Monthly Archives: June 2022

In Which My Life Flashes Before My Eyes

To distract myself from the curtailment of our constitutional rights by a packed Supreme Court, I spent a couple of hours going through the last line-item edits of my forthcoming essay collection.  Presented in two-and-a-half pages, the list drilled through my manuscript in terse, tight jabs.  P. 20, first paragraph, semi-colons?  Why not commas? P. 22, italics? And so forth.  Once or twice, a little query; occasionally, a gentle quibble.  I kept slogging.

A curious phenomenon unfolded as I compared the proposed edits with the manuscript.

In bites, in paragraphs, in pages, and in passages, a decade of my life unfolded.  Incomplete but intriguing, the frolic through the period of blog-writing from which the collection has been culled took me from my first summer as a separated woman (marriage two) to my last summer as a Missouri resident after divorcing (marriage three).  An alarming dizziness crept over me.  

At one point, I found myself typing words that could only be considered shrill.  This one exemplifies everything about me! I screamed.  Do not change a word of it!  Then I calmed and conceded the semi-colon question.  It won’t read like me, I sighed.  But if you think it will sufficiently improve the passage, go ahead and change them.

From early January of one year, I bounced across the decade to land on New Year’s Eve of another.  My son started college; I read a line or two about attending his invocation.  I tried cases and relived, in fragmented form, their outcome.  Loneliness. . . hope. . . newness. . . fatigue.  I dipped my toes back into the rivers which carried me to the banks of the one near which I now live.  I tarried at first; then accelerated my ramble; and in the end, hastily agreed with the proposed edits.  I entered the last response into an email, typed a closing comment, and hit send.  Then I sat back in the old wooden chair which I brought with me from the very bedroom in Kansas City where most of the blog entries originally had found voice.

Having one’s life flash before one’s eyes causes little rivulets of sweat to roll down one’s back between the shoulder blades.  My face quivered a bit as I breathed — in, out — to ease my heartbeat.  I could not tell from the long list sent by my editor (friend Will Leathem) whether the work badly suffers from poor style and grammar; or merely needed a helping hand.  But what’s done is done.  I closed the lid of my laptop and looked about my tiny house.  Seeing nothing, and no one, to further distract me from worrying about the state of the nation, I decided to make another cup of coffee and find a good British mystery to read. 

There’s a lot to be said for escaping in the melodic, elaborate writing of the war years, when the affairs of humanity could be sorted out with a raised eyebrow, a pint of stout, and a cold glass of Pernod served by the landlady in the public bar.

It’s the twenty-fourth day of the one-hundred and second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

One Perfect Cup

In the twenty-five years in which I sketched out a living as a family law practitioner, I told a lot of stories that had only a passing acquaintance with truth.

My clients needed to believe that I understood what they had experienced.   All of them: The man denied access to his child; the woman battered and beaten most of her married life; the disenchanted middle-aged wife who had been promised a fairy tale and got only the ashes on the hearth.  I couldn’t match them story for story but their humanity coursed through my veins.  I took the feelings and wrapped them around my own life until you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.

But some stories had too much truth; and some I held for the intimate moments, with my spouse, my child, my closest friends.  

During a time when I barely ate anything, in the early, idyllic days of my third marriage, I allowed myself a half piece of sourdough bread to dip in coffee.  I told my new husband that my mother called it “Lebanese dessert”.  She might have, too; and I thought of her as I sucked the bitter liquid from the ball of dough and sipped the scalding coffee through my pursed lips.

On the front porch — in the living room — at the far end of the breakfast room table; my mother would sit, with her cup and saucer and a strong over-percolated brew.  Her tired eyes cleared behind the misty steam which rose as the coffee cooled.  I sat beside her, listening to her murmured stories.  The words fade from memory now.  Only the echoes of her low tone remain, soothing and calm although nothing about her life could be called either.

She’d push the saucer toward me.  I’d carefully lift the cup and set it on the table.  Then I  would take a bit of bread and dip it in the little puddle lying in the divot.  She would smile and slide the saucer back, finishing her coffee, standing to go into the kitchen.  The spell would settle around me for a few minutes more, and then I would follow her.

I took that cup with other Melamine dishes from my childhood home when my mother died, but for some reason, I got only plates, no saucers.  During my last visit to Missouri,  I found a matching saucer at an antique store in St. Charles.  I paid two dollars for it.  I would have given twice that.

Now I sit on my porch in the summer sun.  I raise my mother’s cup to my lips, and let the warmth of a packet of espresso fill my chilly bones.  The weight of my sixty-six years falls heavy on me these days.  I’ve badly gambled, and nearly lost.  I’m not even supposed to be drinking coffee but doctors be damned.  Allow me just one perfect cup, into which I can dip a bit of bread or a lemon cookie, and hear again the cadence of my mother’s voice.  She tells me that whatever happens, everything will be fine — just fine.  Just fine.  

It’s the eighteenth day of the one-hundred and second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Brother, Oh Brother

I first ran away from home in December of 1976, if you don’t count the time I fell asleep in a laundry hamper and my parents had to call in the Boy Scouts to search for me.  I stumbled upstairs hours after the groups of tired teens had returned and stood in a huddle around the small frame of my anxious mother.  Stunned, confused, and probably damp from hours without a bathroom, my five-year-old self emerged from the hallways rubbing my eyes.  I didn’t understand the gasps or my mother’s hurried, tight embrace.

Sixteen years later, I stashed my boxes of books and my folding rocker in my parents’ basement and took an early plane to Boston just before a storm dumped twelve inches of snow on the still and shuttered town.  I had secured early graduation by dint of changing my major to anything in which I had enough hours to forego the last semester.  Besieged by the aftermath of three years of poor decisions and hard-drinking, I thought a change of venue might be in order.  

But I was wrong.  Instead of preparing for graduate school at Boston College, I started bar-hopping with a theatre crowd.  Working a desk job during the day allowed me to keep pace with their spending, but I would never hold my own with their wine-consumption or the passive way they traded partners.  By September, I faced the stark reality that I had to crawl back to St. Louis or surrender to the menacing clouds hovering thick around me.  My mother sent my oldest brother in her car to fetch me back.

For a while, then, the Jennings household consisted of my mother, my father, myself, and my youngest brother Steve.  If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost imagine that I remember much about the next five months.  I got a job, certainly; and I tried to reconnect with the college friends who had all started their professional lives.  I resurrected my local grad school applications.  And I drank.  Hard; which might account for the haziness of my memory of that time.

One morning I came out from the back of the house where I evidently had been sleeping.  I entered the kitchen as my brother stood with his hands braced against the counter.  His hair fell across his eyes.  Stubble dotted his chin.  A cigarette dangled from his mouth.  He kept his eyes fixed on the coffee maker, from which the usual promising sounds could be heard.  

I started to laugh.  My little brother, clearly hung over, mesmerized by the gurgle of the percolator!  A few decades later, I wouldn’t find the thought amusing; but back then it all still seemed so much like one’s normal life.

He switched his stare to me and my laughter died.  Silence surrounded us for a long moment.  Then he shook his head.  You don’t look much better, Mare bear, he said, in the softest, saddest voice.

Over the next twenty years, I would lose touch with my brother Steve.  He got married and divorced, twice; he cared for our dying mother; he earned his nursing degree; he quarreled with our father, when the failed first marriage sent him back home for a time.  I traveled a similar path, and my road took me out of St. Louis to which I would never again return except for holidays, and weddings, and funerals.

My mother’s death came first, in August of 1985, quickly followed by her father’s passing that December.  I brought my new baby home to bury my father in the fall of 1991.  And in June of 1997, we stood in a small, sad circle around the brass box which held the cremated remains of my little brother Stephen Patrick Corley.  Though the exact date when he died by his own hand remains unknown, I believe his death certificate sets it at twenty-five years ago today, 14 June 1997.

Of all the difficult tasks which I have faced in sixty-six years, telling my son that his favorite uncle had died might stand fairly close to the top of the list.  My five-year-old quietly asked, You mean  Uncle Steve like black-shirt Uncle Steve?  I choked back tears and nodded.  Black-shirt Uncle Steve like Uncle Steve who gave me the alien-catcher?  I sobbed, and whispered, Yes.  

My son reached his little arms around my neck and pressed his face against mine.  I crouched down and wrapped myself around his body.  I had no other words.  I had nothing to offer my boy to comfort him as I collapsed within my own grief.  I could only hold him, and be held by him, and pray that whatever essential element of my lost sibling remained on this earth would entwine itself around both of us.

I named my son after my little brother because I could not think of a better man for him to emulate.  I understood the dark side of Steve’s existence; and I prayed that in giving his middle name to my son, I didn’t doom my child to the loneliness which must have driven my brother.  For my part, I remember his dancing, the jaunty stroll with which he entered any room, and the strength of his profile.  I hear his voice; I see his face; I cling to a gossamer thread which links his soul to mine.  Every day we spent together; every holiday in which we scampered across the lawn as children; even the grim hours when he tried to explain the demons on his back — I hold them all in my heart. 

Like the sight of his hunched form in my mother’s kitchen, those memories of my brother’s life shuffled themselves into some treasure box within my mind.  On days like this, I take them out one by one, and study the images of my brother’s smile.   I strain to find traces of the pain which drove him to his end. Brother, oh my brother!  How I miss you!  But then, I imagine him sitting on the banks of a river, with a willow tree rising high to shade him, and a song bird singing in the distance as he sleeps.  Fare thee well, Stevie Pat; fare thee well.  I love you more than words can tell.

It’s the fourteenth day of the one-hundredth and second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Brokedown Palace, by the Grateful Dead

My Patrick and his Uncle Steve.


By: James Whitcomb Riley

I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead- . He is just away!

With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand
He has wandered into an unknown land,

And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.

And you- O you, who the wildest yearn
For the old-time step and the glad return- ,

Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here;

And loyal still, as he gave the blows
Of his warrior-strength to his country’s foes- .

Mild and gentle, as he was brave- ,
When the sweetest love of his life he gave

To simple things- : Where the violets grew
Blue as the eyes they were likened to,

The touches of his hands have strayed
As reverently as his lips have prayed:

When the little brown thrush that harshly chirred
Was dear to him as the mocking-bird;

And he pitied as much as a man in pain
A writhing honey-bee wet with rain- .

Think of him still as the same, I say:
He is not dead- he is just away!


Keep Walking

I spent a lot of time with my mother in my teen years.  Some click of the dial had brought a certain stillness to the chaos of our lives before the early 1970s.  I think perhaps my father left the house for a  year or two.  I remember my mother laughing more in those days.

We went to Vet’s Village in the city.  We picnicked in out-of-the-way turns just outside of the town where we lived.  Sometimes we had a brother or two in tow.  More often, Mom and I drove alone, to the Bissell house, to the art museum, to junk stores in central Illinois where she had lived as a child.  Once we drove to Blackburn College where she had done two years before starting nursing school in St. Louis.  We stood outside a closed gate.  She talked about converting to Catholicism and feeling independent for the first time.

In those days, nobody considered me to be ‘disabled’, a word which I didn’t hear until more than a decade later.  They said I had a ‘walking problem’, and that I could overcome it.  My mother sent me to tumbling lessons to learn injury-free falling.  She nixed dance classes but cajoled me into doing exercises.  She bought me solid, ugly shoes.  She told me over and over that I could conquer the clumsiness.  “If you walk every day of your life, you’ll walk every day of your life,” she intoned.  “So keep walking.  Don’t let them put you in a wheelchair.  Keep walking.

During my pregnancy in 1990, a physical therapist suggested a walker to ease the weight from my aching legs.  Again I demurred.  You can’t lift your knees high and do that heel-to-toe step if you’re shuffling forward on a metal frame.  No, thank you, ma’am — do I need to sign a waiver?  An acknowledgment of your warning?

When a doctor told me that I had six months to live, I raised my eyebrows and shook my head.  I reminded him of my five-year-old child.  I can’t die, sorry.  I’ve got responsibilities.  That doctor passed away two years later.  I have, thus far, surpassed his prediction of my life expectancy by twenty-five and a half years.

I don’t disdain those who need gait aids or wheels.  Those devices give many a personal freedom of which they otherwise would despair.  I use a walking stick in strange places or when I’ve been working overmuch.  But I need to remain on my feet.  I have stood this long.  I intend to remain standing,  stay vertical, every precious possible moment.

This week brought the results of a major medical test for which I have been nervously waiting.  Strange symptoms that have plagued me for several years needed to be explained.  And so they have.  I read the words over and over, first in mild disbelief, then in shock, then struggling to breathe.  Inclusion body myositis.  Uncertain origins, hard to definitively diagnose without biopsy, progressive, sometimes genetically driven but more often not, film at eleven oooh ahhh ahhh.

I heard my mother’s voice:  Keep walking.  I felt the warmth of her smile.  I strolled again with her down the path at the Bissell House, with the fragrance of spring flowers wafting through the cool evening air.  I leaned against the railing and listened to her describe some plant in a side garden.  We couldn’t have been there alone; someone took the pictures.  But I remember only Mother.  A lightness rose within me as she let the day’s grime and worry fall away.

In those evenings with my mother, a sense of security surrounded my tired body.  I forgot the pain and stumbling.  Nothing mattered, not my awkward loneliness or my uncertainty about the future.  I believed her assurances.  I promised her, yes, ma’am, yes, I will.  I won’t forget.  I promised her that I would not surrender to self-pity, or doubt, or anyone’s insistence that I would fail.  I promised her that I would not sit down; that I would never sit down.  

And so I shall.  CNS deficit from a viral encephalitis?  Check.  Spinal stenosis from degenerated disks?  Check.  Inclusion body myiositis?  It’s a mouthful but, also check.  I’ll put my best foot forward and just do what I do; and keep walking.

It’s the ninth day of the one-hundredth and second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Going Home

My beautiful cousin Theresa sang “Going Home” a capella at my mother’s funeral.  Thoughts of Theresa hover near me today, her birthday. 

Theresa’s son Johnny died not long ago.  I could not attend his service but I’ve made small gestures to honor him.  Anything which I do stands small in the shadow of her lovely voice ringing strong and clear throughout the church with my mother’s casket sitting near the alter.

My five days in St. Louis rattled whatever semblance of complacency had adorned my life.  I mingled with cousins, shared meals with siblings, and sat at the kitchen island in the new home of Theresa and her husband John.  For some reason, no matter how many months or years separate our meetings, I find myself able to speak with candor to Theresa.  Though I know her husband much less, his calm presence welcomed me.

So somehow, in a city in which I have not lived since 1980, I managed to wrap myself in the intoxicating scent of going home.  Yet at the end of that comforting sojourn, a plane awaited me.  Four hours later, we touched down and a flight attendant welcomed me to Sacramento.  By and by a shuttle driver took me back to my car.  I eased myself south by southwest on the I-5.  Eventually I came into the Delta, to my tiny house and the river community in which I’ve tried to carve out a place for myself.

My plants had gone dry in the harsh wind that tears across our meadows this time of year.  The peace flag which snapped off the house in a furious storm last December waved from its makeshift perch in the trailer’s tongue.  The sheen across the fading mural glistened in the golden rays of the afternoon sun.  As I have done so many times, I stood on the pavers leading to my porch and studied the little tableau.  Rocking chair fading in the heat; round tile table; four blue chairs and a swaying umbrella.

In my absence, a camper’s RV had come to rest in the empty lot west of mine.  To the east, a Class A fills the spot vacated by my neighbor Margaret when she moved her tiny house to Oregon.  I do not like change, but such comings and goings happen among people who prefer to live in nontraditional dwellings.   We choose houses on wheels because our spirits need the knowledge of potential escape.

I took my backpack inside and hung it on one of the glass knobs affixed to the back of my door.  My suitcase could wait, filled as it was with clothes needing to be laundered.  I paused for a moment, to get my bearings.  If this is Tuesday, this must be California, I thought, my inner voice tinged with a small measure of hysteria.  

In the morning, I would resume my awkward life as the backdesk of another lawyer’s office.  I would take steps to set in motion the heightened publicity for the first Sunday Market of the summer season.  A pile of mail would have to be sorted.  Small packages awaited me in the park office.  But in the quiet of my house, on the evening of my return, I ignored all of those obligations.  Instead I stilled my mind and strained to hear the fading sounds of my cousin’s voice, singing her sweet farewell to my mother nearly forty years ago.

It’s the third day of the hundred and second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

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