The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Win-Win-Win February 2, 2015

Finally got my pantry back again today. Elihu finally gave his belated birthday gifts to Uncle Andrew, Mom and Martha today, plus he Skyped with his sister in England and played some string bass for her as a birthday offering too. Those were all good, winning things. But I suppose the biggest win of all was that of the New England Patriots over the Seattle Seahawks at the 49th Super Bowl.

My kid’s never watched football before tonight, and the whole culture of sports in general has always been something of a mystery to him. (As an achromat, visually tracking a ball is nearly impossible in real life.) He’s wanted to learn more about football in particular these days, as it’s often a topic of conversation among the kids at school. How perfect that we joined the game at the end of the first half, in time to witness two very cool plays – plus of course the half-time spectacle (the Katy Perry medley to which he knew all the words… I mean come on mom, everyone sings this stuff in school…) A winning end to a pretty good day. More adventures (and much more snow too, I hear) to follow…

IMG_0404Playing bass for sister Brigitta, who lives in England. It’s her 12th birthday.

IMG_0410There she is!

IMG_0418I dash across the road to get neighbor Zac’s help with some cleats I need for my new pantry shelves. Between Zac and his dad Phil they’ve got every type of saw one could ever need. Or so it seems to me. I’m sure Zac could point out the deficiency in their collection if pressed…

IMG_0426Hmm, let’s see, there’s ripping, mitering, planing, chopping, jigging (is that a word?) and then plain sawing. I think. Might all of it be correctly called ‘sawing’? Who knows? All I know is that one better watch the fingers. !!

IMG_0431See what I mean?

IMG_0455Back home, lil man picks up the camera and does a little editorializing on my home improvements.

IMG_0457Why did I wait til my 50th to buy myself a nice drill? Friends, don’t wait. If you don’t have an 18 volt cordless drill (preferably with a light at the end, unlike my old-fashioned model) then go out and get one. Today.

IMG_0460He catches me measuring twice, drilling once.

IMG_0463A few minutes later! Hoo-ray!! Thanks to pregnant Stephanie for lending me her handy husband to make these cleats for us – and they’re made from trees harvested from their property too. ! Last night we ate locally grown venison, today we’re using locally grown wood to hold up our shelves. Virtually living off the land, we are. !!

IMG_0466And a few minutes even later! Woo hoo! Been without a pantry for going on three months. Ahh. Life really is about the simple things.

IMG_0472And speaking of simple things, we’re off to the farm now, where Elihu plays for Martha her very favorite song, Simple Gifts, on his new alto recorder. (Her birthday is in July, so this gift is either very late or very early.)

Elihu plays Simple Gifts for Martha.

IMG_0494Elihu presents grandma with a pastel of a landscape. I mistook it for recycling afterwards and folded it – after weeks of delicate handling. I could weep. Thankfully, Elihu and grandma were upbeat about pressing it flat again under some glass. Argh.)

IMG_0514Elihu gives Uncle Andrew a high quality, entry-level rc helicopter with money he’s been saving. He’s been wanting to see his very depressed uncle happy for ages and put a lot of thought into the perfect gift. (Andrew’s birthday was on New Year’s Eve.) I myself can’t remember the last time I saw my brother smile. Success!

IMG_0516Seems a bit unfair that the ladies here seated are tipping back their bourbons in the presence of a not-so-dry alcoholic who’s trying his best to maintain. Ah well. Such is the ever-present dysfunction and denial of my family.

IMG_0481I’ve known this kitchen since I was tiny. It’s more cluttered, yes, but it’s still just as familiar. It still really does feel in my heart like the true epicenter of my life. Always has – no matter where I’ve lived or traveled, this kitchen ultimately feels like true center. Where everything begins and then one day returns.

IMG_0596I was ready for bed after our visit to the farm, but the game was too compelling.

IMG_0566Gotta turn off the kitchen lights – even after adjusting the tv’s brightness levels, it’s still too much light. He takes it in stride, but I’m always mildly saddened by the light-sensitive state in which Elihu lives. Wish it were easier for him.

IMG_0561Holy crap! This game is getting intense!!

IMG_0583The Patriots are down by four and I don’t think they can possibly win any longer, but lil man still does.

IMG_0595I was wrong – things turned! It’s pretty much a done deal here, but nonetheless, here we go…

IMG_0608New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIV!

IMG_0597One happy dance for a winning day well-ended, and then it’s off to bed…

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Post Script: Another win: Snow day! Letting the lil man sleep in, and gonna get into bed with a book within minutes… Score!

IMG_0614

 

Returned Home August 7, 2014

To begin with, the train was four hours late. It wasn’t too terribly bad for me; I enjoyed a relaxed walk around downtown Schenectady, stopped by a local shop and had a nice long visit with the owners (whom I knew from years of such train travel), I explored a more hardcore city neighborhood and dropped in on a West Indies grocery (in search of some mango pickle) where I passed almost another hour chatting with new friends and learning the similarities and differences between Indian and West Indies cuisine, among other things. I watched the C130s flying in and out of the nearby airfield, their immense bodies and thundering engines shocking me at each pass…  All in all I took it well in stride, but admittedly as I waited on the platform in those final minutes, the wait was becoming too much. It must have been much worse to have suffered it on the train, so I waited in sympathy for my weary traveler.

They were the very last two passengers to disembark, and as they approached I hardly recognized the pair; Fareed at this point has a head of nearly all-white hair, and our son hardly looks a tiny boy anymore. Of course I knew this intellectually, but somehow his height shocked me – in fact his whole appearance shocked me. Handsome with a fresh haircut and oxford shirt, he seemed so much older. We didn’t kiss, we didn’t even fully hug (I’d harbored a tiny fear he might be newly reserved in our reunion and so had also readied myself for this too), but nonetheless he laughed at my mouth, agape, my speechless reception. And there we were. The three of us, together, again. I reminded myself to keep the recent unpleasant exchanges with my ex altogether apart from this experience. I’d done this many times before – but this time, on the heels of an emotionally charged round of FB messages, it felt different to me. Several recent ‘pep’ talks from friends cautioning me to keep my ex at an emotional distance helped me to stay aware. I’d been such a sucker for so many years, this time might I keep my dignity and not allow him to hurt me or push my buttons? I would give it my very best. Having the distraction of my beloved son helped, and as we got into the car and drove home in the dark, there was no lack of things to catch up on, and conversation was easy and stress-free.

I made us the nicest dinner I could in as little time as possible, and before too long we had dug into some fresh sweet corn and home-made tandoori chicken, plus a little wine, thanks to my recent houseguest Ken (whom I’d dropped off on my way to pick up the guys). After supper Fareed put a string on my garage-sale-find-of-a-guitar, and then the three of us settled on the couch to watch a little something together. Things felt easy and good, and our son was truly happy, happy, happy to be seated in between his mother and father, no matter what it was we happened to be doing. Fareed explained that he’d recently been on a Bill Hicks kick, and that he really wanted to share the comedian’s stuff with me. He explained it was a bit racy, but that the cat was deep, that he had a message. Our child is no stranger to profanity, and he himself knows full well it’s not appropriate for him to use in everyday life, so it’s not a huge deal. Good thing too; this bit was loaded. In many ways. We all enjoyed it, but before the video was done Elihu told us he’d had enough and was very tired. So we went off to get ready for bed.

Again, all was well, all was peaceful and relaxed. I hadn’t realized it, but Fareed was planning on reading a bit to Elihu, and so he joined us on the big bed to read a short story. I don’t even remember what it was I’d said – granted, in the wake of the vulgarity and off-color routine we’d spent the last half hour watching, my mind may have been off in the wrong direction – but I made some passing attempt at a joke; I’m sure it was stupid (I don’t remember what it was that I said) and suddenly Elihu started to cry. Fareed got angry at me – very angry.  His tone shifted in an instant, and he virtually spat at me, telling me that I’d been inappropriate and to shut up. I was floored. Now imagine, I think we’re all kinda still horsing around, that stuff is light and going nicely – so both the eruption of tears and my ex’s venom were a complete surprise. Boom! And there it was. All of a sudden I was the bad guy – the one who’d gone too far. ?? I tried to stay myself, and I did. If it were anyone else they probably would have told Fareed to go and get the fuck out of the room – that that sort of reaction was far beyond what the situation required, it being in of itself  inappropriate and inflammatory. But then there was lil man, between us, crying. I had to suck it up. “I think I’m just really tired”, my self-aware boy offered. Fareed shot me a look of such hate and rage that I knew Elihu’s comment meant nothing. Christ, this surely sucked. I rolled over and took half an Ambien as Elihu’s father continued reading. I needed to get the hell out of this situation, and my adrenaline was pumping. I prayed the drug would do its thing quickly. I believe it did, because I don’t remember the end of the story, but I remember seeing Fareed get up and leave. I asked him to turn out the light, which he did before closing the door.

Elihu roused when his father left and began talking. By this time I was very drowsy, so it took some effort to stay with him, but clearly, he needed to talk. When I’d thought our conversation over, he’d pick it up again. On it went like this for another fifteen minutes or so as my son emptied his heart to me as he hadn’t in a long time. “Mommy, it wasn’t what you said. I was just really tired. That’s all.” “Okay, sweetie. You don’t have to say that, but thanks.” We lay there for a minute in the dark. I knew there was more coming, so I said nothing and waited.

“I think I’m beginning to get it” he said. “I think it’s because I’m older. Because I understand it in a different way now.” I didn’t have to ask him what he meant. I just let him talk. “Do you know how many times I cried in the back of the Sprinter?” he asked. He tried to explain that even though he was part of that other family, he couldn’t shake the knowledge that he really wasn’t – and that it wasn’t his own mother sitting there with his father. “I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if that was my real family in that car” he added. “Oh but sweetie, they are your real family too.” He paused. I knew what he had meant. “You mean if it had been me and daddy, and maybe another child of ours?” I asked. “Yeah.” He paused again, then asked me “How come you and daddy don’t get along like other divorced parents? Like other people who aren’t married anymore?” He’s asked me this before, and I always point out that we do get along – I cite our enjoyable dinners, our light conversation. “But you’re not together in your heart” he answered. I knew what he meant, and I could be polite and agreeable all day long but this would never change. Again, I apologized, told him how badly I felt about all of this – how I’d have chosen otherwise if I could have. Maybe this wasn’t the time, but again I reminded him that we would never have known about chickens, about birds, about life in the country had none of this happened. Yeah, this time that argument didn’t matter much to him. Eilhu was stuck in a great meditation on the ‘what might have beens’, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I explained that the reason his mother and father weren’t perhaps as comfortable together as other ‘ex couples’ might be related to the order in which things happened. I said that most people conclude a relationship, take some time to heal and regroup, and then start a new one. And then they start their new family. Not always, but mostly. “I think I just got that this summer” he said quietly. “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. But I just got that in a way I hadn’t gotten it before.” Man. I’d always had a hunch – doesn’t take a genius to come to the conclusion either – that one day, perhaps in his mid teens maybe, he’d look back on things with a fresh perspective. One day he would get it. I had no idea that day would come so soon.

My ex had recently accused me of bad parenting, and his eruption at me seemed his way of confirming this idea for himself. As if he needed to stay his ground. See here? You’re doing it right now! appeared to be the subtext. (A larger population might find both of us guilty of bad parenting for the Bill Hicks thing alone!) Earlier, I’d heard him scold Elihu for biting his spoon when he ate. I had hated the intensity with which he’d done so, but again, he’s Elihu’s father, he has a right to express things he feels are important. “So what’s going on with the spoon?” I asked as we backed off the heavy stuff. “I kind of have a tick” he began. I’d suspected something like this (he and I both have anxiety issues – he mitigates anxiety by releasing it in some repetitive sort of behavior, something which migrates as it’s identified). “I kinda want to bite the spoon to get rid of the feeling.” Yeah. I got it. “Ok, so you’re aware. That’s good.” We were quiet again. In my head I replayed the scolding his dad had given him. Me, I didn’t dig that moment of parenting. I shook it off and reminded myself that at least my son was finally home. “But you did have a really good summer, right?” I asked him, wanting to end on something of a positive note. I knew he had – in fact it was one of his best summers ever, but I could hear he was getting tired. He didn’t have much left. “Yeah, I did.” As I turned on my side to get ready to sleep, Elihu put his arm around me. I’d thought he might have wanted some space, so I had left him alone. I smoothed my hand over his head and told him I loved him. “You wanna go sleep with daddy tonight?” I offered, trying to make a demonstration of fairness. “No, I want to stay here with you.” My heart melted, and I was washed over with relief.

Things were changing all around me in my life and nothing seemed predictable anymore, but none of that mattered because my son was back. The epicenter of my life, my heart – my entire world – was right there in my arms. Finally, after one very long summer, my son had returned home.

IMG_0070The evening before, Zac, Stephanie and their three girls came by for an impromptu visit just as Ken and I were finishing up with supper.

IMG_0075Middle girl Bailey piles Elihu’s stuffed birds on her daddy’s lap.

IMG_0106Stanley the frog is always good entertainment.

IMG_0085So is the trampoline.

IMG_0115Zac, always himself building, repairing or figuring something out, looks over Ace’s bird sculpture. (He once identified an old model T wheel on the other sculpture that sits a few feet away and outside of this shot.)

IMG_0118Kind of a crappy picture  – but I had to share… Check out the way the whole family piles in the truck’s front seat. So redneck (in the awesome sense of the word!). Love it.

IMG_0148A quick goodbye selfie of me and my new ‘old’ friend, Ken, just as I dropped him off to go and pick up dad and son.

IMG_0165In Schenectady I found my new Indian food mecca… Closest thing to Devon Street I’ve seen outside of Chicago. Love the crazy assortment of goods, from pots and pans to produce and plenty of Bollywood* videos and CDs.

IMG_0156Saw a few vegetables that were new to me.

IMG_0153My new friend and store owner Ramesh shows me a kind of string bean I’d never seen before.

IMG_0155Now this is what I’m talkin about…

IMG_0158Spent a good half hour chatting with Mattie, the gal in the middle. Her sister in law, on the left, gave me some good pointers on making my own garam masala. It’s a spice mixture that’s a lot like American barbecue in that it involves different spices depending on the region the recipe comes from.

IMG_0152Yeah, we had a good time!

IMG_0167Look at lil man… how short his jeans have become in seven weeks!

IMG_0183Closest thing to a family photo we’re gonna get.

IMG_0190Another bad pic – but the vibe is there. Elihu was laughing and laughing.

IMG_0197The kid mighta slept all day if I hadn’t woken him up. Still on a summer schedule, but we’ll get that turned around in a week or so. For now it’s all about making that emotional shift that always takes a few days after daddy time is done.

Post Script: Much as I try to edit my posts, errors always slip past – usually little nothings, but in this case I’d substituted the phonetic match for “Bollywood” with “Baliwood”… I can just see it; grand song and dance numbers with shadow puppets… or epic scenes with hundreds of beautiful Balinese women from Indonesia adorned with those huge gold headpieces, making eerie side-to-side eye movements and waving their surreal finger extensions in the air… Hmm, maybe I’m onto something here….

A rare second Post Script (the very first, I believe!). I won’t of course publish the initial email I received from my ex in response to this post, but I will post my reply:

————————————————–

I understand your perspective, but can’t agree on much of it. I do take jokes too far, but I truly missed the experience you described. You may well have said it, but know that I did not hear you say anything about a ‘magic moment’, and I merely made a stupid attempt a joke, likely at about the same time I guess… then it went south. I swear it was all a freaking surprise in my face…
What ‘peace and humor’?? (He cited his response to my joke.) Your hate was immediate and off the chain and out of proportion to any event that might have transpired, period. Truly, I was being silly, and meant no harm. Elihu was exhausted, and my timing wasn’t great, but that didn’t warrant such rage from you. 
You say ‘I haven’t learned’ – oh I have learned… I’ve learned that you’re a self-righteous, mean person when someone no longer serves a purpose in your life. You’re as cold as your parents. You can turn it on and off like a switch. Elihu can’t understand why you’re so ‘different’ when you’re here – he promises me that you’re fun, happy, that you smile. I don’t doubt that you’re a happy guy when folks are playing by your rules.
As for my cleaning up his room – he gets it. We’ve talked, and he understands as you don’t seem able. I need to get shit done when he’s gone – cuz when he gets back life starts to roll faster and faster… and whether you see the need or not, his room was a fucking mess and it needed help. I don’t have a partner to share the load, so I gotta get it done when I’m able. Sorry. Think what you please.
And regarding the ‘at least three’ lost friendships ‘because of my blogging’ – hey, if my truthful and heartfelt expression of my experience has turned someone away, then they probably shouldn’t be in my life.
You and I both want the very best for Elihu, and I believe the opposite about the blog; it will serve as a lovely record of his growing up, something he’ll be grateful for one day. I say nothing mean about you – certainly I’ve touted your value in his life many times. I do, however, express my personal feelings on matters that involve you – as you are the father of my child, and we shared nearly half of our lives together. I’m bound to have some residual feelings about the whole thing! That Elihu and I are living in poverty and you might be somehow implicit in that result – I understand that it might stand to embarrass you (I should hope it would!), but it’s our truth, so on the record it goes, just as we experience it. The blog’s content explores our life here and has virtually nothing to do with you; I don’t get why you think it’s so bad for our son.
Thanks for his great summer – and glad you were able to stay, it made all the difference in a good transition for Elihu.
 

Up and Away November 22, 2012

Up at 3:30. Laundry’s in the dryer, Elihu’s bag is packed, including his carry-on, which is a large FAO Schwartz shopping bag from our summer trip to New York City. He’s bringing his Christmas gifts for his little brothers early, and one wouldn’t fit into the suitcase. I remind him several times that the book he’s brought to read is in the bag too – so when someone offers to stow the bag in the cabinets above his head, make sure to get the book out first. That’s all I can do. In the past, he’d most likely forget, and sit idle the whole trip, not wanting to make anyone get it down for him. This time, he’ll probably remember, he might even ask for help if he needs it. He’s getting older. He’s doing more for himself, but still, I advise, I remind, I worry…

I touch his soft, perfect face while he sleeps and behold this boy who’s fast changing… The other day he told me he really wanted to have a beard when he was older. Will a beard actually grow one day from his velvet-smooth cheeks? If I try, I can kind of imagine it, but secretly I’m a bit horrified. Yet is this not what parents aspire to? Raise our children to be healthy, happy autonomous adults who may live as they choose?  I’m far from ready. These days it seems he’s readier than I am. He’s been flying alone for four years. It’s no more eventful to him than a car ride to the grocery store. He’s smart, he’s funny and he’s got a natural savvy about life in general which far exceeds his years. But in the end, he is my little boy. And knowing that in a few hours he’ll be speeding through the sky away from me at hundreds of miles per hour, his plane becoming a mere speck in the sky… that thought has me feeling a little light-of-being, a little empty. It’s always in his leaving – and then again in his homecoming – in which I feel the passing of time most acutely.

But I’m excited for him. He is seeing his father at long last! And his baby brothers (for the most part I omit the word ‘half’ as a descriptor, depends on how equanimous I’m feeling at the moment). “They’re not babies” he reminds me. “It was a figure of speech, baby” I answer him. He smiles. We choose some paper to wrap their presents ahead of time. We finish, and they look nice. “I’d be happy to get one of these, wouldn’t you?” I ask him. Elihu waits for a minute. He’s looking down. For a second it looks like he’s thinking about something else. “Thanks,” he finally says, “I know this isn’t easy for you”. I tell him it’s all ok – I really am so happy for him – how excited I am too to know that his brothers will love the presents. He doesn’t stay in the sentiment long, it seems he believes me. All I can do is hope that he really does feel my support. He’s right. It’s not always easy, even now. But it does get easier. And knowing how excited he is helps motivate me to move past my own hurt.

He’s been hugging me a lot today, saying extra “I love yous”, getting ready in his heart to make the parting. To switch parents. We’re alternately easily frustrated with each other and needy of each other’s affection. It’s been just us for months now, and frankly, we could both use a little break from each other. And yet…

I move around the house getting ready. The kitchen cabinet handles are sticky with his clementine-wet hands. I see the charge lights on his toy helicopters blinking, ready. His drawing paper is out and waiting for a new bird sketch… signs of a nine year old boy living here. One minute they’re parts of the house as usual, the next, they’re strange, ghost-like suggestions of the absence all around me. I try not to let my mother’s mind wander to that unspeakable, remote possibility that my son may not come back… I leave the sticky door handles to remind me of him, just in case. I scold myself for being so morbid. I remind myself to stay positive, to cancel those thoughts immediately… This trip is nothing new or remarkable, he’ll be fine. A parent has to let go eventually, right? Maybe our time in practice will help when the time really does come for him to move out. Maybe.

I’ve just returned from the airport. It took a while for his Southwest flight to get going. The only person in the vast observation room at the Albany airport, I watched as the plane was de-iced, watched the plane taxi away and waited. And waited. Finally, as I began to despair that I must somehow have missed his plane take off, the morning sun crested over the hills just as his plane sped past, the wheels lifting off the ground precisely as the sun freed itself from the horizon. A movie moment. I watched it all the way as it got smaller and smaller… until it banked and headed west. Finally, the tiny dot was gone.

As I was leaving the garage I called his father to tell him Elihu was safely off. Strangely, we often talk for a while on these occasions. Fareed chats about things going on in his world, we catch each other up on our parents, we try to make sure we’re on the same page about Elihu. It’s all so strangely civil – more than civil actually, maybe, not sure if it’s the word, but it’s something close to friendly. In the past it’s thrown me off – it’s like I see a window to the man I used to love and share my life with, and it almost seems he’s still there, that this has all been a dream… But now, somehow, it’s easier. Easier to understand. After all, we both love our boy so.

I get home, have a snack. I smile to myself when I feel the sticky surfaces. I wipe them clean. I take a bath, and just as I get out and wrap myself in a towel, the phone rings. It’s Elihu, safe and sound. Father and son are together again and both so happy. And for now, I’m a free woman. Clean the house? Work out? Walk in the woods? Meditate? Go to hear some live jazz on the weekend? So much possibility! Wow. The sky is amazingly clear right now, I’d better fly while the flying’s good…