28 October 2017

Good morning,

I’m getting good at asking for help, so when my friend Richard said, do you want me to carry the plants into the house, I said, sure.

And soon enough:  I stood like a queen surveying her upper forty, surrounded by vibrant verdancy.  I told Richard about my mother and her 269 house plants, and then I made coffee.  Our conversation moved to other subjects — my son, his children, and onward, to Big Sur, to childhood.  But my heart lingered in the sunroom amid my mother’s shelves of plants.

My father stands in the wide expanse of the room at the back of our home.  He stares at the nine windows and the hanging ivy.  He steps forward, lifting one hand as though to pick at a faded flower.  It’s August.  The throb and hum of the air conditioning does not extend back this far in the house.  He’s tried to keep the plants healthy.  We’ve all tried.  But only Ann inherited Mother’s green thumb, and Ann lives in St. Paul.

They had taken Mother’s body away a few hours ago; over Steve’s protest, over my sobs, despite the gaggle of Dick-and-Lucy-Corley kids on the lawn with their terrible grim faces.  Daddy hovered in the back.  He’d forfeited his rightful place in the doorway of the funeral home’s van years ago.  We no longer even questioned his reluctance.  The mortuary guy spoke to Ann, to Kevin, maybe to someone else but lastly to Stephen.  They argued in loud voices.  Stevie wanted to ride in the back but the driver resisted.  He seemed to think he’d lose his job.  Or get a ticket.  He insisted that Mom would be all right.  We stared into the empty cavern where the stretcher sat and finally someone, Ann I suppose, said, “Steve, just let her go.”

He fell into my arms, my six-foot-two baby brother.  I held him.  Years later, I’d lament that my grip had not been tighter.

Daddy says, “What am I going to do with all these plants?”  I ask, “How many are there?”  He takes another step towards the nearest shelves. Again, he lifts one hand.  “Two-hundred sixty-nine,” he answers.   I divide by eight, then reconsider.  Ann can’t take any plants on the plane.  I recalculate and speculate as to how many I can get in my car for the ride back to Kansas City.  Then I think about Steve, whose marriage has faltered on the unlikely rocks of maternal care-taking.  He had moved into the house to be the night shift when the hospice nurses began reading hell-and-brimstone Bible verses and upsetting Mom.  

“Maybe Steve will water them,” I suggest.  Daddy just shrugs.  We fall silent again.  The smell of life surrounds us:  The heady fragrance of wet earth, the pungent herbs, the sturdy scent of begonias.  I hear a noise and realize that my father has started to cry.  “Oh Pops,” I whisper, as the warmth of the sun streams through the windows, and the plants rise to its caress.

Later, much later, when the body has been buried in its simple oak box and all the secretly spiked coffee has been consumed, we count the plants again.  The local siblings each take a share.  I pick three or four and load them into my car, with Mom’s stereo.  My father packs her pillow around the turn table to keep it steady.  I’m wearing the green socks that I took from her feet the morning of her death.  That was my last chance to touch my mother and I did it as gently as I could.  She always wore socks when she slept.  I felt like a traitor, but I needed something which had been close to her skin. I couldn’t send her out in public without her nightgown so I took the socks.

I wore them for years, until they finally disintegrated in the wash.

Looking at the lawn this morning, I see no signs of the early frost.  I stand in the breakfast nook, breathing deeply, taking the smell of rosemary and sage into my lungs.  I drink strong French roast from my purloined crystal mug.  I steady myself against the door frame, eyes closed.  I don’t have two-hundred and sixty-nine plants.  But the dozen or so which I’ve got would make my mother proud.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

21 October 2017

Good morning,

My body no longer serves as a temple, if ever it did.  It’s an efficient machine now, rejecting anything less than perfect fuel.  My usual two scrambled eggs with gluten-free toast fills me beyond comfort.  I walk around, stretching my weakened calves, waiting for the dog to wake so I can let her out before I start writing.

I’ve got a few scant weeks left in this house.  Time enough for packing what little more the tiny house will hold and giving away whatever remains that could be of use to anyone.  The three shelves hanging bare in the breakfast nook will find their way to wooden walls and hold the small allotment of mementos that I’ve kept.  A handful of precious knick-knacks still stand in the secretary.  These might go on Etsy, or maybe I’ll wrap them to give as gifts this Christmas.

I’ve got to clean the yard.  Last night when I came back from Third Friday on 39th Street, I caught a glimpse of the rat-trap that’s been lying under the deck for the last three years.  I never actually saw that rat, but I spied its droppings and cleaned away the chewed tomato on the counter.  I didn’t blame it.  The winter had turned sharp and bitter.  I would have tossed the fruit outside for the rat’s convenience if I’d known he needed it.  I just didn’t want him on my counter.

I saw a rat there once, in 1993, the first year that Patrick and I lived here.  He slept in the front bedroom, soundly, never waking.  I never had the same luck.  I got out of bed thinking to fix a cup of tea.  The breakfast nook had doors then, bi-folding slotted panels.  I pushed them open and snapped on the kitchen light, crossing to the stove.  A noise caused my head to turn, improbably, distractedly.

I saw the critter right away, and he saw me.  His eyes narrowed as he froze.   There I stood, on the far side of his retreat, and he just inches from the light switch on the other side of the sink from my clean dishes.

I thought about my toddler lying innocent and sweaty under his Mickey Mouse blanket.  Stories of children bitten in the night rose in my gut, bile like the agitated gunk from a bad Mexican restaurant.  I knew that the rat could not exit until I did.  He’d hold my gaze as long as needed to intimidate me so he could skitter away.  I had to turn out the light and dash out of the room in one swift motion.

I’ve never moved so fast.  As I stumbled into the dining room, I heard the mad clattering of the rat going across the drain basket.  I fell into a chair and cursed.  I’d have to wash those dishes a thousand times before I could use them again.  I’d throw them out.  We would wrap them in a plastic trash bag and put them in the recycle bin.

My next thought pulled me from the chair and sent me flying into my son’s room.  I turned on the overhead light and pulled the cover from his slight form.  The world stood still.  Then:  convinced that every inch of him remained unmarred, I sank to the floor, where, eventually, I slept, impervious to my own danger.

In the morning, I called the man whom I had been dating.  He sent around a worker to look for burrows in the ground around the foundation.  Patrick and I stood in the yard, watching the wiry man shovel rocks into holes which he thought the rats might have dug, impressions really, nothing huge but big enough for the flexible, spineless creatures.  After sunrise, an Orkin man arrived with sticky traps. I stared in horror.  He assured me that the rats would die quickly, soundlessly.

He lied.  They screeched in terror through the night.  I got no rest at all.  My son crawled under my blankets and hid himself against my flannel robe.  He drifted into a fitful sleep just before dawn.  I called the Orkin guy early on Sunday and insisted that he come remove the yellow pads and the shuddering carcasses clinging to them.

Home ownership has nearly conquered and exhausted me.  But at times like this, early, quiet, serene, I don’t mind it.  I sit on this blessed couch and stare out the window at the broad clipped crown of the Japanese maple.  I wonder, will I ever see a Midwest autumn again?  Leaves drift from the bigger maple  on the other side of the yard.  The fluttering red piles gather around the most prominent feature on my lawn, a sign announcing that a contract pends.

The old dog stirs.  I let her out, but without much thought, with routine and careless motions born of a decade of monotony.  I think about the cemetery, where my in-laws lie.  I’ll take some fresh flowers this morning.  They’ll appreciate that; and even if they don’t, I need a few minutes with my favorite curmudgeon.  Later, in the waning morning, I’ll drink another cup of coffee and watch the branches of the tall old tree dance in the rising wind.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley



14 October 2017

Good morning,

Rain falls on Evanston.  I’m hoping it will abate soon, as we have a day of sightseeing in the Loop planned.  Patrick still sleeps.  He worked his evening shift, long after I retired.   I could never accustom myself to being awake while other people sleep but he has his father’s musician genes and a night-owl’s biorhythm.

Tears stung my eyes above curved lips as I left St. Louis yesterday.  I can’t predict when or if I will return.  My brother nailed my sentiment, standing  in front of his house on Thursday night.  As the dark gathered around  us, he asked me again if I was sure I would not be in Kansas City during their next scheduled trip for soccer camp.  I nodded, suddenly unable to speak.  He folded his arms and replied, Well I guess, I’ll see you when I see you.

Slightly bittersweet, it is; and so unexpected.  We’ve never been close but over the last few years, Frank has begun reaching out to his siblings as much as possible.   I asked about it once and he said, Maybe we’re all getting old but I can’t remember what happened to us.  I just want my brothers and sisters around me.  I know what happened.  Life.  An asshole father.  A mother dying far too soon.  A brother surrendering to his pain, leaning against a tree surrounded by columbine.  But I understood what he meant. Why did we not tighten the circle, instead of letting it splinter?

My phone buzzed every few minutes after the listing for my house went live.  The automated showing service demanded my attention but I have the text feature set to announce that i can’t answer when I’m driving.  I don’t understand, please respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to accept or reject this showing.   From a truck stop on I-55, I called my realtor in mild desperation and she said she’d stop it.  For the next few hours, the requests kept coming, asking to schedule appointments that evening, the next day, a week from Tuesday.  Laughter bubbled in the confines of the car.  Everybody wants to see my house.  I hope someone likes it enough to make an offer.

My family keeps asking, are you sure?  I’ve never nodded so much, so often, so hard.  No job, little money, few friends, why yes, I’m sure this move is right for me.  At sixty-two.  disabled, no California law license, moving to the Delta ninety minutes south of the worst wildfires in the state’s history.  Absolutely positive.  And not just to get away from my failures, but because when I stand on the Pacific Ocean, the agitation leaves my soul.  The rest is just details.

As I made the turn from Lake Shore Drive to Sheridan, I found myself remembering the day my son turned three.  I had taken him to McDonald’s so friends could assemble the swingset which I had purchased as his gift.  I asked him, as no parent should, what he wanted for his birthday.  He stood on the bench and banged tiny fists on the table.  He proclaimed, I want a father and a brother and a sister and a cat and a dog!  The lady behind him gave me a pitying glance as I leaned forward and told my son to sit down.  I got you a swingset, I murmured.  He reached for a fry and asked if we could at least get a cat.  We Corleys are nothing if not willing to compromise.

We went to Mission Pets the next week and found our Sprinkles, a black-and-white cat who carried him all the way through to his last year of college.  The next spring, a client gave Patrick a Beagle puppy, which  he named Chocolate.   I credit myself for marrying twice, partially in a misguided attempt to fulfill those other, desperate requests of my little blonde-headed boy.

The Eastern sky lightens now, despite the steady falling rain.  In a little while, the man whom my son has become will waken and we’ll figure out how to amuse ourselves despite the weather.  When Sunday morning dawns, I’ll pack my car and head to Kansas City by way of the diagonal.  Eventually, I will find my way home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Holmes House, In which I raised my son.

07 October 2017

Good morning,

A tin of mixed nuts sits beside me.  I’m digging in it to find the cashews and avoid the pecans, to which I’m allergic but not so much that the dust imperils me.  I get lost for a silly few minutes in the label’s grammar.  “Less Than 50% Peanuts” sounds wrong; shouldn’t it be “Fewer Than”?  And who eats those peanuts, anyway?  I scatter them to the birds.

I walked through the First Friday crowds with a friend last night, studying the purple-haired girls and the torn T-shirts of the artists sitting on the sidewalk.  I took the business card of a man whose mock anime held no appeal for me.  He offered it, telling  me that he could do anything I wanted.  I doubted that but it seemed rude not to tuck the little square of contact information in my bag.  It dropped out later when I took out my phone.  I felt that I owed the man a penny.

On the sidewalk next to a display of jewelry, we ran into Jake and Angela, who leaped to their feet to give hugs and ask if we’d been to Ruthie’s gallery yet.  We started there,  I confirmed.  Angela and I moved away so I could meet her sister and look at the jewelry which the sister was selling on a card table.  I touched a pair of earrings made from what looked like washers.  I fell into a reverie about my son and a little plastic box full of nuts and screws which he called “tools” and kept under his pillow, back when he slept in a toddler bed on the first floor.

Now the only being which sleeps in the house other than myself is the old dog. I’ve made a little safe place for her under a wooden coffee table in Patrick’s old bedroom.  I find it difficult to believe that this is the same room which I decorated with Mickey Mouse for my son in 1993 when we first moved here.  Other than the table and the dog bed, the room stands practically empty.  An old chair that I got for five dollars at an estate sale in 2008 sits next to an eight-inch square table which seems to have no purpose in life other than holding a small lamp and the remote control.  I watch television in here some nights, listening to the strains of the Food Network theme echo off the bare walls.  Occasionally the dog whimpers in her sleep. Her voice fills the room, unmuffled by the vanished trappings of my existence.

As I drank my coffee on the desk yesterday, an unexpected memory assaulted me.  I found myself back on the old screen porch trying to lure my toddler into the house.  A swarm of locusts had battered through the torn screen on the far side and cornered his cat.  She huddled beneath the angry buzzing horde, growling, swiping at their fluttering bodies.  Patrick cried and begged me to save her and then threw his body across the few feet before I could stop him.  She leaped into his arms and clung to his pajamas.   He screamed, Open the Door, Mommy!  Open the Door! and then the three of us tumbled back into the living room: the cat screeching, my son sobbing, and me flailing to wrap my arms around them both.

I slammed the door as the cat loosed her grip and darted under the couch where she would stay for hours.  Patrick fell asleep on the floor with one small arm slipped into the dusty cavern where his cat cowered.  I let him be.  A knight in shining armor deserves his rest.

When I got home last night, after ten, the dog stared reproachfully through the chain link.  I said what I always say, Go to the back door, Little Girl, I’ll let you into the house, and walked up the driveway.  I passed the pet cemetery and the spot where that old cat had finally died, with me crouched down holding her and begging her not to go.  I had promised my son that none of the pets would die before he graduated from college.  She made it to September of his senior year.  She drew her last breath with my arms around her frail old body.  I cried when I called my son and confessed that I had let him down again.

Dawn has finished reclaiming my neighborhood.  Everything looks clean, blessed by the night’s rain.  I see my son’s last remaining pet picking her way through the grass out back, checking for strange smells.  I tap on the window.  She glances over her shoulder at me, briefly, standing still.  Then she turns her back and continues her circuit around the rain-drenched yard.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley