The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.

 

 

 

Sunday Lull May 17, 2015

My kid is in my bed, playing on his 3DS, the volume’s up on the accompanying soundtrack which, after the nineteenth time is annoying enough, let alone the nineteen-hundredth time. He’ll mute it if I ask, but I don’t, because the music seems to add to his enjoyment of the game. This is, after all, Sunday morning. That island in the week where nothing can touch you (if you aren’t a church-goer, that is!). It’s the one day that I let the chickens out a little later, the one morning when the clock tells me it’s 6 am and my heart doesn’t tighten at the prospect of the morning rituals before me… I enjoy my bedroom’s comfy chair on weekend mornings, and although the seasonal bouquets of lilacs and lily of the valley are no longer at their fragrant peak, having them here is a rare treat, and confirms for me that we’re still in that magical and short-lived time of the year I love so well. It’s a Sunday at home in the Springtime, and Elihu and I are together, each doing something that we love to do. Things don’t get much better than this.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been given a couple of unexpected gifts which have really helped to lift my spirits too. I guess I didn’t realize that I presented to the world as being so in need – maybe living in a constant state of never-quite-enough has dulled me a bit to the fact that not all folks live like this – and that there may exist a chance that I myself might not always live this way. While it might be my goal, I’ve never been able to imagine a time when Elihu and I could live without food stamps or assistance to heat our home. I suppose the goal is to glean an income from the Studio one day, yet still, that seems so far off, I can’t quite see it. Currently, our income is most often less than our basic living expenses, with my stalwart mother stepping in to make up the difference. It’s the little things that make it impossible to get ahead – unexpected car repairs, new shoes, haircuts, even shampoo and laundry detergent – things that by themselves don’t seem too much, but when they arrive one after the other can clean out a checking account pretty quick.

Lately I’ve been keeping track of these expenses and trying to nail down where my money goes and why it is I can’t seem to get enough… And one of these recent gifts was membership into a program which helps to get such control over money. The timing of this gift was perfect. Just as I’d been making columns, listing my costs and my income and beginning to use cash only instead of debit cards, this arrived. A woman I’d known from another lifetime as a kid in my hometown had gotten this program for me with the provision that I follow it for the next ninety days. I am so there. Can’t say I’m not a bit nervous – I still haven’t gotten those new gigs nailed down yet, so I’m still short on the income side. That means spending still less, and when you already live so modestly, it’s hard to know how to do that. Reduced my cable to basic, my garbage removal to once a month, trying to unplug the power supplies around the house, turn things off… Still, it’s daunting, this idea of breaking even, let alone of saving.

And then there was the second miracle gift – a person with whom I have some musician friends in common gave me an unexpected gift of cash, which has allowed me to put a little away, as well as pay the electric bill left over from a too-long winter. How did these things happen? Hard to understand, and for me, hard to actually accept the help. I waffled over the offers for a while, before I realized that if I were in a position to help someone else, I’d do it. And my grandmother used to tell me that the best way to receive a gift is to simply say ‘thank you’ – and mean it. I did, and I do. And I’ll be living my gratitude for these acts of kindness by continuing to push up and out of my situation. I’ve got lists, plans and goals. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve made much progress in my time here, but then I’ll look back over the past six years here and realize that a whole lot has happened. And although the steps are tiny, they are forward-moving, and after a while, baby steps actually do get you somewhere else.

Monday morning will come soon enough, and I mean to meet it with enthusiasm and hope. I often say to my kid that this is not a planet for wimps. And me, sometimes I feel mighty wimpy. So I’ll use this lull in my life to recharge and regroup. Church or not – what a blessing is a Sunday morning.

 

Cusp January 19, 2015

Two thousand fourteen was a tough year for me. Can’t say it was necessarily a bad year, but it was the year in which my father was newly gone, the year in which his concert hall suffered a flood (at my negligence; in order to save money I hadn’t properly winterized it), and it was the year in which I left the safety net of my part-time job at the Waldorf school in order to set about creating a new business. I did manage to get heating and cooling units installed in the Studio, and this past fall I spared no expense and had the place properly shut down for winter. At a glance, maybe not much. But progress, nonetheless. You might say I began to plant the seeds of change. And soon, we’re going to see them begin to sprout…

The biggest holdup – one that’s been in the works for nearly two years if you can believe it – is the logging of our family’s property. It’ll give us some start up money to get some basic fixes done to the place, not to mention a completely new floor (which still makes me sick to think of as the old floor was gorgeous…. and paid for) and some tlc on the weather-worn exterior. And besides that, we’re going to need a place to park all those cars. In the past, my parents only used the Studio in the summers, and parking on the expansive lawn worked out fine. Me, I’m going to need year-round parking, in a level place where I can clear snow and not worry about damaging the grass. Our plan is to create a parking lot in the woods just to the east of the building – in the very place that mom and dad had also initially intended for it to go when they built the Studio in 1974. Back then when they realized the cost – and saw that they had plenty of space for cars on the lawn, they shelved the plan. But now, needing access to my mom’s woods out back for the logging job, it’s become a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one proverbial stone: the loggers need a ‘platform’, or a wide space in which to park their huge equipment, and I need a parking lot. They’ll open up the space whether we use it or let it grow back again – so why not use it to our advantage? The loggers will also need to construct a proper load-bearing road into the property, complete with enormous metal culvert and lots of fill – another structure which will benefit us tremendously. And then, on top of all this ‘free’ infrastructure, we’ll get money from the lumber. It kinda seems too good to be true. Knowing what I do about life, and how the best-laid plans can quickly go awry, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on every step of the process. (In a few moments I’ll take a break from my computer and go to meet the crew for the very first time. So that makes today hugely significant in the re-birth of the studio.) As I noted to my son recently, I was eleven when I saw the Studio built, and he, at the very same age, is here to see the Studio re-built. Perfect.

As usual, other adventures continue, and recently Elihu and I went to a rehearsal of Haydn’s “The Creation” by the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. We got great seats up front by the basses. ! I feel so lucky that this beautiful campus, along with all the cultural experiences it provides, is less than five miles from our house. Talk about the best of both worlds: peace, quiet and privacy with nature all around, and yet within minutes we can be hearing world-class music or dining at gourmet restaurants. Lucky are we!

Along with all the activity and changes going on in my life, I’ve added another to the list: hot flashes. A couple of years ago I got an IUD in order to deter the near-unending perimenopausal periods I was experiencing, and since they’d finished completely, I’d thought I was over the hump. Honestly, I didn’t think hot flashes would come til after the device was removed, if they came at all (my hope was to avoid them altogether). And now I suspect that after I have it removed one year hence, the hormonal change will descend on me with a vengeance. So this may only be the tip of the iceberg. My mother suffered badly from intense hot flash episodes for well over a decade. Even after hearing about them, I would still think to myself “It’s just a quick sensation of warmth. Really, how bad can they be?”…. Now I get it. Yeah, I’m guessing they’ll be mighty unpleasant. The first one hit at night, and initially it was not only uncomfortable, but it was frightening too, and in that respect reminded me of a miscarriage; some new variety of discomfort was growing inside me, and while it had familiar aspects to it, something very different was going on. A bit of nausea came along with it as well, and that was unexpected. But I suppose, like everything else in life, I’ll adapt and eventually get used to it.

These days I’m becoming more receptive to the idea that nothing lasts. I’m not resisting change the way I used to. Absolutely everything changes, and the sooner you surrender yourself to that notion, the easier your life will be. So here I am, standing on the edge of tomorrow, waiting for whatever comes next…

IMG_5749The other day Elihu and I marked off the perimeter of the Studio’s new parking lot with flags. This photo shows how things have looked for the past forty years on this stretch of Wilton Road, looking west. My parent’s property is on the left. Mom’s house, Andrew’s house and the Studio are all just behind these woods (that’s our neighbor’s driveway in the foreground).

IMG_5753And this is where the new driveway will be going very soon (that’s our neighbor’s house behind the big tree).IMG_5756Here’s the old salt box my folks put out in anticipation of the parking lot they never made. You can see the Studio’s white roof to the far left, beyond the woods.

IMG_5765This interesting-looking tree will go. Behind to the right (red) is the Studio, on the left is mom’s house.

IMG_5676Now we’re off to hear some music – and hopefully fly some RC helicopters too.

IMG_5673This hall both looks and sounds beautiful.

IMG_5620Best seats in the house!

IMG_5623Love the conductor’s red cowboy boots.

IMG_5616Just look how close we are to the bass section! (Note the C extensions on the necks which allow the bassists to play even lower.)

This singer performed at dad’s Baroque Festival years ago. Elihu’s music teacher from Waldorf is also playing clarinet in the orchestra.

IMG_5644Elihu has to say hello.

IMG_5645Kinda like meeting rock stars.

IMG_5658Proving true to his love of all things super-low, Elihu makes a beeline to the contrabassoon.

IMG_5653Hard to imagine I grew up with several of these in my house. Seeing or hearing a harpsichord always makes me nostalgic.

IMG_5690The house manager was sweet and opened up a classroom in the music building for us.

IMG_5704Lots of vertical room to enjoy!

IMG_5713After a slight mishap Elihu made some successful, on-site repairs. This pic may seem fairly ordinary, but actually, it’s not. Elihu is wearing his new tinted contacts here, and therefore able to see in the bright, natural light without sunglasses. A huge quality of life upgrade. He doesn’t wear them often, but when he does his world opens up.

IMG_5737Later on that night Elihu continued to be inspired by the afternoon’s concert.

IMG_5746And the inspiration carried over into the next morning.

IMG_5770After letting the girls (and boy) out for the day, I headed over to meet the forester and the logger who’ll be working in our woods over the next few weeks.

IMG_5775You can see the Greenfield hills in the distance. It’s a lovely view down my driveway, so long as I don’t look off to the right and see the vacant, new-construction house that looms over the field.

IMG_5777They’re here!

IMG_5806Assessing things from the road…

IMG_5790…and then from the interior of the woods where the parking lot will go.

IMG_5792These trees will all be gone soon – the ones marked with green tape will stay as feature trees.

IMG_5813Got the signed lumber contract in hand! It’s real now!!

IMG_5826Heading back home down my driveway. Feeling good, and excited for the days ahead.