The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Ruminatrix November 30, 2014

When my dad’s estate was finally settled and the funds put into an account, my mother was given a checkbook to draw on the funds. I thought she’d have been mostly pleased that there was something to draw on even – but that was eclipsed each and every time she’d pull out the checkbook by the horrible thing she saw printed upon them. She let out a veritable shriek when she first explained the situation to me… My mother almost always takes any situation and immediately finds – and calls attention to in the bitterest way possible – the great, personally-directed injustice of it (for her a glass is always half empty and not half full, a fear-based reaction likely tied to her father leaving her family for good when she was ten). And this checkbook presented a major offense, it appeared. In fact, it was a two-pronged offense in her eyes; on the one hand she’d lost her identity again, and had reverted from “Nancy J.” back to a “Mrs. Robert S.” (her generation has strong feelings about women’s hard-earned rights), and secondly, her title was listed as “Executrix”. Hm. Sure, I paused at that. I needed a moment to understand it, but certainly, these estate planning folks knew what they were doing, this must have been a case of archaic language surfacing in modern legalese. “Trix” was merely the feminine for “tor” and should be taken as nothing else. (Yes, I know, our modern minds all go immediately to “domenatrix”.) For some reason this feminine form of “executor” has survived, while other words like “aviatrix” or “administratix” have not; I suppose it’s another gender-equalizing step forward in the de-sexing of our language. Guess I can understand mom’s displeasure a bit better. Regardless of her feelings on the matter, there you have it. My mother is an executrix.

My mother is also, once again, Nancy. She is still someone’s widow, but in some ways she’s now coming into a new version of herself that wasn’t possible when dad was alive. I get that. In her day a woman lost her name when she married, it wasn’t questioned. In her case, she also lost whatever it might have been to be Nancy, instead, she became the wife of a famous harpsichordist. To her great credit, while Andrew and I were still small, she went back to college and earned a Bachelor of Science, and got herself a job at the local hospital. I remember seeing her at the kitchen table with her Texas Instruments calculator, the size of a small brick, working on numbers way into the night. So growing up, I naturally thought her to be a math type, unafraid (as I was) of calculations. Maybe she even liked math. It seemed so. At least I never heard her complain. And it wasn’t until recently, as we discussed Elihu’s math assignments for school, that I heard her make a comment that shattered my previous assumptions about her. She felt herself actually bad at math. It was her weakness, and she hated it. ?? Since this is a woman who has been doing crossword puzzles religiously for decades, I naturally thought she just had that clever brain for whom nothing is a challenge, and for whom everything comes easily. Guess not. Immediately, it put a spin on things: my mother had stepped out of her comfort zone when she’d gone back to school. It might not have been so much about keeping busy or contributing income as it had been about her keeping – or creating – her own identity. Her sanity, her sense of self. Another piece of the puzzle was revealed, and things made more sense.

Marrying a mildly famous person has its downside. Like my mother, I too had a partner who was well known. Much more often I was identified by him, very seldom was it the reverse. In the beginning of our relationship this was a point of stress, and it was something we talked about, and worked on. Thankfully there then came a good long stretch of time when I myself found success of my own, and in my own niche subculture had become modestly famous as well. I was busy, and creatively satisfied. It was only after I discovered my own life that I was able to enjoy, shame-free, a life alongside a famous person. But truthfully, a voice nagged at me towards the second half of our relationship: “What are you here for, and how can you possibly ever find out if you’re living with this person? Your life as a couple is all about him; are you sure you’re ok with that?” There was so much more at play than simply being partnered with a famous person. There were my insecurities, yes, but beyond that there was a person on the other side of the equation who was slowly morphing over the years into a textbook-perfect narcissist. I know he wasn’t like this in the beginning; no, we were both very naive, young things back then. Trying situations had yet to bear on our simple lives. I personally believe that his own highly dysfunctional upbringing plus the stressors of life had a cumulative effect on my ex, gradually nurturing the lion within until he became the strange, self-serving creature he is today. At present he is a mix of things; while I can no longer recognize (even as I could a year ago) any human tenderness in his eyes (his son also notices the creepy transformation when his father is here with us) I do know that he is a loving father, and that somewhere in that self-serving, self-justifying persona of his, there is a misunderstood boy who wishes only for love, comfort and sincere recognition. And these are things I could not have known before. And it helps tremendously. But it didn’t come to me overnight; it’s taken time and lots of introspection to arrive at this place.

Last night, as Elihu and I played Scrabble, we chatted about many things over our game, so when he paused and said “I don’t really get it”, I wasn’t sure what he’d meant. On Thanksgiving we’d watched videos of his father and me, from preparations for the wedding through the wedding itself (this was our only footage of dad) and then to his birth and first adorable months as a baby. Elihu had never seen his mother and father together – as we had been for over two decades –  as a couple. There was much laughter, and an ease about us that no longer existed in any way. Turns out the videos were on his mind. “He was just all about you. You guys were so happy and showed each other so much love. I don’t get how it changed.” “Well,” I thought aloud, “I guess my ‘negative Nancy’ stuff helped. I mean, I was a lot more like grandma than I’d realized. A lot of the time I felt like we lived his life more than mine – or ours – and I guess it made me upset. So I was mean sometimes. Looking back, I guess it probably helped change things. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them, I suppose.” We talked a bit more about it, and Elihu came to some new understanding which seemed to help. The conversation ended while the Scrabble game continued on. (Yes, he won.)

Elihu recently asked me what makes kids in their twenties so much more ‘grown up’ than the high school kids. He saw them all as physically grown, savvy, smart and funny. How was it that they high schoolers were still considered ‘kids‘? Immediately, I recalled the chicken curry effect. Some nights I’ll whip up a batch of his Grandpa Riaz’s chicken curry, and while I follow all the directions just so, it won’t taste quite right. But the next night? Dead on. Delicious. One can’t help but notice the difference. What the curry needed was time to settle, time for the ingredients to become integrated. Yes, all the right ingredients were already there with the high school kids – they had lots of information on board, and as Waldorf kids, they had lots of world experiences too – but what they didn’t have under their belts yet was time. And there is no substitute for the deeper advancements that come with the simple passing of time. It becomes a subtle form of contemplation in and of itself. I always tell my students that the time in between practice sessions is just as important as the practice itself. Some magical, internal process takes place that brings the pieces together. Glad of it too, there’s so much information in life to assimilate; emotional, factual and otherwise. Happy to know some of it takes care of itself. !

Three years ago, when I first started writing, I had said that I knew things were ok, in spite of my bad situation (see the post “Snowflakes”.) That I knew there was a silver lining somewhere in the middle of the whole mess. That things, although they didn’t appear so on the outside, were poised for an improved future. Thing is, while I was writing what I knew to be true, I did not yet feel it. It’s almost as if I was self-coaching in front of an audience, that I might soon come to believe in my heart what I knew to be true in my brain. I hesitated to publish it too, because I knew damn well that I was not feeling as optimistic as I’d sounded. Just the opposite, really. But something inside me knew that it would one day be true, and that I’d catch up. Quite honestly, six years after having left my Illinois home and moving here I have still not caught up. But I’m much further along. I continue to revisit my old life (maybe a bit more than some folks would think productive), trying to identify the actions that brought me here, and more importantly what created the spirit in which those actions were created. How do I ensure that I behave differently in the future? How also do I ensure that my child doesn’t pick up these emotional weaknesses himself? Thanks to the solitude I enjoy in the country, plus a combination of thinking and simply being, I have come closer to some answers.

That being said, daily I’m still combating a deep, existential fear, one which will be quieted only when I realize what it is that I do, and then find myself doing it, and one can only hope, getting paid for it as well. ! (Living with the help of state assistance, while still essential to our survival, has become a little challenging on the ego.) The Studio lurks in my mind as a dormant dream with plans that sit, waiting for the next step. I know I’ll get there, and until I do, much of my psyche is upset because the place still lingers, unresolved and waiting… Yet while The Studio sleeps through the winter and waits for my attention, I continue to heal, grow and learn. I’m still identifying aspects of my life – good and bad – as well as some issues carried over from my own parents, and coming to understand how these things manifest in my life today.

I’m still dealing with panic attacks these days too. Realizing that I went for years without any fear of them, I focus my thinking on what made that time different from today. How was I able to live panic-free? I believe it was thanks to a clearer sense of meaning and purpose. I know I’m a very good mother, but at the end of the day, that alone is not the answer. Sometimes I wish it was enough just to be a great parent, but important as that is, it’s not. I still need my own thing, too. Something that satisfies – and also pays. Yes, I do have ‘things’, but none of them is panning out as I’d like: I’m a musician, but I don’t play much anymore. A teacher, but too few students to make it a real job. I’m a writer, yes, with enough material for a book or two – but I don’t write for hire, I write for me (don’t get me wrong – I’d gladly write for hire, I just don’t know how to begin that pursuit). I’m a chicken farmer too, I suppose, but egg sales only cover my costs if I’m lucky. I spend my time doing many things, but at the end of the day I probably do more thinking than anything else. If only there were a name for such a thing… Oh but hang on, just maybe there is… Do you suppose there are any job opportunities out there for a ruminatrix? Or maybe… a Ms. Ruminatrix?

Well, at least it’s something to think about…

 

Sister Pattie February 23, 2013

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Just finished reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography. As I was browsing the shelves for something new to read and saw the title, I had a dim awareness of who she was. The cover photo intrigued me, and of course, reading that she had been married to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton (and now remembering exactly ‘who’ she was) – naturally, I had to read her story. Aside from being a fascinating window into the culture of those times, it was so very much more to me. Of course my story isn’t anywhere near as colorful, historically significant or fast-paced as hers, but there are a few similarities. (Not the least of which is that we’ve each broken both of our wrists – one in nearly the same sort of accident – and have had more than one reconstructive surgery to fix em.) The big list however is of course this: music widow, shadow partner to famous guitar player, wife whose husband bore children with other women during their marriage – and whose husband somehow thought that it was ok. There’s a tiny personal link too…

Years ago, shortly after Fareed and I met and had become so deeply smitten with each other, he was asked to play on Sting’s album, Nothing Like The Sun. I had been on the road with a Chicago-based R&B band and our tour ended in Montreal. Since Fareed had relatives from the Pakistani side of his family living in town, he met me there and we went to pay them a visit. Next we drove south a couple of hours to see my folks in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was a casual phone call into Pangaea to say hello made from my parents’ kitchen phone that opened the door to the session (this was a pre-cell phone world). The secretary told him to hold on, and the next voice he heard was Sting’s (Pangea was his record label to which young Fareed had just been signed). Sting asked Fareed if he might pop by the studio and add a couple tracks since he was in New York. Sting had no idea we were a good four hour drive away – but of course that didn’t matter much to us, and we immediately hopped in the car and headed down to the city.

The track was They Dance Alone; a mournful tribute to the Chilean women made widows by the Pinochet regime and the dance they make in honor of their deceased husbands. As Fareed himself is the son of a Chilean mother, it seemed all the more appropriate. While he played, I sat on the couch eating strawberries with Sting as he nursed a bad cold. Anecdotally, I remember that we were asked to join him and his producer for dinner afterward, but I missed Fareed so much plus I really didn’t have the energy to hang with people I didn’t know well and come up with the requisite small talk – no matter how glamorous they were – so I asked Fareed to pass. So how does this all substantiate that distant connection to Pattie I mentioned? It was that Eric Clapton had also played on the same track (we got to hear his tracks soloed up too). In the end his stuff didn’t end up making it on the final mix – but Fareed’s did. Kinda fun. So. Not a close call by any means, but definitely within the six degrees of separation thing.

What struck me most about Pattie was how incredibly insecure she was. At first I couldn’t believe the things she knew about – and put up with, yet she behaved as if nothing was going on. How could she? I thought. And then at once – a memory hit me. And I realized that I was no different. In roughly our third year together, Fareed was being pestered by a woman who’d once known him on the road. Nothing new there. But then he said the strangest thing – so out of the blue: “She says she’s pregnant with my baby.” I remember now a snapshot of that moment; the end of day light, standing near Sheridan and Broadway in Chicago, a large stone church just to the north of us… I can still see in my mind’s eye the look on his face. That first glimpse into the emotion-less facade he would wear so much of the time later on in our relationship. There was a lot going on behind those vacant eyes, and I was privy to very little of it. I was stunned more than anything, because he seemed to infer that this was not a vague, warrant-less threat from some crazy fan. Something had happened. Our relationship was still fairly new, and to even consider something like this was absolutely unthinkable to me. So I too behaved as if nothing had changed. And yet, somewhere deep down, I must have known things were going on…

I learned that Pattie knew about – but somehow still ignored – lovers of both George and Eric. But it was more than that. Eric, a substance abuser and most certainly deeply troubled guy, was just plain cruel to Pattie. But she stuck around. She took it. Unlike Pattie, I certainly never knew about anything – at least nothing was obvious. And certainly Fareed was never anything but a gentleman to me. But I did feel a tiny hint of doubt. I just didn’t want to acknowledge it, because if I did, I stood to lose my partner. I wasn’t brave enough to go there. And I guess Pattie had to face it because it was shoved in her face. (Hell, I suppose it was shoved in my face too, eventually.) Even after hours spent googling over the past four years in search someone having told a story similar to mine, I still hadn’t found anything close to what I myself experienced – until I read Pattie’s story. When I got to the part where Eric tells her his news, my whole body went cold. My God. Here it is. I know that moment. I remember that out-of-body feeling, that strange, shifting reality that invades your body like a drug all in an instant… Finally, here was someone putting a voice to this experience – besides me. Finally.

“He’d met a girl called Lori when he was in Italy. They had slept together a couple of times. He still loved me but he thought he was in love her too…One day I was in the kitchen putting flowers into a vase when he came in and told me that he had had a phone call from Lori. She was pregnant. I felt panic, fear, uncertainty, terror of what might happen next. What would I do? How would I cope? ‘Can’t she get rid of it?’ I asked. I felt sick. I couldn’t breathe properly and my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t think…” Man, do I know that place. I know it so well. But, this is only the first phase of a long and bizarre process, which inevitably ends in the birth of this new person – an event which is the most exceptionally queer and dreamlike mix of things one could ever experience in a lifetime. It’s acutely painful, it’s surreal… and of course, there’s a low level guilt present, because, after all, this tiny child had nothing to do with all the surrounding drama. And you do, in some way, wish for your not-yet ex’s happiness, and the new mother, and the babe… It’s a grueling, strange process for the wife. But oh thank God, I’m not alone. I finally read the experience from another woman’s lips…

“One evening we were sitting on the garden wall when the phone rang. It was Eric, wanting me to know that he was the proud father of a son, Conor. He was so excited. He had watched the baby being born, and went on and on about how moving, how marvelous, how miraculous it had been. His enthusiasm was unbridled. I might have been his sister or a friend, not his jilted wife. He had no thought that this might be news I didn’t want to hear.”

If you’ll read my post “Birth and Baptism“, you’ll hear me describe a nearly identical scene. Reading her account has helped me feel so much less alone. And in some ways, her experience was harder still because at that very same time she and Eric were undergoing IVF to have a child of their own. ! Pattie however, unlike me, never had the privilege of having her own child. I thank God up, down, right, left and center every day for my beloved son. I am so glad that I was able to know what it is to carry and raise a child. My heart goes out to Pattie, as that was a dream she worked so hard to achieve, yet it never came to be.

But on goes life. And while it may seem I can’t let go of my ‘story’, and I probably continue to write about it these days more than my audience might think is necessary, it shows me that my process isn’t over yet. But I am so very much better these days. I’m doing better than I was this time last year. And I suppose I’ll get better still with more time. My story will evolve, my heart will heal. Pattie’s story marches forward too… She has had so many adventures and such a rich life beyond that tiny tragedy that it gives me hope. I know that more adventures lie ahead for me too. For now, they’re more about fourth grade plays and egg collecting than travel or new careers, but I’m so very grateful for what I have.

And I’m grateful for my new sister, too.