The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Sixth Starts September 4, 2014

Going from fifth grade to sixth is a thing. It’s more than just another grade level, it signifies a whole new era in a child’s life. No matter whether you call it Junior High or Middle School – we all can agree that some big changes are about to happen now. Neither small children anymore, nor yet the older, more adult-like children of high school, but playfully somewhere in between; now they’re better able to learn more challenging lessons in class, to grasp more nuanced concepts and techniques for doing things like making music or playing sports. They’re a bit bigger than they were before, and yes, they’re a bit smellier too.

And on top of that, soon they’ll be wrestling with much more: all those agonizingly embarrassing moments as mistakes are made and as jokes find their targets, the ongoing awareness of social strata, cliques and what it is to be popular (or not so popular), and, of course, the real beginnings of romantic expression. How this thing works in such a small and static group of kids, I don’t know. I’ve been told that Waldorf kids will often ‘date’ (!) up or down a grade to relieve the tension of ‘dating’ within their own small class. (Please folks, understand how very loosely I use this D word.) As a sixth grade girl, I myself remember ‘going’ with a young man, but that simply consisted of being made to feel sick in the stomach from a mixture of horror and intrigue as my girlfriends made me walk next to my ‘boyfriend’ on the way home from school.

Here at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs, the middle school years are also marked by a physical separation from the younger grades; their classrooms are now on the ground floor. It’s a metaphor none can miss. And I, as a parent, find a certain, stinging nostalgia to this time; no longer do I watch the class eagerly bound up the stairs, listening to their many feet rumble on the creaking wooden staircase. Now, they slip to the back of the building and are gone… Gone to those new places, gone to meet all that new learning, all that life… Now my child is just that much less my child – and more a child of the world. But that’s ok, I know that’s what’s supposed to happen. And hey, my son even turned to kiss me – on his own – after getting out of the car this morning. So I have it good, I know. And so does he.

Everything in life is constantly moving and changing, but one doesn’t always see the change in distinct, clearly-defined ways. This year, however, there’s no doubt about it. The change is easy to spot. Yes, this is different. Because this is sixth grade.

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He’s up super-early, but still moving swiftly to get stuff done before it’s time to go. Loading a couple final Pokemon cards into his binder (which, btw, is not going to school. It was just on his mind).

IMG_2589Gettin that backpack zipped up quick.

IMG_2595Elihu appears a bit thoughtful in the backseat en route to his first day of school, but we’re listening to polkas, his very favorite kind of music. Hm. Can one be pensive and listen to polkas at the same time?

IMG_2596On the move..

IMG_2597And being greeted by Mrs. Maguire, once again, at the door. She knows every last student and has the lovliest, warmest way of making everyone feel truly special.

IMG_2599He’s on a mission; there’s no looking back now.

IMG_2604I’m not the only one watching with bittersweet emotions on this first day of school.

IMG_2602Such bright and gentle weather this morning.

IMG_2610This is the Rose Ceremony, in which the 1st graders ceremonially cross over the rainbow bridge and are welcomed to the Lower School. Here the faculty sings to them as they enter the space.

IMG_2613Here they come – the new 1st grade, led by their teacher (who will be the group’s teacher all the way through 8th grade). She was the school’s well-loved handwork teacher in years past, and it’ll take some getting used to her ‘belonging’ to one grade and not the whole school.

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A dad and a grad. Adam is a baker par excellence and West-African-schooled drummer, and Kai just spent his freshman year of college in Norway, studying violin. (Adam has two younger boys at Waldorf.)

IMG_2629Here the new 6th grade teacher (in blue, with tie on the right) expresses his wishes for his class through the coming year. Elihu’s previous teacher left her post at the end of last year, as she’d done the 1st through 8th cycle twice before and felt a shift in career focus was what she needed at this time. The transition from 5th to 6th is a good one for such changes. Btw – while we dearly loved Abigail, my son is beyond thrilled with his new teacher. And I’m happy for him to have a male presence in his life on a daily basis now.

IMG_2631The boys in blue… of course, mine’s the one with the dark glasses.

IMG_2663As with years past, we celebrate the first day of school with a visit to the Congress Park ducks. Soon they’ll take flight and migrate.

IMG_2665With a half a loaf of bread to work with, Elihu easily snatches up several ducks in our short visit.

IMG_2666He’s getting a better grip on this one.

IMG_2677And now he’s savoring having her in his arms. This never gets old.

IMG_2649I suppose this doesn’t get old either… Some boys come home to a dog, Elihu comes home to a hen.

IMG_2651Sometimes even two. Yup, things are off to a fine start this new school year.

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Suddenly Sad May 20, 2014

We didn’t quite finish the Burgess Bird Book for Children tonight. Instead, we chose to save the final chapter for tomorrow. Both of us have a strange melancholy hanging about us tonight, contributed to in part perhaps by the knowledge that this will be the last time we read this book together as mother and young child. Sure, I may read it aloud to him again next year, but will it be the same? I don’t know, maybe it will be, but each of us has our doubts. Next year he will be twelve. It seems very likely this will be the last year of the truly young years. Ironic, isn’t it, that such a young child should even be aware of his own maturing, of how precious his current moments as a child may be? Ah, but then again I am his mother, and he no doubt gets some of it from me. It sometimes seems that I myself was born into a continuous state of intense introspection and mild melancholy; isn’t it natural that he might very well be wired in a similar way? Yeah, maybe it’s in his genes.

I also suspect he can read me pretty well, even though for the most part I can hide my moody predisposition from people. I kinda have to, in order to maintain appearances and keep at the everyday business of life. Yeah, for the most part I keep my mood under cover, and I can distract myself long enough to forget its persistent companionship for good stretches of time. Mostly. But apparently, not tonight. I can’t hide my mood, my unease, my sorrow; furthermore my mood seems equally natural and organic to my young son. Although we don’t say as much in so many words, we both know well: it won’t always be thus.

I set the book on the night table and then said to him “and now a kiss”, to which he cried out “No! Because ‘now a kiss’ means that you will leave. And I don’t want you to leave.” Most nights I’d have had half a prescription sleeping pill in me and would be almost out at this point, so joining him would be easy. But tonight I’m hoping to sleep without an aid – maybe even pick myself up and go do something useful while I have the window – and as I lay in bed beside Elihu, my wheels are turning to such an extent that I could swear my energy is keeping him up. He tosses, changes positions, holds Lenny his big stuffed parrot closer, he snuggles into my neck, he swings his boy arms over my shoulder. We both search for that perfect spot, but none is right. His mind is racing too, with endless, obsessive ruminations on various Pokemon characters, their powers, their abilities…. I give up and tell him I really need to go, but again he protests, and his soft cheek pressed to mine is enough to have me try again to relax, to sleep. But I cannot wind down, and I cannot soften this dull, unending sense of sorrow that hangs about me.

Tonight I’m missing my father. And I’m remembering once again that he’s not coming back. That I won’t be seeing him again. Not at least in this particular lifetime. And once again, it stings my heart to come to that same conclusion for the umpteenth time. I think about how fast my child is growing – how precious is this very night even. The contrast of my father being gone and my son yet to grow up is killing me. I feel pulled in two different emotional directions. I feel time pulling me forward, then tugging me back… I can’t count on my small child throwing his arms around my neck and begging me ‘never to leave him’ for much longer, can I? – hell, I certainly can’t count on my small child staying small. And one day, like my father, my own mother will also be gone. (Can you even imagine Grandma Nancy will ever die? I asked Elihu tonight. He answered most emphatically “No.”) One day I myself will be the ancient grandma and it will be my turn to be slow and misunderstood by my child and grandchildren. It’s all coming to me in one gut-heavy moment, and I am brimming with heartbreak. I have always been prone to such feelings, but these days they’re so much more of what they used to be.

Could be my age I guess. Or maybe our little spot back here in the woods. Living far from the road definitely does something to a person. If a person wasn’t already of a melancholic, poignant-leaning mind, they’d likely begin to form something of a more wistful, far-off attitude after living here for a while. The glow of the setting sun through the trees casts a sad, lost-to-the-world sort of feeling. The cars passing at night are altogether unaware that there’s a tiny house far down the lane with just two people dwelling within. For me in particular, the sounds of the cars on the far-off road, the scents of the seasonal blooms and the long shadows of evening send me back to my childhood. I feel the ending of another day; my mother, father and brother all just being… all just living, doing, being, all somewhere close by in the same small cottage. Doing nothing in particular that I can remember, but just existing, side by side in those tiny rooms. I remember too the quality of the light. The end of the day, a faint aftertaste of regret of a day not spent as well as it might have been; of another day gone, done, another sun now set… And the sorrowful feeling I got from it all even as a young one. It’s the same sorrowful feeling I get now. I recognize it so well. Only how did I know anything of such sadness way back then? Now I’ve earned it; now I get how it works. How did I come to feel that way as a child? I realize there’s likely still more of it to come in this life, but at the same time, I also realize all too well how little of it there is left. Hard to describe, natural to feel.

Finally, I kiss Elihu and get up to leave. He takes my hand – and kisses it. “Love you so very much” he says in a small, sleepy voice. I leave and close the door with a click, the way he always requests that I do.

It’s not just about my dad, or the setting sun, or aging, or my son’s growing up. It’s also the way things are all turning out in my family. I guess as a child I never could have guessed that one day we would be so off track, so broken and different from how we once were, years ago. I may never have paid much mental energy to envisioning the future at large, but I know I would never have guessed it to look a whole lot like it does today. Never mind my own divorce, a strange and unforseen thing unto itself, but the bizarre, dysfunctional way in which we hobble along is still hard for me understand. It’s a foreign place to find myself in, and a sad one too.

My brother is going to court tomorrow to contest our even, three-way split of the very (and I do mean very) modest sum that dad had left for we three remaining Conants. I mean, it’s virtually nothing in the bigger scheme of things. But each portion is, for Andrew and me, being of such little means, enough to help out quite a bit. It’s enough cash to get over a life hump, but not enough to sustain a person for even a year. In the recent reading of the will, Andrew learned that his equal share – of the ‘big’ estate of mom’s house and land – will come to him in monthly payments made by the executor to the Trust – that being our cousin (dad’s nephew) rather than in one lump sum. I can understand how this could piss Andrew off, but even in his illness he should be able to see that he doesn’t function in any way that demonstrates that he could handle it otherwise. Hasn’t had a job in over twenty years. Hasn’t had a girlfriend in just as long. Hasn’t made a new friend since high school. And he’s almost 50. Mom and dad knew ten years ago that he was not healthy, and they took a proactive approach to making sure he would be given his equal share by a stable, outside party. (We haven’t seen my dear cousin the executor in decades; that would show him to be a sound, objective agent for the job. Plus he manages a classical radio station in a major US market; he’s no slouch.) But Andrew is a victim of his illness, and he is unable to maintain his state assistance. He languishes in a house full of garbage and finds everyone else in the world (me at the top of the list) responsible for his inability to get a job or make  a change in his life of any kind. While it’s tempting to take it personally, I have to continually remind myself to pray for him rather than become angry with him for such crazy behavior. He feels hurt, betrayed, unsupported. It’s his illness feeling this way, not him. Never mind that all his bills are paid by mom, that I’ve made sure he has Food Stamps and heating assistance, never mind that – because illness removes all logic. I know this well from my experience with panic attacks. So I go easy on him. I get it. But still, it’s not always easy. Good Lord I’d like to pound some fucking sense into his paranoid, sick brain, but it would do more harm than good. And so we Conants wait it out. And again I remind myself: it won’t always be thus.

I’ll wait it out under cover of sleep for now. In fact I await unconsciousness with such happy anticipation. I cannot wait to fall asleep, to arrive at the fanciful and disparate situations that await me on that other side… My only respite from the relentless pace of the single mom, the planner, the feeder, the organizer, the learner of music, the transporter…. In sleep I experience things in which I can no longer take part of here in this world. I see my ex-husband fairly regularly in my dreams, my father too, as well as many friends from my previous life. Happily, in dreams I seem to live in a world that is altogether different from this one; it is an amalgamation of all of my previous, beloved or successful mini-worlds…. I play music in bands, wear beautiful costumes, engage in deep friendships and travel to so many places… In one night I may experience three or four different scenarios. Each dream becomes a new place I remember having been once upon a time; in a way, it truly becomes a new memory… At the very least, the memories of past dreams and the promise of dreams yet to come give me the motivation to get out of bed each day. This earthly life is just too heartbreaking sometimes, and so I thank God for my dream life – it’s sometimes the very thing that makes my waking life possible. Because really, doesn’t a lot of this life seem rather a waste, a bore, a drudgery to be endured? Hey, I’m always on the lookout for a good, restorative laugh, but I still can’t help but feel that this life is just one big pain in the ass, however many good laughs there may be in a day. This life is hard, unfair, complicated by the death of loved ones, and way too full of mosquitoes. Enough, already. !

Ok. Maybe not quite yet. But some days, I swear….

That wistful, sad and distant feeling hit me hard once again as I made my way through our lily of the valley patch today, picking a bouquet of my most cherished flower. (One which blooms for less than one week of the year. Talk about a setup for sorrow. !!) The scent overtook me, and I was twelve again, in love with the world, with the promise of a boy’s affection, with the promise of the world’s affection and my power to reciprocate…. Everything, absolutely everything is possible with that first, magical inhalation of the lilies of the valley… Nothing can come close to that magical May moment. Not one thing in this world. And yet, for all its promise, it carries deep within itself the very essence of melancholy. The threat of its own passing. The flowers only carry their fresh scent for a few days, and then they, like us, begin to decline. From the intoxicating promise of a magical future to come – to a rotting, mildewed scent that wonders what the hell just happened, and did that promising future ever end up really happening? Did we miss it? Was it that short, that fleeting, that we never even realized that it was on its way out?

All I know is that I need to look in on my son several times through the night as he sleeps to find the reassurance I need to be here. And during the day, if I should chance to pass him in the hall, it is my greatest treasure that he should lean over close and whisper “I love you” as he walks by. I am trying as best I can to live hard into these tiny moments. I am trying hard to soften the grip of sorrow, to let it know that I know it’s there. I know. I just don’t always need to pay attention to it. Yeah, I know that things won’t always be thus. They might be worse. Or better. Never know. Gotta hang in there until the end, and just find a way to accept the shifts as they happen. Yeah, no matter how much you know, you don’t ever know what’s coming next. What’s become suddenly sad may just as easily become suddenly serendipitous; just the right thing at the right moment. One just never knows.

Guess that’s partly what has me so sad tonite. Ya just never know what you’re about to get – or sometimes even what you’ve already got. Not at least not until it’s gone and you’ve begun to miss it. So seize it, friends. Seize it. Tell sorrow you’re sorry. This isn’t a good time… Come back later, if you must, because right now, you’ve got plans…

 

 

Turning Tween May 2, 2014

Maybe it’s because of the landmark birthday. Maybe it’s because he himself feels that something should be different by now. Maybe it’s the recent onslaught of the relentless Pokemon sub-culture that has created a divide between us. Maybe it’s because his very physiology is changing. It could be any one of those things or more that have us in a new place in our relationship. It’s pretty clear to me now, we’re entering into new territory; my son and I are entering into the world of the pre-teen.

Yeah, my heart sinks a bit to admit it, but I know for sure that something here is new. It still feels foreign – really wrong, in fact – when I think about such a change occurring between the two of us. We have always been a team, but it doesn’t quite feel like that right now. I’d have expected some sort of mysterious change in our relationship had he been a girl, but I guess I’d thought the mom-son thing might be immune. No matter, something present in our relationship is changing, and I need to adjust. And I need to help make this transition smooth. I need to treat him gently, and with love and understanding. I need to remember how I myself once felt to be on the verge of that kind of change. To be at the doorstep of sixth grade, with its first heavy heart breaks, the complex web of communication and misunderstanding between friends and classmates, and not lastly those strange physical changes that just add to the insecurities of the age. I need to honor what it is that he’s going through. And most of all, I need to give him more space.

We two, like-souled and blessed with uncanny communication have become subtly divided over the past few months without my even realizing it. We have begun to become what our peers have already long been: parent and child. No longer are we somewhat parent and child, mostly peer and friend (I know, I know, folks will chide that this is unhealthy, unrealistic, impractical and more. Say what you will, so far it’s worked very well.) Now our relationship feels just a bit different. There’s nothing wrong here, and we still laugh and play together, but a definite shift of sorts is taking place. And it’s all ok – it’s to be expected. Elihu is growing into a healthy individual, I get that. It certainly helps to keep that in mind when bedroom doors are all of a sudden closed, bathroom doors too, when normal conversation is embarrassing, when my previous silly antics – while still entertaining to his classmates – have now become horrifying for him to witness… Keeping this big, pre-adolescent change in mind helps me to ignore my slightly injured ego when he recoils, tells me angrily to “please stop” or even worse, begins to tear up in embarrassed frustration. I have to remind myself that I too am shifting gears here; what’s worked for the past few years no longer does, so I’ll need to figure out the new boundaries. I’m just beginning to get a handle on it, and I hope that until I do my dear son can trust that I have his back, and that it is not my goal to embarrass or horrify him in front of his peers. I may not edit as much as he’d like, but I will do my best to demonstrate to him that I’m still on his side. (And I hope I can do so without making him into a spoiled brat. It’s tempting to want to acquiesce and buy him that coveted Pokemon card to show him what a pal I can be…)

This new place is not a bad place to be, really. As soon as I begin to lament the passing of my tender young child, I find myself enjoying a bit of relief as Elihu takes on new jobs around the house. In fact, he’s responded resolutely to my requests. I can sense (not just a hunch, we two have discussed it) that he needs more responsiblity around here. He sincerely wants to have more regular duties in our household. And I gotta say, after years of doing every blessed last thing myself, I am more than ready to delegate a couple of jobs.

It’s still a bittersweet place to be; from this day I can remember well what it was to hold my small child only a few years ago, and yet at the same time I can picture a young man preparing to leave home. So many nights I’ve nearly wept with exhaustion at the unending job of motherhood – the baths, the meals, the laundry, the cajoling – the usual stuff. Some days my dearest wish has been that my son not need so much of my goddam help anymore. When, I think, fed up and simply aching for a moment to myself, when will this kid grow up already?

I’d thought we were probably past it, and wondered if I hadn’t been doing it more for me than for him this time ’round, but tonight Elihu asked me to please read to him from our beloved Burgess Bird Book for Children. A rare, first edition copy nearing a hundred years old, we both love the quaint language and thorough accounting of birds that the main character, Peter Rabbit, encounters as they return to the Old Orchard with the coming of Spring. We first read it the Spring he turned six, and I’ve read it aloud to him each year since. Feeling a bit grouchy at the end of a long day and possibly on the verge of another self-sorry rant, I asked if we might want to skip the book tonight. In response, Elihu got kinda quiet, smiled up at me and shook his head ‘no’. My heart thusly softened, we cozied up together in bed to enjoy a couple of chapters.

This time when I reached for the ancient book my heart skipped a beat. A dim awareness had been growing lately, but I had been to afraid to name it. My hunch would no longer allow itself to be ignored, and my heart sank deeply when the question finally spoke itself to me: might this be the last year I’d ever read this book to my son? “Very possibly” was my answer. Oh-oh. All of a sudden I wasn’t so sure I really wanted to be over and done with my job. And when I located the bookmark and opened the book, I noticed that we were halfway through. And you might even say I panicked ever so slightly when another thought then occurred to me… We were halfway through our beloved children’s book, and we ourselves were halfway through Elihu’s childhood. The day that I’d prayed for on so many mother-worn nights was finally within sight. Oh dear friends, do be careful what you wish for…

I know how the remaining chapters of Mr. Burgess’ book will go, but I don’t have the same clear vision for our own story. I am, however, fairly sure that it too will end happily, while setting the stage for many more beautiful seasons yet to come.