Monthly Archives: August 2023

Passing Ships

A few years ago, I took a handful of fabulous photographs of swans in the slough adjacent to the levee road on which I live.  I posted them on Instagram, somewhere that I rarely browse and almost never post.  They had no watermark; no embedded copyright notice; and no meta data from which I could claim them.

A person stalking me and the park in which we both lived at the time stole them, created a fake identity in my name, posted my swans on the cover, and used the identity to defame the park.  One of our other neighbors traced the profile picture to someone else with my name.  I notified that person and the FBI.  The profile disappeared, either because I got blocked or because it got deleted.  Later, the person moved from the park.  Those of us who knew about the situation rarely speak of it.  I refer to it from time to time with a bit of ruefulness.  The person and I did not know each other well, but they disliked me based upon things they had been told about me which were wholly untrue.

A month or so ago, someone whom I know mentioned that they had decided not to be friends with an unidentified person based upon a newfound conviction that they and the person did not have anything in common.  “I thought we cared about each other and truly were friends,” this person told me.  “But later I realized that I was wrong.”  I nodded.  I felt certain that this person, whom I do not know very well but with whom I had spent a moderate amount of time, was talking about me.  They did not have the guts to admit it to my face.  Since we had not had any negative interaction, I decided that this person, too, had been told something about me — likely something false.  This person and I have little in common and though we share acquaintances, I don’t know any of them well enough for them to say anything bad about me unless it’s supposition or fabrication.  Plenty exists to be discussed, though none of these folks know about any of it.  But talk they do anyway, which is, for the main, why I keep myself to myself.  

I let it go.  Life has taught me enough lessons to distinguish between beneficial influences and destructive ones.  When someone suggests an impending exit from my life, I wish them well.  It rarely happens, possibly because I keep the walls high enough to protect myself.  I used to wear my heart on my sleeve, openly acknowledge my faults and my fears, and make myself available for anyone to explore or exploit.  Decades of that approach gained me some amazing experiences but more than a few crushing blows. 

This morning I drove down Twitchell Island Road to place a sign for an event.  I used to have volunteers who helped with that task, but they moved to other pursuits.  The job still needs to be done, though.  I balanced on one foot, using the other to push the metal bracket into the bramble.  I situated the sign close enough to my parked car to steady myself on its bumper.  The sign only has to last a day; it might hold, unless the wind rises.

On the way back, I stopped to watch a ship crawl across the land, the river in which it matriculated unseen below the horizon.  The sight still astonishes me, even after five years of living in the Delta.  I filmed it for a few minutes, and then stopped a little ways down to photograph the swans in the slough.  The sun played over the water.  A sense of calm settled on my soul.  I watched for a few minutes, then drove on home.

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

Please enjoy a little video of the ship and the swans.

Thirty-eight and counting

The pile of paperwork on my desk has grown by an open pack of wide-point black Sharpies, my good scissors, and a fussy roll of strapping tape.  Dirt streaks on my fingers testify to an afternoon spent installing signs in the brambles on the levee roads.  Leftovers cool in the bowl on my counter.  My blue pottery mug holds the dregs of this morning’s coffee.

This time each year, I tell myself not to be sad.  Yet for nearly four decades, August 21st has tiptoed onto my calendar and smacked me in the face.  I just got over the anniversary of my little brother’s death in June.  Now I get to recall the 7:00 a.m. ringing of my cousin’s phone and my sister’s voice telling me to come back to the house, our mother has gone home.

My little brother Stevie Pat and I stood at the back of the funeral home’s vehicle arguing with the transporter.  Steve wanted to ride with our mother’s body.  Against policy, they told him.  He shook his head and folded his arms across his chest.  He towered over the men, tall, strong, imposing.  I put my hand on his shoulder but he shrugged me away.  He froze as they carefully closed the doors.  They handled the situation as gently as possible.  My brother did not speak or move.  The van pulled away from the house where my mother had raised her children, fought the Might-Be-Giants, beat the odds, and — finally, wearily, when the last of her children had arrived — breathed her last ragged breath.  Someone in the clutch of Corleys down in the yard sobbed.  I held out my arms but Stephen walked away, crossed the street, and got into his car.

We had almost missed the whole sad exit.  He and his nurse wife had taken the phone off the hook to get some sleep.  I drove like the proverbial bat escaping Hades from my cousin’s house to theirs to break the news.  An officer had stopped me, but not for speeding.  Did you know your plates are expired, he inquired.  Sir, I told him, sighing, my mother just died.  I’m on my way to get my brother. Then we’re going to her house so we can be there when they come to take her away.  Her address is 8416 McLaran.    I’m going to pass  by here again in five minutes.  I’m not going to stop.  But you can bring the ticket there.

I got in my car and tore back onto West Florissant Avenue.  When we sped by a few minutes later, first Steve, then me, the officer had not moved.  But  I never saw him again.  I never got a warrant in the mail, either.

We buried my mother in the Corley family spot, beside her parents-in-law and my great-grandmother Corinne Hahn Hayes.  As I sit here, I can’t remember if my niece Rachel, who died in infancy, preceded my mother in death.  Twelve years later, we’d bury my brother Stephen’s ashes in a brass box with a Grateful Dead sticker in the same plot.  Cremains don’t take much room.

I have only been to that cemetery three times since my brother’s death in 1997.  Once my sister Joyce and I went.  Later, my second husband and I unsuccessfully hunted for the grave site.  A few years ago, I took a small jar of flowers from my cousin Theresa’s garden and stood over the sad stretch of ground.  I got a pair of scissors from the laptop bag in my rental car and trimmed the grass around my mother’s headstone.  I traced my brother’s name with one crooked finger.  I think I cried.

On 21 August 1985, the day my mother died, I had not yet turned thirty.  I would still be numb, probably drunk, two weeks later when I celebrated entering a new decade.  She herself would have been fifty-nine if she had lived another three weeks.  Before the cancer hit her brain, she had addressed birthday cards to all her children and put stamps on them.  She wrote the “mail by” dates on the back of the envelopes.  My father dutifully placed each one in the outgoing mail.  I kept that card for many years, the last scrap of my mother’s handwriting, her DNA on the seal, her maternal drive shimmering in the careful scrawl of my full name:  Mary Corinne Corley.

I have my mother’s hair, the shape of her body, and her irreverent sense of humor.  I don’t have one-tenth of her grit, a fraction of her compassion, or an iota of her determination.  But somewhere inside of me, I have a small kernel of her lingering love.  Its flame has held for thirty-eight years and counting.  It warms me in the darkness of the coldest, loneliest nights.  For my part, I nurture its flicker, so that I may one day pass it to my own child in my mother’s honor.

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


If these are biscuits, it must be Friday.

On the way home from work last evening, I paused next to a tree in which I could see a resting egret.  I did not dare to get out of the car.  The creak of the door would startle the sleeping creature.  I strained to adjust the angle of my open side window to get a snap with my cell phone.  The distant noise of a truck approaching from the rear urged me to action.  I raised my phone and shot through the dirty windshield before shifting into drive.

Later I sat on the porch scrolling through my phone’s gallery.  A careless swipe took me back several months, to scenes in St. Louis and Kansas City during my spring visit.  Here is the Airbnb where I celebrated Mother’s Day with my son.  See the bookstore of my friends Will and Tom, the only retail establishment that carries my book.  Look, see the street on which I lived, down which I dare not drive.  Dusk gathered around me.  Finally I went inside, looking for dinner, for solace, for calm within the silence.  Eventually I slept.

Mid-morning found me on the road to Isleton, where I knew that I could get a fine tumbler of coffee and a life-changing biscuit.  Truth told, the Saturday coffee dates of my Midwest life have morphed into this ten-mile trip on Friday morning to the nearly deserted streets of the old town of my zip code.  A few stalwart entrepreneurs strive to raise the ghostly village from the dead; and I support that effort.  The fifteen-minute  jaunt seems a small sacrifice for delectable fluffy layers of lamination with clouds of tender dough.  Pleasant exchanges with Ruby and Aleida give me some small measure of the camaraderie for which I yearn.  It’s little enough; but something.

Later I sit in the gentle breeze beneath my ten-foot canopy, mug of dark roast beside a plate on which, I must confess, sits a small dish of orange jelly.  I’m a creature of habit, though I’ve had to shift my rituals so much in the last five years that I barely recognize myself.  If these are biscuits, this must be Friday, with the weekend looming.  I lift my eyes to the inside surface of the umbrella and see a tender shoot of vine overhead.  Something about its brave reach pleases me.  A hummingbird’s shadow flickers past.  I find myself suddenly tempted to smile.

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

Missing Midwesterners

I watched dozens of shows about tiny houses before I finally decided to close my law practice, sell my 100-year-old Brookside bungalow, build a tiny house on wheels, and move to California.

I anticipated being cheerfully shed of snowy winters, icy streets, manic worry about clients who did not pay their bills, and the fear of running into my ex-husband on the Plaza with his newest wife in tow before I had come to grips with divorce.  I knew that I could live without the specter of what even now I perceive as a failed experiment in adult accomplishment.  I cheerfully embraced the concept of a leased lot within grounds that someone else maintained and a ready-made community of folks who agreed about the concept of alternative dwellings as a viable solution to a sagging economy and challenging housing market.  

I understood that the high cost of living would keep me in a rural setting, which I foreswore when I moved back to Kansas City from Arkansas in 1992.  But within sixty miles of the City seemed reasonable.  I accepted that I could no longer meet friends — and strangers — at a different coffee shop each Saturday.  Museums, art galleries, and music venues make scarce appearances in the outskirts of urban life.  I begrudgingly accepted that reality.  

I thought I had considered all the angles when I crammed the last shards of my Missouri life into the back of my 2012 RAV4 and followed my mobile dwelling to the California Delta.  Five years later, I do occasionally pine for the social and cultural opportunities in my home town.  I compensate by inventing substitutes here, with moderate success.  It works, after a fashion; and truth told, the liberal political climate and temperate weather go a long way towards assuaging my craving for the nightlife that I left.  

But I could not and did not anticipate my unquenchable longing for Midwesterners.

My friend Anastacia Drake recently stopped the night at my tiny house.  Prior to last weekend, she and I knew each other only as part of the art world.  She showed in the public art space that my then-husband and I started in our office suite.  We ran into each other at First Fridays in the Crossroads, Kansas City’s premier art district.  But we did not socialize.  I’m older than her mother.  We matriculated in different social sets which occasionally intersected like a happy Ven diagram.  All the people you know and all the people I know; the five people we both know.  The five places we both go.  Oh yes, hello!

When I saw her Facebook posts about traveling out west with her fifteen-year-old son Parker, I messaged.  Will you be in the Delta, I asked.  Happened she planned to drive from Lassen National Park to Yosemite, and her route could jog down HIghway 5 and over to my little neck of the woods.

I took them for pizza and ice cream, two quintessential Midwestern activities.  We sat on my porch chatting as the evening waned.  They slept in the little tent atop their car.  In the morning, I fixed breakfast which we enjoyed around the cherry drop-down table made by my friend Sheldon whom, we later discovered, all of us know.  At 8:30  on Monday morning, they stowed their gear, hugged me, and started south for the next leg of their adventure.

Until their visit, I did not realize that I desperately missed Midwesterners — the cadence of our accent; the deceptive, sometimes hidden warmth of our personalities; the unbridled optimism; the lack of pretension often mistaken for rudeness.  I stood watching them drive away until their Kansas license plates blurred in the dust, and then turned back to collect my things for work.  I wouldn’t move back to Missouri, especially with the ruin its Republican administration has made of the legal landscape.  I couldn’t handle winters alone in the ice storms.  But Oh, Auntie Em.  There’s no place like home.  There’ s no place like home.

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



Counting My Blessings One Bite At A Time

Early, jumbled memories of food crowd some dark passage in my brain.  They push to the front when I stand, lost, in the aisles of my favorite grocer.  They lurk as I open the tiny door of the cute little fridge in my galley kitchen.  I shake my head; I tell myself that I’m sixty-seven years of age and need to get over the chaos of my childhood.  But the hauntings persist.

I remember my mother on her knees on the kitchen floor, desperate to salvage some of the spilled milk.  She tried to suck it into a straw and thence to a stainless steel sieve, hoping to eliminate shards of glass.  I stood in the doorway, confused, anxious.  I could not have been more than three or four.

My father banished children using poor manners to eat in the coal room.  I assume that’s why my mother finally had someone dismantle its sooty walls after she converted to an oil furnace.  We got a knife blade thwack on our forearms if our elbows hit the table.  Food got served to us at each successive meal until it grew mold if we couldn’t clean our plates.  Once my older sister contrived to spill a glass of milk on something that I just could not stomach the fourth or fifth time our angry father slapped the plate in front of me.  He whipped her with his belt for her deed, but she stoically bore the lashing.

How many pieces of chicken come from one hen?  Ten:  Two backs, two breasts, two legs, two wings, two thighs.  How many Corleys?  Ten.  How many potatoes can feed those hungry mouths?  Four, boiled and mashed with a bluish concoction made from powdered milk and tap water.

At fifteen, I weighed next to nothing.  At twenty, I ballooned to twice my typical heft.  At forty, a double-whammy of Premarin and Prednizone skyrocketed my girth.  I struggled to shed the poundage for the next decade.   By fifty-five, I had dropped eighty-two pounds.  As I climbed past sixty-five, the slow mid-life sprawl tightened my pants and threatened the stability of my broken artificial knee and spastic legs.

Yesterday brought a truce with food.  I started my day with my favorite repast: two local, pasture-raised eggs soft-scrambled on a half-slice of toasted bread.  A few hours later, I reintroduced caffeine to my Covid-recovered body with a trip into Isleton for coffee and biscuits.  Later, I skillet-fried zucchini from my friend Rachel’s garden with tender mushrooms and served it over leftover rice from Thursday’s lunch at my favorite local Mexican joint.  For dessert, I sliced a fresh nectarine, also from Rachel’s backyard.  I drank cool spring water.  I closed my eyes.  I thought of the advice of the speech therapist trying to help with my weak throat muscles:  Food is nourishment; chew slowly, swallow often, drink water between bites.  

At night, I lie awake listing my faults and my failings.  When I can’t sleep, I rehash each conversation, straining to dissect the nuanced timbre of seemingly innocuous remarks.  But in the forgiving light of dawn, I consider whether I should be counting my blessings instead, one bite at a time.  Perhaps that makes more sense.  I’m willing to try.

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