The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Beautiful January January 18, 2014

At first, it’s just another dark morning. Your mind, for the briefest second, is blank. You are in neutral, the commitments of the day haven’t come to you yet and the lack of light in the room offers you no clues. For a moment you hang there, out of time and place. But after a short window of nothingness, you remember again. And that dull, sick sort of feeling comes back into your body. In sleep there’d been relief and forgetting, but upon waking, you return to your new reality. Crap. Yeah, that’s right. I remember now. I recognize that strange thud in my gut. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Dad is gone. 

I tempt myself with possible regrets, but I try to ignore them. No point to it. I lie there in bed for a few minutes, digesting it all again for the umpteenth time. It’s not so bad, really, I suppose, I think to myself. A lovely end to a good, long life. I shouldn’t be so goddam nostalgic. It’s old news by now. But yet I still count the days. Three weeks and a day since he died. It’s not acute, but it’s still heartbreaking in a quiet, inward sort of way. As I lie in bed, I go over the last few weeks with dad, those final days. I remind myself of the peaceful and gentle nature of his passing. I remind myself how lucky we were to be with him. Then I relax just a bit. I collect myself, make a short inventory of the day to come, and take a breath. Then after another moment I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen.

The last couple of days it has been snowy here. Not just snowy, but that most gorgeous of all kinds of snow – the puffy, sparkly kind that mounds itself high on each and every branch and twig, the kind that distills the entire landscape and all its earthly objects into a crisp, poetic vision of dark and light. In this world one can easily imagine what it is to see as my son does. There is virtually no color visible, yet the world is all the more breathtakingly beautiful because of it. I drove to town yesterday at half my usual speed, mouth agape, eyes scanning the whiteness above my head as I passed through the woods on a winding country road. Stunning, stunning, stunning. And behind it all, I hear in my head one of the last sentences I ever heard my father utter: “When beautiful January comes….” He’d said it with a smile on his face, in a happy, almost trance-like way. What on earth had he meant by this? His and mom’s birthday was on January 6th, but he certainly wasn’t going to make it til then. Did he mean his relief would finally come then? Did he mean that things would start anew? And if so, for whom? Although I’m pretty sure dad didn’t choose his words with all that context in mind, I do think that he, as was natural to his expressive and artistic nature, was trying to convey a certain feeling, an impression… What I’d felt in that moment was that he looked to the future – ours and his – as a happy, natural progression of things. That life, here or there, was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Driving through the almost surreal snowscape, I repeat dad’s words over and over to myself. When beautiful January comes… I think of all the things that a new year brings. I think about the beauty of winter, even in its starkness and cold. The possibility that awaits… I begin to give my father’s words all sorts of meanings, none perhaps intended, but all of them little insights nonetheless. We will begin our lives anew in this beautiful month, we will learn a new way to be on this earth. We will see new challenges, we will find new ways to meet them… We will see the world in a new way, we will consider things never before considered… Somehow, we will come to know that everything will all be ok. Somehow, someday soon, all this will come to be.

As I mull over all the possible interpretations of my father’s words, a memory comes to me. It was New Year’s day, many years ago. It was a gray and snowy day like it is now when I’d walked in the woods and heard the music. If I hadn’t experienced it for myself I never, ever would have believed it. But I heard it; the purest tone I’d ever known (Bells? no, voices? no, horns? no… A sine wave of some sort, yes, but what it was that created the sound was ever-undefinable). It was contrapuntal, perfect, gorgeous. And if I were to try and define it, given what I know of music, I’d say it was closest to Bach. I’d heard the music – from no fixed point that I could identify but rather from all points surrounding me – in the woods very close to, and perhaps on the very spot where my parent’s house is located today. Back then, the house was hardly a dream. I consider that it might possibly have been a real-world foreshadowing of sorts, pointing to the events that would one day take place there. I think of my father, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I’d been standing on the very spot where he would die some thirty years later. Nothing to do but wonder…

Wonder is all I can take from my experiences. Hearing my father speak shortly before he passed, I truly do know and understand that when one departs from this existence, there is another experience awaiting us. I don’t begin to suggest that I understand what our roles become then, nor where it is that this place exists, or how it intersects with our known physical reality. I feel a bit like I’m going out on a limb here, because I know full well that not all my friends will agree with my thinking. Some might even write me off as being lost to reality. And I get that. I myself might have thought the same thing once upon a time. But just like hearing the otherwise unbelievable music as I did so many years ago, I have come to learn that there is a world that exists beyond our ability to measure and quantify. And while I still cannot know exactly what my father meant when he spoke those close-to-final enigmatic words, they inspire a tiny germ of hope that begins to grow inside…

Not much but time can offer me the solace I’d like to fully feel once again. But my dad himself has helped me just a little to move ahead into the life that awaits me with an open, expectant heart. Now that beautiful January has finally come.

 

Middle of Fall October 6, 2013

We’ve had some gorgeous weather lately. Only today has nature decided to even things out with a little rain. But it’s a good day for that; it’s a lazy Sunday, post-school fall festival, post-sleepover, post initial costume-making effort. Now that the dishes are done, the house vacuumed, some bass and piano have been practiced and some pies and bread have been baked, I find a little time to post some catch-up photos of the past week.

October 2013 A 170Here’s what things look like today from our kitchen window.

October 2013 A 116Our fine maple a couple of days ago. My mother just loves this tree. Believes it to be the single most beautiful tree in the great Northeast. Not as neon bright as in falls past, but lovely no less.

October 2013 A 172Now why on earth would chickens choose to hangout on a trampoline? Four of em are roosters – what a sight, all of them crowing one after the other. Silly, entertaining birds they are.

October 2013 A 072Just beyond the trampoline we can begin to see Saratoga Lake again with the leaves off the trees.

October 2013 A 069The colors beyond our garden.

October 2013 A 037The light from the East, early morning.

October 2013 A 285Since Elihu sees no color at all, I’m constantly asking him how he sees things – asking him which scenes pop out, which don’t register at all, and in this case which color mums appear interesting to him. In this case he likes the contrast between the petals and the centers. Makes sense.

October 2013 A 103More color back home on our burning bush by the foot bridge over the creek.

October 2013 A 142Cally came over after school one day. She’s a very gifted singer – got a great ear and a natural feel. She’s also very much a nature child like Elihu. She rides horses and her family breeds dogs too.

October 2013 A 158There they go – off to rustle up some chickens. Elihu’s costume is to the right – it’s in the very the first stage in its creation.

October 2013 A 302This is the character “Wild Vine” from the cartoon series “Ben 10”. It’s an animated vine that this ten year old boy (Ben) turns into when he puts a magic watch-like device on his arm. It goes without saying that his quest is to save the planet from threatening aliens. Wild Vine may look a little creepy (pun intended), but he’s a good guy.

October 2013 A 299

Here’s the costume in it’s most recent incarnation. The frame was created by duct taping foam pipe insulation onto some football shoulder pads and snaking a frame of straightened-out wire coat hangers inside for structure. The skeleton was then covered in good old-fashioned paper mache.  (The paper mache was made from the same flour we use for our pies and bread.) The eyeball and shoulder ‘pods’ are styrofoam balls carved and then spray painted white first, then blue on top in order to give the appearance of depth. A little hot glue here and there really helps out.

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On we go into the year… Fall is moving quickly along in spite of a long, uneventful Sunday. I’m grateful for the down time, cuz things will be back up and running full speed soon enough.

 

The House Cafe September 21, 2013

It was a time in which I learned an awful lot, and it seemed everything was happening all at once. It was a time which, while an important chapter in the course of my life, would not be one I’d ever care to repeat. I had three things weighing heavy on my heart: first was my son. Each day I’d drop off my special-needs, vision-impaired son at daycare and would remain in a state of low-grade guilt and discomfort all day as a result. I would rather have been with him, but it just wasn’t possible as now I had a new full-time job, item number two on the list…. I was the owner and manager of The House Cafe. While more my husband’s dream than mine, he already had a full-time job, so this role became mine. Truly, it was no mere coffee shop, rather it was a restaurant and a nightclub. Live music six days a week, a liquor license, food to order, store, inventory and prepare – and college-aged employees to get most of it done. And then there was item number three: my marriage. A union of over twenty years that was fast dissolving into thin air right before my eyes. It was profoundly frightening, Each day I felt as if I were walking through a horrible, waking dream, yet I had absolutely no time to deal with it. I was so busy, in fact, that most times I told myself it was just the stress of the job; things were just temporarily off course. One day things would be back the way they’d been. That’s what I had to tell myself in order to get though. I had left my familiar and beloved life behind in Evanston and had hit the ground in Dekalb running at breakneck speed, but it was still my greatest hope that a peaceful family life lay somewhere ahead.

Having just set this up as a rather dark piece about a difficult time and a challenging job, let me now elaborate a bit upon what it was that made this experience so rich. As I once wrote – in my very first piece ever on this blog – I experienced a range of events in working at The House Cafe that I might have expected from a decade of management, not a mere two years. Some were terrible to live through, and some were very rewarding. Employees were for the most part intelligent kids with humor and good sense (not all of them, but most) and I loved to know that we ran a place that was comfortable and inviting. That it was a place in our small town where folks of all types could meet and hang. We had a toy box and couches, rotating installations of local art on the walls, we had a bright area up front, and cozy dark booths in back. Even four bathrooms. During the daytimes it was moms and tots and students studying, by afternoon it was the bands loading in. The place radically changed character at night – and frankly, as a mom to a little one, I wasn’t able to enjoy the shows too often. Sometimes I wouldn’t really want to; when the kids lined up around the block and down the hill I knew we’d be in for a heavy-hitting night. More than once I’d have to pack tiny Elihu in the minivan and stop by the club to tell the booking guy he had to close the doors. I know it was tempting for him (cuz he got paid by the head count) and it was tempting for me too to want that extra income – but we just couldn’t go over capacity. But as a business, you gotta admit that’s a pretty good problem to have!

I remember young Elihu – at the age of just four – helping me test mics before a show. They were clearly numbered, and he certainly knew his numbers, and he felt quite comfortable picking up a mic and speaking into it… so one by one we’d make our way across the board getting things ready. It was a large room, and in the evenings could be quite dark and cozy, so he was able to run around free from his usual super-dark sunglasses as I finished preparing for the night. Checking the sandwich line, the stock up front, the state of the green room downstairs. By no means did I run the place as well and thoroughly as I would have liked, but I feel I muddled through as best I could in my situation. Thankfully I’d had years of experience waitressing  and playing clubs, so that helped. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being stolen from by employees, by being yelled at by employees, by being told by the health department that I had to make improvements which I had no money to make, or learning I hadn’t enough money on hand to pay the musicians (this is the last thing I should ever want to do to a fellow musician!). Or finding that I needed to keep an inventory of every last thing in my storage closet lest my toilet paper mysteriously disappear. Or that pictures would be stolen off of walls, furniture would be broken, expensive microphones would routinely walk off and vomit would end up in the bathroom hallway at least once a week…

Of several memories, there is one I particularly like to recall. I’d been up front one late afternoon, working with the baristas, making coffees and sandwiches for a busy house, and had begun to make the rounds with a large plastic tub, bussing the tables. A local Dixieland band was playing, as they did one Sunday of each month. We’d just made it through the lunch rush and now things were settling down. I was in the zone of cleaning up – finding my groove and feeling good about a happy, successful day. I was lost in my thoughts, but was awakened from them when I’d heard my name spoken. I looked up, and saw that I was being called from the stage to join the band for a song. It was a Cinderella moment as I set down my load of dirty dishes, took off my apron to reveal a dress beneath, then pulled the pencil out of my udpdo and swung my hair loose. I walked up to the stage (a nice, raised stage complete with lights and a real grand piano – the one that now sits in my living room) and with only a couple of quarter notes to spare, started singing. Life at The House was seldom as picture-perfect as that moment, but it’s a nice one to have that one in the memory archives.

While I didn’t do the booking myself, I could – and did – suggest bands to have play. Sometimes I got em, and those too were happy events. It was enjoyable to now be the host rather than the guest, and to make performers feel at ease, taken care of. I myself made an effort not to engage with them too much, because for me as a performer I’d always wished for more space. And with my ex and other folks through the years I’d seen the relentless, in-your-face sort of presence that fans had. I know it goes with the territory, but I still thought it was important to make privacy available. When I was present, I think I did ok. But even though I was in that office from 9 to 5 each and every workday – weekends too – I didn’t have much of a presence in the place as a nightclub, as I was at home being mom. In hindsight, I think it all worked out. Wasn’t exactly as I would’ve liked, but it was ok. Like I said, I learned a lot.

After about two years though, I was reaching the end of my rope. I had wanted to turn my attention back to family matters, and I began to think about finding someone to replace me. But who? The universe must have felt my plea, for one day the phone rang. It was a woman who was just cold-calling us to see if we had work. She had lots of experience as manager of a coffee shop, and she lived in the area. And she was done with her last job, as in done. Like me, she’d had it and was seeking out something new. Strangely, I had time in my day, and she was only miles away, driving towards the place as we spoke. Within minutes she entered the office, within an hour I had a new manager. Within six months she owned the business. Finally, I was free. Jan was an angel to me at that time; she arrived just when I needed her, and she continued to not only run the Cafe in the same spirit as before, but she improved on it, making it into a Midwestern mecca for the college and patchouli crowds. Perfect. Even my twenty-something year old schefflera plant – now a good ten feet tall – stayed on to live and thrive in the Cafe. I made my exit feeling very good about The House Cafe’s future prospects.

Now, after some five years of Jan’s ownership, she too is wanting to move on. She, like me, is a single mom of a young boy (I think she even has chickens!) and I can’t blame her for wanting out. Running the place is a way of life. And for the most part, running a locally loved, well-established meeting place for the community can be very rewarding. Yeah, it feels really good to welcome regulars and get into a daily rhythm. When things are in place, it’s a good place to be. But no one can stay in one place forever, and so now The House Cafe of Dekalb is on the verge of yet another change. Jan’s leaving at the end of October, and the future of the place is very much in question. As I signed off on all aspects of ownership in the process of my divorce, I don’t know the particulars anymore. But I do know that this is a beloved landmark of that community, and I have my own personal hopes that another angel arrives just in time to save it.

The House Cafe Dekalb

The House Cafe of Dekalb, Illinois

 

Calling It A Day August 17, 2013

As I write this Elihu is downstairs playing his drum set. It’s interesting to hear him work out new ideas. I’m impressed with how long he’s been at it now; it’s been at least forty five minutes since I retired to my room to put away the laundry (I think it’s evident that’s not getting done) and he’s come up only once to make sure that I’d heard something new he’d been playing. I assured him I had. Earlier today he busked a bit on Broadway and again I heard new sounds. He’d played downtown on Thursday night too, and I was amazed that to hear how much better he was playing these days and how many new ideas he was coming up with. Cuz seriously, how much variety can one get out of one single drum? Quite a bit, apparently. And now, in the spirit of a summer night with no reason to get up early the following morning, Elihu is enthusiastically enjoying en extended practice.

Today the weather was just perfect with a late summer day’s breeze and softening sun. For me this is the time of year that evokes a certain sadness of things about to be gone by; although the daytimes are still distinctly made of summer, the evenings have a certain cool to them that signals the changes that are coming soon. Tonight, to the soundtrack of fireworks from a neighbor’s yard and the crickets in the nearby field, Elihu chased frogs and watched the goldfish in the diminishing light of day. The evenings now have grown too cool for shorts, so I wrapped myself in a long fleece bathrobe as I watched him play after we’d finished eating. Earlier, as I had made supper, I’d watched him from the kitchen window as he transported frogs from the creek to the new pond. To watch my son play as I cook or do the dishes is something I don’t take for granted; these are no doubt some of the tiny memories I will conjure decades from now when I can hardly remember ever having a young child.

But as the night grows later I begin to think about the school year that’s coming soon. It’s getting later than I’d realized. He’s finished with the drums now and has returned to his post at the pond. I wonder if I should call him in. Soon we’ll need to adjust his schedule back to reasonable bedtimes and super-early mornings. A late night like this makes me wonder if I’m being a negligent mom. But I have my reasons for allowing him this extended play… Given Eihu’s achromatopsia, I understand so well why it is that enjoys playing at night more than during the bright light of day. He’s finally free of those stupid sunglasses, finally able to see his world as it is. While I myself cannot tolerate the ubiquitous mosquitoes, for him it’s a price he’ll easily pay, for the reward is great. I however can’t give him my audience anymore on account of both the chill and the insects, so I leave him to his own. As I sit and write, he comes in every few minutes to update me. Now he’s rediscovered an old glider he’d made once out of foam core and cardstock. He’s rummaging around in the junk drawer to make some adjustments to its weight. He’s having luck with his project, so I’m still hesitant to put an end to it. But a few good tosses of his plane and I think I’ll have to get him in.

This has been another wonderful day. We might not remember all of it, but we’ll definitely take away a few late summer memories. If not for the acupuncture appointment that Elihu accompanied me to this morning, then maybe for the visit to a friend’s house that netted him a vintage helicopter toy. And if neither of those stick, at the very least today will have been one of many fine summer days that help to create the overall emotional shadow of a very happy time in his life. Yup, it’s been another very good day, and I think that now we can finally call it a night.