The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cape Cod Scrapbook August 28, 2014

“Cape Cod Scrapbook” is a companion post to the previous one, entitled “Two Weeks Gone”

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Finally…

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My Uncle Paul and his sister (my mother) Nancy, my son Elihu and my Aunt Sandy.

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Cousins Elihu and Rusty take off in search of sea life without a word of goodbye.

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This is the dock behind their house; at high tide the water comes much closer in.

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This is the small neighborhood beach. Just perfect at low tide to find critters.

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After our first brief visit, we all headed out to this local eatery.

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While we waited for our food, Elihu and I went out to the pier to hang with the fishermen.

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I think all eleven year old boys get a kick out of live fish.

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Aunt Sandy, Uncle Paul and mom at the end of a fine dinner of fresh, local seafood. The harbor is just outside.

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Elihu points out the location of the restaurant on this mural of what Wareham looked like over a hundred years ago.

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As painted by Nanci. Love it.

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A picturesque New England dock scene from the restaurant window.

IMG_1315If you’re ever in Wareham, Massachusetts, stop by Narrow’s Crossing and get the whole fried clams.

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The following morning we found a nice little breakfast joint in the neighboring town of Onset.

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We’re at the Pier View Restaurant. The bay is right behind mom and Elihu.

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Note the Linguica. It’s a Portuguese sausage, usually kinda spicy, always tasty. (Dig the great prices, too.)

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Mom’s not usually down with me making changes to the menu, but I requested that my Eggs Benedict be made with the local linguica instead of ham. I suggested that they might want to call it “Eggs Elizabeth” should it become a hit.

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And here’s the handsome man who carried out my culinary wish.

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We’re not at our family’s beach here, but rather another, more expansive stretch of coast about two miles away to the Southeast. I preferred it as it was much more wide open than the small neighborhood beach, it was sparsely populated and there was lots of sand.

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We fed the seagulls earlier, and when we left the beach to go into the water, they ransacked mom’s bag. The gall of those gulls!

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Mom on the beach. She spent much of her youth here.

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My Cousin Janice, in the middle, is about to undergo her third year of chemo for an unrelenting cancer. She’s got a great spirit, and both children and grandchildren to live for. She’s ready to kick its ass once again.

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Elihu shows his Great Uncle Paul his catch from the day.

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Uncle Paul is in his chair, on the right. Since his stroke in ’91 he still gets around well – drives too – but speaks very little (might be due in part to his wife – she kinda makes it hard for the poor guy to get a word in edgewise, stroke or not!).

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Sandy gave mom a history of the Jackson side of the family, compiled by Paul and Nancy’s paternal grandmother. I know mom doesn’t have great feelings about this side of the family (her father left her mother and never supported them in any way, nor did her father’s family help out), but nonetheless it’s nice to have this information.

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This is a letter from Uncle Paul’s paternal grandmother, describing in part the contents of the book. Dated November 11th, 1963. There’s a fascinating amount of detail going back a couple hundred years. Both the Conants and the Jacksons have been in this country for over three hundred years, so when people ask me what nationality I am, I tell em that I really am American more than anything else. But hey, at this point in the game, aren’t we all pretty much mutts no matter what our lineage?

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Uncle Paul and Cousin Rusty. Rusty likes to say in his local accent that I’m his “Cape Cawed Cahzin”.

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This is the shack where Rusty keeps his stuff and works on various projects. His father was a shop teacher, and it seems he has the tinkering gene too.

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There’s a lot of stuff here… certainly more orderly than my own brother’s mess.

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Sadly, since Uncle Paul’s stroke, his boats have languished here in the back yard. If only I lived nearby! I dearly miss the sailing era of my life.

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We discovered these very odd-shaped fungi poking up through the ground all around the house. The craziest part is their smell – super funky bad, almost like skunk.

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This is Gertrude – or Gert, as locals know her. She lives directly across the street from my family in a house painted the color of tomato bisque. She knew my mother’s mother, Lydia, and is thrilled to meet Lydia’s great-grandson. Gert’s in her early nineties.

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We’re enjoying a visit with Gert in her breezeway. (I just love these time-capsule homes – nothing’s changed in forty years.)

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A sweet good-bye.

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Gert sang with big bands in Boston in the ’30s and ’40s and regularly appeared on live radio programs as well. We have both those things in common! She has difficulty remembering what day it is, yet she remembered me well from my visit two years ago – she even remembered that I ‘was the singer’. I was impressed! She’s one spunky lady. She zips around the neighborhood in her motorized wheelchair and seems to know just about everyone in town.

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The boys on their second and final search for critters.

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What’s this?

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A tiny crab!

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One more cast of that magic trap…

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And look! A flounder! Crazy looking creatures they are, with both their eyes on top like that. They swim flat along the bottom and usually don’t come in this close to shore. Rusty assured us this was a really lucky catch.

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These folks invited us over for a drink. Mom’s on the right.

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The world proved itself to be a small place once again; the woman on the far right has a brother who lives in our town. !

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Crane spotting.

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Mom, pulling away from her brother Paul’s house, as he watches from the porch. (Note Gert’s tomato bisque-colored garage door in the side mirror.)

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After she waved, mom noted to me that that might well be the last time she would ever see her brother. What is there to say? Poignant, and quite possibly true.

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Later that night we had one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time at Mezza Luna in the town of Buzzards Bay. Great music played, the vibe was elegant, the food expertly prepared. Highly recommended by all three of us. Their house clam sauce was spectacular.

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The next morning we set out for home – the long way. This was the house in which my Auntie Helen (mom’s Aunt) lived – in New Bedford, Massachusetts. High class, high style.

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This is the front hall. !

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Mom indicates the large staircase…

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…and Elihu investigates it.

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This was the office of my mother’s uncle, who was a doctor. She remembers getting a vaccination under protest in this room as a young child.

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This is our host (yet another Nancy!) in the grand foyer.

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The new owners have put together a small history of the house and their progress with the restoration.

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As a child, mom used to think these decorations looked like door bells. We all agree. They do.

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How about this garage. Not too shabby, huh?

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Now we’re off to see if we can find Auntie Helen’s summer cottage. But first we’ll have lunch at the harbor.

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We’re eating at Sail Loft, just behind the marina in South Dartmouth, Mass. I’m enjoying the iconic “law-b-stah” roll. I am not kidding when I tell you these were among the very best french fries I have ever had. Really. This place has a cozy vibe, plus live music. I’d go back if I were a local.

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The house on the right at the end of the pier was Auntie Helen’s.

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My son is clearly comfortable here.

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And there’s an osprey nest here too. A little bit of heaven for each of us.

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An ‘almost’ selfie of us on the new pier with the yacht behind.

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As a child I remember walking down this yard and path to the beach.

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Inside Auntie Helen’s old house, Elihu zones right in on the bird art.

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Elihu and Grandma look out over the bay to a view I marveled at as a child.

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We passed a lot of boats and bridges on this trip.

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Now we’re visiting the house mom lived in for her middle school and high school years. She had a lot of happy stories to recall for us as we drove around Fall River. Her bedroom had been upstairs on the left.

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And this enormous structure was where she went to high school.

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On the steps that she once scrubbed with a toothbrush (see the previous post for the backstory on that).

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Durfee High School, Fall River, Massachusetts. Long-time drummer for the band Steppenwolf, Ron Hurst attended Durfy HS too, years ago. The grand building is no longer used a school; it’s a municipal building now.

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Now we’re in Barrington, Rhode Island at mom’s very first home.

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Eighty years ago it was all farm land. The house on the left side of this picture is the same house as in my photo above (sans the addition, which is on the right in the first pic.) Both mom and the current owners knew the family that still lives in the small house on the far right side of this photograph. Mom knew the generation that came before, but still the same family. I thought that was a sweet thing to learn. In this photo it was all wide-open fields and orchards – it looked just like this when mom was Elihu’s age – but now the area is heavily wooded and houses are everywhere.

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Here’s the view of the ocean from the front door. In the old days there was only an orchard of fruit trees between this house and the water.

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One quick stop to get directions…

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…and to smooch a pooch.

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Now it’s goodbye until next time. Thanks, you lovely ocean, you. You feel like home to me.

 

Two Weeks Gone August 26, 2014

Never before in my nearly three years at the helm of this blog have I passed so much time in between posts. Lately it seems that life has run away with me, and every manner of logistic hitch has thrown itself directly in my path. Among the many recent surprises has been my inability to successfully upload photos, so the pics from our trip will have to wait for a future post. Elihu and I are reaching the conclusion of a long and busy summer and we’re both looking forward to a new and structured routine for fall. But before we march ahead, here’s a recounting of our recent trip to visit mom’s family on Cape Cod.

Last week, as mom, Elihu and I left for a three-day trip to visit family on the coast, we had friend Ken in tow, and on our way to drop him off in town before hitting the highway, we passed our old friend Ruthie’s house and found all that remained of it was the chimney. Only ten in the morning and the backhoe was nearly finished with the demolition. By the time we were to return from our brief vacation, the construction at the end of our driveway would be recognizable as a house. Both events were stark and jarring evidence of how quickly and profoundly things can change. But thankfully, over the next couple of days we would visit many important landmarks of my mother’s own personal history, and we would be happily surprised not only to find these structures still standing and recognizable, but also to find ourselves invited inside to see the changes for ourselves. For me it was a great relief that these places still existed so that we might visit them again – but beyond that, it was a real gift to see firsthand how things had been modified over the past few decades. I feel we were beyond fortunate to have been given this opportunity – likely the last one for my mother – to see these places that had been such an important part of my mother’s growing up. Usually, you can’t go back. But we were given the rare chance to do just that. It was a good trip, and we covered a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally, in a short amount of time. Our trip was barely three days, but as jam-packed as it was of reunions, events and emotions, it almost felt we’d been away for a whole week.

The family that we went to visit (my maternal grandmother’s side) has become through the years something of a ragtag bunch that live not exactly on the Cape as one might say for the sake of simplicity when describing their location to a non-local person, but more accurately it could be said that they actually live in the armpit of the Cape. While the true beauty of that expression lies in the metaphoric possibilities it brings to mind, the more literal meaning – the one absent of judgement, irony or humor – simply helps one to place the location of Buzzard’s Bay by visualizing Cape Cod as an extended arm and flexed elbow joint. The thing is, the metaphor kinda rings true, and the culture of that particular area in question – being so close to the ‘real’ cape and yet not truly being the cape – being so close to the actual ocean but still not actually on it – that, plus the tiny houses all sitting ‘cheek-by-jowl’ (as my mother would say) all combine to give Wareham and its surrounds that unmistakable low-rent vibe. And this is where my family resides. Just a couple of generations ago there were doctors, lawyers and judges in the family, now many of us who remain eke out our meager existences on SSI grants and food stamps. My mother laughed to see how decidedly downwardly mobile our family has become in just three short generations. “I wonder what old Uncle Charlie would think of this” she chuckled, shrugging to indicate the neighborhoods of tiny, tumbledown summer shacks packed in one after another. If she hadn’t laughed, she might have cried. It does make one wonder how such a thing is possible.

When we arrived at my mom’s brother’s house, it wasn’t awkward as it might have been for the nearly two decades that had passed since mom had seen him and his family. We’d even made plans to pick his car up from the garage upon our arrival. (Turned out the garage ended up delivering it home.) What I thought anecdotally notable here was that both my Uncle Paul and I had had our cars in the shop this week to repair the very same thing: a faulty lift belt on the driver’s side window. (My car was in the shop back home, hence our getaway was made in mom’s trendy Prius.)  I’d seen Paul just summer before last, so I kinda had a head’s up, but I’m sure brother and sister each surprised the other with their older, hunched and slower forms. It’s situations like this for which God gave us a sense of humor, I’m sure. Mom leaned on her cane, Paul hung to the porch, Aunt Sandy laughed in between them. I saw my cousin Rusty come around the corner and paused for a second at the sight of him – all that time in the sun and a penchant for the occasional cigarette and his naturally pale complexion had become as creased and weathered as a seafaring old-timer. Just a year older than me? I thought to myself. Yeeks. The reunion on the porch went just as if no time had passed, and so did the meeting of Elihu and Rusty, who, without so much as a word between them – or to us – began to collect up nets and other tools and within moments were coolly strolling away towards the inlet on a quest for sea creatures.

We passed an hour or so visiting before we all went to dinner together. Mom and I enjoyed those true east coast delicacies of whole fried clams. (Strips are one thing, but they pale by comparison to the whole kit and caboodle, bellies included.) Before the food arrived Elihu and I went to the adjacent dock to watch the locals fish. We got our first whiff of salt air and I could hardly wait until our beach day began the next morning. For me, I almost feel that the years in between visits are just time spent in wait for the next opportunity to get into a large body of water. Nothing in the world comes close. The following day did not disappoint, and although it was an entirely different experience for my mother now than it had been just a couple of decades ago; she made it in and enjoyed floating on her back in the buoyant salt water. It occurred to me in a moment of nostalgic contemplation that of all the many photographs I took on our trip, the one I might have treasured the most – that image of my mother, totally in the moment, floating there in the water, enjoying herself as fully and as unself-consciously as a young child – that image remains in my mind’s eye only. I too was enjoying the water and didn’t think to take a picture. It was only later when we returned for a last swim only to find the tide far too far out to do so that I realized this might have been the last time my mother would find herself floating in the ocean she’d so loved for all of her life. That I missed the image. That I could have – but didn’t – document that personally significant moment. A pang of regret hit me, I breathed in and felt the sting of it, and then I did my best to let it go. I reminded myself that I’d been there with her, that I’d given her my arm and helped her out of the water on that last swim, that we three had all been enjoying the beautiful day and the warm sea water together, and that was what really counted.

Later, as we began our long trip back home, we planned for our route to pass both my mother’s Auntie Helen’s home in town as well as her beach home, one in which I myself also had some childhood memories. The home in which my grandmother’s sister had lived in was grand indeed. The woodwork and stained glass of the Victorian era giant was impressive as was the huge, central staircase and the moldings and details at every turn. Now an attorney’s office, (mom’s own uncle was a doctor and made his office there too) we were welcomed inside and mom recounted her memories there as a little girl to Elihu, me and the secretary (also named Nancy like my mom), occasionally using her cane to direct our attention to something; the maid’s staircase down which the children would run, the kitchen’s original boundaries, the office where her doctor uncle had once given her a shot against her will… I snapped pictures in every direction as I tried to imagine my trim and fashionable Auntie Helen in her glory years moving through the large house tending to her upper-middle class life. Here we were in sneakers and shorts, too casual it seemed to even be allowed inside by such past standards. What a different time it had been then, how much had changed. And yet the current owners had put a great deal of love and money into restoring the place to its original, historic grandeur, so this turned out to be a very happy ending for us. We left feeling uplifted and ready for more healing discoveries ahead.

While I’m not sure mom had any plans to actually seek out – and find – Auntie Helen’s coastal home, that’s just how serendipity wished it for us, and after a quick consultation with a neighbor passing by in a handsome Mercedes, we were able to confirm our suspicions as to which house it was. As with most places known to children and revisited by the same as adults, the whole neighborhood seemed so much smaller than it had once seemed to me as a child. Even the old photographs from the ’40s had shown much more open space, almost no trees and lots of windswept yard stretching out in all directions, yet now the area was full of growth and mature trees. Elihu and I approached the house the roundabout way, walking out onto the great pier (which had also been added somewhat recently) and then back up towards the house on a neighboring lawn. A yacht sat just off the coast and lent a Kennedyesque air to the seascape. I looked at it all with new eyes. While I could easily remember a vision of my mother in a white, yellow and black bathing suit walking ahead of me down the sandy path through the blueberry bushes, I was able to superimpose that image against what I saw now and felt as if I were in a film shifting its focus from past to present, creating a great tug of nostalgia that was impossible to ignore.

Shortly we three were knocking at the door of Auntie Helen’s old place, and once again we were kindly invited in. Ah, what money can do, I thought as I took in the completely modernized interior. The porch and the sea beyond were as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. Instead of dark walls, rope-framed photos and nautical-themed knick-knacks, it was now a bright, open space which showcased pieces of modern art, historical figurines, sculptures and gorgeous finishes everywhere. I’d grown up with moneyed folks, I knew what it was all about, I felt absolutely comfortable in it, and goddam it, if I ever came to know it for myself one day, I’d certainly enjoy the hell out of it. Like these folks were doing. I’d surround myself with beautiful things, with gorgeous views. I’d live by water. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to live like this. Every day. To know this sort of beauty as home. As I took a photo of mom and Elihu looking out the window at the bay beyond, I felt a certain sadness that I hadn’t known this place beyond my youngest years. It felt as if it were in some small way still mine – as if it might have been mine even now but for the slightest detour… But on the heels of that came the understanding that even if I’d had the luck to know this place as a child, I certainly did not have the means to enjoy it as an adult. It would have to be enough that we were all here to witness this together. I was so grateful for the kindness of the gentleman who lived there and allowed us a few moments inside. Now my son would understand better where his family had come from; what it felt like to look out and over that immense and stunning view. What it meant to live on the ocean.

We headed East and easily found the house mom had lived in as a teenager. It was her maternal grandparent’s home; the one she and her mother returned to when her father had left. It was here, in Fall River, where mom’s memories came freely and happily. The steps of that immense high school where as part of a sorority hazing for the incoming freshman she was made to scrub the steps with a toothbrush… the river views from Highland Avenue, the various landmarks of her youth strewn here and there, names came back with the sight of familiar houses, stories and anecdotes too many to recall… Seeing this town seemed to revive a mood in my mother, and it was nice to see her happy like this. Her life is so taken up with concern for me, for Andrew, for her grandson, for her own health, for her cats, her home… and finally it seemed all of that fell away and she was transported to a time in her life which she had clearly enjoyed.

On we went into the early years, to the home in which mom lived with her mother and father and brother Paul, the home which she left at eleven – Elihu’s current age – the only home in which she lived with her family as one unit. It seems strange to me that she seems to recall so little of it – of her father, in particular. I can’t know if she’s repressed it, or if she truly doesn’t remember. Whichever the reason, she recalled only names of childhood friends, lanes she’d walked down to go to school, the first place she learned to ride a two-wheeler… Even a place where she remembered her older brother defending her against the neighborhood bullies. All these things she recalled for us, but when I pressed her for domestic details about her life, she remembered next to nothing. Even the house itself didn’t stand out as familiar, and on our second passing I had to insist we pull over. She even began to get angry when I asked her for some details we might use to identify the house – finally, as it seemed the only option, I got out of the car and hailed the woman who had just pulled up into the driveway. Again, the angel of serendipity stepped in to assist, and before long we had met this woman’s husband and daughter too, and we were standing inside the house sharing stories and being shown an old photograph of the place when it had been the carriage house for the local farm. This was the way mom had known it – as the only house in a vast expanse of fields and orchards that swept down to the water. I can understand how strange and disorienting it must have been to see the place so transformed, but to finally have found her house – and to be inside it now – I think that must have given her some sense of closure and satisfaction. I know it did me. After a few more photos and exchanging of contact information, we said our goodbyes and headed out. After a last brief look at the sea, we began our drive back home to upstate New York.

It was raining heavily when we arrived home long after dark, my seventy-nine year old mother having just concluded some 600 miles behind the wheel. The late hour had finally brought to light our very different driving styles and our patience with one another was eroding fast. Elihu was suffering from some strange rash all over his body, my concern for his comfort was growing more urgent (much to the chagrin of my mother who felt I was coddling him with my sympathies) plus my mother was experiencing a good deal of discomfort on the tops of her badly sunburned feet, having been out in the sun for the first time in decades. We were all sore, short of patience and very weary. It had been a short trip, but we’d done and seen a lot, the car was covered in sand and smelled of some sea creature inadvertently taken along for the ride. We were more than ready for our own beds.

There was no internet working on our return, and my computer wasn’t well either. There was nothing to be done but crawl into bed and marvel over all the images swirling about in our heads. The weather was loud, the rain beat hard on the house, and I felt a mixture of satisfaction and strangely, loneliness. I was aware that my mother, at the end of the day, was going home alone. What must it feel like to have seen all those old, familiar places and the to return here, to a house empty of people? I was glad she had the cats, and I was grateful that she had the new memories now too. I hoped they’d be restorative to her in some way. It was an important trip for me to be sure, and now Elihu had a new appreciation and understanding of his grandmother and his own roots, too. As visits back home go, this was a good one I think. Yet here we were again, right back in the middle of our everyday life, in our humble country home, far from the road… it almost felt as if we’d never left. On we were to go from here, our lives yet to become new and strange, meandering adventures heading off into the unknown landscape of our future. And in the light of all that unknown yet ahead of us, it was comforting to know that sometimes, just sometimes, it is still possible to go home again.

 

 

 

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Toddlin’ Town July 14, 2013

Man, did we toddle around town. We saw so much in one short week. Still weren’t able to do some things on our list, but we did a lot… Again, might be too many pics for some folks’ interest, but thought I’d share em anyhow. I still can hardly believe I was in Chicago just a week ago. I kinda need these photos to remind me that yes, I was. (Btw – this is my final post on our trip. I promise.)

July 2013 trip B 016First thing we see as we step outside Union Station.

July 2013 trip B 019First thing Elihu does is whip out his drum and join a busker on the station steps.

July 2013 trip B 033Next, our friend Marja invites us up to her office on Michigan Avenue for a look at the city from the 21st story.

July 2013 trip B 042This view has what’s known in my family as a ‘high pucker factor’. I won’t mention which part of the body it is that puckers up at this dreadfully alarming height. I’ll leave the answer up to your fertile imaginations.

July 2013 trip B 091The view South down Michigan Avenue.

July 2013 trip B 101See that pointy building with the ‘bump’ on top? Some locals call it the ‘buglamp’. It’s a giant, blue light that has been part of the skyline since the ’30s. And I’m lucky to have been one of the few to have actually been inside the thing. Another enchanted story of a more innocent time… I had merely expressed my interest in visiting the dome to an employee of the building, and within minutes I was inside the two-story lamp, climbing a ladder to a makeshift plywood floor beside a giant blue light bulb. We swung open a large panel of glass and then sat with our legs dangling out and over the side, while we took in the breathtaking view of Grant Park to the East. In this day and age that sounds unbelievable. But it happened. And it’s a memory I treasure.

July 2013 trip B 109Now we’re looking East. Navy Pier visible just between the buildings on the far left. And speaking of that leftmost building, at 82 stories it’s the tallest building in the world designed by a woman-lead architectural team. “Aqua” has a lovely, continuous curving shape delineated by its balconies, and which gives the building the feeling of a wonderful, twisting sort of movement. I’m a fan of Jeanne Gang!

July 2013 trip B 074It’s the bean! Still think of this as a new part of Chicago, but it’s already been there since 2006. Oh, and it’s actually entitled ‘Cloud Gate’. Just so ya know.

July 2013 trip B 063That’s me and Marja waving. She’s got the bright yellow-green pants.

July 2013 trip B 065One of those classic tourist pics…

July 2013 trip B 753And now, to Evanston. This is my old, beloved home. Miss that living room and its enormous windows. In keeping with the former family’s traditions, each year we put up a giant, 20 foot Christmas tree that could be seen by all who passed. The place has been known to generations as ‘the Christmas tree house’, and in fact that’s how I first knew this place as a young girl.

July 2013 trip B 693Also miss the treasure hunts in those awesome city thrift stores. Dig that telephone!

July 2013 trip B 881We’re at The Guitar Works in Evanston. Owner Terry Straker is a pilot. Planes are more exciting than guitars any day. !

July 2013 trip B 932This is the shit that makes me miss Chicago. Saratoga is nice, but sometimes I really miss all the funk of a city.

summer trip 2013 A 006Inside at the Green Mill. Like coming home.

summer trip 2013 A 002Looking up and seeing Von so unexpectedly made me tear up. Hard to believe he’s been gone almost a year. Bless you, Vonski. Thanks for helping us all to ‘express’ ourselves.

summer trip 2013 A 026Closest thing I have to proof I sang there that night. My kid forgot to snap a pic of Mama. Sure had a good time. A line down the street and around the corner, and shoulder-to-shoulder inside. Fun for a night, but not quite my speed anymore.

summer trip 2013 A 061Back in Rogers Park, the northernmost neighborhood in Chicago, where Fareed and I lived  for 12 years. We had a great little two bedroom co-op right on the beach, with a balcony and view of the city. (Evanston is the next town up the shore from here). The title of Fareed’s album ‘Manresa’ was not inspired by some exotic destination, but rather from the name of this very apartment building. (I have a similarly-posed pic of his dad from the 80s on the same spot.)

summer trip 2013 A 130At Evanston’s beautiful (and expensive!) South Boulevard beach.

summer trip 2013 A 071Ah, wind and water. Nothing comes close to that feeling.

summer trip 2013 A 119Folks who’ve never been to Chicago rarely think of beaches. But some of the very best are here.

summer trip 2013 A 117Just sand, water and horizon. And two pretty seagull feathers.

summer trip 2013 A 133Good-bye for now, dear beach!

summer trip 2013 A 136At our old next-door neighbor’s 4th of July party. That’s Barbara, the new resident of our old home resting on the fence.

summer trip 2013 A 152Chicago’s fireworks on Navy Pier, as seen from the Chicago Yacht Club. Not a great experience when you compare it to Saratoga. In a small-ish town it’s possible to get right up close and under the action. Here, the display was a good quarter of a mile away.

summer trip 2013 A 166But Elihu’s not really here for the fireworks…

summer trip 2013 A 179He was rockin it. Had a big crowd nearly the whole time – and dozens of folks recording him too…

summer trip 2013 A 184Tried busking at the bean but got shut down by the fuzz. We kinda thought it might happen. But they were nice about it.

July 2013 trip B 860Elihu was pooped! Lil man did really well. We packed a lot into a short time. (Note the Ben 10 Omnitrix watch. Elihu is usually so precocious and grown-up that I can sometimes forget he’s still a little boy. He wore that thing day and night for the whole week. So adorable. !)

summer trip 2013 A 214Our final stop in Evanston; the rose garden and crane fountain. Shortly thereafter Elihu and I parted ways, as he went to spend the next month with his father, and I left to catch the train back to New York. This was a phenomenal trip. Elihu will never forget his tenth summer. And it’s still not half over! Chicago’s finished for us this year, but no doubt there’ll be a few more summer adventures to come…

 

Away… and Home July 7, 2013

This is one very, very big world. And there are so very, very many ways in which to live. Naturally, there is nothing like a trip away to highlight the differences (or similarities, as it may be) between the way you like to live your life, and the way others do. And there’s nothing like going away and then returning to your own house to help you to see it as others may. That certain way your house smells, for example. Living in it, you don’t notice it. But when you first open the door to your house and step inside, that first – and only that first – inhalation tells you things about your place you can never know in day-to-day life. When I lived in my giant, mid-century home, visitors would always tell me the place smelled ‘old’. And I could only know this for myself in that first, fleeting moment back. It smelled of wood, dust and dry, aging formica. Yeah, it did smell kind of old. Kind of like grandma’s. But within minutes it would be back to life as usual again, and once again I’d need an objective outside party to tell me how the joint smelled, because the scent became unnoticeable almost immediately. As it was here too. When I opened the door last night, the first thing that I smelled was the damp. (Here in upstate New York I always sense the relentless humidity first.) As I ventured into the living room, I noticed a particular scent that brought me back… it was the smell of the places where my father had taught, it was the smell of our older friend’s homes….I knew it, but what was it? I pondered as I stood there, noticing it for the first time, when it came to me as plain as day. Wet piano. And wet harpsichord. Yes, that’s it. The smell of slightly moist wood – but not just any wood. Not furniture, not floorboards, but instrument wood. Yeah, and the other stuff too… the felt of the hammers and plectra dampers, the varnish, the oxidation on the strings… Ok, maybe I’m being a teeny bit dramatic, but the funk of instruments left to themselves was unmistakable. Was it always like this? Did I just not notice? Interesting what appears in the wake of a short absence. (Mental note to myself: running a dehumidifier would not be an extravagance.)

Whether you fly, drive or take the train, you’re gonna pass a lot of homes. For me, most of my window-gazing thought on the train is spent considering all those tiny scenes as we slip by through people’s backyards, pass within feet of their back porches or speed over their neighborhood parks… From the country to the innermost city, we pass it all. A cross-section of the American population, unawares, just doing their thing as they do every day, and me, their most appreciative and grateful (and perhaps a bit apologetic) audience. It is simply too much to comprehend. I wish I could know what it was like to enter each of those homes, from rotting farm house to luxurious high rise condo – and furthermore, to live as the residents do. What is it that motivates them each day? What’s important to them? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? What’s on their minds? Some are content to live as hoarders, others cannot see life without granite counter tops. And so much in between. It blows my mind, so I try not to wonder at it too much. I just take it all in, reminding myself that just my tiny witness is enough. I’m lucky to be seeing so much of my world. I’ve also been lucky to have visited much poorer and more remote places on the other side of the planet in my lifetime, so wondering at the variety of this world is not a new thing to me. But nonetheless, it is always, always fascinating to me.

Elihu and I visited the beach this past week, and while we didn’t swim in the beautiful water of my beloved Lake Michigan (it hadn’t warmed up enough yet by my perhaps too-uptight standards) we did pass a lovely couple of hours just taking it in. The horizon, the clouds, the sky and water. And, of course, the seagulls. ! We brought several bags of bread and had fun feeding them. But even my own super-deft bird catcher of a son realized he wasn’t grabbing a gull and gave up his pursuit in favor of playing in the sand. I joined him. What a perfect moment in time we had. It’s a joy to have such a thoughtful son as mine; soon we were making metaphors between our play and life itself… It seems to me that any thinking human might have a hard time resisting the sort of contemplation that millions upon millions of grains of sand evoke. It can’t be just us. We note that even though there seems an infinitesimal amount of them – crazy as it seems, there is a finite number of sand grains on the planet. ! The many grains of sand remind us of all the people we’ve seen here. In the city, it seems not a single square foot is uninhabited. Everyone is out and about, each on their own chase, each with their head swimming with their own world of thoughts. There are millions of stories, sub-plots and interactions going on each single moment. As I’ve said before, this is a big world. And the beach seems to highlight it for us both. Yet at the beach, immensity and peace exist together, almost as the very same thing. We notice the juxtaposition, and we both marvel at it, continuing all the while our fruitless scooping out of the ever-wetting sand…

Contrasts slap you in the face when you partake of modern travel. One morning you can be feeding your chickens, and that night you can be on a city street in a valley of office buildings. This is not new to any of us in the Western world. This morning, as I awoke, I hardly felt I’d been away. While the images in my mind were somehow refreshed, they were still, just memories. (You got it – it all kinda felt like a dream.) I heard the clucking sounds of my flock from inside the coop and realized the timer hadn’t opened the door for them this morning. Automatically, I rose from my bed, donned my muck boots, and in my nightgown went to let the girls out. In the middle of my path, I thought back on a moment not more than a few days earlier and paused to let it sink in. Just a couple nights ago I’d been on stage at the Green Mill in front of a packed house doing my thing. Fan in hand, arms outstretched, belting out an old-timey jazz tune. Doing one of those things I feel I was just meant to do. Man, it was natural. And man, did it feel good. Came back like I’d never been away. But so did tending the chickens. Funny the latitude of experience in any one person’s life. So many folks have different careers, different homes, spouses… It’s nothing new to experience such vastly different things, but the rapid succession from jazz singer to chicken farmer still amuses me. I imagine myself on stage in my nightgown and boots, basket of eggs on my arm and it makes me smile to myself.

So here I am. Back. With a month or more of child-free living before me. Many might ask me what I plan to do with ‘all this time’, as if I might sunbathe or catch up on old episodes of a favorite show, but since I get all the sun I need working in the garden, and since I don’t watch much tv, those things don’t enter into it. Some of the things that are on my list are to get my piano teaching method book formatted and done, to learn some new computer skills so as to enhance my blog just a wee bit, to begin to prepare parts of my blog for a release as an eBook, as well as a myriad of ’round the farm type stuff. Enlarge the chicken run (involves digging fence post holes, yeeks), clean up the perennial garden outside the door, power wash the house on the side students and guests see first when they pull up, mow the lawn, paint the outside stairs. Lots and lots to do. Never mind the mess in the basement left in the wake of a busy school year – projects, supplies and out-of-season paraphernalia that haven’t yet been put away. If it weren’t for the photos on my data cards I might not fully believe that I’d ever even been away. But there is some tiny evidence of my trip; a deeper appreciation for space, clean air and nature all around. I am one lucky gal, I am. Lucky to have been given the gift of being able to go away for a while, and luckier still to know the even greater gift of coming home.

 

Guest, Host July 26, 2012

Can’t remember taking such a long time between posts til now. Life has been a flurry of activity this past week. Elihu and I have been the guests of others as we traveled, and now we ourselves have house guests. After we returned from our most recent trip, we had a day to unpack, do laundry and get our house ready for visitors; a mother and daughter have come here from Paris to stay for a couple of weeks. The young girl is almost six, and she and Elihu are fast friends. Both are precocious and as I like to say, ‘fully loaded’ children. As soon as we picked them up at the train station and got them into the back seat, they chattered away nonstop on the drive home. Yesterday they passed several hours in our little pond catching frogs and then spent a few hours inside playing with good old-fashioned toys. I was happy to see them on the living room floor creating a world of  their own with plastic animals, toy cars and blocks. My heart is happy to report that not one video monitor of any sort has been involved in their play. Currently this is a true Waldorf home indeed. The mother herself is in the final stretch of Waldorf training in France, and her daughter starts Waldorf school this fall, and of course, young Master Elihu is very much looking forward to his first, full year beginning this September. A week ago he asked me when school started; he told me he could hardly wait. !

I await my turn in the bathroom now, so finally I have some time to write. I’m not used to having two more people here; it takes much longer to get the troops mobilized. Our guests are staying in Elihu’s room – and while it’s not a problem for us in any way, it does require one slow down and make space for others, as well as modify one’s usual routine. I planned ahead, taking clothes from his drawers and keeping them in my room, so we’re fine, but we’re four folks in a small space, something I readily admit I’m not usually great with. Probably why I don’t enjoy being on the road with a band. Not a lot of personal space. And I’m accustomed to quite a lot of it. (I wouldn’t fare well in urban Japan.) Yet even though we both love our quiet, this little injection of human energy in our tiny home is actually quite nice.

I can’t possibly report on all the magical events of our last trip, but I’ll try to recall some highlights…

We enjoyed a comfortable stay with a family in New Jersey. It was a treat to have meals made and to be relieved of the daily chores of home and farm. Elihu and the two kids had a fabulous time together. We went to the pool where Elihu, emboldened by the presence of the other two kids, was finally able to go in water without any assistance (floatie or human), we went to a zoo, we held birds, and Elihu got some dedicated boy time while I was whisked away to a hair salon for a new ‘do with the girls.

I ran into a woman I’d known from grade school years back in Wilmette, Illinois while walking along the sidewalk of a tiny, oceanside town in New Jersey. Haven’t seen her in over twenty years and a thousand miles, and yet here we both were. Crazy. And in this same town – where my mother herself spent part of her ninth summer – Elihu finally learned what the ocean was in earnest. The waves were so big we were told by the lifeguards not to go in beyond our knees – but the temptation was too great for most of us, and soon we were riding waves the size of which I haven’t seen in years. Elihu, who’d started his visit by vehemently declaring he would get nowhere near the surf, was now mesmerized. By the salt, the ceaseless churning, the way the sand sucked out from beneath his feet when the waves retreated – the whole thing. He ended the day a most enthusiastic convert. I was thrilled that he finally knew. It really is one of my life’s most cherished experiences, and my heart rested happy knowing that Elihu now knew it for himself. I love our little corner of the world, but if I could live near an ocean, I would.

Finally, we made a pilgrimage to Passaic, New Jersey to see the neighborhood in which my father had grown up. Elihu and I were invited inside a home in my father’s old neighborhood (very nearly identical to dad’s, only in reverse; dad’s house was razed in the 80s to make way for a twenty story apartment building) so that Elihu might see how his grandfather had lived when he was a boy. A different time to be sure; there had been a button on the floor in the dining room on which the lady of the house could step, thereby ringing a bell in the kitchen to alert ‘cook’ to come and clear. The woman who lived there recounted how when they’d first moved in, her children had run around the furniture-less house and had made the bell ring so much that it finally expired. Just as well; grand home though it may still be, long gone are the days when cook brings in the next course. (My mother loves to tease my father about growing up with the dining room button – she likes to joke that hers must be broken.) After generously showing us around the first floor of the house, our kind hostess showed us to the grand front door through which we exited. We walked slowly down the steps, trying to imagine ourselves some seventy five years ago on this same spot. Elihu was greatly impressed by the house, and he wondered aloud, almost in tears of frustration (no exaggeration) what this neighborhood must have looked like in his grandfather’s time. We tried to imagine the towering elm trees, the ‘old-timey’ cars moving more slowly down the avenue, we tried to cover our hands over the tall apartment buildings that had begun to take over… we did our very best to try and conjure the scene. It was just what Elihu needed. He’s begun to feel a bit of apprehension at his grandfather’s diminishing condition, and he wants to know all he can about how he grew up. This was a fine end to our trip.

So now I’m home, my head not really able to linger over the images and experiences of the past few weeks. Things keep chugging along, requiring my attention and presence. Tomorrow Fareed arrives to pick Elihu up for the remainder of the summer. He’ll stay over one night (never was this house so full!) and then he and Elihu will leave on the train on Saturday. Our guests will remain for another week, and after they leave, when the last of the summer flurry is over, I will finally enjoy a little time alone before the year starts in again.