The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

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Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

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Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…

 

Saratoga Streets September 2, 2014

Well, it’s here. The end of the tourist season in Saratoga Springs, New York. Elihu was away for much of the summer, but he still got a little time in busking and meeting folks. I keep telling him to rake it in while he’s still relatively little and cute, cuz the tips just don’t come as easily when you’re a pimply-faced teenager (or an adult!). But in the end, he does it because he loves it, and the money is really just icing on the cake. He will likely continue to play into the cold months, but the sweet season is over for this year. Here are some highlights of our final weeks on the streets of Saratoga…

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I’m always extra proud of my son when he tips the other street performers without a word from me (and he always does).

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This is chalk art by Alexis Broz, now billing herself as the ‘original’ chalk artist of Saratoga. You go, sister, we know you are!

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Here Alexis left her imprint on a T-shirt artist’s street space.

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We ran into some fellow Waldorf School students and everyone hung out for a bit.

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Here’s the charismatic Eryn (and also a former student of Elihu’s teacher at Waldorf) doing her thing, shortly before jetting off to attend The American University in Paris.

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Another view of the same scene.

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Cecil Myrie’s a Jamaican banjo player who’s been a staple of the Saratoga street scene for the past three decades. (Here he’s showing Elihu how to play this resonant bass box.) He has bone cancer now, and in spite of his desire to, he just wasn’t able to muster the physical strength he needed to join us out on the town. As we chatted about life – and about Chicago – imagine my surprise when he recounted for me his memories of hanging out at the “Step-Hi Lounge” on Wabash… the very haunt in which I myself passed away many hours in my days as a film student at Columbia College. (CCC is right across the street, but the Step-Hi is now no longer: a parking lot takes its place.)

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Cecil’s trying to give me a lesson, but I’m having a hard time here…

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Okay, I’m pulling it together now…

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But my lil man has it down. Just look at that left hand!

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And speaking of mentors, here’s our dear pal Ed, at Saratoga Guitar, giving Elihu a little impromptu lesson.

IMG_0883Looking good Elihu! Maybe next year you’ll have another trick up your sleeve when busking season arrives.

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Here he is on the final day of racing at the track (the major tourist attraction here since 1863).

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Here Elihu is playing alongside Skidmore music degree grad Paul, who plays the Gyile from Ghana, West Africa. It’s tuned in a crowd-pleasing pentatonic scale, and thanks to Paul’s great feel, he rocked those five notes hard all afternoon. Goodbye til next year, all you fellow buskers… it’s been a lovely season.

 

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Last Weeks of Saratoga’s Summer September 2, 2013

The 144th running of the Travers took place here in Saratoga last week – which may as well have been last year for the rate at which the racing culture moves (and life in general too, I suppose)… Lest we forget it, I’m here to remind you thru some pics and anecdotes….  And then moving ahead, this week was the town’s final official week of summer activities. Last night a different band played on every corner, and people of all ages filled the streets. There was not a parking spot to be found – except for those of us locals who knew better and used the few open spots in the ATC parking lot. (Heck, each one of us probably has a free Adirondack Trust Company pen laying around somewhere in our car… that counts for something, right?) The streets were more densely packed with humans, canines, pigs, horses (on police duty) and reptiles than at any other time in the year. It was poppin. Oh, and my kid was almost run over by a bicycle. His heart was racing all the way home. Excitement at every turn.

Travers Day 2013 005Backin up to last week. Elihu thought he’d try busking in front of the track, but everyone was in such a hurry to get inside that hardly a soul tipped. He was, however, remembered by his brethren tweenager peers who shared the outside common area and sold cold water to the incoming patrons. Street kids gotta support each other. Not being sarcastic when I say you could feel the love.

Travers Day 2013 012Inside, this is the first scene you encounter. Lots of people milling about under a canopy of trees outside the actual grandstand building. And as it turns out, this is the main experience for many at the races; they set up a picnic area outside and listen for the race results to be announced. Kinda seems to me like they’re missing the heartbeat of the place out here.

Travers Day 2013 013The famous red-and-white canopy that leads into the grandstand. This is also where the horses must cross. All pedestrian traffic is stopped to let the rockstar racers walk past on their way to the paddock.

Travers Day 2013 019Here comes a horse and his posse…

Travers Day 2013 020This duo reminds me a little of the Man of La Mancha and his horse…

Travers Day 2013 024Once inside we witness some crazy sub-cultures I’m not usually privy to… bigwigs and wiry little latin dudes from the streets excitedly sharing the good news about the last race. Just what is their relationship? What’s gone down here? Mm.  Wish I knew the story.

Travers Day 2013 046We found a small spot at the fence. Our neighbors hadn’t won all day long – until we got there. Just sayin. !

Travers Day 2013 027Here’s a look westward toward the main part of the grandstand.

Travers Day 2013 051Women’s hats are de rigueur  in racing season. I missed my opportunity to dress up my dollar store garden hat with a bit of colorful grosgrain ribbon. Ah well. There’s always next year.

Travers Day 2013 058Elihu’s assessment of this highly-touted race day so far? Crowds, crowds and more crowds has this young racing fan giving the Saratoga Racetrack a thumbs down. Oh dear. Not a very good first experience here at the track.

Travers Day 2013 059But we found the sweet spot where the photographers hang out. Shady, close to the action and free.

Travers Day 2013 060We also get to watch the comings and goings of the horse community. There is literally a village of people behind the scenes here. And they’re all passing right in front of us. From trainers to owners to jockeys to just plain horse hands to the folks that make their food, do their laundry… a whole working town supports this racing world.

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The horses might be superstars, but we have no idea.

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The owners and trainers are better dressed.

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You just have no idea which horse is which before they have their colors on.

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But it’s fun to see all the activity so close up.

Travers Day 2013 069OK, now lil man is feeling a bit more hopeful about seeing something meaningful today. We’re as close as one can get!

Travers Day 2013 100Getting the track ready for the 144th running of the Travers Race…. just minutes away now…

Travers Day 2013 102The riders have just passed us and are now getting ready to enter the starting gate. Elihu and I both admired “Will Take Charge” as he passed feet from us in his crisp blue and white…. and as he left (the last one to parade in front of us) I yelled after him to ‘Go and take charge, baby!’ We’d gotten the best and longest look at him, so in a rather off-hand way, we thought of him as our ‘pick’.

Travers Day 2013 103Elihu finally gets the hang of using binoculars – and is able to follow the horses for the entire race. Here they’re whipping past us. They run so fast and pass us so quickly that there’s little to see. Even the whomping of their hooves into the dirt, as impressive a sound as it is, is so short-lived that one is not even sure one heard it after they’ve passed…. Honestly, these races are all over so quickly that I’m tempted to be disappointed in the whole thing. But then you hear this tremendous roar from the grandstand… and that’s something. The energy of those who won, those who lost, those who almost won…. you can feel that. And for those who live inside this culture and for whom these horses, owners and riders have much more meaning, I can see how compelling this sport might potentially be.

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I, however, am left to simply imagine what this whole world must be like from inside. I don’t take my true thrill from a race watched – or won – but rather the sight of an anonymous race horse a mere feet away from me being lead back to its stall.

Travers Day 2013 108So. Who won? Guess. “Will Take Charge”. Elihu and I high-fived each other in the car when this gal told us the news. Snapped a pic of her commemorative program – just so we could prove we were here.  The bit about us wanting WTC to win can never be proved. Ah well.

Travers Day 2013 112Back in town to see if Elihu can part some tourists from their cash…

Travers Day 2013 110This kind of cash would be nice. !

Travers Day 2013 114Starting a little slow….

Travers Day 2013 116Ah, forget busking for now. Let’s go across the street and see what the lovely Alexis is drawing today…

Travers Day 2013 118She’s always very kind and lets Elihu try his hand at something nearby. Tonite he was trying to learn a bit about making things appear larger in the foreground. Not quite what he’d wanted to achieve, but a lesson learned. Almost. !

Travers Day 2013 122Hey – Alexis has a mom! (But don’t they really look more like sisters??)

Travers Day 2013 121A little scene gets going…

Travers Day 2013 126Elihu meets Faith, the tongue drummer gal.

Travers Day 2013 129I left em alone for a bit, came back and they’d switched instruments!

Travers Day 2013 156It’s getting dark now, and the scenes are shifting… Saratoga’s beloved Cecil is here playing banjo – and there’s a gal twirling her baton to his music. Elihu joins in too.

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The three actually have a charming little act going for a while.

Travers Day 2013 163Elihu’s trying out a knew skill

Travers Day 2013 175Things get active later at night as a new guitarist joins the corner. Cecil’s just about finished with his shift.

Travers Day 2013 183On the way to our car (to give Cecil a ride home) we hear these kids playing old-timey jazz. Right up our alley!

Travers Day 2013 185Elihu asks if he can join them, and soon all three boys are off and running….

Travers Day 2013 188They drew a crowd. Some folks danced, some made videos, but this mom just watched, grinning ear to ear.

The tenor guitar player’s mom put together a couple of nice videos of the boys playing. Here are the links:

Deed I Do     Bye Bye Blues

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So a week passes in what seems like a day, and we’re back on Broadway, busking and meeting people in the lovely and serendipitous ways that we’ve come to expect… here are a few more pics from earlier tonite…

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 002First off, Elihu is crazy for this Chevy that we parked next to. I wish he could see its color too. Wonder what he’d think of it…

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 012We check out the folksy folks. They were just getting going, so we listened a bit and moved on…

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 033We had supper at Circus Cafe on the sidewalk. People, dogs, pigs on leashes and boas on necks all passed as we dined…

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Then Elihu joined JoJo Romero for a set of reggae. It’s a new kind of groove for Elihu, but he listens well and caught on right away.

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Not sure if this pic is any better. Neither’s great.

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 049Ran into friends Marcia and Ceres. These gals had just come from a polo game. (So Saratoga.) Don’t they just look it?  So smart.

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 055Cassandra took some videos of us and put them on Jojo’s Youtube channel. Thanks, that was sweet of you!

Elihu plays along with Jojo from the sidewalk, first night

Elihu plays with Jojo Romero on stage, second night

Mama dancing

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 053Now a pic of me and lil man in front of what is supposed to be a one hundred and fifty year old race horse. !?

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JoJo Romero and Elihu, post set…

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 056…and one more. Good night to our new friends, and thank you very much! Elihu had fun! This just in – Elihu and Jojo have the same birthday! (April 28th) How about that?

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 076Like Cinderella after midnight, my world changes… in my ballgown I must put the chickens in for the night.

Sept 1st 2013 Reggae 067Yup, this is how every night ends. No matter how high-brow it starts off.

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What a week. New friends, good music, horses, dogs, pigs, pythons, frogs, goldfish and chickens… Whew.

We are all tuckered out and ready for bed. Summer’s over and school begins in just two days! Hard to believe.