The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.
 

Kitchen Sink Day November 24, 2013

As Elihu talks to his dad I sneak to my room for a break. I haven’t stopped getting things done since I awoke this morning, early as any weekday. And although I’m pooped, I feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction at all I finally managed to address. September and October tend to be busy months for me, and things hadn’t quite slowed down til now. There was a fall assembly for our school just this past Friday, and it had become an energetic marker of sorts in our calendar. Now that it was over, we found ourselves feeling a bit more free. Plus things had become just a tad more stressful this past week as I had somehow sprained my right wrist turning jump rope for the lower school girls. (Guess I’m not in top shape, huh?) I wasn’t sure just how bad it was until I absolutely tanked trying to play some Bach for a high school class. The lateral, side-to-side movement of the wrist that’s necessary for crossing over and under and thereby moving horizontally across a piano was nearly impossible. (I realized only after trying the piece during class how bad it was; in mere seconds I as covered in sweat. Apparently, I’d been playing – albeit badly – at a rather brisk tempo and had everyone quite out of breath trying to keep up! All I was aware of was that it hurt and I wanted to get through it as soon as I could. It was good of them all to have a sense of humor about it. I was a bit embarrassed.) It seems a bit better today; I favored the left hand as I cleaned and had the bad wrist tightly bound for most of the day. We’ll see. Tomorrow I’m on again. Thank goodness it’s a short week due to the holiday.

Oh the things I got done, and yet my mind won’t release the things I didn’t quite manage: re-caulking the bathroom, moving the nesting boxes, adding fresh bedding to the coop, cleaning the gutters, sorting out the junk drawer… I don’t fret too much, because the house, at the very least, looks tidy – and every last surface has been wiped down, every cobweb swept, every inch of floor vacuumed and/or washed, every doorknob and handle is ick-free, every framed object now crystal clear. I even took back the kitchen sinks, bleached and rubbed til they became white again! The wood has been oiled, the vinyl Eames knockoff chair has been Armor-Alled. I even walked around the outside of the house with a rubber mallet and coaxed those sticking windows shut for winter. Finally. Elihu’s collection of RC helicopters of the past few years had a good going-over and we ascertained which ones worked, and sadly, which ones could never hope to fly again. We dusted off his bird collection, we sorted thru all of his clothes, we made executive decisions, tossing books, games, things we once loved but had no need for now…. He was even able to set up the tank for his soon-to-be-arriving tree frogs (the next mom/son adventure here at The Hillhouse). Elihu’s been waiting for this shipment of vines, substrate and corkwood for weeks and he was thrilled to see his vision come together today.

We like to think we live simple lives, yet so much stuff finds us anyway… But today we tamed much of it. So much that had been taunting me for the past two months is now off the list. My summer dresses and clothes were removed from my closet and taken to my downstairs office (and gown emporium) for over-winter storage. Art materials for the Halloween costumes have finally made it down to the basement, too. Truth be told, the metaphoric ‘bump under the rug’ is gone from sight only because most of it has simply been taken downstairs to the basement, where it waits for the Next Phase. Nice thing is, it can’t taunt me quite as loudly if I’m not walking past it every day, ya know?

Now sorting it all out – that ‘Next Phase’ of which I speak – that is an enormous task that waits for my upcoming child-free week, a time which both Elihu and I are very much looking forward to. He’s joining his dad on the road in Orlando, Florida for some hotel-style Thanksgiving action with the boys in the band, while I am going to hunker down up here in the Great Northeast and Put Stuff Away. I know other folks must also face this job from time to time, but I swear it feels like my cross alone to bear, like I must be the only one in the world doing this fruitless-feeling activity. Somehow, stuff always finds its way into our house. And if mommy don’t put it away – it’ll likely still be sitting here by the time the kid goes off to college. Ah well, I got myself the right kid. He actually does notice when things have been put away, tidied. And he appreciates it. He’ll thank me for it without the slightest prompting. (And he enjoys actually being able to find things when he’s looking for them!) Yeah, he’s a good kid when it comes to sharing in the tasks as he’s able, and being grateful for what it is that I do. But still, he’s just not quite old enough to help out much when it comes to boxing it all up, labeling it and getting it put away just so. That, in the end, is still for now a strictly mommy job. Not for ever, but for now.

Feeling like something different for supper – something truly flavorful and fun, kinda like a reward for such a long and productive day – I threw together a bunch of things in a pot with lots and lots of spices. Chick peas, tomatoes, onions and garlic, olive oil, generous with the salt (my thing) plus the leftover chicken that I wasn’t able to partake of the other night – our first bird. I did not show her any respect the other night; just couldn’t bring myself to eat. Seeing her parts still made it too personal. But all chopped up and stewing in a tasty brew, this was somehow more easily acceptable to me. Mentally, I could eat this and feel much better about it; it wasn’t beckoning to be identified. Plus, truth be told, it was pretty good, which helped to distract me from my concern as to who it was I might be dining on. While I thought it delicious, it was a bit too much for my son, who complained that it was ‘thick with flavor’ (exactly what I was going for!) and ate it just cuz there weren’t any options. (Good kid. Eat what your mom makes.) As I’d been adding generous spoonfuls of this and that, simmering, tasting and finding it all working quite well, I laughed to myself when I thought of a name for this new stew. Rather like my day, it had a good deal of things in it, and rather like my day it brought a good deal of satisfaction. Chock full of just about everything I had on hand – but the kitchen sink. And so I dubbed my new concoction “Kitchen Sink Curry”. If only we had some mango pickle! (This also reminded me of a friend who, years and years ago when digital keyboards were in their infancy, had dubbed a custom-made sound of his the ‘kitchen sink’ patch, for similar reasons. Cute.)

Dinner done, dishes done, laundry done…. well, almost. A small, non-threatening pile remains on my bed. I’ll knock it out in no time. Might be a good idea to see how well the right hand’s working on the piano, but the house is so quiet that I don’t think I’ll manage that tonight. I’ll get the last of the clothes put away, hit ‘publish’ on this post, then finally, snuggle down into my bed feeling pretty good about this day on which I got just about every last little thing done – including the kitchen sink.