The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

My Old Home April 21, 2011

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 9:25 pm
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I’ve just been snooping through Facebook. I came upon a photo album of the woman who now lives in ‘my home’. While I’m interested to see her children and her life, as I move through the shots all my attention goes to the corners of the frame where I can make out the so-familiar details of what is still, in my deepest heart, my home. I see the raised slate hearth, the jack-on-jack Roman brick wall above it (which my husband and I plotted to cover up when we first peered voyeuristically through the window into the home we knew we would buy, but later learned to love it for the mid-century finery it was), the ratty old kitchen cabinets, the aging window frames, the floor, which I hardly knew, as the owners after us had them redone. I see a post of mine below a photo in which I lightheartedly remarked that I was happy to see the salmon colored, boomerang patterned formica still on the counters, the black plastic tile behind, but saw it wasn’t met with a response. I don’t respond to a fraction of the responses of my own photos, why does my heart cringe the teensiest bit that my nostalgic remark went unnoticed? I search my home for all the details – and my heart almost sighs with relief to see the grand, stunning beams that ran the entire length of the house and that required traffic be stopped when they were brought into Evanston back in 1955… Then my heart stops. And my eyes begin to tear. She writes simply: ‘the glacier threatening to migrate off my roof’. And it hits me. This oh so familiar sight, this roof, those beams, that expanse of glass and sky beyond, it is no longer my house. It is her house. And I cry. I don’t sob, and it doesn’t last long. I don’t cry much these days. I’ve stopped crying about my husband too, for the most part. Not much, not even poverty gets me going anymore. But this, it was too much. It’s MY house, I want to say to her. But it isn’t. And what’s worse, is that I’ve created this woman in my mind to be the sort who might just not get my over-devotion to a house. Who might just think it’s a little creepy that some 6 years gone this crazy woman somewhere across the country still feels such a sense of proprietorship over what clearly is no longer her home.

In fact, the woman who lives there now seems to be a karmically just
inhabitant of that house – at least from my perspective. She is a doula, and she has two young children of her own. She is crafty, handy, motherly. Good energy. And that more than cleanses the rather dark energy of the woman who preceded her (the woman who bought it from me). And it also redeems my failed ‘birth story’. Our beloved cat, Kukla, died in our arms in that house, we were married in the house, and our son, while he wasn’t born (as intended) in our home, he was in fact first sighted there. Close to crowning, Fareed stood at the foot of the bed and said with a smile “I can see the head!”. But that’s as far as that went. After 17 hours of stalled labor, a declining baby’s heartbeat and maconium in my long broken water, it was decided that I would be one of that tiny percent of home births that end up in the hospital. I can remember squatting my way down the front steps when the delivery guy from Dave’s Italian Kitchen was arriving with our bag of dinner. “No, not now, I’m having a baby” I said as I wattled to the doc’s minivan. What happened that day is truly another story. But it weaves me right back into the web of feelings that house created in me. This house, this grand, mid-century home has now replaced the home in which I grew up as my emotional epicenter.

For many years I would dream of the house in which I grew up, 154 Maple Avenue in Wilmette. It was a beautiful Tudor house, built in the ’30s, one whose design had won architectural awards. My father was a harpsichordist, and there were two of the instruments in the ‘sunken’ living room (I still just love saying that – it’s just so, I don’t know, decadent?), leaded windows and huge stone fireplace – the place was easy to create a whole fantasy world around. Especially as a young girl on the advent of her adolescence and in the height of the Led Zeppelin years. Every young man looked like either Donovan or Robert Plant, and the golf course on which we lived, the moor. The Bahai temple was visible from all the northerly windows in the house, my bedroom included. I’m not sure where this came from, but I have a dim memory of someone, somewhere saying that anywhere with a view of the Bahai temple was the most romantic place on earth. And while perhaps this comment was meant in a more classic sense of the word and not so much a titillating nod to eroticism, I always like to cite this statement, adding quickly afterward, “and my bedroom has a view of the Bahai temple”. I was always kidding, and I thought it was cute, but it seems silly now. But the view was something. At night I would lie on my left side, and from exactly where my head lay on the pillow, I would see the entire form, glowing white against the black sky, like a giant orange juicer. The branches from the oak trees gently framed it, my translucent, psychadelic-colored butterfly decals flew up to the sky on the windows, and below was an alter-ish scene of a George Harrison poster from his “All Things Must Pass” album flanked by candles on my dark-stained bookshelf. It was perfect in its time. My room, my fantasies, my feelings, all products of the time. And well-loved memories. This home showed up in my dreams incessantly for the decade after I moved out. My parents sold it, and they too moved on. Yet even after I’d bought my first place – that in itself another stunner (on Lake Michigan, 7th floor, balcony view of Chicago) my dreams took me back to Maple Ave all the time. In different aspects, some rooms recognizable, some not, sometimes the whole house was in a different place, but always it was that house, at least in feeling. The feeling was what I sunk into and comforted myself in. I always just knew in my dreams that the lake was to the east, the temple to the north, the golf course and canal to the west, the lights of the city to the south. Those were the cardinal directions of my heart’s compass for half my life. Until I moved to Judson.

So here I am. On a fine piece of land in rural upstate New York. Half a country away. Spent all day making plans for this little plot of land. I’m trying to love it, it has all the potential one could ever hope for, it’s got a view of the Vermont mountains, a storybook footbridge over an almost running creek, it’s got forest, open field, the steepest hill around – it has it all. But it doesn’t yet have my heart. My heart still gets its fix on the world from my home on Judson. But I’m working on it. Looking back, I see that it’s taken me a few years after each move to catch my heart up. When we moved to Judson I still dreamed (and still do often) of Lunt, that city apartment whose orientation was both the vast, inland sea to the east, and the glowing promise of Chicago spread before one to the south. And yet when I reached Judson I felt I was at home, finally. But it wasn’t final. And there’s one more house between us yet, the one in the cornfields. The home in which I’d tried to set my heart up for its midlife story until it changed once again.

I’m trying my best. I’m growing into my home. It’s slow. My intent is here, but my heart is dragging its feet. That it’s really the only home my son has known helps to make it feel more like my own true home. I think about the idea of home a lot. At least I have over the years. There are nights here in my little cottage where I half wake, and think that I see the lights of my parent’s room down the hall at Maple. Then other nights I wake and believe fully that I am at Judson, and I feel relieved to be home, before I awake more fully to slowly realize where I am. It seems my heart has not come to rest yet. I ponder all the changes in the hearts of my own parents through their journeys. My father is starting to show signs of his Alzheimer’s. It will be interesting to see where he feels he is. Already he’s believed that he’s been moved to a ‘house on the lake’. He spent his childhood in a house on a lake. The very house where I was conceived. His lake house must be imprinted deep into his heart. What makes a place feel like home? Is it the age in which we lived there? The events that happened? Do we cease to identify our souls with a home after a certain point? Where is my home? I wonder. I’ve wondered this so many times. I’ve marveled over how home can be everything to one person, and simply a nice place to pass some life to another. I’m a Taurus, I’m of the earth and I need to know where my home is. Then I will dig in and make it even more my own. Guess that’s what I’m doing now. I’m just going to enjoy being here, because it’s where I am now. And I’ll simply have to adjust if there ends up being just another home on my path, because Lord knows things change. Dear old George was good to remind us that ‘all things must pass’.

 

Snowflakes February 28, 2011

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Divorce Diary,Pics — wingmother @ 6:11 pm
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It’s a snowy December night in a tiny, rural Midwestern town. We are at the town’s recreation center, a building that looks rather like a four car garage. The grounds are a few open acres with a playground at the far end. Beyond the chain link fence an ocean of cornfields extends for miles out into the blackness. Big, sparkly clusters of snowflakes are falling. They seem to appear from out of nowhere when they hit the parking lot lights. A narrow gauge train idles near the sidewalk waiting for the next load of passengers, which will be shuttled along a great oval track around the park. The train will pass homemade displays of lights setup across the lawn, the ride culminating in its passage through a tunnel of lit Christmas trees near the loop’s completion. It’s a nice crowd – enough families to be lively, yet nowhere close to crowded. A good place to be at this holiday time of year.

Our four-year-old son wants to see the train up close. Already marching to the beat of a very different drummer, he wants to know if the little train has a diesel engine, and he wants to see so for himself. Currently, he is a train boy. A little bit of Thomas the tank engine, yes, but mostly he lives on a constant stream of information about the history and evolution of the train. His book collection is mostly limited to encyclopedic volumes on the subject. He has learned how to instantly multiply by two, motivated by the need to know the type of train as described by its wheel profile. He knows his ponies from his drivers. This is the place to be at Christmastime for just such a young boy.

I hold his father’s hand and our son walks ahead of us to the train. We are walking slowly. It is one of those magical winter nights. As I look upwards towards the falling flakes I feel as if I’m flying forward through space at a great speed. The snow is so perfect it hardly looks real. I look at my husband with a question on my face. He squeezes my hand reassuringly, and then winks both his eyes – he isn’t able to wink just one at a time – and he nods just a bit, with a half smile. “Nothing will change,” he says. “You’ll see. It will always be like this”. Really? I think. I wonder if I heard correctly. I feel like I’m drugged anyway. I’m not sure what’s real right now. Did he just say it will always be like this? How could it be? I wonder. Then I ask him this aloud, but my voice is soft, and it sounds like I’m talking to myself. I am in a daze. I can’t decide whether the setting takes the edge off, or if it just adds to the surreal quality of my life tonight.

Just a few weeks earlier my middle-aged husband told me he had a young girlfriend in our new community, and that he had decided he was going to make his new life with her. The words he used sounded sickly chauvinistic in this strange new context: “she’s carrying my baby” he’d said to me. They’d been through a lot together he explained; she’d been pregnant by him once before, but she’d chosen to have an abortion. They’d been on again and off again for the past two years, struggling in their lover’s dilemma. He’d thought I’d known about her.

I hadn’t.

The past three weeks since he’d told me, he’d seemed much lighter. He had been increasingly distant and less like his old self of the past couple of years. Although I wasn’t the recipient of his affection any more, at least I benefited from his lighter mood recently. He had unburdened himself. He was finally free. But my incarceration was just beginning.

Just two years earlier, I’d been in our beloved Evanston home just outside of Chicago, making tea for my husband and father-in-law who sat on the couch, and who had begun to make their pitch about my husband and me buying a business. They were proposing we buy a building in the town in which my husband taught part time, in a town 75 miles from our home. The building even came with a restaurant – one which we could own and run ourselves. At first I was puzzled; we were musicians, what did we know about running a restaurant? I paused for a moment to understand them better – wait, were they actually serious about all of this? Yes. It turned out they were.

My husband was convinced that with the current team of employees, the place would easily run itself; we didn’t even need to be there! It just didn’t sound realistic to me, and I wasn’t on board. I’d worked plenty of waitress jobs, and I knew that running a restaurant was so much more than a full time job. I also knew that absentee owners were completely at the mercy of the staff. When the cats were away, the mice were definitely hosting after hours parties.

But the pitch continued for weeks, months. It was a sure thing. A sound thing. A dependable source of income. We went to inspect the place and then pour over the pages of numbers the previous owner provided for us. (I’ve since learned about the malleability of numbers; they can be arranged as creatively as a piece of music.) Finally, we were going to own a real, money-making commercial property just like his parents. We would be real grown ups now.

The restaurant was in a small college town that was an hour and a half’s drive away from our current home; it was the town in which my husband taught three days a week at a state University. The weekly commute he made was becoming too much for him – and also too much for all three of us. Although we weren’t entirely decided, we had begun the discussion about moving. If we were going to have a second child, it really did seem to make sense. My husband made the point that until we made the decision whether to move or not, he was out there every week anyway – he would be there to make sure things ran smoothly.

Even though I was never completely convinced it was a great idea, I really did want to support my husband in his vision; is that not what your partner is for? Yet I found myself wondering if it really was his vision – or his father’s. In the end it didn’t matter; whether he was driven to acquire the property to impress his father or to satisfy his own ambition, it was becoming very important to him. He was fired up to do this, and he needed me on board. So I agreed. We went ahead and bought the building, and the business too.

For a year it seemed to go all right. My heart was still tied to the community in which I’d lived my entire personal and professional life – where we continued to live – and I wasn’t keen on moving. I was now mother to a young child with low vision issues who needed my help physically navigating about his world. I had experienced the sorrow and loneliness of a miscarriage that year too. My husband had been out of the country on the day I miscarried. He was on the road a lot. He later confessed he “knew it was over” when I miscarried.

Wait, what? A two-decade union is just “over” when the wife miscarries?

It seemed to me that this should have been a time for solidarity, love and compassion, a coming together and a re-dedication to create the family that was yet to be…  I’d kinda thought that was where we would find ourselves. But instead, no discussion was had, and I just assumed we were on the same page. The marriage went on for two more years during which he never brought up the subject. I had no idea that he’d considered us “over” from that first miscarriage. Hope pulled me forward. Our family would join us soon; our someday couldn’t be too far off. After all, we made no efforts to prevent a new soul from joining us…

When my husband wasn’t teaching, he was touring. I was on hold, waiting. Just waiting. My husband didn’t talk about looking for a house anymore. When we spoke, he talked only of the business. Things I couldn’t really help him with. I spent most of my time at home, he spent most of his time away. Within months the darkness began.

The restaurant manager in whom my husband had put his trust was ruining us. Whether she was stealing, making bad choices – or both – it didn’t matter. Here was the alarm call. What seemed like a far-off reality became my immediate to-do list. Clean, pack, list old home, find new home. Within months I was standing in the living room of our new house, surrounded by boxes, two cats and a small child. Starting over.

The next year was a whirlwind. I had to step in and run a business, I had to use whatever knowledge my previous supplemental part time jobs had taught me. I had to order food, create menus, set prices, paint walls, unclog toilets, renew liquor licenses, pass health inspections, tally time cards, hire bands, fire employees, make peace with the police, meet with the mayor, settle disputes. It was baptism by fire, and nothing I’d bargained for. My Pakistani father in law kept telling me we should just sell homemade pakoras and that would save the business. My husband told me it was not as hard as I made it seem. “I ran this from a cell phone for a year!” he would scold. And so I muscled on. In one year I experienced events that I would have expected from a decade.

Between the duties of café owner and mother I fairly passed out at the end of each grueling day. I’d noticed my husband taking on a strangely quiet distance – and our sex life was currently non-existent – but as the business was hemorrhaging money I thought it was the obvious reason for the changes in him. There was a pit of fear in my stomach nearly every day of that year. Just getting out of bed in the morning took a huge effort of will. I’d figured my husband, my partner of more than two decades, was feeling the stress too, and this was his way of riding out the tough time.

After two years we finally decided the grand experiment was over. I had a good plan. I also had a good manager. She wanted in, and I wanted out. We passed the café on to her. Now we would simply collect rent on the space. When she signed the lease, I felt the most supreme relief I’d felt in years. In spite of a two year detour, we were now poised for our new life to begin. A new life to be sure. Not one I ever could have seen on the horizon.

We wrapped up the business. Then a few weeks later, we wrapped up our marriage.

Fareed had a pregnant girlfriend, and that was that. He’d been increasingly distant over the past two years, and now, at the very least, I had finally learned why. It’s one of the worst kinds of things to hear said aloud. So painful, so strange. So unreal. So surreal.

It is now almost three years later. I live on ten acres in rural upstate New York, just outside an historic, cosmopolitan college town. I live two doors over from my aging parents with our son, who is now 7. I am now 47, and have finally come to terms with the reality that I will no longer bear another child. My husband now has two young boys with his girlfriend. The juxtaposition of her youthful, childbearing chapter and my peri-menopausal reality can weigh heavy on my heart if I think too long about it.

As with any experience in life, it’s often not until the event is well in your past that you can fully glean the insight it offers. For as much sorrow as I have felt over not having our second child, I can say now that I am glad not to be parenting two young children by myself. For I surely would have been, if I hadn’t miscarried. The relationship I have with my son would be entirely different if he had a sibling who also needed me. I simply would not be able to devote myself as fully to two children as I can to one.

I want to be truthful about our new life. Sometimes it is downright lonely. Sometimes it really hurts. The poverty we now live with can add to the sense of betrayal, especially when we’re weakened with grief. There are moments when my son weeps inconsolably that we two live alone, that he lives without siblings, without a dad, without the noise of a full house… There are moments when I too can do no more than drop my face in my hands and sob, for me, for my son…. My heart just breaks that my son will never have a father here in our home; a father to help with homework, to sit at the supper table, to wrestle with on the living room floor… I am, however, grateful that he’ll always have his father in his life. His dad visits every month or so, and our son goes back to the midwest too. When he visits his father, our son stays in our old house, in his own bedroom. He does have a father, and a father who loves him dearly. He’s ahead of many.

Although I would never have chosen any of these experiences for myself, life has given me a surprising reward in exchange. I have a relationship with my son that is so intimate, honest and strong, that I absolutely know I got a good deal – even with the betrayal and sorrow. My son and I are living a life rich in nature, music, art, self-discovery and love. A life very different from the one we might have had. I could never have envisioned our life as it is now. Everything about our new life was a total surprise; our new life simply came from out of nowhere.

In spite of the hardship, the last few years have presented me with so many opportunities. Even in the midst of my pain, I was always aware that there were lessons here somewhere that I needed to learn. Things I needed to pay attention to, to resolve. But despite my own self-coaching, learning still just isn’t as easy as it seems it should be. Sometimes, when I think I’ve got my head wrapped around this, and I’m praying for forgiveness to live in my heart – just when answers should be a moot point – questions still pop into my mind. And I often think of that snowy night at the Christmas train ride…

What did my husband mean when he said nothing would change (while holding my hand)? Everything changed! Oh how many times I’ve wondered just what exactly was he was thinking when he said those things to me! Did he mean them, or were they just words to soften the sting? Or might he have truly believed them?

When the questions and the ‘what ifs’ arise, I make an effort to send them on their way as quickly as possible. These past few years I’ve seen what a waste of energy it is to consider the things that might have happened. This happened. It’s my reality. I start from here. There is no other option.

People see the same things so very differently. What was my former husband experiencing that night?  I don’t know. What choices was he planning on making? No idea. I can only know my own experience, and I can only know the choices I make for myself.

And so, I will choose to remember the beautiful snowflakes that appeared from out of nowhere.

 

Letter To All August 31, 2010

Filed under: Divorce Diary — wingmother @ 3:59 am
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Februrary 15th, 2011
To Whomever Will Listen,

I cannot get divorced. After almost three years of negotiating with my husband, attorneys, and doing some serious reflection on new tactics, I am still no closer to a resolution. How can I fight a man when I depend upon him for support and have NO money of my own? How can I get what’s fair? I have no savings, plus marital credit card debt that I can never hope to repay as things are now.

My husband had both a girlfriend and a mistress, and both became pregnant and had children by him during our 12 year marriage (we lived together for 21 years total). Now our son and I live in poverty, and my husband’s life is unchanged. He is a musician and recently performed in Dubai and Saudi Arabia while our son and I went without heat in single digit weather. We depend upon food stamps to eat and state assistance to heat our home while my husband has experienced virtually no change in lifestyle.

When my husband disclosed his pregnant mistress (in ’08), I left our Chicago home with our 5 year old son to live next door to my aging parents in upstate New York (in a small rental property they provided for us). Initially I was represented by attorney Alan Toback of Chicago; he did virtually nothing for me but take a $20K retainer and secure a monthly support amount of $750 for me on which we two must live. He is no longer my attorney.

My husband and I discuss things calmly, we have a good time as a family when he visits. I don’t speak ill of him to our son. He is not interested in marrying his mistress, and so is not motivated to conclude the divorce. He won’t budge on negotiations. Won’t give us more to live on, won’t buy me out. We are stalled. What action can I take?

My son is too young to be left alone, he is legally blind (which brings with it a whole set of logistic challenges) and my parents are too old to take care of him. While I am working to build my piano teaching studio and gleaning some income from that, I am unable to take a typical day job, as my son needs me at this age. My current attorney advised that the judge will not increase my support by much – especially if it appears I’m not actively looking for work. As my attorney sees it, teaching piano lessons does not constitute a ‘real’ job in the court’s eyes. Is this so? I have not yet appeared in court personally as I haven’t the money to travel. Might it help me to attend a hearing in person?

My husband made over $110K a year three years ago, but now shows $80K on paper. He is able to declare what he chooses, and on paper he now shows to be making far less than I believe he makes. I have touring itineraries, articles and interviews which show he does at least 200 dates a year – and yet my attorney does not feel this is viable evidence in support of his income. Is this so? His first illegitimate child is potentially owed $850 a month in support, while our son and I together are receiving less than that for all our living expenses. How can this be legal?

I invested $66K of my own money in our first home 23 years ago and now want him to buy me out. While he agrees in principle to paying me back, he says he can’t, as he’s unable. (Anecdotally I offer that he is an only child of wealthy parents who could easily co-sign on a loan in order to buy me out. He is able.) He is just unwilling. If left to the court, the judge would order sale of our properties, yet due to the market, they are currently worth less than the purchase price – so that’s a dead end. What can I do?

I am fast losing faith in the system. Can justice come only to those who can afford it? I hope someone can prove otherwise. If anyone can recommend any positive action I might take, I welcome suggestions.

Sincerely,
EC