The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Returned Home August 7, 2014

To begin with, the train was four hours late. It wasn’t too terribly bad for me; I enjoyed a relaxed walk around downtown Schenectady, stopped by a local shop and had a nice long visit with the owners (whom I knew from years of such train travel), I explored a more hardcore city neighborhood and dropped in on a West Indies grocery (in search of some mango pickle) where I passed almost another hour chatting with new friends and learning the similarities and differences between Indian and West Indies cuisine, among other things. I watched the C130s flying in and out of the nearby airfield, their immense bodies and thundering engines shocking me at each pass…  All in all I took it well in stride, but admittedly as I waited on the platform in those final minutes, the wait was becoming too much. It must have been much worse to have suffered it on the train, so I waited in sympathy for my weary traveler.

They were the very last two passengers to disembark, and as they approached I hardly recognized the pair; Fareed at this point has a head of nearly all-white hair, and our son hardly looks a tiny boy anymore. Of course I knew this intellectually, but somehow his height shocked me – in fact his whole appearance shocked me. Handsome with a fresh haircut and oxford shirt, he seemed so much older. We didn’t kiss, we didn’t even fully hug (I’d harbored a tiny fear he might be newly reserved in our reunion and so had also readied myself for this too), but nonetheless he laughed at my mouth, agape, my speechless reception. And there we were. The three of us, together, again. I reminded myself to keep the recent unpleasant exchanges with my ex altogether apart from this experience. I’d done this many times before – but this time, on the heels of an emotionally charged round of FB messages, it felt different to me. Several recent ‘pep’ talks from friends cautioning me to keep my ex at an emotional distance helped me to stay aware. I’d been such a sucker for so many years, this time might I keep my dignity and not allow him to hurt me or push my buttons? I would give it my very best. Having the distraction of my beloved son helped, and as we got into the car and drove home in the dark, there was no lack of things to catch up on, and conversation was easy and stress-free.

I made us the nicest dinner I could in as little time as possible, and before too long we had dug into some fresh sweet corn and home-made tandoori chicken, plus a little wine, thanks to my recent houseguest Ken (whom I’d dropped off on my way to pick up the guys). After supper Fareed put a string on my garage-sale-find-of-a-guitar, and then the three of us settled on the couch to watch a little something together. Things felt easy and good, and our son was truly happy, happy, happy to be seated in between his mother and father, no matter what it was we happened to be doing. Fareed explained that he’d recently been on a Bill Hicks kick, and that he really wanted to share the comedian’s stuff with me. He explained it was a bit racy, but that the cat was deep, that he had a message. Our child is no stranger to profanity, and he himself knows full well it’s not appropriate for him to use in everyday life, so it’s not a huge deal. Good thing too; this bit was loaded. In many ways. We all enjoyed it, but before the video was done Elihu told us he’d had enough and was very tired. So we went off to get ready for bed.

Again, all was well, all was peaceful and relaxed. I hadn’t realized it, but Fareed was planning on reading a bit to Elihu, and so he joined us on the big bed to read a short story. I don’t even remember what it was I’d said – granted, in the wake of the vulgarity and off-color routine we’d spent the last half hour watching, my mind may have been off in the wrong direction – but I made some passing attempt at a joke; I’m sure it was stupid (I don’t remember what it was that I said) and suddenly Elihu started to cry. Fareed got angry at me – very angry.  His tone shifted in an instant, and he virtually spat at me, telling me that I’d been inappropriate and to shut up. I was floored. Now imagine, I think we’re all kinda still horsing around, that stuff is light and going nicely – so both the eruption of tears and my ex’s venom were a complete surprise. Boom! And there it was. All of a sudden I was the bad guy – the one who’d gone too far. ?? I tried to stay myself, and I did. If it were anyone else they probably would have told Fareed to go and get the fuck out of the room – that that sort of reaction was far beyond what the situation required, it being in of itself  inappropriate and inflammatory. But then there was lil man, between us, crying. I had to suck it up. “I think I’m just really tired”, my self-aware boy offered. Fareed shot me a look of such hate and rage that I knew Elihu’s comment meant nothing. Christ, this surely sucked. I rolled over and took half an Ambien as Elihu’s father continued reading. I needed to get the hell out of this situation, and my adrenaline was pumping. I prayed the drug would do its thing quickly. I believe it did, because I don’t remember the end of the story, but I remember seeing Fareed get up and leave. I asked him to turn out the light, which he did before closing the door.

Elihu roused when his father left and began talking. By this time I was very drowsy, so it took some effort to stay with him, but clearly, he needed to talk. When I’d thought our conversation over, he’d pick it up again. On it went like this for another fifteen minutes or so as my son emptied his heart to me as he hadn’t in a long time. “Mommy, it wasn’t what you said. I was just really tired. That’s all.” “Okay, sweetie. You don’t have to say that, but thanks.” We lay there for a minute in the dark. I knew there was more coming, so I said nothing and waited.

“I think I’m beginning to get it” he said. “I think it’s because I’m older. Because I understand it in a different way now.” I didn’t have to ask him what he meant. I just let him talk. “Do you know how many times I cried in the back of the Sprinter?” he asked. He tried to explain that even though he was part of that other family, he couldn’t shake the knowledge that he really wasn’t – and that it wasn’t his own mother sitting there with his father. “I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if that was my real family in that car” he added. “Oh but sweetie, they are your real family too.” He paused. I knew what he had meant. “You mean if it had been me and daddy, and maybe another child of ours?” I asked. “Yeah.” He paused again, then asked me “How come you and daddy don’t get along like other divorced parents? Like other people who aren’t married anymore?” He’s asked me this before, and I always point out that we do get along – I cite our enjoyable dinners, our light conversation. “But you’re not together in your heart” he answered. I knew what he meant, and I could be polite and agreeable all day long but this would never change. Again, I apologized, told him how badly I felt about all of this – how I’d have chosen otherwise if I could have. Maybe this wasn’t the time, but again I reminded him that we would never have known about chickens, about birds, about life in the country had none of this happened. Yeah, this time that argument didn’t matter much to him. Eilhu was stuck in a great meditation on the ‘what might have beens’, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I explained that the reason his mother and father weren’t perhaps as comfortable together as other ‘ex couples’ might be related to the order in which things happened. I said that most people conclude a relationship, take some time to heal and regroup, and then start a new one. And then they start their new family. Not always, but mostly. “I think I just got that this summer” he said quietly. “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. But I just got that in a way I hadn’t gotten it before.” Man. I’d always had a hunch – doesn’t take a genius to come to the conclusion either – that one day, perhaps in his mid teens maybe, he’d look back on things with a fresh perspective. One day he would get it. I had no idea that day would come so soon.

My ex had recently accused me of bad parenting, and his eruption at me seemed his way of confirming this idea for himself. As if he needed to stay his ground. See here? You’re doing it right now! appeared to be the subtext. (A larger population might find both of us guilty of bad parenting for the Bill Hicks thing alone!) Earlier, I’d heard him scold Elihu for biting his spoon when he ate. I had hated the intensity with which he’d done so, but again, he’s Elihu’s father, he has a right to express things he feels are important. “So what’s going on with the spoon?” I asked as we backed off the heavy stuff. “I kind of have a tick” he began. I’d suspected something like this (he and I both have anxiety issues – he mitigates anxiety by releasing it in some repetitive sort of behavior, something which migrates as it’s identified). “I kinda want to bite the spoon to get rid of the feeling.” Yeah. I got it. “Ok, so you’re aware. That’s good.” We were quiet again. In my head I replayed the scolding his dad had given him. Me, I didn’t dig that moment of parenting. I shook it off and reminded myself that at least my son was finally home. “But you did have a really good summer, right?” I asked him, wanting to end on something of a positive note. I knew he had – in fact it was one of his best summers ever, but I could hear he was getting tired. He didn’t have much left. “Yeah, I did.” As I turned on my side to get ready to sleep, Elihu put his arm around me. I’d thought he might have wanted some space, so I had left him alone. I smoothed my hand over his head and told him I loved him. “You wanna go sleep with daddy tonight?” I offered, trying to make a demonstration of fairness. “No, I want to stay here with you.” My heart melted, and I was washed over with relief.

Things were changing all around me in my life and nothing seemed predictable anymore, but none of that mattered because my son was back. The epicenter of my life, my heart – my entire world – was right there in my arms. Finally, after one very long summer, my son had returned home.

IMG_0070The evening before, Zac, Stephanie and their three girls came by for an impromptu visit just as Ken and I were finishing up with supper.

IMG_0075Middle girl Bailey piles Elihu’s stuffed birds on her daddy’s lap.

IMG_0106Stanley the frog is always good entertainment.

IMG_0085So is the trampoline.

IMG_0115Zac, always himself building, repairing or figuring something out, looks over Ace’s bird sculpture. (He once identified an old model T wheel on the other sculpture that sits a few feet away and outside of this shot.)

IMG_0118Kind of a crappy picture  – but I had to share… Check out the way the whole family piles in the truck’s front seat. So redneck (in the awesome sense of the word!). Love it.

IMG_0148A quick goodbye selfie of me and my new ‘old’ friend, Ken, just as I dropped him off to go and pick up dad and son.

IMG_0165In Schenectady I found my new Indian food mecca… Closest thing to Devon Street I’ve seen outside of Chicago. Love the crazy assortment of goods, from pots and pans to produce and plenty of Bollywood* videos and CDs.

IMG_0156Saw a few vegetables that were new to me.

IMG_0153My new friend and store owner Ramesh shows me a kind of string bean I’d never seen before.

IMG_0155Now this is what I’m talkin about…

IMG_0158Spent a good half hour chatting with Mattie, the gal in the middle. Her sister in law, on the left, gave me some good pointers on making my own garam masala. It’s a spice mixture that’s a lot like American barbecue in that it involves different spices depending on the region the recipe comes from.

IMG_0152Yeah, we had a good time!

IMG_0167Look at lil man… how short his jeans have become in seven weeks!

IMG_0183Closest thing to a family photo we’re gonna get.

IMG_0190Another bad pic – but the vibe is there. Elihu was laughing and laughing.

IMG_0197The kid mighta slept all day if I hadn’t woken him up. Still on a summer schedule, but we’ll get that turned around in a week or so. For now it’s all about making that emotional shift that always takes a few days after daddy time is done.

Post Script: Much as I try to edit my posts, errors always slip past – usually little nothings, but in this case I’d substituted the phonetic match for “Bollywood” with “Baliwood”… I can just see it; grand song and dance numbers with shadow puppets… or epic scenes with hundreds of beautiful Balinese women from Indonesia adorned with those huge gold headpieces, making eerie side-to-side eye movements and waving their surreal finger extensions in the air… Hmm, maybe I’m onto something here….

A rare second Post Script (the very first, I believe!). I won’t of course publish the initial email I received from my ex in response to this post, but I will post my reply:

————————————————–

I understand your perspective, but can’t agree on much of it. I do take jokes too far, but I truly missed the experience you described. You may well have said it, but know that I did not hear you say anything about a ‘magic moment’, and I merely made a stupid attempt a joke, likely at about the same time I guess… then it went south. I swear it was all a freaking surprise in my face…
What ‘peace and humor’?? (He cited his response to my joke.) Your hate was immediate and off the chain and out of proportion to any event that might have transpired, period. Truly, I was being silly, and meant no harm. Elihu was exhausted, and my timing wasn’t great, but that didn’t warrant such rage from you. 
You say ‘I haven’t learned’ – oh I have learned… I’ve learned that you’re a self-righteous, mean person when someone no longer serves a purpose in your life. You’re as cold as your parents. You can turn it on and off like a switch. Elihu can’t understand why you’re so ‘different’ when you’re here – he promises me that you’re fun, happy, that you smile. I don’t doubt that you’re a happy guy when folks are playing by your rules.
As for my cleaning up his room – he gets it. We’ve talked, and he understands as you don’t seem able. I need to get shit done when he’s gone – cuz when he gets back life starts to roll faster and faster… and whether you see the need or not, his room was a fucking mess and it needed help. I don’t have a partner to share the load, so I gotta get it done when I’m able. Sorry. Think what you please.
And regarding the ‘at least three’ lost friendships ‘because of my blogging’ – hey, if my truthful and heartfelt expression of my experience has turned someone away, then they probably shouldn’t be in my life.
You and I both want the very best for Elihu, and I believe the opposite about the blog; it will serve as a lovely record of his growing up, something he’ll be grateful for one day. I say nothing mean about you – certainly I’ve touted your value in his life many times. I do, however, express my personal feelings on matters that involve you – as you are the father of my child, and we shared nearly half of our lives together. I’m bound to have some residual feelings about the whole thing! That Elihu and I are living in poverty and you might be somehow implicit in that result – I understand that it might stand to embarrass you (I should hope it would!), but it’s our truth, so on the record it goes, just as we experience it. The blog’s content explores our life here and has virtually nothing to do with you; I don’t get why you think it’s so bad for our son.
Thanks for his great summer – and glad you were able to stay, it made all the difference in a good transition for Elihu.
 

Away… and Home July 7, 2013

This is one very, very big world. And there are so very, very many ways in which to live. Naturally, there is nothing like a trip away to highlight the differences (or similarities, as it may be) between the way you like to live your life, and the way others do. And there’s nothing like going away and then returning to your own house to help you to see it as others may. That certain way your house smells, for example. Living in it, you don’t notice it. But when you first open the door to your house and step inside, that first – and only that first – inhalation tells you things about your place you can never know in day-to-day life. When I lived in my giant, mid-century home, visitors would always tell me the place smelled ‘old’. And I could only know this for myself in that first, fleeting moment back. It smelled of wood, dust and dry, aging formica. Yeah, it did smell kind of old. Kind of like grandma’s. But within minutes it would be back to life as usual again, and once again I’d need an objective outside party to tell me how the joint smelled, because the scent became unnoticeable almost immediately. As it was here too. When I opened the door last night, the first thing that I smelled was the damp. (Here in upstate New York I always sense the relentless humidity first.) As I ventured into the living room, I noticed a particular scent that brought me back… it was the smell of the places where my father had taught, it was the smell of our older friend’s homes….I knew it, but what was it? I pondered as I stood there, noticing it for the first time, when it came to me as plain as day. Wet piano. And wet harpsichord. Yes, that’s it. The smell of slightly moist wood – but not just any wood. Not furniture, not floorboards, but instrument wood. Yeah, and the other stuff too… the felt of the hammers and plectra dampers, the varnish, the oxidation on the strings… Ok, maybe I’m being a teeny bit dramatic, but the funk of instruments left to themselves was unmistakable. Was it always like this? Did I just not notice? Interesting what appears in the wake of a short absence. (Mental note to myself: running a dehumidifier would not be an extravagance.)

Whether you fly, drive or take the train, you’re gonna pass a lot of homes. For me, most of my window-gazing thought on the train is spent considering all those tiny scenes as we slip by through people’s backyards, pass within feet of their back porches or speed over their neighborhood parks… From the country to the innermost city, we pass it all. A cross-section of the American population, unawares, just doing their thing as they do every day, and me, their most appreciative and grateful (and perhaps a bit apologetic) audience. It is simply too much to comprehend. I wish I could know what it was like to enter each of those homes, from rotting farm house to luxurious high rise condo – and furthermore, to live as the residents do. What is it that motivates them each day? What’s important to them? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? What’s on their minds? Some are content to live as hoarders, others cannot see life without granite counter tops. And so much in between. It blows my mind, so I try not to wonder at it too much. I just take it all in, reminding myself that just my tiny witness is enough. I’m lucky to be seeing so much of my world. I’ve also been lucky to have visited much poorer and more remote places on the other side of the planet in my lifetime, so wondering at the variety of this world is not a new thing to me. But nonetheless, it is always, always fascinating to me.

Elihu and I visited the beach this past week, and while we didn’t swim in the beautiful water of my beloved Lake Michigan (it hadn’t warmed up enough yet by my perhaps too-uptight standards) we did pass a lovely couple of hours just taking it in. The horizon, the clouds, the sky and water. And, of course, the seagulls. ! We brought several bags of bread and had fun feeding them. But even my own super-deft bird catcher of a son realized he wasn’t grabbing a gull and gave up his pursuit in favor of playing in the sand. I joined him. What a perfect moment in time we had. It’s a joy to have such a thoughtful son as mine; soon we were making metaphors between our play and life itself… It seems to me that any thinking human might have a hard time resisting the sort of contemplation that millions upon millions of grains of sand evoke. It can’t be just us. We note that even though there seems an infinitesimal amount of them – crazy as it seems, there is a finite number of sand grains on the planet. ! The many grains of sand remind us of all the people we’ve seen here. In the city, it seems not a single square foot is uninhabited. Everyone is out and about, each on their own chase, each with their head swimming with their own world of thoughts. There are millions of stories, sub-plots and interactions going on each single moment. As I’ve said before, this is a big world. And the beach seems to highlight it for us both. Yet at the beach, immensity and peace exist together, almost as the very same thing. We notice the juxtaposition, and we both marvel at it, continuing all the while our fruitless scooping out of the ever-wetting sand…

Contrasts slap you in the face when you partake of modern travel. One morning you can be feeding your chickens, and that night you can be on a city street in a valley of office buildings. This is not new to any of us in the Western world. This morning, as I awoke, I hardly felt I’d been away. While the images in my mind were somehow refreshed, they were still, just memories. (You got it – it all kinda felt like a dream.) I heard the clucking sounds of my flock from inside the coop and realized the timer hadn’t opened the door for them this morning. Automatically, I rose from my bed, donned my muck boots, and in my nightgown went to let the girls out. In the middle of my path, I thought back on a moment not more than a few days earlier and paused to let it sink in. Just a couple nights ago I’d been on stage at the Green Mill in front of a packed house doing my thing. Fan in hand, arms outstretched, belting out an old-timey jazz tune. Doing one of those things I feel I was just meant to do. Man, it was natural. And man, did it feel good. Came back like I’d never been away. But so did tending the chickens. Funny the latitude of experience in any one person’s life. So many folks have different careers, different homes, spouses… It’s nothing new to experience such vastly different things, but the rapid succession from jazz singer to chicken farmer still amuses me. I imagine myself on stage in my nightgown and boots, basket of eggs on my arm and it makes me smile to myself.

So here I am. Back. With a month or more of child-free living before me. Many might ask me what I plan to do with ‘all this time’, as if I might sunbathe or catch up on old episodes of a favorite show, but since I get all the sun I need working in the garden, and since I don’t watch much tv, those things don’t enter into it. Some of the things that are on my list are to get my piano teaching method book formatted and done, to learn some new computer skills so as to enhance my blog just a wee bit, to begin to prepare parts of my blog for a release as an eBook, as well as a myriad of ’round the farm type stuff. Enlarge the chicken run (involves digging fence post holes, yeeks), clean up the perennial garden outside the door, power wash the house on the side students and guests see first when they pull up, mow the lawn, paint the outside stairs. Lots and lots to do. Never mind the mess in the basement left in the wake of a busy school year – projects, supplies and out-of-season paraphernalia that haven’t yet been put away. If it weren’t for the photos on my data cards I might not fully believe that I’d ever even been away. But there is some tiny evidence of my trip; a deeper appreciation for space, clean air and nature all around. I am one lucky gal, I am. Lucky to have been given the gift of being able to go away for a while, and luckier still to know the even greater gift of coming home.

 

Solo February 16, 2013

Here it is again. My time. My time alone, without my son. My time to get things done, to enjoy some respite from always being needed. For the most part, it’s a good system. I enjoy having my son during the school year, and for breaks he stays with his father. Yeah, it’s worked out pretty well over the past few years. But the transition from mother to solo human is always a little poignant. I always feel a little lost in the world after Elihu leaves. Empty of destination, of purpose…

The train that he and his father take to Chicago leaves Schenectady at 7:30 p.m, and the drive home is dark and quiet. A contrast to the few hours that precede it; these are the handful of hours that we three get to spend together as a family. Elihu so looks forward to those visits, and me too. In spite of the history, we three always share laughs and end up enjoying ourselves. It’s just enough time together to make me wistful, to make me miss the life we didn’t end up sharing. Perhaps the drama of goodbyes shared on a train platform heighten my vague sense of sorrow, I don’t know. Why even think like this?  Everything is as it should be. Yet as I begin the long drive home I start to feel very alone. And I begin to think…

I begin to sink into the feeling of what it is to be alone on the planet. Of what it feels like just to be me – to be me on my own, undefined by my relationship to anyone else. It’s hard to conjure, to really get it. And it’s then that I realize how very much my life is tied to my son’s. My very identity seems to depend upon him. It frightens me to think of myself alone, without him. And honestly, I don’t know if it’s healthy to depend so keenly on my young son. I fret over the idea for a while. But after a time I relax; this is, after all, my role right now. Single mom. And it takes almost all of me to be that. One day, this chapter too will close and a new one will begin. Oh oh. I consider this new idea, and begin to sense a low grade panic growing. What the hell will I do then? Just what exactly is it that I do if I’m not a mother? Oh no – this worries me. I really don’t do anything. My life is all about being a mother! Back in the day I was a musician – but that was all about the look, the lifestyle… it was very much about the culture of youth and beauty. I can’t revisit that life, no, I’ll need a new one… But I can’t follow that line of thought too long, because I can feel the stress rising. Instead I do my best to quiet my mind and soon it’s just me again, the darkness and the road. Guess I’ll just have to figure it out when I get there. For now, the challenge at hand is the week that stretches out in front of me. For some reason, the space ahead seems much emptier than usual. And I think I know what might be contributing to it.

On Valentine’s day I learned that I’d lost my beloved new job as pianist at Elihu’s school. It was unexpected, and frankly, due to a situation out of my control. No hard feelings exist, yet I’m left rather dazed by the sudden change. The sudden emptiness in my life. Sure I’ve got projects that can use my attention, I’ve got parents that could use my attention, and I’ve got a brother that needs medical help and counseling, something that only I can help him achieve – but it’s not the same. I had a job I loved, my first real job in a decade; I did what I loved and got paid for it. For once things seemed to be falling into place. I played music every day. I saw my son every day, I saw those wonderful kids every day. I got to play sweet little classical pieces, I got to improvise, I got to play the most delicious piano I’d touched in years… and now, it’s gone. Poof. But I can hardly feel sorry for myself when the woman whose classes I accompanied has lost her job too. I haven’t lost what she has, but still… It makes my future feel a little emptier than before.

Tonight I have house guests, and although I don’t think I’m up to the socializing that goes with being a host, it might be for the best that they’re here. It might help to distract me from my dark mood. They’re not home yet, and likely they’ll be in late. I probably won’t see them tonight. Good. That’ll give me some time to switch gears. Tomorrow I may join them along with several thousand other folks at the Flurry – the local dance festival which brings together musicians and dancers of every age, color, size and shape from all over the East. Because I’m hosting musicians, I’ll enjoy a highly coveted pass. So I’ll go. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to hear all that wonderful live music and watch all those amazing dancers. Yeah, I’ll go. Just not sure if I’ll dance. I don’t know. Not sure I’m ready to swing a partner quite yet.

 

Free Friday September 22, 2012

Elihu has had bad asthma the past couple of weeks. That, plus the seasonal allergies – and last night a quick bout of 24 hour flu – have caused him to miss five out of his first twelve days at school. Might not seem like such a bad thing to those of us aren’t overly concerned about attendance (I myself remember once winning tickets to a Cubs game for having had perfect attendance at school one year), but Elihu has found himself now a bit more behind than he’d like in his schoolwork. Friday morning he awakes, still so very congested and weak from a night of heaving, so I take pity on him and let him rest. With one condition: that we do all of his schoolwork after breakfast. I have errands I must do later, but I assure him that I won’t do a one of them if he hasn’t finished his work. He agrees. So home he stays. One more day added to the list.

Elihu is more than a little concerned about how far behind he’s getting. I assure him that we just need to make a plan, a schedule, and stick to it. I tell him that I can only help him if he lets me. If he starts crying and complaining and stomps off – then there’s not a thing I can do to help. I need his cooperation. Is he with me? I’m committed to this – is he? I like to joke around a lot, but it is clear that I am not joking. He knows it, and he takes my hands, looks into my eyes and agrees to let me help and to cooperate. He’s concerned about his spelling assignment. Not that he can’t spell – quite the opposite – but it’s because he hates writing. The physical act of writing itself, as in pen to paper. He finds it tedious. I get it, I do. I reassure him that one day he’ll know the relief it is to type nearly as fast as he can think, but for now he must do it old-school. It helps when I remind him that hero John Audubon wrote all his notes – and manuscripts – by hand. “He didn’t have an old-fashioned typewriter?” he asks. I assure him that it was years and years before the thing was invented. I grab a Max quill from the kitchen window sill. “He did it all like this” I say, miming a quick dip into an ink well then scribbling on the table. Elihu’s eyes open with new interest. “If John did it, you can too” I smile, and thankfully, Elihu smiles back. We begin.

Elihu’s Waldorf class is studying Norse mythology as part of their daily main lesson, and we at home have been reading at bedtime from a book I was given when I was his age, “Great Swedish Fairy Tales”. A fantastic collection. He recognizes characters in our stories from his lessons at school. As his teacher has asked me to please find some more challenging spelling words for him, Elihu and I together pull out the book and begin to look… We agree on five, then he sits down at the kitchen table to write them out and use them in sentences. He strays after a few, I allow a small break, then he’s back to the task. In about forty minutes he’s done.

The greatest cause of his stress is his book report. Thing is, he and I read the book over a year ago. It’s old news. In fact, Elihu loved the book so well he re-read parts on his own throughout the year. This should be a friggin piece of cake. Yet he is as stuck as can be. I watch him, frustrated. I see him watching everyone else in the class pass him up. Even more behind than he was, he despairs of never being able to catch up, and stops altogether. The class is on chapter seven, and he’s still on one. ? He sobs to me his agony about never catching up. I promise him that he just needs to follow a plan. Ok? He sniffs and nods. We make up our minds to knock out the first two chapters, but then realize the silly book is at school. My heart sinks. We call the library. Their only copy is out. I ask for one to be couriered from another library. It’ll take a couple days. Well, I don’t feel great about it, but for now, this part of his homework is on hold. I agree that he’s done what he can, so after he does his morning nebulizer treatment, we can go on our errands.

As we wind down the lovely country road behind our house on our way to town, we see that the tiny railroad crossing lights are on – a very unusual sight. But we know that the tiny Delaware and Hudson line has been recently restored for a northerly tourist run (in fact a good friend is now conductor on that line) and so we do see a small train pass by every now and again. How lucky we are that one is coming now! We pull over and get out. There aren’t any warning bells and no train is yet audible, but Elihu freaks out anyway when I walk up to the tracks to investigate. “Please come back, Mommy!” he shouts. “I don’t want to lose my only Mommy!! Please come back!” So I do. We wait a minute more, and then we begin to hear a distant rumbling. I have an idea. I run to the car, find my purse and rummage around on the bottom. I find one single penny. Perfect. I run to the track as fast as I can, find a good spot, then lay the penny down. It’s all happening so fast – the sound of the approaching train, my running back and forth – that Elihu doesn’t say a thing, he just watches, his intrigue winning over his concern. I manage to run back to him just as the blue and yellow D & H engine comes around the bend. We wave to the engineer then to the few passengers in the dome car. It’s a small train, and it’s rumbling down the track in a cloud of diesel smoke within seconds. As it clatters away and the tiny crossing gates wobble up again, I run to the spot where I’d placed the penny. Nothing. If it hadn’t been for my experience in Dekalb, Illinois where dozens upon dozens of trains pass thru the tiny town daily, and all of the coins I’d practiced smashing there, I’d have been dismayed. But I wasn’t. Looking closer, I saw an imprint of a circle on the track, and a few inches away, an imprint of an oval. Elihu joins the hunt, and we widen our search. Finally, there it is. I coach Elihu to find it himself. He laughs when he first spots the oval sliver of copper in the gravel. We take it back to the imprint and lay it down; it matches the outline perfectly. Earlier that morning Elihu had been lamenting the fact that he remembered so very little of his younger years before we’d moved here, and that he felt he’d forgotten so many of the things he’d done. He was worried he had so few precise memories – his past all seemed to wash together. He wanted clear and distinct memories, specific stories to pass on to his own kids one day. This is the first time he can recall squashing a coin on railroad tracks. “Now, think you’ll remember this always?” I ask, hoping he’ll easily agree. He laughs. “And keep this coin. You can show this to your kids one day. Plus you can show them exactly where it happened. You’ll always have this memory. Always.” He is happy. He continues to marvel over the whisp of a penny as we get back into the car and head on our way.

Our day is lovely, the weather is sunny, mild and breezy, and walking hand-in-hand, we move through our day at a easy, gentle pace. Register my folk’s van at the DMV, find a ladybug (who may well be a male, Elihu reminds me), get a few groceries, pickup a gift card for a birthday party and get a new timer for the coop door. Our final stop is in the mall parking lot where we are going to feed the seagulls. This is always a nice little extra in a day. We pull into a far away corner of the mall parking lot and begin to throw tiny bits of bread outside the window of the car. We open the windows and turn the car off so it’s quiet. One flies overhead and then swoops down. Then another, and soon there are a half dozen seagulls swooping down just feet from Elihu’s window. He sees them close up, hovering, swooping, even snatching pieces in mid-air. (Sometimes we’ll put bread on our sunroof and watch them from below!) I miss Lake Michigan for many reasons, seagulls are one. I used to feed them on the beach where I lived, and have images in my memory of dozens hovering only feet above me, just hanging in the wind… It saddens me that people now think of them as pests. Hey, it saddens me that people think of pigeons as pests too. I like to think they are incredibly resourceful. Good for them to figure out how to make a living from our waste. (If it helps you to like pigeons better – just call em doves. Pigeons and doves are the same thing, it’s only context and culture that makes us think of them different creatures. If you aren’t convinced, just look it up for yourself.) The birds eat their fill, so we head out. The sun is now much lower in the sky, and we realize we’ve been out doing errands for almost five hours.

I’d thought the consensus was that we were both fairly pooped after our long day out, but as soon as we pull in the driveway – before the car has even come to a stop – Elihu is out and running after his beloved chickens. As I unload the car and begin to think about making dinner, Elihu is at the small pond searching for frogs. (His current goal is remove all the frogs from our tiny, plastic-lined pond and move them to the larger, mud-banked pond where they can properly hibernate for the winter.) In a while I have supper ready, and although it takes three rounds of bell ringing to get him in, he’s content to eat a cold supper. Once again his head is full of flying ideas – how wings work, how amazing they are to watch, how he wishes he could know what his birds are thinking… I am almost fed up with all the bird talk, but hey, I suppose I’m lucky to have a kid who’d rather spend his free time with an actual bird than an electronic game about birds – let alone angry ones. !

We’ll catch up on that book report – I promise us both. Granted, we hadn’t accomplished what we’d hoped for school-work wise, but it wasn’t a day wasted. Elihu may yet one day need to use spell check to make sure he’s spelled ‘exquisite’ correctly, but no doubt he’ll always remember the day we flattened a penny on the railroad tracks, and maybe that alone was worth taking a free day.