The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Remembering Martha June 20, 2015

It’s been one week since Martha died, and I’m still in a sort of stunned place. I think all of us are. I don’t fully get it yet; as with the passing of anyone close, you find yourself thinking about the person as if you’re going to see them again – and then you remember all over again. Having seen her coast gradually down to a stop – and then seeing the rapid decline in her final few days – that helps to acclimate me to this new reality of a post-Martha world, and it helps me to know unquestionably that Martha’s death was not only inevitable, but in the end, welcomed. And in her last few days, even Martha – who always spoke as if decades of life still lay before her – finally let on that she knew what was coming, and that she was at last ready.

She died in the wee hours of Saturday morning, on the 13th of June. The day before had been rainy, and the house had been once again full of friends and visitors. But on her last day she didn’t do or say much. She was merely hanging in there, breathing and sleeping, and no doubt still listening to us all as we visited, shared stories and laughed. I was surprised to see how much she’d changed in the past twenty-four hours; her eyes had become sunken, pink orbits and her skin waxen and cool. But mom, Elihu and I had been lucky to have been with her one day earlier when she could still communicate. I hadn’t realized on a conscious level that this would be my last true visit with her, but that’s how it turned out. More importantly, she was able to let me know something that concerned me more than anything else. She had been crabby with me – actually, she’d been a downright bitch – in the last few weeks, but that was ok; somehow she was blaming me (and mom, too) for her situation, and I recognized it for the impaired thinking it was (I know this well from experience with my brother). I knew that she loved me, and in spite of the things she was saying to me at the time, I loved her too. I knew she was comfortable and pain-free for the most part. And she was home; that was key. But what of her true, innermost feelings about what was taking place? I was worried that she was full of fear – and too proud to let on. She had hardly the energy to speak, but when I went to her side and placed my hand on her head, she simply said to me “I am not afraid.” I told her that I was so very glad to hear this, but I didn’t want her saying this for my sake – or for appearances. I didn’t want her doing the stiff upper lip thing to the very end! Of course she didn’t have the energy to explain her thoughts, but she made herself perfectly clear by repeating, as loudly as she could, one more time: I am not afraid.

In that same visit Martha had revealed herself to be living one foot in our world, one foot in another. Once, a week before, when I was passing the morning with her, I asked her where her thoughts were. “All across the spectrum”, she’d answered. In the final few days, it seemed the spectrum had become even wider. (I remember this same near-the-end phase of dear friend Jim Lewis. He was an actor, a gentle man and a thoughtful one. He seemed lost and agitated in his last days. When I asked what this was like, he too, answered me simply with all of his focused effort: “I can’t place my place.” This seems to be the brief state of confusion through which many pass just before death.) Martha opened her eyes and looked at mom and said weakly…. “I’m just remembering that I’m in my beautiful home, with all of my friends, and my puppy…” Truly, these were the most important things. My most urgent hope through these past few months was that she die at home. And now finally here she was, with her beloved black hound dog by her side and all her dearest friends nearby. And all in that amazing farmhouse. The same house in which her own mother had died, the house in which no doubt others had also died – and been born, too. In and out of reality though she may have been, she knew where she was, and she was not afraid. We’d almost made it.

I kinda wished I’d been more aware of my last kiss and goodbye, but as it was there was some general laughter and conversation going on, plus the concern of a rapidly approaching summer storm, so Elihu and I left Martha’s bedroom much as we would any other visit. Which was probably best, anyhow. That’s how Martha would’ve liked it. No fanfare or drama. Just everyday life. Mary, the overnight nurse, was surprised shortly after three a.m. by what she said sounded like “a man’s voice talking”. She got up and went in to check on Martha in time to see her exhale one final time. There has been some speculation on who exactly it might have been who ‘came to get her’, and most agree it was her dad – and likely not her sometimes-philandering husband. After telling me the story, mom quickly added her take – a staunch, no-frills opinion that Martha would have no doubt shared – and said that we could forget the idea of anything paranormal having occurred here; that it was just Martha’s deep, robust voice, uttering one last vocalization. Ok. She can believe that. And maybe that’s the truth. But Mary does this kind of thing for a living, and she’s got a career that depends a lot on observation. Like my friend the retired state trooper who saw an image of Ruthie in the porch of her house (and knowing nothing about her), I’m going to go with the nurse’s take on the event. Me, I believe that someone who loved her very much came back to help her across the threshold. My humanist friends can think me delusional or at best, self-comforting – but I don’t care. Whether her concsiouness has gone on to a new experience or has been extinguished forever, it doesn’t really matter. Martha lived a very full life and had a positive influence over countless people, and she concluded that fruitful life as peacefully as ever one might hope.

Game over. Game won.


Martha Ward Carver
was born on July 17th, 1926 in Binghamton, New York
to F. Erwin Ward and Isabella Post Ward of Deposit New York,
and died at her home in Greenfield Center, New York on June 13th, 2015.

Martha Ward Carver, 88, grew up in Deposit, New York and graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1947 with a degree in public school music, as it was then called. She served as Supervisor of Music in the elementary and junior high schools of Greenfield, Mass from September of 1947 to June of 1955.

She returned to Skidmore College in the fall of 1955 to join the Music Department faculty, implementing the music education program. After fifteen years at Skidmore she chose to leave the campus in favor of domestic life on the farm.

Martha was a long-time friend of the Festival of Baroque Music and attended performances every year from its beginning in 1959 to its final season in July of 2011. She was a member of the Saratoga County NAACP, and SEAD (Saratogians for the Equality and Acceptance of Diversity). Ms. Carver left over one hundred acres of farmland to Saratoga PLAN.

Ms. Carver is predeceased by her husband, Frank Carver, originally of Milo, Maine, and her brother Charles (Chuck) E. Ward of Ballston Spa, NY, and is survived by her stepson, Robert J. Carver of Nokomis, Florida; her foster son, Michael Spiak and his wife Kelly of Greenfield Center, NY; nieces and nephews Susan Ward of Catskill, NY; Braden Ward of Oneonta, NY; Mary Jane Benenati of Norwich, NY; Mark Ward of Walton, NY and cousin M. Edward Hartz of Wilmington, NC in addition to a loyal support group of friends and neighbors as well as her faithful and beloved dog Macy.

At Martha’s request there will be no funeral service. She has donated her body to the Anatomical Gift Program at Albany Medical Center.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Deposit Educational Endowment Program (DEEP), Deposit, NY, 13754 or the Yellow Rose Fund, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866.

Remembrances may be made on the Hans Funeral Home website at www.hansfuneralhome.com.


IMG_0030Martha, at two.

IMG_0043A regal portrait of her father, F. Erwin Ward (I only remember him smiling.) I recently learned that the “F” was for Francis – which would also turn out to be his son-in-law’s name!

IMG_0041Martha, right, with her brother and only sibling, Chuck. Decades later the two ended up living just miles apart on the same road in tiny Greenfield, hundreds of miles from Deposit, where they grew up – purely by chance. I still can’t wrap my brain around that kind of coincidence.

IMG_0034Martha, on the right, an unidentified young boy in the middle, and brother Chuck on father’s knee. Circa 1928.

IMG_0028I like this shot of the family – and Ma Ward (Isabella) almost seems to be smiling! Martha’s signature haircut identifies her. Circa mid ’40s.

IMG_0048It probably isn’t fair to use this pic of her mother, but she really did always have a scowl on her face. This is rather harsh, but comic, too. Man, she scared me as a kid.

IMG_0049Same tailgate picnic as above, Martha doesn’t look much happier, nor does dad. Think it’s just an ill-timed shot.

IMG_9706Ma Ward may have been the stern one – but her brother’s certainly got a twinkle in his eye.

IMG_0048The young high school graduate.

IMG_0014The Skidmore College Graduate, nicknamed ‘Marty’.

IMG_0016Martha is accompanying a local choral group. I have this dress – and it came with a story: Just as Martha was ascending the final stair to the stage – audience and chorus awaiting her – she heard a loud rip, and then heard the room gasp slightly. She looked down to see she’d stepped on her organza skirt and it had ripped all the way up the front. With many layers beneath it, she paid it no mind and continued on her way. Later, she simply took some scissors and cut a triangle out of the front to make it look ‘right’. When I pass on this dress one day, the story and pic go with it.

IMG_0021Martha Ward Carver and Francis Speed Carver on their wedding day in Chicago, May 12th, 1956. He was teaching in South Dakota, she in Greenfield, Mass, so they met in the middle. After the wedding they both flew back to their respective jobs ’til they were concluded. It would be Frank’s teaching job at Skidmore College which would soon bring them to Greenfield Center, New York.

IMG_0023This is a cute shot.

IMG_0060A studious group of Skidmore Music faculty listening to a hi-fi; her husband Frank, standing far left, Martha center, and friend and soprano Ruth Lakeway standing behind in black. (All three very important to dad and mom’s Festival of Baroque Music).

IMG_0038Martha, busy – as always – with a project.

IMG_9698Martha with some of the first musicians from the first Festival of Baroque Music, held at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

IMG_9700Martha, violinist Renato Bonacini and his wife, and conductor, Fritz Rikko.

IMG_0057A graduation ceremony at Skidmore, likely for of one her students.

IMG_0265Martha loved kids, and they flocked to the farm to be with her. Martha used everyday activities to teach. (That’s my brother Andrew – so cute!)

IMG_0288Martha and me.

IMG_0285This pic makes me contemplate the way in which our roles shifted during our lives.

IMG_0259Her famous “Texas Cake”, a chocolate cake recipe she learned from an organist in Texas whose name is lost to us, but this cake became a staple at the farm. I’m not a fan of cake – and chocolate’s not my go-to flavor, but this cake I always love. There is nothing like Martha’s Texas Cake.

IMG_0287My mom and baby Andy on Sylvia, in front of the old barn, which burned to the ground in the early seventies – and on Martha’s birthday! Frank had made the mistake of packing wet, green hay, which created fumes that combusted. Sadly, this is how many barns go. It took the giant, gorgeous maple tree in front of the house too. Totally transformed the feel of the place and was a devastating loss for us all.

IMG_0283Little me on a big horse. Also, in front of the grand, original barn. Martha and Frank’s farm made these kinds of experiences possible for so many kids. Life at the farm added tremendously to the quality of my childhood.

IMG_0044Martha, my dad (always picking a piece of lint off the floor!), Frank and mom. Mid ’70s.

IMG_0032This photo really captures the feeling of Martha at home.

IMG_0027Martha, her folks, her sister-in-law Claire (also a talented musician) and brother Chuck, circa early ’80s.

IMG_0281Me and my little brother Andrew, playing in the driveway in front of that gorgeous farmhouse.

IMG_1049Life in the kitchen just a few weeks ago – much as it had been for the past five decades.

IMG_0027Ever a busy place – Martha presided over the kitchen from her chair as nurses, friends and family came and went.

IMG_0134Elihu is about to play “Simple Gifts” for Martha on his mandolin. We all know we’re getting close, and on this last night there’s a different feeling in the air.

IMG_0054Her dearest friend in the whole world, Michael, holds her hand as she gets ready to leave us.

IMG_0162This was my last look back at the farm on the night she was to pass. I kinda knew she was close. The sky musta known too; it was already crying.


We all kinda thought Martha’d make it til her 89th birthday on July 17th. Trying to assign some meaning to the 13th – or at least perhaps discover a clever way in which to remember it – Mom learned that Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday fell on June 13th this year. ! Martha and Queen Elizabeth were neck and neck til now… But that’s ok, Martha will always reign supreme in our world.

 

The Wait December 21, 2013

Harder than the not knowing, I think, is the knowing. Knowing that my father will die any time now. Maybe during the night, maybe tomorrow. Likely after tomorrow, I think, as Elihu will be leaving tomorrow night to visit his dad in Chicago. I think dad will probably wait until he’s said goodbye to his grandson. But either way, his death is not as far off as I’d recently thought.

Seems I’ve been fooling myself in tiny ways. I talk about it, I try my best to be upfront and honest, thinking it will help me to wrap my brain around this, maybe even deep down thinking that my talk will stall the event too. And in my waking day with all its distractions and busyness I am ok. Even though I speak of it, somehow it still doesn’t fully exist as a reality. But when I awake in the middle of the night and find myself alone, the moon lighting up the snow-covered fields, I am scared again. I look to the darkened woods towards mom and dad’s home. It gives me comfort to know he’s still just there, somewhere close, still alive. And it shakes me profoundly to imagine him no longer there. It doesn’t seem real, this waiting for death. Knowing it’s coming, knowing this time it’s not a case of almost. Not a case of weeks more, not even a case of days more, and not a case of more opportunities for forgotten stories, for recountings or great revelations. I suppose there are many cases of death bed surprises, but I don’t forsee any here. The only surprise will be in the finality of dad’s absence. And waiting for that is so hard. But lest I complain too much, I stop myself in time to realize that we are very, very lucky here. My father is dying at home. So many people are robbed of that possibility. Nursing homes and hospitals are most often the places for farewell. My father’s final breath will be taken in his home, and God willing, the three of us present for his departure.

I’ve seen my mother falter now, yet still she remains ever in charge, on top of things and very much ‘in character’. I see the edges of her soul curling in though, beginning to yield to the immense wave of sorrow that is almost upon her. Her eyes tear up, but she doesn’t give in. I’ve hardly ever seen her cry in my whole life. Because she is always in charge, dammit. She holds her own world so tightly in her control. Sometimes I think if she were to cry she might never stop. She’s got years’ worth stored up. She is due. While I personally do not look forward to having to go through both dad’s death and mom’s newfound expression of grief, it will be so very good for her. And it may be healthy for us, too. She is always the rock, the solver of problems, the caretaker. Maybe relinquishing all of that – if only for a few moments – will be a very healthy thing. Might even alter our dynamic. Certainly things will be different after we experience the death of her husband and my father together. It’s funny how even though dad is mostly sleeping, and for all intents and purposes not truly with us, the family still feels normal. Each of us in our roles, the four of us existing as a unit. A dysfunctional unit to the end, but a unit nonetheless. So this too will change.

Mom is planning on going grocery shopping tomorrow and leaving Andrew to sit with dad, in order to give him some private time to use as he will with his father. He and dad have always had a sort of ‘non’ relationship. No anger really, no overt animosity, however Andrew has seldom had much to say to dad. And I can get that; Andrew’s not functioning fully as a healthy person to begin with, and then they have so very little to talk about. Dad lives in a world that we, outside his academic, early music world don’t really know or understand well. And beside the bits of humor he uses as a means to communicate, dad has never had much to bring to the table conversationally. At least not in the past five years or so. Not since he stopped being the active director of his Festival of Baroque Music. He had a full and rich life at one time, but we as children knew little of it. When he no longer had that life – essentially by the time we moved here to New York – there was simply less to talk about I suppose. Even I myself (chatterbox though I may be) had very little to say to him save small talk – and dad had little to say in response. My world was so different from his, unfathomable to him you might say. So our relationship was based mostly on an unspoken love simply because he is my father and I his daughter. I don’t know how Andrew will act. I can’t begin to know what’s going on in his head now. But I suppose, no matter what, his heart is breaking too. Because after all, this is still his father.

Elihu and I visited mom and dad tonight. Our hope was to get two good visits in, one today and one tomorrow before we leave for the airport. Elihu will say his final goodbye to his grandfather then. I was able to sit with dad tonight by myself, and I’m glad of it. Somehow, with the cover of nighttime, the gentle glow of the Christmas tree and the Robert Shaw Chorale (for whom my father once played harpsichord) singing the ancient music of the season in the background, it was the perfect environment for close, tender words. Dad smiled nearly the whole time, and I was able to elevate him in the bed to a near sitting position. I showed for him a photo I’d enlarged of the two of us from fifty years ago, me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord. I was happy to see recognition in his face. “Oh, what a cute baby” he said. “This was in Hamden” I offered. He nodded. Good, I thought, he understands. I began to cry, and before I knew it I was almost sobbing, holding his hand and leaning over him. I had some things I wanted to say, but it still felt a little silly, cliché perhaps, to launch into this end-of-life monologue. But I had to. I started by telling him that I just couldn’t believe he was now such an old man. And said that getting old like this sure was a bitch, huh? To which he, of course, laughed weakly and solidly agreed. I thanked him for making me the musician I was. Then I thought better of that, for I’d always considered myself something of a just-enough-to-get-by, jack-of-all, master-of-none sort of musician. My dad was the real thing. So instead I said through streams of tears “Thank you for giving me the gift of music.” Holding his hand the whole time, I lowered my head many times, kissed his cheek and told him I loved him over and over. And I thanked him over and over. He said something, and I had to put my ear to his mouth. “What, dad?” “You have always been the most outstanding child” he repeated to me. And he too told me over and over that he loved me. Then he said something so out of the blue – and instantly I recognized the child in him; “I miss my dad, and my mommy too.” I’d never heard him use any word but ‘mother’ before in talking about his mom. Did he once call his mother ‘mommy’ as a young boy? I tried to comfort him, and told him that he’d see his mom and dad very soon. I hoped this gave him ease, but if so, it didn’t register on his face. Instead, he had a distant look, and he was lost to his thoughts again. I could hear that Elihu and mom were wrapping up their visit in the kitchen, and I sensed our window was closing, so I backed away and let my son move in close to his grandpa.

Elihu had drawn an Ivory Billed Woodpecker for dad, and held it up for him. Again, dad took it in with appreciation. Elihu set the picture down and himself leaned in to speak to grandpa. Elihu, wanting to convey his deepest love to his grandfather, kept saying over and over that “he was just the best grandpa ever” and he told him over and over that he loved him so much. I wish I could have heard more, but I did hear bits of dad’s response… He spoke of loving him forever and nothing would change that. And Elihu agreed. Then dad went off onto a lovely sort of speech…”Every day is a new day, and a beautiful day. And every night is a new night, and a beautiful night. And we will all live together forever…” He said more than this, but I struggled in my mind to latch onto these worlds, that I might take something away with me. Mom came over and took a few pictures of us, I took some too in a vain attempt to capture this final visit, but I doubt in the dim light any will come out. She fed him some chocolate pudding which I was happy to see he ate and enjoyed – and I was happier still to see him wipe his moustache clean. Somehow it gave a slight relief to see him doing something so ordinary without thinking twice. And then we shared a moment I believe we were so lucky to witness one last time; Elihu and dad spoke their made-up language to each other, with gestures (dad’s greatly reduced!) and all the inflections and such to imply content. It was a weaker version of their bit, but still very funny and we all four laughed. That was nice. Truly, I didn’t expect it.

We put the bed flat again for dad to rest. We’d been there nearly a half an hour, and we’d found the natural conclusion to our visit. Elihu, mom and I went to the kitchen. We needed to get home – it was already turning into a late night, and I had yet to make dinner. While mom and Elihu chatted, I snuck back for one last peek at dad, who was not yet asleep. I put my hand on his, leaned in again and told him I loved him. “I love you too, Elizabeth” he said, and then I left.

Elihu doesn’t seem as hit by this as I’d thought he would be. After all, he’s the kid who gets things. But maybe it’s precisely because he does get things that he isn’t as worked up. He even told grandpa that he should leave us now – and then said to him “don’t worry, it’s just like turning a page”. ! It could also be said that for as precocious a child as he is, he is still a child. I myself don’t remember being whalloped by my grandparent’s deaths… I do remember the heartbreak of losing my maternal grandma, but I also remember getting over it rather easily. I was eleven. Hm. He even said to me recently that he doesn’t like to get sad, because that would be like getting mad at what is, and that would be a waste of energy. Ok my little Buddha boy. I think he’ll get it at some point, but sadly for me, his memories of Grandpa Robert as a functioning, alert man are diminishing, and so he doesn’t feel the loss as he would have if there’d been no gradual decline. After all, it’s been a few years since dad was ‘himself’. But thankfully, Elihu has had five years to know him, and at least a couple of those were good. We didn’t visit as often as I would have liked, due mostly in part to Elihu’s acute allergies and mom and dad’s cat-filled house, but I can’t kick myself for that now. I remind myself that we visited as we were able. And that Elihu and grandpa had plenty of lovely moments. Elihu may not remember them well, but I do. I have to be happy with that. It’s more than lots of folks get.

I must get to bed. My stash of sleeping pills is running low – and I’ll certainly need one tonight. I can’t begin to sleep. My head continues to ache and I’m full of dread. I’m flat-out scared of saying goodbye to my only child tomorrow, and then turning back to the business of watching my father die, and watching as his lifeless body is taken away… How in hell will we do this? I know, I know… everyone goes through it. This is nothing new. For millions upon millions of people this is nothing new, I know. Only thing is, for me, it is.

And for now, the hardest part is the wait.

5045_219065955614_3496740_n

Mom told me as we left tonight that dad had hemorraghed a huge amount of blood the night before and his bleeding was slight yet ongoing. He seems in a lovely state of comfort and ease, so we don’t need to worry what caused it. Our only concern is he not be in any pain. This does seem to indicate however that his death will come fairly soon.