Sparrow, Fish


How to console the young artist who has just told me not to speak, not to say a thing, because he is about to draw a tree sparrow, and may ‘end up crying’? It begins well enough, as he copies from a new book, but as he predicted, he begins to weep a little, saying ‘being an artist is hard’ over and over again. Momentarily distracted by the real thing at the window feeder, his lamentation is suspended. He goes back to his drawing and tries to apply what he’s just seen. It doesn’t work. In fact, it is a great disappointment, and an even louder, wetter episode begins.

I try to stay my heart, for no matter whether fake, real or somewhere in between, the sound of one’s child crying pulls at you to fix, to heal, to comfort. But I am steadfast. I know that my son can turn on a dime, from tears to laughter. And so I wait it out. ‘My boobs woulda been making milk if you had sounded like this a handful of years ago’ I say from my work at the table, back still turned to the young artist. True, they would’ve been. That primal aching to soothe would’ve burned up from within and erupted in a spot or two on my shirt. But those days are long gone, and I have been instructed not to interfere with his process, so I try to turn off the mother switch.

Finally, truly despondent, he comes over to me and buries his face in my neck. I hold him, and I just tell him that it’s ok. I remembered that once, years ago, when our beloved cat Kukla had died, Fareed had begun to weep, to sob. I had put my arms around him and told him that he didn’t need to worry; she had died in our arms, knowing we loved her, and besides, she’d had a good, long life with us. He pushed me away through tears and yelled at me (not characteristic of him at all) and said something I will always remember, and something I needed to employ in this current situation. My husband had told me back then not to offer ideas or solutions, but rather just to offer comfort. (Our roles often seems the very opposite of that Mars and Venus stuff; I’d always been the one who’d wanted to fix things.) And so here, with my son, I offered no solutions, only comfort. And it worked. Replenished, he went back to his drawing.

It was quiet for a while. The only sounds in the kitchen were the peeps from the hairy woodpecker at the suet feeder and the hum of the electric heater. I let a moment pass. ‘Watcha got?’ I asked. He came over to show me his new work. He had given up on the sparrow and had instead drawn a fish. And that’s ok, cuz it’s his prerogative. After all, being an artist is hard.

Chickens by Name

The first family consisted of several absolutely adorable fuzzy chicks my son (and I) simply could not resist buying at our local Tractor Supply. I’m guessing there are leagues of families who began their foray into backyard chickening in this way. Suckers.

Mr. Roosevelt:
We thought he was a she in the beginning. I would muse aloud to the bird “Why Mrs. Roosevelt, you’re looking rather masculine today” as she grew larger and more impressive. Indeed, she was a he. A robust, handsome and large dark red rooster with a lovely iridescent blue-green tail, he was a rooster to be reckoned with. A living example of how testosterone supersedes good judgement. He mounted the hapless hens incessantly, and chased humans just as mercilessly. We came to hang spray bottles full of water all about the property, so one might have some defense against the aggressive and random attacks. Yet we loved him. Elihu would pick him up and hold him in his tiny arms, whisper to him, sing to him… Elihu’s manifestation of forgiveness was touching. Mr. Roosevelt would back the boy into a corner and attack with beak and claw – my poor son would often come away with some blood on his face and arms, and always tears and a pounding heart. I once took up an axe and swung its blunt side at the rooster’s head to defend my son. Horrified at what I’d done, as the poor beast was simply following his internal program and meant nothing personal, I rushed to him to see if he was ok. He waggled his head side to side for a moment – with an almost comic effect – and strutted away, unaffected.

One hot summer day I found Mr. Roosevelt, headless, in the field. How on earth was this possible? This was the beginning of a long line of lessons to follow on life in the country. Many voted it was an ambush from above, but I’ve come to think it was a raccoon. They killed several of our chickens since then. Whomever the assailant, it was a most unexpected death, and we mourned. For a little while. That night, Elihu bounced back with a jolly song about the rooster’s demise. I was rather surprised. He is a farm boy, no doubt. No extra sentiment for such an end. Everyone has to die, and at least Mr. Roosevelt left us with a good story. And some beautiful tail feathers, which now reside in Elihu’s bird collection.

A nice light red hen who lived her name. She is the bird of unending patience who sits on the railing and just listens as Elihu sings a two-minute version of “Fire Burning On The Dance Floor”. She was the only hen to approach humans unafraid. The only one to accept tidbits from your hand. She lived with us for a year, including a few stints inside the house, in the cellar, during the coldest days of the winter.

Her death is on my hands; one night I left the garage door open a mere four inches. I was tired and chose not to wrestle the door tight to the ground. Anyhow, what sort of predator could enter through such a small opening? (Answer: muskrats, mink, fishers…) I soon learned it was big enough to allow a raccoon to slip inside and kill the innocent and sleeping residents. Months later, I found a wing of hers as I was cleaning up. “Too bad they wasted this bit” Elihu mused. Very practical boy.

Elihu’s Journal Number One

I’m on the playground. I look out, cars bustle and the streets look busy. I wonder what the people in those cars are thinking. Then I go. Well, I don’t know what I go to do then. After that I look around and well, there’s not much to do. I just sorta sit. And sit. Jack passes. I know he doesn’t want to play with me. He hasn’t been playing with me for the past two months. What if I were one of those kids, one of those kids that always seems to be having fun? Would I be having fun? Or would I just realize that it’s not any better to have friends? Snowflakes fall and it’s still winter. Nothing’s going to change that. And I’m still me and nobody’s going to change that. Nobody’s going to change anything. Snowflakes fall and nobody’s going to change that either. Maybe that’s the best thing about winter.

Sometimes winter can be the worst season, but yet the best. I look at the tall fences and I look back at myself, down at my legs. There wasn’t much to do except keep doing what I was doing, whatever that thing was. Soon the whistle is blown, and I slowly walk back. I get in line and now things seem to be a little better, well at least now that recess is over. There are worse times in the day, like science. You know I don’t mean to mean they’re bad, I just mean that I’d rather do different things. I’d rather be on the playground than in science. Yeah, of course I hate the playground, but the playground could have a better side if I had someone to play with. Right now it’s just sort of the place I always…. I don’t know, whatever I do.

And now it’s science time. I get out my science book and I get out my science packet and my pencil. I look at the numbers. Number one through ten. We’re starting at five. At least this packet didn’t have twenty questions, the last one did. After science it’s pack and snack time. I feel great. At least the day is over. I mean come on, this is my favorite time of the day. Who doesn’t like the time of day when you can do anything you want, you can read, you can eat your snack, you can do whatever you want.

After that the bell rings. That was the first bell. It should be the second bell. Mr. Hewitt’s probably just a little late. It doesn’t matter. Sheesh, this day has been a long day. Well, now I’m listening to the second bell and time’s going by pretty fast it seems. Soon the buses will be called. The first buses are Raccoon and Octopus. “Raccoon and Octopus” repeated Mr. Hewitt. Oh man, I can’t believe the buses are in a different order. Well, Dog bus is usually the second bus, but when they’re out of order it could be the sixth or seventh bus. I didn’t have to wait long.

I got my backpack, and I’m ready. Put my backpack on, put my chair up on my desk, and I was out of there. I walked down the long hallway. They’re filled with kids, some I know and say hi, some I don’t know. They just look at me and pass. I keep walking. I don’t mind those kids. Even the ones who say hi. I say hi back sometimes, but I’m more eager to get to my bus than to say hi. The day has been long and of course I’m eager to get onto my bus. I say hi to Mr. Taylor standing in the middle of the ramp watching the kids.

Then I go through the open door and I’m outside. It’s cold out, but I’ll only be out, well, speaking of only – it really takes me about five minutes to get to my bus.

I’m on the bus, and now starts the 45 or 50 minute drive to my house. I look out the window. What pretty forests, gardens and houses. They’re all pretty. Some of those houses aren’t really houses, they’re shacks. Serge used to say that some of those houses had ghosts in them. But I didn’t really believe that. When I was just a silly little first grader I believed it. I still sit with my backpack pressed hard against my back, making a shadow over my head. I felt sort of over my head. I sort of felt scared on the bus and that’s why I always put my backpack near me. With my personal belongings, it somehow made me feel safer from all those unknown kids and unknown star wars things, and legos and whatever they were. And so I got off. Off of the bus.

When I got home I realized that the bus was the good place. Aww. Oh. I was home. The most boring, but in a way, the most exciting time of the day.

Aah aah aah ahh. A rooster crows. I knew Bald Mountain felt happy that I was here, and I knew that Whitey felt happy that I was here, and I knew the rest of the flock was happy that I was here. But there’s one thing I didn’t know. If I was happy that I was here. We drove down the long driveway and we got in the house. Ah, felt good to be in the house. I layed down on the couch and looked at all my presents. Aahhh. I felt tired, and happy and I felt like it was time to relaxamate. The tree looked dry. It’s branches had curved in and fallen down and it had lost quite a few needles. But with still a few ornaments left on it, it looked pretty. Chickadee-dee Chicka-dee-dee. Chickadees rang out from the porch, and lots of them too. I looked around, lifted up the shade and sure enough there were two Chickadees trapped in the porch. Wait! That second one wasn’t a Chickadee, it was three times as big as a Chickadee, had a crest, and a black mask. It flew around in the porch and over time let our an ear piercing “jay jay jay”. I knew in an instant it must be a Blue Jay so I ran and got the net, but when I got in the porch he was out, sitting in the Butterfly bush and scolding. “Jay jay jay” he yelled at me and flew away. Now all that was left was the Chickadee. “Chicka dee dee” he said to me as he turned his head around to look at me. Then he jumped off the screen and a blurry figure flew away. It was now getting dark, the sky was getting gray. I checked out my presents, I had a lot of cool ones I realized, cooler than I thought.

After that, there’s not much to do except take all the ornaments off the tree, take the lights off and take the bins downstairs. And that we did. I looked at my bed. I looked back at Mommy. I didn’t want to go to bed. The snow sparkled and made the whole backyard look so beautiful. Looked out my bedroom window again, now I saw crows. They flew away. Now I knew for sure it was time to go to  bed. I looked at my pajamas, they were layed out. She must have layed them out while I was looking at birds on the computer (which I did not include in this paragraph).

And so, since it was time to go to bed I did, I brushed my teeth. Mommy read me the rest of the Saint Francis book and then within fifteen minutes (well I really couldn’t tell) I was asleep.

Bye Bye Baby Teeth

January 17th and 18th, 2011.

My son is seven and a half. Today he’s losing the first of his front two teeth. He lost his bottom two a few months ago. In the second half of second grade, he’s a little late to lose his teeth. The way he looks now – pretty much the way he’s looked the past 4 years – is how I picture him always looking. I realize these are the magic years. The years of baby teeth. The innocence of those itty bitty front teeth. There’s this shift that takes place when the baby teeth go. The open gap still says little boy, but the chunky chiclets that follow just look like pre-adolescent boy to me. The magic time is almost over. The time of santa, elves and birthday angels. Tonite, in the bathtub, Elihu mused how he would be more specific next year when he wrote to Santa. He would give him better instructions for the elves to make wind up bath toys. He was sincere, and he was speaking very matter of factly about it. It seemed like he might be joking – but he was still very much there. I was grateful that he still believed, and grateful for one more night with his baby teeth in front.

Right now he is brushing those teeth. One is sticking out so much it can no longer lay flat next to the other. He looks like an ol’ hick. I told him that his nickname of “Eli” is a cliché hillbilly name, so it worked well right now. I can’t capture his new mouth in a picture, the shutter is too slow, he is too unwilling, and the lens always bows out his face so it never looks like him anyhow. I must just remember these days.

This morning, as he lay asleep in his bed, mouth open, I could see great black spaces between his front baby teeth. They were being pushed aside by progress. No longer did he even look like himself. He looked awkward. This was not my pretty boy. And most likely, today at school, while looking down at a math problem his tooth would succumb to the gentle movement of his absent minded wiggling, and just fall out. He would leave home this morning with his teeth, and come home later today with the wavy white ridges of his coming adulthood poking out of his gums.

It is a snow day. Elihu will not lose his tooth as he sits at his desk. He will not drop it accidentally in the snow. He is pushing it now, ‘salty blood, salty blood’ he cries and runs to the mirror. I join him.

It happened. Just now. We snapped a couple of pics of his goofy front tooth hanging out in front of his lip. I sat beside him in the hall, reviewing the photos we’d taken recently and Elihu fiddled with his tooth while looking in the closet mirror. Tink. We heard something land on the floor.  “It’s out!” he said. And there it was, the sight I was still not yet ready for. The black hole. There’s no stopping this growing thing I guess. I give in. I’ve enjoyed every moment so far, and I won’t stop enjoying them. When I cherish each day as I do, change may bring a pang of nostalgia, yet it brings no regrets. A loss of something old makes way for something new. Here we go….

Good To Know

I can remember a time when the heat in my house was something I thought about as much as I did the air in my lungs. It was there. It came from an unending source. Natural gas – was that the magic substance that gave us warmth and cooked our food? I’d heard somewhere it that was. Who supplied it? I don’t know, it was just there when I needed it. I didn’t order it, I didn’t choose my quantity. I didn’t pay up front. And whatever form this resource took, whether liquid or gas, smelly or pure, it was magically delivered by an invisible system. Was there a main pipe through which it entered our home? I surely didn’t know. There must have been, and truly as a homeowner I should have known that very pipe’s location. But I didn’t. I simply turned up the thermostat when the house got chilly. I turned a knob on my stove when it was time to make supper. This precious and invisible substance was as silently dependable as the air I breathed.

Now I know better. This is my third winter in the country’s northeast. While folks might like to romanticize the cold we experience here, in truth there are other parts of the country that also endure winters like ours. The difference for me is not so much the location, as the amenities with which I now live. I am in the country. There is no subterranean infrastructure delivering a constant stream of much-needed fuel for the home. No. Here, you’re on your own. You are responsible for you. You must know your needs, and prepare your household accordingly. As with any new situation, it took some time for me to fully understand how to negotiate the routines. Winter one: I paid someone with some money I had left over after my move to come by and ‘deliver some fuel’. I guess he filled up the tank. With exactly what, I wasn’t sure. Word was here it wasn’t gas, but oil. The delivery guy must have come while I was out, for I never saw how or where he deposited his load, nor did I experience any lapse in comfort. That was then. This is now.

The money I’d carefully nested away for my move here was quickly used up in not-so-glamorous tasks such as replacing the 1970s Angie Dickinsonesque carpet and linoleum with modest laminate flooring, and installing pipes and pumps in the cellar (yes, here it’s a cellar, not a basement) to expunge the stinky and stagnant seepage from the house. By the time those important tasks were done and the oil tank was filled, I was out of cash. Now it was onto the business of discovering just what sort of life I would have here in this tiny house in the country with my young son. It was all before us that winter; we did not yet know what it was to go without heat, to dig chickens out from under two feet of snow, to count the days until the food stamps account was refreshed and we could once again buy milk. Now we know about those things.

A long time ago – it must have been shortly after I’d met my husband and it became apparent that he was the one and that this was my life –  I wondered, if left on my own, could I make it? Without the financial support of my parents or my then boyfriend – could I actually pull off that incredibly ‘grown up’ achievement of actually paying for all of the bills by myself? It troubled me, I felt in some way I was not earning my keep in life. But as the years went by, and my partner began to make good money supplemented by my teaching and gig income, the question became unimportant. For the time being at any rate. Yet the question was always there, lingering in the back of my mind, dusky and vague, gently gnawing at me, quietly threatening my personal sense of worth.

It is nearly a quarter century later, and I am only just beginning to test the waters of this ‘making it on my own’ territory. While I may find it rather pointedly ironic that I’m now down to less than two week’s supply of heating oil while my almost ex husband is leaving tomorrow morning to play a concert in Dubai, I nonetheless carry on towards my goal. Once nameless, fear and guilt-inducing, it has now become something I have dared to utter aloud. I mean to create a new life, and a life above poverty, under my own steam. I still dare not declare how far above that stressful line I intend to lift myself, but for now I’ll aim just far enough above it to experience that first personal victory. From there I will go to the next rung. I must at least try. I’m not saying that I won’t hold my world-traveling partner of the past 23 years accountable to a little more support (such that his son doesn’t have to resort to drinking powdered milk at the end of each month) because his contribution is our current lifeline. But what I am saying is that I’m going to give it my all. I mean to provide for my son the things he should have, and I mean to do it with the skills and talents I have. Surviving is what we are doing now, but it won’t always be thus. I’ve begun my new life; teaching, creating an arts center, managing a summer concert series, writing, even selling eggs… In time I will find my way, my income, my own true value. While we are conserving our assistance money and going without haircuts and new clothes above ground, I am building the invisible conduits far beneath the surface that will one day deliver us the comfort and ease of a life we once knew.

I have a wooden stick, feet and inches marked in sharpie along its length. It’s attached to a long string. It sits beside the pipe that descends into my oil tank. When I need to check our fuel level, I must wade through knee deep snow drifts to the far end of the house, dust off the stick, uncap the pipe and insert the measuring device into the unseen contents of the buried tank. When I ascertain how many inches of oil I have in the tank, I then go inside and consult my chart. I can see how many gallons I have left. Then I begin to plan out our heat diet until the next time our lifeline comes in. Will we be able to keep the house at 55? Can we afford a window of 65 degree comfort for a few hours after school? Or shut down one half of the house and use the electric heaters when needed? If we choose the band aid assistance of electrically supplied heat, that means a much higher electric bill, and in this part of the world someone must know we need it, because electricity is a whole lot more expensive here.

I checked my tank yesterday. It was down to 6”.  That means we have roughly 40 gallons. That should last us about 13 days. That means 50 degree nights and 60 degree days. Ok. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in my ‘last’ life, but here and now it is. What to do in 13 days? I check my calendar. The lifeline should be here by then. It can be a little scary to live like this, yet I do derive from it the clarity of conscience that comes with addressing the unknown and making it known. At least I know what I have and what I haven’t got. I know I haven’t got money nor heating oil to spare. And I know the true value of the simple necessities. Years ago, as my husband and I went to the new restaurants, as he brought me gifts, and as we traveled the world, I ignored my secret concerns that I had no idea just how much it all cost. He was an only child of wealthy parents. We had no children. We were free and easy apartment dwellers. There were many things that helped to put it out of my mind. I buried my conscience. Now the only thing I’ve got buried below the surface is my oil tank. And even still, I know exactly what’s in it.

To know is to be empowered. And I can say from recent experience, being empowered feels good. I know things today that I didn’t know before. I know what chickens need to thrive. I know how to fix things in my house. I know systems – both physical and non physical – aren’t perfect, and rules are flexible. I know that life eventually gives you what you spend your time thinking about. I know that what lies unseen and goes unspoken is just as important as what lives in full view and can be heard. I also know where my heat comes from. I didn’t know that before. And it’s good to know.

Angels Sing, Boys Cry

Elihu is in the next room. It’s his first rehearsal with the Saratoga Children’s Choir. It might be his last too, we’ll see. We’re in the one of the classrooms in the Methodist Church – home to many cultural programs in this town. Elihu is nervous, and he’s not happy about being the ‘only second grader’. I don’t blame him, for being the youngest brings him some attention, the kind one doesn’t want as one begins a new pursuit. It’s not comfortable to negotiate a new skill with an audience. That’s how it feels to him, and as his possibly over-mothering mother, I’m sensitive to it. All I can do is send him my love from one room over, hoping it helps in some unseen way.

Just heard the first group ‘ooh’ and I smile inside. This sounds fun. This sounds good. It’s been years since I’ve heard a chorus. Kinda reminds me of the Peanuts Christmas special. Yet I can’t relax yet, my son has a hard time with his head voice as I always did. I didn’t even sing in a head voice til I was in my late 20s. Really. Strangely, the older I’ve gotten the higher my range has gotten. Maybe it’s because I’m not talking all day at school. Or partying all night and shouting over the noise of a bar. Elihu has a limited range, and like me, he favors his chest voice. I’m aware of his concern about this, and so I worry just a bit.

How is it that my sweet seven year old boy hasn’t got that pure angel voice? Does that voice not belong to all the young boys who can sing? I began to wonder this when we’d listened to the Vienna Boy’s Choir and I realized that he could not match their high pitches. As I hear the high “oohs” next door I cannot help myself, I must snoop as a mother. I will just peek in. I hope not to see my son tilt his head to the side as he strains to find the impossible note.

Well. It is neither possible for me to peek, as the doors have no windows and are shut tight, nor is it possible for me to understand what they are singing, for to my surprise – it is in German! I hear Sue coaching them on the pronunciation of the words that will take the place of the oohs they had just sung. Wow. So, that’s how you do it? Teaching a group of kids to sing parts, and in tune, much less in German, seems like magic to me. It did just occur to me, however, that maybe if you’re concentrating on the language instead, it might make the singing of pitches more natural. Often the less you think the better you perform. Just thinking. Man – what an interval! How high they are! I wish I could see him – how on earth is he doing in there?? When we are reunited – and when I take him for a special fried chicken dinner that I can’t afford at Price Chopper – he will recount everything for me. I am praying it will be an enthusiastic recounting. There are other ways it could go.

I feel lucky not to have had a daughter. I couldn’t take all that tension, the hormones, the moods, the levels of strategy. And yet, if you can believe it, my young son often reminds me of a pre-teen girl. He is so dramatic, so large and loud in his expression, particularly when he’s upset. While I understand that comes from a desire not to lose control over his life, I also wonder at why on earth his emotional riots are so violent, so unstoppable, so angry. It is this kind of riot I’m hoping doesn’t result from today’s choir rehearsal. While our dinner at Price Chopper might be one of our special mother-son moments, it also might not be. His reaction may come suddenly after rehearsal, just when he’s quite sure there’s no one left in earshot, or it might gestate a while and surface in the supermarket. I will simply have to wait and see. One never knows, do one?

Well, this chorus rehearsal is a lovely thing to hear… I so hope that he didn’t hate it. Just as we dropped his father off at the train station (just day before yesterday, and now he’s in Indonesia, what a strange world) he insisted that Elihu do two rehearsals before he made a decision about not doing it. I should mention here that I had just happily announced that the choir director was going to admit Elihu based on my vouching for him – as the youngest member – and rehearsals were to start in two days. This resulted in one of his signature pre-teen girl explosions. Ranting and crying, sobbing protests, cries of “I’m not going” and such. I believe he reacted this way because I had not prepared him for this by way of interjecting it into our phone conversations during the week. (He had been in Chicago with his father for the winter break.) He had known about this, and been excited too, but I’d let too much time go without reminding him about it. Had I gently re-introduced him to the chorus idea slowly he might not have reacted like that. But sometimes I just don’t have my mommy game on, and I just like to get on with things. To coddle, or not to coddle… Just when I think I’m doing too much of it, I’m not doing it right. Oh well.

Fifteen minutes to go. No wi-fi with which to distract me. Ah, they are embarking on a new song. A pop-ish sounding song. What is this? Mmm. I am now imagining my son, the earnest look on his face, hand on his chest, singing for me what he can recall of the song he just learned. This too might well be the outcome. Oh how I wish the door had a window, or a crack. Is this the beginning of something new? Is this a day Elihu will always remember? Will it be a fond memory? Or not? My mother once left me at a skating rink all by myself. I was good at meeting kids, I knew how to skate, she wouldn’t be gone long. How old was I? Maybe 7. It was cold, my feet hurt. I didn’t know anyone, and I was sure everyone knew I was alone and self-conscious. I went to the little warming hut and waited alone for a long time. I was alone, sad, forgotten. The feelings distilled into a memory I can recall keenly even now. I don’t want to create that kind of memory for Elihu. They are singing about ‘flying away’… oh, but how can his spirit not soar to sing those words? We saw a hawk on the way here, and he dropped his head down for the rest of the ride, imagining what it is to fly. I just know. He does this a lot, he flies. I never want to clip his wings, nor confine him to a cage.

The director is wrapping things up. Rehearsal is over. She’s saying something about an arts fest. Does she know that my kid played his djembe on the street at the last town festival and made $80? He’s a natural on his own, this group thing is so different. Can he learn how to work in a group? Can he switch gears now, learn this new skill and assimilate? Just a few minutes more…

The Result? Tears within minutes. In the hall he collapsed and began to cry. “I don’t want to do this! How long was I in there?” he cries, dramatically sprawling on the hallway floor as children walk around him. “Three hours?!” The reality is sinking in for me. It was a bit intimidating. This group, save two others who are also new, has been singing together for a semester already. I look at his book, the print is small, it is written in three staves – even as an adult I’m still not good at picking out my part from music written like this. “Mmm”. I answer him as I peruse the charts. I offer that we can make the print larger – that it’s an easy thing to do. But I know his pride is bubbling to the surface and wants to prevent me from making any special modifications. He needs it, but won’t accept it. “No, I can read it easily” he sniffs. Tears well again in his eyes. “Honey, how bout I just make a sample page with larger text and we just check it out to see?” I ask. He stops crying, and considers it. “Ok” he says. That’s better. That also confirms for me the vision thing is part of the mix. Sue sits down with us in the hall and she kindly speaks to him in a bright, hopeful way. She has authority in her voice and I think that helps him. I explain a bit more about his vision – that he can’t see any color. She’s a bit surprised, but it really isn’t the main issue, so we move on. The head voice. “I just can’t sing that high” Elihu says. “I just can’t!” I know so well his frustration. She offers a little help. We all ooh and ahh together for a bit, practicing a technique for relaxing and letting the pitch come. He’s calmed down. He lays heavy against my arm (that feels so good – the older he gets the less he rests on me, the less we snuggle as part of our day) because he is so tired. Still on Daddy time, having gotten to bed at 11:30 the night before, and after his first full day of school in a week, he is wiped. “I’m so tired, I want to go right to bed” he says, angrily. I know. He feels he has no control. We wrap up and head out to the night. We have no food at home, once again I’ve run out of food a week shy of our food stamps. “All I have is chicken soup, sweetie” I remind him. But he wants to go home. No over-budget fried chicken tonight. We go home. And we have chicken soup for the third time in a row. But we made it. Finally in bed, after some drawing time and a little reading, and we’re lying in the dark talking. I finally get him to smile, even to giggle. Ok. A new chapter. Rocky start, but a start, nonetheless.

David Attenborough

I mailed a package to Sir Attenborough today. My son and I both love him so. The envelope contained a letter from each of us, some drawings of Elihu’s, and a CD of mine. It gave me a wonderful feeling to know that the package I held in my hands would soon be held in his. He would study the return address, perhaps ponder the unusual name, Elihu….

this is my letter…

March 1st, 2011

Warmest greetings to our dearest David,

My apologies for having omitted your formal title; your ubiquitous presence in our lives makes you feel like an old friend.

I am a single mother to a precocious and funny 7 ½ year old boy. A former ‘career diva’, I left the city for the country (upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks) and have shared the past two years of my life with chickens, guinea fowl, quail and homing pigeons. Since my son can remember, you have been a big part of his life.

Since he could speak, Elihu has loved birds with an absolute passion. It is not the passing fancy of a small child. He thinks of them day, night, in his dreams. He reads about them, he draws them, he prosthelytizes endlessly about their virtues to his classmates. Elihu has a rare congenital retinal disorder called Achromatopsia and cannot see any color, he cannot tolerate light much brighter than a 25 watt bulb, and cannot see definition of objects beyond a few feet away. He is legally blind. I find it so ironic that he should insist on using color so accurately, and that he is so prolific an artist, and given how challenging sight is, that he can visually identify birds faster than anyone I know (he can do the same by ear as well). In order for him to actually see live birds, we’ve created a nice table feeder just outside our kitchen window so that he can see them only inches away. (We’ve added a film of dark plastic to help him see in the outdoor light, it’s hidden benefit: wonderful bird blind!)

I hope it makes you smile to know that far away there is a little boy who would rather read your books than any others, and for whom not a detail of your videos goes unnoticed. My beloved Elihu counts you as his own family. Your sense of humor and love for what you do is something that my son truly gets. You are one of a handful of people who have helped shape my son’s life, and I am so grateful.

I too am grateful that you were true to your heart and ditched the big time desk job for the field. I can’t begin to imagine the experiences behind the finished productions. What a wonderful treasure you must have in memories and stories!

I’ve included some of Elihu’s drawings as well as a CD of mine as a small token of our thanks. We send our love and best wishes to you and your family.


Elizabeth Conant




It’s a snowy December night in a tiny, rural Midwestern town. We are at the town’s recreation center, a building that looks rather like a four car garage. The grounds are a few open acres with a playground at the far end. Beyond the chain link fence an ocean of cornfields extends for miles out into the blackness. Big, sparkly clusters of snowflakes are falling. They seem to appear from out of nowhere when they hit the parking lot lights. A narrow gauge train idles near the sidewalk waiting for the next load of passengers, which will be shuttled along a great oval track around the park. The train will pass homemade displays of lights setup across the lawn, the ride culminating in its passage through a tunnel of lit Christmas trees near the loop’s completion. It’s a nice crowd – enough families to be lively, yet nowhere close to crowded. A good place to be at this holiday time of year.

Our four-year-old son wants to see the train up close. Already marching to the beat of a very different drummer, he wants to know if the little train has a diesel engine, and he wants to see so for himself. Currently, he is a train boy. A little bit of Thomas the tank engine, yes, but mostly he lives on a constant stream of information about the history and evolution of the train. His book collection is mostly limited to encyclopedic volumes on the subject. He has learned how to instantly multiply by two, motivated by the need to know the type of train as described by its wheel profile. He knows his ponies from his drivers. This is the place to be at Christmastime for just such a young boy.

I hold his father’s hand and our son walks ahead of us to the train. We are walking slowly. It is one of those magical winter nights. As I look upwards towards the falling flakes I feel as if I’m flying forward through space at a great speed. The snow is so perfect it hardly looks real. I look at my husband with a question on my face. He squeezes my hand reassuringly, and then winks both his eyes – he isn’t able to wink just one at a time – and he nods just a bit, with a half smile. “Nothing will change,” he says. “You’ll see. It will always be like this”. Really? I think. I wonder if I heard correctly. I feel like I’m drugged anyway. I’m not sure what’s real right now. Did he just say it will always be like this? How could it be? I wonder. Then I ask him this aloud, but my voice is soft, and it sounds like I’m talking to myself. I am in a daze. I can’t decide whether the setting takes the edge off, or if it just adds to the surreal quality of my life tonight.

Just a few weeks earlier my middle-aged husband told me he had a young girlfriend in our new community, and that he had decided he was going to make his new life with her. The words he used sounded sickly chauvinistic in this strange new context: “she’s carrying my baby” he’d said to me. They’d been through a lot together he explained; she’d been pregnant by him once before, but she’d chosen to have an abortion. They’d been on again and off again for the past two years, struggling in their lover’s dilemma. He’d thought I’d known about her.

I hadn’t.

The past three weeks since he’d told me, he’d seemed much lighter. He had been increasingly distant and less like his old self of the past couple of years. Although I wasn’t the recipient of his affection any more, at least I benefited from his lighter mood recently. He had unburdened himself. He was finally free. But my incarceration was just beginning.

Just two years earlier, I’d been in our beloved Evanston home just outside of Chicago, making tea for my husband and father-in-law who sat on the couch, and who had begun to make their pitch about my husband and me buying a business. They were proposing we buy a building in the town in which my husband taught part time, in a town 75 miles from our home. The building even came with a restaurant – one which we could own and run ourselves. At first I was puzzled; we were musicians, what did we know about running a restaurant? I paused for a moment to understand them better – wait, were they actually serious about all of this? Yes. It turned out they were.

My husband was convinced that with the current team of employees, the place would easily run itself; we didn’t even need to be there! It just didn’t sound realistic to me, and I wasn’t on board. I’d worked plenty of waitress jobs, and I knew that running a restaurant was so much more than a full time job. I also knew that absentee owners were completely at the mercy of the staff. When the cats were away, the mice were definitely hosting after hours parties.

But the pitch continued for weeks, months. It was a sure thing. A sound thing. A dependable source of income. We went to inspect the place and then pour over the pages of numbers the previous owner provided for us. (I’ve since learned about the malleability of numbers; they can be arranged as creatively as a piece of music.) Finally, we were going to own a real, money-making commercial property just like his parents. We would be real grown ups now.

The restaurant was in a small college town that was an hour and a half’s drive away from our current home; it was the town in which my husband taught three days a week at a state University. The weekly commute he made was becoming too much for him – and also too much for all three of us. Although we weren’t entirely decided, we had begun the discussion about moving. If we were going to have a second child, it really did seem to make sense. My husband made the point that until we made the decision whether to move or not, he was out there every week anyway – he would be there to make sure things ran smoothly.

Even though I was never completely convinced it was a great idea, I really did want to support my husband in his vision; is that not what your partner is for? Yet I found myself wondering if it really was his vision – or his father’s. In the end it didn’t matter; whether he was driven to acquire the property to impress his father or to satisfy his own ambition, it was becoming very important to him. He was fired up to do this, and he needed me on board. So I agreed. We went ahead and bought the building, and the business too.

For a year it seemed to go all right. My heart was still tied to the community in which I’d lived my entire personal and professional life – where we continued to live – and I wasn’t keen on moving. I was now mother to a young child with low vision issues who needed my help physically navigating about his world. I had experienced the sorrow and loneliness of a miscarriage that year too. My husband had been out of the country on the day I miscarried. He was on the road a lot. He later confessed he “knew it was over” when I miscarried.

Wait, what? A two-decade union is just “over” when the wife miscarries?

It seemed to me that this should have been a time for solidarity, love and compassion, a coming together and a re-dedication to create the family that was yet to be…  I’d kinda thought that was where we would find ourselves. But instead, no discussion was had, and I just assumed we were on the same page. The marriage went on for two more years during which he never brought up the subject. I had no idea that he’d considered us “over” from that first miscarriage. Hope pulled me forward. Our family would join us soon; our someday couldn’t be too far off. After all, we made no efforts to prevent a new soul from joining us…

When my husband wasn’t teaching, he was touring. I was on hold, waiting. Just waiting. My husband didn’t talk about looking for a house anymore. When we spoke, he talked only of the business. Things I couldn’t really help him with. I spent most of my time at home, he spent most of his time away. Within months the darkness began.

The restaurant manager in whom my husband had put his trust was ruining us. Whether she was stealing, making bad choices – or both – it didn’t matter. Here was the alarm call. What seemed like a far-off reality became my immediate to-do list. Clean, pack, list old home, find new home. Within months I was standing in the living room of our new house, surrounded by boxes, two cats and a small child. Starting over.

The next year was a whirlwind. I had to step in and run a business, I had to use whatever knowledge my previous supplemental part time jobs had taught me. I had to order food, create menus, set prices, paint walls, unclog toilets, renew liquor licenses, pass health inspections, tally time cards, hire bands, fire employees, make peace with the police, meet with the mayor, settle disputes. It was baptism by fire, and nothing I’d bargained for. My Pakistani father in law kept telling me we should just sell homemade pakoras and that would save the business. My husband told me it was not as hard as I made it seem. “I ran this from a cell phone for a year!” he would scold. And so I muscled on. In one year I experienced events that I would have expected from a decade.

Between the duties of café owner and mother I fairly passed out at the end of each grueling day. I’d noticed my husband taking on a strangely quiet distance – and our sex life was currently non-existent – but as the business was hemorrhaging money I thought it was the obvious reason for the changes in him. There was a pit of fear in my stomach nearly every day of that year. Just getting out of bed in the morning took a huge effort of will. I’d figured my husband, my partner of more than two decades, was feeling the stress too, and this was his way of riding out the tough time.

After two years we finally decided the grand experiment was over. I had a good plan. I also had a good manager. She wanted in, and I wanted out. We passed the café on to her. Now we would simply collect rent on the space. When she signed the lease, I felt the most supreme relief I’d felt in years. In spite of a two year detour, we were now poised for our new life to begin. A new life to be sure. Not one I ever could have seen on the horizon.

We wrapped up the business. Then a few weeks later, we wrapped up our marriage.

Fareed had a pregnant girlfriend, and that was that. He’d been increasingly distant over the past two years, and now, at the very least, I had finally learned why. It’s one of the worst kinds of things to hear said aloud. So painful, so strange. So unreal. So surreal.

It is now almost three years later. I live on ten acres in rural upstate New York, just outside an historic, cosmopolitan college town. I live two doors over from my aging parents with our son, who is now 7. I am now 47, and have finally come to terms with the reality that I will no longer bear another child. My husband now has two young boys with his girlfriend. The juxtaposition of her youthful, childbearing chapter and my peri-menopausal reality can weigh heavy on my heart if I think too long about it.

As with any experience in life, it’s often not until the event is well in your past that you can fully glean the insight it offers. For as much sorrow as I have felt over not having our second child, I can say now that I am glad not to be parenting two young children by myself. For I surely would have been, if I hadn’t miscarried. The relationship I have with my son would be entirely different if he had a sibling who also needed me. I simply would not be able to devote myself as fully to two children as I can to one.

I want to be truthful about our new life. Sometimes it is downright lonely. Sometimes it really hurts. The poverty we now live with can add to the sense of betrayal, especially when we’re weakened with grief. There are moments when my son weeps inconsolably that we two live alone, that he lives without siblings, without a dad, without the noise of a full house… There are moments when I too can do no more than drop my face in my hands and sob, for me, for my son…. My heart just breaks that my son will never have a father here in our home; a father to help with homework, to sit at the supper table, to wrestle with on the living room floor… I am, however, grateful that he’ll always have his father in his life. His dad visits every month or so, and our son goes back to the midwest too. When he visits his father, our son stays in our old house, in his own bedroom. He does have a father, and a father who loves him dearly. He’s ahead of many.

Although I would never have chosen any of these experiences for myself, life has given me a surprising reward in exchange. I have a relationship with my son that is so intimate, honest and strong, that I absolutely know I got a good deal – even with the betrayal and sorrow. My son and I are living a life rich in nature, music, art, self-discovery and love. A life very different from the one we might have had. I could never have envisioned our life as it is now. Everything about our new life was a total surprise; our new life simply came from out of nowhere.

In spite of the hardship, the last few years have presented me with so many opportunities. Even in the midst of my pain, I was always aware that there were lessons here somewhere that I needed to learn. Things I needed to pay attention to, to resolve. But despite my own self-coaching, learning still just isn’t as easy as it seems it should be. Sometimes, when I think I’ve got my head wrapped around this, and I’m praying for forgiveness to live in my heart – just when answers should be a moot point – questions still pop into my mind. And I often think of that snowy night at the Christmas train ride…

What did my husband mean when he said nothing would change (while holding my hand)? Everything changed! Oh how many times I’ve wondered just what exactly was he was thinking when he said those things to me! Did he mean them, or were they just words to soften the sting? Or might he have truly believed them?

When the questions and the ‘what ifs’ arise, I make an effort to send them on their way as quickly as possible. These past few years I’ve seen what a waste of energy it is to consider the things that might have happened. This happened. It’s my reality. I start from here. There is no other option.

People see the same things so very differently. What was my former husband experiencing that night?  I don’t know. What choices was he planning on making? No idea. I can only know my own experience, and I can only know the choices I make for myself.

And so, I will choose to remember the beautiful snowflakes that appeared from out of nowhere.