There are some times when I long for the partnership of a marriage, times when I am nostalgic and perhaps even a bit overly romantic about the whole idea of aging alongside someone whom you know well. And then there are times when I feel pretty lucky, and I enjoy things just as they are.
Things took a tremendous turn for me almost fifteen years ago, and ever since, I’ve had to readjust my expectations. Life has been a challenge during the past decade and a half, yet it’s yielded results beyond any I could have imagined. I did the Green Acres swap; I traded my tony urban life as a famous man’s wife for a life on the farm as just another single mother hustling to make it all work.
You couldn’t have convinced me of it during those first brutal years, but now I know it was the best of any possible scenarios. My child wouldn’t have turned out as he has, nor would I have learned all that I have, if my husband had not left me. So many treasured memories of our shared life here in this tiny cottage in the woods as mother and child would not have come to be, so many life-changing events would never have happened if things had worked out the way in which I had expected them to.
But I am getting older. My body isn’t able to do things it could only a year or two ago. It’s not a hunch anymore, it’s real. And there are moments when I panic. What the hell am I supposed to do now? Is it in my best interest to grow old all alone back here in the woods? Is it even safe?
Yesterday my car got a flat tire in the driveway. And, for the first time in my adult life, I could not change it myself. My bad back and arthritic hands just couldn’t come through for me. Man, did I feel vulnerable. And old. As I sat there in my car, wondering what to do next, it hit me. Maybe this wasn’t where I should be anymore. Maybe.
My house is covered in branches, decaying leaves and moss, the gutters full. There’s a gaping hole in my garage roof with a swath of soffit hanging down like a giant loose tooth. Downed trees and huge branches lay all across my now-growing lawn. The iron hand rails down my kitchen steps have corroded so badly that they’re only held on by two remaining bolts. I haven’t got the physical stamina to tackle any of it, certainly not enough money to have someone else take care of things. And it worries me. The older I get, the more it does. Ten years ago – even just five years ago, I would’ve thrown my back into it and done my best to patch the roof myself. I would’ve tied the trees to my car and dragged them to a great pile and burned them. I had the energy and strength to imagine a solution and employ it. Now my back just won’t let me, my fingers can’t clutch tools very well anymore, and I hesitate to even go up a ladder. A fall is a potential disaster at my age.
At 59, all of these things are becoming clear to me.
In a few weeks’ time The Studio will be on the market, and the wait will begin. Who will buy the place since all the local arts venues have passed on it? Likely it will become a private residence. And that is not something I ever truly considered. It kinda changes everything. The anchor gets lighter, the future less certain.
When I first began renovations on The Studio in the summer after dad died, a contractor had spoken to me from the place of a concerned father; was this really my dream? he had asked me. Or was I embarking on this huge undertaking out of guilt, or a feeling of obligation to my late father’s legacy? I had thanked him for his candid offerings but assured him that I knew what I was doing, that it was a vision that I alone held. He probably knew as well as I did that I was headed down a long and expensive road, and that I honestly had no idea what I was doing. And while I can say that The Studio did in fact produce hundreds of beautiful moments and brought pleasure and delight to many over the following ten years – I cannot say that it ever paid for itself. To the contrary, it’s been through the gifts of kind people, including my mom, that the place ever broke even. But I have no regrets. I’ve learned a lot, and many wonderful things were born of the place.
But it’s so hard to let it go.
In the end, what in hell does anything matter but the moments themselves? Memories are important, as too are goals, but they all culminate in the single witness to a moment. This is something I’ve pondered for ages. I’m still in futile pursuit of truly getting it, but at least these days I understand a little bit better. And it’s what helps me to have no regrets; I have gratefully born witness to every moment of my “new” life here in Greenfield, from farming to academic to professional endeavors. Even as I felt the suffocating effects of my despondency, poverty and loneliness – even then I knew enough to hold a deep appreciation for the idyllic place in which we lived, the gifts of experiences that we’d been given, and the treasured way in which my young son and I lived together in partnership and solidarity.
Now that era has ended. What exactly comes next? Judging from the way my older students hold firm the handrails as they descend my kitchen steps, what comes next does not seem all that appealing.
I’ve joined the Y; I’ve had my first interactions with people other than students and store clerks since before the pandemic, and that restores hope in my heart. And over the past few months I’ve written around two dozen songs – something I’d never done until this year of my life. I am in possession of a Dot card and ready for networking; the links to my material are all easy to find. I’ve begun the hustle to get some work this summer. I’m still without a duo partner, but as with everything else in my life, it seems I’ll have to go that path alone. I also make myself attend open mics regularly – despite the drudgery that is inherent in that process – and so I get the opportunity to try out my new songs in front of people. It’s not a bad place to be in my life, if only perhaps a bit dull and without compensation.
My sixties await, and despite some genetic predisposition towards longevity in my family, Facebook and the virtual world beyond remind me that I could go any day; the prospect of dying feels close by and very real. I’m satisfied with my son and his future success, that storyline is resolved. And as soon as I can archive all my material in such a way that it can be accessed by folks after I’m gone, then I can rest easy. Resolution is what I’m after these days. (That, and a tiny, vain effort to remain present in this world in some form after I depart.)
Greenfield is a sweet place in which to live. Is not the name itself so very poetic?
Once, when driving back from the highway department where we’d helped ourselves to a bucket of free road salt, Elihu remarked through a laugh that he loved living in a town where a “five-gallon bucket was a unit of measure”. Elihu grew up knowing that the local good old boys would always come through to help us prime a pump or fix a fence; we always knew that our neighbors were our extended family. It was fundamental to the person my son has grown up to be. So I thank Greenfield, my neighbors – and my mother, too, for our success in this corner of the world.
Now the landscape here is different. The young children on our stretch of the road are quickly growing up; baby faces have matured through adolescence. No longer do tiny kids ride their bikes down the long gravel driveway to visit the big boy and his chickens. There is now a huge house in the field between us and the girls across the road. No longer do mother and child wander over a meadow to visit neighbors. There are hardly any meadows left. Even our dear woodcocks have moved away and taken up residence down the hill. Several new houses have been built, and ancient, historic homes have been razed. Greenfield looks so different now. I can see a suburb evolving. I can even imagine stoplights taking the place of lazy, country intersections.
Greenfield is changing swiftly, and I feel myself to be changing along with it. A new landscape is emerging for us both.
Elihu will turn 20 on April 28th, and I will turn 60 on May 7th. On my birthday I will drive my son to JFK airport, where he will embark on a three-month adventure living in Tianjin, China. He is now fluent and literate in four languages, conversant in three more, and he wishes to refine and improve his Mandarin as can only be done through an immersive experience. He has a huge adventure yet before him; he will be navigating through a country where all signs are in Chinese characters – no Roman letters to assist. There will be no safety net. And he’s a person of low vision, so that factors in, too. But I don’t worry. In fact, I’m thrilled and excited for all that awaits him.
Who knew that life in a tiny, country cottage would produce such a brave and adventurous young man? Who knew that this unexpected change in our life path would turn out so beautifully? To quote a line from a Richard Scarry book that I said to my son throughout his childhood: “This was the best mistake ever.” Truly, it was.
Visit Elizabeth’s website here. Visit Elizabeth’s Instagram here.
Visit Elihu’s personal Instagram here. Visit Elihu’s tuba Instagram here.