Eventually, I will merge these two blogs. I do intend to keep writing weekly stories of my life, but today I have taken time to enjoy what I see, to talk to others who share my love of the Pacific, and reflect on my evolving existence.
Meanwhile, here’s a picture shot on the boardwalk at Pigeon Point Hostel while I was whale-watching this morning. I did not capture any of the whales which others who were quicker or had better cameras were able to photograph. But they were there and beautiful.
The gulls and I have become quite friendly with one another.
I keep thinking these Musings have run their course. I tell myself that I will soon have to write about the darker hours. All the good stories have been told. The newest days have yet to unfold. But then, another Saturday dawns and I find myself in front of the computer, reaching out. Perhaps I just need to connect. Delete, please, or let the link float away in your inbox if the intrusion annoys you.
But if — like me — you scrounge for the thread you can pull to unravel your life’s mystery, keep reading.
Yesterday a buyer hauled away the buffet which has sat in my dining room since 1993. I found the thing in the first house which I bought, in Winslow, Arkansas. I called the seller and he gave one of those grunts over the phone for which country lawyers seem famous. He told me he didn’t want the buffet, that a renter had abandoned it. So I kept it.
Now that I’m trying to divest myself of the burgeoning belongings in this house, it found a new home faster than I would have thought possible. When they came, I made them remove the decades-old mirror and carefully carry it to their vehicle. I provided a swathe of bubble wrap for the beveled glass door. I hovered over the transfer to the bed of their truck until I had assured myself that they’d take good care of it all the way home to Raytown, then I said goodbye on the sidewalk. Back in the house, I stared dejectedly at the stack of vinyl that has been hidden in the buffet for three decades.
Behind the doors of my china cabinet, I discovered a baggie filled with silhouettes carefully crafted in the images of my paternal grandparents. The little collection had fallen into a box of wedding pictures, and almost hit the trash bag without being unearthed. I shuffled through the pack, running the tip of one finger over my grandfather Corley’s stern profile. Behind Grandma Corley’s more elegant depiction, I spied one of Great-Grandmother Corinne Hahn Hayes, and a couple more of the first two or three Corley children in my father’s generation.
I fell back into a chair and held the bag against my chest. How close I came to accidentally discarding the lot! I slowed my pace then, examining each item, each piece of paper, each yellowed photograph and clipping. Thus did I find my mother’s wedding announcement and the obituary of my favorite curmudgeon. I kept them both.
I don’t need these thirteen-hundred square feet. I can’t afford the upkeep, the headache, or the heartache. A good stout broom will rid my psyche of the cobwebs that twenty-four years of stagnation have occasioned. But Lord, how I loved this house!
Here my son toddled, from not-quite-two to nearly twenty. Here I married and divorced twice, remaining behind when husbands and stepchildren moved away. I watched my son pull out of the driveway in his first car and the tow truck take that car away after it got crunched between my son’s misjudged turn and a tipsy doctor’s speeding Mercedes. Patrick drove my Blazer, then; while I slipped into the Saturn Vue which would take me through five satisfying years until I received the Prius. That Blazer took us to a lot of places. We went offroad in Wyoming and the Dakotas. I drove it to Chicago in a snowstorm for my cousin Sabrina’s funeral. I hope the Prius does me as proud.
On the porch, my plants have entered their fourth or fifth bloom for the summer while the air around them cools and the sun shifts on its trajectory towards fall. The old rug on which the morning paper would land each day has more mud stains than clean inches, but I don’t take the paper anymore. I don’t miss it, though I do regret not finding out if my carrier’s son got a football scholarship. I can’t recall his name — not the father, nor the son — but wherever he is, I hope he got out of this town, as his father wanted. He’s a good boy, my carrier told me, at five-thirty one frosty September, holding my paper towards my waiting hand.
In the other hand, I would invariably hold a mug of coffee. I’d pull my robe close around my body and tuck myself into a rocker. My glasses would be settled on the end of my pug Irish nose. A cat would be curled in the other chair, and I’d hear a dog snuffling at the door, wanting to be let out but not realizing she had come to the wrong end of the house for her business.
I’d set the paper down and go back into the living room. The dog would run ahead of me, and I’d open the back door for her. She scamper down the stairs and into the yard. I’d pause to watch the first rays of morning sun shimmer over the neighbor’s garage and through the cedar trees which rise on the property line.
I did much the same this morning, though the cats have all died or decamped along with the various humans. It’s just me and the old dog now, and I had to bend to set her feet at the right angle. We don’t know what causes her slight neurological damage. It might be the press of the tumor which will inevitably bring her death. It could be something else — swelling from her arthritis, perhaps, or maybe something that the hundreds of dollars already spent on testing has not revealed. Either way, I understand her dilemma. She’s got a proprioceptor deficit, and that makes two of us. I pat her head and make her walk around the kitchen until she gets her bearings. She’ll suffer no broken bones on my watch.
I’ve browsed through the New York Times online. In a little while, I’ll go up to my office and hang the art for the September 23rd benefit for SAFEHOME and Rose Brooks Center. When I’ve gotten that done, I’ll drive to south Overland Park for Caitlin Taggart Perkin’s baby shower, and later, in the evening, back to the Plaza for dinner at Eden Alley.
I don’t need much. A laptop, a coffee mug, a rocking chair, a few friends. I’ve got too many possessions. I look around me and wonder how many dollars I’ve spent accumulating all this stuff. Then I make myself a little sick thinking of what I could have done with all that money, if I had not felt compelled to have the world’s biggest collection of second-hand furnishings and pocketbooks.
But what’s done is done. The life that I have lived so far brought me to this day, for good or for bad. I promised to live to be 103, so I have a few more chances to get it right. I have a dust mop and I’m coming for those dust bunnies hiding under the table. The old dog and me, we’ve got some days left in us. Don’t count us out just yet.
This city looked so fine last night, wrapped in cool August air and strutting her skinny-arm pose under the dancing First Friday lights. She tossed her wild curls over one sassy shoulder and threw kisses to the boys and girls on her sidewalks. She made moon-eyes at the ladies and lads alike. She had no shame. She let them chalk her concrete surfaces and toss paperinto her gutters, knowing that in the morning she’d take a long hot shower and sweep the clutter from the front porch.
I love this town. I came here in 1980 in a yellow Thunderbird convertible driven by the first in a long line of treacherous men. His friend crawled down the highway behind us in a U-Haul truck carrying what passed for furniture. Even then I craved broken rocking chairs and small cabinets which I could move by myself if nobody ever came to help. And books. Scads of books. Novels only I would dare read, scrounged from the back rooms of dusty second-hand stores. Old treatises in slim volumes with uncut pages and stately covers. Spiral-bound yoga bibles with pictures of serene women in loose-fitting clothing.
The man had not yet betrayed me but carried my bed up four flights and through the narrow slatted door which opened to the long gloomy hallway. We found a pancake house a few blocks away and watched the hookers who walked into the street without looking either way. They put their bottoms in the air and leaned farther into the car windows than any of us thought safe. Once I almost ran out to holler, You don’t have to sell yourself! at an impossibly young woman in hot pants and a halter top. But my boyfriend stopped me, saying, Well maybe she does, are you going to let her sleep on your couch? My god Corinne you haven’t even unpacked don’t get shot yet.
He and his friend left the next day to go back to St. Louis, leaving me alone wiith my boxes of old crockery and new notebooks for writing down everything which I thought I would learn in law school. The next time I saw him, he’d gotten fired from his teaching job for pushing over an opaque projector in a tiff with a student. He set his suitcase down on the floor and told me he thought he’d move to Kansas City and live with me for a while. I couldn’t reply. Me and the hookers had already made friends, though I hadn’t invited any of them to a sleep-over yet. I just honked and waved and they hollered, Hey girl.
I hadn’t started classes so I told the man, You can stay for a while, I guess. Two weeks later, I caught him sleeping with a woman who had apparently followed him into town, leaving her husband at home with the baby. I threw them both out and changed the sheets. I swore that I’d never love again; never trust again; never open my heart or the front door no matter how sweetly someone said my name. Of course, I have broken that promise over and over again but it sounded sincere on that day, that August, just five or six miles and a million gallons of salty hot tears from where I now sit and write.
The bush to my right, which isn’t a Rose of Sharon, has lingering blossoms and a smattering of crimson leaves. When I bought this house in 1993, I let the kid who mowed my lawn convinced me to create an English garden on the stretch of property where this deck now stands. That bush, the not-rose-of-sharon, flanked a row of peonies carefully cultivated by the house’s two prior owners. We planted Columbine and marigolds and a few other sprigs, tiny shoots that I bought over on Troost at Soil Service. The kid weeded the whole area and sprinkled something he said would help everything grow. I stood in the driveway and felt like landed gentry. Five years later we dug up the weeds and all but one peony and the not-rose-of-sharon to make the wheelchair ramp for that decade’s treacherous beautiful man.
The bush and its companion peony rise above our pet cemetery. Tiger who got hit by a car was the first. Patrick went out to get the paper one Saturday and came back into the house sobbing. Mommy, Tiger’s lying in the middle of the street and he won’t get up. We made a tombstone on which my boy’s stepfather carved the name, Tiger Tazmania Corley. A fiercely loyal pet who adored my son. Also buried there: Our first dog, Chocolate, whose death I accidentally caused; the beloved Sprinkles, my son’s favorite cat; and a dear little kitten named Chief who lived to be nine months old, staying mostly upstairs with Patrick because Dennis, the stepfather, had decreed No More Pets. But when Patrick’s other Mom, Katrina, gave him the kitten for his birthday, what could we do?
My morning chorus has a new song today. I’m thinking of learning the cricket language so I can talk back to them. I’m sure they know a lot. They hear the rapid fire of weapons gripped by careless hands, the sirens, and the fast cars at midnight. They feel the earth vibrating under each truck lumbering by while I’m just moving around in the morning. The sneaky feet on the driveway when no one is home trample on their hiding places. If I spoke their language, I could protect myself, I’m sure of that. I’d be in the know.
A friend stopped by First Friday to see me last night. We chatted with his daughter in the parking lot, then he walked me to my car. Be careful going home, he cautioned. I assured him that I would. But I had no such intention. I stopped at every red light with my window open, hanging out with my cell phone camera held in front of my aging eyes. By the time I got to my house, I had seen my city, really seen her, with her twitchy lights and bold disposition. I’d given her a Kleenex and told her to fix her mascara and re-apply her lipstick. I had complimented her new dress and flicked a few crumbs from the front of her sweater. I’d given her a midnight hug and told her to stay away from fast boys and women who wouldn’t meet her eyes. I’d told her, Don’t go with strangers, you don’t have to make your living that way anymore.
But maybe she does. When I woke up today, someone had posted on the Nextdoor App, Anybody awake and listening to those gunshots at 60th and Troost? Just three blocks from me. Oh Kansas City! Take care of yourself; it’s a wicked world.
From downtown to home. I might have one or two out of order, but you get the picture, eh?
A song greeted me when I came out onto the porch a few moments ago. The motion light flickered, struggling to decide between its restful daytime stasis and an acknowledgment of the lingering dark. Into the gloom, the crickets’ pulsating call rose, surrounding me.
I set my coffee on the metal table and took my chair. Though the deck extension didn’t exist in 2008 when I began the correspondence which would become these Musings, I sat outside to type that first entry. Memorial Day Saturday, and I sent a poem around to my lawyer’s listserve, into the inboxes of hundreds of unsuspecting brothers and sisters at the Bar.
A little shudder in the symphony raises my eyes from the keyboard. What distracts this chorus, I ask myself. I’m not sure what their song means. Is it a mating ritual? Do they warn of danger, whatever poses danger to crickets in the wild? Do they make a joyful noise?
My sister called last evening to check on me, as I knew she would. She senses my moods, the dark encroaching of my gloomy self. I tell her of the day’s events, and we speak for a few moments about our childhood, a subject which we largely ignore. Surprisingly, I find myself laughing. The unfamiliar sound ripples through my empty house in pleasant waves.
Joyce and I shared a room for the middle third of my childhood. I kept my half tidy; she barely had time to pick the clothes from the floor between school, work, and dates. I still lingered in the promise of pre-teen while she learned to apply blue eye shadow with a deft hand and worked at the Kresge’s store in nearby Northland Shopping Center.
One Saturday, I staged a long ribbon down the center, between our beds. The flimsy barrier blocked her from her side, marking my territory on the clean, doorway end of the long room. I lay in the dark waiting for her to come home and find out that she couldn’t get to her piles of jewelry and cosmetics. I fell asleep before the end of her shift, or her date, or whatever excitement kept her out past ten.
When I awoke early Sunday morning, Joyce lay curled under her quilt, having walked right through my little ploy, never seeing it. She had eschewed the light so as not to disturb her sleeping sister. Shame darkened my face as I coiled the ribbon and tucked it under my pillow.
My brothers Mark and Kevin got a tape recorder with S&H Greenstamps and went around for months recording some of the more embarrassing moments of family life. They tucked the little machine with its whirring wheels under the couch during bedtime prayers. My father snapped, Adrienne, get up on your knees, and the boys snickered. Later, they taunted my sleeping roommate and chortled when she screamed, Get out of here! They recorded a bit of song which admonished, You’re sooooo sleeeepppy! They played the tirade back to her at dinner time and howled when she whined to Mom about their treachery.
I blushed again, knowing that I had stood beside them the whole time, despite the fact that I adored my sister and knew how tired she must be.
Last night, Joyce and I spoke with something close to dispassion of the damage we understand ourselves to suffer, and the choices we’ve made on account of the violence and chaos which we endured as children. I found myself chuckling at the instant recognition which flashed between us. Neither of us can tolerate a raised voice or the sight of certain objects, whose multiple purpose we ruefully describe. We well recall the pattern; the angry shout followed by the sound of a telephone being torn from the wall and the whip of a belt through the air.
We note our childhood sounds like stuff with which movie stars bleed on endless pages, garnering thousands in advance as publishers rub their hands together beneath their leering grins.
Joyce and I rarely venture into these waters. Our decades of dancing this damaged jig have led us both to something close to peace. We share so many other common threads. We’re both alone; we’re both divorced; we’re both nesters sometimes bordering on the absurd, a need to surround ourselves with soft places to fall. We love our only children passionately, care for them tenderly, and worry about them incessantly. We collect useless knickknacks and too many blouses; and cry without embarrassment in the same fragile voices.
We prize small steps towards whatever healing our lives will accommodate. We take the pressure off one another with the soothing salve of acceptance.
A spider sends its gossamer web from somewhere over my head, the eaves probably, to the edge of the porch railing. It skitters along the thin pathway. I do not have the heart to disturb its progress. I lift my coffee cup, not caring that the drink has grown cold. As the spider nears its destination, I sit back, listening to the call of the small creatures hidden in the wilted patch of Black-eyed Susans. The sun rises. My Saturday begins.
Kindly click on the picture to see the spider’s handiwork.
The alarm rings at six a.m. because I’ve flood-cleaning to do and my sister left St. Louis just after dawn. She’s rented an SUV and packed her little dogs, and will arrive here at 10:30 to rescue me. She and I will muck the floors, pitch the ruined boxes, and haul the good stuff up to the dining room table to sort. Down-sizing delay due to disaster, film at 11.
I hearken back 26 years to a hot July in Fayetteville when another sister appeared in my life. Backpack over one shoulder, sandals securely buckled, with a wide grin and capable hands, my sister Ann spent a week on the couch, feeding me frozen yogurt and cuddling my newborn son. Her staggering competence soothed me. Usually I shrink in the presence of such capability but then, as now, I basked in it. My own inadequacies stymie forward motion; with Ann or Joyce in the perimeter, all things seem possible. Even motherhood. Even pawing through twenty-four years of God-knows-what in flood-sogged cardboard.
And I get full credit for introducing Ann to Walmart. She had never been; but in Arkansas, if you can’t find it at Walmart, you don’t really need it. I’m not sure she agreed. Every time she asked where she could go to buy something which she felt I needed, I gave the same answer. I doubt she’s shopped at Walmart since July, 1991, when she stocked my cupboards and completed the nursery with a plethora of purchases from its wide aisles,
Ann brought the basket in which I first bundled my son. A few weeks later, a bedside rocking cradle arrived, sent by Joyce to replace the rickety one which our father had tried to make for Patrick. I lowered Patrick gently into Dad’s creation long enough to snap a photo. I did not tell him that it could not sustain even the gentlest of pushes. I used it to hold flowers on my porch and eventually sold it to a woman with a florist shop. My son spent his earliest nights in the one which Joyce sent me, while I sank into grateful sleep nearby.
Standing in the kitchen of my office on Thursday, I told my secretary that I had finally convinced a tradesman to finish a job right. I shook my head. I have no problem charging into open court, brandishing print-outs of the damning evidence. I’ll raise my voice and lob paragraph after paragraph of reason on behalf of a client’s cause. But I shrink away from any controversy which might protect myself. I think I understand the dynamics of self-loathing. I hope to conquer my feelings of unworthiness before I die.
But in the meantime, I don’t have to believe myself worthy of my sisters’ love. They offer it without question or expectation of repayment. They call, they write, they appear at my door and envelope me with love. I’m told that a thousand repetitions can teach any lesson. I’ve had 22,593 days to believe that I deserve the love which my sisters bestow on me. I’m not there yet, but someday soon.
I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother, a lover, a lawyer and a lobbyist. Of every role I’ve assumed, that of ‘little sister’ suits me best. I’m good at it. I intend to play it just as long as possible, for eternity, to the end of time. If time exists on any other plane, I’ll wear the ‘little sister’ mantle even there, like a warm cloak on a winter’s day or a lacy shawl wrapped around my shoulders as I sit beside the ocean, watching the setting sun.
I look at the computer to see the time and realize that in thirty days, I will turn 62. Surreal doesn’t half-describe this sensation.
I think back to a doctor’s office, a little room in a dingy building of which the doctor must have been inordinately proud in the way of specialists. He sits hunched on his side of a small desk, wrinkled craggly brow thrust towards my mother and me. He says something that I don’t understand. He’s mumbling.
Hereditary spastic quadroparesis emerges from the syllables floating in the room, crowding us. I look at my mother. Her brow has furrowed to match the doctor’s forehead. I squint through pink plastic cat glasses which I’ve worn since fourth grade. I haven’t confessed their inadequacy because I know my mother doesn’t have any money to replace them.
She looks back at the neurologist. Why don’t any of my other children have this besides two of my girls, if it’s hereditary? She doesn’t think he’s got the right diagnosis. She hasn’t, for a decade, accepted the pronouncements that any of them have given her. The first one, acute something sepsis something else, fell by the wayside when the antibiotic that they administered failed to safeguard against the wobbly walk and the night tremors.
The doctor shrugs. The human body mystifies him but even I know that he won’t admit his ignorance. My mother stands and reaches over the desk to extract some piece of paper that he had been offering her. I let my eyes wander to the window. His words don’t change anything about my life.
Downstairs we get into the little car that my mother drives to and from work and the grocery store. She’s only been driving a few years. Her father had tried to teach her a long time ago, but it wasn’t until necessity gave birth to invention that she forced herself to learn. With my father prone to disappear for days or weeks at a time, and her job across town from our Jennings home, she had no choice. The bus didn’t take her where she needed to be.
We navigate down Kingshighway in silence. I feel her eyes on me once or twice but keep mine fixed on the moving cars outside my window. I think she apologized. I shake my head. It didn’t matter; none of it. They could change what they called my problem every year if they wanted. Boys would still make fun of me. Girls would still twitter when I passed them in the hallway. I’d still be alone, with only my sister Adrienne to understand what I felt, and she never spoke of it. Not to me, anyway.
I’d spend the next fifty years trying to make my skin fit. At age twelve, going into the eighth grade, with my near-sighted eyes holding back hot tears, I didn’t stand a chance.
When we get home, Mom asks me what I want for dinner. I tell her, whatever you were going to fix anyway. I go into the bedroom that had finally become mine by dint of all the other girls moving out. I shut the door and lay on my bed, thinking about the week that I’d spent in the hospital and the week after that, when I went to Tinley Park to stay with my mother’s little sister. The trip had been my mother’s attempt to compensate me for the hospital. It had been fun but hadn’t really helped, since my Uncle Dick acted almost exactly like my father. It must be the name, I think, just before I fall asleep.
I don’t remember dinner that night. Just the doctor’s office, his mumbled pronouncement of the new fifty-cent words to describe my crippledness, and the ride home. I think it rained. It’s raining now, here in Brookside, great drops which fell upon my computer and sent me scurrying to the covered side of the porch. A plane passes overhead and crickets chirp.
I used to think that the little insect slept during the day. Recently I tried to find something about the seventeen-year locust, and in my search, I learned that crickets aren’t nocturnal. They’re quiet in waking hours because they’re stalking prey. So now I think of crickets as sneaky critters, slithering through the uncut grass in my backyard, looking for something delicious to nibble.
Rain comes in earnest. I go inside to get a jacket, to close the windows, and wrap myself in the warmth of my home. I stand at the windows, watching the yard, waiting for something that might or might not ever come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.