The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Done July 27, 2014

Most of the projects on my domestic list have been completed. Some, the ones for which I need an extra pair of hands – and some extra cash – remain on the list, but they don’t bother me too much. Overall, my house looks tidy, my garden is blooming and a neighbor has taken it upon himself to exterminate most of the remaining raccoon population. So really, all is at a nice holding point. I even took a walk – for no good reason – down the road to another neighbor’s place. Had a short visit, then returned through the big field, picking some wild blueberries along my return. It’s humid out again, the kind of heavily scented air that comes after a rain in the dead of summer. Most days here in upstate New York are fairly humid to begin with, but when I smell the woods before I smell the grasses of the field, then I know it’s wetter than usual. But it’s not oppressively hot, which is nice. Walkable.

As I stood chatting with the fellows across the road, Phil asked how it was that I didn’t have anything to do – why wasn’t I working? I had to admit that it was a rare moment, and that I’d come to a lull in the list. But as I answered him I couldn’t help but feel that my response was a little lame. It seemed I needed a better excuse for myself. Or did I? In this culture of go, go, go I was lucky to have window in time like this, unspoken for, unfilled with commitments. But still, I couldn’t shake a vague, nagging sense that I needed a better reason to be doing nothing more than walking down the road to fill my afternoon. I’d heard something on the radio the day before about the benefits of living a minimalistic life, so in remembering that, I cut myself a little bit of slack. I guess I could let myself off the hook for an afternoon. I guessed. After cooing to the baby and smooching the dogs, I headed home, still not entirely convinced that I shouldn’t be doing something more important with my day.

Although my personal to-do list has seen some real progress, there is a whole lot to be done regarding the Studio. It’s a world away from done. In fact, it has barely even begun. After dropping a cool fifteen hundred bucks (thanks to mom, of course) we were able to get the bathrooms back up and running.  We’ve hosted three weeks of art classes in the space by the skin of our teeth really, nailing curtains over the exposed studs in the bathrooms, and covering the bottom two feet of the room in used drop cloths. My partner liked the utilitarian look of the canvas, and I agree it looks funky and fun. But this will not do for the long haul. And the only thing between our present situation and the finished product is me and the time I invest into repairing and restoring. That, and a hefty advance on our timber sales (from a cut to be made this coming winter) which will enable me to make the improvements. I’ve never been good about planning things that involve budgets, so I admit that I’m kinda milking this pause in my schedule, as I put off this new adventure into the unknown.

I rode my bike over to the Studio yesterday and just stood in the space. Something inside was resisting this, and I needed to face it. I had to make myself understand that this was my job now.  And what a privilege! How lucky could a person possibly be to have an opportunity like this? Even after the tremendous shock of our initial loss (the burst pipe back in January that has necessitated all this rebuilding) I still find myself settling back into a state of mild complacency. Perhaps it’s just too much, and I’m shutting down. But this is no time to shut down. And as I stood there, contemplating all that lay before me, I experienced a mild jolt of panic about my previous job; there may be no one to fill my chair at the piano this fall at school – and I can’t manage a rehab project and learn Debussy and be mom, too. Not wanting the school’s entire movement program to come to a stop because of me, I promised I’d play until they found a replacement. But have they? I need to look into that first thing Monday morning. I remember a time when I thought I could do it all; It took me a while to come to the realization that I had to drop something. Why haven’t I been pushing harder on this front? Maybe I haven’t quite committed my spirit to this place yet. Yeah, I can see it, but somehow, I don’t quite seem to get how real this is. I gotta get it through to myself that nothing will get done if I don’t do it myself. I need to make this place my top priority now.

I suppose it’s not so bad that I take a short break from things. That I pass a day without fixing, painting, mending, cleaning, sorting… In fact, in this unexpected bit of project-free time I’ve begun to resurrect an old dream (which derailed when I had a baby!) about putting together a ‘guilty pleasures’ cover thing – solo piano, duo, whatever – for the ‘over 50’ set. The kind of tunes that in my past life would garner taunts and severe mocking from my musical peers – but which nonetheless have people singing along as soon as I start to play…. Screw it, my days working in a cosmopolitan jazz scene are over, my days of being in a young, hip alternative band are history, and I live in a moneyed tourist town with a median age of sixty. If I were to do anything musical again (besides teaching), this seems a realistic option.

But I can’t allow myself to become distracted. The cover thing can wait, but the insulation can’t. Gotta get those minisplit heating units in before winter, gotta get the walls back before I can heat. Got to get some prices, map out a budget. I know what I have to do, and after a moment’s pause, I’ll get back to it. For now I’m finished with things here at home, but I’m still nowhere near done.

IMG_9388My painting of the garage doors started with a good prep job…

IMG_9387I always get messier than I should.

IMG_9473A job well done.

IMG_9396Work on the new house begins in the adjacent field.

IMG_9488A walk through the woods to the little house ‘next door’…

IMG_9425…and I return with Ryan and Brandon.

IMG_9435They remembered to check the trap – what mixed feelings I have. Success, and yet it’s a baby. Ich. I hate this business.


IMG_9440But the mood lightens as they smooch good old Thumbs Up.

IMG_9705What a laid-back chicken. Never had a friendlier hen than she.

IMG_9714At the end of a long day together, the boys and their mom head home. Big sister Ava’s going to take the long way, the others cut across the field.

IMG_9523Saratoga folks will recognize SPAC. Mom took me to see the dance company Momix. What a nice treat! Plus we were driven to our seats in an electric car – woo hoo! Using a cane has its privileges.

IMG_9522A little selfie of mom and me.

IMG_9519The ramps to the balconies. In my teens and twenties I saw a handful of shows here on the lawn. Doesn’t hold quite the appeal it once did.

IMG_9544Haven’t had a seat in the actual theater itself in nearly twenty-five years. !!

IMG_9562The whole night was a visual fantasy – impossible to understand how they could do such feats. The outline seen here is created through glow in the dark costumes… the rest was too fast for my low-tech camera to capture.

IMG_9616Back to the work site next morning. Now the well is going in. Impressive to watch, hard to conceive of 325 feet of pipe going straight down into the ground. I just hope this doesn’t adversely affect the level in our own well. Water tables are all connected, and new construction can sometimes have unforeseen consequences. (They ended up with 5 gallons a minute at 325 feet, the Studio’s new well got 8 gpm at just 85 feet. Plus we dowsed to locate the water. Ha! Feeling kinda smug.)

IMG_9643This job definitely requires finesse and skill.

IMG_9617And pipes must be welded on site as the hole goes down. All in all an impressive job to witness.

IMG_9483Wow, these guys are making fast progress. (The Studio’s dark red sign is visible down the road in the distance, just to the right of the machine.)

IMG_9609Shoot. Poor Azealia died last night. She liked to sit in this corner, and likely ended up sleeping here last night instead of roosting. She’d been moving slow all week. I even wondered if she needed a little extra care. But she had a good, long life. She was of Madeline’s generation. Only Thumbs Up and Specks are left from that era.

IMG_9647At least she died peacefully. She had the tallest comb of all. I buried her under the flowering quince bush along with her cousin, Molly.

IMG_9689

And then there were three…. Only three hens – one white, one red and one black – a rooster and a guinea are left after a flock of fifteen this past Spring. Lost almost all to the raccoons. Phooey.

I left to help neighbors with a move, and came back at 4:30 in the afternoon to find a huge raccoon on top of Bald Mountain – flushed with fear I laid on the car horn and the animal reared up and fled, leaving a dead-looking rooster on the ground. I ran to him, found him just laying there – and I saw tons of feathers everywhere… they marked the path of the struggle. It seems he was being a good and strong defender of his tiny remaining flock, giving the raccoon a good fight for almost two hundred feet. I picked him up, fearing he was dead (he’s Elihu’s very favorite), but saw he was still breathing. I checked him for blood. None. So I held him close, talked to him low, and just waited for a few minutes to help calm him. I returned him to the brooder pen for isolation, water and rest. The next morning his crow was that of a sick bird with laryngitis, so I figured his throat had been quite damaged by the attack. Happily I can report that he is now crowing almost as he had before, and he is bravely undaunted by the recent scare. I’m also happy that my other next door neighbor reported shooting five raccoons yesterday. He didn’t get the big one, so Baldy’s attacker is still out there, but nonetheless it’s a great relief. We just want to clear this particular corner of Greenfield so that our birds may live.

IMG_9672The hero of the day and Miss Thumbs Up beside him.

IMG_9794A portrait of our favorite two. The back end of Baldy’s comb was bitten off by the big male raccoon just a couple of weeks ago, but thankfully has healed well. (Note the silhouette of a hand in the thumbs up shape on our gal’s head. Facebook approved!)

IMG_9739Specks stands on my feet as she eats from my hand. She’s three and a half years old now. She’s a cousin of matriarch Molly, and the last to carry Molly’s gene for white. Hope to get some of her babies next Spring. But that is a long way off.

IMG_9751Love my Specks.

IMG_9663Giving Jemima an ‘enforced smooching’.  You’ve heard of the crazy cat lady. I think I’m on the edge of crazy chicken lady… Or maybe I’ve crossed the line. Not quite sure…

IMG_9604A happy garden with a happy hen.

IMG_9807A happy harvest of blueberries, some from our property, some wild from the field.

IMG_9799A happy home where all is done. At least for now….

 

Change December 2, 2011

I wake up at exactly 4:40. For some reason, amidst the dreams which begin to dissolve into my conscious thoughts, I am remembering having seeing signs announcing ‘lots for sale’ and ‘will divide’ in the fields of one of the old farms on Locust Grove Road. I have taken the division of this countryside in stride, sucking it up each time a familiar parcel, untouched since our country was created, is hacked up into pieces and forever transformed. I’ve been good about it. But yesterday, when I saw that sign, my heart could bear it no more. It sighed with disbelief. Sorrow replaced the effort to understand. Not again… not again.

One of the large swaths of fields that the early settlers worked so hard to clear out of the endless woods, the property sweeps up the incline shared by the farms on either side. Stone walls neatly edge the field. Recently, sometime during this past year, a rather large and imposing house appeared just to the south of the property’s barn. It went up quickly, which was probably good, because it gave me little time to pine for how it was before. The new house is large, but quite attractive. Well-built. No doubt, what with the influx of moneyed folks seeking the solitude of the countryside, it is well-appointed throughout. Fine details, the very best materials. For some reason, I forgave it it’s trespass on the ancient farm. In some part I was able to allow it because of the great field that still rolled down to the south. There was buffer. So I adjusted. And in the months since it’s been there, I’ve even begun to integrate it into my visualizations of how the reformed lot will look. Now I realize that field will no longer remain thus. The signs told of another person’s visualization for the future of that field. As if falling into a dream, I began to see hazy apparitions of large, well-crafted homes taking shape throughout the field.

I tucked it away in my mind. I couldn’t begin to process it as we had other plans on our mind at the moment. My son and I were driving into town for the city’s 25th annual Victorian street walk. An occasion, I told my son, in which the citizens celebrated the era in which Saratoga was created; there would be carolers strolling in period costumes, lights twinkling in every store – all of which would be open. The street would appear like something from the tiny Christmas village we set up in our living room each year at this time. The small city was celebrating its beauty, its history, and would recreate the feeling we so often associate with the season. We drove through the darkened countryside with hearts full of expectancy. We were ready to be enchanted by this rare opportunity to step into a lost world when things were simpler.

Klieg lights swept the skies. Cars were everywhere. We created an impromtu parking spot for ourselves, along with many others, alongside the drive-through lanes of a bank. Although Elihu’s father had asked him to call from the party, he had told his father he didn’t think it was a good idea. There were no cell phones in the Victorian era, and he wanted to fully play the part. He was dressed in layers so that he might display his fancy clothes, our quick attempt at recreating the most authentic look possible. He had a black velvet scarf wound round his neck. With his just-so hair and tootsie roll eyes (sans dark glasses – oh the relief of a nighttime activity) he did indeed look the part of Oliver. We started out for Broadway.

I, in my favorite long faux fur coat, skipped along side him, both of our hearts beating fast in anticipation as we neared the mass of people that had taken over the wide main street of town. We paused to get our bearings. First, we wanted to find the reindeer that Santa had brought with him. But we heard drums. The feeling was strong and mutual – find the drums. Hand in hand we darted through the crowd and soon found ourselves striding along side a marching band. Elihu clapped in glee, his face smiling, his feet joining along in left, right left. We followed the band til they stopped in front of the grand town hall building. Just in time for opening ceremonies. We watched as the mayor cut the ribbon, then we turned to follow the progress of the band.

We decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner. As I’d finally gotten paid just today for my fall semester of teaching, it seemed a forgivable expense. We made our way into a crowded restaurant. A man dressed as a rather diluted version of Santa stepped in line behind us. Elihu’s eyes got wide. “Ho ho ho, young man” he said, and began his little spiel. “Is that really Santa?” Elihu asked under his breath. Knowing that he has now spent quite a bit of time in conversation with the Santa that visits Greenfield each year, and that they both share a love of birds and trains, I saw the look of doubt in his eyes. “No, honey” I leaned in. “I think that guy’s just been hired by one of the shops to play Santa”. Shortly after the man had given his name to the hostess, he broke character. After listening in for a bit, we both concluded that he was from Long Island, not the North Pole.

The restaurant was loud and chaotic. Elihu plugged his ears. He said he couldn’t take it. He said he wished he were outside listening to carolers. I was sorry I’d taken us here. They were so slammed with their rush of customers that they did serve us quickly. We ate quickly. Packed up our uneaten food and left. Hopefully, we could regain the magic that the evening had begun with. For a while, we did. After discovering that the reindeer were not here this year, and that the line to see Santa was two hours long, we were happy to see the marching band making another pass down the street. We followed, and I used the last final drops of energy from my near-dead batteries to catch a bit on video. Elihu strode alongside the band matching them step for step. When they got to an intersection at which they would make a turn and go down the hill towards their station in the park, one of the leaders in front broke formation and came over to Elihu. “Good job, little man!” he said, and shook Elihu’s hand. He was exhilarated. I continued to film. The band, and Elihu, turned and marched off down Phila Street. I stopped the camera, and ran to join them.

I couldn’t find Elihu. I followed the band for blocks. No Elihu. I began to call his name. I ran back up the street, calling. No Elihu. This was Saratoga, I told myself, not Chicago. It would be ok. But as I retraced the same path for the third time – fifteen minutes had now passed – I was beginning to imagine some folks seeing this handsome young boy and wanting him for themselves. ‘He’s too smart for that’ I told myself. It occurred to me that we didn’t have a plan. Had I told him the things to do in a crowd should we become separated? Had I? My mind raced. Even if I hadn’t, he’s smart. He’ll know to stay put. But he wasn’t at the corner where I’d last seen him. Where the hell was my son? I shouted his name and my voice cracked in desperation. “What’s the problem, lady?” some young boy called to me from his group, laughing. “You crazy?” “I’ve lost my son” I shouted back. The boy said ‘oh’ and apologized, his face somber. That did it. His brief audience broke my composure. I was crying now. Police, I thought. Find the police. As I arrived at Broadway again I spotted a police car and headed toward it. But then I saw horses. Police on horses. If Elihu hadn’t followed the music, I thought, he would have followed the animals.

Sure enough, I saw his little form, scarf over his shoulder, patting the muzzle of a giant horse (whose name I later learned was King Tut). I shrieked his name, he saw me and we ran together. I lost it. I began to sob. And I wondered, even I as I wept, my arms now full of my only child, if that might not be a little too much – after all, he was right here, safe. I pulled Elihu away from me to meet his eyes, and although he had been smiling just seconds before, he too was now sobbing. We held each other and cried. I looked up and nodded my thanks to the man atop the horse. A tall, smiling officer came over to us. He needed my information anyhow, as he’d already started to file a report. He assured me that in Saratoga my child was safe. Even if that wasn’t entirely true, it was good to hear. As Elihu and I turned to go he began to bounce up and down. “That was awesome!” he laughed. “Everybody was talking to me!” “So this is a night you’ll never forget, huh?” I asked, my limbs still cold with adrenaline. “Oho yeah, I can tell my kids about this!”

Elihu’s review of our night, using a 1 to 10 scale: Victorian street walk: 2. Not authentic in any way. Very disappointing. Never need to go back. Dinner: 1. Too noisy. Meals should be peaceful times. Marching band: 6. (What? 6?!) His disappointment at the event itself prevented him from fully enjoying the band. Police: 8. Exciting. Horses: 10. Well then. Next time we’ll just go down the road and pat the horses.

I agree, on the whole the night was disappointing. It wasn’t quaint. It wasn’t gentle. The carolers were too soft to be heard over the din. And not all of them wore costumes. The town was swarming with people. I guess we learned you can’t go back. Which brings me back to the signs on Locust Grove Road. How do I integrate all of this? I know I wouldn’t really want to have lived 200 years ago, nor 100 years ago. I am grateful for pain-free root canals and all the other conveniences we live with. Yet I am sad; I’m yearning for something I think we all are: simplicity, truth and love expressed through the everyday. More and more I’ve come to believe that our ending up here, in the country, was what our souls cried for, even without our knowing it. Elihu and I do feel lucky to be here. We are both mindful of our good fortune. So somehow, we will learn to defer to the future, knowing that with it come unexpected perks and advances. One day the new houses will be old. All in its time and place. It all just keeps on movin forward…

I’ve said before that I’m not good with change, and I say it again. It seems my son has an anachronistic yearning, too. But tonight I saw how change is all around us; it’s inevitable. Heaven forbid that I should ever lose my child – or that anything horrible should ever happen to him. That is a change I cannot fathom. Tonight, if only for seconds of my life, I began to take that thought to a deeper level. I know that every parent hides guilty worst-case-scenarios in their minds of their children being dragged off, hurt, killed… For some, that does happen. I’m reading a book right now about a woman who lost her five year old daughter overnight to a freak case of strep. I don’t really know why I’m reading it – because it is incredibly hard to take. But somehow, I want to uncover the dark. Reveal it, perhaps in order to make some sort of peace with it. Maybe I think if I learn about it through someone else I won’t have to experience it myself. I don’t know. But I do feel I’m facing it head on. Suffice to say, Elihu and I now have a plan should we ever get separated.

I notice that I began this post at 4:40. That used to be the pitch to which all orchestras tuned their concert A. Not true now. Concert A has been inching up – albeit in tiny increments – over the past few decades. The orchestras play at a higher pitch, the world moves at a faster pace. I know it’s an exciting time to be alive, really, I do. I’m just a little reluctant. But I’m willing.

However I’m still going to set up our little Victorian Christmas village this year in the living room. Every house fits just so. Every tree, every bench, every caroler. Windows are lit and cozy. All is quiet and well.

And that little hamlet is not going to change.