The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Up and Away November 22, 2012

Up at 3:30. Laundry’s in the dryer, Elihu’s bag is packed, including his carry-on, which is a large FAO Schwartz shopping bag from our summer trip to New York City. He’s bringing his Christmas gifts for his little brothers early, and one wouldn’t fit into the suitcase. I remind him several times that the book he’s brought to read is in the bag too – so when someone offers to stow the bag in the cabinets above his head, make sure to get the book out first. That’s all I can do. In the past, he’d most likely forget, and sit idle the whole trip, not wanting to make anyone get it down for him. This time, he’ll probably remember, he might even ask for help if he needs it. He’s getting older. He’s doing more for himself, but still, I advise, I remind, I worry…

I touch his soft, perfect face while he sleeps and behold this boy who’s fast changing… The other day he told me he really wanted to have a beard when he was older. Will a beard actually grow one day from his velvet-smooth cheeks? If I try, I can kind of imagine it, but secretly I’m a bit horrified. Yet is this not what parents aspire to? Raise our children to be healthy, happy autonomous adults who may live as they choose?  I’m far from ready. These days it seems he’s readier than I am. He’s been flying alone for four years. It’s no more eventful to him than a car ride to the grocery store. He’s smart, he’s funny and he’s got a natural savvy about life in general which far exceeds his years. But in the end, he is my little boy. And knowing that in a few hours he’ll be speeding through the sky away from me at hundreds of miles per hour, his plane becoming a mere speck in the sky… that thought has me feeling a little light-of-being, a little empty. It’s always in his leaving – and then again in his homecoming – in which I feel the passing of time most acutely.

But I’m excited for him. He is seeing his father at long last! And his baby brothers (for the most part I omit the word ‘half’ as a descriptor, depends on how equanimous I’m feeling at the moment). “They’re not babies” he reminds me. “It was a figure of speech, baby” I answer him. He smiles. We choose some paper to wrap their presents ahead of time. We finish, and they look nice. “I’d be happy to get one of these, wouldn’t you?” I ask him. Elihu waits for a minute. He’s looking down. For a second it looks like he’s thinking about something else. “Thanks,” he finally says, “I know this isn’t easy for you”. I tell him it’s all ok – I really am so happy for him – how excited I am too to know that his brothers will love the presents. He doesn’t stay in the sentiment long, it seems he believes me. All I can do is hope that he really does feel my support. He’s right. It’s not always easy, even now. But it does get easier. And knowing how excited he is helps motivate me to move past my own hurt.

He’s been hugging me a lot today, saying extra “I love yous”, getting ready in his heart to make the parting. To switch parents. We’re alternately easily frustrated with each other and needy of each other’s affection. It’s been just us for months now, and frankly, we could both use a little break from each other. And yet…

I move around the house getting ready. The kitchen cabinet handles are sticky with his clementine-wet hands. I see the charge lights on his toy helicopters blinking, ready. His drawing paper is out and waiting for a new bird sketch… signs of a nine year old boy living here. One minute they’re parts of the house as usual, the next, they’re strange, ghost-like suggestions of the absence all around me. I try not to let my mother’s mind wander to that unspeakable, remote possibility that my son may not come back… I leave the sticky door handles to remind me of him, just in case. I scold myself for being so morbid. I remind myself to stay positive, to cancel those thoughts immediately… This trip is nothing new or remarkable, he’ll be fine. A parent has to let go eventually, right? Maybe our time in practice will help when the time really does come for him to move out. Maybe.

I’ve just returned from the airport. It took a while for his Southwest flight to get going. The only person in the vast observation room at the Albany airport, I watched as the plane was de-iced, watched the plane taxi away and waited. And waited. Finally, as I began to despair that I must somehow have missed his plane take off, the morning sun crested over the hills just as his plane sped past, the wheels lifting off the ground precisely as the sun freed itself from the horizon. A movie moment. I watched it all the way as it got smaller and smaller… until it banked and headed west. Finally, the tiny dot was gone.

As I was leaving the garage I called his father to tell him Elihu was safely off. Strangely, we often talk for a while on these occasions. Fareed chats about things going on in his world, we catch each other up on our parents, we try to make sure we’re on the same page about Elihu. It’s all so strangely civil – more than civil actually, maybe, not sure if it’s the word, but it’s something close to friendly. In the past it’s thrown me off – it’s like I see a window to the man I used to love and share my life with, and it almost seems he’s still there, that this has all been a dream… But now, somehow, it’s easier. Easier to understand. After all, we both love our boy so.

I get home, have a snack. I smile to myself when I feel the sticky surfaces. I wipe them clean. I take a bath, and just as I get out and wrap myself in a towel, the phone rings. It’s Elihu, safe and sound. Father and son are together again and both so happy. And for now, I’m a free woman. Clean the house? Work out? Walk in the woods? Meditate? Go to hear some live jazz on the weekend? So much possibility! Wow. The sky is amazingly clear right now, I’d better fly while the flying’s good…

 

Increasing the Fold November 13, 2012

Big day here at the Hillhouse Coop. We acquired sixteen new laying hens from Elihu Farm. Bob and Mary Pratt run this lovely hillside farm which produces eggs, meat birds and lamb. Named for its homesteader/builder and Revolutionary War patriot (so fitting for this Veteran’s Day!) Elihu Gifford – who lies a few paces down the road in a family plot – we first found the place several years ago through a quick Google search for anything “Elihu” in our new neighborhood, and we soon came to learn that this farm is well-known in the culture of the area farmer’s markets. We’ve visited Mary at both her farm and her farm stand over the past few years, and she’s given us some very helpful information about the raising of hens. She’s been very kind to us as we fumble our way into the next level of chicken farming.

Today we learned how to tell the difference between a hen who’s currently laying eggs, and a hen who’s taking a short hiatus from the job. In the fall, with the loss of daylight, a hen’s system often switches gears; her system slows down a bit and among other changes, she often shuts down in the egg department. There are physical indications; her comb is dry-ish looking and more pink than red, her legs may be less colorful, she molts all over, and finally – and most importantly – her ‘vent’ – that is to say, the hole where everything (yes, everything) exits her body, is much more constricted during this phase. Mary showed us how to informally ‘measure’ the vent to see whether it was in shape for passing eggs or not. She flipped a gal on her back, and kinda held her fast between her knees, bird head up and back, vent end up and forward. Mary showed us how two of her fingers easily fit between the pelvic bones and how the vent itself was much larger on the gal who was currently laying. Another hen also so checked, showed a much smaller vent – quite easy to see at a glance – and the fit was much tighter between the pelvic bones. For now, this hen was considered a bit of a ‘free-loader’ as she was eating but not producing. (She’d most likely be a stewing chicken fairly soon.) I’d thought it would be some messy, wet-ish, esoteric, veterinarian kinda challenge to see the difference between the birds, but it was easy. Invert bird, inspect vent. Done. Give the gal a couple weeks to get back in the egg laying game, and if she can’t get it together, she’s retired. Retired gals will be thanked for having contributed their wonderful gift of eggs thus far, spoken to ever so gently as we box em up and drive them to the Amish farmer who’ll have em dispatched and bagged up half-frozen all in less than a half hour. (I must remember this time to have them quartered. And to save those giblets. !)

Elihu hasn’t been this thrilled, happy, nor deeply contented in a good, long while. The very essence of joy was all about my son this evening as he stood in the middle of his flock, stopping to handle each and every one of his birds, new and old, to look them over, talk to them in a low, reassuring tone before returning them to their roost. We have 48 birds. Four are grandfathered in; two roosters, one male guinea fowl, and one white gander (Ya only need one rooster. Our neighbor’s offered to lend out his Roo as a stud service in the spring, thereby making our old boys redundant and quite unnecessary. Elihu won’t have it. He’ll send the old gals off to the butcher, but he can’t see these boys gettin done in. Oh well.)

The sounds of a full house – a full coop, I should say – are gentle and pleasing sounds. I think they’d soften even the hardest of personalities. As you stand in the coop, rows upon rows of birds before you, sitting on their roosts, getting comfortable for a good night’s rest, they make all sorts of quiet little purring and cooing noises. It’s a peaceful place to be. Elihu can simply stand in the presence of his roosted flock for literally hours. Literally. There’s a spiritual quality to this quiet time; there’s a true communing with the birds that seems to take place. The coop is an oasis, separate and apart from the buzzing, high-energy output of human life.

Today’s acquisition was not an impulse; we took a look at some numbers before we made our move to increase the flock. Our prices are far too low, our egg output lately has been the worst ever, and it’s been a while since we’ve donated to Heifer International (one of the founding principals of Eggs of Hope), so we had planned this addition for a while. We’d added a few hens here and there over the past few months, but hadn’t found a true solution until Mary told us she was selling hers. So, calculator in hand, we ran by some different scenarios til we arrived at what we think will be a profitable number of birds. We will have to step things up a bit; get some new customers, announce our new price for a dozen ($3.50 – still a steal!) and work our way up to our new price for Spring of $4 a dozen. At that point we’ll be solidly in the black, and perhaps able to save. Whew.

(Now if only folks wanted piano lessons like they do fresh eggs!)

 

Election Addendum November 10, 2012

Seems an ancient topic only three days after the event, but some thoughts linger in my mind which I’ll express here now, before life swiftly sweeps us into the future and these musings hardly warrant a read-though…

On election night I’d gone to bed shortly after Elihu. I know that the only time I have to myself is after he’s asleep – but I can never last that long to enjoy the window. And that particular night I had a heavy, waiting heart, so going to bed seemed the gentlest and best thing to do. However, I awoke with a start at 11:36 and realized that we’d probably chosen a new president by now, that the waiting was likely over – so I turned on the TV. It had already been on the comedy channel – and so it was through a characteristically heavy-handed bit by my beloved Mr. Colbert that I learned the breaking news. What a lovely way to awaken from my nap… I was relieved, quietly thrilled, and I was laughing. Thank you, Stephen.

While I might have gone directly back to bed to enjoy a sound sleep, I simply could not. I had to stick around and hear from the men themselves. So I did the dishes, I tidied the kitchen, arranged things for the next morning’s breakfast and packed lunches to pass the final hours. I heard Mitt speak first. And was I thrown – for the first time, I could hear the humanity in his voice. Relieved of the campaign, he was, I believe, finally able to represent himself as a person. As he thanked his family, friends and team members I heard genuine gratitude. I was riveted; who was this guy? First I’d seen of him! It wouldn’t have changed my vote – fundamental principals remained – yet it warmed my heart to see him let down a little. I actually liked him in that moment. He was behaving like a real person. ! At the risk of appearing a bit naive and sentimental here, I believe that when he thanked his family, he was speaking from a place of real love, and that is always transformative; it is inherently honest. So now he can go spend some quality time with his five sons and their families (it’s Mrs. R who’s the unsung hero here, I think). Good. Let’s move on.

The following day I heard a few passive-aggressive comments from people whom I took to be Romney supporters. Only long after the moments were gone did I think that maybe it might have been a more powerful choice to call out the elephant in the room – and maybe even have a short, civil chat about the beast. I understand that there’s some steam to be let off from the folks whose candidate lost, but do I need to pretend that I didn’t hear the almost, but not quite under-their-breath remarks on the subject? Am I supposed to – as I did several times – merely chuckle politely and just sort of ‘oh well’ it away? Won’t do so if another such situation arises, but I doubt that it will. It hardly seems there was an election. From a churning ocean to a still pond. Crazy.

Reiterating my sentiment from the previous post, I say again that as humans we all share a few basic goals in life, regardless of race, economic status or gender. I hope that this simple reality might one day bring a certain peace – and balance of representation – between all political parties (and I do mean all; the ballot shows us we have more options than an appetizer menu, but it’s still for all intents and purposes a two-party show). I’d hoped that in the meantime we could treat each other with respect and civility, but it doesn’t look likely. While it’s certainly human to feel anger and disappointment – the way in which you express that is governed by your personal self-control and sense of decency. So far, I’ve only seen rage expressed by Mitt fans. I’ve heard a lot about Obama signs being defaced or stolen (both through the media and in my own neighborhood) – but I have not once heard the same about a Romney sign. I’ve been mulling over this phenomenon, trying to get at the root of the reason, and I’ve arrived at this thought: I feel that this is symptomatic of a larger issue that seems to belong to the Republican mindset: fear. Anger may be the symptom, but fear is its first form. Fear and anger bear some nasty fruit. But where does this fear come from? It grows in an environment absent of love (as well as the tolerance that love engenders). Taking someone’s Obama sign off their front lawn is not an act born of love, ya know? You gotta be pretty angry to go and make that happen. Please understand that I by no means think that all Republicans are fear-based vandalizers – (some of my oldest and dearest friends are Republicans!) however I have never heard of equally hate-inspired acts attributed to Democrats.

To many it may seem simplistic, but I believe that the last vestiges of fear (control, hoard, distrust of others, keep to self, save self and those like me) are living under the wing of the Republican party. I also believe the party represents a mindset that will one day in the not-too-distant future become obsolete. This world cannot thrive and grow into a healthy future with fear-based groups controlling her populations. We see this changing in dramatic ways all over the globe, and while it’s perhaps not as overtly apparent here in the US, we too are morhping slowly into a new culture of love and understanding. Our interconnectedness, our diversity, our shared economically-challenged realities – and our brotherly love for each other as fellow citizens of one planet – these things have finally gotten their foothold in our modern world, and we have begun our journey up and out of the mess we’ve made.

 

O Hope November 5, 2012

While I’d like to avoid this cliche, I just can’t. The most frightening thing I saw on Halloween night was not merely the absence of Obama placards on people’s yards, but the number of Romney ones present. It never crossed my mind for a second – not until Halloween night – that anyone in their right mind would seriously consider voting for him. I liked to joke about it with my mother – there was no way anyone could possibly vote for the guy. No way! I laughed it off, it seemed so impossible. Yet here were all these signs… These were not the homes of the uber-wealthy; what, oh what sort of improved America did they expect under his direction? Did not the sane ‘everyman’ now have the pulpit?? Was not the ‘everyman’ of 2012 indeed a better educated, more enlightened citizen of the world than just a few years ago? To me it seemed nearly every time Mitt opened his mouth he was sealing his fate as the loser by a long shot; he was a handsome buffoon, a billionaire trying to pal up to the very working class folks whose labor he used to help build his empires. The same laborers Mitt would fire if it improved the numbers enjoyed by a privileged few. (He could do it in high spirits, too.) His feelings about women’s issues were archaic (stunningly so) and if nothing else, his very persona gave off the vibe of a slick salesman on the make for his quota, not a civil servant bound to represent his people and relieve them of their hardships. I realize that like every other human, he is fundamentally after the same things as we all are. And I’m sure he doesn’t think he’s a selfish or uncaring guy – quite the contrary, all those years as Bishop in his church couldn’t have been entirely without some real desire to help his fellow humans. But when it comes to removing choices, freedoms and much-needed services from people who don’t think or live as he does – that’s where I believe we’ve got something to be concerned about.

My life changed in 2008. It was the end of all things familiar in my life, and with the election of President Obama it was the symbolic beginning of all things new and possible. Finally, a man of spirit, intelligence and compassion with real, grass-roots ties to the people he represented. Emancipation. Finally. As it was with me too; my husband had come home one night in fall of 2007 and told me he had a girlfriend, she was having a baby, and he was leaving me. Right away. In a strange sort of daze I piloted through the process of culling my treasures, wrapping up my affairs and moving to a new home, very far away. It was in that winter of 2008 that I began to embrace my tiny new home in the country, to come to terms with my new-found poverty, to begin to understand that often some pretty big things have to change to make way for better things yet to come. I have come a long way these past four years. I’ve learned so much, accomplished things far out of my known world, and I’ve begun to create a forward path of my life, a trajectory of yet-to-be-fulfilled projects and goals which I’m certain wait for me just a few paces ahead into my future.

I remember that snowy night when Obama won the election; I stood on my porch facing the lighted sky above nearby Saratoga. At once I heard the great roar of a crowd, and as it ebbed, every now and then I could distinguish an individual shout rising above the rest…. The voices traveled over five miles of forest to find me there, standing alone in the night; moved, changed, almost unbelieving. I felt a surge of hope, a breath of elation. He made it, therefore we made it – and I would too. I just knew that we, as citizens of the planet, had finally stemmed the rising waters of greed and power. We had come into our new intention for the nation, the world. Finally. Finally. Obama’s victory injected hope into my new, unrecognizable life.

Hope is the word tonight, dear friends. Do we not all simply hope for better things yet to come? I don’t enjoy talking about politics with people because I believe as human beings we pretty much all want the same damn things, and really, politics is mostly about the game, and very little about the goal. And since I don’t care to lose friends, create unnecessary tension or to incite anger, I don’t often even open my mouth about it. I don’t believe that I am likely to change whom anyone will vote for. Those opinions run too deep. However, in this eleventh hour my hope is that, like in Horton Hears A Who, just one person here present who might otherwise have stayed home and avoided the whole mess, might find the spirit and resolve to vote, thereby winning the election for Mr. Obama by having raised that tiny, albeit mightily important final voice.

O, I hope.

 

Heartsick November 3, 2012

The girls had hardly slowed their pace to say a final goodbye, so Elihu had run after them as they walked down the sidewalk from school. He put his arms around Cora til she finally hugged him back. Then he’d hugged Sophia before returning to me. There was nothing else to be done. This was their last day at school and now they were going home. Next week they wouldn’t be coming back to school at all because they were moving. I looked down in time to see the corners of Elihu’s mouth turn down in the most acute expression of distress… and I realized he was crying. Sobbing, in fact. An instant, electric sort of sensation shot through me at the sight of it – my son’s heart was breaking for the first time. Tears came to my eyes too; my heart was breaking to know it.

I put my arm around him as we walked. Most times he might have pulled away; he was getting to an age where he found my overt affection embarrassing. But now he leaned into me heavily, weeping quietly. How my own heart hurt at this parting; his grief was equally mine. There was nothing to say. There was simply no point in trying to console him with words, so I just held him tight. After we were in the car I drove a block farther down the street so that we might pass the twins, and he rolled down the window. Usually he’d shout out something in their own private language, but all he could say this time in between sobs was an earnest and final goodbye. Cora stopped walking for a moment and looked up; her smile fell away when she saw him. She raised an arm to wave once more, then turned to catch up with her sister. We let them cross in front of our car, and they were gone.

I didn’t say anything as we drove. Instead I waited for the moments in which I could offer him the most relief. I let him cry, watching his face in the rear view mirror (something which can feel a bit like spying when you’re with a low-vision child as they cannot see you back). This was real, and it was intense. And it wasn’t merely a case of a first heartbreak; the girls had been the first – and only – kids at the new school to get him, or to at least take a real interest in being with him. The three spent nearly all their free time together. “What will it be like without them?” he asked through more tears. “There’s nobody – nobody like them. There’s nobody to replace them”. There was a long space of quiet and sniffling before he spoke again. He was beginning to test out some survival thinking; “Who will be with me now?” he asked, “Who will I have to do things with? Will I be alone again?” As I watched him in the mirror I could see his crying lessen, and I could see him beginning to consider his new future without the twins. His mourning was by no means over, but my spirit brightened to think he might be working to put some hidden, positive spin on the situation.

I too thought about it all – I myself felt there was very little chance he’d find the same magical chemistry elsewhere as he did with the girls – and that it was probably best that we made peace with that. No use over-lamenting the obvious loss. Elihu needed to move gently forward to new relationships that were yet ahead. I was careful not to broach the territory of our family philosophy that “all things happen as they should” too soon in his grieving – because offered at the wrong time it would seem nothing but a stupid, posturing platitude. It might even make him angry. So I held off for a bit, but it wasn’t long before a window appeared where I could successfully present the idea. “And you know,” I added to the reasoning” – this might be the beginning of a whole new chapter between all of us – we might end up learning about a whole new thing through them. They’re just an hour and a half drive away, we can visit them easily! We can camp near them, go mountain climbing…” Now Elihu and I are not particularly outdoorsy types. We love being outside, and with our chickens, we also enjoy an occasional walk through the woods, but we own neither a tent nor a sleeping bag and have never found ourselves inspired to acquire either one. But this might be the universal energy pulling us toward a path we’d otherwise never have considered, right? Perhaps we’ll go up to visit the girls, and in so doing we’ll meet a whole bunch of interesting folks doing interesting things and maybe we’ll end up doing things we’ve never done before… Who knows? I go on for a bit, if not quite believing it, then wanting very much to believe it; I need to sell a happy ending to Elihu. There could be an unexpected and wonderful outcome here, there could be…Yet there is a very small voice within me (in the old days my husband and I would call it my “reality meter”) that tells me this is rubbish, and that if we ever really do go and visit the girls, we’re getting a motel room and making a weekend of it and there’s an end to it. No romance, no destiny, no universe “opening up surprising new opportunities”, certainly no ridiculous camping adventures.

We ride silent for a while. Lots to digest. Not much action to be taken for now, so all we can do is sit quietly as we drive out into the hills on our way back home. I’ve put off getting the mail for a few days (Halloween week the household chores pile up as we rally to get the costume perfect and then stop everything to go on several holiday-related outings) and so I come back from the mail box with a big load. When we pull in the long, leafy driveway we’re greeted by our honking goose Maximus, his head raised as he ascertains whether we are family or visitor. The chickens peck through the fallen leaves, enthusiastically kicking up wet debris behind them, ever searching for tasty bites beneath the litter. They have broken off into several smaller groups, and to watch them walk alongside the car gives us both a lift. There’s no way you can watch chickens doing their thing and not be cheered in some way. It’s one of the joys of having them around. And so our hearts are softened, if not simply distracted, and we hurt a little less. We haven’t arrived at any new strategy, nor fully convinced ourselves that this time there is a cosmic silver lining. But we’re home, it feels good to be here.

As I sit in the car, going through the pile of mail in my lap, I notice a shape in front of me several feet off the ground. I look closer; there is something in the apple tree. I leave the mail on my seat and go to investigate. Elihu, who had never climbed this tree in the four years he’d lived here was now halfway up it, and had ended up on a branch Sophia’d been on just last week. I smiled with pride, he laughed in joy. “So the girls taught ya some tricks after all, huh?” I asked. I could hear his confidence waning just a bit as he asked me how to get down, and I told him that Sophia had jumped from just where he was standing. “Ah – but that’s what the girls would do. Maybe you should -” but before I could suggest he take the careful route back down, he’d jumped from the branch and was standing in the wet grass laughing with satisfaction. Before he’d known the girls he’d never been on a scooter or climbed up a tree. They didn’t coddle him, but they also didn’t leave him in their dust as they easily could have done. They stayed around, just long enough for him to lose his fear. They supported him just by being there. Did they even realize this? I’m not sure they did. Secretly, my mother’s heart sends them a deep message of gratitude across the ether. Thank you so very much, Cora and Sophia, for being such good friends to my son. I will always appreciate it.

They’re off on their own new adventures, and thanks to them, I think my son may be a bit more emboldened to strike off on some new ones of his own. And that seems like a good start to help heal a sick heart.