The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Split July 30, 2017

For the first time in a year or more my son is resting in my bed on a Sunday morning as I sit in my favorite chair, writing. This had been our routine for most of his life until one day, it wasn’t. Last times are evasive; there is so seldom the awareness that one is experiencing something for a final time, but it has to happen sometime, right? I try to be as mindful and grateful of all the little everyday routines that bring joy to my life because there is always a tiny voice in my head which whispers “this may be the last time….”

I can remember the last time my father was downstairs in this house. It was a delicate procedure to get him down the steep cellar stairs in the first place, but I’d just painted the main room and installed a large carpet, making it truly habitable for the first time ever, and Elihu and I had wanted to share our triumph with his grandparents. I can remember watching dad’s laborious ascent of the stairs at the conclusion of our visit, and thinking distinctly “this is the last time dad will ever come down here”. It wasn’t a sad or overly nostalgic thought either, it simply was. In this case, the last time was pretty obvious to spot. But most of the time the ‘lasts’ are not always so clear.

With adolescence come many ‘lasts’. Elihu’s spending a weekend night in my bed was a routine event when he was small, but of course the dynamic between us has been changing this past year as he has become a young man and no longer a small boy. Things that felt effortless and natural just a year ago don’t feel quite the same these days. Late last night (I now retire before the kid, cuz he stays up til all hours fabricating airplane models) he came into my room saying a large bug had gotten into his bed and it freaked him out so he wanted to sleep with me. I was half asleep myself, but the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I knew that it would mean one more lazy, sweet morning with my son next to me. One last morning in which he’d reach out to me and say ‘mama’ before falling back asleep, one last time when I’d rise early to let the chickens out and return to my chair with a hot cup of coffee. We would have one final morning the way it had been for so many years. As I sit here in my chair, my heart finding relief upon hearing the breath of deep sleep coming from my son, I am savoring this window in time, knowing that it may very well be the last of its kind.

Most times there are no single defining moments to mark the end of an era. Often last times aren’t known to us until we look back in time and identify them. We look backwards and can more clearly see where trends slowed and new ones replaced them, we can understand in hindsight how interests and passions waned and new ones emerged. In retrospect we may even find the dates and events that mark these changes. But for the most part, change is gradual, beginnings and endings are undetectable, invisible. But sometimes, they are not.

When I was eighteen, I broke my neck. In one split second the whole trajectory of my life changed. Many times I’ve reflected on how curious a mix of life events that near-tragedy provided me: I can surmise that without having broken my neck I never would have met certain dear friends, experienced the life of a musician, fallen in love with my ex-husband, given birth to my son. That was an obvious moment; and obvious ending of one era and start of another. Of course at the time none of these positive outcomes could be guessed, but certainly life as I may have envisioned it had been redirected in an instant.

When I was eleven or twelve I experienced a moment which also became a marker in my life. The smallest, most mundane thing had become transcendent. I will never forget that feeling, the enormousness of the revelation, the way I fairly weakened at the dawning, the way I knew, in that moment, that I was a changed person.

It was a summer evening, and I was walking home along the road on which I now again live, some forty years later. As usual, my glance fell just a few feet ahead of me on the gravel, keeping watch for my footing. In the damp of the June night a small red eft had crawled out of the grass and was heading perilously for the road. I carefully allowed the tiny creature to crawl to the safety of my hand, where I would inspect it, marvel at it and then return it to the wet overgrowth. I looked down at this creature and was smacked hard with a profound realization: we were related. I saw his four limbs, his tiny fingers, his eyes, his mouth… I marveled over the symmetry – in both of us – and was simply stunned. I guess I’d always known that each and every creature on this planet is of course in some fundamental way related, but this just got to me. I remember standing at the side of the road in the waning light and thinking “We are all related. We are all of the same family.” I remember standing there a little longer and literally thinking “We are all one.” It almost frightened me, but for some reason I remember laughing out loud. I can’t explain this moment any better. It was huge, it was tiny. Miraculous, mundane. And it was also a last. And a first, too. And I knew it.

Elihu was with his father in Chicago for six weeks this summer, and I enjoyed a great stretch of useful, solo time. Determined that I would finally expunge my house of all the physical objects that we no longer needed, I embarked on the enormous task of sorting, culling, organizing, boxing and bagging. If my son had been home the project would have been impossible. Exhausting as the project was, midway through I could see a new life emerging on the other side. My very being was feeling light and changed; I sensed a fresh new life awaiting me upon completion…

On the fourth of July I closed the chickens in shortly after the sun went down, then got myself cleaned up before heading downtown to watch the fireworks (my goal this year was twofold: one, I would finally wear earplugs so that I could actually enjoy the visuals without the horrible explosive noise and two, I would plant myself downwind so that I could savor that uniquely summer smokey scent.) Recently I’d learned a new trick to accommodate my changing vision needs; I wore a contact in just my right eye, leaving each eye its own focal length. This made it possible to both see the road ahead as well as focus successfully on things at close range, without the need for reading or distance glasses. As I wound down the hilly dark country road, I felt that my contact needed adjusting, and so leaned in to the rear view mirror to take a look…

Crack! The car hit a boulder, a log, a tree – something – which made a sound as loud as any firework… My body was immediately flushed with the cold, electric sensation of adrenaline. What had happened? It was darker out than I’d thought, and as I pulled to the side of the road it was hard to see…. And when I did, everything changed. Instantly I felt nauseous. I’d done what I so many times had cursed other, more careless people for doing. Oh no. This was horrible. I couldn’t bear to look… My mind raced through the implications. I knew I’d done something terrible, but perhaps could something good come of it? Certainly, it would change the way in which I pointed an accusing finger at others. Now I was the selfish, insensitive human I’d blamed others for being. I had hit an ancient creature of the woods. I had caused immense pain and suffering to an innocent animal who was quietly doing what she had been doing for years and years. Not only that, but if she wasn’t dead already (which at this point I prayed she was) she would be soon, and therefore I had ceased the creation of more of her kind. I had ended her lineage. Maybe even ended the existence of her kind in our quiet woods. My car had struck a snapping turtle.

Many of us who live in the country have carefully re-directed a snapping turtle or two; we all know to keep well away from those frightening jaws, we all understand how lightning fast they can spin around, how easily they can break off a finger… And yet compassion moves many of us to pull over, search for a good sized stick and begin the process of saving the creature from the dangers of the open road. Mostly, these animals are mothers seeking to cross over to the adjacent pond (why in hell they can’t just stay put I’ll never understand) in order to lay their eggs. In my experience, turtles do this in the daylight. I had never thought to be on the lookout for such a migration at night. But then again, should I not be mindful after dark of bolting deer, lumbering porcupines and other occupants of the forest?

As it turned out, she was still alive. For a moment I considered running over her again in order to bring her a more swift and humane death. But then I considered her shell, and my tires. It could make for more trouble. And besides, there was no guarantee I could do the job as I intended. In the end, I chose to move her as carefully as possible to the side of the road to allow her to die. Her shell was, as I feared, completely split up the middle of her underside. I prayed that her body had gone into shock, and I prayed she didn’t hurt as badly as I believed she did. I placed her in the grass, and then drove into town.

The fireworks took on a whole different feel to me now. I walked through the crowds in a daze. I’d forgotten my earplugs and the shocks were loud. From where I stood in the wake of the smoke clouds, the fireworks appeared in the sky over the roof of the historic casino building. Instantly, these munitions were not entertainment; I saw and felt them to be the explosions they symbolically recalled. Each explosion birthed a wave of fear for my life, for the lives of those around me. War, I felt, must sound just like this. The experience was transformed by this new perspective. I imagined the casino itself to be hit, with bricks and stained glass crumbling to the ground. Deeply frightening as it was, I forced myself to stay in this experience for a few moments. I felt the need to grab the nearest humans and hold us all together in safety. How strange it was, I thought as the sky lit up the park like daylight, that this should be held as an entertainment for we of this modern, Western world. Easy, I supposed, as we here in this culture know nothing of war firsthand. I wondered how citizens of currently war-ravaged countries in the Middle East would feel about such a display. Would it bring on symptoms of PTSD? Would it throw children into tears, would it make mothers cry out for their babies and grown men shrink in terror? I thought it surely would. So strange, this mix. Triumphant and celebratory, menacing and evil. At every cracking sound I relived the moment when I’d hit the turtle. One moment I was thrilling to personal victory on a beautiful summer’s night, the next I was dumbfounded and heartsick. This time, I had known the precise moment when things changed.

These days my fingers are hurting more. Usually the first thing I’m aware of when I awake is that my fingers hurt. The irony of a musician losing her fingers to arthritis tempts me to indulge in self-pity. I lament that I haven’t played with other musicians since my son was born, and the way life is going at present, I’m not likely to again. I think of the ‘time before’ and my heart aches. When was the last time I played in a band? Who were the last people I played music with? It saddens me that I can’t recall. Just when did my decolletage become crepey looking like those other, older women (whom I was never supposed to become!)? This doesn’t just sadden me, it angers me. Just when did my left pinkie begin to bend out in a bizarre and unnatural way at the far joint? Just when did this trend towards jowls and sagging neck actually begin? Many of my thoughts these days are an effort to come to terms with aging. With the process of saying goodbye to the way things have been for so long… I tell myself that the process has always been molecule by molecule, cell by cell. That, thank God, it happens gradually. Kind of like pregnancy. You get a whole nine months to adjust to the new reality. But there’s also something silently disturbing about slow change: you can’t stop it, and you don’t quite know when it’s coming or how it’s happening. Your past splits away from you without your even realizing it. And then one day you get it as you didn’t get it before. Oh shit. It’s over. And there’s no going back.

A few years back I played the music behind a student production of “Tuck Everlasting”. It’s the story of a family who is stuck in time; no one ages and life for them stretches on and on without end, while life and death continue on as usual around them. I’d never thought too deeply before then about life from the opposite perspective. But it certainly struck me as a hell in which I’d never care to live. It gave me consolation about the aging process: we all do it, and pretty much all at the same rate.

Troubled as I am by my mortality, I still continue to fully enjoy and participate in the experience. Admittedly I am vain, convinced that most of the time I am right, and often full of pluck and bravado. But at the same time I am also timid, unconvinced of my talents and deeply fearful about my future. I am a mix of these things all at once. These qualities all wrestle for power as the reflective side and the reactive side continue to fight each other for dominance. It’s fascinating how humans can be all of these seemingly contradicting things all at once. Yet truly, we are all things at the same time. Our lifetimes are spent swinging from one awareness to the next, from certainty to uncertainty in the blink of an eye. One minute we are whole, and the very next – we are split.

______________________________________________________

Post Script: Feeling that this post was already verging on way-too-long I omitted these two recent incidents which further expand on the idea of life circumstances splitting in an instant: The happy day when Elihu returned home from his father’s, I tripped on the suitcase on his bedroom floor and broke a toe. A week before, lightning had struck The Studio and fried the just-out-of-warranty AC units, resulting in three thousand dollars worth of damage. Thankfully, the IRS just granted us our official status as a nonprofit entity after a three-year application process. Split indeed.

 

 

 

Chapter October 4, 2015

Sometimes they start and end with a defining moment, but mostly they overlap, fading in and out with such subtly that we don’t realize the times have changed until long after they have. Looking back one can see with clarity how and when the events and circumstances changed, we can note the point at which certain characters left or our joined our drama, we can remember ‘times’ as if they were distinct acts in a play, yet when we sit in the midst of our action, deeply embedded in our own scripts, it can be a challenge to see the bigger picture.

Recently I came upon a pile of fringe on the floor of my cellar clothing storage room, and recognized it to be from an antique dress that I loved well. Made in the 1920s, I’d worn it throughout my career with the Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago. A deep ache began to grow in my chest. The dress was likely ruined, but I didn’t dare confirm it. Nor did I pickup the mess. Instead, I sat and felt the grief fill me. I wondered why it broke my heart so? I thought back on all that had happened in that dress… I remembered the stories, the scenes, the cast – the soundtrack. I tried to console myself; the dress was in tatters, but hadn’t I used it well in its time? Hadn’t I myself enjoyed those days as deeply as I ever could have? Yes, I had. I’d always enjoyed myself to the core. What bothered me so deeply now was not so much that that time in my life was over, but rather that I never actually understood when it was that it closed. I was never warned that there would be no more gigs, no more crowds, hands in the air singing ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’ in full voice, smiles all around – the whole thing was over before I knew it was over. And that’s what got me. In order to give myself some kind of closure, I stood there and let myself remember…

I’d been young, pretty, and fairly on top of my game. On stage, in front of that band, dressed in those one-of-a-kind vintage dresses, bedecked with bracelets and hip-length necklaces, kohl-eyed and as animated as ‘the it girl’ herself, I glowed. I emanated fun. I was always chatty with the audience, slightly inappropriate, slightly bawdy; camp enough to give the show some punch, self-deprecating enough to endear myself to fans. The tunes were those I loved best, and although the charts were mostly written for a man’s voice and had me splitting lines and finishing them an octave above or below, I loved them all. The music was charming, the guys and the gals in the band were charming – and our audience was charming, too. It was a cast of characters united in their deep love for the dusty songs of a time long-gone. I must have known the door to this time had closed when I moved away from Chicago to the corn fields of Dekalb. But no, even then I had an occasional job with them. Enough to make me think this band might slow its pace, but would always be there in my life, chugging along… It was only when the building in which the band enjoyed a steady engagement (at Bill’s Blues) burned to the ground a couple of years ago – long after I’d moved to New York – that my heart finally understood it was over. There was no going back now. And this poor dress, after nearly one hundred years of service, is done with its career of dance parties and concerts. This is not to say that its life is completely over; the dress may yet provide years of service as a costume – perhaps in a high school play, or in a little girl’s dress up trunk. But its show days are over. That chapter has closed.

The thing about chapters and books is that you know exactly where you stand with respect to the ending. You can clearly see how many pages are left. From that, you can figure out how to emotionally pace yourself. You might love the book so well you put it down for a few days, so as to make it last. You might love it so well you cannot put it down, and so you consume it immediately. Either way, it’s your choice. You control things. You can choose to skip to the end of each chapter and ease your mind by learning that things finally do come out ok, or you can simply take solace in knowing that ultimately it’s just a book, and as such, it has a finite life. And no matter what the outcome, good or bad, it will come to an end. And you know exactly when that will be. At any given time in your reading of that book you can tell precisely where you are in relation to the ending. Me, I like that feeling. That definite knowing. If only we could know how many days were in a life as well as we know the number of pages in a book. A pity we don’t, I say. How much more carefully we would write if we knew how many pages we’d yet to go.

It’s been said of me by friends that I tend to look backward more often than forward. And I suppose I agree. I get nostalgic and misty over past decades quite easily. In my defense I offer that it’s because I have had some very good and memorable times on this planet. It’s also been said of me by friends that I’ve lived half a dozen lives already. And I would agree with that too. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have lived this life. I’ve piloted a 40 foot sailboat through a storm on the Atlantic, I’ve jumped out of planes and hosted a radio show (not at the same time!) I’ve sung in front of thousands of people, I’ve played a sparkly accordion, I’ve traveled to unusual parts of the world, I’ve butchered a chicken, I’ve raised a child. I grew up in a house full of harpsichords, my summers were filled with New England lakes, Baroque concerts and life on a farm. From a young age my father took me to hear jazz, and my grandma showed me how to dance to Jelly Roll Morton. My Pakistani father-in-law and Chilean mother-in-law opened my world to a still-wider cache of experiences. I learned to make new kinds of food. I cooked food on a private boat as it motored down the Mississippi, I avoided day jobs by taking hundreds of temp jobs and doing singing telegrams, two tanks of helium in my trunk on the ready to blow up balloons en route to my hits.

My memories are jammed to the rafters. And as I recall some of them, I can almost pinpoint the times at which ‘mini eras’ came to be, and the times at which they came to a close. Funny thing is, when I was actually living these memories, I wasn’t necessarily aware of them as chapters. All I knew is that I was following the events as one prepared the way for the next. And when an era came to an end, it certainly didn’t feel like it. I may have sensed things were changing, but in the back of my mind I guess I always thought that things would continue on as they were… Maybe that’s because I am not good at goodbye. Change is relentless, and I know it’s not healthy to fight it, but still, it’s not something that sits easily with me. I like things steady and for the most part, unchanging. But to be fair, if life didn’t lead me to new experiences, I’d probably cry of boredom. I guess the trick to living happily in the balance is to be aware of things as they are happening. Perhaps this is a gift of aging. Even if I knew it before, I know it so much more keenly now: savor, savor, savor. You may not think so now, but chances are good that one day hence you’ll look back and miss the way things were this very day.

My son is in seventh grade. If ever there was a time in which things change, this is it. I know it was for me. My first real crush, the first time I ever shaved under my arms, the first time I realized how complicated it all was. Elihu comes up to my ears now, he might even a bit taller. His skin is still smooth, but the hair is coming in differently on his legs, his toes and feet don’t look like a young child’s anymore, and soon, very soon, he will become taller than me. And I’m ok with this, poignant though it may be to my sentimental heart, because now I know to be on the lookout for it. I will not be taken by surprise by the forthcoming chapter, dammit. Each day I note how subtly he is changing. I soak up our time together now because I know that one year from today we will have entered another era, and things will likely be very different. Being aware helps me in my process. I just wish I’d thought this way all those years ago – as I left the Aluminum Group days, as I left the sailing crew days, as I left my days of city living…. I guess I always thought I could return, effortlessly, to those experiences. I didn’t quite realize that each chapter requires a certain, magical alignment of the stars, and that that magical composition morphs and moves on just as surely as do the eddies in a river…

One week ago today, when the Studio’s last guest was gone and I stood alone in the space, a clipboard full of new email addresses under my arm, I knew then that we’d experienced a beginning. The beginning of the preceding chapter was easy enough to define; six inches of standing water covering the Studio’s floor left me nowhere to turn. The moment my eyes first looked upon the flood I knew things had shifted. I just wasn’t sure how things would pan out…What followed was a chapter full of incremental changes, movement at a snail’s pace that could hardly be detected from up close. Yet things had changed. In a big way. And finally, we were here. I’d spent a lot of emotional energy coming to terms with the idea of my father’s era truly being done now, and it was a good thing the process has been slow – otherwise I might not have had the heart to go through with it. I needed the time to find emotional closure to the old days before I could step across the threshold into the new ones. Looking out on this empty hall, it occurred to me that one day this time will be looked upon with some nostalgia and interest, too. When my son takes over, or the board votes me out, or a theater company buys the whole shebang and puts a new wing on…. This will be the era that came before, upon which people wax nostalgic…

I may not know how many pages are left in my book, but at least I know to write more carefully as I go, being ever mindful of my surroundings as the chapters unfold. One day I hope to leave behind a fine book, with a fine ending too. But for now, it’s just one sentence at a time.