The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Stress Test September 30, 2013

The last few days I’ve been experiencing a dull, ever-present concern in the back of my mind for the things going on in a hospital room in Chicago. I don’t dwell on it, and I continue to live my life, but I keep wondering… Just how bad are things? How much has the situation improved? Has it improved at all? And more than I should, I worry about my ex. Perhaps now he’s finally beginning to consider the inevitable events of the next few years. Both our parents are getting old, and this is relatively new territory for us – or at least more so for him. I’ve been living close to it, thinking about it, planning for it – doing all that for a few years now, yet Fareed and his folks aren’t the type to discuss such plans. So it makes sense that he might be caught a bit off guard. Hell, I suppose no matter how much planning and discussing one does, it probably always throws one off guard to find your mom has fallen, that your dad has had a stroke, that an emergency has finally happened… There can’t ever be a good time for bad news. But at least it should be talked about, and ahead of time if possible. The Conants have done a good job of that at least. Got the DNRs in place, the health care proxies and such… My ex father-in-law’s heart attack and subsequent surgery are a huge alarm bell that the times are changing. My dad’s thing is so slow moving that it doesn’t have the same effect as a catastrophic event. Sure my dad’s not himself, and if I compare him to what he was like just a few months ago, it can break my heart. But at least he’s moderately healthy, moderately ambulatory. He kinda seems the same on the outside. But shit. Honestly he’s not at all the same as he was, and we all know it.

This stuff is just plain awful., no matter what form it takes. It’s just plain sad. It’s that stuff that you kinda think everybody else goes through, but that somehow, just somehow, you – will not. You, being special and different, are going to manage to sidestep this canyon of heartbreak and fear… somehow, your story will be easier, different… Things will wind up tidily. But hey, even if they do, you still have that matter of death at the end of it all. Maybe there will be no regrets, nothing left unsaid, and a full life left at the right time, but still, it’s there. The end. The end of your parent’s life. Why is it that we just don’t talk about this stuff? Or is it just my families? I hope that with my son – and with families coming up these days – that we will be able to discuss our aging processes with complete ease. Maybe that’s being naive or over simplifying it, but still it’s a hell of a lot more likely that my son and I will not have the problem on the topic that generations before have. I certainly pray not.

I heard good news from Elihu that his grandpa is indeed doing better. Still ‘being  breathed’, but better. I hope they’ve got him doped up pretty good too, cuz it cannot feel too pleasant having a tube like that down one’s gullet. And it looks like they’re getting his lungs clear of liquid too. All much better news. So the knot in my stomach unties just a bit, but not a whole lot. Because I still have items on the list that aren’t going away anytime soon: I have much new music to learn. Music that I need to be able to play to tempo in just a couple of days for my new accompanying post at my son’s school. I hadn’t thought it would be this much of a challenge, really. How hard could a couple of classical pieces be? Hmm. Schumann with his stupid ‘Des Abends’ in D flat, and Mr. Debussy with his etherically beautiful but pesky ‘Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum’…. it’s not so much the key in  this case but the damned tempo that has me concerned… Oh I love my old friend Mr. Bach, and his sons too, and I really have missed using both my brains and my fingers at the same time, but this is a bit much. Lots to bring up to speed while life continues on without pause. A Halloween costume is underway, I must ship a desk to a friend in France, I have a friend’s child coming home with us after school this week to cover a gap in childcare, the chickens await butchering, Elihu and his boat of a bass must get to a lesson tomorrow, and I am down to less than $60 in my checking account. All of it overlapping. Ich. I don’t like the way it feels. I know it won’t always be thus, and that everything that’s happening is on its way to becoming something better, something good and satisfying. Ultimately, things can only get better from this moment on. I think. Maybe not, but hopefully. .. Right?

But what softens the load is the image I see outside of my kitchen window (as I wash dishes for the third friggin time today, sigh). Elihu is dancing through the yellow leaves which cover the ground by the creek, he is jumping over the pond, crossing the small plank bridge, squatting down and reaching, then jumping up, running around to the other side and squatting down once more… He’s on his ‘final tour before torpor’ of the remaining frogs. (Each one he shows me has me a bit concerned; might they not want to hunker down in the mud before it’s too late?) Today he is happy, happy, happy. Finally, NOwhere to be. No errands, no visits, no ‘just next door’s, no visitors, no nothing. Nothing but frogs and chickens, that is. And all to the soundtrack of the aforementioned Debussy and Schumann. Not a bad way to pass a warm, early fall afternoon. I’m happy to have the excuse to play so much music, really, as before this new job I could never – would never – have justified this many hours at the piano when there are so many other necessary things to do, not the least of which is simply to be with my child. But in playing the piano with all of the windows open – as my son runs around the property hither and yon – I am actually with him. He can hear me, and I can see him too. And It’s one of the loveliest ways to pass an afternoon. We’re each doing our thing, each one close to the other. In moments like these, I sometime feel that life can’t get much better- regardless of the stress that’s yet to show up in my week, in my life even.

Elihu would tell you the same. We love being home, doing nothing, and simply being side by side. It makes the rest of it all – commitments, homework, chores, extra life stress – all worthwhile. So let’s all hope that life looks much more peaceful next week this time… Because living in a state of stress has begun to feel like a test of my abilities. And I am not a fan of stress – or tests.

 

Heartfelt September 29, 2013

On days like this I feel bad for both my ex husband and my son that they don’t live closer to each other. My ex’s father suffered a heart attack a few days ago and tonight, post-surgery, he is on a respirator facing a couple of tough days ahead. Two days ago I was surprised to hear so little feeling in Fareed’s voice as he described the situation. Rather, he’d sounded almost as if he was trying to sell me on how bad his father was –  perhaps for the value of the drama itself. Even though he seemed to be trying to convince me things looked bleak, he still didn’t register much emotion as he spoke. And because of my take on it, I don’t think I responded as he would have liked. While I was trying to offer my help, maybe I wasn’t as tender as I should have been. I didn’t react with much emotion as I hadn’t sensed much present in him. Instead I matched facts with facts, words with words; I was trying to be positive and logical, and so chose to put the spin on how things would improve, and how it probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed. After all, Martha made routine visits to the hospital with heart-related problems (ironically she too had been admitted to the hospital just yesterday for more of the same). My mom lived with Afib and I had a friend who’d had a quadruple bypass and yet still both ran and played the trumpet professionally. it just seemed heart trouble was, while frightening, something that could potentially be managed.

After I’d first heard the news, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Fareed might have wished for me to have expressed more concern for his dad. It seemed like he wanted me to get that things were dire – and somehow I sensed that he had wanted more support from me. I took this in and thought about it for a minute. Should I make a point of letting him know I was truly there for him? Or was that even my job at all? I paused, remembering that while a few years ago this would have undeniably been my intensely personal family business, it might not be entirely my affair these days. If he needed deep emotional support, wasn’t that what his wife was for? Maybe Fareed was just fine. No way to know, he offered few clues. I know he was worried, but it didn’t truly register in his voice. And then Elihu, after getting off the phone with his father the other night said in a frustrated tone “he’s not letting me in”. All right. So it wasn’t just me. Ok. So what now?

Just this past hour Fareed called again. This time I heard it. The first real emotion I think I’ve heard in his voice since the day we got married and his voice cracked as he said his vows. I heard it – finally, I heard him. Not a sales pitch, not a list of facts that support some evidence – but real feeling. Not something I think I’ve witnessed too many times in our twenty-plus years together. For as much as we’ve been through, there’s always been a cards-to-the-chest quality about my ex. Same with his dad, too. They’re not much for letting folks in. (Which is ironic, in that as a musician – especially a classical guitar player – you’d think the guy would be full of it.) And Fareed’s dad is a sentimental sap about everything. (When Fareed and I told him we preferred a sweet table to a formal cake for our wedding, his father threw up his hands in profound disappointment and said “No cake? Why bother even getting married?” He had been, apparently, quite sentimental about the role of cake at our wedding.) Fareed’s father has always been very moved – sometimes to tears – by displays of affection, love and matters of family. Yet in spite of it, he seems unable to process gritty, and absolutely honest emotion – not merely sentiment. Once he expressed confusion as to why I chose to move to New York to live next door to my folks. Knowing his strong appreciation for family I thought he’d understand it immediately, but no. He also never understood – or registered in any way – why it was that this split from his son had hurt me so deeply. Both of his reactions (or lack thereof) have always puzzled me. In the same sort of way that Fareed’s words puzzled me just recently. It’s as if the pretense of the emotion and the actual feelings themselves aren’t taking place at the same time. But just now, I felt something different; I actually felt genuine emotion from Fareed. And so did Elihu. Finally. Sorry that it took his dad’s heart attack to get here, but it’s good to know he’s present. I think he’s staying by his dad’s side now, and that too is positive news. I’m sure it helps his dad’s spirit to have his son close by.

So where will things go now? In an instant, grudges and bad tastes leftover from unresolved conflicts seem so much easier to set aside when the prospect of death emerges. There, I said it. Yeah, it seems that the threat of death forces our hands in matters of the heart. The threat of possible death makes us reveal our true fears, hastens us to let go matters of the ego, and helps us to finally express our love to each other. When I heard how serious things were, I did a quick check – had I told Riaz that I loved him when I saw him last? Yes, I had. Also I had made an effort to be present with them and enjoy their company when I visited them this past summer in Chicago. It was Riaz who’d driven me to the train station. Yes, we’d had a very sweet visit and goodbye. Ok. That made me feel better. We’d parted in a loving way. And I knew Elihu’d had a nice long stay with his grandpa this summer too. They had a fish tank together and had spent many hours stocking and enjoying it. So there’d been some good grandpa time recently. I confess I made this inventory partly in preparation for that potential sad ending – the one of course we’re hoping against – but the one I sense Fareed wants to emotionally prepare for in some way. This is his one and only, take-charge, get things done, keeper-of-the-curry-chicken recipe dad. His dad. He and his dad are two peas in a pod. Ok, so maybe two peas that don’t really communicate their deep and true feelings very well, but they are father and son, and so that makes this time a very difficult one. It’s a tricky time for grandson too, as he will not accept a sugar-coated version of his grandpa’s condition and must know where things stand.

And for right now the only place we can stand is all together, waiting, with our hearts wide open, in hopes that grandpa’s own heart will heal itself soon.

 

Michaelmus September 27, 2013

The name ‘Michael’ in this case rhymes with ‘nickel’, and the ‘mas’ sounds just like the one in ‘Christmas’. And there you have the name of a holiday known as the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. In heavenly terms, Michael is the angel who defeated Lucifer in the great battle of heaven, but in more earthly terms it represents the coming of the Fall equinox, and the shortening of days. In the context of the Waldorf school, the story told is that of Michael (here it’s pronounced ‘Mike-ay-EL’) and how he summons his courage to slay the dragon. During the course of their day, on this, the school-wide celebration of Michaelmas, the students find themselves faced with challenges they must overcome; faced with their own personal dragons to slay. A boots-on-the-ground adaptation of the metaphor provided by the legend.

The morning is spent by all twelve grades in the local state park. The home base of the site is located under the generous canopy of a common shelter which sits next to a wide open field, all of which is surrounded by forest. There’s a great deal of variety in elevation throughout the enormous property plus a river running through. All in all, nature is well represented in this place. In the first few hours of of their day, the children wind their way through the woods from station to station, solving riddles, creating solutions to problems and performing various physical challenges. Each team is lead by an eighth grader who carries a staff that represents the group. Upon completion of each challenge, they’re given a pennant to fly from the staff. A few hours later, when they emerge from the woods, their group’s staff is flying a colorful assortment of banners from the stations whose challenges they met successfully. The kids are in obvious good cheer by this time (and as I came to learn later on, my own son was enjoying a deep sense of pride in his accomplishments as they returned to the shelter).

The events of the day, as I understand, are created to help foster self-reliance in the children as well as encourage them to work together as teams. Both seem to have been done very well. Kudos to the amazing, talented and loving teachers and administrators of this Waldorf school, for they pull off feats in education and personal inspiration few can. That they make their teachings so alive, so real – and that their work is just so infused with love and genuine respect for all the kids involved – it all just blows my mind (and especially in this day and age – and in this country as well). Can’t say enough about this magical school. I know one kid whose life will never be the same on account of it. !

late Sept 2013 123Here’s the dragon that started it all!

late Sept 2013 125And the twelfth grade, post dragon-slaying skit, complete with St. Michael riding a real horse!

late Sept 2013 136The kids have just returned from their quests

late Sept 2013 031The high school kids remained behind to cook vegetable soup and set the tables

late Sept 2013 064the high schoolers serve the littler ones

late Sept 2013 086groups eat at tables marked by their staffs

late Sept 2013 074Hi Sadie!

late Sept 2013 156Hunter on Hyrum’s back

late Sept 2013 104Elihu visits Lucy in the ‘pit orchestra’. She and I made sound effects for the slaying of the dragon skit. Fun.

late Sept 2013 107A

Lucy’s been playing piano for this school for a long, long time. She’s finally leaving, and I’m taking her place. Phew – lots of new music to learn. And I hate to see her go! Such a sweetie.

late Sept 2013 115A peek at St. Michael on the horse.

late Sept 2013 110Gathering after lunch for songs and then games

late Sept 2013 101Fifth grader Fiona (and her cucumber named Bob) with her first grade buddy. This school uses a really wonderful system of pairing up an older kid with a younger one. Last year Elihu was the younger one, but now, in fifth grade, it’s his turn to be a mentor. This should be in place in every single school. Magical things happen when a little kid gets the attention of a big one, and I can tell you a big kid really makes a bolder step into him/herself when she’s all of a sudden the role model for someone small.

late Sept 2013 177I shoulda known I wouldn’t get a ‘nice’ picture out of these goofburgers. !

late Sept 2013 169Ah, but thanks to one of the fifth graders for taking this nice mom and son shot.

A wonderful Michaelmus was had by one and all.

 

Connected September 25, 2013

Elihu’d been asking me frequently over the past few days if I was unusually stressed. It was easy for me to think I lived in my own world, my thoughts entirely private and unnoticeable as I marched forward through my days… In the car, driving us here, there and all points in between, running out to tend to the chickens, standing at the counter making supper, and then not long after standing at the sink washing dishes, even later on in the evening sitting at the piano, concentrating on the page before me. True, we spent a lot of time together, but these days, I agreed with his observation that we’d gotten suddenly very busy – and we hadn’t been living together as much as we had been living side by side. My focus was seldom on him, but more on the task at hand. We were now at the end of our day and enjoying a quiet moment’s conversation before bedtime. We’d been so busy doing, doing, doing…. but yet we hadn’t checked in with each other in a while. We ‘needed to connect’, he’d said to me quietly. “Mommy, please tell me, are you stressed these days?” I stopped, turned to face him, looked straight into his eyes, and gave him my full attention as I answered his question.

Yes, I admitted to being stressed these days. There was a lot of new music to learn for the fall, there were other classes to prepare for and students too, plus the never-ending list of farm and home-related work. There was a new string bass to move around now, and lessons to pay for. Doctors appointments and house repairs. Grandparents that continued to age and change. While there’d never been an absence of things to think about and plan for here at the Hillhouse, this recent spell was indeed a bit heavier than many. So yes, I was stressed. He too admitted to being a bit pooped with our non-stop life. There was a moment of quiet. It was not quite 7 pm, and we were attempting an early bedtime in order to catch up. I’d already read to him from the current favorite book about a pair of wild Golden Eagles. But tonite it hadn’t done the trick. Elihu was still just as wide awake as moments before.  And he felt needy as I put the book away and then moved in to kiss his cheek and leave. He pulled me back down with his still-small arms and asked me to stay for a bit. Oh well. Ok. Things – all those stupid things on my never-ending list – they can wait. They can. Elihu needed me, and I probably needed him too. So I stayed, and we talked by the hallway light that streamed in through his half-closed bedroom door.

Elihu asked me about the House Cafe, and for me to tell him what was going on with it now. He asked me why daddy doesn’t just sell it. I explained that he had too much invested to let it go. Kinda like us and our chickens. Kinda. I could tell that sleep wasn’t coming any time soon, and both of us had a head full of concerns and queries…. so I let him continue. “If you and daddy had never bought it, would I have been a city boy? Would I have been living in Evanston and playing video games and going to a regular school? I nodded. “Pretty good chance of that.” We sat in silence for a moment and took that in. I began to remind him – to remind us both, really – of all the things we’d have known nothing about had we not come here to this place…. “No homing pigeons. No geese. No garden. No chickens, eggs, butchering. No Jonah, no Phoenix, no Ms. Reid… no Waldorf. You wouldn’t be playing recorder, or knitting, or playing string bass… singing in rounds, bringing fresh baked bread in for lunch, playing your djembe on the street… everything would have been different. Maybe all of it would have been just fine, but certainly very different.” I looked into his face with a slight smile for emphasis. “So. Do you think you’re doin ok here?” I ask him gently. He smiles. He tells me yeah, he knows he is. I probably don’t need to go on, but I do. “I know it’s still not the same without having your daddy actually live with us, and you know I’m really sorry about that, but in the end, there’s just so much that factors into it. I dunno, it’s kinda like I just can’t even consider regretting it. Cuz it’s how it is.”

Without a second’s pause, he asks me “So are you happy?” He was sincere, and his face waited for my appraisal of things. He wanted to know. Heck, I wanted to know! Yeah, so, was I happy? I can’t deny I feel stress sometimes, but hmm… I did a little scan of my feelings. I was surprised to feel the confidence, the lack of hesitation in my answer. “Yes. Yes, I would definitely say that I am happy!”I answered him, smiling wide and true. But then I looked at my knobby fingers which are just this past month beginning to hurt in earnest. “But I’m also kinda bummed that just when I am feeling so good about things that these start popping up. And the sad thing is, they’ll probably never go back to the way they used to be even just a month ago”. Elihu takes my largest, most arthritic finger in his cool thin hands and gently kisses it. “Never say that, Mommy. Say ‘they will be better, and they are better now and I can feel how well they’re working…” he is not joking, not being ironic, sarcastic or clever. My son is coaching me to employ a little more loving and positive ‘self-talk’. Oh how I wish I could share his hope, but I fear that I must find a way to incorporate this new mild handicap into my life and hope that before long it just blends into the landscape. Least that’s what I tell myself for now. Ok, so it’s a stressor, to be sure. But it’s not the larger point here. What is rather remarkable, is that Elihu has had me realize something that I wasn’t quite sure I even believed myself! Don’t think I’d ever really committed to the feeling of being happy with my life.  I was happy with my life. Forgetting the fingers for the moment, my quick internal assessment confirmed it once again. Yup. I loved our life. Wow. We both waited in the darkness for a minute, each of us recounting past adventures and feeling proud of all we’d learned. Yeah, there was no point to worry about what we might have been if we’d never come here. Obviously, that was not the future that served us best. This was.

I sometimes wonder how it is that I can accurately convey the nature and nuance of the relationship exists between Elihu and me. Adults caution parents – and especially single parents – not to treat their children as peers – as their buddies. But I’m not so sure I’m completely down with that approach. My son still knows I’m mom, and certain things are ok, certain things aren’t. There’s not a lot of protestation, because I feel I have a fairly intelligent, loving and well-reasoned kid. For the most part he accepts the few rules I lay down. To be truthful, a single child in a one parent household is going to have a different sort of relationship with the parent he or she lives with. It’s going to be unique. It’s going to be what it is. And in our case, our relationship, if I may borrow from the current vernacular of the fifth grade boys, is awesome. It’s all good. Even the bad. And thankfully, these days there’s not a whole lot of that. Thanks to my beautiful boy for checking in with me and reminding me of what’s important.

Staying connected like that helps remind us how good things are.

 

The House Cafe September 21, 2013

It was a time in which I learned an awful lot, and it seemed everything was happening all at once. It was a time which, while an important chapter in the course of my life, would not be one I’d ever care to repeat. I had three things weighing heavy on my heart: first was my son. Each day I’d drop off my special-needs, vision-impaired son at daycare and would remain in a state of low-grade guilt and discomfort all day as a result. I would rather have been with him, but it just wasn’t possible as now I had a new full-time job, item number two on the list…. I was the owner and manager of The House Cafe. While more my husband’s dream than mine, he already had a full-time job, so this role became mine. Truly, it was no mere coffee shop, rather it was a restaurant and a nightclub. Live music six days a week, a liquor license, food to order, store, inventory and prepare – and college-aged employees to get most of it done. And then there was item number three: my marriage. A union of over twenty years that was fast dissolving into thin air right before my eyes. It was profoundly frightening, Each day I felt as if I were walking through a horrible, waking dream, yet I had absolutely no time to deal with it. I was so busy, in fact, that most times I told myself it was just the stress of the job; things were just temporarily off course. One day things would be back the way they’d been. That’s what I had to tell myself in order to get though. I had left my familiar and beloved life behind in Evanston and had hit the ground in Dekalb running at breakneck speed, but it was still my greatest hope that a peaceful family life lay somewhere ahead.

Having just set this up as a rather dark piece about a difficult time and a challenging job, let me now elaborate a bit upon what it was that made this experience so rich. As I once wrote – in my very first piece ever on this blog – I experienced a range of events in working at The House Cafe that I might have expected from a decade of management, not a mere two years. Some were terrible to live through, and some were very rewarding. Employees were for the most part intelligent kids with humor and good sense (not all of them, but most) and I loved to know that we ran a place that was comfortable and inviting. That it was a place in our small town where folks of all types could meet and hang. We had a toy box and couches, rotating installations of local art on the walls, we had a bright area up front, and cozy dark booths in back. Even four bathrooms. During the daytimes it was moms and tots and students studying, by afternoon it was the bands loading in. The place radically changed character at night – and frankly, as a mom to a little one, I wasn’t able to enjoy the shows too often. Sometimes I wouldn’t really want to; when the kids lined up around the block and down the hill I knew we’d be in for a heavy-hitting night. More than once I’d have to pack tiny Elihu in the minivan and stop by the club to tell the booking guy he had to close the doors. I know it was tempting for him (cuz he got paid by the head count) and it was tempting for me too to want that extra income – but we just couldn’t go over capacity. But as a business, you gotta admit that’s a pretty good problem to have!

I remember young Elihu – at the age of just four – helping me test mics before a show. They were clearly numbered, and he certainly knew his numbers, and he felt quite comfortable picking up a mic and speaking into it… so one by one we’d make our way across the board getting things ready. It was a large room, and in the evenings could be quite dark and cozy, so he was able to run around free from his usual super-dark sunglasses as I finished preparing for the night. Checking the sandwich line, the stock up front, the state of the green room downstairs. By no means did I run the place as well and thoroughly as I would have liked, but I feel I muddled through as best I could in my situation. Thankfully I’d had years of experience waitressing  and playing clubs, so that helped. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being stolen from by employees, by being yelled at by employees, by being told by the health department that I had to make improvements which I had no money to make, or learning I hadn’t enough money on hand to pay the musicians (this is the last thing I should ever want to do to a fellow musician!). Or finding that I needed to keep an inventory of every last thing in my storage closet lest my toilet paper mysteriously disappear. Or that pictures would be stolen off of walls, furniture would be broken, expensive microphones would routinely walk off and vomit would end up in the bathroom hallway at least once a week…

Of several memories, there is one I particularly like to recall. I’d been up front one late afternoon, working with the baristas, making coffees and sandwiches for a busy house, and had begun to make the rounds with a large plastic tub, bussing the tables. A local Dixieland band was playing, as they did one Sunday of each month. We’d just made it through the lunch rush and now things were settling down. I was in the zone of cleaning up – finding my groove and feeling good about a happy, successful day. I was lost in my thoughts, but was awakened from them when I’d heard my name spoken. I looked up, and saw that I was being called from the stage to join the band for a song. It was a Cinderella moment as I set down my load of dirty dishes, took off my apron to reveal a dress beneath, then pulled the pencil out of my udpdo and swung my hair loose. I walked up to the stage (a nice, raised stage complete with lights and a real grand piano – the one that now sits in my living room) and with only a couple of quarter notes to spare, started singing. Life at The House was seldom as picture-perfect as that moment, but it’s a nice one to have that one in the memory archives.

While I didn’t do the booking myself, I could – and did – suggest bands to have play. Sometimes I got em, and those too were happy events. It was enjoyable to now be the host rather than the guest, and to make performers feel at ease, taken care of. I myself made an effort not to engage with them too much, because for me as a performer I’d always wished for more space. And with my ex and other folks through the years I’d seen the relentless, in-your-face sort of presence that fans had. I know it goes with the territory, but I still thought it was important to make privacy available. When I was present, I think I did ok. But even though I was in that office from 9 to 5 each and every workday – weekends too – I didn’t have much of a presence in the place as a nightclub, as I was at home being mom. In hindsight, I think it all worked out. Wasn’t exactly as I would’ve liked, but it was ok. Like I said, I learned a lot.

After about two years though, I was reaching the end of my rope. I had wanted to turn my attention back to family matters, and I began to think about finding someone to replace me. But who? The universe must have felt my plea, for one day the phone rang. It was a woman who was just cold-calling us to see if we had work. She had lots of experience as manager of a coffee shop, and she lived in the area. And she was done with her last job, as in done. Like me, she’d had it and was seeking out something new. Strangely, I had time in my day, and she was only miles away, driving towards the place as we spoke. Within minutes she entered the office, within an hour I had a new manager. Within six months she owned the business. Finally, I was free. Jan was an angel to me at that time; she arrived just when I needed her, and she continued to not only run the Cafe in the same spirit as before, but she improved on it, making it into a Midwestern mecca for the college and patchouli crowds. Perfect. Even my twenty-something year old schefflera plant – now a good ten feet tall – stayed on to live and thrive in the Cafe. I made my exit feeling very good about The House Cafe’s future prospects.

Now, after some five years of Jan’s ownership, she too is wanting to move on. She, like me, is a single mom of a young boy (I think she even has chickens!) and I can’t blame her for wanting out. Running the place is a way of life. And for the most part, running a locally loved, well-established meeting place for the community can be very rewarding. Yeah, it feels really good to welcome regulars and get into a daily rhythm. When things are in place, it’s a good place to be. But no one can stay in one place forever, and so now The House Cafe of Dekalb is on the verge of yet another change. Jan’s leaving at the end of October, and the future of the place is very much in question. As I signed off on all aspects of ownership in the process of my divorce, I don’t know the particulars anymore. But I do know that this is a beloved landmark of that community, and I have my own personal hopes that another angel arrives just in time to save it.

The House Cafe Dekalb

The House Cafe of Dekalb, Illinois

 

Bounty September 20, 2013

“This should be worth a short blog post, don’t you think?” Elihu asked me, as we unloaded the take from our garden, my apron full of apples, beans, watermelon and cucumbers. “Just a short paragraph, ya know? Not a big, long post. Just a quick picture and a paragraph.” I agreed, even knowing that ‘just a short post’ – let alone with photographs – would represent almost an hour’s work. But the spirit of our afternoon had been so lovely, that I had to honor his request.

We’d just walked the perimeter of our property, something we do far too infrequently. We were both newly impressed with the variety of views, elevations and features of the place, and once again felt doubly blessed to be here. We really do live on a stunning piece of property here. The change in grade alone makes for a very picturesque walk; from a peek to the distant Saratoga Lake to the image of our house high atop our hill and far above our heads  – it’a an impressive span of micro environments. There are the woods and the pockets of field in between, the apple and pear trees, the garden and even the last tier of lawn below. We concluded our circumnavigation of the place in our garden, and did a thorough inventory and picking while there. Personally, I was fairly disappointed with our success – or lack thereof – however Elihu was just beaming. “I’m proud,” he said, hands on his hips, surveying the garden and wandering flock beyond, “just look at all we’ve done. And tonight, we’re going to eat only food we know.” He paused. “I feel very proud right now.” Although my final inspection of the corn showed some insect infiltration and not exactly the yield I’d anticipated, I thought back on our past summer suppers. I had to agree with him. If nothing else, it just plain felt good to look out on all of it and know that it was something we’d created ourselves.

“You gotta take a picture of this” Elihu said as he spread our take out on the island. So I did. He couldn’t stop raving about the apples – he counted 72! – and how beautiful they all were (the pears were too high for his reach.) I promised that I’d not only bake fresh bread, cook lamb from local friends at “Elihu Farm” as well as serve up our beans and cucumber with dinner, but I’d make some apple pies too. I made dough for two pies and two loaves of bread. As I write, the house is slowly filling with the scent of baking apples and cinnamon. The lamb was delicious beyond our expectation, and right now we’re both feeling pretty good about life.

Here are a couple of pics from the last few days. Such bounty in our lives…

Bounty Sept 2013 030Elihu’s very first bass lesson. He was in heaven!

Bounty Sept 2013 042He must show grandpa and grandma right away…

Bounty Sept 2013 048So into it…

Bounty Sept 2013 014We spent almost an hour watching this Great Blue Heron on a local pond. Had to use both the binoculars and the camera’s zoom to get a pic… Elihu was simply enthralled. He was in love with this bird, this woods, the ducks and fish, this pond…. he was in love with all of the world in that moment. Couldn’t stop telling me so.

Bounty Sept 2013 062We’re announcing to our extended family of egg customers that we need to say good bye for the winter…

Bounty Sept 2013 054And finally… here is the bounty which so inspired Elihu to create this post. Amen.

 

Culling for Fall September 18, 2013

Can no longer justify feeding all these dead ends. While we’ve meant to get to this butchering business several times already this year, it’s finally getting to the point where pure necessity is forcing my hand. I have to start saving for Christmas, I have a Halloween costume to make (in spite of being handmade it always sets me back at least a hundred dollars) and in the wake of my new employment, ironically it’s costing me a lot more just to keep the two of us fed, as food stamps have been cut by more than a half as a result of the new income. At this point we could truly use those birds in our freezer and not in the coop. Our three year old hens, while they’ve survived many raccoon attacks and have been with us through nearly our entire journey of chicken-raising, must finally go. They lay only intermittently, yet they continue to eat. And poop. And I am done. Even Shirley Nelson, our lone Araucana and occasional mint-green egg layer, is doomed to the freezer.

In the past we’ve taken our birds to Ben Shaw, a local Amish guy who butchers chickens (‘process’ is the world he chooses to describe the task), and he charges four bucks a bird – plus he charges extra to quarter them or reserve the giblets. That’s a lot of money when you add in the gas and factor in all that feed through the years. I know I’m not coming out ahead here, but I want to mitigate my losses at the very least, and paying upwards of $4 a bird feels a bit much. And we’ve come so far at this point; we need to make it to the ultimate end product here. There can be no denying it: we need to butcher our own. But exactly how? I know what it involves, I’ve been there at the butchering of our flocks in the past, but it takes a good bit of infrastructure to get the job done, and certainly I’ll need another adult present who’s had some experience in the matter. But who? I do some asking around at Waldorf and come up with a couple of options.

One is a guy some thirty miles away who has a real chicken farm. Just so happens he’s butchering this Friday. And if I’ll help him on the line for the day, he’ll let me use his setup to do my own birds. Only catch is, he’s in business to actually make a living; he won’t be able to help me with my twenty-something birds. He warns me that we’ll start in around eight in the morning and won’t be done with his birds till around two. He doesn’t say so exactly, but I can read his message. I should be ready. I’ve got a lot of birds, and while he’ll make his gear available to me, it’s a lot of work for one person. Plus I’ll need to bring my own knives. ! I’m not quite sure about this. Looks like a great opportunity for learning, but not so sure it’ll help me with my goal. I thank him, tell him I may or may not see him on Friday, and I hang up hoping for another solution. I contact a local farm that endeavors to help new farmers learn the art of butchering. But they’re a seasonal operation, and they’re not up and running now. I’m beginning to despair, so I rack my brain just a little bit more.

Then I remember Chuckie Arnold, the local farmer here in Greenfield. He’s a real-life hero in my son’s eyes, and I believe that Chuck himself is fond of Elihu. I have a memory of Elihu when he was a tiny five year old, his arms full of Mr. Roosevelt, our very large New Hampshire red rooster – literally half his own size – walking across the field to show him off to Chuck who was in the middle of haying. Chuck stopped the tractor, turned off the motor and stepped down off the machine to see the bird. Elihu was thrilled to have the audience of a real farmer. Chuck is not one for showing emotion, he speaks very little and his face is a hard read. But instantly I could see him soften as he put a hand out to pat the top of Elihu’s head. In that moment, I swear that he recognized a kindred soul in my son. From then on we’ve run into him at the feed store and around town, and he’s always been kind. At least as kind as an anti-social farm type might hope to be. So this morning, fed up with my prospects, I drove to his farm. I tried not to overwhelm him with my questions, I tried not to talk too fast, too excitedly, I tried to be as much the farmer peer as I could. But I felt him begin to withdraw under the interview, and I noticed that he never once met my eyes. He fiddled with a scratch on his truck, he shuffled his boots in the gravel. He didn’t look very encouraging, yet out of nowhere he just said “I’ll help you out.” ?? Wait, did he just offer to help? What did he mean exactly? I asked him. And not to push things, but just when was it that he thought he could? “Gotta get the corn in first.” he said, still looking at the ground. “It’s supposed to rain.” Wow, this guy really meant it. He was going to help me butcher my chickens! A thankless, messy job that required an investment of honest-to-goodness labor; a true gift of this busy man’s time. But how to proceed from here? I wasn’t sure how he’d contact me – did he even know my last name? He knew where I lived – it’s a small town, one knows these things – but was I to expect him to call? Just show up one day after he’d gotten his corn in? He probably knew me well enough by now to figure I’d get back to him. So I simply thanked him, as he’d already turned to head back to the barn, and I said no more.

On the way home I imagined the scene… Our lone traffic cone nailed upside down on the giant beech. Would the blood permanently stain our beloved tree? Would the blood also stain my favorite yellow marine-turned-farm boots? Just what would I wear? Did I need an apron? And what about knives? I wasn’t sure I had anything near sharp enough. I tried to imagine the act itself, the birds themselves. It’s one thing to hand off your bird and turn away as the deed is done, it’s another to take the knife to the throat. And I must be swift and effective – good Lord the last thing I want is a half-dead bird. I love these girls – our whole goal is to give them happy lives and a humane and quick dispatch. I had to have some technique! And it’s one thing to practice giving your kid a haircut – it’ll grow out – but to make a mistake here… it was unthinkable. ‘Get a hold of yourself – don’t anthropomorphize these stupid birds’, I remind myself. But still, the image of bearded Shirley Nelson, upside down in a cone is hard on me. I try to imagine that place from which I must act; the economic necessity and compassion I must keep firm in my heart. I try to recall that feeling I’d had once at the Amish farmer’s – I’d once begun to visualize doing it myself; I’d watched each and every one of our birds as their heads were pulled back and their throats were slit – I’d watched as their legs kicked and the blood drained from their small bodies. I remembered the smell, that irony smell of the blood, that strange and specific sort of smell to the whole operation…. As difficult as it was to face the process, I was strengthened by my resolve – assisted energetically by my small son’s own conviction – to honor their lives by seeing to it that they died quickly, efficiently. Plus I’ve always just felt that if I am to eat, I should I take responsibility, as I’m able, for what it is that I eat. If I can’t truly earn it, at the very least I can participate to the best of my ability in a respectful way. Same goes for vegetables, for milk, for eggs… I need to acknowledge where it is my food comes from. I cannot turn a blind eye, pretending that it all comes magically, without labor, sweat… and death. It’s been my goal and that of my son’s to participate in the witness of our food. If we can’t make it ourselves, we both feel that we need to be mindful of the process. It’s the very least we can do for the bounty this world provides us. Most folks are not lucky enough to be given this honor. But we’re lucky enough to have this rare opportunity, so we feel we must avail ourselves of it.

But after mulling it over a bit, I just can’t accept his offer. I’m not sure he was even considering it through to its completion. Propane stoves, huge buckets of water, gutting tables and knives, time and mess… I wonder what inspired him to offer his help, and I wonder how I can turn it down but still show my sincerest appreciation? And if I do turn him down, what then? I remember a Facebook message from my neighbor the other day. I know she’s not really down with this butchering thing, but she’d said something about her gals not laying anymore. About maybe putting them in the ‘deep freeze’. Now she’s not one for this sort of stuff – cuz she loves her birds – but her husband and her father-in-law just might be. So I called her. Suggested we pool our birds – that I take em all out to Ben’s. Or maybe…. maybe Zac and Phil might consider doing em in? Phil grew up on a chicken farm, and the father and son duo had butchered flocks in the past. Though both were currently out of town, she said she’d run it by them soon. We hadn’t settled on it at the end of our conversation, but it seemed possible they might be the men for the job.

Over dinner Elihu and I discussed it. We both felt like we didn’t know Chuck well enough to make such a request of him. We also both felt a bit more comfortable with Zac and Phil. “They kinda feel more like uncles, ya know?” Elihu suggested. “Like they’re kinda family.” He paused for a bit as he thought about it.  “I think I’d feel better going with them.” I knew that we were both feeling the need for some emotional support here. And while Chuck would certainly offer us a good education, I could tell we were each feeling the silent, unexpressed need for a bit of tenderness, a bit of familiarity to ease us into the process. Elihu was ahead of me, for sure, but still I could sense he’d appreciate the help of neighbors over the stern-faced farmer. We didn’t talk about it again. Instead we talked a bit about his bass, about orchestra and the need for a rubber stop at the end of his instrument’s end pin. We talked about Central America, about his wanting to go to Pategonia, about the islands just east of New Zealand and puffin studies in Maine. Soon he got into bed and I read to him a story of a mysterious, fast-growing cat.

His bedtime book may have presented us with a mystery, but there is no mystery here in the case of our chickens who continue to eat but have long since ceased to be fast-growing. There is no mystery in what comes next. There is only the hard fact before us: the seasons are changing, our freezer is empty, and we cannot keep some forty-odd birds over the winter as pets alone. They must earn their keep. It’s either eggs or soup.

As the trees let go of their leaves for fall, so too must we cull our flock in order to prepare for the cold months ahead.