29 July 2017

Good morning,

Despite a rocky start to the day, here I have landed, in my rocker on the porch in soothing clean air and soft sunshine.  My Chicago cup sits on the metal table beside me, with the cell phone which remains silent despite my willing it to ring.  I hope to hear the technician on the other end of the line, his gravely cheerful voice announcing that he’s 30 minutes out, hold on, hot water will soon be restored.

Or not.  A. B. May considers a lack of hot water to be an emergency.  I share their assessment.  The young man on the phone tried to talk me into calling someone else, despite my monthly fee for a Gold Maintenance Agreement.  I declined.  So I made the arrangements: My coffee date cancelled, my computer charged, my dog fed, me showered in cold water and dressed in clean clothes.  Waiting.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting in my life.  Waiting for a knock on the door, waiting for word, waiting for inspiration.  I fall into a reverie and it all floods back. . .

My mother asked, “Do you want me to steam the skirt?  it won’t take a minute.”  I shook my head.  She moved to the front of me, brows drawn, mouth set.  A hand reached out.  She tugged at the hem.  She said, “I can give  you my compact for your bag.”  Another fierce shake; another cringe.  She stood with folded arms.

I could see she regretted my dress.  Bright blue with little black polka dots; a sweetheart neckline; long sleeves.  I liked it but I had mainly chosen it because of its price tag.  I knew my mother couldn’t afford to help me with the purchase.  I paid for it with babysitting money, the dollar-an-hour that I earned for watching the Tobin kids while their parents ran a restaurant in the Central West End.  Hard money.  Mr. Tobin came back drunk most nights, 3:00 a.m. after the bars closed.  I walked the three or four blocks home because I didn’t like the way he helped me into the car.

Mother paced.  “When’s he coming?”  She had asked a dozen times already and I had answered her, each time the same.  “Soon.”  

It wasn’t a prom.  Just a homecoming dance, at someone else’s high school.  I have no idea why the guy had asked me.  Desperate, probably.  We barely knew each other.  Nobody in their right mind would take me to anything about which they cared.  Not a dance, not a party.  It had never happened.  

At the same time, I have no idea why I accepted.  I had been vomiting all day.  I’d had to wash my hair twice because we couldn’t tame the curls.  I smeared two lines of bright blue crayon shadow over my eyes, swiped my cheeks with powdered blush, then rubbed the whole lot off.  The result satisfied me, a pale shimmer of color suggesting a careless disregard for looks.  My mother made me go into the bathroom and steam my face with a hot, wet washcloth.  

When the doorbell finally rang, we jumped.  My father rose from his recliner while my mother pushed the little boys into the kitchen and told them to hush.  I could hear them running towards the back of the house shouting, “Mary’s got a date!  Mary’s got a date!”  My face burned.

My father let the boy into the living room and I stood, miserable, waiting for him to say something.  He held out a plastic box.  My mother stepped forward, took the corsage, and gushed as she pinned it to my shoulder.  I whispered, “Thank you,” and gripped my mother’s arm to keep the boy from seeing me shaking.

Somehow I walked to the car.  Somehow I let him hold the door.  Somehow I found something to say all the way to the gymnasium in which I would, somehow, move among the pretty girls with their pastel formal gowns.  In my bright blue.  In my black polka dots.  With my hair braided and wrapped around my head because my mother had convinced me that nobody, nobody, wore their hair down.  Which everybody did, straight, parted in the middle, long and shiny.

I waited for him to come around to my side.  As I got out, he steadied me and then, his eyes on mine, he said, “You look beautiful.”

I don’t remember his name.  I don’t remember what high school he attended.  I don’t recall the year, though it had to have been 1971 or ’72.  But I remember the long, long hours before he arrived at my parents home, an endless waiting.  I can never forget the agonizing span of time between telling him that I’d go and the instant when he took my heart into his hands and kept me safe with those three words:  “You look beautiful.”

Judge me if you will.  But those three words made everything bearable, if only for that brief moment.  I’ve carried the feeling with me all these years.

The sun climbs higher.  My phone has not yet sent its little song into the morning air.  I don’t mind.  I have time. I can wait.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

 

 

22 July 2017

Good morning,

As usual, I awakened before my alarm rang, and lay watching the spread of light beyond the trees which rise over the neighbor’s yard.  Stillness surrounded me.  For once, other humans sleep in my house: My son Patrick and his girlfriend Hope.  They tiptoed below me after a night out in Kansas City.  They set the alarm and I thought, briefly, before falling back into a dream, That’s a good boy.

We’ve had a pleasant visit.  Patrick and I spent nearly four days together before Hope arrived.  We moved our conversation from room to room; shelf to shelf; cupboard to cupboard.  We culled a few pictures for him to take; some glassware; and the buildings which he made from recycled materials for Box City in the first or second grade.  We shed a few tears.  He showed me the digital images that he created from what he’s seen this trip.  He loads them into a virtual landscape and their popularity determines his rating.  He watched the number of downloads  rise with satisfaction.  I stared at the precise replication of the Kansas City federal building, thinking that I had no idea how intricate his work had become.

Mornings found my boy and me in the stillness and lingering cool on the front deck.  Eventually the sun would invade the serenity, but until it did, we sat with our coffee cups and our memories.  We gave voice to the happy times.  We left the sorrows alone, though now and then the flickering images held tinges of both joy and grief.  These we invited to settle in the chair beside us.  I do not fear them now, with Patrick here to help me face each grainy countenance.

Do you remember when you struggled to learn to ride a bike.  I finally took you on top of a nearby parking garage and you wobbled, unsteady, across its surface until you got it right. . . Your grim little face, with its trickle of sweat. . .Our trip to the Badlands. . . that song you sang to me when I cried, you must have been three and I would sit in the breakfast nook with a fistful of bills.  You’d pull the collar of your little t-shirt over the back of your head and stumble around chanting, “I am an old woman. . .”.  You didn’t know why tears flowed down your mother’s face, but you yearned to make me laugh.  And it worked, every time.

Your make-shift cape, an old brown towel which you tied around your neck, over your Batman pajamas.  You’d run through the house shouting, “nanananananananananananananana Batman!”  You wore those pajamas for Halloween, with your black cowboy boots.  You slept in them.  You wouldn’t let me take them for the wash..

A card taped together from newsprint, on the front of which you wrote in huge letters, SORRY.  And inside:  Sorry for not listening to your nags.    I doubt that this is enough to get my G[ame] B[oy] back but what the heck.   Pat.  

We laugh about the letters of apology which I required from you.  I tell Hope, I didn’t believe in punishment.  I wanted him to understand the impact of what he had done.  I wanted him to make different choices but deliberately, not out of fear, not because I made him.  In lower tones, I add:  So many people told me that I should do more, do different, do something to curb his spirit.  

What I don’t tell them:  I wept a thousand scorching tears over every little lesson. I knew life’s cruelty.  I wanted to be the one person with whom Patrick could feel safe.  When I had to step out of that guise, I sobbed.  Secretly, in the bathroom, in my car on the way to the office.   I did what I felt necessary to help him learn, but it nearly killed me every time.

Every minute of my son’s child hood, I heard a voice echo in my head, a line spoken by Jason Robards in his stunning portrayal of accidental parenthood in  A Thousand Clowns:  “I can only hope that he will speak well of me in therapy years from now.”

Bundles stand in one corner of the dining room, waiting to be loaded into Patrick’s car.  I don’t know if he’ll come here again.  I plan to sell this house in the fall, to downsize.  Most of the furnishings of this home will be sold or given away.  I’m moving from 1242 square feet to an 8-1/2 by 24, 11-1/2 feet tall rectangle on wheels, with two lofts and no closets.  The clock on the mantel; the paintings on the walls; the Legos; the Hotwheels; the Haviland soup cups; the books and the boxes of photographs haunt me.  I will touch each.  I will release the memories that each contain, letting the images drift before me like the buildings which Patrick creates on his computer.  I will keep a few trinkets.  The rest will exist only in our minds and hearts;  and in some digital world.  I will walk its sidewalks from time to time, when the signal pulses strong and steady, crackling through the air, beckoning me to seek refuge among the laughing ghosts and shifting shade of yesteryear.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

 

The author as a middle-aged mother, taken about 1995 in the south Overland Park home of Katrina and Ross Taggart.

 

Hope and Patrick, taken at the Opera House in Kansas City, 21 July 2017.

 

15 July 2017

Good morning,

Another week has slipped through my fingers.  Its shifting sand falls to the pavement and dances away in the hot summer breeze.  I stare with consternation at the accusing calendar.  Halfway through July, no more prepared for fall than six weeks ago, when the summer lay outstretched in shimmering promise.

The house has not sorted itself.  But I have two days before the dawn of Monday when the prodigal son arrives.  I remain hopeful.

Nine years ago he returned from Mexico.  I had practically driven him against his will to the airport and stuffed him into the cabin of the plane.  He cast bitter looks in my direction.  He had changed his mind.  He didn’t want to go.  But I would not relent.  A lot of planning, scheming, and machinations preceded the trip to the airport.  He had his passport, his medical records, the entire list of recommended travel items, and a Costco-size pack of Aloe vera.  He was ready.  He would go.

I left him huddled in a chair behind the stretch of glass between the departing and those left behind.  A gate attendant spared a practiced gesture in my direction.  She’d seen this so many times.  The teenagers off to school or camp.  Smaller children bundled to their grandparents or the distant father.  She knew what he feared.  She understood my need to give him the lesson that I hoped he would learn by going.  She smiled and turned toward the next customer, leaving me staring, leaving him miserable.  She did not expect either of us to die of what we felt.

My coffee had grown tepid in its insulated mug.  Dawn broke over the highway as I traveled south, back to the leafy neighborhood and my airplane bungalow.  A plane passed overhead as I parked.  I stood in the driveway staring into the sky, watching it move from north to south.  That could be Patrick, I told myself.  Godspeed.  I spoke the words outloud to the empty yard, to the robins twittering in the maple tree, to the butterflies oblivious to the pain of humans.

I climbed the stairs to the porch.  The day had not yet grown warm.  In the house, I poured another cup of coffee.  I unplugged my laptop and took it back outside, settling in my old porch rocker.  I opened an e-mail, entered the address of my lawyers’ listserve, and began to write.

For the next month, friend after friend called to see how I fared.  Newly separated, childless for the first time in sixteen years, with an empty home and silent rooms — that’s how, I told each one.  The other end of the telephone line fell silent.  I’ve always felt that honesty would serve me better than idle small talk.  I’ve never understood the virtue of glibness.  I couldn’t murmur some inane pleasantry.    They asked.  I answered.  Nothing remained for discussion.

The days droned by.  I kept track of the weeks by the dawning of each Saturday.  I rose, made coffee, and started writing.  Saturday Musings, 07 June 2008.  Good morning. . . Saturday Musings, 14 June 2008.  Good morning. . .

I had spent the prior eight years playing housewife, a role which never suited me.  I performed only slightly better as “Mrs. Patrick Corley’s mother”, a name given me by one of my son’s pre-school classmates.  I liked best what Patrick had called me in his toddlerhood:  “Corinne Corley Mommy”.

But in the summer of 2008, I reverted to my basic self, without a relative status.  A single woman, 53 years of age, twice divorced, five pregnancies yielding one child, a lawyer, a haphazard home owner, frizzy-haired and slight of frame.  Mary Corinne Teresa Corley, original birth name Bridget Kathleen.

In that guise, I sat on my porch for six straight weeks writing these Musings.  I found that I had quite a lot to say.  Occasionally, one of the recipients on the Solo and Small Firm Internet Group (SFIG) responded, thanking me for a  sweet phrase,  a casual insight, the sparkle of a lively description.  Between Saturdays, I slugged away at my casework, talked to Patrick via international cell phone, and cleaned his room.

He turned seventeen at his guest home in Mexico.  I had sent a present, wrapped in colorful paper and stashed in his suitcase.  The family fussed over him with their own traditions.  Cumpleanos Feliz, cumpleanos feliz.  Happy birth anniversary.  In Kansas City, I wept.  I had celebrated each of the prior sixteen birthdays with him.  I did not begrudge him one year alone, but still, I wept.

His plane home arrived at midnight.  I took Patrick’s friend Colin Elving with me to the airport, grateful to Bev and Eric for letting their son be my companion so late in the night.  We stood on the far side of that same glass wall, watching the sleeping, wrinkled passengers drift into the hallway.  Anxiety overcame me as the final person exited the secure area.

I really thought this was his flight, I told Colin.  He glanced at me oddly.

Mrs. Corley, he’s coming towards you right now, he said.

I did not recognize my own son.

He had grown four inches taller.  His hair had darkened and formed itself into spongy curls.  He wore clothing that I had never seen and certainly did not pack for him.  He had his backpack casually slung over one shoulder.  Deep brown skin flanked bright blue eyes.

For the first time, I had to reach higher than my shoulders to hug my son.  My son!  Who was this young man, sent back to replace the child who had damned me for making him take this trip?

He pulled back from me a little.  I asked, Did you have a good flight? Did you have fun?  How was it?

His smiled broadened.  I’m so glad you made me go!   Another flash of that unfamiliar grin.  The best time ever!  And Mom, not only was I not the shortest kid in the group, but I think I was the tallest kid in all of Mexico!

Indeed, he had grown so much that he had had to buy new blue jeans.  He wore a casual self-assurance which I did not recognize. I could not stop gaping at him, even when he turned to give his friend a hug and a high-five.

We got his suitcase from the baggage claim and went into the darkness.    All the way home, the boys chattered about their summer, Patrick no less interested in what Colin had done than in telling stories of his six weeks as an exchange student.  I drove, and listened, and marveled at the wonders of motherhood.

I had sent my child into the wilds of another country, and he had come home as a young man, prepared for the world at large.

There would be times when I despaired of either of us regaining such ease with life.  But that night, I felt that we could conquer any obstacle.  I had lived alone and found my voice.  He had traveled alone and found his footing.  What could we not do, with those lessons learned?

Nine years later, another summer, another hot July waiting for my son to come home.  But is this home for him?  Save the occasional visit and six difficult months after college, he has not lived here since 2009.  Now I’m packing to downsize.  This will probably be his last week in the house where he spent his childhood.

That should not make much difference to him overall.  He orchestrates his life from a one-bedroom apartment in the Illinois town where he got his graduate degree.  He has his own furniture, a well-equipped kitchen, and an oft-used recycle box sitting by the little table where he takes his meals.

It’s almost as though my life as a mother has ended.  But whatever I was before that life began will no longer serve me.  I sit in front of a journal in which the rest of my story is not yet written, daring myself to turn the page to find tomorrow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The boy, age 6.

08 July 2017

Good morning,

To the extent that I can amble, I found myself drifting on the sidewalks of Kansas City last night.  With my friend Lori Hooten close behind me, I skirted the revelers at the Crossroads First Friday.  We lucked into a parking space, old friends, good music, and a table at Grinders just before my blood sugar crashed.

Somewhere along the way, I got a text message that the birthday cake for my son had been safely retrieved from A Taste of Heaven in Andersonville, Illinois by his girlfriend Hope.  A few minutes later, a photo of my boy and the cake arrived.  Sweet.

So now I’m drifting again, but backwards, a dangerous endeavor in the physical world but safely done in time.

08 July 1991, 1:50 p.m. CDST.  The moment when I first heard my son’s laughter, from the gurney on which I lay, draped, mildly sedated from the epidural.  I had been listening to the instrument count and the surreal murmurs of a busy midwife and doctor.  They held him high, with the OR room lights casting their harsh glow on the pearly skin.  Then they placed him on my chest.  I said something — my friend Laura beside me said something.  I’m sure we remarked on the presence of ten fingers and toes, so big for a premie, how lovely, how delightful.  What we actually said, who knows.  except I gasped that he looked like his father.  I’m sure of that.  

Then a gowned attendant took him again, and the doctor started to suture.  Stitch, count; stitch, count; stitch, count.  It took me three layers to realize that the midwife was counting instruments to make sure nothing got left inside.  As I said — surreal.

A gaggle of friends hovered around me as they wheeled me back to my room.  Dazed, grinning, exhausted, unsure.  Laura on one side, her husband Ron clicking photos without realizing that he had not removed his lens cap.  Joshua behind me; and someone else, Paula Fulcher maybe, the mother hen of the group.  It’s a blur, now, 26 years later.  But the joyfulness: that remains.  The glow of their love.  No husband, no baby’s father, but so much love and tenderness in that group.

I saw a movie once about a girl who had a child without being married.  At one point in the film, she was taking someone else’s son somewhere, a substitute for her own childless state early in the plot.  They sat in the back of a taxi playing “I Spy”.  The innocent boy looked out the window and saw a man, a woman, and a little girl walking on the sidewalk.  “I spy a family!” he cried.  She fell into a stunned silence.

A family.  When I told my brother Frank that I was pregnant — 36, unwed, alone, he asked if I would be giving the child to a real family.  He might regret that now, but he said it then and probably meant me to take his advice.  I pondered for a long time.  Well past the miscarriage of the twin after we discovered that one child remained, I considered whether I should find a couple who could give my son what I could not.

A family.

Once we arrived in my room, a nurse organized my support system into the little ante-area so she could get me ready for the baby.  She did what nurses do at such times, efficiently, kindly, quickly.  And she did what women do:  She took my hair down from its protective cap and helped me comb it.  She brought me a cold wet washcloth so I could bathe my face and arms, freeing them of the sticky stuff that holds electrodes and the sweat that flows from a body during surgery.  She held a little mirror for me to see.  She slipped a clean gown over my body and spent a tender moment arranging the covers over my sore belly.

I don’t know that woman’s name any longer, if I ever did.  But she is one of the heroines of my story.

Then the gang came back.  Ron had discovered his camera’s treachery and spent a few minutes apologizing.  Joshua said a prayer.  Laura beamed and hugged me.  Paula — sweet Paula — just sat, her hands folded.  Yes, Paula was there too; I can see her clearly now.

Suddenly a little cart came through the door.  My son arrived, gently placed in my arms by that wonderful nurse, who helped guide him towards my breast.  And the flash clicked — the one picture we have from the day, in an album in my basement somewhere, grainy, yellow, but with the unmistakable glow on my face that only new motherhood brings.

Never mind that a few days later, I would have almost sold that child because of the pain from having my body sawed open to free him.  Forget that three weeks hence, I would lie under a Graco-matic swing thanking God for Wal-Mart as I fell asleep for the first time in seventy-two hours. Pay no attention to the late nights when my head fell into my trembling hands and I wailed in lament at my inadequacy.  At my stupidity for not taking my brother’s advice.

Forget all that.  When that baby first nestled in my arms, my world stood still.  I felt victorious, humble, astonished, grateful, thrilled.  All at the same time.

And those people in the room with me became my son’s first adults.  Laura Barclay.  Ron Barclay.  Joshua Dara.  Paula Fulcher.  Two of them now deceased — Ron and Paula.  Laura, somewhere in Texas, having raised alone the children whom she and Ron adopted in the years after Patrick’s birth.  Paula divorced and moved away, I’m told; and died a few years later.  Joshua left the practice of law and preaches full time at a beautiful church in northern Louisiana.  But in my mind’s eye, they are frozen in time, in a hospital room in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Surrounding  me with love and happiness, that group sustained the hour for me.

I spy a family.

There have been so many others:  Carla, Katrina, Paula K-V and Sheldon, Penny, Alan, Mona, my sisters, my sisters-by-choice, my neighbors here in Brookside, and I could go on and on without listing them all.  Some have come and gone; but left their tender mark.  And all of this for benefit of that boy, so that everything inside him could come to fruition.

I have no regrets.  Even knowing what I know now, I would do it all again.  Perhaps a little more smoothly, but still — maybe not.  Maybe just the way it went, bumpy ride and all.

Happy birthday, Patrick.  Thank you for letting me be your mother. I’m proud of what you’ve become, of what you have made of yourself and the direction you have gone.  I love you.  Rock on.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

01 July 2017

Good morning,

If I were a different person, I’d start by parodying every  other writer whom I have admired.  Their lines rush through my head and cram into my fingers.  Turns of phrases drip from my broken nails.   The problem with being a lover of words lies in the propensity to lose one’s self in their fluid movement across the page.  The story recedes; only the lyric flow of its telling captures my attention.

I’m not a Garrison Keillor fan, per se, but whose ears don’t prick when you hear him say, It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. 

I sit at my desk in Kansas City eating leftover roasted root vegetables and drinking yesterday’s coffee from a stolen mug.  The strands of Barbra Streisand float through my mind.  I’m wearing second-hand hats, second-hand clothes, that’s why they call me, Second-Hand Rose. . .My father would play that song, over and over, and tell me that I was  his Second-Hand Rose.

The idea of fathers has haunted me this week.  Stories of other people’s tragic relationship with their fathers engulfed me, a tidal wave of emotion that pulled me under and threatened to dash me against the rocks.  If I did not love anyone; if the peace of their spirit meant nothing to me; then whether they resolved their anguish over an absent or terrible father would not trouble me.  If I had not spent sixty years resolving my own grief about the failings of my father, I might feel smug when I hear their stories.

Instead, I find myself searching through the discard pile for a little anecdote about a forgotten child; a remembered gesture; a half-raised hand.    A phone call:  How much did he weigh?  What will you name him?  Is he healthy?  A friend sitting by my hospital bed with an affidavit across which a name has been carelessly scrawled.  He will come.  But then:  I don’t believe it.  I’m not even sure the signature is real.  But I eagerly gobble the reassurance, which makes the disappointment even harder to bear.  Disappointment mingles with love and hovers over the innocent, sleeping child. My heart breaks.

I wanted him to have a better father than I did.

Scientists crook their eyebrows heavenward when we cling to the pureness of our memories.  But here is a memory by which I will swear. . .

I’m six or seven, I think.  I have two long fat braids on either side of a wide freckled face.  My sister Adrienne says that I have a button nose.  My legs stumble in their heavy shoes.  A plaid dress skims my hobbled knees, one thin, one swollen.  But my white socks have been neatly folded over my ankles and my hands are clean.

I’m standing in my backyard.  My mother herds the boys in the direction of the picnic table while the older girls sit neatly on their side of the bench.  My father leans over the stone fire place and pushes a hot dog away from the heat.  His fork pierces its skin and juices run over the grill.  Flames spit and I step back, but not too far.  Horrified and mesmerized in turns:  I cannot blink or rub the smoke from  my eyes.  I clutch a paper plate onto which my father eases the hot dog.

Go get a bun, Mary, he suggests, in a gentle voice.  I raise my face towards his.  He nods.  Then go ahead inside.

He knows that I don’t like to eat outdoors.  As I go over to the table and fix the hot dog with relish and mustard, my brothers start to tease me.  I’m wearing a dress.  I washed my hands without protest.  I hold the paper plate as though it were china.  Miss Priss! they call.  Mary Mary Quite Contrary! one of them says.  My mother tells them, That’s enough, but they jeer louder and louder until my father snaps.  Leave her alone.  His voice holds promise of serious repercussions for defiance.

They fall silent.  I walk away, towards the gate, my little shoulders hunched and still.  I don’t want to stand with my father against my big brothers.  It’s a dangerous alliance.  There will be dark hours when I need the boys’ protection from his drunken wrath.  But neither do I want to sit in the sticky July heat swatting at yellow jackets.   My dad’s permission lets me slip inside to eat at the table.  I go.  But I make it only as far as the back porch before I start to cry.  As I struggle through the screen door, I hear my brothers’ laughter rising on the summer air, mingling with the haze, crackling in the shimmering sun.

For years, I could not sort the tangled mess of the threads which tied me to my father.  Nor had I been able to sever those binds with even the sharpest of scissors.   I let the snarled ropes drag my pace. I got used to manipulating the mess as I maneuvered through life.  But one day, when I was not looking, those lines went slack.  I took a few timid steps, astonished, disbelieving.   I eased away from the sackcloth to which those threads had been sewn, letting it fall to the ground.

I continued my journey, onward, upward, no longer fettered by that careless, terrible shroud, no longer dancing to the jerk of the strings by an unseen hand.  I’m still amazed at the incredible lightness of my body, the sureness of my step, and the unbridled joy of soaring.  It’s a little frightening, to be free of the burden which I carried like a sacred duty.  But I fly.  I fly! And, oh, how glorious it feels!

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

BARBRA STREISAND AT CENTRAL PARK, 1967