Monthly Archives: September 2014

A fine passion

If I should have to refrain from one delicious pursuit, please, let it not be reading.

I’m picky about what I read in the sense that anything on which I spend my time has to be well-written.  It could be the back of a granola box or the billboard on which I gaze from the window of a train bound for Michigan.  A well-constructed advertisement, a nice little filler in the newspaper, a novel, a short story, the directions for my cleaning products.  I stop reading when I hit a grammatical error or an improperly used word.

I’ve been known to walk through the house to discard a book in the trash if it’s so poorly written that I would not want to put it back into the stream of commerce.  If I cannot get past the first paragraph of a book that I’ve borrowed, I instantly forget it exists, as my dear friend Cindy and several librarians can attest.

I find commentators and newscasters annoying if their grammar jars but worse is the poorly written word.  If this counts as complaining, let me offset it:  A finely crafted sentence can reduce me to tears.  Words falling melodically, cascading, singing, lifting themselves to waft on the air.  Oh what joy they can bring.

This fine passion, a gift from my parents during the tender years when I could not walk because of the inflammation in my legs, has never failed me.  Reading brings me comfort when the events of the day plague me, and distraction if I cannot find a solution to a nagging situation.  I do not hear when I read.  A fire could rage around me.  A baby could be screaming.  I lose myself in the story, dining with the characters, standing at their windows, watching their children play and their lovers depart.  Life can befuddle me; my own child might be troubling me; my own window might be streaked with years of neglect.  Lost in a book, I have no worries.  I am at peace, if only until, too soon, I reach the last paragraph of the last unread book in the house.  My idle brain will startle with the knowledge that I have nothing left to begin, and I will pace, agitated; or scroll the offerings of online bookstores in search of something in which to immerse myself.

I have never traveled outside of the United States, nor even had a passport.  Nor shall I now, I know; but in the books that I have read, I’ve seen Norway, and Sweden, and Paris.  I’ve walked the streets of Seoul and scrambled over the mountains in Tibet.  I might be alone; but I need only turn a page to find someone with whom to share tea in London and chai in Pakistan.  This fine passion never fails me.   I am grateful for those who write; and grateful more for the comfort that I have learned to find in the words they offer.

It is a fine passion, indeed; and one which I would be loathe to surrender.  I am not sure that audio books could take the place of seeing the deftly grouped words on the printed page.  So I shall devour what I can, as long as I can, and when I can see no more, I shall sit in my rocker, hands still without the page to turn, and remember everything that I have read.  Those memories will need to sustain me, on that day — should it come — when I can see no more.

Not one dead thing

By this time most falls, the potted plants on the porch at the Holmes house have run their course.  I have often stood and gazed at the weary foliage, closing my eyes, thinking about autumn in my mother’s yard — not the yard of my childhood, but the yard after her children left, when she had time to throw herself into gardening.  She’d be raking, and tying up the bushes, and standing with a broom in her hands, kerchief tied around her head, thinking about the winter.  She would bend to pull a few dead blossoms from fading bushes, tossing them into the compost pile.  I would hover at her elbow, ready to help, uncertain.  I’ve no green thumb.  Everything she touched bloomed full force, rising to the sun, drinking the nourishing rain.

On my porch this morning, I poked a bit at the disorganization, the clutter from the painting project still in process.  The plant shelves stand away from the house and the little table has been tucked beside the rockers.  The impatiens startle me with the fury of their last bloom, wild red against the dark green of their leaves.  By now I usually wistfully recall the hopefulness of spring planting, the Memorial Day trip to the garden center, the unloading of the flats of annuals, the rinsing of last year’s pots.  By September, the glory days of spring have usually faded and I am reminded that these plants only temporarily grace my world.

But this year, not one dead thing haunts me.  The impatiens and the begonias flourish, sending bloom after bloom outward, unfolding, radiant.  I might bring one or two of the hardier ones indoors for the winter to see if they will flourish.  I’m thinking that if they can thrive, perhaps I can at least survive.  I sling my bag over my shoulder and trudge up the walk to my car, heavily, ponderously, and turn back to gaze at the newly painted house.  I see the  plants on the deck, their color bold enough to be seen from the parkway even with my weak eyes.  I pause, taking in their hopeful cheery air.  When I turn back to the car, my mood has lightened.


Proof of life.


I have known four blind persons in my life.

Mike Hanna, an attorney in Raytown, practices law and sits on a municipal bench.  Joshua, whom my second husband befriended and who does some intricate computer work, married and moved to Columbia for a marvelous job shortly after having his unsighted eyes removed.  A friend’s son, Benjamin,  conquered independent living, college and law school.  And what can I say about Derek Bakeberg-Baker?  Every time I talk with Derek, I actually forget he cannot see.  His perception and quickness just overwhelm any thought that he might be disabled.  I admire all of them.

As my eyesight fades and the navigable day narrows to a ten-hour window, I find myself hoping that my serenity will keep pace with the fading of my eyesight.  Should I reach the point where I cannot see before I reach the point where my composure controls my behavior, I will never rise to the grace and poise of these four people.  As shadows creep into the edges of my world, tendril upon tendril, I huddle in the middle of a shrinking circle of light thinking, Surely I can do as well as they have.

Another quest:  To find the light within myself that can overcome the dark.

But for the grace

I threw my telephone into the change well as I entered the highway.  I had just left a message for someone, and decided not to answer if he returned the call.  I heard my father-in-law’s voice in my head, something he said several years ago.  “Get behind the wheel of your car. Make a call. Drive for ten minutes, talking on the phone.  Then pull over, and try to recall what you’ve seen as you drove.”  I tried it; I could not remember a thing.  I recently remembered that conversation and have taken it to heart.  Often.  Usually.  More and more.

My car had crested a hill and begun the descent when I noticed a billow of smoke rising before me.  I hit the brakes, watching the traffic, wondering if I would hit anyone, hoping I could stop.  I’m not a photographer; I’m not a journalist; so when my eyes found the source of the smoke I did not reach for my cell phone’s camera.  I instinctively crossed myself.  Mother of God.

The smoke flowed from the smashed front of a charred vehicle facing the wrong way.  I  swerved to avoid the debris in the roadway as my eyes raked the scene.  A man lay sprawled on the shoulder, half-cradled by another person, a woman, I thought. He flailed arms clad in a red T-shirt; thin, long legs encased in blue jeans  jerked and writhed.  My weak eyes could not discern the features of his face; he seemed impossibly  young.

I saw no emergency vehicles.  Another car lay half in the ditch.  Four or five more had stopped on the shoulder.  White smoke rose from the smashed car.   I heard an urgent sound, low, then rising, louder, higher, frantic.  I thought sirens heralded the approach of help but then I realized:  The woman had begun to sob, to wail, her cry torn from her, urgent, endless, pleading.  My stomach heaved as I struggled to keep my coffee down and my car on the road.  As I drove by, scanning the side of the highway to be sure I could not help, all I could think was:

There, but for the grace of God, go I.


Eyes closed, eyes opened

When the night falls heavy around me, I sit in a rocking chair and close my eyes.  The house where I live has rockers everywhere: on the porch, in the bedroom, in the sitting room, in the living room.  I feel most serene on the porch, any time of day, late at night, in warmth, in the soft rain or surrounded by a strong wind.  The air washes over me and I simply sit, eyes closed, heart quiet, waiting for the demons within me to release their grip.

As the night air caresses my raised face, I open my eyes  but remain sightless and unfocused.  Images rise, voices murmur, thoughts churn.  I press my eyes closed.  Motionless, I seek  something long buried,  inviting the flickering light to strengthen and rise.  I remain still, breathing in, breathing out, letting my hands fall open as the chair gently rocks and my soul speaks to the ages.


I sat in a chair beside my favorite curmudgeon as he slept this evening.  He’s moved from a respite visit at The Sweet Life to assisted living at Brighton Gardens.  I arrived for my 5:00 p.m. visit about five minutes early, and gently spoke to him.  He did not hear me.  Since I don’t like to be awakened by having someone touch my arm and speak loudly, I figure no one else does.  I took a chair, opened a browser on my little laptop, and surfed the net.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, my cell phone rang and Jay awakened.  I quickly handled the call, then turned to speak to Jay.  His smile on seeing me filled my heart with a rush of unbridled joy.  The love which I feel for Jabez J. MacLaughlin might seem out of proportion to the relatively short time that I have known him.  It might seem incongruous considering our differences and my initial consternation at some of his political views (or the difference between his and mine, I should say).  But that love dwells in me, though I cannot explain it.

My relationship with my own father could be described as tenuous.  I know that he loved me as well as he could.  He took enormous  pleasure in the fact that I followed in his father’s footsteps, even though I didn’t go into criminal defense, which he thought would have suited me.  He wanted me to strive for the kind of financial success that his own father had attained but he reckoned without my proclivity for lost causes and my lousy business sense.  But at the time of his death, I seemed headed towards professional success by standards he understood.  That satisfied him.

I thought that I had forgiven my father all of his failings.  I’m a cradle Catholic, drilled with the “Lord’s Prayer”, which says, in part, “Lead us not into temptation, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I don’t care much for the Catholic Faith and cannot particularly claim to be a Christian.  But I embrace the idea of forgiveness.  Until last winter, when I found myself inexplicably falling into an emotional quagmire, I thought I had forgiven my father.  I would say, “If my mother, who suffered considerably more at  his hands than I did, could forgive him, how can I do less?”

But in reality, I pushed my anger and pain underground.  As anything suppressed will do, it leached out.  I told myself, “The past is in the past.  The past has passed. It’s over. Forget it.  You are responsible for your life.”  I believed all of that. I believe in accepting responsibility rather than blaming others for your unsuccessful choices.  But choosing not to live in a state of blame does not mean that one has healed.  It means that one looks forward, not backward; but those painful experiences still scarred me.  Those scars festered.  Untreated, the infection spread.

I’ve done a lot of reading lately about post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by soldiers who see combat.  I think that’s what happened to my Dad.  I think that walking the Burma trail in the midst of unrelenting fighting changed him.  I’m not excusing him.  He battled alcoholism but his family paid for rehab programs.  He had every chance to recover.  He made choices.  But I also believe that war impacted him in ways that I cannot comprehend, and I think that powerful force never released its grip on him.  His wounds also went untreated.  They gripped him and  wrung the resistance out of him.

I might be wrong about this, but if I am right, that explains a lot.  I choose to believe that my father had essential goodness that became corrupted and bent due to the brutality of what he saw on the Burma trail and that he never recovered.  And I choose to believe that the violence in our home led me to seek destructive relationships, and eventually corrupted my ability to have healthy relationships — though not irreparably.  My corruption can be remedied.  I can heal.

In understanding this, I’ve been able to truly feel a sense of peace and forgiveness towards my father.  In some way that I cannot articulate, having Jay MacLaughlin in my life — being his daughter-in-law, having that connection — has given me the breathing space to forgive my own father for the weaknesses that led him to horribly mistreat his wife and children.  My closeness with Jay developed over the last two years. I treasure it.  He is a good father; and I love him.  In an odd way, I feel as though loving him has been easy in the way that loving my own father never could be.  I don’t know if Jay will ever understand this gift that he has given me.  All I can do is return his love; and that I shall do, to the last breath, breathed by one of us, and beyond.

And that, my dear little ones, is why Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin is my favorite curmudgeon — because he has been a father to me, and I desperately needed one.

Boy mothers

My son spent two years in Catholic elementary school.  Before he went, he had an unquenchable spirit and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  I took him out about the time he said that if Catholics were all like the kids there, he wanted to be an atheist.

But those two years had some precious moments.  His Arrow of Light ceremony; his week at Boy Scout camp; the time he protected a smaller child from the thrashes of a bully.  The moments when he walked home alone and let himself into an empty house frightened me but they gave him something about which he would later write — walks down Holmes, where he saw things that you and I might not notice.

His first year there, I attended a Back to School Mothers’ Dinner at someone’s home.  I wandered between the groups of women, none of whom I knew, looking for somewhere that I could insert myself.  I hovered behind one group for a few minutes until someone told me their name.  I gave her mine.  “Who’s your fifth grader,” she asked.  “Pat Corley,” I told her, using the shortened version of his name which he favored at the time.  She looked puzzled.

“I don’t remember meeting a ‘Pat’ and I’m one of the home room mothers.  Was she there for fourth grade or is she new,” the woman asked.  I hastened to say, “Oh no, Pat stands for Patrick.”  She looked askance at first, then a bit amused.

“These are the girl-mothers,” she told me.  “The boy-mothers are in the kitchen.”

During Patrick’s pre-school days, I was known as “Mrs. Patrick Corley’s mother”.  I’ve been called many things in my day:  wife three times over; sister; friend; lover; daughter; lawyer; neighbor; and more.  I’m proud of every status that I’ve attained, even those which I lost or which I did not seem to wholly embrace or properly honor.  To some it might not seem that anything means as much to me as my maternal status, but that is far from true.  It is just that like many women, I seem to have been born in part at least to serve as a conduit for my son’s passage into this world.  I wanted to fulfill that role well, so that whatever it is that he is mean to do will be done.

I earned the label “boy-mother” through the accidental conception of the only one of five babies who quickened in my womb to make it to the world around us.  Maybe the difficulty with which I finally became a mother made it seem more precious to me; I don’t know.  Perhaps I will never know.  Perhaps it is just that being a boy-mother was part of my destiny.  That might upset some.  That might resonate with others.  It is what it is.  His grandparents died before he could know them; his father walked away.  I am what he had, and I have done what I could, as well as I could.

One Christmas, I stood in a discount store looking at the many action figures, trying to remember what Santa had promised my then-five-year-old son.  I finally threw something in the basket, a bit discouraged by the endless stacks of colorful packages.  A clerk approached me and said, “Ma’am, you’ve been standing there a long time.  Did you get what you wanted?”

Without thinking, I snapped, “No, I wanted a girl.”

I didn’t get the girl I wanted, it’s true.  But I have no regrets.  I’ve gotten a bit of vicarious girl-mothering with my various borrowed daughters, from Jennie and Caitlin Taggart to my lovely stepdaughters, Tshandra, Kim and Cara; as well as from my nieces, like Chelsea and Amy, and my “First Niece”, Lisa.  I thought I might adopt a girl, years ago; but that did not come to pass.  I’m not complaining.  I’m a boy-mother.  It’s not my only identity, but it is one that has given me much pride, much discovery, and much satisfaction.  Along with that, has come some worry, some anxiety, and some unabashed fear.  On balance, though, it’s a role that I am glad to have been given.

This song came to me from Jessica Genzer, who has taught me much in the short time that I have known her.  I’ve played it twice through, and cried both times; reading along with the lyrics that she also kindly sent me.  If you are a boy-mother, or if you love a boy-mother, or if you are a boy who loves his mother, you might cry too.  But they will be  tears of joy.

Iron and Wine:  Upward Over the Mountain



Every person and event coming in and out of our lives forms part of the fabric  which each life becomes.  Our forming starts when we come into this world (no, I don’t wish to debate when life begins, that’s not my point).  The fabric does not exist until we put our hands to threads, dark, some of them; light; gossamer; wool or linen, sometimes synthetic. We weave, we pull the threads in and out, making the beautiful pattern.  In places what we create seems dark and sad; in places the picture has radiance.  No thread nor any part of a thread does not belong.  If a strand comes to us, it belongs in our tapestry, in the scenery which we create.  So I do not regret any single part of the whole.  Though there be spots which become worn or tattered, still I can find a needle and a spool of strong thread with which to mend the rips and tears.  I gently shake out the tapestry and trace those places worn thin with frequent folding.  I smooth the surface and close my eyes, feeling the cloth beneath my hands, luxuriating in the intricacy of its contours, not regretting the time which I have spent at the loom.

My wish, as I gaze on the treasures around me

Many of the things in this home remind me of past pleasures:  My mother’s collection of unmatched delicate china; photographs; the sand jars that my son and foster-children made one autumn weekend at the Renaissance Festival; dried flowers in a pottery vase, collected on so many marvelous occasions, each a jeweled memory on its own.

These mementos remind me of times that I have enjoyed, times that I have faced life with an unfearing spirit.  More, they gently assure me that such times might come again.

My words feebly convey my emotions.  But here are words that do what I cannot:

A Prayer”

When I am dying, let me know
That I loved the blowing snow
Although it stung like whips;
That I loved all lovely things
With gay unembittered lips;
That I loved with all my strength,
To my soul’s full depth and length,
Careless if my heart must break,
That I sang as children sing
Fitting tunes to everything,
Loving life for its own sake.

Sara Teasdale



I stood on my front porch this morning, watching the cat eat his Alley Cat dry food, feeling the chill of the autumn morning.  I closed my eyes and brought my focus to the flutter in my heart, the smoothness of the small rug beneath my bare feet, the fragrance floating around me, of mown grass and full trees.

I lifted my arms and stretched, drawing in a long pull of morning air.  An ache across my shoulders twinged so I reached again, higher, longer, and brought my arms straight down to come as near to my toes as I can.  Then I released the taut muscles and shook the lingering stiffness from my body.

It’s week 36 of my year without complaining.  It’s been a roller-coaster gestation.  No premature birth for me; I’m still curled in the womb, waiting to develop enough to come into the world.

I left the porch and went in search of coffee, leaving the cat to his own devices, on the pleasant porch, in Brookside, Kansas City, as the sun rose in the east and the rest of the world began to waken.