The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Switch August 29, 2017

This time of year is hard for me. Is it hard for you, too? Friends on the south side of the planet may feel this way in the Spring; but here in upstate New York at the end of August, this is the time when we feel the heat give way and the chill setting in.

It appears first as the general fatiguing of the green. The outermost leaves on the trees begin to fade ever so slightly… It’s hard to detect, really. There’s more of a feeling of something being different than actual physical evidence. Then one day the leaves take on an olive hue. And then, a few weeks pass during which the evenings are all of a sudden much cooler, the crickets are chirping louder and the dark is falling sooner and sooner each evening. And then one day, there they are: the patches of orange and pink on the tips of the maple trees. Yup. It’s happening. No longer can you pretend that the start of school is still a far-off reality. No longer can you muster the desire to visit the unheated municipal pool. No longer do you feel the need to nap in the sun with a book.

Summer is over, and yet it’s not quite Fall. It is that time in-between.

I’m reminded now that my thermostats need replacing and my furnace needs servicing. I remember that an oil tank is an expensive thing to fill, and that it has been a long summer with very little income. However, it has been an amazing summer. There were adventures and discoveries and many long stretches absent of professional commitments. And I enjoyed every moment of it. Can’t say I didn’t have a great summer, but man, ten months is such a long, long time to wait for pool weather to come around again. I’m a water-loving girl stuck in the middle of the north country and it can make me crabby, especially at the end of the warm season.

My current funk won’t last too long I know; there are many items on the docket for Fall which help to keep my eyes on the horizon and a bit of hope in my heart. There is much to do, as always. Never enough time, as always. Lots of learning ahead, and few regrets behind me. All is happening in its proper time and place, I know. But no matter what, I’m just never quite ready for the switch.

 

Deep Summer July 20, 2015

It’s hard to believe it’s here again; that muggy mid-section of the year which from the bleakest winter day you cannot fathom ever returning… One hundred degrees in the sun, and the kind of relentless humidity that presses in and clings to every surface. Me, I can hardly stand this weather. But my son, he loves it. Ever since he was tiny he’s always said that he wants to go to Vietnam one day. He says that he actually loves this heat and humidity, and while I can’t help wonder if he doesn’t enjoy it all the more because it irks me so, I think I’m beginning to believe him. He isn’t slowed at all by the heat, but for me, it drives me to the brink. I find it hard to choose the right clothes. Hard to move around once I’m in those clothes. Hard to keep motivated. This is one of the reasons I feel so landlocked here in Greenfield; there is no escaping to the relief of a windswept beach. Instead, the vapors of the forest and field hang thick and unmoving in the air. While I feel a certain nostalgia at the scents of goldenrod, ferns and dampened pines (they remind me of my childhood; summer vacations, overnight camp and Baroque music), I can also say that that certain perfume brings with it a feeling of dread; there will no escaping the sweat that comes along with it. And think of all the musicians who must contend with the weather as they fight to keep their poor instruments in tune! It just seems to add insult to injury that the humidity spikes so mercilessly just as the outdoor music festival season reaches its peak. If only the weather could level out sometime in mid May and remain there until the fall. Yeah, if only.

I whine about it because it’s nice to get it off my chest, but truthfully, I bear it all with a bit more dignity than it might seem. It’s really more of an inner sort of anguish. I do manage to keep up with Elihu, I invent new itineraries for us, I make sure we aren’t lying about the house day upon day…. Every so often there are those afternoons where it just makes more sense to remain indoors on the comfort of the couch, surfing the great world beyond on our laptops, but for the most part we’re out and about. There are chickens to feed, gutters to clean, weeds to pull and concerts to attend. There’s busking to be done, there are frogs to be caught, tubas to be practiced and trampolines to be jumped upon. (Or is that the other way ’round? No, wait, that’s a joke…)

My last post had me cringing a bit; all that backward-longing, the clumsy pep talk about my future… In re-reading it, it feels as if I was saying the things I thought I should be feeling…. All that second-guessing of my goals and abilities, an encrypted bid for outside vindication veiled in the modest, self-effacing style of a middle-school girl’s journal entry. I guess it struck me as slightly jive because another two weeks on, and I’m exactly where I was before my spike of can-do spirit. The return of my son, and with him, the nonstop daily job of being a single mother, it’s reminded me that simply starting over again as a working musician is not exactly going to be simple. First, what to do with the kid? I’m making headway with material, but still, there’s new stuff to incorporate, and I find it’s sinking to the bottom of the list. It’s harder to find the oomph to learn tunes that I don’t particularly enjoy. And so I don’t. But that’s ok for now, because The Studio is entering into a new phase with much outdoor construction taking place, in addition to a good deal more to complete on the interior, and I need to be present for all of it. And I still have to feed the kid. Me, when my kid’s not here, I go for hours – entire days – without a thought of food. I’m all about getting shit done. But the brakes slam on pretty hard when the kid’s back. Which is ok. Elihu is 12, he’s on his way to being a young adult. He might still find making Ramen a bit of a challenge (he’s got his dad’s spazzy gene when it comes to some simple tasks), but in a pinch he could probably get through a day without me. So while my snazzy new role as rockin keyboard mama might not come to fruition this summer, I think next year it’ll be much more likely. I’m not stalling here, just investing my energy where the reward will be greatest. And in all honesty, cover jobs will always be there. The Studio will not build itself, nor rent itself out. I’ve put a great deal of time into the place lately, and can see the light now. I don’t wish to be overly cheerful and optimistic about its future – I admit it, I’m still too nervous; bold, decisive language still frightens me. I’ve spoken robustly about our future here before, but in this moment, I’m just kind of holding on until we can get the plumbing turned back on and the kitchen finished.  I think those final touches will embolden me to be more visionary. Hell, for the time being I’m choosing to blame my chill attitude on the less-than-chill weather.

Things are moving. There is no stasis, that’s for sure. Every week there’s a new adventure, and even more so when lil man’s here. Elihu will be rejoining his father for much of August, and there will be house guests here in his absence, so much will be going on during the summer that remains. My enthusiasm might be wilting a bit in all this heat, but heatwaves don’t last forever.

IMG_0025Sussy takes the heat well. Behind her are sprouting some super-gigantic goldenrod plants, well-fertilized by their location in the middle of the chicken run. Chicken poop can result in some crazy-big plants. !

IMG_0013I actually enjoy cleaning the gutters. I always seem to put it off for months and usually get to them when – you got it – it’s super hot out. Once you’re sweaty and uncomfortable, why not get even more sweaty and uncomfortable? Better to be productive than not.

IMG_0011On rainy nights the frogs are easy prey on local roads. We stock our pond each year with a variety of sizes.

IMG_0062Martha’s birthday was a couple of days ago. We’d planned on having a party anyhow, but it just didn’t work out that way. We did all meet up in the kitchen. (See how lost we all look. Even the camera couldn’t find its focus!) Every birthday of Martha’s we can remember was always the very hottest day of the summer. Strangely, this year the heat broke and the weather was cool and rainy.

IMG_0096As life would have it, there was another place we wanted to be that same night… Forty years ago at the age of 12 I first heard the great David Amram here in Saratoga, and now Elihu is here, at the same age, taking in that same experience. (Locals, please go hear the Dylan Perillo Orchestra – some of his musicians played behind David. They had a wonderful roster of tunes in their set, great charts, and a solid, swingin feel. Leader Dylan is the bassist, and his on-mic style was minimalist and quirky ala Steven Wright. Needless to say Elihu was way beyond impressed. And dig this – Chicago pianist Ron Perillo is his cousin. Say what? The world contracts once again.)

IMG_0102I have been lucky to share the stage with David a couple of times. Luckier still to witness him playing an impromptu version of “Pull My Daisy” on my Rhodes, back in our Evanston home. Crazy thing is, he remembers all of it.

IMG_0091The man and his necklaces.

IMG_0078Elihu gets up close to the neck gear…

IMG_0079…and enjoys a bit of a chat with David.

IMG_0126The next day there’s action at the site of the Studio’s future parking lot.

IMG_0140The site is being excavated in order to tie in the new kitchen to the existing septic system. A friend helped me with some post-construction cleaning inside, and between the two of us we put in over ten hours. Still so much to do.

IMG_0124Al, our earth-moving friend, has changed the grade behind the Studio in order to provide a perennially wet spot some necessary drainage. Formerly surrounded by woods, it’s a bit odd for me to see the building so exposed. We will be replanting evergreens at some point in order to fill in the space. We’re just doing things the right way so as to avoid problems in the future. A modest venue, but so much work has gone into it.

IMG_0231A far less modest venue: SPAC. Saratoga Performing Arts Center. (Chicago friends, this is what Ravinia wishes it were. Sorry, but true.) Today we are here to see New York City Ballet, which makes SPAC its summer home. I grew up going to the NYCB regularly, but today is a first for Elihu.

IMG_0163We arrived with two hours to kill inside the park before the ballet started, so our first stop was the Auto Museum.

IMG_0172A car very similar to the one my grandfather, Judge Conant, drove in 1932. Dad recalled holding on for dear life in the rumble seat with his brother David as their father raced down the winding Adirondack roads.

IMG_0176Far less glamorous was my first car, a 1986 Mustang. Yellow. One of the only non-cool Mustangs ever.

IMG_0183We lunched at the Gideon Putnam Hotel with Saratoga’s finest. Remind me to tell the story sometime of how I once spent the night there with Patti LaBelle and Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s not what you think. But memorable. !

IMG_0184Heading down to the backstage area.

IMG_0188Took this on the fly – we kinda snuck in backstage for a quick look-see. The dancers are there on the left, just outside the wings waiting for their entrance.

IMG_0142Elihu’s very first look at SPAC from the inside.

IMG_0150Our seats are in the front row – check out these tympani covers.

IMG_0217We’re right behind the pit!

IMG_0215We need seats like these – it’s the only way my little Achromat can see… Even here there isn’t a lot of definition. But I was impressed that he could see well enough to glean the story from the movement… Made me happy.

IMG_0203At intermission we made a new friend. I went to find him on Facebook and wouldn’t ya know, we have a couple of friends in common already. Once again, small world.

IMG_0221Afterward we met Andrew, another twelve year old – only he was a dancer! That was fun.

IMG_0228Crossing the bridge that leads across a creek far below, Elihu stops to mimic the concert posters.

IMG_0230Can’t forget our buddy Yannick! We are excited to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra – and hero, tubist Carol Jantsch – at the end of August.

IMG_0202This selfie gives you a little idea of the perspective here. Or maybe not quite. Trust me, it’s a long way down. Take note of that white formation on the right – shortly it will be the site of a dramatic moment in our afternoon.IMG_0239En route to the riverside walk we sample a spring. It was the most displeasing of all the springs we have tasted – and Elihu actually enjoys that sulfury-tasting crap. We thought this spring was “Horrendable”.

IMG_0240A long way down.

IMG_0334It’s exciting to finally be here!

IMG_0251The mineral-laced water from this particular spring has created this huge deposit in the form of a small mountain. Much of its surface is continually under a film of falling water.

IMG_0345Up close. It shimmers in real time, as a film of water descends.

IMG_0342Here’s a look back at the bridge we were on earlier.

IMG_0357The narrow ledge upon which we walked was all chalky white mineral residue covered with running water.

IMG_0360The water empties into the stream.

IMG_0367Here’s the path we followed to get downstream.

IMG_0285Once we were at the water’s edge, we had fun. The father of these boys grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago – just off of Devon Avenue – blocks from where I myself (and Elihu’s father) had lived. Later this man lived in Buffalo Grove, the town in which my late friend Bob Gand lived. He’d spent time in my hometown of Wilmette, too. He didn’t seemed impressed by it all, but I sure was. Small world stuff always blows my mind.

IMG_0298When wildlife wasn’t to be found, we busied ourselves making cairns in the running water.

IMG_0328I ended up making ten of em. I had a blast.

IMG_0356Elihu catches his breath after a frightening couple of minutes and an urgent lecture from a short-of-patience mom.

Things turned – and turned scary for a moment – when Elihu misjudged the relative elevations of the path and the water. He mistook a ledge for a shallow entry into the water, and in an instant he was up to his waist in the creek, clinging to the rough rock by his fingertips. I did a lightening-fast assessment of the situation, and realized the water was not more than three feet deep there, and if need be I could jump in and grab him. I was overcome with fear and anger all at once, and before I made my move to rescue him I chewed him out.

Poor kid, with his vision, things are bound to go wrong at some point, but still, I always tell him he has to be so much more diligent about assessing things that anyone else. Without good depth perception, life can be dangerous. He knows this, but he hates that it’s true. He blows things off that he shouldn’t. He hates that he can’t just be a curious 12-year-old boy who can take off running with everyone else. He always has to look twice, and sometimes it happens that he’s sure he knows what he’s seeing – when he really isn’t. Step or flat surface? A crap shoot most of the time.

This time it ended up ok, and as I told him it’s a good experience if he learns from it. He was still so mad at me for getting mad at him that I don’t think he took that in. But it’s something this mom has no trouble repeating. Good advice for anyone – achromat or not. Learn from it and it’s not a mistake. It’s a lesson. Crisis averted – this time.

IMG_0035Treasures from our river visit.

IMG_0001The heat finally breaks with a heavy summer downpour.

IMG_0022We’ve got a bit of a drainage problem in our garden beds. On the to-do list…

IMG_0010Who are we fooling? Raincoat? Ridiculous!

IMG_0018Elihu insists he jumps tons higher when the trampoline is wet. So high it looks like he’s walking on the treetops… Happy boy, happy summer, happy rainy day. For the time being, everything’s finally cool.


Post Script: While I had personal misgivings about the immature nature of my reflections in the previous post, I actually received a note in the mail from a dear friend saying how much she’d enjoyed it. It’s hard to know how feelings translate to readers. I guess one never knows, do one?

 

Saratoga Streets September 2, 2014

Well, it’s here. The end of the tourist season in Saratoga Springs, New York. Elihu was away for much of the summer, but he still got a little time in busking and meeting folks. I keep telling him to rake it in while he’s still relatively little and cute, cuz the tips just don’t come as easily when you’re a pimply-faced teenager (or an adult!). But in the end, he does it because he loves it, and the money is really just icing on the cake. He will likely continue to play into the cold months, but the sweet season is over for this year. Here are some highlights of our final weeks on the streets of Saratoga…

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I’m always extra proud of my son when he tips the other street performers without a word from me (and he always does).

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This is chalk art by Alexis Broz, now billing herself as the ‘original’ chalk artist of Saratoga. You go, sister, we know you are!

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Here Alexis left her imprint on a T-shirt artist’s street space.

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We ran into some fellow Waldorf School students and everyone hung out for a bit.

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Here’s the charismatic Eryn (and also a former student of Elihu’s teacher at Waldorf) doing her thing, shortly before jetting off to attend The American University in Paris.

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Another view of the same scene.

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Cecil Myrie’s a Jamaican banjo player who’s been a staple of the Saratoga street scene for the past three decades. (Here he’s showing Elihu how to play this resonant bass box.) He has bone cancer now, and in spite of his desire to, he just wasn’t able to muster the physical strength he needed to join us out on the town. As we chatted about life – and about Chicago – imagine my surprise when he recounted for me his memories of hanging out at the “Step-Hi Lounge” on Wabash… the very haunt in which I myself passed away many hours in my days as a film student at Columbia College. (CCC is right across the street, but the Step-Hi is now no longer: a parking lot takes its place.)

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Cecil’s trying to give me a lesson, but I’m having a hard time here…

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Okay, I’m pulling it together now…

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But my lil man has it down. Just look at that left hand!

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And speaking of mentors, here’s our dear pal Ed, at Saratoga Guitar, giving Elihu a little impromptu lesson.

IMG_0883Looking good Elihu! Maybe next year you’ll have another trick up your sleeve when busking season arrives.

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Here he is on the final day of racing at the track (the major tourist attraction here since 1863).

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Here Elihu is playing alongside Skidmore music degree grad Paul, who plays the Gyile from Ghana, West Africa. It’s tuned in a crowd-pleasing pentatonic scale, and thanks to Paul’s great feel, he rocked those five notes hard all afternoon. Goodbye til next year, all you fellow buskers… it’s been a lovely season.

 

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Just a friendly reminder that if you’ve enjoyed my posts and would like to buy me a cup of coffee (that’s a blogger’s euphemistic way of saying ‘give me a small tip’) you can click on the tip jar icon at the top right of this page and it will allow you to do so rather effortlessly through Paypal. Thanks for considering, and thanks even more for contributing to the coffers of this writer and mother.

 

Cape Cod Scrapbook August 28, 2014

“Cape Cod Scrapbook” is a companion post to the previous one, entitled “Two Weeks Gone”

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Finally…

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My Uncle Paul and his sister (my mother) Nancy, my son Elihu and my Aunt Sandy.

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Cousins Elihu and Rusty take off in search of sea life without a word of goodbye.

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This is the dock behind their house; at high tide the water comes much closer in.

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This is the small neighborhood beach. Just perfect at low tide to find critters.

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After our first brief visit, we all headed out to this local eatery.

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While we waited for our food, Elihu and I went out to the pier to hang with the fishermen.

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I think all eleven year old boys get a kick out of live fish.

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Aunt Sandy, Uncle Paul and mom at the end of a fine dinner of fresh, local seafood. The harbor is just outside.

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Elihu points out the location of the restaurant on this mural of what Wareham looked like over a hundred years ago.

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As painted by Nanci. Love it.

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A picturesque New England dock scene from the restaurant window.

IMG_1315If you’re ever in Wareham, Massachusetts, stop by Narrow’s Crossing and get the whole fried clams.

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The following morning we found a nice little breakfast joint in the neighboring town of Onset.

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We’re at the Pier View Restaurant. The bay is right behind mom and Elihu.

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Note the Linguica. It’s a Portuguese sausage, usually kinda spicy, always tasty. (Dig the great prices, too.)

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Mom’s not usually down with me making changes to the menu, but I requested that my Eggs Benedict be made with the local linguica instead of ham. I suggested that they might want to call it “Eggs Elizabeth” should it become a hit.

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And here’s the handsome man who carried out my culinary wish.

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We’re not at our family’s beach here, but rather another, more expansive stretch of coast about two miles away to the Southeast. I preferred it as it was much more wide open than the small neighborhood beach, it was sparsely populated and there was lots of sand.

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We fed the seagulls earlier, and when we left the beach to go into the water, they ransacked mom’s bag. The gall of those gulls!

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Mom on the beach. She spent much of her youth here.

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My Cousin Janice, in the middle, is about to undergo her third year of chemo for an unrelenting cancer. She’s got a great spirit, and both children and grandchildren to live for. She’s ready to kick its ass once again.

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Elihu shows his Great Uncle Paul his catch from the day.

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Uncle Paul is in his chair, on the right. Since his stroke in ’91 he still gets around well – drives too – but speaks very little (might be due in part to his wife – she kinda makes it hard for the poor guy to get a word in edgewise, stroke or not!).

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Sandy gave mom a history of the Jackson side of the family, compiled by Paul and Nancy’s paternal grandmother. I know mom doesn’t have great feelings about this side of the family (her father left her mother and never supported them in any way, nor did her father’s family help out), but nonetheless it’s nice to have this information.

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This is a letter from Uncle Paul’s paternal grandmother, describing in part the contents of the book. Dated November 11th, 1963. There’s a fascinating amount of detail going back a couple hundred years. Both the Conants and the Jacksons have been in this country for over three hundred years, so when people ask me what nationality I am, I tell em that I really am American more than anything else. But hey, at this point in the game, aren’t we all pretty much mutts no matter what our lineage?

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Uncle Paul and Cousin Rusty. Rusty likes to say in his local accent that I’m his “Cape Cawed Cahzin”.

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This is the shack where Rusty keeps his stuff and works on various projects. His father was a shop teacher, and it seems he has the tinkering gene too.

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There’s a lot of stuff here… certainly more orderly than my own brother’s mess.

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Sadly, since Uncle Paul’s stroke, his boats have languished here in the back yard. If only I lived nearby! I dearly miss the sailing era of my life.

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We discovered these very odd-shaped fungi poking up through the ground all around the house. The craziest part is their smell – super funky bad, almost like skunk.

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This is Gertrude – or Gert, as locals know her. She lives directly across the street from my family in a house painted the color of tomato bisque. She knew my mother’s mother, Lydia, and is thrilled to meet Lydia’s great-grandson. Gert’s in her early nineties.

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We’re enjoying a visit with Gert in her breezeway. (I just love these time-capsule homes – nothing’s changed in forty years.)

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A sweet good-bye.

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Gert sang with big bands in Boston in the ’30s and ’40s and regularly appeared on live radio programs as well. We have both those things in common! She has difficulty remembering what day it is, yet she remembered me well from my visit two years ago – she even remembered that I ‘was the singer’. I was impressed! She’s one spunky lady. She zips around the neighborhood in her motorized wheelchair and seems to know just about everyone in town.

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The boys on their second and final search for critters.

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What’s this?

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A tiny crab!

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One more cast of that magic trap…

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And look! A flounder! Crazy looking creatures they are, with both their eyes on top like that. They swim flat along the bottom and usually don’t come in this close to shore. Rusty assured us this was a really lucky catch.

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These folks invited us over for a drink. Mom’s on the right.

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The world proved itself to be a small place once again; the woman on the far right has a brother who lives in our town. !

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Crane spotting.

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Mom, pulling away from her brother Paul’s house, as he watches from the porch. (Note Gert’s tomato bisque-colored garage door in the side mirror.)

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After she waved, mom noted to me that that might well be the last time she would ever see her brother. What is there to say? Poignant, and quite possibly true.

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Later that night we had one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time at Mezza Luna in the town of Buzzards Bay. Great music played, the vibe was elegant, the food expertly prepared. Highly recommended by all three of us. Their house clam sauce was spectacular.

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The next morning we set out for home – the long way. This was the house in which my Auntie Helen (mom’s Aunt) lived – in New Bedford, Massachusetts. High class, high style.

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This is the front hall. !

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Mom indicates the large staircase…

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…and Elihu investigates it.

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This was the office of my mother’s uncle, who was a doctor. She remembers getting a vaccination under protest in this room as a young child.

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This is our host (yet another Nancy!) in the grand foyer.

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The new owners have put together a small history of the house and their progress with the restoration.

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As a child, mom used to think these decorations looked like door bells. We all agree. They do.

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How about this garage. Not too shabby, huh?

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Now we’re off to see if we can find Auntie Helen’s summer cottage. But first we’ll have lunch at the harbor.

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We’re eating at Sail Loft, just behind the marina in South Dartmouth, Mass. I’m enjoying the iconic “law-b-stah” roll. I am not kidding when I tell you these were among the very best french fries I have ever had. Really. This place has a cozy vibe, plus live music. I’d go back if I were a local.

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The house on the right at the end of the pier was Auntie Helen’s.

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My son is clearly comfortable here.

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And there’s an osprey nest here too. A little bit of heaven for each of us.

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An ‘almost’ selfie of us on the new pier with the yacht behind.

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As a child I remember walking down this yard and path to the beach.

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Inside Auntie Helen’s old house, Elihu zones right in on the bird art.

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Elihu and Grandma look out over the bay to a view I marveled at as a child.

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We passed a lot of boats and bridges on this trip.

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Now we’re visiting the house mom lived in for her middle school and high school years. She had a lot of happy stories to recall for us as we drove around Fall River. Her bedroom had been upstairs on the left.

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And this enormous structure was where she went to high school.

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On the steps that she once scrubbed with a toothbrush (see the previous post for the backstory on that).

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Durfee High School, Fall River, Massachusetts. Long-time drummer for the band Steppenwolf, Ron Hurst attended Durfy HS too, years ago. The grand building is no longer used a school; it’s a municipal building now.

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Now we’re in Barrington, Rhode Island at mom’s very first home.

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Eighty years ago it was all farm land. The house on the left side of this picture is the same house as in my photo above (sans the addition, which is on the right in the first pic.) Both mom and the current owners knew the family that still lives in the small house on the far right side of this photograph. Mom knew the generation that came before, but still the same family. I thought that was a sweet thing to learn. In this photo it was all wide-open fields and orchards – it looked just like this when mom was Elihu’s age – but now the area is heavily wooded and houses are everywhere.

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Here’s the view of the ocean from the front door. In the old days there was only an orchard of fruit trees between this house and the water.

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One quick stop to get directions…

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…and to smooch a pooch.

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Now it’s goodbye until next time. Thanks, you lovely ocean, you. You feel like home to me.

 

Two Weeks Gone August 26, 2014

Never before in my nearly three years at the helm of this blog have I passed so much time in between posts. Lately it seems that life has run away with me, and every manner of logistic hitch has thrown itself directly in my path. Among the many recent surprises has been my inability to successfully upload photos, so the pics from our trip will have to wait for a future post. Elihu and I are reaching the conclusion of a long and busy summer and we’re both looking forward to a new and structured routine for fall. But before we march ahead, here’s a recounting of our recent trip to visit mom’s family on Cape Cod.

Last week, as mom, Elihu and I left for a three-day trip to visit family on the coast, we had friend Ken in tow, and on our way to drop him off in town before hitting the highway, we passed our old friend Ruthie’s house and found all that remained of it was the chimney. Only ten in the morning and the backhoe was nearly finished with the demolition. By the time we were to return from our brief vacation, the construction at the end of our driveway would be recognizable as a house. Both events were stark and jarring evidence of how quickly and profoundly things can change. But thankfully, over the next couple of days we would visit many important landmarks of my mother’s own personal history, and we would be happily surprised not only to find these structures still standing and recognizable, but also to find ourselves invited inside to see the changes for ourselves. For me it was a great relief that these places still existed so that we might visit them again – but beyond that, it was a real gift to see firsthand how things had been modified over the past few decades. I feel we were beyond fortunate to have been given this opportunity – likely the last one for my mother – to see these places that had been such an important part of my mother’s growing up. Usually, you can’t go back. But we were given the rare chance to do just that. It was a good trip, and we covered a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally, in a short amount of time. Our trip was barely three days, but as jam-packed as it was of reunions, events and emotions, it almost felt we’d been away for a whole week.

The family that we went to visit (my maternal grandmother’s side) has become through the years something of a ragtag bunch that live not exactly on the Cape as one might say for the sake of simplicity when describing their location to a non-local person, but more accurately it could be said that they actually live in the armpit of the Cape. While the true beauty of that expression lies in the metaphoric possibilities it brings to mind, the more literal meaning – the one absent of judgement, irony or humor – simply helps one to place the location of Buzzard’s Bay by visualizing Cape Cod as an extended arm and flexed elbow joint. The thing is, the metaphor kinda rings true, and the culture of that particular area in question – being so close to the ‘real’ cape and yet not truly being the cape – being so close to the actual ocean but still not actually on it – that, plus the tiny houses all sitting ‘cheek-by-jowl’ (as my mother would say) all combine to give Wareham and its surrounds that unmistakable low-rent vibe. And this is where my family resides. Just a couple of generations ago there were doctors, lawyers and judges in the family, now many of us who remain eke out our meager existences on SSI grants and food stamps. My mother laughed to see how decidedly downwardly mobile our family has become in just three short generations. “I wonder what old Uncle Charlie would think of this” she chuckled, shrugging to indicate the neighborhoods of tiny, tumbledown summer shacks packed in one after another. If she hadn’t laughed, she might have cried. It does make one wonder how such a thing is possible.

When we arrived at my mom’s brother’s house, it wasn’t awkward as it might have been for the nearly two decades that had passed since mom had seen him and his family. We’d even made plans to pick his car up from the garage upon our arrival. (Turned out the garage ended up delivering it home.) What I thought anecdotally notable here was that both my Uncle Paul and I had had our cars in the shop this week to repair the very same thing: a faulty lift belt on the driver’s side window. (My car was in the shop back home, hence our getaway was made in mom’s trendy Prius.)  I’d seen Paul just summer before last, so I kinda had a head’s up, but I’m sure brother and sister each surprised the other with their older, hunched and slower forms. It’s situations like this for which God gave us a sense of humor, I’m sure. Mom leaned on her cane, Paul hung to the porch, Aunt Sandy laughed in between them. I saw my cousin Rusty come around the corner and paused for a second at the sight of him – all that time in the sun and a penchant for the occasional cigarette and his naturally pale complexion had become as creased and weathered as a seafaring old-timer. Just a year older than me? I thought to myself. Yeeks. The reunion on the porch went just as if no time had passed, and so did the meeting of Elihu and Rusty, who, without so much as a word between them – or to us – began to collect up nets and other tools and within moments were coolly strolling away towards the inlet on a quest for sea creatures.

We passed an hour or so visiting before we all went to dinner together. Mom and I enjoyed those true east coast delicacies of whole fried clams. (Strips are one thing, but they pale by comparison to the whole kit and caboodle, bellies included.) Before the food arrived Elihu and I went to the adjacent dock to watch the locals fish. We got our first whiff of salt air and I could hardly wait until our beach day began the next morning. For me, I almost feel that the years in between visits are just time spent in wait for the next opportunity to get into a large body of water. Nothing in the world comes close. The following day did not disappoint, and although it was an entirely different experience for my mother now than it had been just a couple of decades ago; she made it in and enjoyed floating on her back in the buoyant salt water. It occurred to me in a moment of nostalgic contemplation that of all the many photographs I took on our trip, the one I might have treasured the most – that image of my mother, totally in the moment, floating there in the water, enjoying herself as fully and as unself-consciously as a young child – that image remains in my mind’s eye only. I too was enjoying the water and didn’t think to take a picture. It was only later when we returned for a last swim only to find the tide far too far out to do so that I realized this might have been the last time my mother would find herself floating in the ocean she’d so loved for all of her life. That I missed the image. That I could have – but didn’t – document that personally significant moment. A pang of regret hit me, I breathed in and felt the sting of it, and then I did my best to let it go. I reminded myself that I’d been there with her, that I’d given her my arm and helped her out of the water on that last swim, that we three had all been enjoying the beautiful day and the warm sea water together, and that was what really counted.

Later, as we began our long trip back home, we planned for our route to pass both my mother’s Auntie Helen’s home in town as well as her beach home, one in which I myself also had some childhood memories. The home in which my grandmother’s sister had lived in was grand indeed. The woodwork and stained glass of the Victorian era giant was impressive as was the huge, central staircase and the moldings and details at every turn. Now an attorney’s office, (mom’s own uncle was a doctor and made his office there too) we were welcomed inside and mom recounted her memories there as a little girl to Elihu, me and the secretary (also named Nancy like my mom), occasionally using her cane to direct our attention to something; the maid’s staircase down which the children would run, the kitchen’s original boundaries, the office where her doctor uncle had once given her a shot against her will… I snapped pictures in every direction as I tried to imagine my trim and fashionable Auntie Helen in her glory years moving through the large house tending to her upper-middle class life. Here we were in sneakers and shorts, too casual it seemed to even be allowed inside by such past standards. What a different time it had been then, how much had changed. And yet the current owners had put a great deal of love and money into restoring the place to its original, historic grandeur, so this turned out to be a very happy ending for us. We left feeling uplifted and ready for more healing discoveries ahead.

While I’m not sure mom had any plans to actually seek out – and find – Auntie Helen’s coastal home, that’s just how serendipity wished it for us, and after a quick consultation with a neighbor passing by in a handsome Mercedes, we were able to confirm our suspicions as to which house it was. As with most places known to children and revisited by the same as adults, the whole neighborhood seemed so much smaller than it had once seemed to me as a child. Even the old photographs from the ’40s had shown much more open space, almost no trees and lots of windswept yard stretching out in all directions, yet now the area was full of growth and mature trees. Elihu and I approached the house the roundabout way, walking out onto the great pier (which had also been added somewhat recently) and then back up towards the house on a neighboring lawn. A yacht sat just off the coast and lent a Kennedyesque air to the seascape. I looked at it all with new eyes. While I could easily remember a vision of my mother in a white, yellow and black bathing suit walking ahead of me down the sandy path through the blueberry bushes, I was able to superimpose that image against what I saw now and felt as if I were in a film shifting its focus from past to present, creating a great tug of nostalgia that was impossible to ignore.

Shortly we three were knocking at the door of Auntie Helen’s old place, and once again we were kindly invited in. Ah, what money can do, I thought as I took in the completely modernized interior. The porch and the sea beyond were as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. Instead of dark walls, rope-framed photos and nautical-themed knick-knacks, it was now a bright, open space which showcased pieces of modern art, historical figurines, sculptures and gorgeous finishes everywhere. I’d grown up with moneyed folks, I knew what it was all about, I felt absolutely comfortable in it, and goddam it, if I ever came to know it for myself one day, I’d certainly enjoy the hell out of it. Like these folks were doing. I’d surround myself with beautiful things, with gorgeous views. I’d live by water. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to live like this. Every day. To know this sort of beauty as home. As I took a photo of mom and Elihu looking out the window at the bay beyond, I felt a certain sadness that I hadn’t known this place beyond my youngest years. It felt as if it were in some small way still mine – as if it might have been mine even now but for the slightest detour… But on the heels of that came the understanding that even if I’d had the luck to know this place as a child, I certainly did not have the means to enjoy it as an adult. It would have to be enough that we were all here to witness this together. I was so grateful for the kindness of the gentleman who lived there and allowed us a few moments inside. Now my son would understand better where his family had come from; what it felt like to look out and over that immense and stunning view. What it meant to live on the ocean.

We headed East and easily found the house mom had lived in as a teenager. It was her maternal grandparent’s home; the one she and her mother returned to when her father had left. It was here, in Fall River, where mom’s memories came freely and happily. The steps of that immense high school where as part of a sorority hazing for the incoming freshman she was made to scrub the steps with a toothbrush… the river views from Highland Avenue, the various landmarks of her youth strewn here and there, names came back with the sight of familiar houses, stories and anecdotes too many to recall… Seeing this town seemed to revive a mood in my mother, and it was nice to see her happy like this. Her life is so taken up with concern for me, for Andrew, for her grandson, for her own health, for her cats, her home… and finally it seemed all of that fell away and she was transported to a time in her life which she had clearly enjoyed.

On we went into the early years, to the home in which mom lived with her mother and father and brother Paul, the home which she left at eleven – Elihu’s current age – the only home in which she lived with her family as one unit. It seems strange to me that she seems to recall so little of it – of her father, in particular. I can’t know if she’s repressed it, or if she truly doesn’t remember. Whichever the reason, she recalled only names of childhood friends, lanes she’d walked down to go to school, the first place she learned to ride a two-wheeler… Even a place where she remembered her older brother defending her against the neighborhood bullies. All these things she recalled for us, but when I pressed her for domestic details about her life, she remembered next to nothing. Even the house itself didn’t stand out as familiar, and on our second passing I had to insist we pull over. She even began to get angry when I asked her for some details we might use to identify the house – finally, as it seemed the only option, I got out of the car and hailed the woman who had just pulled up into the driveway. Again, the angel of serendipity stepped in to assist, and before long we had met this woman’s husband and daughter too, and we were standing inside the house sharing stories and being shown an old photograph of the place when it had been the carriage house for the local farm. This was the way mom had known it – as the only house in a vast expanse of fields and orchards that swept down to the water. I can understand how strange and disorienting it must have been to see the place so transformed, but to finally have found her house – and to be inside it now – I think that must have given her some sense of closure and satisfaction. I know it did me. After a few more photos and exchanging of contact information, we said our goodbyes and headed out. After a last brief look at the sea, we began our drive back home to upstate New York.

It was raining heavily when we arrived home long after dark, my seventy-nine year old mother having just concluded some 600 miles behind the wheel. The late hour had finally brought to light our very different driving styles and our patience with one another was eroding fast. Elihu was suffering from some strange rash all over his body, my concern for his comfort was growing more urgent (much to the chagrin of my mother who felt I was coddling him with my sympathies) plus my mother was experiencing a good deal of discomfort on the tops of her badly sunburned feet, having been out in the sun for the first time in decades. We were all sore, short of patience and very weary. It had been a short trip, but we’d done and seen a lot, the car was covered in sand and smelled of some sea creature inadvertently taken along for the ride. We were more than ready for our own beds.

There was no internet working on our return, and my computer wasn’t well either. There was nothing to be done but crawl into bed and marvel over all the images swirling about in our heads. The weather was loud, the rain beat hard on the house, and I felt a mixture of satisfaction and strangely, loneliness. I was aware that my mother, at the end of the day, was going home alone. What must it feel like to have seen all those old, familiar places and the to return here, to a house empty of people? I was glad she had the cats, and I was grateful that she had the new memories now too. I hoped they’d be restorative to her in some way. It was an important trip for me to be sure, and now Elihu had a new appreciation and understanding of his grandmother and his own roots, too. As visits back home go, this was a good one I think. Yet here we were again, right back in the middle of our everyday life, in our humble country home, far from the road… it almost felt as if we’d never left. On we were to go from here, our lives yet to become new and strange, meandering adventures heading off into the unknown landscape of our future. And in the light of all that unknown yet ahead of us, it was comforting to know that sometimes, just sometimes, it is still possible to go home again.

 

 

 

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Bright Eyes August 13, 2014

When Elihu was teeny – just barely a toddler – I’d take him to a home daycare in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park for one day a week so that I could catch up on domestic chores and in general have a couple of hours off (his father wasn’t around a lot as his teaching job took him out of town nearly half the week, and gigs often took up the remaining days). Miss Loretta, the gal who ran the place, was a tall, grand black woman who appeared a little daunting at first; her large ponytail and huge frame towering over us as she stood at the top of the stairs to her front porch waiting for her charges to arrive. Although she could be all business at times, she could also be the sweetest, most caring woman. She had nicknames for some of her favorites; babies whom for some reason or another stood out from the rest. What with Elihu’s eyes and bizarre vision issues, you can be sure he was in that population. And I’d always kinda liked that Miss Loretta had called him “Bright Eyes”; it had a charming, hopeful quality to it. It wasn’t derogatory, it didn’t sound sinister, yet it recognized both Elihu’s challenge and his beautiful spirit all at the same time. I liked it. “Well hel-lo, Bright Eyes!” she’d greet us each Wednesday morning in the open porch door. Once inside, in the dark wood paneled interior of her living room, he must have felt safe – I know that as a mother, my heart filled with relief the first time I saw it. With a child as light-sensitive as mine, it just wasn’t possible to leave him – much less bring him – to many places. (Another reason for the weekly visits; we two hardly ever got out – the world was just too bright.)

Bright Eyes passed a year of his life visiting Miss Loretta, and I think about her from time to time; I wonder if she’s still in the business of tending to a house full of tiny children and babies. I wonder if she ever thinks about her kids, and where they are these many years later. Next time we’re in Chicago, we’ll have to pay her a visit, because’ Bright Eyes’ now has a whole new meaning, and I think she’d be very pleased to see it for herself.

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Here we go… off into a brand-new era. No kidding. The world has opened up to my son. Hope begins to grow, as does a new realm of possibility. It’s just the very beginning of the journey. Ironic that through Elihu’s dark tinted contacts he can now see a brighter future. ! You go, my beloved Bright Eyes!

Before our visit to the eye doc.

These might help Elihu’s vision to shake less. Jury’s still out on them, but they do offer something worth checking into more thoughtfully at a later date.

The BIGGEST moment of his life so far.

Back inside with the contacts in and the shades wide open. He can’t get over it. I can’t either.

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 Our most heartfelt thanks go to everyone at Family Vision Care Center in Saratoga Springs. They had no ego issues, there was no battle for control, they simply rose to the challenge and helped us out. They’ve listened to our needs and responded to them. We couldn’t find anyone else in the area to be so cooperative, proactive and upbeat about it all. We love everyone there!

 

Summer Winding August 12, 2014

It’s been a minor challenge to get back into the swing of having another person around; someone who shares my space and requires extra attention and has his own special needs, you know, like eating. ! And this kid likes real food, too! How this skinny waif of a kid can eat as much as he does has been an eye-opener for me. Plus my son eats very differently from the way in which I’ve been noshing my way thru the summer; in fact he eats something very close to the Atkins diet. Paleo maybe? The mostly-protein-and-vegetable thing. That’s in part why he’s able to eat so much,  I guess. (That and the constant running around after frogs and chickens). For him, it’s natural, it’s what he’s always preferred. While other kids were content with pizza and mac and cheese, those were seldom acceptable options for my kid. He’d have asked for grilled (definitely not breaded or fried) calamari and arugula salad if he had his druthers. And what’s even more remarkable than his palate, is that he knows when he’s full. He’ll eat well; not fast, not slow, but with a steady, measured pace, and then he’ll often finish before his food is gone. He’ll say simply “I’m done,” and push his plate away. Only thing is, he’s hungry again in a couple of hours. Unlike me, he’s not content to satisfy his hunger with a bag of jalapeno-cheddar kettle-cooked potato chips eaten on the run. Having to come up with a menu for him has been challenging (plus it turns me into something of a minor bitch several times a day. I clearly need to formulate a plan and make a run to the grocery store in earnest). Hey, it might try my patience, but deep down I just think I’m jealous. I passed the whole summer, productive as it was, making little more than a handful of ‘real’ meals for myself. Instead I snacked on the go, ingesting thousands of thoroughly enjoyable though hardly useful calories. I’ve packed on eleven pounds since the last week of school (a result of 3,500 extra, un-needed calories each week), but my kid’s as fit as a fiddle. Oh well. I did what I needed to do then, and going forward I’ll do what still needs to be done with regard to eating a more responsible diet.

School starts in less than three weeks, yet it may as well be a year off for the way in which we’ve sunk into summer. Elihu’s on a teenager’s schedule, going to bed around midnight and often sleeping til eleven. This morning he roused early because he’s in the middle of a good book. I had been looking forward to ‘having the house to myself’ while he slept, but his reading is just as fine. I get my space, he gets his. If it weren’t for the having to come up with something healthy and decent to eat every two hours, this would be the easiest gig in the world. Yeah, we’re having a good end of summer time.

Yesterday it was hot and sunny – not a cloud in the sky – and we went out to Crow Field to fly his glider rc airplane. Although he complained that the controls were rudimentary and made real, controlled flight impossible, some gentle wafts of moving air kept the craft aloft for some stunningly-long and beautiful flights. My heart soared even more that my son could actually track and see the plane. He’d lose it in the sky when it reached a good distance, but then it would flip over or circle back, making a pass over our heads, thrilling us both. I’d thought about going back to get my camera, but even if I’d had it, I wouldn’t be able to catch the moment. Just being there, watching my still-young son, standing just above the goldenrod and tall field grasses, remote in hand, eyes on the vast blue sky, white bird soaring above, the heavy, hot air, scented with blooms and all things growing… that was enough. It was an island in our summer that I’d likely return to in my mind many times.

Covered in sweat, I peeled off my shorts and shirt when we got back home and slipped into my kiddie wading pool. Many a guest has laughed at that thing – shaking a head in disbelief that I, a grown woman, counted this as such an important possession. But truly, it is. I am a water person. I am lost in a landlocked community, and sometimes I think the only thing that preserves my sanity here is the small pond I’ve made for myself outside the kitchen door. In the morning it reflects a lovely pattern of waves onto the walls and ceiling inside, and that alone restores my soul. So my little rigid plastic pool is all-important to my summer. After a hard day pruning fruit trees or fixing fences, off come the clothes (usually all of them) and into the pool I go. Longer than a bathtub, it’s the perfect size for immersing an adult body. And this time, a rare one, Elihu joined me. He was dripping with sweat and ready to get in, although he did go and change into swimming trunks first. (Me, underwear was just fine.) It was here that we two passed the next hour and a half – I kid you not – doing nothing at all. The chickens would occasionally walk by, and we’d entice them into a couple of investigatory pecks on the side of the pool, we’d watch the birds fly by and identify them by their flight or call, we’d notice the leaves falling from the apple tree prematurely and lament what it represented, we chatted about all sorts of things. He caught me up on his summer, most notably the wonderful waterscapes he visited while in Florida, both natural and man-made, and all of the glorious water birds he was able to see up close. In my book, this had been a very fine summer’s afternoon.

Last night Elihu busked a bit and netted enough cash to buy some heating lamps for his frog terrarium. That’s the new thing now. He can hardly sleep but for thinking about the Golden Tree Frogs he’s been preparing for these past three months. He’s paid for everything himself, all that’s left to do is to order the little amphibians. The other night I caught him sleep walking; he was in his bed, on his knees, plucking tiny frogs from imagined branches above his head, cautioning ‘be careful, be careful…’

Before we can order these new members of the family and add another adventure to the list, we’re going to make a quick trip to visit my Uncle Paul – my mother’s only sibling – and his family. If you can imagine it, my mom hasn’t seen her brother in over twenty years. ! They exchange Christmas cards, but that’s about it. I don’t think there are any hard feelings, it’s just that uptight, dysfunctional non-communication thing that my family seems to suffer from (me, however, not so much. !) My cousin Rusty is much like my brother Andrew, sans the drinking problem. He lives in a dark bedroom off of the living room to which he retreats most of the day unless asked to make an appearance. He takes seasonal work in the local cranberry bogs, and although I know him to smoke those skinny cherry-flavored cigars, I’m not sure how he pays for them, as he doesn’t seem to be employed anymore than Andrew. But Rusty is a very friendly and affable guy (unlike my brother in his current state – update on that situation to follow in a future post) and he has made such an impression on Elihu. The last time we visited, the two of them spent hours exploring the inlets and tidal pools. Elihu is more than excited about another such visit with his cousin.

What is interesting about this side of mom’s family is this: mom’s own father left her and her mother as a result of an affair he’d had with a much younger woman across town. My grandfather had knocked up his young girlfriend, and then chose to leave my grandmother to be with his new family. Hm. Sound familiar? The big difference was that back in those times, it was customary for the mother to retain custody of the girls, and for the father to retain custody of the boys. So off older brother Paul went with his dad and his new family. I have a strong feeling that I’ve been placed in this strikingly similar situation in order to bring better closure to it. Not sure I’m being very successful at present; I know I have far more resentment than I’d like to think. It’s definitely a life’s work in progress. As for my mother, it’s amazing how much hurt and resentment she’s carried with her all her life on account of her father leaving in this way. When, as a child, I’d ask her about my grandfather, in a tone dripping with anger and a queer sort of sarcasm (uncharacteristic of her) she’d often respond “you don’t have a grandfather.” She was nothing short of cryptic in her answers to my inquiries as a child, and it wasn’t until I’d pieced things together for myself as a teenager that I got what had happened. To be more accurate, I hand’t truly understood what my grandmother’s (and my mother’s) experience had been until the moment that Fareed told me he was leaving. Then the shit hit me like the biggest aha moment ever.

So we’ll be making a two-day trip to this family at the northerly end of Buzzard’s Bay, a sort of low-rent version of the Cape. There are no waves at the small neighborhood beach, it sits at the mouth of a river and it’s waters are a bit murky, there’s lots of grass and marsh, and the houses on the water’s perimeter are small and very close to each other. That’s alright, I crave that certain smell of the air that always comes with saltwater and I don’t care what it takes to experience that once again. I do envy those for whom lakes, pools or oceans are but a short walk from their doors, but I cling to the opinion that I enjoy these rare water moments even more for having been deprived of them for such long stretches of time. (Sour grapes? Maybe.) I cannot wait…

Today may turn out to be a great landmark in not only our summer, but also in our lives. Elihu will try on tinted contacts for the first time later today. I myself have not given much emotional energy to this because I don’t want to be too excited, nor do I want to be too let down. I am choosing instead to simply not think about it, because if I did, I’d do something, like, I dunno, maybe, explode?? Cry?? We’re not there yet, just a couple of hours to go… This is a far bigger thing than I’d thought, and its implications in my son’s life are e-fucking-normous. Can you imagine? My son must wear huge, dark glasses that cling to his head with a gasket – they must be held fast to his head with straps, and there can be no light at all allowed to penetrate. He lives with a perennial raccoon’s mask of a tan line, and he absolutely cannot leave the house without protection. It’s not as if he ‘kinda’ needs them; he cannot even open his eyes outside. At all. So the freedom this could potentially afford him is huge. Huge. As I write this I begin to get butterflies in my chest. I’ve been downplaying it the last few days, as Elihu’s said a time or two that he’s a little scared. It represents a whole new world. It brings up new questions too: how will he adjust for indoor and outdoor lighting? Have a supplemental pair of ‘regular’ sunglasses? Remove the contacts for long indoor stays? I’ve set up our house so that it’s quite dark, perhaps I can just remove the window tint and open the shades in order to enable him to keep the contacts on all day. The rest of the world is a very bright place (light increases exponentially as it gets brighter, it does not simply ‘double’) and for the most part, I think these contacts will do the trick. They’re expensive too (almost $400!! Not fair I say) and so how about a second pair? How will we swing that? One thing at a time… I need to relax here.

Time’s almost getting away from me now, I need to wrap things up and see how lil man is doing. That must be a pretty good book; he hasn’t told me he’s hungry yet. I’ve been writing on borrowed time! Later today we’re going to a local Indian buffet with mom, after his contacts appointment. I am trying to stay myself; all I can do is imagine him laughing at his new ability, assessing with new eyes what it is to read, to look out a window (that’s a big deal!), to do all sorts of things. But at the same time, I can foresee frustrations, tears even… Only a few hours away, and yet a lifetime away. Amazing what awaits us. Ok. I think it’s time to rouse ourselves from our tasks and take in some tea and farm-fresh eggs for a late breakfast. Our summer ride clearly isn’t over yet… there’s still more road ahead, winding off into a brand-new countryside.