The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Thinking Thanks November 27, 2014

It’s often my son who turns me around. Sometimes I self-police, but usually it’s him. I’ll moan over my arthritic, misshapen fingers, or worry about running out of heating oil, or I’ll make some grumblings about the plight of the divorced, single mother, and there he is, to turn it all around. “But just think, you can play music with those fingers”, and “Isn’t our house nice and toasty right now?: or “If it weren’t for you and daddy splitting up, we’d never have known this life!” Sure, I’ve said all those very same things to myself, but it always helps to hear them again from an outside source. Yes, all of this is true. And while it’s become something of a trite, Facebooky sort of platitude by now, it really does make things so much nicer when we’re deeply appreciative of all that we do have, right now. It’s always easier to condemn than to praise, likewise it’s often easier to feel disappointment than gratitude. But putting that extra oomph of energy into turning it around, and seeing things ‘half full’ is worth the effort. Contentment becomes the prize.

Yesterday we spend a snow-bound day inside and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The kitchen is currently a hot mess on account of my negligence, but it doesn’t bother me. Nor did it last night, as Elihu and I cozied up on the couch and looked over his favorite childhood books together. Nor did it distract me when we decided to actually use our fancy, modern tv in the basement and watch a whole movie together. ! Nor did I fret over the unkempt house when we went outside in the darkness to marvel over the still-falling, sparkly snow that lay in great mounds over everything.

We retired late. The two of us often rely on help to sleep – benadryl for him on bad nights, half an ambien for me – but last night we both gave it a go without assistance. He got into my bed, and we chatted a bit after I turned out the lights. “How is this going to end?” I asked him, “If we both love talking so much?” “Ok, Good night” he said, and not another word was spoken, although we both tossed and turned for a good forty-five minutes before we finally slept. But a good night’s sleep we had, and my dear child is still in bed as I write.

Later today we’ll go to grandma’s for a proper Thanksgiving dinner. There may yet be drama to follow, but for now I’m not worrying about it… I’m looking forward to all the annual food favorites – all around a proper table, on the good china, with good wine… After that we’ll pack up a meal and bring it to Martha at the farm. Our family traditions have morphed and diminished with time, but I’m grateful that things are winding down slowly, and not changing all in an instant. It was a year ago today that my family had its final meal together, and with dad being gone this year, it feels different. We’ve had time to adjust, thankfully, and all is as it should be. Throws a bit of a nostalgic, melancholic feeling on things, but still, there’s so much we do have – and so much that we have already had in our lives – that it’s ok. Sad some moments, but happy others. Such is life here on Earth – contrasts we struggle to reconcile, losses we must work to accept. The stressors in our lives may constantly vie for our attention, but today it’s best not to listen. Instead, let’s look around the room and sigh with satisfaction at those simple gifts we are so blessed to have in our lives right now.

IMG_1638We needed to fix our dove of peace that floats over the garage at this time of year…

IMG_1633Elihu is a great help.

IMG_1642Still needs a little tweaking, but isn’t she lovely?

IMG_1662The first thing I see outside this morning: the beautiful view from our living room window to the southeast.

IMG_1699The sun pokes through for a moment as powder falls from a branch.

IMG_1650The view from our kitchen window, in the same direction.

IMG_1654The birds need a little help this morning! Platform feeder’s under a good eight inches…

IMG_1657Stanley the Tree Sparrow on the kitchen’s dry erase board.

IMG_1678And my dearest bird boy, sleeping in on a snowy, Thanksgiving morning. Thankful am I.

 

November’s News November 20, 2014

Today the sixth grade went on a field trip to see a production of The Secret Garden by Albany’s Capital Repertory Company. A quick, last-minute search informed me that it was a musical – not what I’d expected (Lucy Simon, Carly’s big sister wrote the music, Marsha Norman the lyrics). At first my heart sank at the discovery, but no matter, I figured it would be a good production. Happily, the show did not disappoint, and even though I, as a driver and chaperone, paid my own gas and parking, I feel it was worth the expense. These rare day trips are always worth whatever small sacrifice I need to make, because this era of ‘parents going along too’ won’t last forever. Plus I want very much to have these shared memories with my son, and with his classmates, too.

In Elihu’s first full year at Waldorf I was present for just about every single field trip the class took. The following year, in spite of a full schedule playing piano at the school, I somehow managed to attend most of the trips, and even though I had to beg out of a class again today, I managed to go along once again. I don’t take any of this for granted, I feel it’s a true gift. As a parent with the flexibility to be there, it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t go when I was able. Although on the car ride back Elihu played the perfect eleven-year-old boy, making crazy jokes with his buddies and laughing the whole ride, when it was just the two of us again driving home from school, he effused over the production. He told me that he ‘was in tears for much of it’. (I found it moving too, but not to the degree that he did.) And that each actor played an instrument – and sang as well – he found that more than impressive. When we got home he was excited to call both his father and grandma to tell them about his day at the theater.

Tomorrow is the fall school assembly, and although the orchestra’s too large to fit on the stage and so won’t be performing (much to Elihu and grandma’s great disappointment), Elihu will be singing with the middle school chorus as well as doing a spoken word piece with his class, and also a eurythmy performance in costume. (As a self-respecting sixth grade boy he cannot openly admit to enjoying his movement performance, but in private Elihu has several times told me how beautiful the costumes are and how much he’s looking forward to wearing them.) Tomorrow should be another good production. And for once I’m not accompanying anything, and I will be thoroughly enjoying my non-participatory role in the audience.

A couple of days ago I had my first hair cut and color in over seventh months. (I know.) I just love the place I go to; it’s homey, comfortable and casual and I almost always meet someone new and enjoy some pleasant conversation when I’m there. I have a great respect for those who can cut and style hair; they express such nuance with each creation. And that no two heads are the same just makes what Wendy does for me all the more impressive. She’s a talented woman, and I’m grateful that I found her. (She always makes Elihu feel like a rockstar, too.) It’s been so long since I’ve felt like spending the money on myself, but truth be told, there’s almost never a good time. Somehow, this month my bills were caught up and I’d even managed to tuck some Christmas gifts away early, so I was able to free myself from the guilt of the extra expense and enjoy being there. Freedom from worry is good, yes – but even better is that fresh haircut feeling. ! And I know I’m just kinda sneaking this in here – but I’ve lost 15 pounds since September on a renewed dieting campaign, and it hasn’t been til now that I’ve felt I deserved spending the money on my hair. Diet results or not, I’ve done a lot over the past seven months. I’ve covered some ground and made some improvements in my corner of the world. This was a nice reward.

Beyond today, I’m not sure what will fill our time when school lets out for break, as the Thanksgiving vacation week looms long and empty at the moment. It’s the first Thanksgiving that Elihu will have been here in years. Last year, while Elihu was in Illinois with his father, we four Conants had our last meal together while dad was alive. I remember the food was so good that we ate robustly, hardly checking in a moment with each other. It was only as dad wiped his beard and began to push away from the table that I realized…. this was probably was, no – it was – our very last meal together as a family. I’d felt both sad and grateful in that moment – sad that it had felt so natural that I’d let it pass without any special moment of savoring it, grateful that we, who hadn’t eaten as a group around the same table in a decade or more, had all been here together one final time. In a way it was perfect that Elihu was absent; it gave us our last real moment as a family. I’m grateful for it, grateful, grateful. Hard to believe it was a year ago. That the season of my dad’s death was a year ago. This year, thank God, we’ll have the energetic addition of young Elihu to help keep things happy and bright. Mom’s even inviting another couple to join us. Things feel much better than they had originally. One concern however, is Andrew. After several months of attending AA meetings every single night, he’s fallen off the wagon yet again. (An intervention was never done at the insistence of a friend in AA who ended up mentoring – and then giving up on – Andrew.) This is an emotionally charged time, and Andrew is a goddam time bomb. It’s one thing to call the sheriff in to prevent him from taking a knife to me with immediate family present, it’ll be a horror show if it happens in front of folks we don’t know all that well. (I suppose it would be even more horrific should he actually make good on his threats.) With his nephew being present, that might help mitigate things. Never can tell with Andrew. We shall see.

Martha was taken to the hospital day before yesterday – her sixth (or perhaps seventh?) such visit over the past year. I’m always prepared for it to be ‘the time’, but it never is. I was glad that Elihu’d brought his string bass to the farm the other night to play for her. He played her favorite song “Simple Gifts” and other things, all of which made her happy and brought up stories from when she was a music teacher at Skidmore College half a century ago. Then Elihu found a shofar from the farm’s music room and after a few minutes found he could play a couple of discernible notes on it. That again brought up another story. Mom too was there with us in the kitchen, and Martha’s hound dog Masie made the rounds sitting on our feet as we visited… “If this visit to the hospital is to be Martha’s last, at least we had a good time the other night” I had thought to myself. But within a day she was given the green light, and yesterday I found myself wheeling Martha back up the stairs and into her enormous farm house once again. Which is where she ought to be. It’s always best to be home.

And tonite I find myself actually enjoying my home in a free moment. To-do lists done for the day, laundry, dishes, tidying… All of it done. The kid is even asleep. Often it takes Elihu a very long time to fall out, but today was full and after reading a chapter or two he was ready to sleep. I so seldom find myself in this place – usually it’s not until late that I can sit in front of my computer. Usually I feel the dull panic of a night growing later, and the morning looming just around the corner… But right now I am fairly content in the middle of a peaceful night, in my cozy, candle-lit living room in the middle of a month that hasn’t turned out as badly as I’d expected it to. As far back as I can remember, this was the month I always hated most of all. It was bleaker than any other month. It was gray and cold and snowless. And aside from a recent dusting of snow (we’re six hours east of the snowbound region of New York), so far this is just about as I remember all Novembers to be. But somehow, what with all life’s tiny diversions, I haven’t been so disheartened by the month this time around. Yes, it’s been cold and bleak out, but thankfully there’s been enough going on inside to keep our lives warm and colorful. Ah, but let’s all hope that it doesn’t get too colorful around here in a week’s time… Because as much as we all like a good story, I think we can agree that sometimes no news really is good news.

 

Out, Away, Over November 28, 2013

A lot has happened in the past twenty-four hours. Just yesterday Elihu and I awoke to a cold house. I knew we were approaching the witching hour, and had begun to keep the house at a brisk fifty-five degrees in order to stall the inevitable. I’d done my paperwork and made the calls to receive our long-anticipated annual heating oil grant, so now it was just a waiting game. My heart positively sank to think I might have to live out the holiday weekend in a cold house. I had lots to do, and doing it in forty degrees did not appeal. Thankfully, I learned I’d been relieved of this fate when we returned home from school yesterday to find footprints in the snow and a respectable seventeen inches of oil in our tank. You know that feeling when your paycheck first hits your checking account? That blissful moment of security, of hope… of possibility? That’s exactly what I felt when I retrieved the oil-soaked yardstick from the tank. To know that we’ll be warm for the next couple of months gives me the greatest relief. This oil is a gift I fully appreciate. I no longer take something as basic as this for granted – the way I did in my previous life. In my fine, suburban Northshore home, going without heat never once appeared on my radar – not even close. But here, now, it’s a real concern. There’s no pipe that magically delivers fuel into your home. The thermostat no longer hovers endlessly, mindlessly, in the mid seventies all winter long. (I remember my mother telling me as a youngster to go and put a sweater on if I was cold. Now, my kid tells me the same thing when I begin to complain about the chill inside our house!) There are consequences here in the country for not properly budgeting your resources. And even while I admire the replenished level in my tank, I do that know I’ll have to start saving for my next tank soon. But this does give me a week or two of respite. And that’s pretty big. Definitely something I’m thankful for.

And Elihu is gone now too. No longer a bittersweet event, instead it’s a time I savor and use wisely. Like my fuel oil, it too won’t last, so I must use it as efficiently as possible. Last night I allowed myself some veg time, as I waited for his father to call and let me know he’d arrived ok in Florida. With about two hours to kill, I grazed my way through the leftovers in the fridge as the comedy channel played. I surfed the internet, seeking out all the information I could on the culture of Orlando. With Steven Colbert in the background, I perused Wikipedia articles and poured over images. It struck me that this place was very sci-fi like in its growth. It reminded me of the bizarre city of Benidorm, Spain. Once a nothing little coastal town, it sprung up virtually overnight, growing into a cluster of vertical glass hotels and artificially created tropical gardens. I first saw the place when I awoke from a nap in the backseat of our car. It was nighttime, and we were driving north to Barcelona. I thought I was dreaming at first; in the middle of a vast, black nothingness arose the futuristic vision of a gleaming city. When I figured out that I wasn’t still dreaming I awoke the others and alerted the driver. This we had to see. Glad we did – it was probably the most surreal place I’ve ever visited. Nothing natural about it. No evidence (that we could see) of any history or organic pattern of growth. This was a cancer on the land that had struck quickly. It strikes me that Orlando is much the same. First came the early settlers and later the orange farm magnates (Dr. Phillip Phillips, crazy!) and finally giant tourism-based corporations (Walt and friends) and then boom! – from the 1980s til now the place has exploded. It’s a manufactured destination, like its Spanish cousin. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. And if one goes there with that in mind, and one visits not for the indigenous, historical characteristics, but instead goes with the goal of experiencing a fantastically fabricated, commercial smorgasbord, then I suppose it’s a fine place to visit. I’m not a fan of the whole Disney/theme park thing in general, but I readily cop to enjoying the luxury of a five-star hotel. I remember well what it was to travel, stay and dine in top-tier luxury. And no matter one’s ethics or values, I believe few humans would ever disdain such an experience. And that’s likely what Orlando is built upon. Transient luxury and faux finery are better than none at all, I suppose.

Elihu called around eleven. He was beyond thrilled to finally be in Florida. (A couple of hours earlier in the Albany airport he’d said to me “I think I’ve been to all fifty states now.” And yes, after a seven thousand mile tour with his dad this past summer, plus all of his previous travels, I agreed he’d come close. “How about Hawaii?” I asked. “No” he answered, “that doesn’t count; because Hawaii is its own country”. I assured him it was not, that it was the fiftieth state. Impressed by this fact, he added it to the list of places he aspired to visit, coming in right behind New Zealand and Australia.) He was beside himself with anticipation being in a place where it was not only warm (when just this afternoon he’d been lobbing snowballs at me) but where there was also an abundance of wildlife. His father had told us that the place was “sick with water birds”, so he was stoked. I’d even packed Elihu our favorite pair of binoculars – this was an opportunity no self-respecting birder could miss. And dad had reported seeing a golden-colored tree frog in his friend’s pool. This trip promised some serious stuff for a nature-loving young man.

He and his father had called me from their table at a restaurant in the Orlando airport. It was situated inside a giant atrium with both an enormous palm tree and a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and holiday decorations. The height of the ceiling impressed him as did the panoramic view of the airport beyond. It being nighttime, he could finally see outside – and was aware of distance in a way that he cannot perceive at all by day’s light. He told me he could see lights twinkling in all directions. “The ceiling here is like nine stories tall and I can see outside for miles!” he told me excitedly. My heart rose in my chest at his joy. How happy I was that he got it; that he was fully getting his sense of place. I was also very thankful that his first vision of this place was at night. I would never have told him that, as it would bring attention to the vision thing, and likely turn our conversation sour. But this was all I could think as he continued to tell me with great, childish excitement, about all the new and wonderful things he was seeing for the first time. I was so grateful for the dark of night, for the sparkling lights and the promise of a magical stay to come. ‘Enjoy this my dearest son’, I thought to myself, ‘because like your most fantastic dreams, before long this too will be nothing but a memory.’

Elihu safely and happily off in his own world for the next few days, I went next door to see how life had been going for mom and dad. Andrew had spent much of the past week drunk, and dad had just had a particularly bad episode. Following a long and challenging night, mom had finally gotten to bed after four a.m. With these two variables in the mix, plus a visit that needed to be made to housebound friend Martha, we agreed that our Thanksgiving would not be a sit down dinner at a given time, but rather we’d adjust ourselves to things as they happened. Mom agreed that she’d still make all the food (this gives her joy and purpose, believe me) and she’d just set it out for us to eat as we showed up. I’m still not sure how this will all happen; a trip to Martha’s means that dad is left alone. If Andrew and I go along as well, that is. Maybe I’ll stay back with dad. Not sure. Might have to bring some Scarlatti along with me! Hm. I begin to think that this might be a nice little opportunity to spend some time alone with dad – without others (namely mom) around. Mom tends to speak for him more and more… taking away what little voice he has left. He’s much more himself when she’s not around (no mystery there – she’s been hen-pecking at him for fifty years!) Yeeks, such a relationship they have. Symbiotic, I guess. They each seem to stoke the other in ways that work. Not saying it’s healthy, but it’s been going for decades. On some levels it obviously works for them. Who am I to judge? Happy or not, they are deeply linked and dependant upon each other. I guess it’s getting scarier for mom these days, and that’s upping her need to control things. She’s not from a generation that expresses themselves well – or at all – so that makes things all the more difficult at this stage of their lives. At least she’s giving in to it slowly and is finally accepting help (been pushing the in-home respite caregiver thing well over a year and only this week has she had someone to the house!!). Yeah, tomorrow will be a strange day for all of us Conants.

Fareed’s family is beginning to turn a corner too. Nelly, I understand, is now living with Fareed and his new wife (in our old home – and in the very room we’d once planned for his folks to live in as they aged. Same plan, different spouse.) She’s receiving some in-home care too. As both she and Martha have begun to have in-home care, my own mother is finally coming around to the idea that this is a good solution. Far cheaper than a full-on nursing home. And, though no one likes to talk about it, I added today that it increases the likelihood of Nelly or dad dying at home. I know neither of us – my ex’s family nor mine – have ever spoken in such specific language about this final stage, but at the very least I am confident that all four of them would hope to die at home rather than at an old folks’ home. Imagine them comfy at home, with a nurse to visit and make sure they’re taken care of, family around to visit and keep them connected… until that final time when they  just become too tired to stay around much longer…. could one wish for a better end?

Most of us contemporary American types aren’t good at talking or thinking about death. But it’s a-comin no matter. So I’m readying myself as best I can. Almost envy my peers who had no warning. Whose parents went quickly, tidily. Yeah, right. That’s easy for me to say. I don’t suppose any one way of losing a parent is easier than any other. No easy way to see this through, no matter what happens. But it will happen. And for those folks who are living through a lingering, meandering process, it can give those final holidays and landmarks a surreal and almost sickeningly poignant feel… knowing damn well this is the last time, knowing damn well that by Spring he either won’t know you any more… or he’ll be gone. Or maybe he’ll live another ten years knowing no one. Maybe. Anyway, you’re getting there. And you look back on last year and realize that it was your last, real Thanksgiving. Wow. It’s over. And yet, somehow, it’s not. Not yet. Not quite. A strange netherworld in which to live.

Being out of a resource, being far from home, or seeing a long-standing tradition come to a close are all things that get one to thinking. Thinking about the things we cherish, the things we take for granted, and the very transient nature of life. I know it’s hard to convince a teenager or a twenty-something that life is fleeting, but that’s ok. You’re not supposed to think that way when you’re young. You shouldn’t be thinking like that, or at least I don’t think so. Instead, you should be living those moments, feeling what it is to be in that experience, smack in the middle of your life. It’s that first half of life that gives you the standards by which you make your later-in-life observations (you know, like the ones I’m making here!). You can’t truly realize how precious things are until you know different. I do realize that life doesn’t always work like this for everyone, but it seems the usual course for most. Me, I find myself looking back and marveling over the routines I’d always taken for granted as the ordinary landscape of my life. And actually, I’m finding a lot of extraordinary in my past that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Never know what ya got til it’s gone… or til it’s almost gone, I should say.

Tonite I’m thinking to myself how blessed is the ordinary. How thankful I am for all of the ordinary I’ve ever known. I may go without for a time, or I may go for a time knowing true abundance, but either way, I must find as much contentment as I can with whatever it is that I have. If things aren’t going so well at present, at least I know that I have a future to look forward to. (Sometimes it’s nice to know that things keep changing.) Happily, I can say that in this moment, on this day, I’m thankful to have just enough.