The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Culture of Two October 6, 2013

It’s begun to dawn on me today that the time of just we two – Elihu and me, that is – will be coming to an end before too long. Tonight, my son is spending the night with his twin friends, Jonah and Phoenix. Together, the three of them are joy personified. They revel in each other’s company and never tire of wanting to play together. Although I still get a kiss goodbye and a good solid hug, I am so quickly forgotten when Elihu is with them. And while it really does lift my spirits as a mother to see him so supremely happy, I can’t help but wince just a little way deep down at how easily he moves away from me. I know it’s right and good, but still…. And when I got home tonight and had no one to talk with about the day, no one to talk with about upcoming plans, future projects… I realized that I missed my kid. A lot. Gone one friggin night and I was missing him! Don’t get me wrong, I hold dear my precious little time alone – tonight is a very rare occasion indeed – but something about a one-off night on my own just gets me off my groove, leaves me feeling just a bit little adrift and aimless…

Truly, I exaggerate, for aimless I really aint. Tonight, in fact, I’ve been working for the past seven hours on Elihu’s Halloween costume. And I cannot get that kind of quality work done when he’s home, so it’s just as well he’s out. I know he’s had a great night and so have I. As I begin to envision my son’s enormous satisfaction with the costume, I pause, realizing that this might well be the last such costume I make for him… and the thought gives me a little pang in my heart. I know that life at Waldorf is a bit different, that childhoods in that culture last a bit longer than those of kids in other schools – yet still, I’m not confident that next year he’ll dream of a costume the way he has up until now. It might not be a priority in the presence of his peers… I can already just see half a dozen sixth grade boys out trick-or-treating… the roughhousing and craziness, the running on ahead, the leaving of parents far behind…  It will no longer be my young son and me alone, taking our time to prepare for each house, adjusting the costume just so, getting into character before ringing the bell…. Until now, I’ve loved our Halloweens. It’s been just we two, alone in the dark night, each of us feeling the thrill of a costume unlike any others, each of us marveling at the fine homes of Saratoga, lingering to admire gardens and courtyards, taking in the decorations on the massive front porches… I just can’t see any of that happening in a posse of boys. And it looks as if this year, now that we’re fully ensconced in our new school, we’ll be joining his classmates in a group on Halloween. That means mom and son night won’t be. I wonder if I might enjoy a half hour of our own, but I tell myself not to count on it. Not to hope for it. His new friends are so important to him. And I’m relieved that he finally has a thriving social life. But the more it develops, the less I’m a part of it. This year’s Halloween reminds me of the middle school years just around the corner. Things will change, I know. And it’s all as it should be, but I’m just not sure I’m ready. I’ve had him so much to myself up until now, that having less of him – relatively all of a sudden – may be hard.

The other night, as Elihu got out of the bath and was drying off, I noticed hair on his legs I hadn’t noticed before. I’m not sure if I’ll always be able to talk with him easily about his body and the changes that are coming soon, but thankfully these days it’s still ok. I felt comfortable pointing it out, and he himself was kinda pleased. He giggled. And did I see just the faintest haze of hair on his upper lip, too? Oh my God, did I? It’s hard to see the change in my own son – I’m still only now adjusting to the changes I’ve seen in the other kids at school. One summer, so much change. And it’s subtle stuff, it’s not as if you can so much pinpoint any one single thing – it’s just an overall look of maturity. Has my own child grown too? I myself find it hard to detect, being with him every day as I am. But I know he must be… Each day that he continues to call me ‘Mommy’ I consider a blessing. It simply can’t call me that for much longer, can he? I certainly don’t want him embarrassed by it. Again, I’m thankful that we live in the Waldorf world which is much more nurturing and like home than school. Elihu still takes up my hand as we walk to and from school, and he still kisses me goodbye. I can say with confidence that he would not do the same were he attending his old school. But it’s different here. Yeah, childhood is precious and unhurried here, but nonetheless, boys will be boys, and kids will grow up. So I take not one moment – or good-bye kiss – for granted.

With the house to myself for a night I find that order is easily restored; the dishes for one rare night among many are all washed and put away, the laundry’s in and the house is in general good order. Most days I find myself complaining more than I’d like to admit about all the stupid housework life requires of me – about the never-ending dishes, the cooking of food, the sorting of piles and putting away of things – and while I tell Elihu it’s just the way it is – it’s not anyone’s fault – I do know that when he’s not here, there’s much less to do. I as one person eat less (I certainly require less thoughtful food preparation), I don’t burn through clean clothes as he does, and I don’t have as many toys to put away. Yeah, it’s a quieter, easier household when he’s not around. And yet he’s a pretty good kid too – tidies up, is mindful of things, helps out. But no question, there’s less work with just me. And it occurs to me – that pretty soon, at least a lot sooner than I think – it will be just me. And I won’t have dirty dishes to bitch about. I won’t have piles of crap to put away. I won’t have to stress over cooking ‘nice’ meals…  I won’t have a reason to bitch anymore, will I? What I will have will be an empty house. A lonely house. A house of one. Ich. That doesn’t sound so nice. Maybe I don’t mind the housework. There’s not a lot, really, and it’s gotta be a hell of a lot easier than having a family of four or more… Yeah, I think I like what we’ve got. I like our tiny family.

It’s time to turn in now. The paper mache costume is in the basement drying, the house is tidy. I’ve enjoyed a nice night to myself and was grateful I didn’t have to make supper or do dishes. But still, I’m not yet ready for a house that’s this clean and quiet every single day. I’ll take the extra housework if it means I’m still lucky enough to enjoy life with just me and my boy. I enjoy the simple life of just one person for sure, but for now I think I still prefer the culture of two.

 

Elihu’s Tenth Birthday Pics April 29, 2013

What a fantastic day from start to finish. Gorgeous weather, dream-come-true birthday gifts, lots and lots going on all at once – music in the basement, a traveling trumpet, a worried goose, chickens underfoot, a trampoline and an old-timey car… and our wonderful friends and family to share it all with…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 003The birthday angel came!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 004WOW! The long-wished for Calypso remote-controlled glider!!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 005And the grown-up software for learning how to actually fly! OMG!!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 018Very proud owner of the Calypso

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 023There’s a helicopter coming in for a landing just above the cake… (bad angle to see well)

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 059The party gets started

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 064Something’s happening in the incubator…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 080It’s somebody else’s birthday now, too!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 078Some boys sneaking away for a little DS time…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 051Alex and Paige on the hammock

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 039Jessica and Matt enjoy the zero gravity chairs and the view

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 092Time for cake!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 152Look who’s here! The youngest resident of Greenfield, baby Rachel – and her whole family!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 156

Annabelle is a big sister twice…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 114Hayden announces the gifts with a fanfare

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 157Look what Cora made for Elihu!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 148Cora and Sophia made these too!!

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 136Lots going on at once…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 087And it looks like everyone’s having a good time

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 089What a nice bunch of folks

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 161Elihu with Grandpa, Mama and Grandma

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 168This poor goose was very frustrated and tired with all the coming and going…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 172Things take a little longer, but that’s ok. The whole party actually picked up and moved to accomodate Dad when he arrived. So grateful to everyone for including him. He hasn’t been out in ages…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 198Bye neighbors! Nice to see all five of you…

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 228Elihu and I have dinner by candlelight. Heather brought me some “Happy Birthing Day” flowers! So very kind of her.

Elihu's 10th Birthday 2013 240Two very happy people at the end of a very lovely birthday.

 

Pullets’ Surprise September 25, 2012

As most backyard chicken hobbyists do, we began our adventure with little more than a vague dream, a soft outline of a goal… We imagined that having our own hens and fresh eggs daily would be charming, picturesque, that it would bring us closer to nature and to simple living. We might have done a little research online beforehand, but not too much. Just enough to sort of get the idea. After all, we really want to do this thing, and if we knew too much, we might just decide it wasn’t really worth it…

So, one naive stroll through your neighborhood farm supply box store around Easter time and you’re hooked before you realize it. You hear the tiny, incessant peeps long before you spot the red heat lamp bulbs or even see the irresistible, fuzzy, day-old little chicks crowding the temporary cages. My God, you had no idea they were this cute! Crazy, over-the-top cute with love-me eyes and tiny, drunken walks. Klutzy little chicken feet hobbling over each other, standing, now falling, cheeping all the while. It’s just too much for you to bear. You must take some home. You must have one all to yourself to smooch endlessly. How hard can it be? You’ve had pets. You know. Yes, it’s a responsibility, but that doesn’t worry you. You’ve done this before! You had to walk the family dog all through junior high school! But see, you don’t even have to walk a chick! Seriously, how hard can this be? Man. Just give me that little cardboard take-out box and I’ll choose me six of the cutest little chicks ever seen. Really. No big deal.

Ok. So the cutest little chicks in the whole wide world have been living in a plastic storage bin in your son’s closet for two weeks now, and the whole house smells like, well, chicken shit. It’s a sour sort of funk, a weird new poop smell, mixed with the tang of urea. Hm. Oh well, you knew they pooped. Just change the wood shavings, or if you went poor-house on ’em, change the soggy shredded newspaper. That’s a little better. But not much. Man, who knew they’d smell up the whole house? And look how much bigger they are all of a sudden! Wow. They sure are growing, aren’t they? Oh-oh. Seriously. What now?

In the back of your mind you thought you could put em in the cellar for a while longer, cuz it’s still kinda cold and snowy out. Easter in the north is still on the edge of winter, and even though they’re growing, they’re still not up to the 20 degree nights outside. Ok. So you’ve killed another two weeks, but they’re still growing. They’re eating and drinking like crazy, the upkeep never stops! Plus they keep escaping their temporary home and exploring all corners of the basement! What now? The funky smell is everywhere and so are the poops, and you’re not sure you’re good with another month like this. Ok. Think. Heat lamp. Got some place in the garage that’s secure? That’s fenced in? If you don’t, you’ll spend next Saturday afternoon with a chop saw and some scraps of wood cobbling together a mildly sketchy pen of sorts for your teenagers to move into. On a mild, early spring day you’ll get brave enough to commit them to this new apartment. You’ll hang a red heat lamp bulb above them – the kind that costs $10 a pop – like you saw at the farmer supply place. Check the windows and doors otherwise the raccoons’ll get em the very first night they’re out. (Then it will take another full calendar year to get to this stage again. Been there. I know.) The morning after their first night in the new digs, you run out to check on them. They’re all still there!! Now you know what this kind of relief feels like. It’s your first rite of passage. This is how you’ll feel hundreds of times, over and over again for the duration of your career as a chicken farmer. You’re over the first hump, so congratulations! Here we go….

So it’s mid summer. The chicks are long-legged and gangly looking, their plumage is spotty; fuzzy down pokes out from the emerging patterns of adult feathers. The combs on their heads are mere bumpy ridges, waddles are yet far-off, and it’s still not clear who’s who. But after another month – usually around the end of July or beginning of August – it becomes more apparent who will be laying and who will be strutting about and making trouble. The young roosters become apparent by three defining features. No, not their spurs – that comes later. Not even their crowing – for that too comes later. What first appears are three different sets of feathers: the hackles, the saddles and the tail. The hackles and saddles look much the same; drapey, elegant long, thin feathers that serve as an embellishment to the neck and lower back areas. And the tail feathers themselves are grand, arching things that rise above the height of the bird and cascade out behind him. No hen has such a tail. No hen has such long, thin decorative feathers about her neck or hind quarters. Hens may be surprisingly beautiful, but they are not as flashy as the men. Nor as obnoxious. Gradually it will become obvious to the armchair chicken farmer that something must be done about the excess of testosterone in the coop. But what? Hmm. You hadn’t quite thought this far ahead. You just sorta thought they’d all stay on as one happy family. But you’ve stalled so long now that the boys are challenging each other and things are no longer so peaceful on the farm. In fact, the poor girls are now being mounted by these randy teenagers to the point where some may be missing the feathers on their backs. Oh dear, something is not right. No, it is not. The ratio, half males to half females, it just doesn’t work in the world of chickens. Not at all. But you didn’t really think it through, did you? You hadn’t worried about having too many roosters. Heck, chickens are chickens, right? Not really. So. What’s next? I’ll tell you…

Chicken soup. Like the kind that’s simmering right now on my stove. Man this house smells good. Smells like a home. Puts my son in a fantastic mood, makes me feel like a real good mom. Plus it gets rid of all that extra testosterone on the farm. They say the ratio of hens to a rooster should be like 25 to 1. Seems about right. (It’s a living lesson for my son about the power of chemistry over good judgment. Read into that what you will, ahem.) It’s funny, but I really never gave any thought to the difference between hens and roosters before I became a chicken farmer. In fact, I’m pretty sure I used the terms interchangeably for a while. Wasn’t quite sure that hens were girls – the ones that laid the eggs – and roosters were the fancy ones. The ones you only ever saw one of on farm. Never gave much thought to that until I was in the thick of it. And a pullet? What the heck is that?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a young hen. A gal who’s just started to lay. In the very beginning of your chickening career you start to lose hope that your own hens will ever lay. Months seems to stretch on with no proof that you really do have hens. It seems that hens that actually lay eggs might really be something out of a dream – some sort of crazy magic that happens somewhere else, not in your own backyard. But just as soon as they’ve crossed the line of puberty, if the young hens aren’t overly stressed and are given some nearly private sort of space in which to work things out, you will indeed have eggs before long. And oh, that first egg is truly a miracle. It is a landmark day in your life, it is a personal triumph! Hens really do lay eggs! It’s taken months – but they’re actually doing it now! How crazy is that? I mean, eggs come from factories, right? This is what you believe on a cellular level, so it will seem almost supernatural to your modern self for a time. And I know that there are even some of you who will be even a little put off by actually eating these au-natural eggs… Yes, it might just gross you out a little bit in the beginning. Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it many times. I too felt a little weird in the beginning. But the longer you live with your fresh eggs, the longer they become a staple of your homestead – plus the more guests you have who marvel over the intense flavor of your eggs – the more you will become not only a believer, but a liver-of-the-lifestyle.

You may choose to bring the extra eggs into work, give them out freely and be a hero, or you may decide that the cost of feed and upkeep deserves some payback, and so you may sell them just a tad less than those at the farmer’s markets. You’ll definitely have enough to make your son fresh, home-made, healthy French Toast for breakfast every morning, and enough to pack a hard boiled egg into his lunch each day. So these hens are a happy story with a happy ending, but what of the other story – that of the rooster? Why that is a very different story, to be sure.

Roosters don’t stay long. Almost as soon as we can tell em from the rest, we make a call to Mr. Shaw, the Amish farmer who prepares em for us. Elihu is excused from the first half of his school day (mainly cuz I need him to physically round them all up and get em in the toter) and we dedicate one chilly morning in September to butchering our modest flock of roos. First off, you’ll notice the term I choose is “butcher”. You may use other words – kill, do in, dispatch – but the term ‘butcher’ says what it means, plus it seems to infer some civility, skill and tradition in the trade too. So that’s why I use it. And butcherin’s messy. It’s a process best left to someone who’s got the setup. If you’re kinda on the fence about it – I recommend you still go ahead and have your roosters butchered, but just don’t watch. My kid and I choose to watch – I might not have if it weren’t for his strong desire to know the whole cycle – to take real responsibility for his food, and to be a part of their death too. I supported my then 7 year old son so much there was no way I was not going to share the experience with him. And it was shocking. Truly. I was stunned by the amount of blood, the bright, bright red of it. That iron-y smell of the blood. The kicking and kicking of the dead birds’ legs, long after they’d been bled out. Witnessing the actually killing part does require one be in a certain emotional place. You must just steel yourself. Distance yourself. I like to try to maintain some gratitude, some reverence for the sacrifice that’s being made of one living being for my own sustenance. But with all your adrenaline flowing and all that blood-letting going on, keeping one’s heart somewhat reverential and calm is a small challenge – and the combination of it all makes for a surreal event.

When we first went, three years ago, Elihu would whisper his thanks to each bird before handing them over to be dunked upside down into a cone and having its neck slit. He felt closure in his offering of thanks and gratitude. I was amazed to watch Elihu go through his own process with such certitude, with a real sense of gravity projecting throughout his whole demeanor. To see how deeply he felt it, how critical it was for his experience of raising and making his own food. On the way home however, finally he began to cry. I wondered if there wasn’t going to be some fallout afterward, in fact I rather expected it…. I told him that I understood that it was a hard thing to watch, that the whole thing was sad and difficult. But he protested that that was not what was bothering him so. He wasn’t so much sad as he was mad – at Ben Shaw, the Amish farmer. Apparently Ben had told Elihu not to say prayers of thanks to the animals because God had given us the animals to do with what we would. That they belonged to us, and that they had no souls of their own. Ben told Elihu instead to make prayers of thanks to God alone, for these were his gifts to us. Elihu was livid, through tears he protested to me that Ben was wrong! “How can he look into his dog’s or his horse’s eyes and think that they have no souls! It makes me want to turn the car around and go tell him that he’s wrong!” Oh my poor, dear son. This is what troubled him. I could only tell him how much I agreed, and share his great disappointment with Mr. Shaw’s beliefs.

Since then, we haven’t looked back. We let Mr. Shaw believe what he will, and we continue to know that even the beasts we butcher and eat each have their own unique imprint of life, animated by soul, just as we are. They are just another speck of God that’s taken another form. And we thank them, we do em in as quickly as possible. And man, do we LOVE the soup that we get from em. We started out this year by roasting and souping up our handsome black/green rooster, named ‘Sylvan’; we ate “Sylvan soup” all week and loved it no less the last time than the first. I tell ya, these home raised chickens make the tastiest broth I have ever had. I like to over-salt things – but I find I just don’t need as much when I make soup from these boys. Yup. Our Rooster Soup is a highlight of fall. Nothing like the smell of crisp, autumn leaves outside and simmering soup inside.

But there’s still one more surprise this year on our little chicken farm. The pullets – the young gals whose brothers are now resting in plastic bags in the downstairs chest freezer – they have just started laying. And on account of us having a rather rag-tag, higgeldy-piggledy sorta flock – inbred now these four years – we have ourselves some interesting looking gals, and now, we’re learning, some interesting looking eggs. We learned about pale green eggs from our petite little lady Shirley Nelson, who is an Aracauna. We learned that mixed-breeds are a toss up. Some lay enormous pale pink eggs, some medium light brown ones. Some lay close to white. But today we learned of an altogether new experience here in the Hillhouse Coop – we found two small, roundish (this tells us they’re from first-timer pullets) dark purplish eggs! When we set them in water they turned a deep brown, but when they air dry, the reddish, purplish cast returns. ! Just when we thought we knew it all. Ha! Far, far from it.

So nice to know that we can still be surprised by our hens in happy little ways, like today’s discovery of purple eggs. Between the pullet’s new contributions to our hen house and the fresh pot of rooster soup on the stove, we have the makings of a very content little homestead. If you would have told me four years ago that this would be my life in the near future, I don’t think I would have believed you. Sometimes I still can’t believe that this really is my life – and that I really do love it. Yup, this whole beautiful, serendipitous, heartbreaking, soul-restoring, chicken-raising, child-rearing ride here in Greenfield has been the most unexpected – and welcome – surprise ever.