The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Losing Martha May 25, 2015

IMG_1392Martha Ward Carver and husband Francis Carver. He was a talented musician, and in 1947, at the age of 24,  he was the youngest ever conductor of the United States Marine Band. Martha recalled taking me to hear “Johnny Denver” at SPAC when I was young, as Frank had played flute in the orchestra. She also recalled bringing her whiskey sour along in a peanut butter jar. I love the stories that are being retold in this final chapter. People come and go, but stories live on. A consolation for our hearts as we prepare for goodbye.

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This is a first. I’m not writing this post from my favorite chair, but rather writing this in Martha’s kitchen, while she lies in bed, waiting for me. Or Mike. Or whomever it is that will come to help her get up and going. The night nurse just left, and she went over the instructions for Martha’s care. I suppose I get it, but I’m stalling. Cuz I don’t want to go there. I know it doesn’t matter in the end, and I’m making too big a deal of it, but still… I am not looking forward to helping her with a bedpan, to wiping her, to dressing her, hoisting her and getting her to sit upright, and then, finally, into her transport chair. I don’t want to see her old lady naked body, I don’t want to feel the vulnerability of a woman who, as of this very moment, still seems as indomitable – and formidable – as an Army sergeant. I don’t want to know her as a frail, ancient woman. On some level she’s acquiesced to her current station in life – still assuring us all “she doesn’t mind a little dirt”. That the ever-present grime and dust covering every surface in her home is there by choice, and not because she’s unable to tend to it. She assures us that a wet bed is tolerable. It doesn’t phase her, she says. All this is her way of maintaining control. And control is at the heart of the present issue: death is the one thing Martha cannot control. No matter what she says or doesn’t say, I know it’s got to be on her mind these days. She may be stubborn, but she’s not stupid.

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Yesterday, when I sat through my first shift with her, I watched her in the long, silent moments, and wondered what she could possibly living for now. Mike had established his vineyard there, horses were happily grazing in the fields, the barn had been lovingly maintained, and all of it would one day be home to him and his family. Her affairs were in order, both legal and personal. She was now almost completely blind, hard of hearing, and paralyzed on one side from a stroke decades ago. She could no longer walk, or even stand on her own. What on earth was keeping her here? The only reason I could come up with was fear. Martha’s been a strong atheist all her life and feels that when it’s over here, it’s all just plain over. While I’ve known atheists to feel the same and face death with no fear – I think that the opposite could easily be possible too. She might well be petrified of not existing. Either way, me personally, I don’t see that there’s necessarily anything to fear. If there’s nothing beyond this existence – then what’s the difference? What the hell would you know? You’d be gone, after all. Kinda like going under for surgery – or even simply going to sleep. You’re gone, and you don’t even know it. And if the other scenario is true – if our awareness simply moves into another plane of existence filled with eternal peace and light and populated with those who’ve died before us – then that promises to be pretty awesome. So what’s the big deal? As long as you don’t fear being relegated to a fiery, eternal hell (which as an atheist is not an option), then what have you got to lose? Whether simply ceasing to be, or floating off through the ether in complete peace and love, as I see it, you stand only to gain from the experience. Either scenario seems like a pretty good deal to me. But this is not a conversation I’m brave enough to initiate with Martha. So instead, I watch and wonder, and wait…

Today is my second day with Martha. We made the choice for hospice and home care too recently to cover all the shifts this week (she must have 24/7 care now) – and this being Memorial Day weekend the shifts didn’t fill as easily as they might have otherwise. Thank goodness my son’s finally old enough to be left alone without too much concern. I told him that I’d likely have to be here tomorrow morning too. That disappointed him. He told me that our lazy breakfasts together were “kinda what made the weekends special”. While none of us really knows how long Martha will hang in here, we’re all pretty sure she’s got enough steam in her to last at least another month (her 89th birthday is July 17th. I suspect she’ll stick it out til then). So that means I’ll be here at the farm quite a bit in the near future; it’s likely our weekend breakfasts will be on hold for a while we wait this out. Because that’s exactly what we’re doing these days: we are literally waiting for Martha to die.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this time I honestly wish she’d just go. Even since yesterday she’s slowed. Not enough to prevent her from swearing like a sailor at me this morning when I took up my post, ripping her oxygen tube out and throwing it at me with her good arm. I didn’t take it personally. I knew she was still coming to terms with the idea that someone must always be with her. “You and your mother are hell-bent on controlling me” she yelled. I didn’t respond. This can’t be easy for her. She’s still as sharp as ever, so being prisoner in her ancient, non-responsive body has truly got to suck. I had tried unsuccessfully to sit her up, so by then there was nothing to do but wait until Michael arrived to help. She continued to hiss at me, but I didn’t respond. There would have been no point to it. I sat down and began looking through a dusty copy of “Yankee Expressions” while she continued to cuss and tell me all that I’d done to annoy her. “Elizabeth, how in hell do you push my buttons so?” she asked. I paused. “It’s a talent.” I replied. “Ha! That was a very good answer!” she bellowed. I was pretty sure I heard her smile.

Martha didn’t sleep well last night, and so she’s nodding off in her chair now. I too am finding this business of sitting around and doing nothing all day is a bit tiring, and while I’m getting good work done filing and organizing my many photographs, I’m getting sleepy too. Drives me nuts that it’s sunny and warm outside. Makes me sad that it’s a holiday weekend, and I can’t be home with my son. But I scold myself as I remember that this is the woman who taught me how to read music. This is the woman who hosted me as a child through lambing season, the woman from whom I learned about haying, gardening, about interesting words and old-fashioned kitchen implements. Certainly she instilled in me a respect for the importance of knowing ones cardinal directions. When someone at the nursing home had recently asked what our relationship was, I offered that Martha was really my second mother. “Does that sound right to you?” I’d asked her, and she’d nodded. In my family we don’t speak very easily about our intimate feelings. So this alone was pretty big. Yeah, Martha’s had a lot to do with the person I am today, so I need to be here. There will be plenty of fine Spring days to come. This is where I need to be right now.

It helps that I’ve been through this process with my father. Now I’m familiar with some of the landmarks of the end days, and I keep an eye out for signs. But no matter how aware and ready one feels, it’s still a strange waiting game. Hard to grasp that this is a process a that awaits each and every last one of us. If I could have one wish for all of my companions on the planet, it would be for a swift and dignified demise, free of fear and pain, and in the company of those whom we love. Life is not for wimps. Neither, it seems, is death.

IMG_0988Mike, Martha’s favorite person in the world, checks in to see how she’s doing. This guy has so much on his plate – a family, a new job, a vineyard – and Martha. He’s handling it all so well.

IMG_0971Martha always enjoys hearing “Simple Gifts”.

IMG_1005Martha’s hound dog Masie runs to join Elihu as he visits with the horses. I did the very same thing as a child – and the fields look very much the same now as they did back then. Even the apple tree in the field remains. There’s a poignant quality to the afternoon light over the field, but yet at the same time there’s a hopeful feeling here too. The farm existed long before all of us were here, and it will likely continue on long after we’re gone.

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Post Script: Elihu often enjoys hearing me read the posts aloud before I publish them; in fact he’s offered many helpful and insightful editorial suggestions over the years which I’ve used and very much appreciated. Today, however, when I read this to him, he responded angrily. He was aghast that I spoke like this about Martha. He felt strongly that I shouldn’t publish such writing. I never discount his feelings, and in fact I’m sure that if he feels like this, so too do others. So I apologize if this post is distasteful to some. I hope you’ll understand that I feel it’s imperative to write with as much honesty as possible. I also feel strongly that many of us here in the US need to learn how to talk about death far more openly and comfortably than we do at present.

 

Preparation April 25, 2015

Such a strange mix of life and death going on here in Greenfield. Elders passing, babies expected, pets dying, chicks hatching…. And yet not for a moment does it slow. Every day life presents its obligations without fail; students must be taught, supper must be made, rehearsals must be prepared for, and dust bunnies nestled comfortably in the corners of my house grow steadily in size, reminding me that they aren’t going to vacuum themselves. The wind blew the porch door open this morning and the entire flock decided to take shelter there for a few hours, leaving generous-sized poops all over a formerly clean-swept floor. I could cry, but at least it’s a sunny day, and good for starting all over again.

Tomorrow is Elihu’s twelfth birthday party, and there’s so much to do before then. Meanwhile, Martha lies in the hospital, getting nearer to her death. She’s certainly fooled us all before, rallying from her hospital bed to her post in the farm’s kitchen, but it won’t be happening this time. We who love her have even finally conceded that she will not be dying at home as we’d all very much hoped for. It’s simply not possible; Martha is far too weak. This time there will be no rehab. A bad UTI has had her in and out of reality the last few days, and that was a shocker for all of us. We had never seen the indomitable Martha like this. Signs of fear and agitation reminded me of my dad in his final days. I knew it was mostly due to the infection, but still. We’d turned a corner.

Last night, after Elihu’s school spring assembly, we’d gone to visit Martha. We were relieved to see her much restored to her old self. Elihu sang for her, and mom and I made small talk and related news of the day. (I’d been to see her earlier that day and enjoyed the privilege of singing her to sleep with “April Showers”.) When we left, Elihu leaned in to kiss her, and he told her he loved her. “I love you too,” she answered, and then offered “You are one unusual child.” We knew what she meant. I myself had been honored the day before – in the midst of an infection-induced episode – with the only open acknowledgement of affection I would likely ever hear from Martha… I told her I loved her, and she responded “I should hope so!” She’d also told me to ‘stop being a sissy’ and help her out of the bed. When I told her it just wasn’t possible she’d scolded me, telling me I’d better help her because she’d known me since I was ‘one young girl’. Even in her altered state, she was all Martha.

When we left her last night, she was still all Martha. When I asked how she’d felt, she admitted to me that she was tired. Very tired, all the time. On this bright and sunny morning when a new chick has begun to peep from inside its shell and a new life is ready to appear at any moment, I’m so keenly aware that just a few miles away, Martha lies in her bed, waiting for her own transformation.

IMG_7945This little gal/guy came a few days early. (Each year we time it such that the eggs in our incubator hatch on the day of Elihu’s birthday party.)

IMG_7801Mom shows Elihu the grave in which she and Andrew buried their cat only moments earlier. Ginger had to be put down without warning in the wake of a cardiovascular trauma. Such a shock. Mom doesn’t need more loss at this time. Neither does my emotionally fragile brother.

IMG_7803Little Annie, now at least sixteen, follows Elihu and Mom. We’ve all told Annie she’s not allowed to die. ! She acts like a kitten; those who don’t know her all assume she is. She’s a precious spot of joy in mom’s world.

IMG_7581Mom, Martha and Elihu, a few days before she took a turn for the worse. She was very present at the time of this photo, and very much herself. Even got a little vid of her reciting a poem she’d written years ago for a childhood friend (who died just last month. This life/death stuff is getting intense. Ich.)

Martha used to write little ditties like this for special occasions. Here’s her poem:

It was May 1st, 1922, now that you’ve come to ask it

That Mrs. James of Chatham, Mass

Got Viv in her May basket.

IMG_7898Not the selfie I’d like to see, but I had to take it.

IMG_7889Can’t remember ever holding Martha’s hand in my adult life. She even told me she was afraid. This is a woman who has never, ever shown vulnerability. I assured her things would be ok. And they will.

IMG_7902Elihu played Simple Gifts on his alto recorder. It’s her favorite song.

At first he was reluctant to play, as Martha shares a room, but he did – and see how Martha enjoys it. Glad he played.

IMG_7899And then he says goodbye and tells her he loves her.

IMG_7973Ending the night with a very fine performance by Mr. Esty’s sixth grade class at the Waldorf School’s spring assembly. They sang a song from Schoolhouse Rock about interjections. Wow! A big hit.

Here’s the performance. Worth a listen. Some may remember this from Saturday mornings long ago.

IMG_7375I’m crazy-sentimental about everything, and this turning twelve stuff has me – and my lil man too – a little nervous. This relentless marching forward of time is certainly a mixed bag. It’s easy to get nostalgic and long for earlier days, no matter what age you are, and yet there’s still so much ahead to be excited about. I think the best way to prepare for the future is simply to enjoy the present day to its fullest, for one day many years hence, these too will be the good old days.

 

Whereas March 23, 2015

My friend Betty turned 90 last week. Her family threw her a big surprise party, at which the mayor of Saratoga Springs was in attendance. The mayor herself even made a formal proclamation citing the importance of Betty’s contribution to the community over the past half century. (A good dose of ‘whereases’ contained therewith. !) Betty’s good works have touched us personally too; before Elihu applied to the Waldorf School, she’d called them and put in a good word for him. She does things like that. And she still plays music, still travels, still goes regularly to the Y… She’s still participating in life – in ways most folks half her age don’t. In fact, if I were to compare our schedules, I’d bet she’s got more on her calendar than I have on mine. But I think she’s chugging along with the energy of a fifty year old precisely because she’s got so much going on. She’s got things to live for, experiences to look forward to. And a lot of friends to help her celebrate along the way. Makes me wonder what my life might look like in another forty years…

I do think I’m at the doorstep of a new chapter. Would fit in with the ‘seven year’ sort of pattern people often identify in their lives… We’re approaching our seventh anniversary here at the Hillhouse at the end of this coming summer, and while I still feel like I just got here, time tells me otherwise. Time. Impossible to understand, as it goes by fast or slow, it seems long or short, yet the temporal truth is that it just keeps ticking along, unwavering, oblivious to whether or not you’re having a good time or a lousy one. To the seven year old time hardly exists, to the nineteen year old it stretches on indefinitely, to the thirty year old it still seems as if it will likely go on much longer than the warnings of the aged would have you believe…. But then, one day, you realize you’re not just fifty – you’re past it. You’re into the next stretch. And now, now you begin to really get it. And you realize that you’ll be ‘getting it’ with even more clarity in the years to come – that is, if you live to see them. Because by the age of fifty-one you begin to feel pretty lucky to still be here at all. You realize that you’ve lost friends, that more will leave in the coming years, and that you too might well be going on your way like them. There is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll still be living a year from now. Or five years from now. Or even tomorrow. And this time you know that. You didn’t quite believe it before, but now you do. Finally, time itself has convinced you.

So now what? How do you move forward into your life in order to maximize your experience here? How do you make the most of the time you have? At the risk of sounding like a Facebook platitude, your work here is to find your ‘thing’ and throw yourself into it. We’re encouraged to be brave, to be of service to others, to pay it forward. I agree that all those things are important. But it’s the how of it all that has me stopped at the moment. I look at the Studio with great visions, but right now the ‘hows’ are feeling like a huge wall in front of my face. I can imagine how it would feel to be of service, to pay it forward, to do something that contributes… But still, even after half a century on the planet, I’m still trying to summon the courage to actually put that feeling into action. It’s been quite a while since I’ve learned new skills, but this old dog’ll have to learn some new tricks soon if forward movement’s to be made. Something’s gotta change, and it’s likely going to have to be me. Who knew that change was still part of the program at my age? Apparently, change is always part of the program. (Some may think this is obvious stuff. Mech. Call me a late learner.)

Yesterday Elihu and I made a trip to the mall and had supper at the Asian place we’ve been going to since we moved here. We enjoyed chatting with the young daughter of the owners, who is now in college. We inquired about each other’s age – and she wanted me to guess hers. My peers will laugh to know the phenomenon of guessing a ‘younger’ person’s age; they all look just about the same – younger – so it’s really not so easy as you might think. But I guessed about right. Guessed 19, she was 20. Her turn. I let her off the hook, but she insisted. “Thirty-five” she said, completely sincerely. When I told her how old I was she was shocked. Ha! Interesting what presents as youth. I think attitude and energy have everything to do with it (and maybe a little hair color). So who cares if my neck isn’t behaving? – it seems my spirit is still doing its thing. Grateful am I.

I like to ask my young piano students which age they think will be the ‘best’ one of all. Kids are forever wishing to be older, but then there comes this magic window in which things all seem to do an about-face. Young adults lament the ‘big three-o’, but just a decade earlier they were in a hurry to get older. So where exactly is the sweet spot? Where exactly does one aspire to be? I’ve heard small kids say from 19 to 27. Can’t remember a kid saying thirty. But that’s understandable, thirty hardly even exists to the wee ones. Personally, I have always thought the ideal, magic window happens between 25 and 45. Youth, beauty – and the power that goes with all that – is yours. But there are other things to consider, like wisdom, control, sense of self… Things that usually come more into focus after forty…

Our friend Martha says that 42 was her magic year. My mother liked all of her 50s the best. Me – I’m not liking my sagging body these days, and I doubt things will improve on that front from here on in – but I agree with mom, I like being in my fifties. I do think that there’s a certain peace and solidity that comes with being older. Nothing’s as urgent, as all-important or tragic. Losses are tempered. Joys are precious. And whatever happens must somehow be dealt with. So I’m liking being 51. Maybe not so much when I have to don a bathing suit this summer, but who knows, maybe I can let that go. Maybe. The trick is to stay busy with the truly important things, so that the things I have no control over (like the crepey thigh skin) will seem a bit less important. Sounds like I’m talking myself into this, huh? Yeah. Maybe kind of. But I think it’s worth convincing myself if I’m to make peace with the coming decades.

But I’m glad to be where I am in my life. I may never learn to speak Italian fluently, or make large sums of money, or get down to my pre-baby weight again, but these days I’m beginning to think maybe I should toss some of those dreams aside and concentrate on what’s in my immediate path. I’m blessed beyond my understanding to have such opportunity available to me, to have my mother next door, to have my beloved son with me, to live in this beautiful place, to have my health, my hands (hey – they’re not what they used to be, but they work well enough) and of course, my very life. All before me. However long – or short – that may be.

Whereas I, being a bit older than I was before, am resolved to continue my work and never stop moving toward my goals, it is hereby proclaimed that everything will be ok and everything will work out in the end – regardless of how it all works out. (Not sure it’ll keep working out for another thirty-nine years, but it’s something to shoot for!)

IMG_4505Betty and Elihu

IMG_4524Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Joanne Yepsen makes a proclamation.

IMG_4527Such a wonderful thing. Well-deserved is an understatement.

IMG_4548A photo of Betty from half her life ago.

IMG_4509My kid’s pretty good at hanging with folks of any age.

IMG_4626But he especially loves the wee ones.

IMG_4604What 90 and 80 look like. (That’s mom on the right.) Definitely not the 90 and 80 of yesteryear.

IMG_4659Elihu offered his recitation of Ozymandias for Betty and the partygoers.

Whereas a good time was had by all, and whereas Betty has set a high standard for the rest of us who have not yet caught up with her ninety years, be it known that we are all inspired to go forth into the world and live with purpose and joy (which is always easier to do after one has enjoyed some fabulous food and drink!).

 

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

Breaking Ground July 19, 2014

It started quietly. I’d heard some large machinery moving about down the driveway, and then silence. I waited. Then I took a walk to see for myself. It was an eery sight. A small piece of earth moving equipment had been deposited in the empty field. It had begun. I tried to savor the light of the open field, tried to memorize everything about the space as it still was, tried to get over my sadness. I would never be ready for this. I reminded myself that there was once a barn in this field, and that too was gone. That there were once cattle grazing here, and they were also long gone, and that before the cattle fields there was nothing here but forest; even the stone walls that run through the woods were not ancient, as they seemed from 2014’s perspective, but at a mere two hundred years old, they were relatively new installations. I tried to convince myself not to lament the change so deeply; this land had been undergoing constant change over the past two centuries. And before the area had been settled by Europeans (and subsequently that development mourned by local Native Americans), very little had changed so dramatically in millions of years. But it didn’t stop me from grieving the loss of another hard-won field though. Yeah, change is part of life, but I can still miss what was. Thankfully it’s not quite here yet, and I can still enjoy the spot of green at the end of my long driveway. From where I stand today, it’s still unimaginable to me that in that space will soon stand the silhouette of a two-story house. As I’ve said before, I’m not good with change.

Martha turned 88 on Thursday, and I think it was probably the first such birthday in all her life that it was not sweltering. The Conants and the Spiaks joined Martha at The Farm in her kitchen, the only room in which she has ever entertained, and we enjoyed a fine summer supper of hamburgers and hot dogs, mom’s potato salad (one of my top ten favorite foods on the planet – it’s understated and so damn good) and some cold cocktails. Jesse and Sam, the young girls close to Elihu’s age were there representing the next generation. I showed them the markings on the closet door where I’d been measured when I was their age, they in turn showed me around the winery that their father was building on the property. We visited the resident horses and I told the story of the enormous barn that burned down, on this very day (some birthday present!) when I was their age, years ago. How it took out one of the great Maple trees, how it changed the place forever. Martha recounted to us that the first thing she did after ringing the dinner bell and calling husband Frank in from the fields was to move the harpsichord out of the house to prevent it from burning, should the house catch fire. (She and Frank were musicians-turned-farmers and gave me a great experience of animal husbandry and old-time farm life as a child. Martha also taught me how to read music and later gave me a few very practical tips on accompanying that I still use today.). This place, simply called by all of us “The Farm”, has been my heart’s epicenter since I was a tiny child. Even now, as Martha hangs on, doing barely more than living from day to day (she suffered a stroke thirty years ago and can only move the right side of her body), knowing that she’s still here gives me a feeling of anchor. Of place, of center. In spite of many trips to the hospital and nursing home after small heart-related episodes, Martha always manages to come home. This time, though, she seems slower, a bit more tired. No less spirited, no less intimidating than she’s ever been (no one still dares to counter her on any thing), she still strikes me as a bit closer to the end. At least I can kinda see it now. I guess I’m just getting ready, because aside from the death of my mother, this will be the biggest change I can imagine.

I’m still puttering away, trying to beat the clock and restore order to my home. I’ve sunk a good hundred hours of hard labor into this place over the past couple of weeks, and am making milestones that have even gone beyond my initial to-do list. After living here almost six years, I have only just yesterday unpacked the last of the boxes from the move from Chicago. Can you believe that? And that last box will remain packed, I’m afraid, as I simply have not the use nor the space for my fine wedding stemware. A few more paining projects (garage doors, cellar wall) remain, and there’s Elihu’s room to do a deep-cleaning and inventory of (that’ll be a bigger job than I think now) but I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is a great relief.

The Studio is cruising along now too, with our second complete week of art camp behind us, and a great number of ideas for the future being born. There’s big change here too; the place seems to be taking on its own forward trajectory as new uses for the room come to mind, leaving the memory of fine Baroque concerts on July afternoons far behind, and breaking my heart in tiny ways as the new course becomes more clear… I am only now coming to terms with the idea that this is a place undergoing a real transformation, and in order to do this well I’ll need to invest myself fully in the new direction. I won’t sabotage my progress in the name of nostalgia, but like the field at the end of my driveway, I will grieve its loss.

My garden projects have reached a nice point of completion, I finally figured out the coop door opener (which has been broken for almost 2 years now), I’ve finally rid my house of every last unused item – books to boots – and I can now say I know where everything is. Ha! How many people can say that of the contents of their home? My office, however, is altogether another situation, and it waits for my attention soon. I need to check in with the Waldorf School too; if they haven’t found a replacement candidate for my post, I may have to get back to the piano soon. That is not a detour I relish. I’ve hit a nice forward stride, and hope to continue with added momentum.

Oh, and today is the second anniversary of my divorce. It took over four years to accomplish, and I didn’t even learn I’d been legally divorced until many months later. My ex has been married to his new wife for over a year now too. Strange as it may seem, it’s only just about now that I’m truly feeling I live here, and that this is my life – and that I really am a single person in the world. Being totally honest, I do miss the man I once lived with, but I also know he’s no longer the person he was, so I can’t lament not being with him now. He’s different. Guess I am too. In going thru old photographs this past week I found myself still very wistful about the old days, and I still missed aspects of those lives very much, but I’ve come to the point where I can’t imagine my life without this chapter. I’ve been resisting this new time of my life just about the whole time I’ve been living it because I missed things that I felt were taken from me without my consent. I moved because I had to, not because I wanted to. And I still think of those places as my home, but now, finally, in my heart this place has joined them. Having the time in which to properly inventory the place, rid myself of old baggage and apply some tender loving care has helped elevate it to the status of a sacred place in my life.

Things are changing in so many ways here at the Hillhouse. For the past six years here it’s seemed that life, for the most part, has moved at a steady pace, and change has come in manageable doses; now it seems that the tide is coming in all at once and things are beginning to change in rapid and dramatic ways. Not to say that the change won’t be manageable, because in the end I believe it’ll all be fine. In the words of Martha Carver, “Things always work out“. I’m learning to accept that life requires change, growth requires entropy. Nothing is static. And in order to have wonderful new experiences, we must first break new ground.

IMG_9191The very first cut.

IMG_9187The neighbor boys are excited to see the machines working so close to home. I can’t help but dread the whole in my driveway filling up with the profile of a two-story house.

IMG_9170Here are the plans…

IMG_9214Ryan and Brandon enjoy being outdoors with all that’s going on…

IMG_9180They spotted a snake which I just managed to get – hence the fuzzy pic – and then it wriggled away. All muscle, they are. And stinky too! I’d caught tons of em as a girl and had forgotten that stinky ooze they poop out when frightened. Ich.

IMG_9218I’m breaking ground too. Putting in my final garden bed next to the house.

IMG_9219I’m not ever strong enough to drill a screw without first pounding out a little pilot hole. What a wimp. Takes more time this way too. Oh well.

IMG_9223After some painting and pounding, I’ve got my relatively cheap, DIY garden edging in. (Painted 2x4s with shims nailed perpendicular to em to act as stakes to hold them upright. A couple of L brackets to keep corners square.)

IMG_9232My requisite tools. Heard of Saratoga water? Bottled right here in town.

IMG_9243I’ve brought an end-of-week surprise for the kids at art camp…

IMG_9246It’s Bald Mountain! A couple of years ago I brought a rooster in for the drawing class. These clay students wanted to see him even though he wouldn’t be modeling for them.

IMG_9263He’s getting smooched whether he likes it or not. !

IMG_9299He lets out a loud crow in a small room.

IMG_9285Kestrel shows off her bas relief tile from the class.

IMG_9291Ceres says goodbye to campers and moms.

IMG_9332At my mom’s place, just up the driveway from The Studio, a turkey makes a visit (hummingbird at right by feeder).

IMG_9337Here he is up close. What plumage!

IMG_9311And here’s my guy Baldy on the short ride home. My house is about 1/8th of a mile past the sign, same side of the road.

IMG_9321Ah, the bee balm is out and the butterflies are back.

IMG_9351And my new chickens, now 3 months old, are right at home here. (Last year at this time I put in this pond.)

IMG_6581About a month ago Elihu, Mom, Andrew and I went to visit Martha in the hospital. She spent several weeks in a nursing home, and finally made it home again.

IMG_6587Martha’s always on. Aside from some hearing loss, she doesn’t miss a thing. No exaggeration.

IMG_7861Here’s Martha, eighty-six years ago at age two, in Deposit, New York. (Note how her haircut hasn’t changed!)

IMG_9124Here she is some sixty years ago…

IMG_9126Note the ashtray, ubiquitous in her generation.

IMG_9142Sometime in the ’70s, cigarette in hand (husband Frank to the left, he died in 2000) standing in the kitchen, which looks pretty much the same now.

IMG_9077The same place, forty years later.

IMG_8937As I’d driven in, I was greeted by a turkey vulture in the driveway.

IMG_8935Wish it were a clearer pic – but you can certainly see that wild red head. I made Elihu a turkey vulture costume for Halloween one year. What a crazy looking bird, and big, too!

IMG_9030Martha’s spot is no longer at the table, but behind the island, as it puts all she needs within reach. Also never far away is dog Masie, the sweetest black hound dog who lets no one near the house without great fanfare. Good watch dog.

IMG_9075Martha, holding court. Mike, Kelly, Mom and Andrew in attendance.

IMG_9088Another view… only difference through the years is the clutter. !!

IMG_9037Upstairs in this historic farm house it’s another story; quiet, still and spare. My mom and dad stayed in this room when we first began to spend our summers in Greenfield, before we bought the Old House (where Andrew lives now).

IMG_9040This is the adjacent room in which Andrew and I stayed; I vividly remember us both walking through this missing panel in the door and thinking it quite a fun game. The panel is still missing after four decades! I’m too anal to let something like this go unattended. Frank and Martha had a farm to run, however, and this was likely not even on the to-do list.

IMG_7868Here’s how tall I was in 1972! The very height of the door latch was decided on because it was as high as I could reach. All the kids in the area flocked to Martha and her famous kitchen, and many of us can follow our growth on the inside of this closet door.

IMG_8963American Gothic, tailgate style. Jessie and Sam are Elihu’s age – they’re in the same 4H group. Mike’s put in a vineyard in the fields we once hayed as children. Martha has given her place to this hard-working family. They’ll have a lot on their plate when that time comes.

IMG_8965Mike built this almost all himself. Next pic of this the siding will be up.

IMG_8983Impossible to count the man hours involved in planting and tending these vines

IMG_8989Fruit’s looking good now; it’s taken several years to reach this point.

IMG_8998The new barn, much of which Mike did too – the white house can be seen to its left, under the trees.

IMG_9015I learned to ride here when I was little.

IMG_9010It’s become so grown up with vegetation over the years that it’s only possible to see the whole place from the barnyard. Even then it’s almost swallowed up by greenery. I remember this as a thriving barnyard with sheep, cows and horses when I was a child, and the house, yard and gardens were much better groomed then too.

IMG_7867An old photo of the front of the house, which was built by Prince Wing in 1805 (Prince’s son’s name was Elihu).

IMG_9096After a great 88th birthday party for Martha Ward Carver, Jessie sounds me off on the shofar which her sister and I uncovered in the music room. Good thing she’s taking up trombone in the fall, I have known very few people to ever get a true sound on this thing. She can.

IMG_9103Later that night, as I sat reading on the couch, I heard a strange commotion down the hill. Soon there was a glow of flashing lights through the woods, so I had to investigate. Some poor fellow had veered to miss a deer and accidentally plummeted down the incredibly steep hill towards the marsh. Here the truck is finally towed to the road level. Trees and boulders ironically saved the driver. Talk about breaking ground! May my adventures be a little less harrowing.

 

Sunrise January 5, 2014

We’re lucky here at the Hillhouse, to see the sun rise from our kitchen and living room windows. It’s interesting to track the changing spot on the horizon from which it lifts; just a week ago it was a tree or two to the left, but now it’s marched along the rim of the forest a surprising distance. It’s funny the way the heavenly bodies move, imperceptible as one watches, quite noticeable when one does nothing but turn away for a moment and then look back again. All day long the sun makes her progress just like this, slow, steady, never stopping. Like a willful, living creature, diligently keeping to her task, dedicated only to that one singular movement. What a contrast is the peace and stillness of a sunrise to the frenetic cauldron of action and emotion swirling around far below it on the surface of this globe. A sunrise is deceptive: it leads one to believe, if only for a second, that everything everywhere has taken a pause, that nothing at all stirs upon the earth… that all is, in this very moment, perfect and right with the world. 

Yeah, I like the sense of peace that I get from a sunrise. The sense of possibility. The best possible feeling of what it is to stand here, as a human, witnessing. But it doesn’t always play out that way. When I awoke today, the sorrow I’d forgotten in sleep had come to wrap itself around me again. As I looked out the window, I saw that all the trees were bathed on one side in a deep magenta, a sign that this was the moment. I went to the living room in time to watch the sun as it lifted free of the treetops and burst its rays over the countryside. This one particular moment of a sunrise is an interesting thing; it isn’t always the moment of joy and peace that one might think. For me, it seems to heighten whatever mood it is that I’m already feeling. On a brilliant summer morning, with the promise of a full and rich day before me, my chest fairly bursts at the sight. But today, a day on which I remember again the intense sorrow of losing my father, and with him all the questions I never thought to ask, the sun wrenches it all out of me all at once, and it hurts. Soon my face is covered in sunshine and tears.

It occurred to me shortly after waking that tomorrow is mom’s first birthday without dad in fifty-four years. They, as some readers will remember, shared the same birthday. My heart sinks to my feet. What can we possibly do to make it easier? See to it that she keeps busy, I suppose. Maybe we should go to that Weight Watchers meeting after Elihu’s bass lesson. Maybe that will help. Maybe we can stop by, maybe we can bring a bottle of champagne (that would’ve had my dad clapping his hands in happy approval). Maybe we can have her over here for supper. Hell, I don’t know. What to do? My heart breaks all on its own, and now it’s breaking for my mother. Crap. There is never a good time for goodbye, no matter how full and rich a life may have been.

All morning I’ve been remembering my father’s friends that have gone before – and there are a good number of em. In fact, there were very few folks from my father’s world left – and in terms of a physical presence in his life, essentially there were none. I thought back to the last time dad had been to the farm. It was this past July, and it was Martha’s 86th birthday. I remember on that day dad had been speaking in a nonsensical way, that he had once again turned a corner. But that didn’t lessen his pleasure at being there; he was happy, a soft smile on his face the whole time (in spite of the temperature in the kitchen reaching up into the high 80s). I had known it even then; after nearly fifty years of sitting in this kitchen, after hours and hours of drinking, smoking, storytelling, cussing, shouting and laughing, this was the very last time dad would be sitting in this space. The last time he and Martha would be in the same room together. (As it turned out, they would have one final visit with each other in person. They were both patients at the ER at the same time in late summer, and I had thankfully snapped one picture then.) I watched them, both at the farm and at the hospital, knowing in my heart that these oldest of friends were saying their last goodbyes. I also realized neither one of them was even aware of it. I guess one just kinda tends to feel as if nothing will ever change. That things, somehow, will always be thus. Silly humans, we.

At the time of dad’s death his functioning life had long since ended.  Dad had no life outside of his home, no pressing endeavors to attend to, no ability to play the harpsichord – nor the piano, no ability to walk outside on his own, no car to drive, no ability to read, no social life, no old college chums to call and check on, no pals from his former lives to chat with…. He had nothing at all but mom, his cats, the opera on the weekends, and the tv. (Yes, he had Elihu and me too, but we were only there a few short visits a week.) And I suppose a few years of this life might eventually grow tedious, no matter one’s lack of abilities. Dad was still very much aware of his surroundings, and as familiar and comfortable as they may have been, at some point I guess there’s not a lot to hang around for anymore. I can’t help but remind myself that it’s really only us we’re sad for; a quick recounting of all that dad did not have in his most recent life helps set me straight. Wherever he is – or is not – is just fine for him. It’s us that’s the problem. Actually, it’s mom that I’m worried about. How must it feel? Seriously, how must it feel? I’m sad, Elihu is only sad in passing, but it’s mom I keep thinking of. Tomorrow, this first birthday in over half a century without her mate, this will be a landmark. She’s just gotta get through it.

Life marches on, enough distractions for us that dad’s death is somewhat tempered. I still have loads of new music to learn (and the arthritis in my fingers worsens almost daily). I still haven’t told Elihu that his beloved teacher is leaving. Waiting til the last possible moment, as not to spoil his final day of vacation. And thankfully the temperature outside is going up, so we won’t have to worry about bringing the goose into the kitchen overnight as we did on Friday, when outside temps were ten below. Ironically, shortly after we saved the goose from losing his little webbed feet to frostbite, we ourselves ran out of heating oil. ! Must remember that in terrible cold like this it takes a bunch more fuel than usual. See? Lots to keep us going, many new dramas appear on our horizon. Just like the sun on its  never-ending path, the events of our lives march tirelessly onward, sunrise to sunset and all the moments in between.

 

Year Anew January 1, 2014

Some folks have been complaining about 2013, bidding it good riddance, speaking of it with various expletives and such. My first response is to think something like ‘damn right, this was a painful and terrible year, hell with it’…. but then I realize, bad things happen every year. Good things too, and if I take the glass half-full attitude, I realize that the old year wasn’t, in my own personal world, half bad. That my father died in 2013 doesn’t make it a bad year. It makes it a precious year. One in which I enjoyed all my final moments with him, one in which I had the honor of witnessing his death. That is no small gift. Yeah, the past year has been rich, full and good. (That being said, I’m still ready for a new one.)

It’s the weight loss season again, and so I begin to do a little review of 2013 and my advances – and retreats – on that front. I’d started last year on the crazy Atkins diet, and while it was successful, and I ended up looking pretty good for my 50th birthday and subsequent trip ‘back home’ to Chicago, by the time fall came, and with it home-made apple pies and fresh home-baked bread, I let it all go. I knew I was begging trouble, but it was a quality of life thing for me. I’d had it with eating nothing but meat, cheese and vegetables for the past six months and I meant to enjoy all I’d missed now. I realized I may have gone too far in ‘catching up’, but some little voice told me ‘screw it, you made your goal, now live’. And really, in that time and place I wanted to be there. Joining my son every night, sharing the same menu and this time having home-made dessert. I’d never baked bread before in my life, so the discovery in fall of 2013 that I could do so – and easily – without even so much as a loaf pan – that kinda blew my mind. And once you’ve made it, you feel you gotta eat it. There’s only so much that two people can eat though, and it’s hard to enforce portion control when there’s always more on hand. And so I ate. And then with the stress of a bigger work load, plus my dad’s decline and death, I ate to soothe myself. And while that tiny voice told me I needn’t eat quite so much to make myself feel better, I did. I knew full well it would come to this, and it has. I am back to exactly the same weight as I was one year ago today. Almost twenty pounds are back. Which means that I saw my body change by forty pounds. Yeeks. If I think too long about it, or catch a glance of my pudgy jaw line in a mirror, I want to weep, to sink into despair. Cuz I was there, goddamit, and now I’m back. But that’s ok. That is what New Years are for. Starting over.

Over the past year I’d been very intrigued with death and dying, too. Scared shitless of losing my father, and wondering what exactly it was that a person’s natural death looked like, I’d gone on YouTube binges that would freak many people out. I watched embalmings, assisted suicides, cremations, interviews with people who knew they were dying. Anything and everything so that I might better get what it was to witness a loved one die, and then make those after-life decisions none of us ever really talks about. I meant to demystify death. I’d read my share of Elizabeth Kubler Ross years ago, but never did click with her old-school language. ‘Yack, yack, yack’, I remember thinking. Let’s get down to it, lady! So in 2013 I began to read more on near death experiences – something I’d known about for years, but had begun to read now from a new perspective. And when my own father began to point towards the corner of the room, asking me who all those people were, and when he told me he saw my cousin, and that he missed his mommy, I was glad I’d re-read the literature on this experience. I do get that many folks think these end-of-life occurrences are merely the brain playing tricks on itself in the final moments of life, however I certainly do not. Me, I know that a soul is what animates a body, and quite simply, it has a separation process to undergo at the end. And while I would never had dared to speak my opinion on this subject so candidly in the past, now I feel I can. I’m off that hook – I’ve experienced it myself, I know. And I’m not quite as afraid of death as I was. The loss is still so very sad, and I can see it will continue on…. But having been with my beloved father during his transition has helped confirm for me what I already believed. So now I go into my own future, and move closer to my own death, with some important questions resolved.

My son’s now approaching an age in which his entire outlook on the world will change and mature. Ten now, eleven in a few months, 2014 will likely be the year in which the true magic of childhood ends. Santa, the birthday angel and the Easter Bunny won’t be visiting after long. Even in the cocoon of Waldorf, he will soon know for sure. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve savored his small years, even documented a few of them here on this blog, so I can’t feel that I wasn’t present for them, or appreciative. I was. As I write this, he’s sleeping in, catching up after a whirlwind visit to Chicago and dramatic return. Over his visit, and while I was sitting vigil with dad, Elihu was going through a pretty big health scare, having visited the emergency room for knees that had blown up so they’d awoken him in the night – he said it felt like knives – and being told it might possibly be juvenile onset arthritis. Or Lyme disease. And in that I myself had fretted all fall over the Lyme v. growing pains debate – only to be told by nurses and moms alike not to worry (!!) – I kinda knew. And what relief that it was Lyme and not arthritis. So we’re dealing now with that, and the stock regimin of antibiotics to follow. (I am just kicking myself because I really did suspect it but caved to everyone else’s opinion.) Mom, Andrew, Elihu and I went out to dinner late last night (he had his favorite escargot and frogs’ legs) and we were very late to bed. Now he’s sleeping like a teenager, and deservedly so. But what he doesn’t know is that Santa made one final visit to us here at the Hillhouse last night. He even knocked some of the ashes out of the fireplace as he’s done before. Santa knows that it’s the eighth day of Christmas. He knows Elihu is back home. As I sit here and write, I’m keeping an ear out for his bedroom door, for the footsteps, that momentary pause…. He’ll run in to get me, and I’ll be sitting here in my chair, unawares, and then he’ll tell me, with a look of amazement on his face, that Santa has come! Yesterday, when Elihu asked me if I though Santa might come here, I took on a somber tone and cautioned him not to be disappointed, after all Santa had already been to Illinois. But look! He made it here after all! This is a Christmas I will savor, because by next year it will be brand new territory.

Ah, such ambivalence I feel for brand new territory. I listened as my elderly father expressed his longing to be back in his childhood home and wondered to myself, where exactly, do our hearts consider to be true home? Is it the home and hearth of our tender years – or the home we made as young parents to our own tiny ones? I suppose there’s no one answer. But there is one truth for us here on earth; time continues to move forward, and our situations, though they may appear to pause in time at different stages of our life, continue to evolve and change. A sorrow and a blessing. A missed memory and the happy anticipation of a new experience. They exist so closely, these disparate conditions, and they tug our hearts in such different directions. I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the march of time, but I also can’t say that I don’t want to watch my son grow up and one day create a family of his own. I admit it, at my age, and having seen what the end of life looks like and knowing I’m closer to it than I am to my youth, I’m not moving into the future with the zeal that I once did. I’m moving toward it with a more measured approach. It’s coming no matter what, but I’m not running to meet it anymore. It’ll be here – and gone – soon enough.