The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Charley My Boy July 25, 2016

Although I got off to a late start last night, I did finally go out. There was a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet at which the bassist for the orchestra was leading a small band, and a local fellow was to be playing with him too – enough of a reason to find a dress that I could still fit into and put something other than work boots on my feet. My evening started off quite Cinderella-like, as I had to scoop the last errant members of the flock into the coop before I could be on my way, and by then the event itself was half over and the sun was already down. Half was better than none, I told myself as I waffled once more on whether or not to even go. My windshield was sticky with sap from the trees (the windshield spritzer motor long gone) and my skin was beginning to dampen in the warm, humid air (the AC was on its way out, too). My glasses were smudged, and I’d forgotten to don any jewelry of merit.  I hesitated another moment in the dark car, pondering. “Fuck it” I finally said out loud, turned on the ancient Marshall Crenshaw CD I had in the player, and started down the long, potholed driveway.

I had indeed missed the height of the evening, which was just as well. Before entering, I hung back and assessed the crowd from behind the glass doors. The fundraisers I see in the locally-published glossy magazines wouldn’t be affairs at which I’d be very comfortable. High fashion, low body fat with a smattering of trout pouts, those scenes were simply not me. But if that population had indeed attended tonight’s fundraiser, they had by this time satisfied their social duties, and had returned home on a Sunday night, retiring to bed at a healthy hour. No, this crowd did not look intimidating. I entered the party and filtered through the thinning – and aging – ranks of the guests, and shortly after I arrived found the leader of the band, whom I’d known pretty much only through Facebook. He was kind to introduce me to someone, and I was off.

My father’s 52-year long early music festival still lives in the memory of many here in town, and although that population is aging, there are still many of them about. I’m always grateful to hear my name received with such warmth and recognition; the Festival of Baroque Music was an important part of the arts scene in Saratoga for half a century, and its leader was not only one of the world’s foremost harpsichordists, but he was a gentleman of great heart and good humor – and it seems everyone who’d ever attended the Festival knew it well. Even shopkeepers to whom my father sold ads for the concert programs (yes he did the work himself!) remember dad with a great fondness. My father was an ambassador for goodness and integrity, and I’m always filled with gratitude when I see the impression he made on people has been so memorable and lasting. Last night his good reputation preceded me on several occasions. I met a handful of folks who’d known about the Studio through dad’s music, so I handed out cards and expressed my hopes that we’d stay in touch.

The charts were fun; the band was doing old-timey jazz, the likes of which I’d performed for years with my much-missed Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago (my God you never know what you got til it’s gone!) and in fact, I almost teared up when I heard Black and Tan Fantasy – and it’s not a tune to make one cry, but it immediately brought back vivid memories of a cherished time in my life that was now long over. My nostalgic jag didn’t last though, I was smiling by the time I heard that familiar final minor cadence. The sax player had a delightfully old-timey sound which was a relief to hear. So often when you bands play old-style charts, the players execute them with a modern sound, which to me, kinda spoils the whole thing. If you’re going for the historic tunes – and historically accurate arrangements – play em the way they did back in the day. Just sayin.

I walked the room, looking at programs, posters and articles from the NYCB of my youth. I recognized images of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland and Jacques D’Amboise – rockstars of my early teen years whom I’d sometimes followed through town when they made extremely rare appearances at the pedestrian joints on Broadway alongside the commoners. Peter Martins even put a cigarette out on my foot at the Adelphi Hotel once. Or almost.

We were standing in the lobby, enjoying a solo harpsichord performance when Peter took a final drag off his butt, then flicked it to the ground. It landed on my foot, which I retracted at the unexpected sensation of heat, and when I leaned in to assess the damage, I watched as the dancer’s foot slid towards mine in a motion meant to squash the ember on the floor. I withdrew my own foot and watched as Peter Martins finished the task, his eyes never once leaving the musician. He didn’t realize he’d hit my foot with a hot cigarette, and furthermore he had no idea he’d meant to step on my foot, too. Instantly I felt a mixture of horror, indignation – and awe. Because I was, after all, a thirteen year old girl standing two feet from one of the most exquisitely formed men on the planet. I wanted to be miffed, I’d wanted at the very least an apology. But knowing none was coming, the moment had passed and the point was moot, I decided instead to take the little event simply for what it was: a brush with ballet greatness, and an interesting little anecdote for the archives.

After the band finished, I greeted them and proceeded to pester them with a few questions, which I likely posed with too much enthusiasm. It was easy to get excited – this used to be my world after all, and I still miss it dearly, even a decade hence. The poor fellow who played clarinet, I caught him with cases under his arm and eyes on the door when I stopped to grill him a bit longer than I probably should have for some insight into the working music scene. We’ve met before, so thankfully he was patient with my inquiry. I appreciated what he had to tell me, which, as I might’ve guessed, wasn’t too terribly inspiring. There’s work to be had, but getting in seems the trick. And the money that these dates pay really isn’t much better than it was twenty years ago. Nothing terribly new or insightful, but I came away with some sense of possibility, and my mood was good enough to propel me to downtown Saratoga, where I thought I’d see for myself what a Sunday night looked like during racing season.

It was fairly quiet on the street, but to my surprise there was live music in three separate bars. I saw a fellow a little older than me sitting in the window at one place, playing guitar and singing. Good start. I found a place at the bar and began to jot down the tunes he was playing in my tiny notebook. I always do this when I hear musicians doing the cover thing, because I haven’t still quite gotten a handle on the repertoire. I’m convinced that the soft-rock hits of the 70s and 80s should do just fine in a town that caters mostly to a demographic my age or older – but I’ve come to see that there is a wide mix of ages partying side-by-side, and that a working musician pretty much needs a U2 tune or two in her bag of tricks, and much as it might make me want to weep, it seems that “Moondance” cannot be omitted from a night’s entertainment, no matter how many thousands of times it’s been played.

Soon after I sat down, I was joined by a large, well-toned man. He had a trim, slightly red beard, and wore a cap, which I suspected was used to cover a balding pate. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, and in fact, had he not been so many drinks in, I might’ve given him a bit more consideration. What I did like about this chap was that he possessed a sense of humor. A construction worker and hunter, he had practical life skills. But surpassing any of his merits on paper, he had a certain twinkle in his eye – that lively, animated sort of presence that I don’t come across all that often. I could tell he was clearly a decade younger than me, but owing to his mild inebriation and my low-cut decolletage, this wouldn’t have mattered at all to him, even if he’d known the truth. I stuck around for a few minutes because I found myself getting a kick out of him.

I’ve had a handful of men show interest in me since I’ve lived here, but I simply haven’t felt a similar interest in them. I wouldn’t say that this chap was all that different – only that his humor and that certain spunk he showed held my interest even after my beer was almost gone. In spite of the beers he’d himself already put away, I could still sense the goodness in him – regardless of his ultimate agenda. (With men – and especially the drunk ones – I assume that’s always where they’re hoping it goes…) Before I realized what was happening, he wrapped his enormous arm around my waist and said “Kiss me”. I suppose I coulda ended it right there with a slap or a shove, but he seemed like a big kitten, really, and there was no time to think before Charlie had pulled me in for a smooch. It wasn’t a lingering kiss, nor a romantic one. It was, in fact, more like the generic kiss I offer all those in my life for whom our parting warrants a quick peck. But the point remains, it was a kiss. By a man. And truth be told, dear readers, this is the first man from whom I’ve received a kiss since my husband kissed me goodbye nearly nine years ago. I paused for a moment to drink in the irony: Charlie was the baby that my husband conceived with his then-girlfriend which propelled us into our life here in New York. Charlie is the person responsible for our life in Greenfield. If my ex had asked for a divorce before Charlie’d come around, things might have gone very differently. Many times through the years I’ve whispered to myself “Thank you, Charlie” in a quiet acknowledgement of the critical role he’s played in our new life. And now look, here was a Charlie of my own to keep things moving along! “Charley, my boy” I said under my breath after the kiss, referencing a song I’d sung in that old timey jazz orchestra so long ago. My drunk friend, oblivious to the quote, just winked and smiled.

My relationship with Charlie did in fact end when the drink was over, because as that same time the guitar player was packing up, and I was on a mission. I gave Charlie another quick kiss of my own, before saying goodbye and leaving him no choice but to return to his drink alone. I introduced myself to the musician, and when I gave him my card, he stopped. “Is Robert your father?” he asked, with a tone of great surprise. I told him that he was, and before I could add anything, Jeff went on to tell me how much he’d thought of my father, how he’d sold him a couple of minivans (the Conants always needed extra long vehicles to schlep around harpsichords) and furthermore he went on to say that my dad was the only customer he ever hugged – and more than once! My father, my father. I know what a loving and kind man he was, I do, but I certainly never realized just how much he’d shone that love and kindness into the world. The night had been such a revelation to me, and a comfort, too. My beloved father was still preparing my path, even now.

My new friend and I enjoyed a chat as he wrapped cables and tucked things away, but the information I ultimately sought couldn’t be proffered in the minutes we had left; it was late, after all, and he wanted to get home. Thankfully he offered to get together sometime by the light of day, so we could compare set lists and talk gear (I’m an unintentional Luddite who, over these past 13 years of child-rearing, has become ultimately lost to the culture of Ipads and modern PA systems). My heart was happy and hopeful as I hugged Jeff goodbye. Finally it felt as if there might be a new chapter ahead. Getting up and running as a musician had proved to be a much bigger undertaking than I’d first thought it would be, but at least now I might have a little help.

I moved across the street to a joint that’s known for its live music all year ’round. I saw an act I’d seen before, but this time I stopped to check them out more carefully. They are a duo; the woman plays drums, standing up, and sings too, and the man in his shabby, indie-hip garb and road-worn guitar provides the harmonic component. I couldn’t see bass pedals, and it didn’t seem they were playing with a track, so the source of the bass was a mystery until afterward when I went up to say hi, I learned that the drummer was hitting a pad that triggered the notes. They had a sweet and tidy setup. The merch table was filled with stuff, and to my surprise (for they are primarily a cover band as are all the bands in this town) there was a small line of folks wanting to buy stuff after the show. I watched the woman as she graciously allowed pudgy, drunk tourists to take selfies with her, and I noted how ‘on’ she was; that professional thing that my ex turns on whenever in the presence of another person, that thing that I personally find a major pain in the ass to cultivate. I was never good at schmoozing. Me, I play – and I want to leave. Go have a burrito. Hang with friends, musicians. Not hang with drunk, idiotic bar patrons who wouldn’t turn down a Jimmy Buffet cover. But I watched as this woman did just that. And I thought to myself, ‘man, you are so good at what you do, sister’. It’s one thing to hold together – and front – a two hour show. But it’s entirely another thing to have the post-show hang down. Good for them. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that this really was not my world.

Drunk Charlie had also made his way across the street to hear the power duo, and I’d seen him in the audience singing along and offering his thumbs up of approval. Now he was by the door, and he had spotted me. He grabbed my hands and started to dance, and damn if this drunk behemoth wasn’t light of foot! He lead me around – the hand on the small of the back, the whole shebang – he turned me, dipped me, pulled me in, rolled me away – he had it. One of the things I’d so enjoyed about my ex husband was that he could dance. I’d made my seventh grade son take social and Latin dancing this past year because I insisted it was one of the reasons I had married his father. That got his attention. “Really?” he had asked me, with an open-jawed look on his face. “Really.” I’d answered. Yeah, I’ll go to weddings just to dance with a guy who knows how – or isn’t afraid to try to appear that he does. If the situation had been a little different, the drinks fewer and the night younger, dancing with Charlie might have held more appeal. I thanked him for the dance, made a slight bow, then dashed for the door before he could insist on anything more….

I grabbed two slices of pepperoni pizza and drove home to enjoy them with my last bottle of Fat Tire. Afterward, I tried a couple of songs on the piano, but it was beginning to sour in the midsummer humidity, and my results were less and less pleasant as a result. My night had come to an end, but what a sweet, enjoyable evening out it had been. And I laughed to myself to think that after all these years, I’d finally been kissed. Ha! Thanks, Charley, my boy.

 

Gone One Year December 27, 2014

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…

IMG_4697An early promo shot.

Early Promo Shot 001Dig this one. !

Fort Dix, 1951Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)

the first Baroque Fest with mom and dadThe Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

robert shaw choraleWorking with Robert Shaw.

dad and Paul DoktorThis may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.

IMG_4682Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

IMG_4685Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

IMG_4667The 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.)

IMG_4704Always loved this one.

IMG_4692Dad as conductor.

IMG_4668Taken from the balcony of the Studio.

IMG_4678Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.

IMG_4672Kenneth 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.

FBM's 50thThe Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.

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Now some pics from dad’s personal life…

Dad as a young boy 001Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.

mom and dad wedding

Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.

dad and me at harpsichord in Hamden

1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?

me dad afc at orch hallAndrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.

Conants by the StudioWe four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.

dad and me in the StudioDad and me at the Studio, early nineties.

IMG_5756A 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.

IMG_6547_0001Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.

IMG_6527Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.

IMG_0553This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.

Dad's 80th Birthday 103Since 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!

Dad's 80th Birthday 112Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.

elihu, grandpa and duckA few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.

IMG_4660I like this one of these three.

IMG_6519_0001Grandpa, 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 Studio new signThe ‘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 studioThe 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's 80th Birthday 050Dad 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.)

Dad's 80th Birthday 016And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.

1231102110This 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.

Elihu with hand over heartAlmost 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.

Dad's HeadshotThere 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… 

 

Summer Starts May 27, 2013

Elihu is in the bath, and I’ve snuck away to make a quick post. Spent the day readying our place for the warm months. Raked and rocked the entire garden and set up the bean poles. Planted flowers, cleaned out beds, secured the chicks’ outdoor run, plus a handful of other outdoor tasks. Needless to say I’m a good sort of tired right now. The lilacs have all gone by, so have the lily of the valley. Now we turn our attention to the growing of tomato plants and the swatting of mosquitoes.

Didn’t want Memorial Day to slip by without sharing this wonderful photograph of my father playing harpsichord for fellow army men. He was in his early twenties then. His was the Korean War era, and while he was never deployed, he had been trained for war. When greeted at Fort Dix by a superior he would hear “Private, what is your mission?” to which he was expected to salute and respond “To kill or be killed, Sir!”. When he related the story to me his face took on an expression I’d seldom seen. He looked to me for my shared disbelief and horror. “Can you believe that?” he asked. No, I could not. When he had shared this with his own father, hoping to receive just the smallest show of love or support, my grandfather instead surprised my dad by coldly reminding him “That’s what he was there for.”  (This is a time and culture in which my father and grandfather shook hands when saying goodbyes – and also when upon reuniting after long absences. No physical expressions of tenderness between these men in that day and age.!) All pretty horrific from my perspective today. I cannot even begin to imagine my son in such potential peril, not to mention sending him off in such a cold, unfeeling manner. A different time, a different world for sure.

My father took jobs painting the base’s chapel and playing harpsichord for services. I might not be here at all if he’d seen combat. Never know.

dad fort dix

Private Robert Conant plays harpsichord (this instrument is now in my living room) for the troops, Fort Dix, 1951