My dad died one year ago tonight. As I sit here, I try to remember the feeling of the day, the order in which things happened. I’ve lost track of some details – some things are fuzzy, and that bothers me. But I’m lucky to recall this distinctly: I remember most how normal the day had felt. For the first time in years, it was just we four Conants together in the house. All of us at our posts, a low level of activity and busyness going one which had created a feeling of normalcy and well, comfort. My mom was in the kitchen puttering about, my brother at the dining room table on his computer, my father was sleeping in his hospice bed in the side room, and I sat in between them, on the couch in the living room, taking it all in. Feeling how homey it was. I knew we were waiting for dad to die, we all did, but still, it felt good to be there. All of us together, one last time. I can’t know how mom and Andrew were truly feeling, but I remember that I was quietly petrified, but somehow doing ok. In spite of what we where there for, it was a good afternoon. One year ago today.
We were all touching dad when he went; mom and Andrew holding his hands, I was holding both his feet. After sleeping quietly for hours and hours, it was a little after eleven at night when dad uttered two loud vocalizations. I alerted my brother and mom, and then it began. The final half hour. And at the very end, he faked us out three times – we’d thought he’d taken his final breath when he’d take another breath in… By the third one we were actually laughing – and crying of course too – because here was dad, in his last moments on earth, taking a curtain call. When he finally passed, our cat Mina, who stays on dad’s desk in his office (and had gotten up on his bed earlier that day – a move very uncharacteristic of her) meowed twice, as if to confirm that dad had finally left us. Finally, we could cry. Mom, who I’ve seldom seen cry in my entire life, allowed herself tears. Andrew too. And after years of being at the receiving end of my brother’s hate and venom (it’s not his fault, he is not well), I hugged him, told him I loved him and that he was the best brother ever. So thanks, dad, for helping each of us find a little closure in your passing.
When you finally lose a parent, it feels like an initiation. Having two parents – especially two who are still under the same roof – feels a bit like a bonus these days. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures and videos of us all while we were together, and I’m tempted to indulge in regret. It just kinda felt as if it would always be thus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again more than a few times: this is a hard planet to live on. Even when you have it good, it’s still not easy.
My agnostic friends will think I’m making stuff up in order to feel better about the whole thing – but me, I know that we move on to another plane of existence after this. I know it aint over, and that I’ll see my dad again. I even know he’s aware of me here and now, and that when I think of him, I send him my love and energy through the ether, and he receives it where he is. I know this. For my friends who don’t believe there’s anything beyond our simple, earth-bound lives, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see the look on your face when we meet again…
Here are some photos I’ve been digging up all morning. I’m missing a chunk of time in between when Elihu was little and now – but for some reason, life must have taken over and I just neglected to take pictures for a while. I guess I just kinda forgot that it’s the everyday things that are more worth remembering than the exceptional. But I’m lucky to have these. And so lucky that I got to be the daughter of Robert Conant.
Some pics from dad’s professional life…
An early promo shot.
Dig this one. !
Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)
The Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.
Working with Robert Shaw.
This may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.
Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.
Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.
The Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel, Switzerland was an important part of dad’s professional life for many years. (With August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller.)
Always loved this one.
Dad as conductor.
Taken from the balcony of the Studio.
Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.
Kenneth Slowik was a huge part of our lives growing up as well as a very important part of dad’s professional life, and we still count the Slowiks as family.
The Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.
Now some pics from dad’s personal life…
Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.
Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.
1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?
Andrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.
We four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.
Dad and me at the Studio, early nineties.
A snapshot of the many talented young men who helped dad to run the Festival of Baroque Music through the years; they’re all really like family to us, and the Slowiks, Ken (far left) and Peter (3rd from the left) have been part of our family for over three decades.
Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.
Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.
This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.
Since Elihu could talk, he and his grandpa enjoyed speaking to each other in this made-up, Eastern-European-sounding language, complete with hand gestures and lots of crazy nuances. It was incredibly funny, and amazing to behold. Dad himself was extremely gifted at doing impressions and speaking in accents, and was known for his ever-present sense of humor. There was a lot of profound hilarity through the years in this household!
Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.
A few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.
I like this one of these three.
Grandpa, winding the Grandfather’s clock. ! (This clock is the same one behind dad and me in that first shot of me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord.)
The ‘new’ sign. Can’t believe it was four years ago now. Deep down I think that I just couldn’t bear to do anything with the place until he was gone. It still feels like his place; just putting up the new sign (replacing his Baroque Foundation sign) was kind of a big step.
The Studio that dad built in 1974 – architect, Michael Curtis. The place has looked a bit cheerier in years past, but it will once again. All in time.
Dad and ‘the two Jims’ at dad’s 80th birthday. These guys have been around the Festival for over twenty-five years. The stories they retold at dad’s ‘living wake’ last year had us all but peeing in our pants. It was a perfect send-off for dad. (That’s Martha, seated at left.)
And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.
This is how dad spent much of his last few years, resting on the couch. The lamp in the background hung in his childhood home in Passaic, New Jersey.
Almost as if a sign of things to come, young Elihu reverently puts his hand over his heart in the same room in which his grandfather would leave this world.
There is just never a good time for goodbye.
As Elihu said to you in his final parting: see you shortly…
Robert Scott Conant, January 6th, 1928 – December 27th, 2013.
Post Script: Here’s a recording of dad playing – granted, his is the 3rd of 4 harpsichord parts (I know, four harpsichords? Wow) and it’s impossible to know what exactly he’s playing, but nonetheless, he’s in there somewhere…