The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Deep Summer July 20, 2015

It’s hard to believe it’s here again; that muggy mid-section of the year which from the bleakest winter day you cannot fathom ever returning… One hundred degrees in the sun, and the kind of relentless humidity that presses in and clings to every surface. Me, I can hardly stand this weather. But my son, he loves it. Ever since he was tiny he’s always said that he wants to go to Vietnam one day. He says that he actually loves this heat and humidity, and while I can’t help wonder if he doesn’t enjoy it all the more because it irks me so, I think I’m beginning to believe him. He isn’t slowed at all by the heat, but for me, it drives me to the brink. I find it hard to choose the right clothes. Hard to move around once I’m in those clothes. Hard to keep motivated. This is one of the reasons I feel so landlocked here in Greenfield; there is no escaping to the relief of a windswept beach. Instead, the vapors of the forest and field hang thick and unmoving in the air. While I feel a certain nostalgia at the scents of goldenrod, ferns and dampened pines (they remind me of my childhood; summer vacations, overnight camp and Baroque music), I can also say that that certain perfume brings with it a feeling of dread; there will no escaping the sweat that comes along with it. And think of all the musicians who must contend with the weather as they fight to keep their poor instruments in tune! It just seems to add insult to injury that the humidity spikes so mercilessly just as the outdoor music festival season reaches its peak. If only the weather could level out sometime in mid May and remain there until the fall. Yeah, if only.

I whine about it because it’s nice to get it off my chest, but truthfully, I bear it all with a bit more dignity than it might seem. It’s really more of an inner sort of anguish. I do manage to keep up with Elihu, I invent new itineraries for us, I make sure we aren’t lying about the house day upon day…. Every so often there are those afternoons where it just makes more sense to remain indoors on the comfort of the couch, surfing the great world beyond on our laptops, but for the most part we’re out and about. There are chickens to feed, gutters to clean, weeds to pull and concerts to attend. There’s busking to be done, there are frogs to be caught, tubas to be practiced and trampolines to be jumped upon. (Or is that the other way ’round? No, wait, that’s a joke…)

My last post had me cringing a bit; all that backward-longing, the clumsy pep talk about my future… In re-reading it, it feels as if I was saying the things I thought I should be feeling…. All that second-guessing of my goals and abilities, an encrypted bid for outside vindication veiled in the modest, self-effacing style of a middle-school girl’s journal entry. I guess it struck me as slightly jive because another two weeks on, and I’m exactly where I was before my spike of can-do spirit. The return of my son, and with him, the nonstop daily job of being a single mother, it’s reminded me that simply starting over again as a working musician is not exactly going to be simple. First, what to do with the kid? I’m making headway with material, but still, there’s new stuff to incorporate, and I find it’s sinking to the bottom of the list. It’s harder to find the oomph to learn tunes that I don’t particularly enjoy. And so I don’t. But that’s ok for now, because The Studio is entering into a new phase with much outdoor construction taking place, in addition to a good deal more to complete on the interior, and I need to be present for all of it. And I still have to feed the kid. Me, when my kid’s not here, I go for hours – entire days – without a thought of food. I’m all about getting shit done. But the brakes slam on pretty hard when the kid’s back. Which is ok. Elihu is 12, he’s on his way to being a young adult. He might still find making Ramen a bit of a challenge (he’s got his dad’s spazzy gene when it comes to some simple tasks), but in a pinch he could probably get through a day without me. So while my snazzy new role as rockin keyboard mama might not come to fruition this summer, I think next year it’ll be much more likely. I’m not stalling here, just investing my energy where the reward will be greatest. And in all honesty, cover jobs will always be there. The Studio will not build itself, nor rent itself out. I’ve put a great deal of time into the place lately, and can see the light now. I don’t wish to be overly cheerful and optimistic about its future – I admit it, I’m still too nervous; bold, decisive language still frightens me. I’ve spoken robustly about our future here before, but in this moment, I’m just kind of holding on until we can get the plumbing turned back on and the kitchen finished.  I think those final touches will embolden me to be more visionary. Hell, for the time being I’m choosing to blame my chill attitude on the less-than-chill weather.

Things are moving. There is no stasis, that’s for sure. Every week there’s a new adventure, and even more so when lil man’s here. Elihu will be rejoining his father for much of August, and there will be house guests here in his absence, so much will be going on during the summer that remains. My enthusiasm might be wilting a bit in all this heat, but heatwaves don’t last forever.

IMG_0025Sussy takes the heat well. Behind her are sprouting some super-gigantic goldenrod plants, well-fertilized by their location in the middle of the chicken run. Chicken poop can result in some crazy-big plants. !

IMG_0013I actually enjoy cleaning the gutters. I always seem to put it off for months and usually get to them when – you got it – it’s super hot out. Once you’re sweaty and uncomfortable, why not get even more sweaty and uncomfortable? Better to be productive than not.

IMG_0011On rainy nights the frogs are easy prey on local roads. We stock our pond each year with a variety of sizes.

IMG_0062Martha’s birthday was a couple of days ago. We’d planned on having a party anyhow, but it just didn’t work out that way. We did all meet up in the kitchen. (See how lost we all look. Even the camera couldn’t find its focus!) Every birthday of Martha’s we can remember was always the very hottest day of the summer. Strangely, this year the heat broke and the weather was cool and rainy.

IMG_0096As life would have it, there was another place we wanted to be that same night… Forty years ago at the age of 12 I first heard the great David Amram here in Saratoga, and now Elihu is here, at the same age, taking in that same experience. (Locals, please go hear the Dylan Perillo Orchestra – some of his musicians played behind David. They had a wonderful roster of tunes in their set, great charts, and a solid, swingin feel. Leader Dylan is the bassist, and his on-mic style was minimalist and quirky ala Steven Wright. Needless to say Elihu was way beyond impressed. And dig this – Chicago pianist Ron Perillo is his cousin. Say what? The world contracts once again.)

IMG_0102I have been lucky to share the stage with David a couple of times. Luckier still to witness him playing an impromptu version of “Pull My Daisy” on my Rhodes, back in our Evanston home. Crazy thing is, he remembers all of it.

IMG_0091The man and his necklaces.

IMG_0078Elihu gets up close to the neck gear…

IMG_0079…and enjoys a bit of a chat with David.

IMG_0126The next day there’s action at the site of the Studio’s future parking lot.

IMG_0140The site is being excavated in order to tie in the new kitchen to the existing septic system. A friend helped me with some post-construction cleaning inside, and between the two of us we put in over ten hours. Still so much to do.

IMG_0124Al, our earth-moving friend, has changed the grade behind the Studio in order to provide a perennially wet spot some necessary drainage. Formerly surrounded by woods, it’s a bit odd for me to see the building so exposed. We will be replanting evergreens at some point in order to fill in the space. We’re just doing things the right way so as to avoid problems in the future. A modest venue, but so much work has gone into it.

IMG_0231A far less modest venue: SPAC. Saratoga Performing Arts Center. (Chicago friends, this is what Ravinia wishes it were. Sorry, but true.) Today we are here to see New York City Ballet, which makes SPAC its summer home. I grew up going to the NYCB regularly, but today is a first for Elihu.

IMG_0163We arrived with two hours to kill inside the park before the ballet started, so our first stop was the Auto Museum.

IMG_0172A car very similar to the one my grandfather, Judge Conant, drove in 1932. Dad recalled holding on for dear life in the rumble seat with his brother David as their father raced down the winding Adirondack roads.

IMG_0176Far less glamorous was my first car, a 1986 Mustang. Yellow. One of the only non-cool Mustangs ever.

IMG_0183We lunched at the Gideon Putnam Hotel with Saratoga’s finest. Remind me to tell the story sometime of how I once spent the night there with Patti LaBelle and Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s not what you think. But memorable. !

IMG_0184Heading down to the backstage area.

IMG_0188Took this on the fly – we kinda snuck in backstage for a quick look-see. The dancers are there on the left, just outside the wings waiting for their entrance.

IMG_0142Elihu’s very first look at SPAC from the inside.

IMG_0150Our seats are in the front row – check out these tympani covers.

IMG_0217We’re right behind the pit!

IMG_0215We need seats like these – it’s the only way my little Achromat can see… Even here there isn’t a lot of definition. But I was impressed that he could see well enough to glean the story from the movement… Made me happy.

IMG_0203At intermission we made a new friend. I went to find him on Facebook and wouldn’t ya know, we have a couple of friends in common already. Once again, small world.

IMG_0221Afterward we met Andrew, another twelve year old – only he was a dancer! That was fun.

IMG_0228Crossing the bridge that leads across a creek far below, Elihu stops to mimic the concert posters.

IMG_0230Can’t forget our buddy Yannick! We are excited to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra – and hero, tubist Carol Jantsch – at the end of August.

IMG_0202This selfie gives you a little idea of the perspective here. Or maybe not quite. Trust me, it’s a long way down. Take note of that white formation on the right – shortly it will be the site of a dramatic moment in our afternoon.IMG_0239En route to the riverside walk we sample a spring. It was the most displeasing of all the springs we have tasted – and Elihu actually enjoys that sulfury-tasting crap. We thought this spring was “Horrendable”.

IMG_0240A long way down.

IMG_0334It’s exciting to finally be here!

IMG_0251The mineral-laced water from this particular spring has created this huge deposit in the form of a small mountain. Much of its surface is continually under a film of falling water.

IMG_0345Up close. It shimmers in real time, as a film of water descends.

IMG_0342Here’s a look back at the bridge we were on earlier.

IMG_0357The narrow ledge upon which we walked was all chalky white mineral residue covered with running water.

IMG_0360The water empties into the stream.

IMG_0367Here’s the path we followed to get downstream.

IMG_0285Once we were at the water’s edge, we had fun. The father of these boys grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago – just off of Devon Avenue – blocks from where I myself (and Elihu’s father) had lived. Later this man lived in Buffalo Grove, the town in which my late friend Bob Gand lived. He’d spent time in my hometown of Wilmette, too. He didn’t seemed impressed by it all, but I sure was. Small world stuff always blows my mind.

IMG_0298When wildlife wasn’t to be found, we busied ourselves making cairns in the running water.

IMG_0328I ended up making ten of em. I had a blast.

IMG_0356Elihu catches his breath after a frightening couple of minutes and an urgent lecture from a short-of-patience mom.

Things turned – and turned scary for a moment – when Elihu misjudged the relative elevations of the path and the water. He mistook a ledge for a shallow entry into the water, and in an instant he was up to his waist in the creek, clinging to the rough rock by his fingertips. I did a lightening-fast assessment of the situation, and realized the water was not more than three feet deep there, and if need be I could jump in and grab him. I was overcome with fear and anger all at once, and before I made my move to rescue him I chewed him out.

Poor kid, with his vision, things are bound to go wrong at some point, but still, I always tell him he has to be so much more diligent about assessing things that anyone else. Without good depth perception, life can be dangerous. He knows this, but he hates that it’s true. He blows things off that he shouldn’t. He hates that he can’t just be a curious 12-year-old boy who can take off running with everyone else. He always has to look twice, and sometimes it happens that he’s sure he knows what he’s seeing – when he really isn’t. Step or flat surface? A crap shoot most of the time.

This time it ended up ok, and as I told him it’s a good experience if he learns from it. He was still so mad at me for getting mad at him that I don’t think he took that in. But it’s something this mom has no trouble repeating. Good advice for anyone – achromat or not. Learn from it and it’s not a mistake. It’s a lesson. Crisis averted – this time.

IMG_0035Treasures from our river visit.

IMG_0001The heat finally breaks with a heavy summer downpour.

IMG_0022We’ve got a bit of a drainage problem in our garden beds. On the to-do list…

IMG_0010Who are we fooling? Raincoat? Ridiculous!

IMG_0018Elihu insists he jumps tons higher when the trampoline is wet. So high it looks like he’s walking on the treetops… Happy boy, happy summer, happy rainy day. For the time being, everything’s finally cool.


Post Script: While I had personal misgivings about the immature nature of my reflections in the previous post, I actually received a note in the mail from a dear friend saying how much she’d enjoyed it. It’s hard to know how feelings translate to readers. I guess one never knows, do one?

 

Relic July 3, 2015

It’s not my home anymore, and today this sight is truly a relic of my long-gone past, but still the shores of Lake Michigan restore my soul as nothing else can.
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In the wake of Martha’s death, things have changed around here. For one, in the short time between the lovely farewell party we held for her at the farm and the day in which her relatives returned to organize her house, several of her belongings had been stolen. It had to have been an inside job, which leaves the few of us who know the place well to be suspects. I don’t truly think Martha’s niece thinks that we did it, but I can’t know this for sure, and that cloud of distrust has given this transitional chapter a very unsettled feeling. But it sure helps to wind things up there, and at the same time helps propel me back into my own life, something that’s been on hold for a while now.

It’s more than strange to see the farm no longer inhabited. Not a soul remains. Only stuff. Things upon things, more piles and objects than one can comprehend. It is a house that has been receiving its contents for half a century. And now, with their final caretaker gone, they sit, silent and enigmatic, most of their stories lost to those who are left to dispatch with it all. For me, I don’t find myself wondering so much at the items – if the stories are lost, at least their purposes speak for themselves – but more to the point are the unanswered questions – why was Martha saving all of this stuff? For what use was it all intended? Hoarding can just as easily be achieved with elegant, historical relics as it can with modern junk. In the end, things that aren’t of use are essentially just that. Junk. Stuff that sits inert, waiting for someone to give it a new life. So while this house may seem at first glance to be full of precious antiques, I see it a little differently. I see it as a repository for things that at present aren’t realizing their potential. (And in some ways, I also see the place as a mirror for my own life in this moment.)

When mom, Elihu and I visited Chicago a few weeks ago (for the memorial of another dear, old friend), we were given the rare opportunity to see the places where my parents raised my brother and me – and personally it was a way in which I could finally say a deep and meaningful goodbye to those chapters in my life. Our old home had been lovingly restored, the new owners more than happy to share with us every nook and corner of the place. We had the good fortune to eat familiar, much-missed food at places that were once regular destinations in our lives. We re-acquainted ourselves with the new city skyline, saw neighborhoods where some old places were razed and new ones erected, and we took it all in with enthusiasm and great interest. The lake, the unending stretch of beach that goes on for mile after mile, that boundless expanse of horizon which I still miss so very much… We saw it all, and we experienced it all together. And at the age of eighty, I’m not sure my mother will return in her lifetime. I know I will never return in the same way. (As for Elihu, he doesn’t remember his Chicago life, brief as it was, so for him it’s just an interesting anecdotal chapter that came before his time.) This trip was the perfect conclusion and farewell to our former lives. And this time it made coming home to Greenfield truly feel like coming home.

Shortly after we came home from our brief visit to Chicago, Martha died. And a week later, we had her memorial celebration. After that, the items went missing from her place. And now, the farm is no longer our space to enter freely. Ultimately that’s ok – there’s plenty I need to get to; the Studio, my teaching, my own home and property, my chickens, my health, my daily routines (which have been anything but routine over the past month or more) and, of course, my son. I’m resurrecting my quest to find piano solo jobs in this bustling tourist town, and last night made more than a dozen stops in my first attempt to sus out how things work these days. I learned plenty in just six hours of conversation and visits. I’m not up to speed in many ways. I’m out of practice, unfamiliar with my songs, my keys, even the silly lyrics. And technology? Forget about it. My lack of a smart phone and tablet all but cuts me off from the world around me. My songlist itself needs some serious updates (I’d thought I could hang my hat on the novel concept of being nostalgic and ironic, playing mostly a diet of guilty pleasure radio hits for the over 50 set, but the wisdom on the street is that I need a serious infusion of more current material, regardless of my cute little shtick.) I recall a time in my life when I had several hundred songs up and ready to go without a second thought; now I second guess it all. Did I really ever do this before? Was I really a musician in a former life? I certainly never jobbed with a vengeance, but I got work. More importantly – I almost always had work; and if I didn’t, it ended up finding me. Here, in Saratoga, a world in which I’ve never worked professionally, I don’t have the infrastructure of dozens of musician friends nor the good reputation I once took for granted to proceed me. And I certainly don’t have that ‘famous’ guitar-playing husband to help give me an added boost of credibility. All I have is me. (And a new rig, thank God. Wait, make that ‘thank mom’. !) Here, in this ‘new’ town, in this new life, it feels like I’m a relic.

Things can change, this I know. And thanks to a handful of magically timed recent meetups with some very wonderful women I know and a little outside perspective, I’ve been able to reinvigorate the vision. If it weren’t for my hairdresser – whom I merely visited yesterday for a quick hello – I wouldn’t even have set out to meet all the people I did. She urged me to go and close those deals which I’d proposed just a few months ago. And sitting in her chair, whom should I meet but an old friend of Martha’s. It seemed another push from the universe to let go of the past and move into my future.

My day started at six a.m. and didn’t end until lil man was back home and we two settled into bed around 2:30 (his flight from Chicago – where he’d been visiting with his father – got in after 1. A super late night.) My day started by learning, praise Allah, that I didn’t have colon cancer. Pre-cancerous polyps, but that was all (my grandparents died of colon cancer, and my cousin, two years my junior, is on her third round of chemo in her fight against the disease). My day filled quickly after the doctor’s appointment, and I only returned after dark to close the chickens in before I headed out to the airport to pickup Elihu. It was a day full of unplanned-for events, the enjoyable company of friends, and the gleaning of much important professional information. I felt a bit like an outsider though. Yes I’d left Chicago more than six years ago by now, but I’d been cloistered away ever since in the role of rural, impoverished, single mom. Yesterday it felt like I was starting all over again. But at least I was beginning on my own, not in the wake of a famous husband, not on the reputation of a varied career as keyboardist, not as a frontman for a well-loved band, not as any of those things. Just as me.

I still have a hard time letting go of my past life because sometimes I worry that nothing can match its glamour; that instead of a fruitful future, I can expect a long, bleak road ahead. That kind of thinking has been easy to succumb to in the past, but I need to get rid of it now. It’s ok to hold on to a keepsake – there’s nothing wrong with being in possession of a relic or two – but there’s still a lot of junk in my house that no longer serves me which I need to clear out, so that a new life can have the space and freedom to move on in.


IMG_0085The most beautiful, perfect sendoff for our dearest Martha. Michael made a fine toast (we all raised a glass of Martha’s regular evening drink – gasp – Apricot Brandy) after which we all sang Martha’s favorite song, “Simple Gifts”. That big, beautiful farmhouse came alive again, and I’m sure wherever Martha was, she was pleased.





A real-life tableau, undisturbed for decades.

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Ever a practical woman, Martha wrote her own obituary, as well as her final wishes and disbursements here in this plain, spiral notebook. She called her matters ‘mundane’; simple though they might have been, mundane they were not.

IMG_0152A last image of what has been our ‘normal’ for the past five decades. Mom and Andrew sit in the kitchen at the farm as they have since he and I were tiny.

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IMG_0048Is my own collection of stuff any less of a mystery? How in hell did this crap all find me? Another garage sale of epic proportions in on the calendar for this summer. My house will not end up like Martha’s. (Besides, there’s no space; it’s a mere four rooms to her ten.)

IMG_0052I am of the opinion that if you do not see it, you will not use it. I’ve labeled all this stuff and use it all pretty regularly. I’m doing my best to keep my crap confined to this storage room and nowhere else.

IMG_0058I’d thought my new rig was so modern and ready-to-rock, but alas, the bulky 3 ring binders of charts (and my reliance on them too) instead of a handy tablet is a handicap in this day and age. No matter, for now it’ll have to do. Until I can store it all in my brain, that is.

IMG_0103I try to keep my world as simple as possible. Hopefully, a tidy home will provide a solid platform for a full and invigorating life to come. If some things are about to change in my life, I’ll need some things in place that never do. That’s just the kind of gal I am. I’m fine with some change, and I feel it’s important to routinely clean one’s house out of unused items, but I utterly depend upon some things remaining just as they are.

IMG_0025Here’s a pic of our first-born hen this year, whom we named Martha. Sadly, for no reason I can understand, she died one morning this week. We’d never before had a hen who was half red and half white. She was as unique as her namesake.

IMG_0014I don’t cry anymore when our animals leave us, but my heart still breaks. I’d hoped to have a living remembrance of Martha here on our tiny farm, but I’ll have to let go of the sentiment and attachment. Sorrow and regret can zap a person of their hope, and I need to keep mine strong and healthy. Goodbye and thank you, tiny, feathered friend.

IMG_0002It’s not exactly in my backyard, but Saratoga Lake’s not terribly far.

IMG_0011Our house on the hill lives in the middle ridge of this photo – in the darker blue section just above the treeline, with the Adirondacks beyond. For me this is a new body of water, a new horizon. This beautiful view gives me a new perspective on things, and that’s something I could really use right about now.


       Post Script: Martha suffered a stroke in the mid 80s which left her left side paralyzed. While she was able to drive for a while, and did far more than one would expect for a person in such a situation, she was clearly stopped in her tracks by this life-changing event. It has been posited that her stuff remained in disuse because she was never again able to resume her activities and projects as she’d planned after her stroke. Heartbreaking to think how everything can change in a minute. A good reminder for us all to use our lives as fully as we’re able, and while we’re able, too.