The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Poised for Flight February 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my young aviator is finally ready to fly.

 

Off Balance June 15, 2014

Since Madeline’s been gone, it’s just felt different around here. Elihu’s noticed it too. The small flock that remains is a rather dull bunch, as something about the attack on the coop the other night has the birds behaving a bit less like themselves – and ironically, perhaps in some cases, a bit more like themselves – than before.  For the most part the gals all meander about as they’ve always done, only we notice they’re not quite as brave as they used to be. They don’t take over the porch (a frustrating but endearing activity), they don’t seem to make it as far as their once-favorite flowering quince bush, and in general they stay uncharacteristically close to the house most of the day. Austin, our slightly neurotic guinea fowl, deprived the past few months of his best pal Maximus, has been acting quite nasty to his coop mates, challenging poor Baldy, pulling every last feather from his royal rear end, as well as running after the hens in fruitless circles as they cluck in distress. And since Madeline – the one rather calming element in the the group – has been gone, he has become something of a bully. Elihu and I both know we need to get him some hens, but emails to local chicken friends turn up no prospects. He’s becoming a drag on the flock, and his bursts of incredibly loud calls of  ‘chank chank chank’ (I suppose him to be expressing some inner conflict – at least he can get it out, good for him in that regard) that sometimes last for five minutes at a stretch and permeate every closed window with ease – well, this is becoming much more than an occasional nuisance.

The absence of our goose Maximus has changed things too. We hadn’t lost any hens to predators over the past two years, the time since we’d had him. But with the coming of warm weather, we’ve had a handful of losses. No coincidence. I guess a two foot tall white gander made an impression on the neighborhood fox and raccoon. With that imposing figure no longer standing guard in the door of the coop at sunset, the critters have nothing to dissuade them. And no one to slow them down, either. Poor Bald Mountain did his regal best the night we lost Madeline; he had put up something of a fight with the attacker, and was covered in new, open scratches and was limping even more than before (in the past he’s lost a spur and returned home quite beaten up after fending off potential invaders). The back half of Baldy’s comb had been bitten off, and though the wound was beginning to clot, he was covered in fresh blood when we first saw him.

We came home shortly after dark to a message on our phone machine from our neighbor. He had discovered Bald Mountain on his front door step. Putting the story together it seems that after the confusion of the attack, he’d ended up fleeing, running through the woods and across the field to our neighbor’s house, where they found him on the stairs of their front door, seeking safety. Neighbor Chad was more than a hero, and wrestled the rooster onto his lap, driving him home on his four wheeler. But by then the damage was done. Madeline had been lost in the skirmish, and Azalea, as we later came to learn, had hunkered down in the darkness for her survival. What a good boy is our Bald Mountain, what a fight he must have  given. How stunned and impressed we were at how far he’d traveled to save himself (it is quite a distance). And that he sought out a house, a light, something he clearly recognized to represent the safety of home – it all has us even more grateful for our poor old fellow. Now, if only Austin, that damned nuisance of a guinea, would let poor Baldy alone.

It occurs to me, as I look about at my tail-less rooster, my psycho guinea fowl and my frantic hens, that this is no longer a harmonious homestead.

It’s also becoming a drag to go out these days. To get dressed, to make myself presentable enough to go before people. Somehow I made it through the last few weeks of school, but these days, like a blossom bursting forth overnight from a tiny bud, I too seem to have expanded my own previous dimensions in a very short time. Regret mounts when I think back to last summer; I inhabited a body of a sexy size 10 (for me this was a huge personal victory) and yet now I find I’m surfing Ebay at 2 am searching for fat shirts with empire waists and stretch waist pants, some even size 16. Sixteen? When the fuck did this happen? I ask myself over and over as I find myself unable to button the waist on the few remaining ‘fat’ pants I find in some long-forgotten storage bins. Seriously, how did I get here? Oh, I know how. The stress of this past year really got to me – the new music I’ve needed to learn and play, the unpredictable and horrific panic attacks I’ve suffered with (yes, they are no mere annoyance, they are irrational yet real experiences of pure terror) and the relentless nature of single motherhood have called for a deep soothing, one that only entire tubs of hummus and double portions of curry chicken with a half bottle of red wine can provide. Yeah, I’ve been riding this train for a while now, and now it’s finally arriving at its destination.

The kid”ll be gone on Tuesday for a good month and a half stretch, and finally I won’t have to concern myself with the preparation of three meals plus snacks all day long. I have no new music to learn, no one to perform for. ‘Me’ time is finally here. But then there’s that catch – the one my astute child himself brings up when I talk about how much ‘progress’ I intend to make in his absence. “I know what you’ll end up doing, Mommy” he says, his voice dripping with cynicism, “You’ll say how fat you are, you’ll look at all the work you have to do at the Studio and all the stuff to do around here, you’ll feel sorry for yourself and then drive to Stewart’s and get a bag of chips and a bottle of wine. Then you’ll tell yourself it’s just for tonight. But it won’t be.” Really? Am I that bad? I wonder. Am I that obvious? Crap. With a month to myself stretching before me, I feel hope and despair rising up inside of me all at once. Ich.

I haven’t done my taxes yet this year either. Filed for an extension. But I’ll need to file for another soon. Plus I need to re-apply for food stamps, something which in of itself is very much like filing taxes. This is support we desperately need at this point; living these past three months without that help has been pretty brutal. Between having to eat and wanting things such as a bike, a bike rack to carry said bike, orthodontics and bass lessons, it’s been tough. Time’s been at a premium too, as with all the outside work my new job requires, I just haven’t had the time to sift through a year’s financial information. So this too is something I have on my growing to-do list for the time ahead. And then I remember the bag of chips, the bottle of wine… Yeah, this kind of a desk-bound project is likely to inspire a desire to consume empty calories. When you’re at this end of the spectrum, it’s kinda hard to remember what it was to live at the other end of it – it’s almost impossible to remember what it was like to be the super diet-conscious, portion-conscious, yoga class-attending person that you once were long ago. But I’ll find my way back, eventually. I hope.

There is also the garage to deal with. Looks like a bomb went off inside. The detritus of a long, unforgiving winter. My office is filled with bins marked ‘to file’, ‘to archive/scan’, ‘to do, medium importance’, ‘to-do, urgent’ (now that’s kinda funny, the bin’s been sitting there for months, untended), piles of Elihu’s art need to find a home, piles of clothing I can no longer fit into sit, waiting, while mice leave tiny turds all over them and begin to pull at the threads… Water continues to seep into my basement, and a white, fluffy mold has burst through my paint job of a couple years ago, sending a funky smell (and millions of funky-smelling spores too, no doubt) into the air. Piles of hand-me-downs sit, waiting to be put away, as well as do a thousand other tiny artifacts of our life. I know that my situation is not so far from most folks, and certainly I am not the only single parent with an extra heaping of life on their plate. But still… I just shake my head in deepest wonder…. How does everyone else do it?

Elihu and I spend a fair amount of time on the streets of Saratoga, watching the people walk past. He busks, I sit on a bench, read and watch. And I wonder about each one of these people. They all look so well-tended, so healthy. They wear trendy clothes, they sit outside at the hip restaurants and spend $200 on dinner without batting an eye. How do they do it? What do they do for a living? Do they have bins of un-filed crap at home like me? Yes, they’re out strolling the boulevard, looking fine, but are they happy? What kind of thoughts do they have? What motivates them? Do they feel fulfilled? Empty? Searching? If one didn’t ask these questions, it would seem that everyone is doing just fine, doing exceptionally well, thank you. I search their eyes for answers, I lean in to overhear bits of conversations in hopes of finding answers. They give no clues away. Perhaps their basements are moldy and full of piles too. Maybe not. They just look so good on the outside, there’s no telling.

I think back on the chapters of my life in which I felt the most promise, the most fulfilled, the most in balance. And, ironically, for all the moaning I’d done last year about turning 50, I can in retrospect say that for about half that year I felt the best that I had in a long time. And the time before that in which I remember feeling really good about things was when Elihu was a toddler – I’d successfully lost 55 post-baby pounds, I had a husband, a child and a home I loved, I was singing regularly in front of a top-notch, swinging big band, and life felt wonderful. Before that, it was a time in Chicago when I was playing in tons of bands, on the move all the time, making music I loved and being nearly constantly in the company of dear friends. These were the times I felt things to be most balanced in my life, and thank goodness I have those memories – they remind me of how it felt, how it might feel once again, if all goes well. It may take a little alone time to consider the new recipe I need these days to find myself living a balanced life once again; it’s my hope that a little reflection will re-invigorate my quest and bring some answers to light.

I know it’s important that I use my time wisely and get stuff done – but I also know it’s important to find peace in doing simply nothing at all. And, somewhere in between, lies that perfect balance. Here’s hoping I can come close.