The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Breaking Ground July 19, 2014

It started quietly. I’d heard some large machinery moving about down the driveway, and then silence. I waited. Then I took a walk to see for myself. It was an eery sight. A small piece of earth moving equipment had been deposited in the empty field. It had begun. I tried to savor the light of the open field, tried to memorize everything about the space as it still was, tried to get over my sadness. I would never be ready for this. I reminded myself that there was once a barn in this field, and that too was gone. That there were once cattle grazing here, and they were also long gone, and that before the cattle fields there was nothing here but forest; even the stone walls that run through the woods were not ancient, as they seemed from 2014’s perspective, but at a mere two hundred years old, they were relatively new installations. I tried to convince myself not to lament the change so deeply; this land had been undergoing constant change over the past two centuries. And before the area had been settled by Europeans (and subsequently that development mourned by local Native Americans), very little had changed so dramatically in millions of years. But it didn’t stop me from grieving the loss of another hard-won field though. Yeah, change is part of life, but I can still miss what was. Thankfully it’s not quite here yet, and I can still enjoy the spot of green at the end of my long driveway. From where I stand today, it’s still unimaginable to me that in that space will soon stand the silhouette of a two-story house. As I’ve said before, I’m not good with change.

Martha turned 88 on Thursday, and I think it was probably the first such birthday in all her life that it was not sweltering. The Conants and the Spiaks joined Martha at The Farm in her kitchen, the only room in which she has ever entertained, and we enjoyed a fine summer supper of hamburgers and hot dogs, mom’s potato salad (one of my top ten favorite foods on the planet – it’s understated and so damn good) and some cold cocktails. Jesse and Sam, the young girls close to Elihu’s age were there representing the next generation. I showed them the markings on the closet door where I’d been measured when I was their age, they in turn showed me around the winery that their father was building on the property. We visited the resident horses and I told the story of the enormous barn that burned down, on this very day (some birthday present!) when I was their age, years ago. How it took out one of the great Maple trees, how it changed the place forever. Martha recounted to us that the first thing she did after ringing the dinner bell and calling husband Frank in from the fields was to move the harpsichord out of the house to prevent it from burning, should the house catch fire. (She and Frank were musicians-turned-farmers and gave me a great experience of animal husbandry and old-time farm life as a child. Martha also taught me how to read music and later gave me a few very practical tips on accompanying that I still use today.). This place, simply called by all of us “The Farm”, has been my heart’s epicenter since I was a tiny child. Even now, as Martha hangs on, doing barely more than living from day to day (she suffered a stroke thirty years ago and can only move the right side of her body), knowing that she’s still here gives me a feeling of anchor. Of place, of center. In spite of many trips to the hospital and nursing home after small heart-related episodes, Martha always manages to come home. This time, though, she seems slower, a bit more tired. No less spirited, no less intimidating than she’s ever been (no one still dares to counter her on any thing), she still strikes me as a bit closer to the end. At least I can kinda see it now. I guess I’m just getting ready, because aside from the death of my mother, this will be the biggest change I can imagine.

I’m still puttering away, trying to beat the clock and restore order to my home. I’ve sunk a good hundred hours of hard labor into this place over the past couple of weeks, and am making milestones that have even gone beyond my initial to-do list. After living here almost six years, I have only just yesterday unpacked the last of the boxes from the move from Chicago. Can you believe that? And that last box will remain packed, I’m afraid, as I simply have not the use nor the space for my fine wedding stemware. A few more paining projects (garage doors, cellar wall) remain, and there’s Elihu’s room to do a deep-cleaning and inventory of (that’ll be a bigger job than I think now) but I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is a great relief.

The Studio is cruising along now too, with our second complete week of art camp behind us, and a great number of ideas for the future being born. There’s big change here too; the place seems to be taking on its own forward trajectory as new uses for the room come to mind, leaving the memory of fine Baroque concerts on July afternoons far behind, and breaking my heart in tiny ways as the new course becomes more clear… I am only now coming to terms with the idea that this is a place undergoing a real transformation, and in order to do this well I’ll need to invest myself fully in the new direction. I won’t sabotage my progress in the name of nostalgia, but like the field at the end of my driveway, I will grieve its loss.

My garden projects have reached a nice point of completion, I finally figured out the coop door opener (which has been broken for almost 2 years now), I’ve finally rid my house of every last unused item – books to boots – and I can now say I know where everything is. Ha! How many people can say that of the contents of their home? My office, however, is altogether another situation, and it waits for my attention soon. I need to check in with the Waldorf School too; if they haven’t found a replacement candidate for my post, I may have to get back to the piano soon. That is not a detour I relish. I’ve hit a nice forward stride, and hope to continue with added momentum.

Oh, and today is the second anniversary of my divorce. It took over four years to accomplish, and I didn’t even learn I’d been legally divorced until many months later. My ex has been married to his new wife for over a year now too. Strange as it may seem, it’s only just about now that I’m truly feeling I live here, and that this is my life – and that I really am a single person in the world. Being totally honest, I do miss the man I once lived with, but I also know he’s no longer the person he was, so I can’t lament not being with him now. He’s different. Guess I am too. In going thru old photographs this past week I found myself still very wistful about the old days, and I still missed aspects of those lives very much, but I’ve come to the point where I can’t imagine my life without this chapter. I’ve been resisting this new time of my life just about the whole time I’ve been living it because I missed things that I felt were taken from me without my consent. I moved because I had to, not because I wanted to. And I still think of those places as my home, but now, finally, in my heart this place has joined them. Having the time in which to properly inventory the place, rid myself of old baggage and apply some tender loving care has helped elevate it to the status of a sacred place in my life.

Things are changing in so many ways here at the Hillhouse. For the past six years here it’s seemed that life, for the most part, has moved at a steady pace, and change has come in manageable doses; now it seems that the tide is coming in all at once and things are beginning to change in rapid and dramatic ways. Not to say that the change won’t be manageable, because in the end I believe it’ll all be fine. In the words of Martha Carver, “Things always work out“. I’m learning to accept that life requires change, growth requires entropy. Nothing is static. And in order to have wonderful new experiences, we must first break new ground.

IMG_9191The very first cut.

IMG_9187The neighbor boys are excited to see the machines working so close to home. I can’t help but dread the whole in my driveway filling up with the profile of a two-story house.

IMG_9170Here are the plans…

IMG_9214Ryan and Brandon enjoy being outdoors with all that’s going on…

IMG_9180They spotted a snake which I just managed to get – hence the fuzzy pic – and then it wriggled away. All muscle, they are. And stinky too! I’d caught tons of em as a girl and had forgotten that stinky ooze they poop out when frightened. Ich.

IMG_9218I’m breaking ground too. Putting in my final garden bed next to the house.

IMG_9219I’m not ever strong enough to drill a screw without first pounding out a little pilot hole. What a wimp. Takes more time this way too. Oh well.

IMG_9223After some painting and pounding, I’ve got my relatively cheap, DIY garden edging in. (Painted 2x4s with shims nailed perpendicular to em to act as stakes to hold them upright. A couple of L brackets to keep corners square.)

IMG_9232My requisite tools. Heard of Saratoga water? Bottled right here in town.

IMG_9243I’ve brought an end-of-week surprise for the kids at art camp…

IMG_9246It’s Bald Mountain! A couple of years ago I brought a rooster in for the drawing class. These clay students wanted to see him even though he wouldn’t be modeling for them.

IMG_9263He’s getting smooched whether he likes it or not. !

IMG_9299He lets out a loud crow in a small room.

IMG_9285Kestrel shows off her bas relief tile from the class.

IMG_9291Ceres says goodbye to campers and moms.

IMG_9332At my mom’s place, just up the driveway from The Studio, a turkey makes a visit (hummingbird at right by feeder).

IMG_9337Here he is up close. What plumage!

IMG_9311And here’s my guy Baldy on the short ride home. My house is about 1/8th of a mile past the sign, same side of the road.

IMG_9321Ah, the bee balm is out and the butterflies are back.

IMG_9351And my new chickens, now 3 months old, are right at home here. (Last year at this time I put in this pond.)

IMG_6581About a month ago Elihu, Mom, Andrew and I went to visit Martha in the hospital. She spent several weeks in a nursing home, and finally made it home again.

IMG_6587Martha’s always on. Aside from some hearing loss, she doesn’t miss a thing. No exaggeration.

IMG_7861Here’s Martha, eighty-six years ago at age two, in Deposit, New York. (Note how her haircut hasn’t changed!)

IMG_9124Here she is some sixty years ago…

IMG_9126Note the ashtray, ubiquitous in her generation.

IMG_9142Sometime in the ’70s, cigarette in hand (husband Frank to the left, he died in 2000) standing in the kitchen, which looks pretty much the same now.

IMG_9077The same place, forty years later.

IMG_8937As I’d driven in, I was greeted by a turkey vulture in the driveway.

IMG_8935Wish it were a clearer pic – but you can certainly see that wild red head. I made Elihu a turkey vulture costume for Halloween one year. What a crazy looking bird, and big, too!

IMG_9030Martha’s spot is no longer at the table, but behind the island, as it puts all she needs within reach. Also never far away is dog Masie, the sweetest black hound dog who lets no one near the house without great fanfare. Good watch dog.

IMG_9075Martha, holding court. Mike, Kelly, Mom and Andrew in attendance.

IMG_9088Another view… only difference through the years is the clutter. !!

IMG_9037Upstairs in this historic farm house it’s another story; quiet, still and spare. My mom and dad stayed in this room when we first began to spend our summers in Greenfield, before we bought the Old House (where Andrew lives now).

IMG_9040This is the adjacent room in which Andrew and I stayed; I vividly remember us both walking through this missing panel in the door and thinking it quite a fun game. The panel is still missing after four decades! I’m too anal to let something like this go unattended. Frank and Martha had a farm to run, however, and this was likely not even on the to-do list.

IMG_7868Here’s how tall I was in 1972! The very height of the door latch was decided on because it was as high as I could reach. All the kids in the area flocked to Martha and her famous kitchen, and many of us can follow our growth on the inside of this closet door.

IMG_8963American Gothic, tailgate style. Jessie and Sam are Elihu’s age – they’re in the same 4H group. Mike’s put in a vineyard in the fields we once hayed as children. Martha has given her place to this hard-working family. They’ll have a lot on their plate when that time comes.

IMG_8965Mike built this almost all himself. Next pic of this the siding will be up.

IMG_8983Impossible to count the man hours involved in planting and tending these vines

IMG_8989Fruit’s looking good now; it’s taken several years to reach this point.

IMG_8998The new barn, much of which Mike did too – the white house can be seen to its left, under the trees.

IMG_9015I learned to ride here when I was little.

IMG_9010It’s become so grown up with vegetation over the years that it’s only possible to see the whole place from the barnyard. Even then it’s almost swallowed up by greenery. I remember this as a thriving barnyard with sheep, cows and horses when I was a child, and the house, yard and gardens were much better groomed then too.

IMG_7867An old photo of the front of the house, which was built by Prince Wing in 1805 (Prince’s son’s name was Elihu).

IMG_9096After a great 88th birthday party for Martha Ward Carver, Jessie sounds me off on the shofar which her sister and I uncovered in the music room. Good thing she’s taking up trombone in the fall, I have known very few people to ever get a true sound on this thing. She can.

IMG_9103Later that night, as I sat reading on the couch, I heard a strange commotion down the hill. Soon there was a glow of flashing lights through the woods, so I had to investigate. Some poor fellow had veered to miss a deer and accidentally plummeted down the incredibly steep hill towards the marsh. Here the truck is finally towed to the road level. Trees and boulders ironically saved the driver. Talk about breaking ground! May my adventures be a little less harrowing.

 

Defeat, Distraction and Divots July 12, 2014

These days I tend to think of my life as being empty. Void of the things that made it fulfilling and enjoyable a decade ago. And certainly, in some ways it’s true. The nature of my life now is completely different; back in the day I lived in a bustling metropolitan area and was always involved with several creative projects at any one time. I enjoyed the great privilege of producing and hosting my own radio show, of performing in all the great venues on a regular basis, and most nights of the week were concluded in the company of friends at a restaurant eating great food. I shared my world with people who also lived their lives inside a whirlwind of creative endeavors. Yeah, it was an incredibly enjoyable time in my life. And while this chapter might not be as thrilling, it’s really no less busy, no less full. I have to remind myself it’s just different. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s where I’m supposed to be. I’m constantly faced with new challenges, both physical and emotional, and I learn from every one of them. It might not be as flat-out fun as the way I seem to remember my old life as being, but if I take a step back and observe things as objectively as I can, it appears I am not living an empty life at all.

Actually, my life in the country is chock-full of tiny events, and I am still a busy woman, only it’s a different kind of busy. In fact, I sometimes wonder how many years it will take me to find myself moving again with more regularity and less urgency. How long til I reach a point of equilibrium? Of balance, of true contentment, of peace and ease? When will the need to put out small fires cease? I suppose my feelings of discontent are partly due to the Studio and my apprehensions about all the unknowns before me, and I suppose things will only get more demanding on that front. But that’s ok, I have a suspicion that that sort of work is likely to bring more contentment than trying to trap raccoons, finding ways to keep the water out of my basement or dealing with less-than-forthright neighbors in sketchy real estate deals.

I am grateful that my partner, artist and teacher Ceres Zabel, has just successfully concluded her first week’s class at the Studio. All the kids had a great time, they learned a lot and came home with beautiful pieces to show for it. This weekend we have more work before us as we tidy the main room and turn what is currently a construction zone into a tamer, cleaner version of a workspace. More elbow grease. But that kind of work feels better than any other. I can’t wait til the classes are done for the summer and I can begin to get the insulation in and the sheet rock cut and back up – with my own hands. Until this whole experience I never would have considered doing some of the labor myself, but I’m discovering that it doesn’t hurt to try and learn how to do things yourself (plus a lack of funds kinda motivates as well. !). There hasn’t been a husband or partner around for the past six years, so I’ve had to suck it up and figure things out for myself when shit’s hit the fan. And this Studio experience is like more of the same – only on a larger scale. I have learned so much in this adventure, and it’s barely begun. So much yet to learn.

Actually, learning things is was makes things interesting. I can thank a recent heartbreaking and shady sale of the adjacent property for a quest which turned into a day-long hunt for maps, deeds and property descriptions and had me driving all over the county to collect information. I learned some interesting things along the way, some of which had absolutely nothing to do with the business at hand, but hey, isn’t that what makes life more fun? It wasn’t an errand of joy necessarily, but it turned out to be a joyful day of sorts. If nothing else, a nice diversion from the stay-at-home grind of chasing chipmunks and chickens and comparing quotes from contractors.

And then there were the lovely, impromptu visits over the past few days with neighbors, and the moments of pause they provided in my busy life. My house is cleaned out, now only the organizing remains. The field at the end of the driveway (thank God not Crow Field – the big one where the Woodcocks return each spring) will likely see the building of a too-big-for-the-lot house by fall. After penning letters giving both the seller and the buyer a piece of my mind, all that’s left to do now is to get back to building my own life and business. A couple of diversions have taken my mind off of the changes – both welcome and unwelcome – that are appearing on the horizon, and now it’s time to get my eyes back on the path directly ahead.

Diversions keep it all possible, they prevent the reality of life from becoming too daunting and dark. Thank goodness for kids and frogs, unexpected visits from neighbors and tiny, impromtu outings. Oh, and thank goodness for calls from your own child who tells you that he’s driving ‘right now’ down the strip in Las Vegas and then says ‘oh my God I have to go now Mommy cuz there’s too much to see…”. I am happy, happy, happy to know my son is enjoying himself and seeing the places I can’t afford to show him myself. I’ve already seen them, now it’s his turn. He’s in the middle of a great summer, and my heart lifts to know it. Knowing that makes whatever hardships I might be feeling in the moment so much easier to take. I miss my son, but  I know that he’s living a summer he’ll never forget. And in my own way, I guess I am too.

IMG_7961Less than an acre, but soon there’ll be a four bedroom house squeezed onto one of the few remaining fields in Greenfield.

IMG_7960What saddens me is that this field is next to my driveway. What angers me is that the owners asked that I pay to have my driveway moved so that they could sell their lot. (My ancient right-of-way makes the lot too small to develop – legally. That doesn’t seem to have stopped them in the end.)

IMG_7964Here is the tiny bit of disputed land – make a triangle from the rock on the right, the white plastic jug in the driveway, and the right rear tire of my car. But hey, if this is what it takes to prevent a house from going up, so be it. It’s the law, but the law doesn’t seem to be working. As long as I don’t have to move my driveway (more like a road really), than I’ll just have to accept the unwelcome change.

IMG_7981Neighbor Ryan stopped by for a little frog catching. Just when poor Stanley (the frog) and his family thought they could relax. Ha!

IMG_7993Mom Boat Tailed Grackle gets ready to feed her ‘baby’. (Big baby, huh?)

IMG_7995I’ve got a primitive and slow camera, but look at this! Love it.


IMG_8004The juvenile is gray with dull, gray and brown eyes. Adults are black with iridescent greenish-blue plumage and have strikingly contrasting yellow and black eyes.

IMG_8146Elihu will be bummed he missed the annual blooms of our rare Canada lily.

IMG_8148Time for art camp at the Studio!

IMG_8324Ceres has been running her Odyssey School of Fine Arts for over twenty years – its new home is now in the Studio.

IMG_8326After a short lesson, the kids get down to work.

IMG_8307Today they were given magnifying glasses to help inspect the details on the blooms and leaves they were to draw.

IMG_8329Here’s Mason’s final product!

IMG_8351Miakota’s had a great time this week.

IMG_8306Tom gets started…

IMG_8331…and here’s his final drawing.  Nice shading!

IMG_8344Much trickier than it looks.

IMG_8023Now to peel back the many layers of  the property line mystery…

IMG_8032We may live in a virtual culture, but there’s still plenty of paper hidden away in the vaults.

IMG_8039It’s details like this that I’ve come to the department of Public Works to see for myself.

IMG_8030Ah, the crazy language of property description.

IMG_8046Course I’m a bit of a map freak, so this was very exciting. Here’s a local map from over a hundred and fifty years ago.

IMG_8052Here’s a town that doesn’t even exist anymore – it was built around an old glass factory, just north of Lake Desolation. (I love the way each building has its owner’s name written beside it.)  It’s kind of like the East’s version of a ghost town. You can find bits of glass and pottery in the woods on the site but not much more as humidity eventually claims everything. When the industry collapsed and the town was no longer needed, some of the houses themselves were moved down the mountain on rollers and re-constructed in Saratoga Springs – a good ten miles away. Impressive and amazing to me.

IMG_8073I’m a great fan of all things modern and mid-century, and I’ve always loved this lobby of the county building, complete with lamps made of the same granite as the table upon which they sit, and dig those original (and sadly kinda shabby) metallic gold lampshades!

IMG_8066Now onto a title insurance company. Bit of trivia for Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford fans: this is the site of some interior restaurant scenes from The Way We Were.

IMG_8063Disappointingly, there’s not one single detail left that would even give you and idea for the soda fountain it once was. (Also a disappointment was finding no deed or title description to be found that mentioned my driveway and thereby proved, on paper, of its existence before we bought the place.)

IMG_8067More movie fun facts: the scene in which Bob ties Barbra’s shoes in the moonlight was filmed here at the historic Medbery Inn in downtown Ballston Spa, New York in 1972.

IMG_8374I stopped by Zac and Stephanie’s and before I knew it, I’d tagged along with them to the local Polo grounds to see my first game. Saratoga Springs is a horse town, and this famous Polo field is a mere three miles from my home, yet I’ve never been. (Maybe cuz it’s $30 a car, and I’m usually traveling solo.)

IMG_8441The ground rumbles when the action gets close. All that prevents the ball from flying out into the onlookers is an 8″ tall board on the perimeter of the field, and the incredible skill of the players.

IMG_8443There they go!

A short bit of live action on the field (which is I hear is the size of nine football fields).

IMG_8449Wow! One of the kids in our group actually got a ball!

IMG_8437The half time tradition of ‘stomping the divots’. The horse’s hooves leave footprints, some of which are pieces of sod that can be stamped back into place. One must be careful to tell chunks of dirt apart from other, similar-looking mounds before stomping. !

IMG_8368I haven’t tailgated in decades – this was a multi-generational party with lots of kids. Grandpa Phil (in blue) chats with son Zac (in yellow). These guys are my saviors – they helped fix the Studio up so we could open, they’ve helped me catch varmints, close up my chickens, fix water pumps and more. This is Annabelle in the pink sunglasses, she’s the big sister of three.

IMG_8208At the end of a full couple of days, I head back home down my beautiful and peaceful driveway. I’ve never taken this rural landscape for granted, but there’s never a good time to see it go. I’ll miss this field terribly. But on we march, into the unknown of the future, grateful for what still remains.