The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Offense and Owls March 29, 2014

Unfortunately, I just can’t seem to sleep in this morning. While I’m sure I could use the extra rest, my mind and body are awake now, and there’s no going back. Maybe it’s my age, or the two glasses of wine I had last night with dinner. Either way, I’ll take it as a rare opportunity to have the house to myself for a while, as Elihu continues to sleep deeply. And I know that boy needs it. Yesterday, finally in the car and on the way home after school, he asked me if this hadn’t been the longest week of our lives. Poor kid had been sick the way I’d been the previous week, and he plays a rather large part in his class play, so had been rehearsing all week as well. I knew how he felt. For me, the longest week of our lives had been the one just before.

In addition to the drama onstage, there’s been a good deal of interpersonal drama going in private. The situation with Elihu’s classmate – or with his classmate’s mother, I should say more correctly – finally came to a head. And after more than four months of my having waited to learn which of my many trespasses offended her so deeply, we finally got our answers. Let me tell you, this experience has taught me a few things. Firstly, there are many ways in which to live; you cannot for one moment take any of your own beliefs, values or customs to be the clear and obvious path. No matter how sensible you may think your own approach to life, I can guarantee that some aspect to how you live will offend or frighten someone. Secondly, every now and then you’ll need to apologize as humbly and simply as possible, without caveats or explanations – even when you know your intention was good and wish fervently for the offended party to get that. Yeah, sometimes I guess you just gotta let things go. It was a great exercise of restraint for me to pen a simple letter of apology (my third or fourth apology, but perhaps a physical card in hand will seal the deal) without qualifying myself. Just had to say I was sorry. And crap, I am. I will live differently from now on.

So, just what was it that I did to convince a fellow mother that her child should not be allowed to be in my or my son’s presence outside of school? Firstly, I used profanity. (Old friends will likely be nodding in agreement. This will not come as a shocker to some.) Last Halloween Elihu and I had been invited to join his classmate’s family and another one as well for some dinner and trick-or-treating. We met at an Irish pub, enjoyed a meal and a couple of beers (I waited to order one until I made sure the other adults were drinking. In the Waldorf community I’m usually careful to observe before I jump in. It’s still a fairly new world for us, so I watch things first…) Apparently, I swore ‘more than once’ during the night, and made a ‘sexually lewd’ comment when in my car, with the windows down for her boys to hear… I don’t doubt that I swore. Rain was coming down in buckets, and I was having trouble getting my kid’s elaborate costume in the car without smashing it. I’d had two drinks (not as an excuse, but hey, I don’t drink often, and when I do, I feel it, and so does my tongue) and I can totally see my cursing the damn thing as I wrestled it into the back seat. Yes, I am fairly confident I used profanity. And at the table too – I mean, what the hell? I’m finally out with grown-ups, the kids are running around the restaurant being silly and there’s a general volume level in the room that just seems to soften the blow – if not flat-out invite – words of color and emphasis. Ya know? Course I do admit to having far more of a potty mouth than would be acceptable in many homes, but then again I’d been hearing about “Jesus H. Christ and his twelve raggedy-ass disciples” since I could remember, and I’d known since an early age that many things in life weren’t worth “a pinch of sour owl shit”. Nuff said.

The bit about a ‘sexually explicit’ remark still has me scratching my head… I run through the likely culprits, and I find none fit. I admit that I enjoy punctuating language with an occasional well-placed swear word, and I have hung out with enough men and musicians to have become fairly adept at sexually crass expressions of speech, but man, I could not for the life of me I imagine what it was that I’d said. And she’d said she didn’t care to repeat it either, so I’ll have to give up on learning from this one. Hey, if she was looking for bad parenting choices, she might have found greater offense in the fact that I paid our $44 tab entirely with singles from my kid’s tip jar. I didn’t know we’d be joining them til the day before and hadn’t set any extra funds aside for it, so I was fairly panicked when the check arrived and I didn’t have quite enough… but Elihu did. Hey – I wouldn’t doubt it that this had me swearing under my breath! It had me feeling like a crappy mom for sure. I told him that I was using his money and assured him that next pay-day it would all be returned. Then I slunk over to the hostess’ station and asked her to please swap out my many small bills for some larger ones. I didn’t want the unnecessary embarrassment of paying our portion with forty-four singles… I was trying to stay as ‘normal’ as possible that night. But I’d used my kid’s money to pay for my beer and I’d sworn like a sailor. Not so normal, I guess.

Then there was the owl. The one from which the two boys had removed feathers and talons. That I had allowed the boys to ‘dismember’ this creature was deeply offensive to this family’s Native American beliefs. (Blonde haired and blue-eyed child, I would never have guessed.) What we’d done that day had shocked the parents – so much so they weren’t even able to share it with me; these past four months I was none the wiser for what I had done. But I too had my own feelings about the owl….We knew this owl personally; it was our own Barred Owl – the one that always hooted at two in the morning and once sat on a branch above our heads and allowed us to look our fill at his black-eyed beauty. We’d shone a flashlight up at him and watched as he did what owls do. He would sit still as a stone for minutes on end, then in an instant rotate his head nearly all the way round. He was mysterious, grand and silent. We tired of watching him long before he flew away, and left him in the darkness again, telling him with our hearts how much we loved him as we headed back down the long driveway to the house. How grateful we were that he lived here. It made us feel deeply good to know that he was always somewhere about. Heartbreaking news arrived one day when neighbor Zac told us he had a dead barred owl for us – it had been hit on the road – and he’d bring it over for Elihu to see. We just knew it was our owl. It was with mixed feelings that we beheld the giant bird up close, but it was smashed and dead, all we could do now to honor it was to bear witness, maybe to save some feathers and talons, and to wonder how it was that such a creature survived year after year…

I’d saved the owl in an enclosed tub for several days (otherwise he’d have been dinner for someone else), knowing that Elihu’s classmate was coming over. I’d thought it would be interesting to see it up close, and the mementos would be an unexpected treasure. After all, how often do you get this kind of opportunity? I wondered at what else we could do; taxidermy cost too much. Leaving it out in the woods – as we do with sick, dead hens, that didn’t feel right either. Hell, nothing felt right. Might have buried it, but the ground was already cold and hard. So I decided we’d harvest what we could, then burn it with a little ceremony. Have not cultures been reverently burning their dead since ancient times? I got a woodpile ready as the boys began to learn just how hard it really is to remove feathers from such a robust creature. Pliers were required, and as for the talons, wire cutters were the only tools that worked. I can’t say that there wasn’t a slightly violent feeling involved in the process, but I kept reminding myself that we’d have these feathers and talons – and this remembrance of our friend – for years to come. (Butchering chickens is a kind of violent act as well, but we eat them, so we feel it’s only correct that we must know what it is so kill them, too.) I reminded myself that this creature’s soul had now returned to its creator – that it was now just decomposing matter. If life on a farm teaches nothing else it teaches this: once something is dead, it’s gonna get stinky and messy real soon. Unless you’re gonna eat it – get rid of it. When Elihu and I throw out dead organic matter – whether eggshells for the compost heap or dead hens for the resident raccoons – we always say the items are ‘going back to God’. And that, I believe, is the best way to throw things out. To release them back into the cycle; to allow them to integrate back into the substance from whence they came. Look, getting rid of a dead creature always evokes queer feelings. Sorrow, honor, regret, wonder…. finding a good point of resolution isn’t easy. The day my father was cremated was difficult for me; I still have a very hard time in knowing that his beloved body no longer exists in this physical world… But in the end, when soul and spirit have departed the mechanism, we are left with something that is indeed only physical matter. I don’t believe it hurts to remember the soul that once animated the body by saving just the smallest token. I still have a lock of my father’s hair…

So, after over four months of wondering, the case was finally solved. Foul language and removing parts from a dead owl were my unknown transgressions in the eye’s of our friend’s mother. But I still think that trumping these was the third and still unforgivable offense I’d originally thought was long off the table: that of having once posted an image of her happily smiling child on this blog. Upon learning her feelings about it, I removed all mention of her kid without a moment’s hesitation. I’d not only apologized in a couple of emails, but in person too. I made a point of checking in with her, asking if we were good now. She’d said yes, but clearly was being polite to avoid any confrontation (this is to me ironic in that by profession she counsels others). So here we were, back at the largest issue in her mind: the fact that I had exposed her child to the internet. A place she suggested in a recent email that I must certainly agree is known by all to be a ‘VERY’ (her use of caps) dangerous place. (The world itself is a dangerous place too, but one cannot stay indoors all of one’s life.) Ok. I understand how it can be, but do you really feel your child’s well-being is threatened by one lone image of his smiling countenance on a blog? Sheesh. I obviously do not share this woman’s feelings. But I respect that she feels the danger is very real. But besides taking action, and apologizing, what more could I do? No more, but no matter, the damage has been done. In her mind I had been crossed off the list. She wasn’t going to take any chances on a wild card like me.

In her mind proper values are self-evident, obvious. But in my mind, there’s an interesting twist to this whole thing… What I myself find a little hard to understand is that her child routinely rides on a motorcycle with his father… This is a risk I personally am not willing to take. When I lived in Chicago I once had a motorcycle, and I loved riding. But when I got pregnant, I decided that I couldn’t justify that kind of risk anymore. Someone depended upon me now – there was no room for accidents or injury in my life. When my child is out and on his own and no longer depends upon me, I may get back on a bike again. But not before. This for me is an unacceptable risk, one I feel is far more real and dangerous than mention on any blog. Amazing, isn’t it, how differently people feel about things? I’ve learned a lot from this chapter. One thing is for sure – I’m not going to go around sharing with folks whom I don’t know well that ‘I have a blog’. Too much of a hot-button issue. You just don’t know how it’ll resonate with people. Instead – from now on I’m simply going to say that I’m a writer. I like that better anyhow. And writers can use all the colorful language they like.

Last night mom, Elihu and I went out to dinner at the iconic Hattie’s – a place where the fried chicken still tastes the same as it did forty years ago – and then enjoyed a show afterward at the high school. Each year they produce a top-notch quality musical. This year it was Footloose. Doesn’t seem old enough yet to be hip or ironic, but I guess it’s enjoying a resurgence of sorts, and in spite of having played some of the songs to death in wedding bands years ago, it was still fun to see. The choreography was impressive, and we all enjoyed it. The angel of serendipity was again on our sides; we got a parking spot in front of the restaurant, and then three seats together in the front row – and in front of the percussionist no less. Afterwards in the swarms of people crowding the lobby we ran into two girls we knew from their days at Elihu’s old elementary school – and it made me so happy to see them now as such talented, beautiful young women. It was a nice way to end the evening for Elihu to hug them and say hello. We headed out into the foggy night and in less than fifteen minutes Grandma was dropping us off at home.

The calm inside our house was such a contrast to the whirlwind week now behind us. We were delirious with anticipation of what lay ahead… ‘Imagine’ I said as we smiled to each other… ‘we have NO plans for two days!’ I tried not to dwell on the mountain of dishes, the baskets of laundry, the mess of recycling strewn across our yard… Yes, there was work to be done. But nowhere to be, no one to answer to…. no one to offend. And maybe, somewhere out in the vast, dark woods, there might still be an owl sitting patiently on a branch, waiting, like us, for the first faint stirrings of Spring…

 

Evidence December 16, 2013

“I still don’t understand how people can not believe in Santa”, Elihu said from the backseat as I drove him to friend Keithie’s house for a birthday party. I considered for a second asking him to explain his thinking, but decided instead to let him do the talking. We were on thin ice here, and I wanted to see where this was going. How he, in his ten-year old world was working this all out. “I mean, how can you not believe when there’s so much physical evidence of Santa?” he continued. Again, I said nothing. I so did not want to blow this by leading the witness. So, uncharacteristically of me, I remained silent in the front seat and contributed nothing to the discussion. “How do people explain  all the presents if they don’t believe in Santa? How can they? How is it possible that there are so many presents around the tree if it’s not Santa?” he said with a hint of impatience. Ah, I thought to myself – presents, of course. I got what he meant. And from that perspective, I can understand his thinking. Kinda hard not to believe in the face of all that physical evidence. I knew he’d be spending the next few hours with some rough-neck country kids who hadn’t believed in Santa since Kindergarten. I prayed to myself that the topic wouldn’t come up, cuz these boys probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell them what they thought. We were traveling outside the nurturing, childhood-preserving culture of the Waldorf School, so anything was fair game. But Elihu was resolute and fully committed to Santa, even now. Even moments after singing “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and discovering for the first time the lyric “you may say there’s no such thing as Santa, but as for me and Grandpa we believe”. (I had felt a pause in the car. A moment of thought, of mulling things over after hearing that line, but then somehow sensed he’d made it work and it didn’t end up challenging his beliefs). So if those boys had other ideas, I had a feeling Elihu still wasn’t ready to buy em.

The last few years we’ve had a handful of unexpected things happen to us around Christmastime which have certainly helped to keep the magic alive. When Elihu was six, we returned from seeing Santa to find that one long-awaited paper white bud had finally opened, a miracle he attributed to the Christmas Spirit we’d generated by being with Santa. One year we pulled in the driveway to find a beautiful, wrought iron birdfeeder holder – complete with birdfeeders and bags of seed. I myself was so stunned that I didn’t have to worry about faking a thing. Equally as surprised as Elihu, I searched my mind for the likely suspects while Elihu just accepted it with the most matter-of-fact attitude. He knew it was Santa, who was being kind to pay an early visit here in Greenfield, as he knew that Elihu would be in Illinois for Christmas. While it was thrilling, it wasn’t beyond belief for him at all (as it was for me!). And last year we had a fresh Christmas tree miraculously show up on our doorstep. Again, he took it in stride. My mouth was still hanging open while he was already working on getting it into the house. This year the miracle was perhaps smaller, but it gave me pause. A few years ago I made a large outline of a dove in white lights which I hang over our garage door. It’s a pretty large installation, so finding that half of it didn’t light (after I’d checked and then gotten up on the extension ladder to hang it, argh) was a huge bummer. I decided to keep it lit anyway, hoping it would motivate me to take it down and fix it before too many days passed. But one morning we woke up to find the whole bird perfectly lit up. It had just fixed itself overnight. I was flabbergasted and incredibly relieved. Elihu, however, has come to expect the unexpected and simply told me it was simply “the little extra bit of magic that hadn’t shown up yet”. ! Whatever the cause, I was appreciative and grateful, and secretly I took it as a sign that things were going to be alright. That I should finally free myself of that persistent, internal hum of worry that followed me through my days and nights…

I shouldn’t read meaning into things that aren’t meant to convey anything special, and yet the spontaneous re-lighting of the dove, and just in time for our party (mostly snowed out – the only folks who came were neighbors with tiny children. It was one of the loveliest parties ever) signaled to me that the world was ok, and some magic force wanted me to know it. My heart was lifted, my stress eased just a bit. Things seemed hopeful again. But as with anything in life, things never stay just so for long.

Whether it was the storm, the county plow truck or our own ‘dumb Mike’ the plow guy, it didn’t really matter – but the sign for our family’s Studio – the concert hall in which dad had hosted his Festival of Baroque Music – had become dislodged from the frame and now hung awkwardly, threatening to fall into the roadside ditch. There for many a year, many a storm, and today it goes. A strange feeling of something not being right – of being somehow different and wrong – came over me as I saw it. It’s a large, heavy sign, and I surprised myself in finding I was able to free it from it’s frame and drag it to the safety of our driveway, where I rested it against some trees. Then we continued up the driveway, past the Studio itself and up to mom and dad’s house for a quick visit. Things, I’d just heard, had been quite strange and different with dad the night before. The broken sign at the road seemed to me like an omen of sorts.

Last night had been brutal. Dad was found in the morning sitting on the couch in his own excrement, upset, detached, unable to make sense of the simplest instructions. Mom and Andrew were able to clean him up, and somehow mom got some food into him too. But by the time Elihu and I arrived, dad was slumped over in his chair, his hands nervously moving, twittering in a strange, new fashion, his gaze fixed on the floor. When I went to him and tried to say hello, he didn’t even lift his gaze. After some coaxing, he did respond to me, but returned within seconds to odd little non sequiturs, bits of sentences that still – God bless him – were very well-constructed and incredibly ‘almost’ plausible-sounding. And after some tricky discussions about action plans for the next forty-eight hours (mom is so defensive and controlling about the whole subject it’s very difficult to make progress. It’s the old ‘lead a horse to water’ thing going on) we decided he needed to be returned to the couch, where he’d likely stay the night. It took all four of us – me, mom, Andrew and Elihu to get dad to the couch. Yeah, things were different now.

I know there are good days and bad days, and they can come and go, but even so, this really did seem to be an entirely new level here. (I was losing my faith that we’d see him bright and engaged again as we did just two weeks ago.) We got him comfortable as possible, but his hands were still trembling, tugging, moving, searching for something… he was still unsettled. But as the minutes passed be began to grow more calm. That was good to see. Before we left, Elihu did his best to connect with grandpa. He leaned way over, putting his face inches from dad’s. Elihu told him that he loved him so much, and immediately dad’s face transformed from that of a vacant, old man to that a young boy’s grandpa. He smiled, made eye contact with his grandson and said “Oh Elihu, I love you so very much too”, they kissed goodbye and then we left. On the way out I put my arm around mom’s shoulder, told her I loved her too, and that I knew this was hard. Once again, I saw her eyes become damp. She does not cry. She does not relinquish control. This is going to be a very hard time for her.

On the way down the driveway I see the sign, resting on its side for now. The sign was due to come down in the next couple of months anyway. We’re having a parking lot put in the woods just to the left of the Studio – phase one you might say in ‘our’ (my) plan to separate the Studio from mom and dad’s property. If we’re going to have our own stand-alone arts center, we can’t share a driveway with the neighboring house. And much as my mother may use her best dramatic passive-aggressive tone when speaking of ‘my plans after she’s gone’ – as if I can’t wait for her to leave already (!) she must understand that one day her house – gorgeous and memory-filled as it may be – is a house that someone else will be living in one day. (I point out to her that I already have a perfectly good house. What do I need with this one? This she seems to understand. And yet, she must not get it completely, it seems…. sheesh.) And I am fairly sure a new family wouldn’t want to share their driveway with an arts center. Cars, people, comings and goings… Naw. So we’ve got to do a little restructuring now. So, as I said, the sign was due for a move soon, anyway. It just came unexpectedly, abruptly, like this new phase with my father. Who is finally the least like my father of all the versions I’ve seen so far. Yes, it feels there is a changing of the guard coming soon, and that there are signs all around, both little and big, to help remind us.

I got home tonite to find two pieces of mail. One, a bill. The second, quite likely a solicitation for money from my kid’s school. Already the guilt began to grow inside when I recognized the Emma Foundation – crap, another campaign I am in no position to contribute to. But I would, if I could! Crap, I say to myself under my breath as I open the letter. And at first, I can’t understand what it is I’m seeing and reading, because my expectations were so the other direction…. And then, I get it. And probably because of all the emotions that have gone on over the past day – seeing my dad like this, seeing the imminent end of my child’s innocence, realizing that there is so much unknown before me – all of it and more – it all just sort of wells up in me and I do what I know my own mother would benefit from ever so much more than even me in this moment: I cry, I cry, and I cry. I get a mix of feelings – it’s kind of in the same space as a mystery Christmas tree showing up from out of nowhere at your door just when you had no idea how you’d be able to afford one yourself, it’s that, it’s a feeling of instant humility, a prideful dash of ‘do we really appear that needy?’ and then finally, a gentle reconciliation with what’s just been given to you in love – and most likely after a healthy process of consideration. In this case, a vote has likely been passed, several folks have been putting their heads together on this, and they came out voting for Elihu. He is the recipient of a generous donation towards his Waldorf tuition. The note is even signed by the mother who lost her own ten year old child and who created this fund in order to create a lasting legacy in her daughter’s honor. Wow. Hardly a humbler, more honored feeling than this.

Change is everywhere, yet it’s so embedded in the everyday that we can’t see much of it for ourselves. The evidence of that change is there, but actually recognizing it for yourself is the challenge. In my own casual, armchair efforts to better myself as a student of life, I’ve long reminded myself to notice the tiny voice within, magnify it ten times, and then heed its message. Sometimes we know something’s changing, but we don’t want to believe it. Some will think me a naïve tree-hugging Spiritualist to hear me say that I do believe things happen as they are supposed to (not to be confused with things happening as we’d hoped they would). As with my surprise divorce and out-of-character cross-country move, these were unwelcome changes that created the opportunity for so many new experiences we’d otherwise never have had. Suffice to say, sucky things can beget better things.

The evidence tells me my father is going to die soon. The evidence tells me that my son is growing up. Both of these are hard things to understand.  Thankfully, the evidence also shows us that there are some people in this world who act towards others in love and kindness and will go to great efforts to do so.

And it still does kinda seem there’s an awful lot of evidence to support this Santa thing too.