The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Vortex March 1, 2020

In my mind, March is it. It is the beginning, it is the ending, and it is the never-ending middle all at once. Sap drips from the trees onto my car, signaling that some shift of nature is afoot, yet the temperature stays well below freezing without letup, telling me that no such change is on its way. At the doorstep of March we are as close to a cold, dark January afternoon as we are to a muggy, pollen-dense May morning. March is enigmatically right in the middle of it all.

These days Elihu and I are in the middle of it all, too. We are constantly moving, ever on to the next project, the next appointment, the next milestone. However, on a quiet Sunday like this, with coffee brewing in the kitchen, blue jays scolding outside the window and a teenage boy sleeping soundly into the late morning, it doesn’t exactly feel like it. This very moment is when life feels the way I like it best; rested and unhurried. But this is just a momentary pause in our life. Deadlines, exams and concerts are approaching. Preparations are being made for presentations, tours, camps and travel. Tutors and teachers and after school clubs must be coordinated. As I sit here in the quiet of my bedroom, a shaft of morning light flickering through the curtains, I try to imagine all the things that are yet before us, but the visions are as hard to fully comprehend as last night’s dreams.

The orchestra has become a source of great joy for Elihu. He has finally found peers – other kids his age who also live on the outskirts of mainstream school culture. Smart, mathsy, musical, multilingual and funny, these outsiders are insiders here, and I am so deeply relieved and happy for my son that he has finally found a social group to which he truly belongs. Yesterday, I peeked in on the orchestra as they rehearsed the Brahms, and I witnessed my son in his own heaven. After the last note he pulled away from the horn and smiled in a way I have seldom seen. A mother could wish for nothing more. With my heart full I left him for an afternoon with his people.

This is the season of SATs for all high school juniors, but for those who have set their sights on MIT, this means two additional SAT exams. Regular high school curriculum – even the rigorous work of the Waldorf School – does not prepare a student for these extra tests, and so Elihu has been working with a tutor on the weekends. Between tuba lessons, tutors and other extra costs it has been a financially stressful time. But crazy as life is, an angel has come to us at perfectly placed times… An old friend from my past life in Chicago has sent us gifts of money simply out of the blue, and really, the timing has been truly miraculous. In the middle of it all sometimes I just don’t know how it can possibly work out, and yet somehow, it does. (An extra thanks to you, angel.)

Among the many extracurriculars that Elihu has going on are film club, math club and mock trial. Not only does he cut a fine figure in his jacket and bow tie, but his preparation is meticulous and the delivery of his statements to the court is equally impeccable. He has won best advocate twice now. Truly, if he wished, he could pursue a career in law (my paternal grandfather was a judge, so it’s in the genes I suppose), but of course this won’t be his path.

Flying has taken a backseat these days. With fields under snow, cold weather, academics and music there just isn’t a lot of time or opportunity. Elihu did however do a week-long internship in the aircraft maintenance hangar at the Saratoga County Airport recently, and that was really inspiring for him. Every day when he got home he radiated pure happiness. He learned a lot about the practical, real-life side of aviation. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the best experiences of his life thus far.

The most thrilling and challenging event is yet to come… Elihu won runner up in the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s concerto competition (“Someone has to win, why not me?” said the young man after what felt like a pretty good audition) and he will be soloist with the ESYO repertory symphony in May. Elihu told me the other day that the moment he is most looking forward to is when he walks onto the platform with his tuba, shining under the lights, when he takes his seat, breathes for a moment, and then nods to the conductor. Indeed. Can you imagine? I still have a hard time understanding this will be happening. But we’re not there yet. There are many unseen things to be done in addition to the practice and mental preparation. Elihu needs to be fitted for a tuxedo – tails, white tie and vest, the whole nine yards – and this will require even more time and money. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I know it will. Somehow it always does.

When the heavy snows arrive in December we suspend our garbage pickup for a few months. The driveway gets increasingly narrow and icy at the end of plowing season, making it a challenge to leave containers at the roadside. By mid March we have our own private dump in the driveway. It’s a tad embarrassing to see the great mound appear as the snow melts away, and with one sunny afternoon it can become a bit pungent too. Winter snowfalls are a beautiful thing, but they do make day-to-day tasks a bit trickier. County plow trucks routinely knock over our mailbox, making it necessary to pickup our mail down the road at the post office. The coop is surrounded by great berms of snow, leaving the flock only a small area in which to move, and even our poor birds are becoming short-tempered and irritable. And this year, in addition to our temporary dump we have enormous tree limbs down throughout the property. A massive ice storm a few weeks ago left us without power for three days as well as a huge mess of downed branches and even entire trees strewn across our five open acres. The melting of March will reveal the extent of the mess. It’s got me wondering how in hell we’ll clean it all up, but one thing at a time. We’re not there yet.

Elihu and I recently went over his schedule for the next few months, and it’s rather stunning. Soloist with the orchestra. A trip to Washington state to find his new tuba, a South American tour with the orchestra, a week of study at MIT, a trip to Europe with his father. I won’t see much of him this summer, and while it saddens me, it’s OK. It gives me deep satisfaction to know that I’ve helped to make all of this happen. And it gives me true happiness knowing that my son is happy.

The sun has moved across the room, now it’s falling onto the bed. I know that it’s getting late, and we need to get moving. Chickens have been tended to, breakfast dishes stacked in the sink, and Elihu has been buzzing notes on his mouthpiece for awhile now. In a few moments we will load the tuba into the car and head off to his lesson. Later on today he will meet with his tutor. Afterwards we will head home in the dark for supper. Bed will follow, and tomorrow, after two weeks of winter break, school will start again. I will resume my work, and the preparations for the coming month’s events will begin anew.

Tomorrow we march into our future.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.