The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Poised for Flight February 9, 2021

It’s a good thing that pregnancy lasts nine months. One needs that sort of time to mentally prepare for what’s coming. At least as best one can prepare for that sort of life-changing event. (I was in labor and pushing and still had no real concept that in a short while I’d have a real-live person to take care of.) And it’s a good thing that it takes a child some seventeen years to reach the point at which they can (somewhat) safely leave home under their own steam. Good for that too – cuz it takes that long to wrap one’s head around the idea of your tiny child actually becoming an adult.

This is the last year that Elihu will live with me, and so every experience from here on in becomes for me our ‘last time’. And lately I find I am constantly trying to understand how we got here so soon. There is a saying about childhood which is so true that it takes on a painful poignancy for me these days: the days are long, but the years are short. Indeed.

How is it that I can recall my son’s tender years as if they were still happening today? It feels as if tomorrow we might return to the things we did routinely for so many years. We will surely spend another weekend making towers from toy blocks, won’t we? We will most certainly drive down a country road on a rainy summer night and fill a bucket with frogs, won’t we? No, I don’t think we will. There is no time now for block towers and summertime frogs. There are airplanes to build, videos to produce, new languages to learn. There are college interviews and performances to prepare for. There are school projects and homework. Every day there are things that require hours of Elihu’s focus. There’s no time to spare at this point in his life.

Wistful as I am to recall all that was and all that will never be again, I take comfort in knowing that the childhood which I provided for my son (most of which is thankfully documented here in this blog) has helped to make him the successful and enthusiastic young man he is now. He has become an intriguing mix of Elon Musk and Henry David Thoreau. Not only does he thrill to aviation, physics and science-related thought, but he is deeply in tune with nature; he hears and knows all the birds of our region, he observes all the animals of the woods and those who visit our homestead and knows their behaviors well, and he also sketches them and writes about his time spent alone in the woods with great sensitivity and skill. He studies markets and investing and takes a great interest in learning how businesses operate. He is convinced that it’s a good idea to learn Chinese at this time in history, and so over the past year he has taught himself how to speak simple sentences as well as write many characters (he’s studying Japanese too; the similarities and contrasts fascinate him). The life that lays before him is a grand panorama of possibilities.

Every day he tells me that there’s not enough time to get it all done. Me, I’m prone to a constant mild state of depression, and somedays (many days, actually) it’s a challenge for me even to arise from bed. “Doesn’t it ever overwhelm you?” I ask, seeking out his weakness, for surely he must have one… “Never” he’ll always answer. (His father is an extremely driven fellow; here is a likely case for nature over nurture. True, I gave my child many gifts, but perhaps this heightened go-get-em attitude isn’t one of them). Lest I downplay my own positive energetic influence on the kid, I offer this anecdote: recently he suggested we take on a project, and I told him I wasn’t sure, as it seemed terribly idealistic, to which he responded “Tell me when we have ever failed at doing something which at first seemed too idealistic”. Come to think of it, he might be right. Although I’m losing a bit of steam these days, on the whole I’ve been a fairly driven mom. The two of us have shared a life unlike many others. And so I concur. We are pretty good at getting our hands on idealistic goals. So. There can be no regrets. This time of letting go and moving on is just as it should be.

This past fall Elihu and I shared a rite of passage which had been a long time coming here at the Hillhouse. Several years ago we’d begun to have our chickens (or as we simply say ‘birds’) butchered by a local Amish family, inspired by an observation my son had shared with me. One day, when Elihu was around eight, he suggested that we eat our birds. I admit, the thought had occurred to me, but it just seemed, at that point, too real. I would rather not have acquainted myself with the realities of butchering and eating one’s own chickens. At its essence, the act of raising chickens was still a gentle, romantic effort to make myself feel more like a ‘real’ country girl. Kind of an exercise in achieving rural street cred. Collecting and selling eggs was enjoyable, and everyone found it charming. Leave it to my contemplative son to burst my bubble and throw down the gauntlet. “If we raise chickens and we don’t eat them, then having them is an act of vanity”, the boy had said to me. Man. This kid went right to it, didn’t he? And so, from then on, in the first week of school each year, when the air had just begun to turn crisp and cool in earnest, we’d arise early one morning, box up all the young roos, load them into the car (more than one rooster is not necessary to keep the flock going, plus they don’t lay eggs – and they fight) and we’d drive them to the Amish butcher, returning home with a cooler full of farm-raised chicken.

We’d always known that this chicken-raising chapter would come to a close, and most likely that would be when Elihu left for college. I certainly enjoy the lovely energy they impart to our homestead, and I’ll probably have them around for a few years yet until they succumb to old age or the resident predators, but we won’t be stocking the incubator each spring as we have for the past decade. This past year we got a bit over-ambitious and raised up some forty birds – twice again as many as in past years – and so by summer’s end we were left with eighteen extra roos who needed ‘doing in’. In that our regular Amish farmer friend had packed up his wife and fourteen kids and headed for Alaska, we needed to find someone new to ‘process’ (the euphemism used in polite conversation for killing, eviscerating and cleaning) our birds. I was having no luck until I found a fellow in mid-state New York. A good five hours round trip. I didn’t relish the cost in time and money making the cross-state drive, but I still wasn’t emotionally ready to step up. Naw – it was a nice idea at heart, and it certainly would be a good skill to have under my belt – but I just couldn’t do that. I didn’t have it in me to drag a blade across a chicken’s neck. So I felt a good deal of relief to have found these folks. Realizing I’d hit up another Amish family, when I thanked them I added that it had been ‘such a blessing’ to have found them. But shortly thereafter I misplaced the scrap of paper on which I’d written their phone number. Having called from my landline, with no stored records of recently made calls, it seemed more than daunting to try and find these people again. I gradually came to understand that our plans might have to change yet again. Boy, did they change. And at the end of the whole adventure, I realized that the true blessing had been in my losing that piece of paper. We were forced to face our final farming frontier.

We had visited a local farmer in a last-ditch effort to hand off the dirty work to someone else, but it was he who convinced us that we should just do it ourselves; it wasn’t that hard, and we’d feel really proud of ourselves when we were through. In his deep Greenfield country accent he proceeded to tell us the little tricks we might not learn elsewhere. He repeated the steps over and over before lending us his metal cone. We would affix it to a tree, invert the birds, pull their heads down through the hole at the bottom, and slice their necks. Of course, this was just one part of a longer and still messier process, but it was certainly the most daunting from where we stood. A deeply cold weekend passed, and Elihu and I bailed. We went to return the unused cone to the farmer, and he looked disappointed in us. He turned to walk away and said “do as you please”. Elihu and I paused, and looked at each other. We both knew. It was clear that we needed to step up. Assured that the farmer wouldn’t yet be using his cone until he dispatched with his turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, we re-borrowed it and headed back down the country road, this time both of us steeling ourselves for the task at hand for which we still weren’t convinced we were ready.

But somehow, we were. We watched many videos, we practiced holding our birds, inverting them, calming them… We practiced dragging a backwards butter knife across the correct spot, just under the ears, so as to have some muscle memory to guide us when our hearts were beating and our adrenaline pumping. And there was a lot of setup involved. We needed tables, buckets of cool water to clean blades, ice water to hold cleaned birds, hot water to scald, knives to butcher (carve out and clean), knife sharpeners to keep the process efficient and of course, the blades themselves with which to kill. I went to a restaurant supply house to get the sharpest knives to afford the swiftest and most humane dispatch. I also ordered metal gloves for us – there could be no error when it came to our safety! Having lost a chunk of my eyeball only a few months earlier (and also having been encouraged by a friend who’s an attorney with an appreciation for injury and the need for risk mitigation) we knew that this was serious and that we had to use the proper equipment. We did everything as right as possible. We cut no corners. But we did cut chickens’ necks.

I did the first two; although Elihu had truly exhibited a robust and manly attitude of doing this with confidence and ease and starting the process out himself, when it came down to it, he just couldn’t go first. But it kinda made better sense for me to go first, as I, being the resident chef, was the one with better knife skills when it came to cutting meat. That first kill takes a lot of mental fortitude, I can tell you. But the efficacy of the dispatch is made possible by the compassion which you hold for this creature; firstly, you are deeply grateful for the bird giving its life, and secondly, you do not wish to cause any more stress and pain than absolutely necessary. All this motivates your successful and swift actions. After our first kills, Elihu and I were both shaking with adrenaline. It is a violent act, of this there can be no doubt. But as with anything one does, the first time is the most foreign, it is the hardest. The killing does become easier. (Lest I appear to be patting ourselves on the back too much, I wish to add that only a few generations ago every grandma across the globe was routinely grabbing a hen from the yard and doing it in for the family meal without a second’s pause. Fully aware of this, it’s partly what kicked us in the butt to finally do this for ourselves).

After two long days of butchering and processing (it’s a lot more work than you’d think!) we finally stood together in the fast-waning light of the quickly cooling fall afternoon, and sighed together. My son is not a physically affectionate person, and we hug perhaps only a time or two a year, but in this moment he turned and wrapped his arms around me. “We did it” he said, neither triumphantly, nor sadly. It was mostly just a release. I knew. I felt the same way too. This had been hard, but we had learned so much. We had risen to a difficult challenge and met it. Finally, we had earned our stripes. Finally, we were farmers.

The two days we spent processing our birds was a rite of passage for both of us. But more importantly, it was a delineation of sorts which marked the end of my son’s childhood, and the beginning of our relationship as adults. We had worked as a team, we had communicated well, and we had each needed the other’s help in equal measure. It felt solidly good. And although it may have been an important day for us personally, and while I do think we were both aware of that as we went about our tasks, there was simply too much to do for either of us to slow down and indulge in moments of nostalgia or reflection. (That’s what this post is for….)

How will I exist after my son, my partner, my only true friend, is gone from our home? I’ve been so busy being a mom, my eyes always on the next project, the next event, the next appointment, the next adventure – that I never paused to think too terribly deeply about the life that lay beyond the seemingly endless tasks that made up my life as a single parent. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always known, deep down, that it would be a huge existential challenge for me. Also, I’m not one for mapping things out too precisely. Not to say I don’t make plans, it’s just that I don’t always envision the details. They always seem to sort themselves out. I never know how I’ll make it to my goals until the process has begun and I’m under sail, but at least I’ve always had an idea of where I’m headed. But now I find that my sails are full and I’m under power and moving, without quite knowing my destination.

My panic attacks have gotten much worse over the past few months, and I can definitely say that it is not covid-related. No. I know what’s going on here. I think of it all the time. My son is leaving soon, and I will be alone. There will be no one with whom I can laugh, talk, play music, or marvel over new ideas. It nags at me constantly, and quite frankly, if I were to sit with the feeling for more than a passing moment, it would be utterly terrifying. I keep running from one task to another… I spend hours at the gym, I learn new music, I shop, I clean, I do all the various mundane things I can to distract myself. But I do not sleep well. The end of our time together is coming so very soon, and every cell in my body seems to know it. And these days my son no longer stays in his bedroom (he has full reign of the basement, and he truly loves the privacy and space, plus his workshop is there too) and his absence across the hall, mere feet from me, is hard in of itself. I had hoped it might serve to prepare me, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I realize that all parents must watch their children leave (if all goes well, that is), and yet there is something about this situation which just feels different. Elihu and I have had a partnership for all these years. We have been more than just parent and child. It has always been we two against the world. Now it will be just me against the world. Daunting doesn’t come close.

Of course I have been muttering under my breath for the past decade that there is never enough time to do all the personal projects that I wish I could. And I have long complained aloud about the ceaseless, mundane chores that drain me of my energy and constantly wear me down (sometimes it would be so nice just to have a partner for this reason alone; “Sweetie, could you please get supper tonight? I have teaching materials to prepare”…) I fully admit it, this domestic shit has made me damned cranky over the years! (Regular readers may know this aspect of me well). But on the flip side of my laments are all the hours of caretaking for my son which were truly done from a place of love and with a profound desire to provide the very best in comfort, nutrition and support for my child.

When my former husband used to complain, post-divorce, that I needed to go out and get a ‘real’ job, I would always counter that I already had a ‘real’ job: it was raising our child! Why should I take a shitty, low-wage part-time job, only to hire babysitters in my absence, netting just a couple of dollars an hour and thereby delegating the care and raising of my child to a stranger? What was the advantage to that? I don’t see how this is hard to understand. My job has always been to be a mother. And I gotta say, I’ve thrown myself into this job as I have no other. Usually I’m a ‘jack of all master of none’ kinda gal, but in this case, while I may not have mastered it, I do think that I have truly kicked some parenting ass. It’s been a long haul, and I complained my way through much of it, but I did it well, and if were given a second pass at it, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it any differently. So I have no regrets. We’re simply at the doorstep of the next era. My kid’s time has come, and so has mine. All is as it should be. (I really shouldn’t complain – no more sinks full of dishes! No more scrambling to get a good, hot dinner ready before running out to a gig, no more endless loads of laundry and piles of electronics and plane parts strewn about the house! No more taxi service! No more tuba-toting! Goodness, it’ll be a veritable vacation!!)

This is why I keep lists. There are so many things I want to do, but as excited as I am when inspiration hits, it’s just as easy to forget what the hell I just thought of when the fire dies down. I’m fond of saying: If I don’t write it down, it won’t get done. These lists will be my touchstones when the kid is gone. Without a directive or a goal, I will sink. So I’m gonna need those lists. Gotta keep my eyes on the prize. Gotta carve out my own life again. It’s been so long… I haven’t been single and alone in the world since I was 23. That’s a long time, friends. I deeply treasure my solitude, but this gonna be way different.

Before I was as mom, I spent a good portion of my time in solitude. I’ve never had friends with whom I hung out; I was in a lot of bands, had a lot of friends, but no truly close friends, and certainly very few whom I might’ve done social things with. I was too busy, and my life just didn’t have room for that. My bands provided a social life for me. And when I had free time I was fond of just getting up and going, doing whatever I pleased on my own schedule and on my own terms… and that works really well when you fly solo. Even when I was married, I spent most of my time being alone (my former husband, himself also a musician, was gone most of the time). So it seems I should be ready for this next chapter. Yet somehow, this feels different. No bands, no beau, no commitments. Sometimes it seems heavenly to me – I mean, haven’t I been jonesin all these years for a respite? for some time to myself? – but I know the reality will be another story. When I wake up in an empty house, with no structure to my day and nothing critical to do but to simply exist, it will get real. Once the kid flies the coop, it will take this mother hen some time to figure out what life looks like in an empty nest.

But it’s all good, as they say. I know that the past twelve years here at the Hillhouse have been a huge blessing. Every up, every down. Every emergency, every challenge, every heartbreak. Every moment spent quietly sitting in the coop amongst our birds, every evening spent cracking up at the dinner table, every deep conversation each morning on the drive to school. For as crappy a way as this whole adventure began, and as unfair a situation we were thrust into without a choice, and for all the hardship we’ve experienced along the way, I can still say it was so much more than worth it. We’re both as ready as we’ll ever be.

And my young aviator is finally ready to fly.

 

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