The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Waypoint October 14, 2021

I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.

In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.

Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.

When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.

We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.

I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.

A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.

The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.

Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.

And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.

When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.

Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.

I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.

I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.

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elizabethconant.com

AeroCraft

Elihu’s Music on YouTube

 

August Ends August 26, 2016

Elihu returned home from his father’s a couple of days ago – and with great fanfare, as he came bearing guests. I’d thought lice were for other people’s kids, but apparently not. I knew that in greeting a 13-year-old boy at the airport there’d be no huge embrace, that it would be mellow, but our new predicament absolutely assured him no such embarrassment would take place. Instead, we smiled, kinda high-fived and giggled our way to the escalators with our little secret. When we arrived home he paused in the doorway. “I guess I have been gone a long time, cuz I can smell the house now. And you’re right. It smells old.” I don’t mind – heck, living in it I hardly notice it anymore, but I do remember a time back in our first days here when I thought the joint smelled like a cross between your ancient aunt’s split level and a summer camp. A little paint and tlc has redeemed us just a little, but in the end, it is what it is. Like its owner, it is decidedly middle-aged and beginning to feel it.

So much has happened since Elihu has been gone. It’s hard to know where to start, but the essence of my summer experience can be distilled by saying that milestones have finally been reached. It kinda breaks my heart that I let my weight creep up as I busied myself ticking crap off the eternal to-do list, however I take some solace in knowing that so much is behind me, and so much has been accomplished. My son’s pants are now short and his hair is long. All is as it should be.

At the moment Elihu and I are suffering through summer colds and a few final lice treatments. We’re hunkered down in the cool of the cellar after a nice afternoon in the sun, he at the downstairs tv playing Mario, me at the computer sorting through hundreds of photos and wondering if I should post any – or all of em. Ultimately there are so many sweet moments lost to the camera, and often the images I do have aren’t of the greatest quality. No matter, they convey the essence of our summer and help us to remember how August came to a close in the year 2016.

the whole gangThe Studio has come back to life this summer, and that, of course, is huge.

IMG_4937For just a week or two each year, the heat and humidity threaten my sanity.

IMG_4933Finally dealing with some foot issues. Lots of issues in fact seem to coming to the fore at this time in my life. !

IMG_4446My old friend Dina – whom I’ve known since I was very young – has been proactive about staying in touch and visiting. She, her boys and furry dog flew in from Seattle and we met at a local art museum.

IMG_4487Mom came too – she and dad used to enjoy coming to the Clark.

IMG_4468Fancy shmancy.

IMG_4598On the way home we stop at a Stewarts – the local version of a 7-11. We ponder the after-market stickers on our drinks which read “produced with genetic engineering.’ ! ?

IMG_4614Serendipity arranged for my favorite chicken art gallery to be right next door.

IMG_1993Dan and I are now enjoying a fairly regular rehearsal schedule. Man, it sure is nice to have my own space in which to keep gear set up and ready to go.

IMG_1996Dan just had this guitar made for him. His thing is playing a 7 string, which gives him some great opportunities to play nice bass lines underneath. This solid body Tele style is new to him and so far, so good.

IMG_2029This doe stuck around for a long time, munching away as we played.

IMG_2054Glamorous it aint, but hey, it’s a gig. Can’t say a sister aint tryin.

farmers marketThis may not be so glamorous either, but it’s my first piano single job since before my son was born. That sure took a minute now, didn’t it? It was hot, sweaty, rainy – and my tent leaked – but it was a success in my book.

IMG_5033…and that gig lead to this one. Vacation Bible School. Say what? A unique job to be sure.

IMG_5017The tiny, one-room church. No frills here!

IMG_4921Miss Shirley tells the gang about miracles – the theme for the week’s camp. She blew a referee whistle to get the kids’ attention before marching them into the church as I played “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Shirley don’t mess around.

IMG_5020If you’re on your way to Heaven, clap your hands…

IMG_5279The schoolhouse on top of the hill, just above the old church.

IMG_5231Lovely tall windows…IMG_5235…looking out onto ancient playground equipment. Seriously, this looks like fun to me!

IMG_5241I visited the church cemetery – this is the famous Allen family here. There’s a road up the mountainside – a dead end – on which every single family is an Allen. You do the math.!

IMG_5243Infant grave.

IMG_5272And many more of the same. These were kinda creepy, handmade and rather crude. But well-tended and well-remembered.

IMG_5308Much of the congregation was made of Allens, but not this little spitfire – this guy is Shirley’s great-grandson.

IMG_5294They were all very nice and welcoming, but a little too mainstream Christian for me.

lakeThe church owns this beach on the great Sacandaga Lake.

IMG_5310And on the way home I saw lovely views of this man-made lake.

IMG_2091Back at the Hillhouse I enjoy my own watery retreat.

IMG_5423One day I hopped in the car and headed out to Saratoga Lake cuz I so missed water. I noticed a happy group at the far table, and it turned out I knew a couple of the folks there – they were Waldorf peeps!

IMG_5431Who could believe that I’d meet a woman who grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan here in Saratoga? Crazy world.

IMG_5418It’s racing season.

IMG_5421The cars, if nothing else, tell us so.

IMG_5171Back at home, I enjoy a majestic summer sky. The greens of the trees are starting to look tired, and although the sun is still hot in the middle of day, the nights are cool and there’s a subtle feeling of change blowing in around us. But what a good summer it’s been. Lots of new experiences, visits with friends and nature all around.


 

Day Away July 28, 2013

Had occasion to visit a new friend in a neighboring community yesterday. It was about an hour’s drive west, and I was excited to visit the town, as I’d known about it all my life but had never been there. Gloversville, NY, was once upon a time the very seat of America’s glove-making industry. Sorry – no historical pics of the town or its industry here. In fact just snapped a very few, but just enough to remind myself that I got out for a day and went someplace new…

Late July 2013 002

Now this lifts my heart – a good, old-fashioned music store, very much in the style of my beloved Village Music School ‘back home’ in Deerfield, Illinois. Saw four old-timers on the porch and just had to stop by and say hi. The future of joints like this seems a little iffy in our culture of big box music stores. But ya never know. There’s just no substitute for a place like this.

Late July 2013 009

Such sweetie pies! The men of Dad’s Music Shop invited Elihu and me to come and join em on a Saturday night jam. Our skills are rather primitive (at least mine are on the accordion) yet  I do think we might be able to keep up on a tune or two. It’s on the ‘to try’ list for sure…

Late July 2013 011

And look, I found myself a mid-century home in town! Hmm, gets me thinking…

Late July 2013 012

And an old filling station. A 1930s building, a 1950s light fixture. Awesome.

Late July 2013 022

But here’s the real Mecca. WATER. Plus mountains. Crazy silly awesome stuff of dreams. Man do I miss a lake…. The Great Sacandaga Lake is a river basin that was flooded in the late 1920s. While not truly a ‘natural’ lake, it is nonetheless a very beautiful place, with wide open vistas framed by the Southern Adirondack Mountains. Love driving over the bridge – it almost feels like I’m flying….

Late July 2013 028

Keeping my eyes on the road, I took a chance that these pics would come out…

Late July 2013 027

The end of the long bridge ride. The rest of the trip home was made up a steeply graded mountain and over miles and miles of dirt and gravel road. My ears clicked as the altitude changed and a cool mist covered the road in places. I imagine the folks two hundred years ago first carving these roads out of the forest – and I give up trying to even understand what that must have been like. I may still use the archaic flip phone (is it old enough yet to be ironic or cute?) but nonetheless I am a modern woman. While I may engage in some minor farm activity each day, truly, there is no ‘pioneer’ in me. Not sure how well I woulda fared in 1830.

I am eternally grateful for the physical infrastructure all around us, and in awe of its construction and design. All I gotta do is drive and take in the scenery.  Which makes for a very low-key, pleasant day away.

 

Wheels, Wings and Water September 10, 2012

Elihu’s father had a bad experience with a bike once. It was early enough in his bicycling career and frightening enough to cause him to put the bike down for good. Once, in our early twenties, I’d tried to take up the campaign to re-acquaint him with riding, to remind him of the pure joy he would experience, to show him the sense of freedom it might bring to his life. Instead of seeing joy as I rode behind Fareed, I saw stress in every square inch of his body. He white-knuckled the handles and his torso remained one stiff, unbending unit. He was one big lump of fear. He wasn’t joyful, and clearly, he wasn’t experiencing anything similar to freedom. This, for me, was profoundly disappointing. As a young adult whose living was made pretty much with his hands alone, it became clear in a single afternoon that we would probably not be riding bikes together in our relationship. It just wasn’t a priority for him, and yes, it was quite possibly dangerous to his career (so was washing dishes – oh, that coveted right hand thumbnail. !). And I understood it, but I can’t say that I didn’t mourn it (as in for all twenty-two years of our relationship). I suppose I shoulda given that first, tiny rift a bit more consideration when I chose to make my life with him…

Time’s been a-passing, and I’ve been getting a bit concerned that Elihu himself might grow up not knowing how to ride a bike. Now Fareed’s parents didn’t themselves ride, so he didn’t have any backup, anyone motivating him. So when he gave up, it wasn’t considered a real loss. But to that I say: how does one grow up not riding a friggin bicycle?? To grow up not knowing the joy of exploring new neighborhoods and the independence and adventure that comes with it, never to experience the exhilaration of a fine, down-hill coast, never to know the incredible sense of freedom of that first, hands-free ride? This is all part and parcel of what it is to be a human being growing up on this planet – in virtually any country you might choose! Unless, of course, you live in the Australian outback, or perhaps on the frozen tundra – ok, then, maybe, a bike’s not a plus. But anywhere else – no, make that everywhere else – on this silly planet? Come on! It’s the single most ubiquitous form of transportation on the globe! Period. Not to ever ride a bike and know its freedoms and pleasures would be a heartbreaking loss. And if, as a mother, I did not teach my child how to ride a bike, I would be committing an inexcusable crime in parenting. So today, I took action. We will be a family who rides. We will!

It so happens that my family’s extended minivan (the Conants always needed an extra long vehicle for the transportation of harpsichords) needed to be driven a few miles before the guys at the garage could re-test it for the state emissions tests. So I threw our bikes into its cavernous interior and we headed out for the local middle school parking lot. I have never before found such a perfect place for learning to ride. Absolutely perfect. First, the place is huge. Like a high school, really. Second, it’s so close to level that riding in any direction is easy. There’s a bit of a grade here and there, imperceptible when going up (that’s nice), but a nice bit of assistance when going down. Lots of opportunity for easy forward movement. And aside from the couple we met who were walking their golden retriever, we were truly alone. The sky was blue with fast-moving clouds from horizon to horizon. A majestic day. Not hot, not cool. Perfect for riding bikes.

(Taking in the expanse of the parking lot, I remembered a story I’d heard many years ago: I once knew a man who’d played guitar in Ray Charles’ band, and it had been his job to take Ray out to the salt flats where Ray could put pedal to the metal and send his Buick flying at top speed in any direction. Yup, blind Ray loved to drive. And with all that wide open space, the salt flats were the only place he could really let loose. I can’t imagine riding shotgun in that car. Yikes.)

At first I nearly forget the helmets. Helmets are still rather a ‘new’ thing in my world; most of my bike-riding life has been without one. (Although I did bring mine along, I was a bad mom and neglected to wear it as a good example.) But I had Elihu well-prepared; in addition to his helmet he had on my old sailing gloves. If he went down, at least his hands wouldn’t end up scraped and bleeding. He is nine this year, and truthfully I’d thought he would have been riding by now, but each summer so far has been full of just so much stuff there’s never been an opportunity like this. Plus, Elihu just wasn’t interested, psyched. And you can only force so much. Especially on a gravelly, bumpy old driveway like ours. But today something was different. On the short drive there, I tried to sell him a bit on the way in which his world would simply open up when he could finally ride. Not sure if he needed it or not; by the time we got there, his face was all smiles and he darted away from me as if he had not one single forethought of a nasty fall (it was forefront in my mind for the first hour). My child does not have a natural aptitude for things physical; sports – games especially – things that involve either speed, balance or tracking of moving objects. Much of this is due to his having Achromatopsia, but then again, much of it is simply do to with, well, being my and Fareed’s kid.

I let it all go. Occasionally I shout out some of the briefest advice – but no coaching, no matter how understated and succinct it may be is really going to help him. What he needs is simply time. Did we not all learn by having all those summer hours to while away on our bikes? At first we tried to keep pace with the big kids, our training wheels allowing us to go just about anywhere they did (only much slower, and it certainly did not look very cool). So then maybe dad takes off one side. Three wheels. It’s still comforting. But hey, look, you’ve spent hours doing this now – and have you noticed how you’re not really even using that third wheel? You hardly touch it to the ground now. Hey – it really does seem like you’re ready. Yeah. Think so. So you come out one morning and dad’s already done it for you. No more little wheels. But you know in your tummy how it feels to ride, to balance moving forward, to roll upright. It feels just so, it feels right. Now you  know. Finally, you can ride.

But it took hours around the neighborhood to get to that point. Or at least hours around a better driveway than ours. So we will simply have to artificially enhance the hours spent on the pavement by driving here each weekend and just riding around. Til he gets it. And given his enthusiasm and sheer delight today, I think he’ll be riding before too long. I am very happy about this. Cuz I too had a wonderful day, riding in lazy circles, standing on my pedals, feeling the wind, imagining myself flying, flying…. I’d told Elihu (as a means to entice him) that riding a bike was probably the closest thing to flying he would ever get to experience. Today he told me he thought he just might agree. Happy boy was he. !

We found a natural conclusion to the day, a consensus that we were done for now. We loaded our bikes into the van, then sat in its open side door, taking in the vista of the wide, wide sky above. “Lake George?” I asked him, inspired by the sky and craving even more of it. “Yes, definitely” he answered. I knew he loved our last visit there, now two years ago. We’d heard my old friend David Amram play, he’d caught ducks and we’d eaten at a restaurant over the water. The memory, for some reason, lived larger than so many others in his mind. We still needed to put another 50 or so miles on the engine before it could be re-tested, so this was perfect. After dropping off our bikes and a quick change of clothes, we headed north.

The sky continued to uplift our spirits, and seeing the lake from its southernmost point, framed on either side by mountains, that was a sight that impressed even my low-vision child. We first drove around town, taking it all in, getting a feel for where things were. There’s really not much to it. It’s a tiny tourist town. The draw for us is the lake, the sky, the seagulls and ducks. We found our way to the restaurant we’d been to last visit, and had high hopes for a lobster dinner over the water. Turns out they’d downsized the menu a bit recently, which was just as well. I was feeling a bit ill about spending so much when we had so very little. We settled on some lobster bisque instead. And some clams. Perfect. We have a lovely little meal during which neither of us can stop tapping our hands or feet on account of the too-loud music they’ve pointed at our table. My thing is my right foot. Been playing an imaginary kick drum for half my life now. Hardly know I’m doing it. My kid – he’s just plain playing any surface just about all the time. We groove, we laugh. We have so much fun. We watch the parasailors float by in front of the pine forest mountains behind. We learn to say ‘thank you’ in Slovakian from our waitress. We have a pink plastic pig which we have decided we will now take places with us and have photos taken of him on location, much like Flat Stanley (his went to Cairo!). We snap a pic of pig on the roof of the marina’s tarp, looking out over the majestic body of water. We laugh. We pay our bill, stash some extra oyster crackers in our bag, and head to the docks.

We’re able to bring the gulls in close with our modest cache of crackers. I try to snap some pictures, then, frustrated with the delay time of the silly shutter, I put it away and choose to enjoy the moment instead. The sun is going down behind the mountains, and we are bathing in its final orange glow. Elihu has been smiling almost the whole day, I notice. We finish our close encounter with the gulls and head up to ‘the strip’. We discover the town is slowing down. Summer is over and shops will be closing soon. We find an arcade open and walk in to explore. The prices are good; we enjoy a few fast-paced games of air hockey, then Elihu wins not one but two prizes (and not lame ones either) in the nearly-impossible-to-win game in which the claw drops and then lifts up, hopefully bringing with it a trinket in its clasp. Two prizes. He was so pleased with himself, and I commenced to fan the flame of his pride with my continued exclamations of “No one does that! How’d you do that? No one does that!”. Finally Elihu plays a winner of an airplane game which moves him up, down, left and right, in a surprisingly thrilling simulation of actual flight. No topping that one. Time to go. Besides, we’re almost out of cash. Almost.

We cross the street and head for the car. We’re a savory-over-sweet family on most days, but a fudge shop whose lights were still on just drew us in. They had a wall of nostalgic candy items, many of which I had to explain to Elihu. (I also added that we rode our bikes to the stores that sold them…) He got some gold miners gum nuggets in a little cloth bag – just  like the stuff my brother and I use to get at Leo’s, and then, as I was paying Elihu spied two remaining boxes of crickets. Salt and Vinegar flavored, to be exact. We threw em in, much to the disgust of the young five year old watching, who covered his  mouth in earnest, and finally we headed on our way.

The ride home seemed to take but fifteen minutes. Mighta been closer to twenty, but sure was quick. We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s to swap out cars and recap our day’s adventures, then we were off to get the birds in and get to bed.

Getting to sleep wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it might be in the wake of a full day of outdoor air. But there was so much to go over. So many sights to re-see in the mind’s eye. I read an old Swedish Fairytale to Elihu, then after feeling the night set in, I spied a favorite stuffed parrot on his shelf. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Lenny” he responded, quietly. “Would you like Lenny tonight?” I asked, feeling that he really would. He nodded. I brought the big parrot down and Eilhu took him tightly in his arms. Maybe this would help me to leave sooner. Maybe it would be just the reassurance he needed before he set sail into his night of dreams.

Good night, my beloved son. Thank you for another blessed day. I love you as much as the skies are wide…