The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Parting Time June 17, 2014

Well, it’s here. The day on which Elihu leaves to spend the summer with his father, the day on which I am finally free of all obligations to others. No meals to prepare, no running to the grocery store three times a week, no nudging or cajoling, no reminding or asking, no picking up after…and a whole lot less laundry. And since Elihu is now eleven, I worry about him a whole lot less. He can speak up for himself when he needs (for the most part, that is, as he’s still not completely comfortable expressing himself fully to his father), he can make better decisions for himself, and he’s a bit more laid back about minor omissions in his routine than I am. If it turns out he’s forgotten something – he won’t fret or bum out about it, he’ll just keep going. Me, I’d stew for a while, ponder the ‘what ifs’, rebuke myself for being so stupid, that sort of crap. But thankfully, along with those slender, guitar-playing fingers of his, Elihu retained this easy-going quality of his father’s as well. So he can roll with things, and that’s good, cuz it looks like lil man will be spending a lot of time living out of a suitcase in the coming weeks.

There’s a trip to West Virginia on the itinerary, as well as a drive cross county to the famed hippie jam band fest High Sierra in California. Or, as those of the jam band culture prefer to say, ‘Cali’. Sheesh. My disdain for the jam band world may have been one of the many nails in the coffin of my marriage. In hindsight, I expect my husband only pretended to share my feelings for the culture at large; he and I enjoyed poking fun at the kelping (that flailing sort of pulse-less dance the hippie kids do), the accents, the attitudes, the personal filth in which they so easily lived… He, after all, has played in jam bands for decades now, and the guys in Garaj Mahal, for as dysfuntional a bunch as they were, they were our family, present for Elihu’s first few days, present for much of our marriage. I miss having those guys – and some of those goofy, groovy extended jam tunes in my life. However, that world itself is not a place in which I feel too terribly comfortable. I personally do not enjoy the scent of patchouli and simply cannot stand The Grateful Dead. It it not for lack of trying, let me tell you. In fact, as a thoughtful and intelligent musician I have many, many times tried to enjoy the Dead for myself, and when that has failed, I’ve spent time trying to at least understand what it is about them that has so inspired millions of fans. (I find it super-ironic that the one feature Dead fans cite at their most shining attribute is that they ‘groove’; because no, they don’t. As a rhythm section they are loose and sloppy, and melodically there is a meandering, never-settled quality which physically revolts me before long. I’ve tried to get over this; made many concerted, open-hearted attempts, but it just doesn’t work.) My kid will be living in the jam band world for a portion of the summer, and I am excited for him. It aint for me, but for him – it’s perfect. Lots of support, lots of opportunities to play with musicians, total acceptance and lots of love… a complete adventure. Glad he gets this amazing experience with his dad. Happier still that I don’t have to go along for the ride.

The few days before the great parting are always a strange mix of things for Elihu. One minute we’re laughing like dearest friends, the next he’s in tears over some tiny slight – but before long, he himself will identify it as related to the upcoming change. He loves being here, and part of him dearly just wants to stay at home all summer ┬ádoing nothing special, playing with his friends and doing summertime things, but then he misses his daddy like crazy. He wants to see his baby brothers too. Sometimes I’ll find him weeping by himself in his room over the whole mix of feelings. Sometimes he clings to me like a four year old and tells me he never wants to leave. Some times he yells at me that he can’t take me any longer and needs his father now. And other times he shouts to the sky that it’s not fair he can’t have both of us at the same time. Yeah, this time is always a bit difficult to navigate, it takes sensitivity on both of our parts. Reactions and feelings that appear to be about one thing are often about something altogether different. But by now the process is familiar to us, so we get through it ok.

For me, my rough patch will be the ride back from the airport and then the first few hours in the house all alone. While I’m invigorated by the work before me this summer, it’s never as easy as I imagine it’ll be in those first few hours after Elihu’s gone. There’s just something about knowing someone’s in the house – no matter if they’re within sight or not – that just gives the place that extra certain bit of energy. Like the kind our dear Madeline brought to our place. We now call it the “Madeline sparkle”. And when I’m alone in the kitchen, no young boy just around the corner, counting out his Pokemon cards on his desk, I’ll be able to feel it. The Madeline sparkle will be gone.

That’s ok, this summer in particular. I’m faced with a lot to take care of; a body to get back into shape, a healthy way of eating to re-learn, a building to repair, a summer camp to guide into the new space, a cellar full of moldy crap to assess, a garage full of the same (swapping mold for mouse poop here), gutters to clean, weeds to pull, small carpentry repairs to make, painting and assorted other domestic projects plus the very daunting task of marrying the new chicks with the older flock – all this is before me. Me, alone. A plumber and an extra hand to do what I alone can’t, but the rest is mine to do. And I can’t forget the piano too – I need to keep playing, lest my job in the fall become like starting over again. I have a few difficult pieces that I need to start on now, so that by fall they’re in my muscle memory. I have archiving of blog posts, filing and the mundane and dreaded business of taxes and food stamps to face. In some ways it helps to see it all in print like this, but in some ways it just makes me want to polish off a bottle of wine and a tub of spicy hummus in front of an entire season of Gilmore Girls.

Elihu’s in the bath now, singing to himself happy little songs about nothing in particular. He is adding his Madeline sparkle to the place, and I can feel it taking up space, filling the air with joy. Tomorrow morning at this time he’ll be nearly a thousand miles away, and the sparkle will be gone. The house will be completely quiet. Still such mixed feelings. It’s just that little bit of transition time that’s the hardest. But my to-do list and my personal goals will keep my eyes fixed on the horizon, and there’s tremendous promise for some greatly positive results on the other side. That makes it easier to dismiss the familiar yen for food, booze and reruns.

I haven’t measured Elihu against the wall of his closet in months. We’ll do that today, before he goes. And then he’ll put on a white oxford shirt and jeans, lean against the kitchen doorway, and I’ll snap a picture of what he looks like at the end of fifth grade. He and I are both keenly aware that this is the beginning of a time of great physical change for him, and we both want to document it. We mean to take the same picture over the next few years so that we can see the change up close. I sense we two are each at the doorstep of a brand-new era in our lives, as he approaches middle school and I begin to see the birth of a new business in the Studio… I still have some trepidation about what’s in store, and I think I probably will until my project is well underway. No matter what happens, we’re both about to do a lot, and to learn a lot in the process.

Yup, there’s an awful lot of life coming up, so guess we’d better finish packing and get underway. It’s going to be a very interesting summer.

IMG_6666Me and lil man on our last morning together for a while.

 

Lost August 6, 2013

Kid’s been gone over two weeks. Maybe it’s three by now. You’d think I’d know, but I don’t. Been busy, busy, busy, trying to get all the things done that I simply can’t during the year. I suppose now that he’s ten it’ll become easier for me to do things. He can get himself something to eat or entertain himself easily enough. It’s just that I always feel badly about digging into solitary projects like filing, organizing teaching materials or other time-consuming stuff when he’s home. Which is why I’m hitting it so hard now. But today I feel stopped. The sun is shining and the day is bright, yet I can’t shake this feeling that the world is passing me by. I’m here in my windowless basement office, going through boxes and files and papers that just never seem to end. And I wonder, as I have so many times before, how on earth do working people deal with all this crap? There’s never an end to things that need tending to, never an end to the drawings and schoolwork that needs to find a home, there’s never an end to the personal correspondence, the filing, the bills, the paper…. And yet, at the end of the day, when someone asks me “what do you do all day?”, I’m hard-pressed to properly explain myself. Which leads me to this very moment. Right now, I’m feeling tetherless and lost.

In going through my music closet, and in finally opening great manila envelopes marked “to look at and file”, my past spills out onto my lap in old set lists, cocktail napkins scrawled over with chords, laminates and other small, useless items that only break my heart today. I remember the feeling of hope that went along with that time in my life. Our lives seemed all yet ahead of us then. Yes, I can say that I knew I was enjoying a good time in my life, and I did enjoy myself. I loved doing what I did, and I never took it for granted. But there was always another show coming up, another project, another seed of hope… I was always swimming with a fast-moving current. There was never anything static about that time in my life. But my life now is very different. Aside from my beloved son, I have to admit to myself, there’s very little of that sort of hope inside me today. There just doesn’t seem to be any forward pull. Yes, I have my writing, I suppose. Dear friends and readers who check in to bear witness to our tiny adventures, but is that in of itself a destination? What, I wonder, as I hold the evidence of a life once fully lived and enjoyed, just what the hell is my ‘thing’ now? Mom? Part-time accompanist at my kids’ school? Goddam recess monitor? Man. So much hope, so much forward-looking energy in these old scraps of paper. Yet where did they land me? I haven’t touched my Wurlitzer in ages. I haven’t played in a band since I left Evanston. It’s been two years since I’ve sung a proper show. And I miss it all like crazy. I fully admit to flat-out jealousy when I see the Facebook updates of my friends who are still making music. How lucky they are to be playing. To be doing what they love. I do know that I’m lucky to be here, and to have this new chapter from which to learn and grow, but still….

I can’t make much progress as I feel right now. I have no food left in the house, and I’m hungry. My hunger is no doubt helping to make my mood even darker, and I’m trying to muster the resolve to do something about it. It takes some gas and time to get into town, and I just can’t find it in me to go. I’m almost out of cash now too, cuz kids don’t take piano lessons in the summer (I sure never did), but that doesn’t stop bills from coming. August is always something of a financial challenge, and especially now in the wake of our July trip and some small home improvements. I know this has been a great summer, and I was so blessed to have visited Chicago (and to have eaten all that gorgeous food!), but it seems the spark has worn off. I know things aren’t bad by any means. I do. And I’m doing better than I was a year ago. I know it. Plus I’m home, surrounded by things I love, by nature, by a beautiful summer day. Even so, in this moment I’m still not quite sure where I am.

 

What’s A Girl To Do? April 18, 2013

My mom stays with Elihu on Wednesday nights while I go in to the high school to teach a continuing ed class I call “Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher”. It works out well; Elihu and grandma get to enjoy some time just to themselves, and I get out of the house. But after this final run of seven classes, I’m not so much in need of merely getting out of the house as I am in need of really going out. Just today I’d made impromptu plans to grab a drink with two of the only near-peer women I know in town, but then realized it was on the same night as my kid’s Spring assembly. Phooey. That was slightly disappointing. Not worried, we’ll reschedule. It’s not a big deal, but frustrating just the same. Don’t mean to sound whiney here – because I actually did go out last week, and it was an enjoyable diversion from my rather same-same life these days. But truthfully, there is nothing – that I know of yet – to take the place of the full complement of friends, music, food and places that were routine and treasured parts of my life back in Chicago. Nope. Still got nothing. Yeah, there are world-class acts coming through the equally world-class Zankel Music Hall at Skidmore College (less than 4 miles from our door!) – yeah, there’s stuff going on… There’s certainly an impressive roster of high-end restaurants to choose from up and down Broadway…(It’s all beyond my budget and past my kid’s bedtime anyway). But still. There’s no little taco joint with someone’s abuelita cooking in the kitchen, there’s no late night jazz joint with deep fried food and all the young cats lining up to sit in… there’s no Korean barbecue joint jammed to the rafters at 4 am filled with the mouth-watering scents of marinated meats grilling to blackened perfection… And there sure as hell aint no Green Mill. Mm-mm. And there aint nothin around these parts like the Diner Grill on Irving. Nope. Nothin.

I surely did live the life large, I did. Looked good, made good music, ate good food, treated my friends good, had good adventures, had good times and more good times. And I do not think that I am romanticizing those good times. I am not. I lived the shit out of my life all through my twenties and thirties. I’d planned to keep on living the shit out of my forties too. Remember being on a gig when my milk began to come in – just a few days after Elihu was born. Thought my boobs would break before the set was over. Even got kinda scared for a moment (first kid, no idea what was going on.) But it wasn’t my last gig as mommy, certainly not; soon after that came the big band dates where I’d press the poor babe’s head to my chest to try and soften the blow of the wall of horns just behind us… I learned how to hand off the babe when it was my turn on stage, I learned how to nurse while hosting a radio show, switching sides at the top of the hour…I learned how to bring the baby so that I could keep on doing my thing. My intention was to keep going in the same manner as I had for years. But no matter how one tries, nothing can truly be done in the same manner as the years ‘before baby’.

In an effort to stay active and involved in music – in some form – and not simply give in to the obvious, home-bound role of new mom, I also began to tag along on a handful of daddy’s shows too. In the beginning it was doable. But before long I was beginning to lie to myself; telling myself I enjoyed going along with my hubby on his thing, that I was ok with having fewer creative events of my own. Cuz things were changing. Pop gigs were phasing out for me; my world of musical friends and projects and shows just kind of dried up in that first year after my child’s birth. I was becoming more mommy than musician. For a time, jazz gigs still worked (those dates actually paid enough to hire babysitters and often involved my husband. Gigs were our dates). But the alt bands with all those basement hours writing and arranging… that was out now. Just not logistically possible with a baby, especially a newborn. And even if it were, how selfish! Writing, rehearsing, it was way too self-indulgent for a new mom. That sort of music, after all, did not pay the bills. No room for that in this new life.

So there I am, newly forty, newly a mom, with my husband on the road most of the time. So I do what I hadn’t thought I would: I give up and stay home because it’s ultimately less stressful. Ok, I think to myself, I may as well try to assimilate into the culture of Evanston moms who, like me, had chosen to live a bit of life first before having their kids on the closer side of forty. On paper it might have seemed we’d be a good fit; college-educated, middle class white gals who listened to NPR comparing notes on their toddler’s development and lamenting their rising property taxes… But try to assimilate as I did, I could not, and it was a very depressing time for me. I had no connections to these people – people whom I shared my life with only because we lived within walking distance of the same toddler park! And it was around this time I began to notice something that there was very different about Elihu’s vision. And with that awareness came an even greater sense of distance from everyone.

That’s when my isolation started, I guess. Not my story alone, for sure. You have a kid and you have to let go of other things. You lose some friends, some hobbies, you get fat, you get cranky. We all know that having a family changes everything. But I was completely ready for all of that. I was ready to trade it all for the adventure that promised to come next; a growing closeness of family, having another baby, the putting down of roots, the beginnings of traditions, the sharing of our love. What I wasn’t ready for was the growing distance from my husband, and the growing sense that we weren’t as closely united in our goals as I’d thought. I learned years later that he really had wanted me to simply give everything up – as in my bands, the big house (to which I say come on – we wanted that house for years!) and just go along with him, gig to gig, babe at breast. I just wasn’t comfortable living like that. And so there the divide began. He going more deeply into that hippie, jam band culture on the road, and me, waiting it out in our beautiful mid century home. Yeah, Elihu and I spent a lot of time together, waiting.

So here I am at the cusp of fifty, my son about to turn ten (we like to say we’re turning sixty!) and I wonder what the hell happened to my forties? I can account for all the decades before with great enthusiasm, vivid, landmark memories, but my forties? What the hell happened just now??? I am grasping for tidy ways in which to organize my retrospection; I can’t have wasted these past years on nothing but a wretched, heart-numbing divorce, can I have? I search for the light, the joy, the relief…. I search for that feeling… the feeling of happiness and contentment that seemed to float all around me in my younger years… Much of it came from the music I was making, much of it was my home life, my husband, my cats, my friends… And it’s this feeling – the feeling of ease, of joyful happiness I miss these days. Do we all feel thus at this age? Is it my age, or my aging process that brings me to these ruminations or is it the events of the past decade? I haven’t had the worst of it, but somehow, I feel like my forties were taken from me. They sure as hell didn’t pan out as I’d thought.

Now at the end of a ten year run, I find myself just wanting to go out and have some fun. But what form does that fun take at this time in my life? I might have to re-evaluate that simple question. I love my son, and truly my life with Elihu has been the supreme gift of this invisible decade, but still…. I’m just a bit tired of being mommy all the time. I want to go…. somewhere…do something… I struggle with this. No answers come. Ah screw it. In the end, I find myself returning to my favorite date, my most cherished partner in life. Next week I’ll have some fun – we’ll have some fun. Elihu and I will have our annual birthday dinner at the local iconic Wishing Well where he’ll thrill to a plate of frogs’ legs and I’ll thrill to a cold gin martini before supper while the piano man plays in the lounge…. Not so bad, really. While I might lament this seemingly unending role of mommyhood, I do realize that this chapter too will close one day, and I will wonder where it has gone. I am deeply aware that I have a kid I not only love, but whose company I also thoroughly enjoy. This is where my life is now, so I’ll try to dwell a little less on the life I left behind. Cuz the one I got goin right now is pretty good. It is. I may know the thrill of city life again one day, but I also realize that one can’t ever truly go back. There really is nowhere else to go – but forward. So I guess that’s all a girl can do.