First Loss

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. !

Drummer, Different

What is it, I wonder to myself, trying to pinpoint it exactly, in definite and concrete examples, that makes my son so different from his peers? The most obvious thing one might cite, the dark red glasses, are off the list from the start. That’s not it at all, it’s something else. I think back on my interactions with his peers. Once and a while one will stand out, one of many will have a similar ‘thing’ to my son; the only way I can articulate it at the moment is, they ‘get it’. Get what? And am I not sounding a bit of a snob here? Yeah, I admit that, I am sometimes a snob. But that’s not it right now either. Elihu is different; I think anyone would agree. Just what is at the essence of this difference? Might I make a list of some sort for myself? Would that help? I need to understand this better…

I sometimes feel a tinge of sorrow that Elihu is so thoughtful and aware of things in his world. There’s a hint of adult, of peer, in him that sets him apart. And because of this I sometimes miss his truly early years – the first three, I’d say – when he was really and truly a baby. Then I knew unquestionably what he was. Then at least there was no doubt, I knew where I stood. I knew where he stood. Lest I fret too much over this, I’m reminded by things he’ll say or do, ways he’ll act (see tantrums and laundry!) that do in fact tell me that he is still a young boy. Yet somehow, in some way that I’m struggling here to identify for myself, he is no longer a child. How can I say this? He is, yes, he is a kid, and yet, not…

And as for a tiny child’s adoration? Well, although my child is no longer small, I’m lucky to get that daily. In fact, it’s really one of the things that keeps me going. I can’t imagine being a mother to an autistic child who never hugged, kissed, told their mother they loved them. Truly, my heart goes out to these moms who must long for those moments with every cell in their body… I am grateful to the skies for what my son bestows upon me. When I come in to wake him each morning (or, well, nearly each morning!) he always insists I stay to snuggle. This means that we just lay together on the bed for a few moments, usually with arms or sides touching. Sometimes we hug, sometimes not. It’s just a comfortable moment in the covers, in which we simply take in being here, being together. Sometimes we talk, sometimes not. It’s just about connecting.

And regarding connection, here is another related perk of living with this aware child; he recognizes his own need for connection in the course of his day. If we’ve been doing our own things for a good bit of time and have been psychically apart in some way – after a day at school, at home, or temporarily isolated by life’s general busy-ness, Elihu will come up to me and say “We haven’t connected in a while. I need to connect.” At which time I drop what I’m doing. We find a place to just sit together. Since he’s still small enough to fit in my lap, he usually climbs up, and we just sit together, arms around each other. We’ll look into each other’s eyes and just stay there for a moment or two. And I do realize how this seems very much like a romantic exchange. I believe it is related, yet it is very different. And I can tell you that this is is one very peaceful and blessed way to recharge the batteries in a life of never-ending events. An oasis for us both. And it’s been at Elihu’s request alone (until recently, as I’ve begun to recognize when my own feelings of disconnection surface and have requested ‘connections’ of him). He alone came to know what it was to feel disconnected, and furthermore, to know the importance of turning that feeling around. He knew what he needed, how to get it, and how to ask. That, I think, is a skill that many adults don’t even have together, ya know?

In many ways I’ve created in my son the very things that now I sometimes lament having encouraged. I sometimes wonder if I’ve created a child too savvy, too adult-thinking for his own good. Yet I do not regret my teaching him. (I do regret not curbing some of my more unheatlhy actions, like muttering about people under my breath, being quick to anger, expressing opinions like they were accepted fact. I pray my ‘good’ teachings – you know, the old ‘do as I say and not as I do’ – can make up for some of my poor examples.) I’ve spoken to my son as if he were a peer for perhaps all of his life. I also know that I’ve spoken to him in a cutesy baby voice once upon a time – how can one not speak like that to an infant? I can remember playing ‘kissing factory’ – a mommy-invented, changing table game which most certainly involved baby talk. But beyond those tiny years, I’ve talked to my son with an inherent respect. I tried to impart information – and understanding – to him as I would have anyone give it to me. I’ve always wanted him to truly get things – to understand as much as he’s able. I personally believe that people rise to the expectations set for them; I expect that he can understand, so I give him the information to be able to understand. Make sense?

There’s a personal motivation for my wanting to present all pertinent information possible to my son. It comes of my own experience in part, and it also comes from the sense that Elihu and I both have of his being somehow ‘different’. Throughout my life I have often felt very, very lost in this world – often not understanding rules that seemed second nature for those around me. Kids always seemed to ‘know’ things that were an absolute mystery to me. How did they all just ‘know’ about the rules of the games at recess? Or know the icons of pop culture? Or all the types of cereal? Was it just because I didn’t care, no one taught me or that I was missing some sort of gene for this? I missed stuff growing up, and I still just can’t place what it was. It wasn’t even so cut-and-dried as not knowing the names of the teen idols or cereals. Cuz I knew of many, and my kid too knows the names to drop. There was just something else missing. I was aware of it. I just knew that I was missing things, information – something – that other kids were getting. Elihu’s dad had a similar ‘missing’ of things, cues, information and so on, however the difference with Fareed was that he didn’t know he was missing things! He was clueless, and in his case, ignorance was bliss. He was not plagued as a young child by a gnawing sense that he was missing something as Elihu and I have been. This sense of being in the dark, of living in a world parallel but apart from others is something Elihu feels very keenly. Oh how it hurts my heart to hear him express his anguish, his deep need to be like others, to see the world as they do. He’s been brought to tears wishing that he would love Star Wars and soccer like his classmates. Through his tears he condems his beloved bird guides and artists’ tools, his djembe, his drums, his difference. It doesn’t happen often, yet when it does, I let it. I don’t let my discomfort at witnessing his allow me to stifle him. Instead, I try to be a quiet audience, an emotional sponge, taking in all the sorrow, all the isolation, being a witness to it as if somehow I can bear it away from him, transform it, and leave him renewed and full of hope. My intention is for this, yet I doubt I can lessen his sorrow by much. So I do the best thing I can. I just listen. If nothing lessens the pain of these moments, at least I can feel better about them when I consider how healthy it is that he can identify that he’s feeling this way, and how lucky Elihu is to come into such an awareness at such a young age. My own feelings had no audience, had no witness, and so manifested in my high school years in the terror of panic attacks, and the near-miss of not graduating.

My talking to him like a peer – my giving him as much goddam information in as clear a way as I possibly can – talking to him with an inherent respect – I do ALL of this as a means to fill him up, to equip him with so much knowledge that if he don’t know it today, he can goddam well figure it out for himself one day. Ya know? I want him armed. I want him loved. I want him to know that I’m there for him, I’m not holding any secrets back. I’m in full transparency mode. I received an email from some mommy-related site the other day, whose topic was ‘when to have the sex talk with your kids’. Sheesh. My kid’s known how babies were made for years. He’s on the ready for those intoxicating, irrational and annoying feelings that his teenage years will bring on. I’m not saying that we’ll continue to have an open, easy dialogue about sex when those years hit, I’m just saying that we’ve been there, done that, and it wasn’t a big deal. Really.

All that and he loves flowers. I say this with unabashed pride. Yes, now I’m just bragging. Whenever Elihu comes grocery shopping with me, it’s understood that his repayment will come in the form of a long, lingering visit to the floral department. We’ll lament the high cost of the beautiful bunches, search for the most affordable items, an invariably settle on a single red rose. I’ve taken to pointing out to folks who we chat with there that Elihu sees no color. I’m not bragging in this case, but rather looking for someone with whom to share my continued amazement. The kid sees NO color at all, yet finds beauty in flowers that few people do. On a purely practical level, I do think he’s keyed into the shapes and lines and profiles in ways ‘we’ aren’t, much the same way as he’s attuned to the structural and linear differences between birds and can usually identify them much faster than color-sighted folks. Whatever, it really doesn’t matter, for his love of flowers is deep and real. He cannot be rushed when admiring flowers, whether in a shop or a garden. Man am I glad this kid found me.

Then, there’s the drumming. And I don’t mean the ‘look how cute my kid is on the drum set’ nor do I refer to the hippie-dippie sort of hand drumming that passes in a drum circle. He’s got something. I have something drum-related too, only it’s more the desire to play than the innate ability. I got myself some drums at seventeen, and spent hours on them, but never got much past some rudimentary rock skills. But my lack of ability wasn’t daunting to me; I just really needed to play. To keep that groove, that steady right foot… So, Elihu’s got this natural ability to play hand drums – he’s got this signature groove he plays on his djembe. His dad would call it a Punjabi sort of groove, and while I don’t know enough of the specifics to comment on it, I can say yes, that makes sense. It’s a swung thing, a distinct pattern that I myself cannot emulate. I haven’t tried very hard, for I admit that I’m not one to put lots of effort into something if there isn’t a flicker of natural aptitude for it. And clearly, this rhythm is something inorganic to me at the outset, which gives me a great deal of respect for Elihu’s ability to play it, and so effortlessly, so naturally. Not sure when Elihu ‘got his groove’, but he’s had it for at least a year. I think last summer it kind of just came. His dad got him a nice-sounding small djembe a couple of years ago, and last year it just made sense.

My kid also has a great sense of humor. I myself grew up with Monty Python and have exposed my son from the start to some of the more classic bits (and the naughty bits, sorry, couldn’t resist) since he was able to possibly understand them. I have perhaps desensitized him in some way to profanity in my sharing of some humor, but at the same time I have taught him the importance of using profanity in only the most carefully chosen, and appropriate places. It wouldn’t be a ‘bad’ word if we used it all the time, would it? He knows swearing is not something he’s allowed to do – at least in the proper and outside world. He also knows how funny just one little swear word can be, when inserted at the right place. Timing; that’s something he gets. He’s gotten that for as long as I can remember. Man, he’s got that thing. This kid was being sarcastic with me – and fooling me with the old straight face – since he was four! At five his greatest aspiration was to be like Calvin, of “Calvin and Hobbes”. (In fact, when he was five he went as Spaceman Spiff for Halloween.) He’s even concocted his own composite cartoon in which Calvin coaches the young and naive Caillou. Hee hee. Can you just see how loaded that one is? Maybe being outside the normal world helps him to see how funny things are. I think that’s part of it. We all know that phenomenon of the professional comedian; a loner, recluse, a person of few words who seems a whole different person altogether when on stage.

So I guess I’ve compiled a list of sorts. Self-realization, self-actualization, self-determination, self-expression. Not a bad list. Just maybe too heavy a portfolio for such a young child. Maybe that’s what that sense of humor is for.

Sparrow, Fish


How to console the young artist who has just told me not to speak, not to say a thing, because he is about to draw a tree sparrow, and may ‘end up crying’? It begins well enough, as he copies from a new book, but as he predicted, he begins to weep a little, saying ‘being an artist is hard’ over and over again. Momentarily distracted by the real thing at the window feeder, his lamentation is suspended. He goes back to his drawing and tries to apply what he’s just seen. It doesn’t work. In fact, it is a great disappointment, and an even louder, wetter episode begins.

I try to stay my heart, for no matter whether fake, real or somewhere in between, the sound of one’s child crying pulls at you to fix, to heal, to comfort. But I am steadfast. I know that my son can turn on a dime, from tears to laughter. And so I wait it out. ‘My boobs woulda been making milk if you had sounded like this a handful of years ago’ I say from my work at the table, back still turned to the young artist. True, they would’ve been. That primal aching to soothe would’ve burned up from within and erupted in a spot or two on my shirt. But those days are long gone, and I have been instructed not to interfere with his process, so I try to turn off the mother switch.

Finally, truly despondent, he comes over to me and buries his face in my neck. I hold him, and I just tell him that it’s ok. I remembered that once, years ago, when our beloved cat Kukla had died, Fareed had begun to weep, to sob. I had put my arms around him and told him that he didn’t need to worry; she had died in our arms, knowing we loved her, and besides, she’d had a good, long life with us. He pushed me away through tears and yelled at me (not characteristic of him at all) and said something I will always remember, and something I needed to employ in this current situation. My husband had told me back then not to offer ideas or solutions, but rather just to offer comfort. (Our roles often seems the very opposite of that Mars and Venus stuff; I’d always been the one who’d wanted to fix things.) And so here, with my son, I offered no solutions, only comfort. And it worked. Replenished, he went back to his drawing.

It was quiet for a while. The only sounds in the kitchen were the peeps from the hairy woodpecker at the suet feeder and the hum of the electric heater. I let a moment pass. ‘Watcha got?’ I asked. He came over to show me his new work. He had given up on the sparrow and had instead drawn a fish. And that’s ok, cuz it’s his prerogative. After all, being an artist is hard.

Chickens by Name

The first family consisted of several absolutely adorable fuzzy chicks my son (and I) simply could not resist buying at our local Tractor Supply. I’m guessing there are leagues of families who began their foray into backyard chickening in this way. Suckers.

Mr. Roosevelt:
We thought he was a she in the beginning. I would muse aloud to the bird “Why Mrs. Roosevelt, you’re looking rather masculine today” as she grew larger and more impressive. Indeed, she was a he. A robust, handsome and large dark red rooster with a lovely iridescent blue-green tail, he was a rooster to be reckoned with. A living example of how testosterone supersedes good judgement. He mounted the hapless hens incessantly, and chased humans just as mercilessly. We came to hang spray bottles full of water all about the property, so one might have some defense against the aggressive and random attacks. Yet we loved him. Elihu would pick him up and hold him in his tiny arms, whisper to him, sing to him… Elihu’s manifestation of forgiveness was touching. Mr. Roosevelt would back the boy into a corner and attack with beak and claw – my poor son would often come away with some blood on his face and arms, and always tears and a pounding heart. I once took up an axe and swung its blunt side at the rooster’s head to defend my son. Horrified at what I’d done, as the poor beast was simply following his internal program and meant nothing personal, I rushed to him to see if he was ok. He waggled his head side to side for a moment – with an almost comic effect – and strutted away, unaffected.

One hot summer day I found Mr. Roosevelt, headless, in the field. How on earth was this possible? This was the beginning of a long line of lessons to follow on life in the country. Many voted it was an ambush from above, but I’ve come to think it was a raccoon. They killed several of our chickens since then. Whomever the assailant, it was a most unexpected death, and we mourned. For a little while. That night, Elihu bounced back with a jolly song about the rooster’s demise. I was rather surprised. He is a farm boy, no doubt. No extra sentiment for such an end. Everyone has to die, and at least Mr. Roosevelt left us with a good story. And some beautiful tail feathers, which now reside in Elihu’s bird collection.

A nice light red hen who lived her name. She is the bird of unending patience who sits on the railing and just listens as Elihu sings a two-minute version of “Fire Burning On The Dance Floor”. She was the only hen to approach humans unafraid. The only one to accept tidbits from your hand. She lived with us for a year, including a few stints inside the house, in the cellar, during the coldest days of the winter.

Her death is on my hands; one night I left the garage door open a mere four inches. I was tired and chose not to wrestle the door tight to the ground. Anyhow, what sort of predator could enter through such a small opening? (Answer: muskrats, mink, fishers…) I soon learned it was big enough to allow a raccoon to slip inside and kill the innocent and sleeping residents. Months later, I found a wing of hers as I was cleaning up. “Too bad they wasted this bit” Elihu mused. Very practical boy.

Elihu’s Journal Number One

I’m on the playground. I look out, cars bustle and the streets look busy. I wonder what the people in those cars are thinking. Then I go. Well, I don’t know what I go to do then. After that I look around and well, there’s not much to do. I just sorta sit. And sit. Jack passes. I know he doesn’t want to play with me. He hasn’t been playing with me for the past two months. What if I were one of those kids, one of those kids that always seems to be having fun? Would I be having fun? Or would I just realize that it’s not any better to have friends? Snowflakes fall and it’s still winter. Nothing’s going to change that. And I’m still me and nobody’s going to change that. Nobody’s going to change anything. Snowflakes fall and nobody’s going to change that either. Maybe that’s the best thing about winter.

Sometimes winter can be the worst season, but yet the best. I look at the tall fences and I look back at myself, down at my legs. There wasn’t much to do except keep doing what I was doing, whatever that thing was. Soon the whistle is blown, and I slowly walk back. I get in line and now things seem to be a little better, well at least now that recess is over. There are worse times in the day, like science. You know I don’t mean to mean they’re bad, I just mean that I’d rather do different things. I’d rather be on the playground than in science. Yeah, of course I hate the playground, but the playground could have a better side if I had someone to play with. Right now it’s just sort of the place I always…. I don’t know, whatever I do.

And now it’s science time. I get out my science book and I get out my science packet and my pencil. I look at the numbers. Number one through ten. We’re starting at five. At least this packet didn’t have twenty questions, the last one did. After science it’s pack and snack time. I feel great. At least the day is over. I mean come on, this is my favorite time of the day. Who doesn’t like the time of day when you can do anything you want, you can read, you can eat your snack, you can do whatever you want.

After that the bell rings. That was the first bell. It should be the second bell. Mr. Hewitt’s probably just a little late. It doesn’t matter. Sheesh, this day has been a long day. Well, now I’m listening to the second bell and time’s going by pretty fast it seems. Soon the buses will be called. The first buses are Raccoon and Octopus. “Raccoon and Octopus” repeated Mr. Hewitt. Oh man, I can’t believe the buses are in a different order. Well, Dog bus is usually the second bus, but when they’re out of order it could be the sixth or seventh bus. I didn’t have to wait long.

I got my backpack, and I’m ready. Put my backpack on, put my chair up on my desk, and I was out of there. I walked down the long hallway. They’re filled with kids, some I know and say hi, some I don’t know. They just look at me and pass. I keep walking. I don’t mind those kids. Even the ones who say hi. I say hi back sometimes, but I’m more eager to get to my bus than to say hi. The day has been long and of course I’m eager to get onto my bus. I say hi to Mr. Taylor standing in the middle of the ramp watching the kids.

Then I go through the open door and I’m outside. It’s cold out, but I’ll only be out, well, speaking of only – it really takes me about five minutes to get to my bus.

I’m on the bus, and now starts the 45 or 50 minute drive to my house. I look out the window. What pretty forests, gardens and houses. They’re all pretty. Some of those houses aren’t really houses, they’re shacks. Serge used to say that some of those houses had ghosts in them. But I didn’t really believe that. When I was just a silly little first grader I believed it. I still sit with my backpack pressed hard against my back, making a shadow over my head. I felt sort of over my head. I sort of felt scared on the bus and that’s why I always put my backpack near me. With my personal belongings, it somehow made me feel safer from all those unknown kids and unknown star wars things, and legos and whatever they were. And so I got off. Off of the bus.

When I got home I realized that the bus was the good place. Aww. Oh. I was home. The most boring, but in a way, the most exciting time of the day.

Aah aah aah ahh. A rooster crows. I knew Bald Mountain felt happy that I was here, and I knew that Whitey felt happy that I was here, and I knew the rest of the flock was happy that I was here. But there’s one thing I didn’t know. If I was happy that I was here. We drove down the long driveway and we got in the house. Ah, felt good to be in the house. I layed down on the couch and looked at all my presents. Aahhh. I felt tired, and happy and I felt like it was time to relaxamate. The tree looked dry. It’s branches had curved in and fallen down and it had lost quite a few needles. But with still a few ornaments left on it, it looked pretty. Chickadee-dee Chicka-dee-dee. Chickadees rang out from the porch, and lots of them too. I looked around, lifted up the shade and sure enough there were two Chickadees trapped in the porch. Wait! That second one wasn’t a Chickadee, it was three times as big as a Chickadee, had a crest, and a black mask. It flew around in the porch and over time let our an ear piercing “jay jay jay”. I knew in an instant it must be a Blue Jay so I ran and got the net, but when I got in the porch he was out, sitting in the Butterfly bush and scolding. “Jay jay jay” he yelled at me and flew away. Now all that was left was the Chickadee. “Chicka dee dee” he said to me as he turned his head around to look at me. Then he jumped off the screen and a blurry figure flew away. It was now getting dark, the sky was getting gray. I checked out my presents, I had a lot of cool ones I realized, cooler than I thought.

After that, there’s not much to do except take all the ornaments off the tree, take the lights off and take the bins downstairs. And that we did. I looked at my bed. I looked back at Mommy. I didn’t want to go to bed. The snow sparkled and made the whole backyard look so beautiful. Looked out my bedroom window again, now I saw crows. They flew away. Now I knew for sure it was time to go to  bed. I looked at my pajamas, they were layed out. She must have layed them out while I was looking at birds on the computer (which I did not include in this paragraph).

And so, since it was time to go to bed I did, I brushed my teeth. Mommy read me the rest of the Saint Francis book and then within fifteen minutes (well I really couldn’t tell) I was asleep.

Bye Bye Baby Teeth

January 17th and 18th, 2011.

My son is seven and a half. Today he’s losing the first of his front two teeth. He lost his bottom two a few months ago. In the second half of second grade, he’s a little late to lose his teeth. The way he looks now – pretty much the way he’s looked the past 4 years – is how I picture him always looking. I realize these are the magic years. The years of baby teeth. The innocence of those itty bitty front teeth. There’s this shift that takes place when the baby teeth go. The open gap still says little boy, but the chunky chiclets that follow just look like pre-adolescent boy to me. The magic time is almost over. The time of santa, elves and birthday angels. Tonite, in the bathtub, Elihu mused how he would be more specific next year when he wrote to Santa. He would give him better instructions for the elves to make wind up bath toys. He was sincere, and he was speaking very matter of factly about it. It seemed like he might be joking – but he was still very much there. I was grateful that he still believed, and grateful for one more night with his baby teeth in front.

Right now he is brushing those teeth. One is sticking out so much it can no longer lay flat next to the other. He looks like an ol’ hick. I told him that his nickname of “Eli” is a cliché hillbilly name, so it worked well right now. I can’t capture his new mouth in a picture, the shutter is too slow, he is too unwilling, and the lens always bows out his face so it never looks like him anyhow. I must just remember these days.

This morning, as he lay asleep in his bed, mouth open, I could see great black spaces between his front baby teeth. They were being pushed aside by progress. No longer did he even look like himself. He looked awkward. This was not my pretty boy. And most likely, today at school, while looking down at a math problem his tooth would succumb to the gentle movement of his absent minded wiggling, and just fall out. He would leave home this morning with his teeth, and come home later today with the wavy white ridges of his coming adulthood poking out of his gums.

It is a snow day. Elihu will not lose his tooth as he sits at his desk. He will not drop it accidentally in the snow. He is pushing it now, ‘salty blood, salty blood’ he cries and runs to the mirror. I join him.

It happened. Just now. We snapped a couple of pics of his goofy front tooth hanging out in front of his lip. I sat beside him in the hall, reviewing the photos we’d taken recently and Elihu fiddled with his tooth while looking in the closet mirror. Tink. We heard something land on the floor.  “It’s out!” he said. And there it was, the sight I was still not yet ready for. The black hole. There’s no stopping this growing thing I guess. I give in. I’ve enjoyed every moment so far, and I won’t stop enjoying them. When I cherish each day as I do, change may bring a pang of nostalgia, yet it brings no regrets. A loss of something old makes way for something new. Here we go….

Angels Sing, Boys Cry

Elihu is in the next room. It’s his first rehearsal with the Saratoga Children’s Choir. It might be his last too, we’ll see. We’re in the one of the classrooms in the Methodist Church – home to many cultural programs in this town. Elihu is nervous, and he’s not happy about being the ‘only second grader’. I don’t blame him, for being the youngest brings him some attention, the kind one doesn’t want as one begins a new pursuit. It’s not comfortable to negotiate a new skill with an audience. That’s how it feels to him, and as his possibly over-mothering mother, I’m sensitive to it. All I can do is send him my love from one room over, hoping it helps in some unseen way.

Just heard the first group ‘ooh’ and I smile inside. This sounds fun. This sounds good. It’s been years since I’ve heard a chorus. Kinda reminds me of the Peanuts Christmas special. Yet I can’t relax yet, my son has a hard time with his head voice as I always did. I didn’t even sing in a head voice til I was in my late 20s. Really. Strangely, the older I’ve gotten the higher my range has gotten. Maybe it’s because I’m not talking all day at school. Or partying all night and shouting over the noise of a bar. Elihu has a limited range, and like me, he favors his chest voice. I’m aware of his concern about this, and so I worry just a bit.

How is it that my sweet seven year old boy hasn’t got that pure angel voice? Does that voice not belong to all the young boys who can sing? I began to wonder this when we’d listened to the Vienna Boy’s Choir and I realized that he could not match their high pitches. As I hear the high “oohs” next door I cannot help myself, I must snoop as a mother. I will just peek in. I hope not to see my son tilt his head to the side as he strains to find the impossible note.

Well. It is neither possible for me to peek, as the doors have no windows and are shut tight, nor is it possible for me to understand what they are singing, for to my surprise – it is in German! I hear Sue coaching them on the pronunciation of the words that will take the place of the oohs they had just sung. Wow. So, that’s how you do it? Teaching a group of kids to sing parts, and in tune, much less in German, seems like magic to me. It did just occur to me, however, that maybe if you’re concentrating on the language instead, it might make the singing of pitches more natural. Often the less you think the better you perform. Just thinking. Man – what an interval! How high they are! I wish I could see him – how on earth is he doing in there?? When we are reunited – and when I take him for a special fried chicken dinner that I can’t afford at Price Chopper – he will recount everything for me. I am praying it will be an enthusiastic recounting. There are other ways it could go.

I feel lucky not to have had a daughter. I couldn’t take all that tension, the hormones, the moods, the levels of strategy. And yet, if you can believe it, my young son often reminds me of a pre-teen girl. He is so dramatic, so large and loud in his expression, particularly when he’s upset. While I understand that comes from a desire not to lose control over his life, I also wonder at why on earth his emotional riots are so violent, so unstoppable, so angry. It is this kind of riot I’m hoping doesn’t result from today’s choir rehearsal. While our dinner at Price Chopper might be one of our special mother-son moments, it also might not be. His reaction may come suddenly after rehearsal, just when he’s quite sure there’s no one left in earshot, or it might gestate a while and surface in the supermarket. I will simply have to wait and see. One never knows, do one?

Well, this chorus rehearsal is a lovely thing to hear… I so hope that he didn’t hate it. Just as we dropped his father off at the train station (just day before yesterday, and now he’s in Indonesia, what a strange world) he insisted that Elihu do two rehearsals before he made a decision about not doing it. I should mention here that I had just happily announced that the choir director was going to admit Elihu based on my vouching for him – as the youngest member – and rehearsals were to start in two days. This resulted in one of his signature pre-teen girl explosions. Ranting and crying, sobbing protests, cries of “I’m not going” and such. I believe he reacted this way because I had not prepared him for this by way of interjecting it into our phone conversations during the week. (He had been in Chicago with his father for the winter break.) He had known about this, and been excited too, but I’d let too much time go without reminding him about it. Had I gently re-introduced him to the chorus idea slowly he might not have reacted like that. But sometimes I just don’t have my mommy game on, and I just like to get on with things. To coddle, or not to coddle… Just when I think I’m doing too much of it, I’m not doing it right. Oh well.

Fifteen minutes to go. No wi-fi with which to distract me. Ah, they are embarking on a new song. A pop-ish sounding song. What is this? Mmm. I am now imagining my son, the earnest look on his face, hand on his chest, singing for me what he can recall of the song he just learned. This too might well be the outcome. Oh how I wish the door had a window, or a crack. Is this the beginning of something new? Is this a day Elihu will always remember? Will it be a fond memory? Or not? My mother once left me at a skating rink all by myself. I was good at meeting kids, I knew how to skate, she wouldn’t be gone long. How old was I? Maybe 7. It was cold, my feet hurt. I didn’t know anyone, and I was sure everyone knew I was alone and self-conscious. I went to the little warming hut and waited alone for a long time. I was alone, sad, forgotten. The feelings distilled into a memory I can recall keenly even now. I don’t want to create that kind of memory for Elihu. They are singing about ‘flying away’… oh, but how can his spirit not soar to sing those words? We saw a hawk on the way here, and he dropped his head down for the rest of the ride, imagining what it is to fly. I just know. He does this a lot, he flies. I never want to clip his wings, nor confine him to a cage.

The director is wrapping things up. Rehearsal is over. She’s saying something about an arts fest. Does she know that my kid played his djembe on the street at the last town festival and made $80? He’s a natural on his own, this group thing is so different. Can he learn how to work in a group? Can he switch gears now, learn this new skill and assimilate? Just a few minutes more…

The Result? Tears within minutes. In the hall he collapsed and began to cry. “I don’t want to do this! How long was I in there?” he cries, dramatically sprawling on the hallway floor as children walk around him. “Three hours?!” The reality is sinking in for me. It was a bit intimidating. This group, save two others who are also new, has been singing together for a semester already. I look at his book, the print is small, it is written in three staves – even as an adult I’m still not good at picking out my part from music written like this. “Mmm”. I answer him as I peruse the charts. I offer that we can make the print larger – that it’s an easy thing to do. But I know his pride is bubbling to the surface and wants to prevent me from making any special modifications. He needs it, but won’t accept it. “No, I can read it easily” he sniffs. Tears well again in his eyes. “Honey, how bout I just make a sample page with larger text and we just check it out to see?” I ask. He stops crying, and considers it. “Ok” he says. That’s better. That also confirms for me the vision thing is part of the mix. Sue sits down with us in the hall and she kindly speaks to him in a bright, hopeful way. She has authority in her voice and I think that helps him. I explain a bit more about his vision – that he can’t see any color. She’s a bit surprised, but it really isn’t the main issue, so we move on. The head voice. “I just can’t sing that high” Elihu says. “I just can’t!” I know so well his frustration. She offers a little help. We all ooh and ahh together for a bit, practicing a technique for relaxing and letting the pitch come. He’s calmed down. He lays heavy against my arm (that feels so good – the older he gets the less he rests on me, the less we snuggle as part of our day) because he is so tired. Still on Daddy time, having gotten to bed at 11:30 the night before, and after his first full day of school in a week, he is wiped. “I’m so tired, I want to go right to bed” he says, angrily. I know. He feels he has no control. We wrap up and head out to the night. We have no food at home, once again I’ve run out of food a week shy of our food stamps. “All I have is chicken soup, sweetie” I remind him. But he wants to go home. No over-budget fried chicken tonight. We go home. And we have chicken soup for the third time in a row. But we made it. Finally in bed, after some drawing time and a little reading, and we’re lying in the dark talking. I finally get him to smile, even to giggle. Ok. A new chapter. Rocky start, but a start, nonetheless.

David Attenborough

I mailed a package to Sir Attenborough today. My son and I both love him so. The envelope contained a letter from each of us, some drawings of Elihu’s, and a CD of mine. It gave me a wonderful feeling to know that the package I held in my hands would soon be held in his. He would study the return address, perhaps ponder the unusual name, Elihu….

this is my letter…

March 1st, 2011

Warmest greetings to our dearest David,

My apologies for having omitted your formal title; your ubiquitous presence in our lives makes you feel like an old friend.

I am a single mother to a precocious and funny 7 ½ year old boy. A former ‘career diva’, I left the city for the country (upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks) and have shared the past two years of my life with chickens, guinea fowl, quail and homing pigeons. Since my son can remember, you have been a big part of his life.

Since he could speak, Elihu has loved birds with an absolute passion. It is not the passing fancy of a small child. He thinks of them day, night, in his dreams. He reads about them, he draws them, he prosthelytizes endlessly about their virtues to his classmates. Elihu has a rare congenital retinal disorder called Achromatopsia and cannot see any color, he cannot tolerate light much brighter than a 25 watt bulb, and cannot see definition of objects beyond a few feet away. He is legally blind. I find it so ironic that he should insist on using color so accurately, and that he is so prolific an artist, and given how challenging sight is, that he can visually identify birds faster than anyone I know (he can do the same by ear as well). In order for him to actually see live birds, we’ve created a nice table feeder just outside our kitchen window so that he can see them only inches away. (We’ve added a film of dark plastic to help him see in the outdoor light, it’s hidden benefit: wonderful bird blind!)

I hope it makes you smile to know that far away there is a little boy who would rather read your books than any others, and for whom not a detail of your videos goes unnoticed. My beloved Elihu counts you as his own family. Your sense of humor and love for what you do is something that my son truly gets. You are one of a handful of people who have helped shape my son’s life, and I am so grateful.

I too am grateful that you were true to your heart and ditched the big time desk job for the field. I can’t begin to imagine the experiences behind the finished productions. What a wonderful treasure you must have in memories and stories!

I’ve included some of Elihu’s drawings as well as a CD of mine as a small token of our thanks. We send our love and best wishes to you and your family.


Elizabeth Conant