised my initiative.  I went for Sunday supper and sat at my mother’s table making lists of my defenses.  I called the LSEMo lobbyist who used half my hours and begged her to intervene.  My mother sat listening, waiting for me to ask her opinion.

On Saturday nights, I would sit in the bars of the Central West End, watching the men play darts.  The same guys came to Kean Drug where I had my other job, selling money orders and make-up from the north end while Art Perry filled prescriptions and raised his eyebrows across the way.  Heads up, he would say, when he came across to check that everyone had a task at hand.  I’d feel the blush spread across my face and hastily close my notebook, moving to straighten stock as though that had been my intention all along.  He saw through that ploy  but let me be.  He’d done grad school once himself.

I’d sit in class and think about Velma.  She nagged me without relent.  I didn’t do my time sheet right.   I divided my time unequally between the two units who had use of me.  I forgot to straighten my desk at the end of the day.  I didn’t understand the limits of my position.

Nothing I did pleased Velma.  Maybe she had a different name?  The contours of her face retreat behind the veil of time along with everything else about her.  But let’s say that I remember; let’s pretend her name really was Velma.

I asked my mother, finally, whether she would read the letter that I had written to Velma.  I’ve always been better at expressing myself on paper.  My mother held the stack of pages but kept her eyes on my face.  This is your supervisor, right? she asked.  I nodded.  She set the letter aside.  Heat rose from my belly to my face but I sat rigid, waiting for the lecture.

Look, you’re my daughter, and I love you, she said.  The sweet touch of her words eased the hot swell of my cheeks.  But you just need to accept what this woman wants you to do.  It’s a part-time job.  You aren’t going to change her mind.  Just smile; just nod; just tell her to give you instructions and then follow them.

I wanted to protest but I knew that her advice would serve me.  I reached one finger to touch the sprawled handwriting of my long missive to Velma.  I felt the outrage which I had poured into the pages.  But the anger faded.  What remained can only be described as sorrow.  Velma found me wanting.  Concede the point.  Take the paycheck.  You’ll never be enough but at least you’ll have groceries.  Her approval should not be needed as well.

I went to work the next day and told Velma that I understood her complaints.  I asked for her guidance.  I sat at my desk and struggled to figure out what expression to summon to my face.  For the next two years, I went through the motions of accepting the limits which Velma dictated.  But my burden eased when she herself left the job and I got recast as assigned to the lobbyist who had shown me so much compassion.

For the last forty years, I’ve drifted through life  playing bit part after bit part with little enthusiasm.  The displeasure of my companions unsettled me.  I judged myself wanting and therefore, how could they do otherwise?  Or did their condemnation trigger mine?  Velma’s face finally faded from the forefront but her disdain lingered.

Still, I find myself at the turn of belief, with six decades behind and a long empty road ahead of me.  Every task that I’ve undertaken marches through the book of accounts.  Some has been written in the deep red ink of judgment.  But here and there, a paragraph of beautiful calligraphy in the soft black ink of victory spans a few inches of parchment.  Smudges attest to my struggles.  The pages bear the marks of many reviews  with the ink still damp:  words blurred, corners turned.

But the book has not been filled.  I still have room for passages of my own creation.

I have a trial on Monday so despite the weariness which grips my shoulders, I’m off to work in a few hours.  I’ll leave a load of clothes churning in the washer/dryer unit.  I’ve had to lash the gate shut with the dog’s leash, since it doesn’t stay locked on its own anymore.  A suitcase sits on a chair in the dining room, still half-packed from my trip to Atlanta.  The rest of its contents spill across the dining room table, where they’ll remain for another few days.  It can’t be helped.

I’m making my way from regret to rebirth.  No one has yet chosen me fora grand leading role.  But I still appear for the casting calls.  I have not yet surrendered to failure.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

 

 

10 June 2017

Good morning,

Oh, how I wish I were brave enough to share a photo of my surroundings!  My dining room has become an extension of my closet, cluttered with discarded garments, bent wire hangers, and unsuitable handbags with twisted vinyl openings.  In one corner stands a box containing an “assistive device” which I ordered and will never use.  Lovely and powerful artwork from Jilli Nel, Ruthie Becker, and Robin Thomas Hall rises above me on the walls.  My mother-in-law’s secretary full of delicate china resolutely towers over its protruded desktop which groans under the weight of a week’s pile of mail.  To my left sits a breakfast plate beside a box of probiotics; to my right, a water glass from two days ago and a coffee cup in which micro-waved coffee cools.

How this sad state of disarray developed defies understanding.  I’ve lost all regard for common decency, daily chores, and the niceties of living.  By nightfall, though, all of this must vanish.  I leave at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow and the house-sitter should not be expected to tip-toe through this shambles.  I’ll get it done.  I like my house-sitter.

As I sat on the porch a few moments ago, thinking about what to write today, I realized that I started these musings nine years ago this month.  I think I’ve told all the warm, fuzzy stories.  I’ve given you visuals of the rocks between which I’ve slipped, the crevices in which my feet have lodged, and the glowing countenances upon which I have rested my bleary eyes.

I have only alluded to the shattered glass, the raised hand, the downward thrust, and the endless nights of pain.  Those who want to know, to believe, to accept, have stood with me as the frigid wind pushed its way into the cracks and battered down the door.  Those who only desire beauty lower their eyes and back away, murmuring their rejection of my truths.  I always assumed that none of those stories were real, they stammer, as the carousel takes them around toward their golden ring.  They grab their prize, holler to the attendant, Stop!  I want to get off! and leap from their mount to the security of solid ground before full stop.  Their faces blur as I  turn in endless circles.

In the light of today’s sweet dawn, I thought about the grimness that I’ve been releasing these last three years, as I pulled the winding shrouds from my body and prepared for my rebirth.

I’ve told the happy stories.  I’ve talked about the dinner cooked in a potbelly stove while the snow swirled around us in the Arkansas Ozarks.  I’ve taken you on a tour of the fragile souls who meander through my life.  I’ve taken your hand and led you to the grandeur of the Montana Rockies and the stark wonder of the glaciers.

But I have not shown you the terrors which raked across my own soul or the festering scabs in the fabric of my being.  I have brought you to my paradise and closed the door to prying eyes on my raging hell.

Would you have it any different?  Would you climb down into the scalding depths with me?  Would you fight my giants?

As I sipped my leftover coffee today, I let my mind pick through the tales that I could tell.  I have enough courage to unbar the armory door now.  The moving pictures come to me as stills.  Their power has faded.

Here is the policeman who sat me on his lap and asked  me to tell him what my daddy did to my mommy.

Here is another police officer who dragged me into an empty apartment and raped me.

Here is the man who raised a shotgun and murdered a doctor walking in the hospital hallway in front of me.

Here is twisted wreckage of my body lying on asphalt rubble.

Here is the tautness of my mother’s face just before death.

Here is the blood on the bathroom floor and  in the crimson pool, the fetal tissue of my son’s lifeless twin.

Here is the slash on my stoned neighbor’s head as he grabbed my shaking hands and implored me to plunge a needle into his cracked skull so he could avoid the emergency room.

Here is my mother lying on the kitchen floor in a pile of savagely smashed dishes.

Here are the echoes of the taunts and jeers of children who only understand that I wobble when I walk; that if they holler louder, I stumble more.

Here is my father’s dark face glaring at me as he bends over the kitchen counter waiting for the coffee to perk.

Here are the French doors  with shards of glass and splinters of wood where its fragile surface yielded to my mother’s body when my father hurled her across the dining room.

Here are the remnants of the anniversary cake which my sister baked, with its blue icing smeared across the table in one enraged sweep of my father’s arm.

Here are six children huddled under beds waiting for the moment to spring out and shout Happy Anniversary! but staring instead at the stillness of their mother’s body surrounding by glass and fragments of ruined doors.

Here is a sixty-one year old afraid of heights knowing but unable to explain why.  She cannot tell you about walking out on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis during the floods and watching the rage of the Mississippi.  She cannot capture the temptation she felt, the urge to let go and slip into the water.

Recently, someone told me that I should get therapy.  The same person has expressed this belief countless times.  A decade ago, he might have made a good case.  Three years ago, I tried.    One therapist after another, all clueless about the real world where my demons dwell.  Healing seemed too elusive; and not for the likes of me.  Not for me, the happy life.

But then I remembered the Rule of Oz.

Remember that rule?

You’ve always had the power to take yourself home.  Just click your heels together three times and say, There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

Everybody has ugly stories to tell.  From the fierceness of the glimmers which flicker from the gapes in my armor,  mine might seem starker than yours.  But none of them control me anymore. I used to sit on my porch and rock to soothe myself.  Now I rock for the sheer joy of the easy motion.  A squirrel sneaks on my porch and I laugh with delight, for I know he’s the imp who stole my beautiful jade plant.  I can’t be angry with him.  He’s just trying to survive like all the rest of us.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

HARLEM LYRIC THEATRE & OPERA CO.,  ‘GOING HOME’ DVORAK’S LARGO

03 June 2017

Good morning,

My befuddled brain startled awake with the five a.m. musical chime from my cell phone.  Though I can’t say why I thought it necessary to rise at such an hour on a Saturday, I nonetheless  bolted out of bed.  I shrugged and twisted, struggling to engage my tortured synapses.  As I engaged whatever grip I have on damaged nerves and helpless muscles, I recalled the significance of the day.  Just twenty-four more hours to get ready for our first-ever benefit for three agencies serving First Responders.  Whatever possessed me? 

Without the support of my secretary Miranda Erichsen, this would not even have been possible.  I knew she would work without stopping until every last chore fell into place.  I smile just thinking of her energy.  Then I pause on the stairs, listening for sounds of the old dog snuffling at my bedroom door, but both she and I have failing ears.  I hear only silence.

I thought about my grandfather the other day as I strained to follow  a judge’s pronouncement from the bench.  He’s been on my mind since I stood behind my brother Mark at the family reunion last week thinking about how much he looks like Grandpa.  Now I shake my head, remembering Grandpa’s large hands and the broad, rounded resonance of his warm voice.

Mother sent me to her father one summer to have my hearing tested.  He and Nana owned a hearing aid business in Springfield, Illinois on South Sixth Street.   To be closer to their business, they had moved into the first house in the new Lake Knolls subdivision, leaving behind my mother’s childhood home in Gillespie.

My mother’s concern stemmed from reports that I had begun missing words in school.  A few of the nuns dragged their eyebrows taught and made that little noise of displeasure with their unfriendly mouths.  My hair fell over my face, hiding the crimson stain of shame.  I didn’t hear what she said, I protested to my mother.

My dad just shook his head.  They both dismissed my explanations. But Mom figured it would good to get me out of the chaos of days without somewhere to go to escape the grim mornings when my father’s hangover prompted him to meanness.  So off to Springfield I went with instructions that I should mind my manners and help out with the daily chores.  My brother Mark went along to see that I did.

I adored my grandfather.  His olive skin and wide wrinkled cheeks exuded benevolence.  He never screamed, or staggered into the kitchen and smashed dishes.  Before they moved, he would take us fishing.  In the  new place, he let us explore the muddy channels cut by the bulldozers as the men built each new house. Towards fall there would be ripe corn to pick from the field beside the house.  My grandfather had an arrangement with the absent owner to keep the children at bay in exchange for an unlimited supply of the sweet summer ears.

One night during our June visit, my grandfather sat me at the kitchen table and settled heavy headphones over my braids.  He played with dials on the panel of his equipment.  I was to listen for tones and raise one finger, left or right, according to the direction from which the sound came.

I did my best.  But my grandfather’s broad face grew troubled.  His brown eyes clouded.  After the test he patted my hand and sent me out onto the patio to sit with my grandmother while he called St. Louis to give a report to his daughter.  As I went through the door, I heard him say, Lucy, it’s Dad.  I’ve got a little bad news.

That’s how I found out that I was going deaf.  I was twelve.

It hasn’t happened yet.  They prescribed hearing aids long ago, but the cost of the particular type which I need sent me reeling.  I struggle without them, relying on imperfect lip reading and faulty assumptions.  I turn my head to let the better ear take the lead.  I know that I should bite the bullet and get the damned things, even though I’ve had cars that cost less.  I’m holding out for Medicare.  I’ve got three years before those benefits vest, assuming Congress doesn’t move the target.  It’s either that or move to Canada.

A year or two after Grandpa diagnosed me, I played Helen Keller in a one-act play contest.  I had no trouble looking the part.  I took off my glasses, shook out my long curls, and let my natural stumble guide me across the stage.

I had only one line:   Waaaa-teeeerrrr, uttered in the last scene, when Miss Annie pulls me out of a tantrum at the dinner table to make me fill the pitcher that I’ve just emptied on her head.  To Captain Keller’s earlier statement that “cleanliness is next to Godliness”, Miss Annie had  replied with passion:

Cleanliness is next to nothing. She has to learn that everything has its name! That words can be her eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too. What is she without words? With them she can think, have ideas, be reached. There’s not a thought or fact in the world that can’t be hers.

I sit at this keyboard, thinking of my grandfather gently removing the heavy apparatus from my small head.  I remember too my father bending over the St. Louis Post-Dispatch holding one of my fingers, coaching me to trace and sound the words.  At three, inexplicably unable to walk after toddling around the house for two years, I troubled his heart.  He had no idea what had stricken me ill.  He only understood, as my mother sensed and my grandfather would later confirm, that something unrelenting controlled my senses.  When Mother asked why he felt compelled to teach a child so young to read, my father replied, She might not have anything but words.  I owe her that much.

In the end, words have never failed me.  When I lie awake, plagued by the shuddering pain that the virus sends rippling through my legs, I write poetry in my mind.  Though they be clumsy verses which vanish in the rising light of dawn, they comfort me through the night.  Annie Sullivan spoke truth:  I am nothing without language.  On its wings, I journey far.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

 

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan