The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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…

 

 

Rolling in Hay June 7, 2013

What a subject. Can’t even think of any adjectives to use because they could all be construed as crude references to the subject itself. ! In fact, I struggle with the idea of even writing about it. And then hitting the publish button. But it’s a part of life, and it’s on my mind. So what does place does sex even have in my world these days? To be quite honest, it hardly exists as a thought, desire or concern. Frankly, I’ve been thinking it’s pretty much all over and done with for me in this lifetime. I mean, how exactly do knobby, arthritic hands and crepey thigh skin transport one to that place of tender seduction? Yeeps. It’s hard to imagine, really. Many are the times I’ve been very, very grateful that the burden of sex has been removed from my plate as I face these declining years. I’ve been secretly grateful and relieved that I was off the hook. Or am I?

Recently I had a chat with an old, dear friend. He was my high school sweetheart, and in spite of my breaking up with him in a most public and humiliating way, our friendship has endured over the decades (I was Best Gal at his wedding.) It was he who helped me most in the years that followed my separation from Fareed. He was there, night after night, for that same, tired conversation. He helped prop me up, slap me in the face and keep me moving when I just wanted to crumple to the ground and disappear. With great shame I realized the other day that it had been months since I’d spoken to him, so I finally picked up the phone and called (he called on my birthday, I rudely never called back.) Being one of those rare and true friends, we were just where we left off the last time. While we fell back into a conversation that was old and familiar, he threw something at me I hadn’t expected. “You need to have sex now. You need to get laid. You need a good man in your life.” I’d spent so much energy just healing emotionally that sex hadn’t even appeared on the radar. We joked that my parts were probably atrophying. ! Funny yeah, but no, I don’t need it, thank you. But might I want it? Might I? It just had not been on the list. Life, mothering, running a household, teaching, having chickens and a garden – it all takes energy, and I have so little left over. But even so, was I perhaps ready to consider it again? He didn’t convince me, but a tiny voice has continued to nag me on the subject…

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jonesin. I’m so swinging busy I can’t even begin to understand how a sex life (doesn’t that usually come with an emotional love life too? Ich, so much time and energy!) would even work. I’m on 24/7. I can’t just drop off my kid and go pick up a guy. And as I’m feeling right now, I certainly don’t have the oomph for all that courtship that should precede said sex, so I’m still not convinced. And desire? Not a whole lot of it. But still, there’s that tiny voice now… Tonight, when we got home from another jam-packed day, I looked around my messy house and thought that tidying it up would make me feel better. But I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t going to do it. I felt as if I wanted something, but what exactly? A smoke. Yes, that’s it. (No, I haven’t gone back!) But I considered it for a minute, and realized that it wasn’t it either. What was that thing? That thing that I was missing? A wave of sensory memory came over me, and I remembered that whole, long-gone world. Really? But I don’t even know with whom that would take place! Maybe I was just a bit delirious with spring and all the celebrations of youth lately… and it was manifesting in misplaced yearnings.

Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I remember a friend saying that sometimes he and his wife got so busy with life that they could go two weeks without having sex. Two weeks! Despite that active time in my youth I still didn’t consider sex to be at the very top of my priorities (unlike my husband who would have been happy to be so engaged most of the time) – I still couldn’t believe it, two weeks? Were they crazy? Who on earth went two weeks without having sex? Man, we’d seldom gone without for two days! I remember my mind being opened up by that – and beginning to consider that the rest of the world didn’t all behave and live as we did. Wow. I’d lived in a very small, smug and satisfied world, I guess. (Later on in life I would discover that ‘two weeks without’ in a relationship wasn’t unheard of after all.)

Today I myself am part of that large, sexless world. And I honestly don’t think that it’s a bad place to be. You couldn’t have convinced me of this twenty years ago, but it’s just not that important to me in this moment. That being said, these days, now that I’ve finally got a bit of emotional distance from my ex, and now that I’ve lost a couple pounds, I can begin to vaguely imagine it again. Yet if it doesn’t end up happening again, as I feel right now, that’s perfectly ok. I’ve had enough sex – and romance – to last me, I think. Got it when the getting was good. Some might say I’ve got a case of sour grapes, but I say not. All in its time and place. And as things look right now, it still seems to me that hay is better off in the barn than in the bedroom.

Post Script: I can’t be the only one reminded of Teri Garr in ‘Young Frankenstein’…”roll een za hay, roll een za hay…” !

 

Fire Towers and Fiddleheads June 6, 2011

Yesterday was such a bright and busy day that Elihu requested we have a ‘do nothing’ day today. And so we did. Not to say that nothing was done. I made meals, washed dishes, caught up on laundry, got the chickens out, put them back in, cleaned up the mess the raccoons had made of our platform bird feeder, collected eggs, cleaned up a hand-me-down gas grill (which is unfortunately trash despite my best efforts) and made a moth habitat in our gecko’s old terrarium. And all this without getting out of my pajamas (did manage to don an apron). Day is done, and I’m ready for bed. So there! It’s good to live off the road…

Yesterday Elihu, a classmate of his and I visited a local wilderness preserve in honor of the local hero: the Karner Blue Butterfly. It’s not doing so well these days (I believe it’s endangered) and lives primarily on a local blue lupine flower which is currently in bloom. A neighboring town created a day-long celebration around the week in which the little creatures could be seen flitting about the preserve. There were fun things to do for the kids – and there were lots of kids about. They were provided with nets to scoop up critters from the lake which they then could deposit into plastic bins for all to see and identify. The big boys ventured down the wooded slopes to the creek which was home to minnows, the preferred catch. As I sat in the sunshine feeling very good about the expanse of water before me (I love water, I crave it, I miss lake Michigan dearly) the boys chased after crayfish and snails. There was no hurrying this day along. I sat for over an hour. Young mothers with tiny babies and elderly couples wearing sun visors and too many clothes for the hot day shared the bench with me as I sat. I felt so blessed to be agenda-free on such an exquisite day.

After another hour holding snakes and admiring a small collection of injured and rehabbed birds of prey we then headed off through the woods and up the side of a good-sized hill to see the newly restored fire tower. We’d planned on going to the top. I didn’t think much of it, it didn’t look very challenging. I’d hoped to rush in and to the top without time in which to reconsider. We were stopped, however, and made to join a list of folks waiting for the privilege of climbing the ten open flights of stairs to the top. Elihu’s classmate said he wasn’t going with us. I lobbied in favor of doing it; I explained that if he didn’t, he might never remember this day – it would just be another summer afternoon of many – yet should he choose to climb the tower with us he would not only be very proud of himself, but this day would forever stand out in his memory. He didn’t consider my argument for even a second, but instead asked if he could return to the lake. I released him from the challenge, and soon he was gone.

Elihu and I were undaunted by our half hour wait, and were excited and ready when our turn came. Yet by the third flight of the wire mesh stairs it became evident to us that this would be a little more challenging than we’d thought. I was surprised that my low-vision kid, who can’t see images just twenty feet away from him was becoming nervous as we moved farther away from the ground. We both talked to ourselves encouragingly. Such things as ‘we can do this, it’s safe, people have done this all day’, and ‘imagine the guys who had to make this silly thing’. If it weren’t for the mom ahead of us (whose own kids and husband bailed by the second landing) I’m not sure we would have made it. Elihu and I cited an expression used by an old-timer friend of the family now many years gone. The old farmer would express the sensation of being up too high as inspiring ‘asshole pucker’. We’d cleaned the saying up a bit by making it into ‘pucker factor’. That factor was definitely palpable here. ! But by keeping our focus on the connection our feet and hands made with the metal as we pushed on, and by saving our consideration of the great altitude for the top, we finally made it.

Atop the tower was a small room, about 8×8, with of course, a hole in the floor through which we entered. The hole offered dizzying evidence of how far down the ground actually was. A 70-something fellow stood to welcome us, not that his demeanor made us feel so welcome at all. His face showed something more like scorn, fixed in an unamused scowl. To lighten the mood, and because he was there for us, really, I asked his name. ‘Larry’ he said. A pause. He wasn’t giving us any more. That distraction over, I finally looked about to enjoy the reward. It was stunning. We were now quite far above the tall treetops of the forest and could see the Adirondacks stretched out to the north and the Green Mountains of Vermont to our east. Larry even helped me to locate a landmark, the cell tower on our road, so that I might further appreciate where we stood in the lay of the land. I savored the cool, high-up breeze. It felt rare and free, unstopped by the hot goings-on of dirt, houses and asphalt. The air alone was worth the climb. Aware of the line of folks waiting below (although to stick my head out and actually look down upon the people waiting was not something I could quite bring myself to do) we wrapped things up and began our descent. I went first, and behind me Elihu was stopped at the prospect of making the first frightening steps back down. I was touched as Larry spoke to him as a father, gently telling him where to place his hands on the railing and offering tender encouragement. It revealed to me in that tiny moment so much about the man. Larry’d had a long day up there in that tiny box, and as unamused with giggling tourists as he might have been, in the end he was a very kind man. I thanked him in my heart as Elihu plucked up his courage and followed me down.

Once down, I shelled out $5 for a cloth patch of the fire tower so that Elihu might put it on his school backpack as a show of pride and accomplishment. He also received a little card from the fellow signing folks in that showed him to have ‘climbed the Cornell Hill Fire Tower’. So there.

We retrieved Elihu’s friend and hopped into the car to visit the butterfly preserve which was about a mile down the road. It was an open expanse of rolling hills with sandy trails and stands of blue lupine flowers. A few tall oak trees stood here and there giving the scene a dream-like feel. The little insects, while not ubiquitous, were to be seen flitting about through the stands of lupine and across the sandy path. Elihu’s friend and I tried our best to point them out to him, but without the benefit of color vision they are hard to spot. They are also less than an inch across, and would not cooperate by staying still long enough for us to pin down their location. I decided after a hot and dusty half hour that we would head back. Elihu began to cry, to sob. ‘I’m not leaving until I see a butterfly! This is why I came here in the first place!’ His pal kindly put an arm around him and tried to console him. ‘It’s Ok buddy, we’ll find you a butterfly, ok?’ That was an especially sweet thing to do, for this kid is a rough and tumble, dirt bike riding sort of kid – rather the polar opposite of Elihu. I have a snapshot of that moment in my mind’s eye. Inspired by the show of support I got on board too and declared that we would send out our request to the universe – and to the little critters – that we wanted to see one, we expected to see one, we had no harmful motives. And a magical thing happened.

I told us all to quiet ourselves, stop where we were, send out these thoughts and wait for just moment. As we squatted down on the sandy path, a little blue creature flitted over to us. I extended my hand, and she (makes it lovelier to call her that, don’t you think?) landed on it. She stayed. Elihu saw her. She was an exquisite pale blue with pink iridescence. The outside of her wings which were much more difficult to see as she flew were now plainly visible as she closed them for us. Astonishing how beautiful. I was surprised that she was so finely detailed, so subtly colored, so perfectly adorned. For whom? For what purpose? Surely for the purpose of beauty alone. ‘Can I hold her?’ Elihu’s friend asked. I touched my hand to his, and the little creature walked onto his hand. Finally, Elihu put his hand out, and the butterfly continued her walk onto his finger. My son could not resist; he cupped his other hand over her and brought her close to his eyes to see. I wonder how much he can see as his glasses are dark and red… I know he can’t see color, but he can see detail. He must see the tiny designs, mustn’t he? It seems that there is so much deeper a fascination of nature for this child, perhaps not in spite of, but perhaps because of his limited ability to see it as we do. This was a thrilling end to our day. Elihu lifted the creature to the air, and she departed. We three stood there, each one of us realizing how magical this had been. A perfect time to end our afternoon and head home. Thank you, little butterfly.

That night I made a tasty dinner of perfectly-prepared sirloin steak with fiddleheads for our vegetable. It is times like this that make me so grateful to have this young person alongside me in my life. I told him that these were picked right here in our area, and that they were considered delicacies in other parts of the country. While they were $20 a pound in Arizona, they were a fraction of that here, and they were fresh! My story wasn’t necessary to sell the vegetable; he is excited by anything of nature and the prospect of munching on these perfect curls of baby ferns was enough. They were asparagus-like and yet not, of the woods and green tasting with a slight crunch, luckily I’d prepared them pretty well. This was a simple meal, a perfect meal. (My kid has no desire for carbs in his meals – past and rice never get more than one bite. I sure don’t need ’em, so I rarely prepare any.) Dinner finished, sunburn stinging on our shoulders and the chickens safely in their coops, we got ready for bed.

A day of sunshine, butterflies, fire towers and fiddleheads. Another good one.

 

First Loss June 3, 2011

Elihu and I went out tonight, and although my mother dutifully helped us by closing the mature chickens in their coop and securing the chicks as best she could, when we got home we found three of our most precocious young chicks dead inside the new enclosure. (I say ‘precocious’ because they were the only ones in the flock smart enough to go in after dark, something all mature chickens do naturally, plus they’d been making mock nests inside the coop for a week by now, another display of advancing sexual maturity.) My coop enclosure was sound, however the critter that got in was able to open the wire gate (!) in the outside run and enter the coop through the small chicken door. And we hadn’t even considered that to be a viable entrance for predators. We’d thought our run was secure. HA! Well, as Elihu noted, that while we two were out eating chicken for supper (tandoori, that is) apparently some crafty creature was enjoying a delicious chicken dinner as well.

I was surprised at how sad I felt at first.  Although I’d told Elihu not to look, and that I’d take care of it, he was adamant about seeing what had happened. We picked up the dead chicks very matter-of-factly, noting how warm one was, and from that guessing that she’d only just been done in (two of three were eaten, she was left behind – perhaps we interrupted the intruder?). We walked down the driveway a bit with the remainders of the dead birds and then unceremoniously tossed them into the woods. Not much one can do but to accept it, but it’s still kinda sad. But then again, we just ate a friggin chicken who had a crappy life and died a frightening and painful death. Is that really any better a fate than that of our chicks? (I think not.)

In the end, we’ve learned that we must ramp up our security and our vigilance. While it makes going out at night a little more challenging, I’m determined to figure something out. I’m getting kinda tired of living at the mercy of my chickens. The next major homestead purchase may well be an automatic coop door opener/closer. !