The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Highs, Lows and Loss April 2, 2016

We’ve had a lot of fun mini adventures here lately. However, tempering the moments of fun and light come the inevitable moments of drudgery, the tasks fundamental to the maintenance of physical life here on this planet. There are very few idle moments around here, and while generally I’m thankful for the brisk pace and new experiences that we’re fortunate to enjoy, it’s the other crap that often puts me in a crabby mood. Taxes must be filed, applications for summer programs must be filled out, applications for tuition assistance, for heating assistance, for food stamps, for teaching proposals, for class descriptions, email addresses must be entered into the database, old ones culled, websites must be maintained, chickens, frogs and fish must be fed and cleaned up after. And a twelve-year-old boy always seems to be hungry. And don’t get me started about dust bunnies or laundry or leaf-filled gutters. Yeah, there is never an end to it all. And yeah, I’m grateful for all we have, but still…

It was my Uncle Paul’s birthday on March 31st, and in that my mother doesn’t keep up with her only sibling and family, I thought it might be a good idea to check in. My Uncle Paul had a stroke a few years back, and so his speech is slow – combine that with Aunt Sandy’s proclivity for endless small-talk and chatter, and poor Paul is relegated to a virtually speech-free existence. Thankfully, it being his birthday, Sandy passed the phone over to him and I had a brief exchange with my only living uncle. I heard him speak long enough to understand a certain gentle humor, as well as a fatigued sense of surrender. This was understandable, as I’d learned (this is a good example of how little my family members communicate with each other) that his daughter, my cousin Janice, had finally lost her battle with colon cancer last summer.

Summer before last I’d insisted that mom, Elihu and I visit the Jackson family, and now I was especially glad that we did. In spite of having virtually nothing in common with my newly re-met cousin, I’d liked her. She’d battled cancer for six years, ever-smiling, ever sweet of demeanor. I’d admired her for that alone. She’d even demonstrated her kindness to me in a thoughtful, hand-written letter at Christmastime. To learn she’d died was, although distantly sad, no deep heartbreak for me. Instead I felt relief for her – because she’d been through the wringer over the past few years, with six-hour commutes once a week for chemo treatments to the daily indignity of living with a permanent colostomy bag. But more than all of this, her death left me wondering once again at the deep level of chronic heartbreak with which so many of my fellow humans must live out their time here on earth. It should just not be that a man should lose his physical faculties, live until old age, and then witness the slow death of his only daughter. Fuck that. No matter whether one believes in destiny, the wisdom of God’s choices or the necessity of working out karmic debt, seriously, how in hell does one make sense of this?

Recently, a local man went out for his nightly walk, suffered a fall, and subsequently died, alone, on the trail in the woods behind his house. His wife had gone to bed just as he had gone out for this routine stroll, and he had likely laid there on the ground, in the cold of night, long before he finally succumbed to his fate. A former president of local Skidmore College, mom told me that he once played harpsichord as part of an event at dad’s Baroque Festival in which five harpsichordists all performed… This morning, as I awoke fresh to a new day of possibility, my greatest challenges being tidying my home and feeding a growing boy, I remembered the news of this man’s death, and thought immediately of his wife. How must she be feeling on this very morning? She had laid sleeping in her bed as her husband, mere yards away, laid on the cold ground, dying. Man. It’s stuff like this that tempers my frustration with the toil of the everyday and helps to quiet my bitchy outbursts as I get back to this precious business of everyday life.

The other morning, on the way to school and in the absence of the usual polka soundtrack, Elihu began some intense existential rumination. He’d recently noted that every physical thing – outside the natural world, that is – had first existed in a person’s mind before it came to take form in physical reality. While I’d offered this concept to him in the past, apparently the corresponding light bulb moment had only just arrived. “So literally, we are living in other people’s minds. We live in the creations of other people’s thoughts!” He laughed, he shook his head in amazement. He had a half-dozen other threads of thought beginning to germinate too and he struggled to identify them. He’d begun to express his new ideas just recently on the long drive to Schenectady for a flying meet, and clearly in the five minutes of commute that remained there was little time to make headway with any of them. “Yeah, it’s true.” I summed up. “Every structure you see out the window existed first in someone’s imagination.” I paused for a moment, wondering how to bring the conversation to a tidy close. “It does take a while to get things physically manifested here on this physical plane, but in time, and with tenacity,” I said, as much to remind myself as to inspire my child, “just about anything can be realized.” He sat there, quiet, looking out of the window. He was clearly deep in thought, because he didn’t ask for me to turn on any polka music before we arrived at school.

The past few weeks have been a tangled flurry of life, death, simple pleasures and challenging tasks. So far, real heartbreak and tragedy are not ours personally, and for this we’re both appreciative. Elihu has recently met a gentleman that we readily refer to as his new flying mentor, and in the short time we’ve known him he’s already opened up a whole new world to us. So this particular adventure has begun, if you’ll pardon the pun, to take flight. ! From the lowest notes on Elihu’s C tuba to the ceiling of the Schenectady Armory, we’ve had some truly exhilarating experiences lately. And since one never knows when the whole affair may come crashing to a close, we’re savoring the whole shebang –  we’re flying along on the current of our life, learning from the highs, the lows and all that stuff that fits somewhere in between.

IMG_4985Our weeks end on Sunday, which is tuba lesson day. Can you imagine that Elihu’s tuba teacher not only lives in our town, but he has chickens? (And goats and horses, and he built his own house, and he has six children – including a set of quadruplets – and he’s one of the best low brass players and teachers in the region. And he’s a super nice guy. Say what??)

IMG_4993Imagine a tuba lesson that starts like this. !!

IMG_4997Yup, Elihu is a lucky, happy boy.

IMG_5018Finally Elihu’s reading has gotten to the point where it’s not the focus of the lesson – but technique and sound are.

IMG_5078We went to the high school’s performance of Bye Bye Birdie, where, as our usual serendipitous good luck would have it, we enjoyed front row seats, in spite of our having arrived late. ! Elihu’s tuba teacher’s eldest daughter played trombone in the pit orchestra, as did an old friend. The fellow conducting and playing keyboards is the music teacher here; I use his classroom to teach my adult ed class entitled “Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher”. Oh – and one of my piano students did the lighting. An extremely impressive production, as always. Truly, more than top-notch all the way around.

IMG_5028Later on we Skyped with some dear friends in France. Regular readers may remember young Lilas and her mother, Mary. Mary’s the daughter of old family friends from Greenfield – Mary’s mother was an actor and performed at my father’s Baroque Fest ages ago – so it’s nice to keep this connection. Mary also teaches at the Waldorf School there – so we’ve got that in common too.

IMG_5177I have new friends who’ve moved here from Sicily – and they kindly gave us this Easter treat. There’s a boiled egg baked inside! Apparently this is traditional in many European cultures, but for us it was a first.

IMG_5544It seems the Easter Bunny is still visiting the Hillhouse…

IMG_5549Which made one big kid very happy.

IMG_5560Since Elihu sees no color whatsoever, eggs need high-contrast decorations to stand out. Why the blue? you ask. To add some depth, I suppose. Also cuz I thought it was pretty.

IMG_5673A tradition for many years now (and which we skipped last year as he was with his father), we visited what we call “the lightning tree”. Every year Elihu adds a bit to the primitive stone structure at the base of the charred-out tree. I was happy to see the ‘mom and son’ cairns from three years ago had survived the wind and weather. We passed two hours there as if it were ten minutes. So much fun.

IMG_5681A closer look at the rocks… A winding hillside road is off to the left, the woods directly ahead and to the South, our house a bit off to Southwest, and the big field is just out of the frame to the right.

IMG_5692This tree hangs precipitously over the edge of a good fifteen foot drop to the road; you can see the pavement through the roots where the tree has been burned away.

IMG_5734During our fort-making we found several surprises…

IMG_5742Remainders of a time when this was all cow pasture and farm. We also found a garden rake and remnants of a small shack.

IMG_5800Heading home. There’s a break in the stone wall (which divides our property from the field) where the birch tree leans out. Just out of frame (sigh) and to the right is the new construction house, the sight of which still depresses us both.

IMG_5825Elihu regaled mom and me with some pretty funny new jokes during Easter supper.

IMG_5987While out and about I saw this license plate. !!

IMG_5429Got myself my biannual hair cut. Old friends have chided me for maintaining something of an ’80s’ hairstyle, but I argue that it’s best to work with what one has. Me, I’ve got curl. This is my perennial, scrunch-n-go favorite. Think what you will. It works.

IMG_5536Ah, the endless battle against the hardest water known to man. This stain was created in less than two weeks’ time. Yup. Many times it’s been posited that we should bottle the stuff and sell it. Saratoga Water – meh! How about some Greenfield Gold?

IMG_5514My favorite visitor to the platform feeder, our beloved guinea fowl, Austin. He is a real goofburger.

IMG_5205Elihu has a loaner C concert tuba at home (Ed, we can never, ever thank you enough!) and what we affectionately call a “B flat beater” tuba, which we own, and which is kept at school in order to prolong mom’s back health. !! My kid must play in two different tunings – me, I’m immensely impressed by that. Btw – musician joke digest: Guy hears the breaking of glass… Runs to his car…. Finds TWO tubas in the back seat…

IMG_5301We’re at the Schenectady Armory – the huge and gorgeous room where local model aircraft enthusiasts meet weekly to enjoy windless, indoor flying.

IMG_5233And this is Jesse. It’s safe to say that this man has forever changed Elihu’s life.

IMG_5225Jesse’s old school; he’s got a rubber band winder with a 1:15 ratio. That loads a lot of power onto the band. His crafts in flight are something rare to witness; as one circled gently around the room high over our heads on a nearly one minute-long flight, there was simply not a work spoken by anyone present. It is a thing of such magic and beauty that no comment can accurately express the delight one feels to watch as it soars…

IMG_5360Jesse even let Elihu fly some of his RC planes. A gentleman and a wonderful teacher, the trust he put in Elihu was a real gift. It enabled my son to finally get the feel of flying a plane.

IMG_5356Hanging with the new posse. Click here to watch Elihu’s first walkalong glider experience, and click here to watch mom give it a try the following week.

IMG_5376Ok, this almost made my head explode. Elihu loves, loves, loves the German language, and of all things – there’s a German restaurant on the way home… So we stop in for a bite of bratwurst…

IMG_5378…and wait, you’re kidding me, right? There’s a friggin tuba player arriving just at the same time as us!!

IMG_5379 This is what lil man has to look forward to… (Let me tell you – a soft case is a walk in the park compared to the hard case I move every Sunday!)

IMG_5399OMG – the charts are even in German. !!

IMG_5406An afternoon of flying followed by live polka music with a tuba player in a German restaurant?!?! WHAT? (Oh – and we learned later that Elihu and Jeremy the tuba player both study with Mike Meidenbauer!)

IMG_5996Recently The Studio was host to an event. A success I suppose, in spite of the fact that the host’s car got stuck in the mud and she needed a tow truck to get her out and now I gotta figure out how to fix the lawn. Sigh. Two steps forward, one step back… Overhead’s still killing me at the moment, but all in due time, I suppose…

IMG_5999Elihu donned his Grandpa Robert’s madras bow tie for his school Spring Assembly for the Waldorf School.

IMG_6038How I wish I had a better picture, but from way in the back this was the best I could do. Elihu and pal Drake performed a tongue-twister sketch which they wrote, the last line of which was “Fancy froggy fanciers feed my farmed, frivolous, furry, frightened, fluttering, flightless fruit flies to phyllobates frogs from Florida forests.” !

IMG_6125A bow-tied man is a man of good character, no matter the age. (The fellow on the left even plays tuba. !) A fine performance, and a fine conclusion to a fun and full couple of weeks.

 

Coasting January 24, 2014

What comfort can I take from life right now? I have woken up in a bit of a sad mood. I visited some photos of my father on the blog (it’s served us personally as our only real photographic record of the past two years) and now I sit, vaguely depressed, putting off the starting of my day. I don’t want to go into the dark, cold kitchen and find it rank with the smell of a convalescing bird. I don’t want to make breakfast, lunches. I don’t want to get dressed, to drive into town again. I just want to sit here in my bad mood and work my way out of it on my own time. I do need to check on my son however; just minutes ago I was fully present in a dream in which I’d let him go flying in a small plane and they needed assistance coasting to the ground as they’d had a fuel line problem. The dream was as vivid as is my now-real bedroom, and I can’t help but want to see my young son for myself just to make sure that the other time line has come to a close.

Strange moments, those upon waking. Dreams – whether anxious or hopeful – disintegrate like steam in the sky and all of a sudden you’re here again, in the middle of a just-so sort of life with many just-so sorts of details before you. Ich. Fuck the daily crap. Just fuck it. I feel a little bipolar here; just yesterday I was in a pretty good mood I suppose. I’d even had a couple of really good moments. “Bubbles of happiness” my son and I call them. Every now and then, when a tiny bit of joy springs up – for no apparent reason other than it’s just a very delightful moment – he or I will announce to the other out loud “I’m having a bubble of happiness right now”. The other will acknowledge it and we’ll continue on our way. Think we each had several last night. It was a nice night – complete with a phone call from a ninety-four year German woman whom I’d known in Evanston years ago – through Alice Angermann, the Vienna-schooled piano teacher of my high school and college years. Our conversation was an unexpected treat and it added even more magic to our day.

But magic and bubbles of happiness don’t last – in fact they’re very short, which is why we take the care to announce them – they need all the witness and appreciation they can get! In my same-old, same-old chair, in the dark of morning with the day’s events all just around the corner, waiting for my attention, I am not feeling very close to the mood of last night. Yeah, somehow I’ll come around. Just being with my beloved son usually does that on its own. But still, I’m looking off more towards the horizon of my existence this morning, and I’m not sure what it is that I have to look forward to there. I need more for sure. A quest, a purpose. I try to bring joy to everyone I see during my day, I try to be kind, cheerful when I can. All that sort of stuff. And that helps the world, I’m sure. And it helps me too. But today I feel like I could use a little extra bit of something. Not sure what. Just something. It’s probably the time of year that’s making me feel like this. Smack in the middle of the calendar year, the relentless cold, and tired, matted-down snow don’t do much to enliven the spirit. But isolated as I might feel here in my tiny country house in the middle of a sky-wide winter, I’m pretty sure that I am by no means the only person feeling mid-winter doldrums. Certainly not. So… breath in, chest out, foot forward. Buck we up, and on we go…

Lest I forget, tonight is the Waldorf School’s open mic night (in support of the 11th grades’ upcoming annual trip to Ethiopia) and I’ll bet you can guess who’s playing piano for a bunch of folks. ! And it’ll be a hoot, I know. Right now it’s got me grousing about having to leave the house again and drive back into town – but I know once we get there it’ll be fun. Plus Elihu will play drums with me too. Not sure folks at school are aware of how good he is. They will be soon. So he’ll have a little moment to shine too. Guess I gotta just take these little moments and count em as precious. Cuz it’s those little gems that keep me coasting through life until the next big adventure comes along….

Post Script: My father died four weeks ago tonight. I recently added the story of his final moments as an addendum to the post entitled “Vigil” (12/27/13). It was written a few hours before he passed, and it seemed to me that the post was incomplete without the full story. Dad left us crying… and laughing too. If you’re gonna go, this is the best way I could ever imagine….

 

Mid April Pics April 14, 2013

Been busy. I try to keep us an underscheduled household, but even so we always seem to be doing something. Even our down time seems to include little surprises, like a dead robin to examine up close, a quick smooch of a goose, a nice moment with a glider on a windless day…

April 2013 827The birds enjoy the very last bit of snow on the property

April 2013 859He had to be coerced at first, but at last Max succumbed to a good long embrace

April 2013 845Best eight bucks we’ve spent in a while

April 2013 832Poor thing – traveled so many hundreds of miles only to be hit by a car

April 2013 839Here she is up close

April 2013 844Elihu admires her wingspan

April 2013 806You can see why they’re called brown-headed cowbirds

April 2013 875Hmm. This guy seems to be feeling the excitment of spring…!

April 2013 831Mama did her biannual cleanout of the junk drawer

April 2013 906Skidmore College’s Taiko drummers

April 2013 922Elihu takes a turn

April 2013 920That was fun!

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I just want to thank Joe for all his kindness in helping me get setup on my new (refurbished) computer. I’m up and running again and it’s all thanks to him! If you live in the Saratoga Springs area, I encourage you to use J & D computer repair!

 

Plane Sight February 28, 2013

    flight time 2013 023

My kid is obsessed with flight. He spends hours watching videos of all things aviation. He tells me he’s getting worried; it’s hard for him to concentrate when he’s in school. All he can think of his how things fly… It’s almost driving him nuts. And it certainly takes a little patience and cooperation from me. !

Elihu can’t stop making planes. First, it was very sophisticated paper airplane designs that each flew with different characteristics. Seems he’s had his fill of that, and now he’s after the beauty of the silhouette. Spruce Goose, Antinov, DC 10, Piper Cherokee, whatever… These days he lives and breathes man-made things that fly. I encourage him and watch him in fascination as he leads me on yet another one of our life’s adventures. His current goal is to become the world’s first legally blind pilot. Sounds crazy, but if I were ever inclined to believe someone, it would be him. He is one focused little boy. And for him, his goal doesn’t seem crazy at all. For him, it’s within plain sight.

flight time 2013 014

He’s making a giant glider now…

flight time 2 2013 002

And it’s got a moveable rudder, too.

flight time 2013 033

Some fly, some don’t. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the intention that soars…