The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Ruminatrix November 30, 2014

When my dad’s estate was finally settled and the funds put into an account, my mother was given a checkbook to draw on the funds. I thought she’d have been mostly pleased that there was something to draw on even – but that was eclipsed each and every time she’d pull out the checkbook by the horrible thing she saw printed upon them. She let out a veritable shriek when she first explained the situation to me… My mother almost always takes any situation and immediately finds – and calls attention to in the bitterest way possible – the great, personally-directed injustice of it (for her a glass is always half empty and not half full, a fear-based reaction likely tied to her father leaving her family for good when she was ten). And this checkbook presented a major offense, it appeared. In fact, it was a two-pronged offense in her eyes; on the one hand she’d lost her identity again, and had reverted from “Nancy J.” back to a “Mrs. Robert S.” (her generation has strong feelings about women’s hard-earned rights), and secondly, her title was listed as “Executrix”. Hm. Sure, I paused at that. I needed a moment to understand it, but certainly, these estate planning folks knew what they were doing, this must have been a case of archaic language surfacing in modern legalese. “Trix” was merely the feminine for “tor” and should be taken as nothing else. (Yes, I know, our modern minds all go immediately to “domenatrix”.) For some reason this feminine form of “executor” has survived, while other words like “aviatrix” or “administratix” have not; I suppose it’s another gender-equalizing step forward in the de-sexing of our language. Guess I can understand mom’s displeasure a bit better. Regardless of her feelings on the matter, there you have it. My mother is an executrix.

My mother is also, once again, Nancy. She is still someone’s widow, but in some ways she’s now coming into a new version of herself that wasn’t possible when dad was alive. I get that. In her day a woman lost her name when she married, it wasn’t questioned. In her case, she also lost whatever it might have been to be Nancy, instead, she became the wife of a famous harpsichordist. To her great credit, while Andrew and I were still small, she went back to college and earned a Bachelor of Science, and got herself a job at the local hospital. I remember seeing her at the kitchen table with her Texas Instruments calculator, the size of a small brick, working on numbers way into the night. So growing up, I naturally thought her to be a math type, unafraid (as I was) of calculations. Maybe she even liked math. It seemed so. At least I never heard her complain. And it wasn’t until recently, as we discussed Elihu’s math assignments for school, that I heard her make a comment that shattered my previous assumptions about her. She felt herself actually bad at math. It was her weakness, and she hated it. ?? Since this is a woman who has been doing crossword puzzles religiously for decades, I naturally thought she just had that clever brain for whom nothing is a challenge, and for whom everything comes easily. Guess not. Immediately, it put a spin on things: my mother had stepped out of her comfort zone when she’d gone back to school. It might not have been so much about keeping busy or contributing income as it had been about her keeping – or creating – her own identity. Her sanity, her sense of self. Another piece of the puzzle was revealed, and things made more sense.

Marrying a mildly famous person has its downside. Like my mother, I too had a partner who was well known. Much more often I was identified by him, very seldom was it the reverse. In the beginning of our relationship this was a point of stress, and it was something we talked about, and worked on. Thankfully there then came a good long stretch of time when I myself found success of my own, and in my own niche subculture had become modestly famous as well. I was busy, and creatively satisfied. It was only after I discovered my own life that I was able to enjoy, shame-free, a life alongside a famous person. But truthfully, a voice nagged at me towards the second half of our relationship: “What are you here for, and how can you possibly ever find out if you’re living with this person? Your life as a couple is all about him; are you sure you’re ok with that?” There was so much more at play than simply being partnered with a famous person. There were my insecurities, yes, but beyond that there was a person on the other side of the equation who was slowly morphing over the years into a textbook-perfect narcissist. I know he wasn’t like this in the beginning; no, we were both very naive, young things back then. Trying situations had yet to bear on our simple lives. I personally believe that his own highly dysfunctional upbringing plus the stressors of life had a cumulative effect on my ex, gradually nurturing the lion within until he became the strange, self-serving creature he is today. At present he is a mix of things; while I can no longer recognize (even as I could a year ago) any human tenderness in his eyes (his son also notices the creepy transformation when his father is here with us) I do know that he is a loving father, and that somewhere in that self-serving, self-justifying persona of his, there is a misunderstood boy who wishes only for love, comfort and sincere recognition. And these are things I could not have known before. And it helps tremendously. But it didn’t come to me overnight; it’s taken time and lots of introspection to arrive at this place.

Last night, as Elihu and I played Scrabble, we chatted about many things over our game, so when he paused and said “I don’t really get it”, I wasn’t sure what he’d meant. On Thanksgiving we’d watched videos of his father and me, from preparations for the wedding through the wedding itself (this was our only footage of dad) and then to his birth and first adorable months as a baby. Elihu had never seen his mother and father together – as we had been for over two decades –  as a couple. There was much laughter, and an ease about us that no longer existed in any way. Turns out the videos were on his mind. “He was just all about you. You guys were so happy and showed each other so much love. I don’t get how it changed.” “Well,” I thought aloud, “I guess my ‘negative Nancy’ stuff helped. I mean, I was a lot more like grandma than I’d realized. A lot of the time I felt like we lived his life more than mine – or ours – and I guess it made me upset. So I was mean sometimes. Looking back, I guess it probably helped change things. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them, I suppose.” We talked a bit more about it, and Elihu came to some new understanding which seemed to help. The conversation ended while the Scrabble game continued on. (Yes, he won.)

Elihu recently asked me what makes kids in their twenties so much more ‘grown up’ than the high school kids. He saw them all as physically grown, savvy, smart and funny. How was it that they high schoolers were still considered ‘kids‘? Immediately, I recalled the chicken curry effect. Some nights I’ll whip up a batch of his Grandpa Riaz’s chicken curry, and while I follow all the directions just so, it won’t taste quite right. But the next night? Dead on. Delicious. One can’t help but notice the difference. What the curry needed was time to settle, time for the ingredients to become integrated. Yes, all the right ingredients were already there with the high school kids – they had lots of information on board, and as Waldorf kids, they had lots of world experiences too – but what they didn’t have under their belts yet was time. And there is no substitute for the deeper advancements that come with the simple passing of time. It becomes a subtle form of contemplation in and of itself. I always tell my students that the time in between practice sessions is just as important as the practice itself. Some magical, internal process takes place that brings the pieces together. Glad of it too, there’s so much information in life to assimilate; emotional, factual and otherwise. Happy to know some of it takes care of itself. !

Three years ago, when I first started writing, I had said that I knew things were ok, in spite of my bad situation (see the post “Snowflakes”.) That I knew there was a silver lining somewhere in the middle of the whole mess. That things, although they didn’t appear so on the outside, were poised for an improved future. Thing is, while I was writing what I knew to be true, I did not yet feel it. It’s almost as if I was self-coaching in front of an audience, that I might soon come to believe in my heart what I knew to be true in my brain. I hesitated to publish it too, because I knew damn well that I was not feeling as optimistic as I’d sounded. Just the opposite, really. But something inside me knew that it would one day be true, and that I’d catch up. Quite honestly, six years after having left my Illinois home and moving here I have still not caught up. But I’m much further along. I continue to revisit my old life (maybe a bit more than some folks would think productive), trying to identify the actions that brought me here, and more importantly what created the spirit in which those actions were created. How do I ensure that I behave differently in the future? How also do I ensure that my child doesn’t pick up these emotional weaknesses himself? Thanks to the solitude I enjoy in the country, plus a combination of thinking and simply being, I have come closer to some answers.

That being said, daily I’m still combating a deep, existential fear, one which will be quieted only when I realize what it is that I do, and then find myself doing it, and one can only hope, getting paid for it as well. ! (Living with the help of state assistance, while still essential to our survival, has become a little challenging on the ego.) The Studio lurks in my mind as a dormant dream with plans that sit, waiting for the next step. I know I’ll get there, and until I do, much of my psyche is upset because the place still lingers, unresolved and waiting… Yet while The Studio sleeps through the winter and waits for my attention, I continue to heal, grow and learn. I’m still identifying aspects of my life – good and bad – as well as some issues carried over from my own parents, and coming to understand how these things manifest in my life today.

I’m still dealing with panic attacks these days too. Realizing that I went for years without any fear of them, I focus my thinking on what made that time different from today. How was I able to live panic-free? I believe it was thanks to a clearer sense of meaning and purpose. I know I’m a very good mother, but at the end of the day, that alone is not the answer. Sometimes I wish it was enough just to be a great parent, but important as that is, it’s not. I still need my own thing, too. Something that satisfies – and also pays. Yes, I do have ‘things’, but none of them is panning out as I’d like: I’m a musician, but I don’t play much anymore. A teacher, but too few students to make it a real job. I’m a writer, yes, with enough material for a book or two – but I don’t write for hire, I write for me (don’t get me wrong – I’d gladly write for hire, I just don’t know how to begin that pursuit). I’m a chicken farmer too, I suppose, but egg sales only cover my costs if I’m lucky. I spend my time doing many things, but at the end of the day I probably do more thinking than anything else. If only there were a name for such a thing… Oh but hang on, just maybe there is… Do you suppose there are any job opportunities out there for a ruminatrix? Or maybe… a Ms. Ruminatrix?

Well, at least it’s something to think about…

 

Ashes December 30, 2013

Today my dad will be cremated. Not something we haven’t talked about, not a word we’ve never uttered before, still it feels bizarre. To know that your father’s body will be put into an extremely hot oven and burned to ashes. On one level it seems out-of-body strange, yet on another it seems as practical and down-to-earth as it gets. Certainly (at least in my heart) it honors the body so much more than filling it up with chemicals, inserting plastic filler or wires to hold things just so… And yet, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around. It’s just not something most folks have to deal with more than a few times during the entire course of their lives – and even if we do have to make these end of life decisions, it’s not dinner table conversation. But maybe it should be. Maybe it would be a little easier territory if we made it less mysterious.

As I’ve gone through the past two days, doing errands and catching up on life, I’ve been constantly, ever-so-subtly aware that my father still exists. That his body, just as I saw it last, still lies in Saratoga, his white hair just so, so too his beard, those certain spots on his forehead, and those marvelous hands. They all still exist, I tell myself over and over as if clinging to this fact to make things better. As I drove to the grocery store I took the long way around, passing the funeral home and pondering my dad, still there, somewhere within that enormous Victorian mansion, lying there, hands on his chest in his navy blue flannel pajamas. It’s a refrigerated room, of course. Can you imagine how cold he is? I think. But he’s just a body, I remind myself. Just plain old organic matter that would become a stinking mess if you left it out. I go around and around, considering both sides of this idea to no fruitful conclusion. There is none to be made.

I had to pull over and park. I sat, studying the house, looking into the upstairs bedrooms-turned-offices and just wondered at this unknown world. In the end, it’s just a business for these guys. My father is just another body and I am just another client. But in what limited experience I’ve had with professionals in the death industry, I can say that they are by no means cold and jaded. While it may be business as usual for them, the folks I’ve met so far have been extraordinarily compassionate and kind. This funeral home is on North Broadway, a street lined with ancient trees and opulent mansions from the grand years of Saratoga Springs. Just across the street is the new-moneyed, Disneyesque Riggi mansion, all bedecked for the holidays in thousands of tiny white lights. A few houses to the north is the grand white house of Charlie Wait, the president of the local bank. I remember my dad getting a business loan on a mere handshake with Charlie’s father years ago. I remember the lobby’s vaulted ceiling and the huge oil paintings on the wall. I remember how they chatted like old friends…. I laugh to myself at dad’s final address. He was forever making jokes about wanting to be rich, forever positing funny scenarios of himself in that good life – instructing the staff, taking his lunch on the patio, making important calls… So now here he is, residing on tony North Broadway. It makes me smile. I snap a picture of the funeral home, and now starting to cry, I drive home through the rain.

Last night I called my mom. Didn’t stop by, as I’d been too busy trying to find Christmas gifts for Elihu and shopping for the produce that I’ve gone without the past week or more. To be honest, while I’d thought also of her throughout the day, I’d quickly turned my attention to something else, as I was afraid to consider how she was really doing. I have a full life and much to do to keep my mind off of dad’s passing, but mom, she lived virtually in service to him. Truly, her life was in her home; her cats, my brother, my dad. And all my life mom has always cooked exceptional food for us. In dad’s final days, while things did become radically different, she took no less care in feeding him. Rather than spending her days researching recipes, she was now more concerned with quantity of food ingested, the times of the feedings and their caloric content. And she did it well. She stayed on top of things. She’s always stayed on top of things. But now there’s no pressing matter to stay on top of anymore. We talked about it, she herself realizes that she’s got some thinking to do. What will she live for now? How will she define herself? These are questions we all have to face – certainly I myself have some personal experience with those particular questions! But I have a child, and for the time being, no matter what happens to me, I am primarily defined by that role. But to be partnerless, childless, occupationless…. that is something different. Yeah, mom has a challenge ahead of her. And while it may be a transitory challenge, the one most immediately before her – and me too – today, is that of saying the final goodbye to dad as we knew him.

I’ve asked the funeral home to please call us when dad’s on his way – and the crematory, which is a good forty-five minute ride across the border into Vermont, will call us when dad’s ‘going in’. Or whatever terminology they use. The funeral guy himself wasn’t too specific in his language – I still find there’s a lot of dancing around the truth here. While he was enthusiastically supportive about our wanting to know exactly when it was that dad was being cremated – his language was surprisingly euphemistic. Hm. Probably how they need to speak for the comfort of most people. For me, his vague, cryptic language was not so reassuring. But I guess most folks probably appreciate it. Again, I wish this was all easier to talk about. I’ve also been wishing I knew what we could do to mark this final passing of dad’s body… Mom and I had talked about raising a glass of wine to him as he went up to the skies, but is that fair to Andrew? Then, last night, I got it. We’ll light a candle. And then, when dad is gone, we’ll blow it out. Up will waft that thin trail of smoke, and up will waft dad, out and over the snowy Vermont countryside. From that vantage point in the sky I’m sure one can see Greenfield… Then the ashes will come home. Some will be dispersed in the lake where dad spent his boyhood summers, some will go to the veteran’s cemetery, and just a tiny bit will remain here with us.

It’s funny how sentimental we are as humans. Even though I may believe that dad is in a much better place, and even though I know full well that his soul is no longer attached in any way to that old man’s body lying in the funeral home, it still means so much to know that we’ll have something left of dad, even if it’s just a box of ashes.

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Post Script: Dad’s obituary is now up on the funeral home’s site at www.burkefuneralhome.com and folks may make remembrances there if they choose… I’ve heard many stories and anecdotes about dad recounted in the past two days – some I’d even forgotten – so I encourage people to share any one of them publicly on the funeral home’s site…  thanks again for all the love and support.

Btw – dad passed at 11:51 p.m. on the 27th, but as he wasn’t officially pronounced dead by a ‘professional’ until the following morning, the date of death will legally be considered to be the 28th. Sheesh.