The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

New Ground January 29, 2014

All day I’ve been feeling slightly detached from my surroundings. I’ve had to step into quiet hallways or bathrooms to let out a few tears before returning, fresh-faced to my professional duties. I’ve alternated between absolute heartbreak, nausea or just plain emptiness. I mean, at some point news is just so bad you can’t process it. You can’t do anything about it but accept it. And responsibility for it too. Which, of course, makes the horror so much more acute. Yes, something unspeakable has happened, and it’s very likely your fault.

Last night mom told me there was water leaking in the Studio, and that I’d better come check for myself. While it was my brother Andrew who’d thankfully first noticed it, he’d offered very few details regarding the damage. Last week sometime he’d noticed a slick spot on the driveway just down from the utility room by the Studio’s front door. When he got closer, he heard a pump going non-stop, and it was freely pumping water into the building. I’d thought I’d turned all the valves off – I knew I’d intentionally skipped on having a plumber come and winterize the place as I just couldn’t swing another $300 expense – especially with Christmas coming – so I thought I’d done my best to safeguard the pipes for winter. But clearly I missed something – at the very least I’d overlooked turning off the hot water heater (now I understand why the Studio’s monthly electric bills are at least $50 in spite of using nothing but a few exit sign lights). Crap. I’d been so wrapped up in my life – and my dad and the holidays and just my own shit that I’d neglected to understand the importance of properly shutting the place down. I guess I figured the past winter’d been fine, so if I just did what I did then we’d be ok. And since we didn’t have any programs til late Spring, we didn’t need the insurance either. After all, I have a hard time just paying my own bills, let alone those of an empty building that’s only used seasonally. What a big fucking mistake.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I don’t think you would have believed it either. I’ve known about wood for a while – after twenty-plus years living with a guitar player (and being the daughter of a harpsichordist) I’d seen and heard my share of wood. Seen it shaped, bent, seen how summer and winter wreak their havoc…. but this was insane. The center of the large room was lifted a good two feet in the middle, in a line from the stage to the balcony. A great, undulating ridge just rose from the ground as if it had been fashioned so. Once I took it all in – realizing that the outer six feet or so of the room lay under a good three inches of water and that the floor rose like an island in the middle – I got brave and walked out onto it. I stood there in utter disbelief. I jumped. And jumped. But the floor was as solid underneath me as if it had been intended as a hump and not a flat surface. There was no real give, no indication that the cement was yet a few feet away from the wood. It was the strangest, most dramatic morphing of wood I’d ever seen. Fascinating. Heartbreaking. Unreal. Too much. Way too much.

My beloved Fender Rhodes sat in the greenroom, the ancient cloth grill woven thru with silver strands wicking up the water into its innards. I thought about the cabinet, considered the electronics. I hadn’t the heart to look any closer, I just hoped that it hadn’t yet reached the critical height of the inputs on the far side. And wet though it might be, I could still reclaim the action and have it all cleaned, in the long run it would probably be ok. Been on my list to have gone over anyhow. I was thankful we hadn’t moved dad’s piano here yet. In terms of gear, the loss was minimal. Even my friend’s kiln was up on blocks and appeared safe. But ancient concert posters had sucked up water and puckered, losing ink and fading to nothing but soggy, meaningless pieces. But if that was the worst of the stuff – that was ok. What else? I wondered, slowly wading around the corner…

I made my way to the bathrooms and found water dripping from every piece of trim and weeping from the ceiling. Mold had started to grow on the walls, but thankfully the cold temperatures had prevented it from exploding all over. The main issue was the floor. Where it was poured cement, not such a big deal. But that gorgeous wood floor of the hall itself, the one that had seen so many concerts, so many memories…. To lose that wood, the very wood that had made the sound my father had so keenly sought – and so successfully achieved… it made me positively ache. First I had lost him, now I had lost his room. I didn’t cry, it was too much. And there was nothing I could do. Not a mop nor bucket would make a dent. This would take a pump. Or someone with a pump. Definitely someone with time. I sure didn’t have that. I turned to go down to the house and let mom know the awful reality.

Before long I was crying, and asking for mom’s forgiveness. I knew I’d been lax about preparing the place for winter. I’d gotten away with it the year before, so I’d thought we’d be ok. I’d ignored that tiny voice that told me over and over to make sure… make sure…. Mom was kind to me and told me not to blame myself, and for that I was grateful. Her words helped take a little of the sting away. But going to bed last night, and waking several times during the night were miserable moments. This morning it came back with a sickening thud, but thankfully I had a child to get going and a workday of my own to prepare for. Not a lot of time to sulk, to think ‘what if’, to linger over the sickening prospects – or lack thereof – before me. Plus a new tiny voice had begun to arise in my mind, and it was persistent. I’d ignored it before and the outcome was horrible. Maybe I had better pay attention. It seemed to impart a sense of calm. Calm? This is no time to be calm! I think, but then I stopped to listen more attentively…. What is it… what…? A feeling came upon me that I should not despair. That I should not weep as I might have wanted to (not that I didn’t weep – oh I did.) But even after I wept came a feeling of comfort right behind, a distinct and real sense that everything was going to be ok. Even last night as I’d gone to bed, it was there as the tiniest inkling. And by now I do know unquestionably that amazing things can come from the worst initial experiences. I felt, somehow, as if there simply had to be something to this. That there had to be an answer – that there was an answer, but I just hadn’t gotten there yet. I thought back on all the unlikely things that had happened as a result of other unlikely things – the divorce, the move to New York, my son ending up in the Waldorf school, me ending up getting a job at his school – all these things, each one dependent upon the other, the first event of which I never would have chosen for myself if given the choice. Yeah, there definitely¬†was something here. I just hadn’t found it yet.

While waiting to print out a map of the Mojave Desert on the downstairs pc for Elihu’s latest assignment, I pulled up the wonderful photo of my dad that I’d used in his obit. Through tears I asked him to please give me the answer. I apologized to him, begged his forgiveness for being so stupid, for letting him down. I told him that I knew there was a surprise here, an answer, somewhere. Please, I asked him, could he please, please help me from his side? I wiped the tears from my cheeks, minimized the picture on the desktop and sat there for a moment, my mind blank, waiting. Then the phone rang. It was the guy who was going to be doing the cleanup on the Studio. I’d called a bunch of people and had liked him on the phone the best. He’d come by earlier to assess the job, and had met mom. She really liked him too. I realize feelings go only so far, but that there was such quick consensus made me feel lucky. (Things don’t always work out so easily as this had so far.) As we talked about the cleanup and subsequent repairs, he himself suggested we could salvage the floor and repurpose it. Couldn’t use it again as a floor, but he’d clean it up and stash it somewhere safe. Being more involved with the creative, physical arts these days than the performing arts, I thought it perfect. Struck me as kinda strange that he even suggested such a thing. “Or I could just junk it. Whatever you prefer.” I considered for a moment seeing dad’s old flooring being revamped in a hundred new ways – pieces of art, sculpture, benches, stuff… Stuff that would live again. The floor would come to life in a new way, and in so doing would carry with it a new story…. As a friend reminded me tonight, it is as the old saying went regarding the wood from which a harpsichord was made; in its death it sings again…. This was beginning to feel better. And then came the final discovery. The answer.

For years we’ve struggled with the heating situation in The Studio. It was never designed for more than summer use, and outfitted with baseboard electric heat, it could cost an awful lot to heat. It didn’t seem like a viable option. We’d toyed with other ideas – using the one air duct we used for AC to move hot air – but that would mean installing an outside furnace and perhaps even constructing a shed-like home for it too. The option that I had yearned for – but was never a workable option – had all of a sudden become the solution. I’d lived with it in a Chicago co-op for years and had loved it. (Nothing like walking on a warm floor.) There was the answer. Was it possible? The guy from the restoration service said absolutely. Ok, so we didn’t have insurance. But we were harvesting the woods for timber this year. We’d planned on socking it away for the future, but it seemed the future was already here. A plan was making itself: take the floor out and start over. And I knew how we’d start over – of course, the answer! Radiant heat! Heated from the floor up, it will be easier on the instruments and much more pleasant for the yoga classes and the dancers. Oh heaven, heaven! Finally we can heat the place in an even, gentle way. Finally we can take out those baseboards and free the room up from wall to wall! I can hardly believe it, but here it is. The answer. This is the sweetest relief. A moment ago I was heavy, now I’m light with possibility. And I’m full of hope again. Happy, elated. Amazing.

Other things come to me too. The walls must be taken out at the bottom, and when we do that it gives us the opportunity to insulate the place properly too. Wow. We’d talked about it, but it had always seemed low on the list. Now the list was making itself. If I can speak from a purely intuitive place, it feels as if I’ve been putting this project off for a few years now (ok, single mom duty to young kid does kinda make such things a bit harder) and it just kinda feels like the Studio is crying out to me for the attention and love it deserves. I still have no fucking clue how to run an arts center or what happens next, but I won’t let that worry me for now. This place needs some tlc, some basic repairs and upgrades, and truthfully, had nature not forced my hand I do not believe any of this would be in the works. One project at a time. My partner Ceres is still on board, we’ve still got plans for the summer, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t keep moving towards them.

This chapter has become, quite literally and figuratively, a bump in the road. And thankfully, this unforseen bump will make way for wonderful new ground.

 

3 Responses to “New Ground”

  1. Gene Burnett Says:

    People I know who have that kind of heat seem universally pleased with it. Best of luck with this one. I see some benefit shows featuring a certain young percussionist in your future. ;~) GB

  2. Eric Schultz Says:

    Well, it looks like you’re doing the very best thing by turning a very negative event into an opportunity to restructure and reorganize. There’s some old saying about if you’re stuck with lemons, then make lemonade, and that’s just what you’ve been doing with all of the adverse situations in your life. Of course, it’s perfectly natural to feel bad when something bad happens. You would be heartless if you didn’t feel bad, but it’s good to know that even when the worst things happen, that you are postive-minded to be open to whatever you can do to turn things around. You could even sell art objects made of the warped wood, such as non-conventional picture frames, or whatever.

    There are always a thousand things which can be made of wood, and a little wood stain and finish can make any wooden object look better. My wife and I have an old wooden end-table my parents let us use (if that’s the word- it’s about 2′ X 3′, and a little over 2′ high), which we had since 1992, which was old and didn’t look very good. A couple of years later we had some potted plants on top of it, and water overflowed and badly stained the table. For years we had it in storage, and I always figured that something good could be done with this ugly table. My wife told me a number of times that I should just throw that piece of junk away, but I insisted on keeping it for awhile. Finally, about 11 years ago, I made a project out of it. During a few evenings, I sanded it all over until I got all the old finish off, and was down to practically no water stains left. Then, I applied wood stain and some polyurethene finish on top of that, and it is now a very attractive cherry wood-like table (I don’t know what it really is, but it’s got that color), which looks very nice and pretty in our living room. One leg still has some teeth marks that my dog chewed in it when going through that awkward big-puppy/toddler-dog phase that growing dogs go through, but other than that, the table looks new. Anyway, I’m sure that over the next few years, you will think of a hundred creative things to do with all that “junk” wood. It is good that you didn’t just throw it away.


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