The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Batting Back February 25, 2017

The following post will be a little unusual for this blog. But today, I was confounded by my ex and his response to our child continuing at Waldorf for his high school years, and I had to diffuse this hurtful and frightening situation by getting it out of my system and into the world. (There may yet be repercussions from an angry ex, but I’m tired of being bullied when all I’m trying to do is follow the rules and be a good, responsible mom.)

Our son is a joyful kid, an exceptional student, and enjoys everything about his school. Of note here, is that the tuition at this private school (for which my poverty nets us pretty generous assistance) goes up in grades 9 – 12. This, I believe, is the crux of the issue. (Just last week his father had asked me if we were really considering continuing on with Waldorf in high school. A small red flag right there.) And recently, in that I’d just learned that colleges look for near-flawless attendance records, and that until now Elihu’s visits to his father often carved off several days each semester, I’d said to my ex that we’d need to see to it that Elihu didn’t miss any extra days when he got to high school. I offered his father The Studio as a place to stay in order to facilitate longer visits. Hell, we now have a bed setup in the basement – with its own bath. If he can carve out some time, he’s always welcome here. And I know Elihu would be more than thrilled to finally (after about a four-year hiatus) have his daddy here in his own home.

Those suggestions were met with anything but a cooperative, co-parenting response. Fareed responded with the ultimatum “he’ll either visit his father or go to a public school”, to which Elihu responded that “that’s just ignorant”. Cuz truly, it was. Because it doesn’t matter where the kid goes to school – his attendance must still be good. Public or private – it makes no difference. And extra vacation days with dad are unexcused absences, anywhere. Period. Elihu can’t miss school no matter where he goes to school. But that’s the point that his father seemed to miss.

Look, I know my ex does not live an easy life. And I know he aint rich – but I also know he aint poor. He’s bringing his wife and two small children to Indonesia with him, and no matter the free hotel rooms, that shit is not cheap. Once, when Fareed lamented how poor he was becoming, I asked, with true love and concern, why he didn’t then apply for food stamps? Know how he responded? By bursting out laughing. “I’m not that poor” he said through his laughter. In a quiet, inner voice, I thought to myself, yes, but your ex-wife and your son are. The contrast between our realities has never mattered – or maybe even registered – to him. When I asked Elihu how his father could be so mean to me, he just responded “he doesn’t care”. “Who doesn’t he care about? You? Me? Who?” to which Elihu replied “Fareed Haque doesn’t care about anyone – but himself. But that’s not bad. That’s just who he is.” An insightful boy with a big, forgiving heart. Me, I still want justice. Or at least a heartfelt apology for not being nicer, for not acknowledging all I’ve done for our son. I just want some props, ya know?

Sometimes I’ve imagined what the scene at Elihu’s eighth grade graduation might look like (one upon a time it seemed decades off, now it’s in just a couple of months!!) and I kinda saw us standing side by side, I imagined him taking up my hand, and us finally, finally, after decades together and less than a decade apart, we’d be in some way on the same page again. Finally, he would see how Elihu glowed, he’d feel his happiness, he’d understand how right this whole life path had been. Fareed would finally understand the huge personal challenge this was for me, how much of myself I gave to the raising of our child, how I did it alone, how I stood the course and how clearly worth it the whole adventure had been. He’d look and me and squeeze my hand as if to say, ‘we’re still friends, and we both love this child’. But now it doesn’t look like things will be panning out that way. Not so much. Damn. Things were going so well up until now. I’d like to write it off to his current stressful situation, to money… I’d like to think it’ll wash over. But I don’t know. I’ll do what I have to in order to keep Elihu in the Waldorf School. If it means selling my piano – I’ll do it. I don’t own my house, so I can’t sell that, but one day I might have to have mom rent it out and look for subsidized housing. Bizarre as that sounds – and looks on paper – it has to go on the list. Everything must be considered. Elihu and I are going to have to roll up our sleeves and dig in deep, cuz at the moment, it really is the two of us against the world. And this kid is staying in the Waldorf School. I made him that promise. I’m keeping that promise.

_______________________________________________

Following is the text I put on my Facebook wall, on Fareed’s too, and additionally I sent it as a private message to him:

Friends who know Fareed Haque, we can understand he’s under some stress as he embarks on travels to India, China and Indonesia. He’s had a nightmare of logistic hitches and he’s barely out of the country. This, I honestly feel for. (One of the great reliefs in not being married to him anymore!) You couldn’t pay me to be that guy. His is not a life for the faint of heart.

But does this excuse his saying “Fuck you” to me after I simply suggested we should try to tailor Elihu’s visits with his dad such that Elihu does not miss more than 3 days of school a year? (I’m told colleges look for good attendance records – and visits to dad are not considered ‘excused’ absences. To remedy this I suggest that Fareed come here and visit.) Does his stress and upset excuse his threatening to completely remove his and his father’s financial assistance?

Fareed thinks I am doing nothing of merit in life and angrily tells me to ‘go get a job’. I teach, I run a nonprofit, I am a single mother raising a child. I take accompaniment jobs, I rent my venue, I even take side jobs. Plus – get this – my child is joyful and he does very well in school. Elihu speaks German, plays the tuba and creates balsa wood, rubber-powered planes of his own design. Plus he excels in math and takes care of 20 chickens every day before and after school. And he aspires to go to RPI. My legally blind son is diving into life head first. Lots of nature went into the equation, yes, but a hefty dose of nurture did too. !

Safe travels, Fareed Haque, cuz your son loves you and needs you back. But please, stop being so angry and mean when you communicate with us. We appreciate your support, and we’ve told you so. Can you please reciprocate and show a little appreciation for the life I’ve built for our son??? I know your road is tough. But it was your choice to create this life, from having four kids with different moms, to a busy touring schedule, to the teaching job with all its red tape and bureaucratic shit (well, maybe you didn’t really sign on for that!). And hey, if anyone has the balls to pull it all off – for sure it’s you. ! You’ve got the energy of a 20-year-old for sure. You’re a true chip off the old block…

Elihu will of course always love you. But one day when he understands that you didn’t always go to bat for him, and that you often disparaged his mother’s hard work – you just might find that he won’t like you quite as much.

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

rock-shot

Link to our YouTube channel: The Hillhouse

 

When Is When December 16, 2015

IMG_2683

Our sick hen holds back from the flock and stands still in the sun to keep warm.

Our urge, as humans, is to help other living creatures survive. (For the sake of expanding on this idea, for the moment let’s forget that we humans have also created entire industries and careers out of actively killing fellow humans and creatures as well…). Although most of us will probably squash any spiders found ‘trespassing’ inside our house, there remains a part of the population that will search out a cup and piece of paper, and safely transport the innocent to the great outdoors. That is a population to which I belong. (My own fine line is drawn at mosquitoes, however I have been known to offer apologies and ask forgiveness before smacking the little devils into the next plane of existence.)

Recently, we had a chronically not-well hen take a downward turn. For months I’d seen the way she hunkered down on the floor of the coop at night instead of joining her mates up on the roosting bars. This alone told me something was amiss. But aside from keeping good coop hygiene and feeding them a robust diet, there was little else I could do without stepping into a whole circus of tests and expensive dietary supplements. I wasn’t going to give the whole flock antibiotics, as that would have rendered all the eggs unsafe for eating (and cost us our modest egg-selling business). Naw… Aside from saying a little prayer for her each night as I closed up, and telling her softly that I loved her and was on her side, there was little to do but wait and see how things would turn out.

About a month ago I’d had her in my kitchen, along with our treasured Thumbs Up and another new white hen. The young leghorn had a chronically prolapsed cloaca; the last bit of muscle of her digestive (and laying) tract kept coming out. I would oil up my hand and massage it gently back in, but within hours her body would begin to push and squeeze it out again – against her own will, poor girl – and I could see the look of distress in her eyes as a plum size piece of her insides (which was bright red and quite challenging for me to look at) would emerge, unable to retract back inside the poor hen. After two days of physically manipulating her back into shape only to find her elongated and pushing uncontrollably, we knew there would be no lasting fix for this gal. So our neighbor Zac helped us out by chopping off her head in one deft blow, ending her misery and pain. (We call this method “Zaxupuncture”. Sometimes the most humane of all.)

vigilThumbs Up kept the vigil with her ill flockmate for a long time. I was also amazed to see our nervous, perpetually-moving guinea fowl, Austin, walk up to the sick hen and stand there by her side, virtually motionless for a good ten minutes. Animals just seem to feel when things are changing in the creatures around them.

Recently, the chronically not-well gall, whom we call “Mother of Martha” had begun to hang around the kitchen door, almost as if suggesting she might like to come in for a respite. Thankfully, the true, biting cold of winter hasn’t arrived yet, so our flock is still in relative comfort. But this is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored; it can be a sign that something in the bird’s constitution is amiss. And so I took her inside. But instead of perking up after a few days of r&r, she flagged even further. Home-made concoctions didn’t even do the trick this time. Believe me, I waffled inside. Was I prolonging her discomfort? Was I making her out to be more important (read: anthropomorphizing her) than she really was in the grand scheme of our small farm? Did she warrant – more to the point – did she herself even want more assistance?

Hen in A BucketThis appeared to be a sign of vitality, but ultimately it was just a last blip of activity.

Just a few days earlier she had been ticking her way across the wooden floor to observe a piano lesson one minute, head deep in the birdseed bin the next. Seemed she was doing pretty well. But the following day, she hunkered down in her corner and took on the look of an animal waiting for its time to go. And so at this time I chose not to fight it; the tiny ‘God voice’ inside me told me to just leave things be. Instead of intervening, I turned the heat up in the mudroom and made sure she was comfy with water that was very easy to get to. What else could I do now? It was really up to her. It truly felt as if she was finally at death’s door. So, having done all I could, I retired to the downstairs office to get some work done. A couple of hours later I had gone upstairs fully expecting to see her on the floor and gone from this world, but to my great surprise, instead, I found her bed empty. Keep in mind that she had been pretty well snuggled in there, and she’d been hard-pressed to move at all the last time I’d seen her; it woulda taken good bit of oomph to get up and out of her nest and onto the floor. But somehow, up and out she had gotten herself. I was so moved at seeing her silhouette in the hallway, standing there alone, waiting for someone to watch, to follow or sit beside… She was seeking some final companionship, I think. One can never know of course, but it sure felt like it.

IMG_2883Mother of Martha came out into the house for one last visit with me. This was quite a surprise, as she’d been too weak to move only hours earlier.

She stayed with me in the living room as I taught a piano lesson. But before we wrapped, I looked up to see that she had left us. Later, I found her close by the heaters in the mudroom. Now I got it. Yup, now it was probably time. I made one final effort to feed her; I slid the eye dropper full of probiotics along the length of her beak, hoping she’d take it on her own. She did. She swallowed dutifully, and uncharacteristically, without protest. Her eyes remained closed the whole time. But this time, something was very different. She clamped her beak tightly shut as I attempted to feed her the remainder of the dose. I tried a bit to pry them open, and if I’d put some more muscle into it, I might have. But somehow, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. So instead I gently wiped her chin clean, hoping to restore whatever appearance might be necessary to maintain her avian dignity, and then let her be.

After a few hours she was unchanged, eyes closed, breathing in and out. I tested her strength, seeing if she could stand, but she collapsed under her weight. No point forcing things. Rather than leaving her to sit in her mess and all alone in the mudroom, I made a brand new and clean bed for her and placed it in between the two radiators by the kitchen table. There was privacy enough, yet she was still within our sight. I turned up the heat to make sure she was comfortable. And then we waited.

IMG_2962At last she’s resting comfortably in the kitchen. We’re just waiting now.

A friend dropped by and he joined us for supper. We were a noisy bunch; laughing, talking and continuing to live life as usual. When our guest left, quiet finally returned to the kitchen. I sat beside the hen for a while. I didn’t stroke her; that would have been more for me than for her, and by now I felt strongly that she needed to be left alone. So instead, I talked to her in a low tone, and assured her that she was loved, and that she’d been a good hen. I thanked her for all the eggs and told her what a good job she’d done, and then I turned out the light and said goodnight.

That night I’d had a feeling she’d leave us, and as I’d expected – and at this point had hoped for – I found her dead in the early morning light. I’ve come upon several dead hens in my day, and none has ever succumbed in such a graceful pose as she. I took the one breast feather that had fallen from her as a keepsake, then put her body to rest in the screen porch until I found a moment (albeit several days later) to bury her.

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

She now rests with the other favorites; King George, the button quail who lived with us cage-free and nightly uttered his plaintiff wail for a mate as he scurried along the baseboards of the house (imagine that at the same time we also had a cat – and the two of them were absolutely oblivious to each other), and there was Molly, our very first hen, white with a necklace of black dots, as well as a few songbirds who’d crashed into windows. Our three-legged gecko was also buried in this small plot by the flowering quince; this little girl had had a cancerous rear limb amputated shortly after we’d moved here (the vet took pity on our heavy emotional load at the time and did the surgery for free). Our little pullet Martha rested there too, and now her mother had come to join her.

I’ve been present at the end of a few friend’s lives – as well as a few pet’s – and from those experiences have come to recognize the ways in which living beings behave as they near the end. My father’s passage was my most intimate experience with the death process. I remember wanting desperately to know exactly when it would happen. What to look for, what signs might immediately precede the moment of death, so I would somehow be readier for his leaving us… I remember hounding the hospice nurses for more information as they cared for my father, and as his life’s end grew obviously closer. As Martha approached her death this past summer I felt more familiar with the process, and although hers was also a welcome end to a full life, it was nonetheless a deeply strange and sad time. But sad as it may have been, I was relieved to actually recognize some of the signs and events in her progress towards death, and it made me better able to handle it all.

But that’s clearly not how everyone feels about things; my mom just couldn’t seem to adjust to the reality that Dad was on his way, and for a long while she seemed to think that somehow, somehow, things might still turn around for him. Signs that were obvious to me were easily ignored by her. Funny what comes to mind – but I remember how Dad had come to a point where he could not drink on his own; a time when he needed a straw. I remember suggesting this to my mother, but she strongly resisted the idea. Inside I’d gotten very angry inside about this – couldn’t she see what was happening? He was dying already! He was thirsty! He needed to drink, and he needed our help! What on earth was she waiting for? “Someday when” was here; ‘when’ was now! Until the very last few days I don’t think she wanted to believe it. But even she had to acquiesce, and realize that ‘when‘ had finally arrived.

Every day I pass the spot where a nineteen year old boy was recently hit by a car, shortly after which he died. It’s very much on my mind these days, as there is no avoiding the roadside memorial. Also, the boy’s middle name was Elihu, and so the tragedy has fixed itself even more personally in my thoughts. I think of his mother every day too, and naturally think then of my own child, and how his life gives so much meaning to mine. I take not a moment with him for granted. Also, the older I get, the more deeply I understand how very important it is to live fully, courageously and compassionately in the moments still remaining. Those flowers at the side of the road will not allow me to forget this.

The other day at breakfast Elihu asked why grownups were always so worried about the past and the future. Why, he wanted to know, were we always worried about ‘when things were going to happen, or what things were like back when‘? “Forget the future!” he said, almost angrily as he swept a hand in the air. “Forget the past! Now is all there is! Now is when!” He apologized for sounding annoyed. I told him he was right, and that I heard him. I agreed with him that we can’t always make plans for ‘when’, but as humans, it was what made us feel safer in the world. Then I thanked him for expressing himself. I told him he really was right. I sat in our little kitchen and looked in wonder at this insightful, loving person whom I’d been so lucky to have beside me in my life, and I breathed in, grateful. Yes, Elihu was right. The most important when of all – was now.


Post Script: A heartfelt thanks to those who contributed towards our campaign to expand our media storage here on WordPress… We were able to purchase a package that will likely support us for another couple of years. Thanks to you we can continue to post new photographs without saying goodbye to the old ones! Yay!

 

Relic July 3, 2015

The post that follows has been modified from its original form; some photos have been removed at the request of Martha’s family members...



IMG_0183
It’s not my home anymore, and today this sight’s a relic of my long-gone past, but still, the shores of Lake Michigan restore my soul as nothing else can.


In the wake of Martha’s death, things have changed around here. For one, in the short time between the lovely farewell party we held for her at the farm and the day in which her relatives returned to organize her house, several of her belongings had been stolen. It had to have been an inside job, which leaves the few of us who know the place well to be suspects. I don’t truly think Martha’s niece thinks that we did it, but I can’t know this for sure, and that cloud of distrust has given this transitional chapter a very unsettled feeling. But it sure helps to wind things up there, and at the same time helps propel me back into my own life, something that’s been on hold for a while now.

It’s more than strange to see the farm no longer inhabited. Not a soul remains. Only stuff. Things upon things, more piles and objects than one can comprehend. It is a house that has been receiving its contents for half a century. And now, with their final caretaker gone, they sit, silent and enigmatic, most of their stories lost to those who are left to dispatch with it all. For me, I don’t find myself wondering so much at the items – if the stories are lost, at least their purposes speak for themselves – but more to the point are the unanswered questions – why was Martha saving all of this stuff? For what use was it all intended? Hoarding can just as easily be achieved with elegant, historical relics as it can with modern junk. In the end, things that aren’t of use are essentially just that. Junk. Stuff that sits inert, waiting for someone to give it a new life. So while this house may seem at first glance to be full of precious antiques, I see it a little differently. I see it as a repository for things that at present aren’t realizing their potential. (And in some ways, I also see the place as a mirror for my own life in this moment.)

When mom, Elihu and I visited Chicago a few weeks ago (for the memorial of another dear, old friend), we were given the rare opportunity to see the places where my parents raised my brother and me – and personally it was a way in which I could finally say a deep and meaningful goodbye to those chapters in my life. Our old home had been lovingly restored, the new owners more than happy to share with us every nook and corner of the place. We had the good fortune to eat familiar, much-missed food at places that were once regular destinations in our lives. We re-acquainted ourselves with the new city skyline, saw neighborhoods where some old places were razed and new ones erected, and we took it all in with enthusiasm and great interest. The lake, the unending stretch of beach that goes on for mile after mile, that boundless expanse of horizon which I still miss so very much… We saw it all, and we experienced it all together. And at the age of eighty, I’m not sure my mother will return in her lifetime. I know I will never return in the same way. (As for Elihu, he doesn’t remember his Chicago life, brief as it was, so for him it’s just an interesting anecdotal chapter that came before his time.) This trip was the perfect conclusion and farewell to our former lives. And this time it made coming home to Greenfield truly feel like coming home.

Shortly after we came home from our brief visit to Chicago, Martha died. And a week later, we had her memorial celebration. After that, the items went missing from her place. And now, the farm is no longer our space to enter freely. Ultimately that’s ok – there’s plenty I need to get to; the Studio, my teaching, my own home and property, my chickens, my health, my daily routines (which have been anything but routine over the past month or more) and, of course, my son. I’m resurrecting my quest to find piano solo jobs in this bustling tourist town, and last night made more than a dozen stops in my first attempt to sus out how things work these days. I learned plenty in just six hours of conversation and visits. I’m not up to speed in many ways. I’m out of practice, unfamiliar with my songs, my keys, even the silly lyrics. And technology? Forget about it. My lack of a smart phone and tablet all but cuts me off from the world around me. My songlist itself needs some serious updates (I’d thought I could hang my hat on the novel concept of being nostalgic and ironic, playing mostly a diet of guilty pleasure radio hits for the over 50 set, but the wisdom on the street is that I need a serious infusion of more current material, regardless of my cute little shtick.) I recall a time in my life when I had several hundred songs up and ready to go without a second thought; now I second guess it all. Did I really ever do this before? Was I really a musician in a former life? I certainly never jobbed with a vengeance, but I got work. More importantly – I almost always had work; and if I didn’t, it ended up finding me. Here, in Saratoga, a world in which I’ve never worked professionally, I don’t have the infrastructure of dozens of musician friends nor the good reputation I once took for granted to proceed me. And I certainly don’t have that ‘famous’ guitar-playing husband to help give me an added boost of credibility. All I have is me. (And a new rig, thank God. Wait, make that ‘thank mom’. !) Here, in this ‘new’ town, in this new life, it feels like I’m a relic.

Things can change, this I know. And thanks to a handful of magically timed recent meetups with some very wonderful women I know and a little outside perspective, I’ve been able to reinvigorate the vision. If it weren’t for my hairdresser – whom I merely visited yesterday for a quick hello – I wouldn’t even have set out to meet all the people I did. She urged me to go and close those deals which I’d proposed just a few months ago. And sitting in her chair, whom should I meet but an old friend of Martha’s. It seemed another push from the universe to let go of the past and move into my future.

My day started at six a.m. and didn’t end until lil man was back home and we two settled into bed around 2:30 (his flight from Chicago – where he’d been visiting with his father – got in after 1. A super late night.) My day started by learning, praise Allah, that I didn’t have colon cancer. Pre-cancerous polyps, but that was all (my grandparents died of colon cancer, and my cousin, two years my junior, is on her third round of chemo in her fight against the disease). My day filled quickly after the doctor’s appointment, and I only returned after dark to close the chickens in before I headed out to the airport to pickup Elihu. It was a day full of unplanned-for events, the enjoyable company of friends, and the gleaning of much important professional information. I felt a bit like an outsider though. Yes I’d left Chicago more than six years ago by now, but I’d been cloistered away ever since in the role of rural, impoverished, single mom. Yesterday it felt like I was starting all over again. But at least I was beginning on my own, not in the wake of a famous husband, not on the reputation of a varied career as keyboardist, not as a frontman for a well-loved band, not as any of those things. Just as me.

I still have a hard time letting go of my past life because sometimes I worry that nothing can match its glamour; that instead of a fruitful future, I can expect a long, bleak road ahead. That kind of thinking has been easy to succumb to in the past, but I need to get rid of it now. It’s ok to hold on to a keepsake – there’s nothing wrong with being in possession of a relic or two – but there’s still a lot of junk in my house that no longer serves me which I need to clear out, so that a new life can have the space and freedom to move on in.


IMG_0085The most beautiful, perfect sendoff for our dearest Martha. Michael made a fine toast (we all raised a glass of Martha’s regular evening drink – gasp – Apricot Brandy) after which we all sang Martha’s favorite song, “Simple Gifts”. That big, beautiful farmhouse came alive again, and I’m sure wherever Martha was, she was pleased.

{Former image of an empty kitchen}

{Former image of a bedroom at the farm}

{Former image of another room}

{Former image of a bureau, a portrait and a chair}
A real-life tableau, undisturbed for decades.

{Former image of a room with chairs}
In an effort to maintain the theme and continuity of the original post, it should be explained that I’d included interior images of the house, which the family wishes to remain private at this time.

{Image of red, spiral bound notebook with “Mundane Matters” printed in black marker on the cover.}
Ever a practical woman, Martha wrote her own obituary, as well as her final wishes and disbursements here in this plain, spiral notebook. She called her matters ‘mundane’; simple though they might have been, mundane they were not.

IMG_0152A last image of what has been our ‘normal’ for the past five decades. Mom and Andrew sit in the kitchen at the farm as they have since he and I were tiny.

IMG_0048Is my own collection of stuff any less of a mystery? How in hell did this crap all find me? Another garage sale of epic proportions in on the calendar for this summer. My house will not end up like Martha’s. (Besides, there’s no space; it’s a mere four rooms to her ten.)

IMG_0052I am of the opinion that if you do not see it, you will not use it. I’ve labeled all this stuff and use it all pretty regularly. I’m doing my best to keep my crap confined to this storage room and nowhere else.

IMG_0058I’d thought my new rig was so modern and ready-to-rock, but alas, the bulky 3 ring binders of charts (and my reliance on them too) instead of a handy tablet is a handicap in this day and age. No matter, for now it’ll have to do. Until I can store it all in my brain, that is.

IMG_0103I try to keep my world as simple as possible. Hopefully, a tidy home will provide a solid platform for a full and invigorating life to come. If some things are about to change in my life, I’ll need some things in place that never do. That’s just the kind of gal I am. I’m fine with some change, and I feel it’s important to routinely clean one’s house out of unused items, but I utterly depend upon some things remaining just as they are.

IMG_0025Here’s a pic of our first-born hen this year, whom we named Martha. Sadly, for no reason I can understand, she died one morning this week. We’d never before had a hen who was half red and half white. She was as unique as her namesake.

IMG_0014I don’t cry anymore when our animals leave us, but my heart still breaks. I’d hoped to have a living remembrance of Martha here on our tiny farm, but I’ll have to let go of the sentiment and attachment. Sorrow and regret can zap a person of their hope, and I need to keep mine strong and healthy. Goodbye and thank you, tiny, feathered friend.

IMG_0002It’s not exactly in my backyard, but Saratoga Lake’s not terribly far.

IMG_0011Our house on the hill lives in the middle ridge of this photo – in the darker blue section just above the treeline, with the Adirondacks beyond. For me this is a new body of water, a new horizon. This beautiful view gives me a new perspective on things, and that’s something I could really use right about now.


Post Script: Martha suffered a stroke in the mid 80s which left her left side paralyzed. While she was able to drive for a while, and did far more than one would expect for a person in such a situation, she was clearly stopped in her tracks by this life-changing event. It’s been posited that her stuff remained in disuse because she was never again able to resume her activities and projects as she’d planned. Heartbreaking to think how everything can change in a minute. A good reminder for us all to use our lives as fully as we’re able, and while we’re able, too.

 

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!).