The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Bag O Dad October 9, 2015

My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)

We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.

And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.

Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.

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The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.

We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.

IMG_0146A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.

IMG_0155Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.

IMG_0166One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)

IMG_0179The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.

IMG_0186Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…

IMG_0189Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.

IMG_0188So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.

IMG_0196I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.

IMG_0202Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.

IMG_0203 (2)Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!

IMG_0214Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.

IMG_0234We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.

IMG_0218Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??

IMG_0222Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.

IMG_0258We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.

IMG_0271She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)

IMG_0302Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.

IMG_0307A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.

IMG_0310And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.

IMG_0324You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.

It’s nice to have you home.

 

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… 

 

Year Anew January 1, 2014

Some folks have been complaining about 2013, bidding it good riddance, speaking of it with various expletives and such. My first response is to think something like ‘damn right, this was a painful and terrible year, hell with it’…. but then I realize, bad things happen every year. Good things too, and if I take the glass half-full attitude, I realize that the old year wasn’t, in my own personal world, half bad. That my father died in 2013 doesn’t make it a bad year. It makes it a precious year. One in which I enjoyed all my final moments with him, one in which I had the honor of witnessing his death. That is no small gift. Yeah, the past year has been rich, full and good. (That being said, I’m still ready for a new one.)

It’s the weight loss season again, and so I begin to do a little review of 2013 and my advances – and retreats – on that front. I’d started last year on the crazy Atkins diet, and while it was successful, and I ended up looking pretty good for my 50th birthday and subsequent trip ‘back home’ to Chicago, by the time fall came, and with it home-made apple pies and fresh home-baked bread, I let it all go. I knew I was begging trouble, but it was a quality of life thing for me. I’d had it with eating nothing but meat, cheese and vegetables for the past six months and I meant to enjoy all I’d missed now. I realized I may have gone too far in ‘catching up’, but some little voice told me ‘screw it, you made your goal, now live’. And really, in that time and place I wanted to be there. Joining my son every night, sharing the same menu and this time having home-made dessert. I’d never baked bread before in my life, so the discovery in fall of 2013 that I could do so – and easily – without even so much as a loaf pan – that kinda blew my mind. And once you’ve made it, you feel you gotta eat it. There’s only so much that two people can eat though, and it’s hard to enforce portion control when there’s always more on hand. And so I ate. And then with the stress of a bigger work load, plus my dad’s decline and death, I ate to soothe myself. And while that tiny voice told me I needn’t eat quite so much to make myself feel better, I did. I knew full well it would come to this, and it has. I am back to exactly the same weight as I was one year ago today. Almost twenty pounds are back. Which means that I saw my body change by forty pounds. Yeeks. If I think too long about it, or catch a glance of my pudgy jaw line in a mirror, I want to weep, to sink into despair. Cuz I was there, goddamit, and now I’m back. But that’s ok. That is what New Years are for. Starting over.

Over the past year I’d been very intrigued with death and dying, too. Scared shitless of losing my father, and wondering what exactly it was that a person’s natural death looked like, I’d gone on YouTube binges that would freak many people out. I watched embalmings, assisted suicides, cremations, interviews with people who knew they were dying. Anything and everything so that I might better get what it was to witness a loved one die, and then make those after-life decisions none of us ever really talks about. I meant to demystify death. I’d read my share of Elizabeth Kubler Ross years ago, but never did click with her old-school language. ‘Yack, yack, yack’, I remember thinking. Let’s get down to it, lady! So in 2013 I began to read more on near death experiences – something I’d known about for years, but had begun to read now from a new perspective. And when my own father began to point towards the corner of the room, asking me who all those people were, and when he told me he saw my cousin, and that he missed his mommy, I was glad I’d re-read the literature on this experience. I do get that many folks think these end-of-life occurrences are merely the brain playing tricks on itself in the final moments of life, however I certainly do not. Me, I know that a soul is what animates a body, and quite simply, it has a separation process to undergo at the end. And while I would never had dared to speak my opinion on this subject so candidly in the past, now I feel I can. I’m off that hook – I’ve experienced it myself, I know. And I’m not quite as afraid of death as I was. The loss is still so very sad, and I can see it will continue on…. But having been with my beloved father during his transition has helped confirm for me what I already believed. So now I go into my own future, and move closer to my own death, with some important questions resolved.

My son’s now approaching an age in which his entire outlook on the world will change and mature. Ten now, eleven in a few months, 2014 will likely be the year in which the true magic of childhood ends. Santa, the birthday angel and the Easter Bunny won’t be visiting after long. Even in the cocoon of Waldorf, he will soon know for sure. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve savored his small years, even documented a few of them here on this blog, so I can’t feel that I wasn’t present for them, or appreciative. I was. As I write this, he’s sleeping in, catching up after a whirlwind visit to Chicago and dramatic return. Over his visit, and while I was sitting vigil with dad, Elihu was going through a pretty big health scare, having visited the emergency room for knees that had blown up so they’d awoken him in the night – he said it felt like knives – and being told it might possibly be juvenile onset arthritis. Or Lyme disease. And in that I myself had fretted all fall over the Lyme v. growing pains debate – only to be told by nurses and moms alike not to worry (!!) – I kinda knew. And what relief that it was Lyme and not arthritis. So we’re dealing now with that, and the stock regimin of antibiotics to follow. (I am just kicking myself because I really did suspect it but caved to everyone else’s opinion.) Mom, Andrew, Elihu and I went out to dinner late last night (he had his favorite escargot and frogs’ legs) and we were very late to bed. Now he’s sleeping like a teenager, and deservedly so. But what he doesn’t know is that Santa made one final visit to us here at the Hillhouse last night. He even knocked some of the ashes out of the fireplace as he’s done before. Santa knows that it’s the eighth day of Christmas. He knows Elihu is back home. As I sit here and write, I’m keeping an ear out for his bedroom door, for the footsteps, that momentary pause…. He’ll run in to get me, and I’ll be sitting here in my chair, unawares, and then he’ll tell me, with a look of amazement on his face, that Santa has come! Yesterday, when Elihu asked me if I though Santa might come here, I took on a somber tone and cautioned him not to be disappointed, after all Santa had already been to Illinois. But look! He made it here after all! This is a Christmas I will savor, because by next year it will be brand new territory.

Ah, such ambivalence I feel for brand new territory. I listened as my elderly father expressed his longing to be back in his childhood home and wondered to myself, where exactly, do our hearts consider to be true home? Is it the home and hearth of our tender years – or the home we made as young parents to our own tiny ones? I suppose there’s no one answer. But there is one truth for us here on earth; time continues to move forward, and our situations, though they may appear to pause in time at different stages of our life, continue to evolve and change. A sorrow and a blessing. A missed memory and the happy anticipation of a new experience. They exist so closely, these disparate conditions, and they tug our hearts in such different directions. I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the march of time, but I also can’t say that I don’t want to watch my son grow up and one day create a family of his own. I admit it, at my age, and having seen what the end of life looks like and knowing I’m closer to it than I am to my youth, I’m not moving into the future with the zeal that I once did. I’m moving toward it with a more measured approach. It’s coming no matter what, but I’m not running to meet it anymore. It’ll be here – and gone – soon enough.

 

Maestro’s Finale December 28, 2013

Robert S Conant

Robert Scott Conant of Greenfield Center, New York, passed away in his home on the evening of December 27th, 2013 at the age of 85. He died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his loving family and cherished cats. He is survived by Nancy J. Conant, his wife of 54 years, daughter Elizabeth Scott Conant, son Andrew Frederick Conant and also his beloved ten year old grandson, Elihu Scott Conant-Haque, all of whom live in Greenfield Center, New York, as well as nephew David Conant of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania; nephew Douglas Conant of Champaign, Illinois; grandnephews Matthew and Gregory Conant and sister-in-law, Jean Conant of Holiday, Florida. He is predeceased by his father, Frederick Banks Conant, mother Bessie (Scott) Conant, brother David and niece Susan.

Robert and Nancy Conant were married at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan on October 10th, 1959, Fr. David Gillespie presiding. Though seven years apart in age, Bob and Nancy shared the same birthday.

Robert Conant was born on January 6th, 1928 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a judge, his mother a talented pianist. He attended Choate, where on a school trip to Manhattan to hear a concert by the iconic harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, he was first inspired to dedicate himself to the study and performance of the harpsichord. Mr. Conant went on to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, class of ’48 and ’56 respectively, where he would later teach as well as become curator of the Yale Instrument Collection. Mr. Conant made his professional debut at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1951. He later taught at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University under Rudolph Ganz, from which he retired in 1986.

Mr. Conant performed and recorded with many groups and individuals here and abroad including the American Bach Society, The Collegium Musicum, Robert Shaw Chorale, the Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel with August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller, the Alfred Deller Trio, Henryk Szeryng, Fritz Rikko, Paul Doktor, Janos Scholz, Renato Bonacini, Josef Marx and Kenneth Slowik.

Mr. Conant was a pioneer of the early music revival of the post World War II years, promoting the use of historically accurate instruments and tunings. Mr. Conant created the Foundation for Baroque Music in 1959, and began to host an annual concert series, The Festival of Baroque Music, the first several of which took place at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, NY, and which later moved to its permanent home in The Studio in Greenfield Center, NY, an open-plan concert hall designed for its superb acoustics. The Festival of Baroque Music ran continuously for 52 years, concluding in July of 2011. In addition to his love for early music he was an avid supporter of twentieth century music and commissioned several new compositions for harpsichord. He received a Lifetime Award from Yale University as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saratoga Arts Council. When appearing before an audience, Robert spoke with masterful eloquence as few can.

There will be no formal visitation; online remembrances may be made at http://www.burkefuneralhome.com. The family would like to express their deepest appreciation for the exceptional level of care given by hospice workers. In lieu of flowers, friends may make donations to The Community Hospice of Saratoga in Robert’s name.

Bob entertained friends and family with his great talent for hilarious, spot-on impersonations and will be remembered by everyone who knew him for his ever-present sense of humor, cheerful demeanor and endearing smile. Robert loved all things beautiful, sonorous and poetic, and he lives on through our enjoyment of great music and art.

Please note that the link to www.burke@burkefuneralhome.com may not bring up Robert’s page just yet, as there is still a bit of paperwork to complete before he’ll be represented on their site. Visit back soon and you should be able to leave a remembrance. Thank you all for your love and support.

 

Sad Planet November 15, 2013

What a bittersweet and frustrating planet this is to live upon. Please know that I do realize I don’t by have it particularly hard by the greater standards of the world, yet in just the past few hours I’ve come to feel at the absolute end of my patience with this stupid place (or, if not out of patience, perhaps one might say ‘beyond disillusioned’ with this silly existence.) Just what the hell kind of joke is this world?? I’m done with trying to understand, trying to justify, trying to learn from it all. I’m fucking done. And the scary thing is, I have hardly begun the real adventure. I may not like the jowly face that stares back at me from reverse-camera skype images, I may not be able to casually drop a couple of dress sizes without much effort anymore, and simply tossing off situps or running a half mile may not be such mindlessly easy activities as I remember them to be…. But BAH! This sort of stuff is nothing! These things, however surprising or abhorrent they may have seemed to me at first, they don’t begin to approach the level of personal challenges that lay yet ahead. Losing one’s looks, yeah, that sucks. Losing one’s physical prowess, hard on the ego. But losing one’s parents – and then having it happen ever so slowly – I think that sucks a whole lot more. And experiencing it all with that quintessential, ‘keep-up-the-appearances-at-any-cost’ vibe of last century’s generation is just plain exhausting.

Things in our family changed tonight. I’ve been around for half a century, and during that time I’ve only seen my mother cry twice. Tonight was one of them. And I can’t even say she was crying really, but her eyes filled with moisture, and for the first time I can recall, I could actually feel a breach in her defenses. For just an instant I saw her, as a woman, as a wife, as a person about to be left terribly, irreversibly alone. It was the first time I’d seen any honest emotion in my mother in perhaps decades. Well, emotion other than outrage or anger (granted, she laughs sometimes too). As any student of spiritual life may recognize, anger (outrage being another manifestation of the same) is simply an expression of fear. While I myself had learned of that years ago, I don’t think it truly sank in for me until I came to live here, and was forced to re-examine my own personal habits and history in the wake of my ‘great life change’. I too had felt a good amount of rage at the world throughout my life – at my partner, at my circumstances, at many things – and had never thought twice about expressing it. In other words, I expressed myself just fine (and often loudly), and without much editing. And I never stopped to wonder at the origin of such rage. I guess it never struck me as something that needed any examination. Yeah, I’d read about it before, but until I put it into the context of my own personal experiences, I didn’t really get that rage came from fear. And being afraid is, well, understandable. This is one goddam scary place to live. Yeah, I can say that I sympathize with those who live in fear. In fact, I think you’d have to be fairly dull-witted not to be impressed with the opportunities we have here for some truly fearful situations. Having said that, I’m usually the first to be chill in the face of true stress; from surviving a broken neck as well as a handful of other life-heavy episodes, I’ve fared pretty well in the face of crap. Doesn’t mean I welcome any more of it though. And it sure doesn’t mean that I’m still not pretty goddam angry about things.

My mother too has never ruminated over the reasons for her emotions (that I know). Thankfully, the study of one’s own psyche and emotional world had become a practical and accepted life skill by my generation’s coming of age, but regrettably, my parents never had such tools on their side. Hardly. Instead, a stoic attitude, stiff upper lip and general disdain for everyone else kept a person moving successfully forward in life (glaring wounds and flagrant injustices be damned and ignored; keep your eyes looking ahead, pay no mind to the nasty reality…) And so, nearing her eighth decade here, my mother still does a yeoman’s job of keeping it all inside and pretending nothing’s wrong. That it’s all business as usual. (Btw way, I borrow ‘yeoman’ from my mother. A great word; her generation’s gift to me.) So I can’t blame her for any of this. Of the crazy, ‘it’ll be fine tomorrow’ kind of talk. It’s a strange new world now, because my mother still seems to me like the keeper of all answers, the ultimate knower-of-all-things, and in spite of more and more evidence that shows otherwise (in no way downplaying the immense amount of shit she really does know!), I just can’t seem to get it. She’s the sane one in the house, the one who keeps it together. The one who does things right (or as my ex would have half-joked she’s ‘white and right’), and she’s the one who lets everyone else know that she knows. Ok, so maybe she does that with a 1950’s vintage passive-aggressive sort of flair, but hey, at least everyone knows what’s up. Well, so that’s the way it’s been for the fifty years I’ve known her. But now, in quick, minute little steps, the relationship seems to be changing. The power dynamic is shifting, just a bit. It’s not that I need or want to be right, or on top of things, or taking charge, no. I don’t need more stuff. It’s challenge enough just trying to keep up with a simple life. But mom cannot do it all herself, and as I began to interject myself into the equation tonight, lifting dad off the floor, moving furniture to barricade him safely into his bed, I realized things had changed.

Tonight the situation just kinda forced our hands. When I arrived, dad was on his knees by the guest bed, too weak to sit, too weak to pull himself up. (That he had wandered into the guest bedroom and not his own presents a new level of concern.) My mother, bent over with arthritis, was not able to move him. My brother had thankfully arrived to assist, but by the time they’d been at it a while and I had gotten there, nothing was changed. Now I myself have very little core strength these days, but I was somehow able to lift dad and get him back onto the bed. From there I got him into a lying position, but he protested and for nearly an hour made efforts to sit back up – only with no ability to follow through and even walk across the room. I’m not sure how mom would have played it had I not arrived. She talked to dad tonight as if he were as well-reasoned as ever. In fact, he is markedly changed from even a few days ago. His talk was absolutely surreal, plus he was distressed, and even sometimes uncharacteristically angry, at being confined to his bed. Logic was of no gain; he had no understanding at all of where he was, or why he was there at all. He did still know us, and he did still formulate sentences, however this time, and for the first time, they began to more closely approximate mere gibberish. At one point I said “dad, what’s your favorite Scarlatti?” and without missing a beat he replied “D major”. Ah. Mom and I smiled at each other. I made a mental note to bring it up to speed again… maybe play it for him some time… Elihu and dad have had this made-up, Eastern European-sounding language in which the two speak for sometimes great lengths of time – they use gestures, crazy facial expressions and in general, sound quite plausible. And funny. I nodded at Elihu to give it a try as the four of us sat there in a dazed lull following an episode of moving dad from floor to bed. Elihu leaned in, and said something to dad. And wouldn’t ya know, dad gave it right back to him. All four of us laughed! It was the most remarkable thing – and such sweet relief to laugh like that! Elihu gave it another go, and we had another couple rounds of solid laughs. Dad couldn’t keep it going, but the thing was, he still got there. He still had that thing. Dad has always had a talent for impressions, for quirky, off-the-beaten-path humor. And in spite of how much of his life is lost to him, a spark of this remains burning. Hope, in one tiny form.

We managed to get dad lying down, tucked tightly into his covers, and I enforced the side of the bed with antique ladder backed chairs and a large hope chest. We fed him some of that crappy, over-sweet nutritional drink that old folks use to keep up their calorie intake, then we gave him half of a sleeping pill. As I sat with mom on the bed I began to pick up on a change in her spirit. I sensed the faintest beginnings of defeat. So I put my arm around her – something that just never happens in this house – and felt that it might have helped a little bit. Not a lot though. There’s just too much heartbreak here to make much of a dent in. But I told her I loved her, and that I had no idea how hard this was for her. Elihu leaned in to kiss grandpa and tell him how much he loved him. And my father, for as feeble and absent as he’s become, he simply beamed at his grandson. His eyes sparkled, and he told Elihu how very much he loved him too. This, I thought, is the happy ending. No matter what may happen, this is it.

As we were walking through the garage to our car I heard Elihu sniffling. And then I realized he was crying. Really crying. I didn’t offer a hug, or contact of any kind; it just didn’t seem the time. He needed some space to digest what was happening. Man, it just didn’t seem fair. He’s a young kid, and his grandpa such an old man. I really wish they’d had more time together. Crap. When we got in the car I said “well, you’ve had ten wonderful years together. We can be thankful for that.” We rode home in silence.

Had a nice supper, enjoyed some laughs, and we spent a moment just sitting on the couch, arms around each other, saying nothing. Mom called to say that dad had fallen right out with the sleeping pill. Mom’s life has always been fueled by agendas, by plans, goals… and now she finds herself zapped of her usual purpose and forward momentum. I can hear a shift in her voice. She sounds smaller somehow. Like she’s finally giving in. I hear it, and I wish I could just tell her that she doesn’t need to give up or give in – she just needs to surrender some things…. and other things will fill those places one day. I want to tell her this, but of course, I don’t. But I do tell her that I love her, and that I’ll call her in the morning.

I find relief in knowing that my son’s asleep now, and so is my father. But like me, I’m guessing my mother is still up late, not quite knowing what it is she should be doing. Feeling loose in the world, alone, the line to her anchor being cut away one thread at a time while she looks on, helpless…. Like me, I’ll bet she’s thinking this is all one great big let-down. All of this life, and then this is the crappy way it has to end? But she’ll put on a good show of it come morning, I know. And she’ll keep it up for a while longer yet. And me, I’ll make the best of it too. I’ll play this game as well as I’m able, and I’ll make an effort to keep humor and love alive in my small world. For the most part I think I’ll go with the half-full attitude. But for the moment, I can honestly say that I’m not thrilled to be here at all.

Tonight, this seems like a very sad planet indeed.

 

Changing Times November 6, 2013

It’s good that it happens gradually. Like pregnancy, kind of. You get some time to get used to things becoming different, time to get adjusted to your changing and new reality. Now it’s for sure. You’re not exaggerating, you’re not guessing, you’re not making this worse than it is. Now you can truly see that your mom or dad is not the person they once were. Yes, you recognize them somewhere ‘in there’; you can still recognize those certain little familiar things – a mannerism, a tone of voice or signature gesture – and you know that yes, that is definitely still my dad. And yet….

Today my mother was working as an election judge all day at the polls, so she needed me to check in on dad. Today also happened to be my busiest day at school, so I had to pull the emergency card to run home during recess duty. Apparently the night before he’d fallen to the floor next to the bed, and since mom couldn’t get him up again, she’d just given him a pillow and covered him with a blanket for the time being. Somehow she was able to get him back into bed before I got there this morning, but I myself was hard-pressed to even get him in an upright, sitting position on the side of the bed. This was a new stage of the game. I don’t remember it being like this. I’d thought it might take some cajoling, some sweet talk and encouragement to get him up and moving, but this time those tactics were just not enough.

When I arrived, dad began to speak to me quite normally, and even with some degree of refreshed enthusiasm at seeing me. But within a mere few words I realized that we’d gone into a new territory, one which we’d visited briefly before, but from which he eventually returned. Having spent a half hour with him on this visit, I could tell that there wasn’t a whole lot of hope for him returning to his sentient self of just one week ago. I was still holding out hope that Elihu could bring him out of it, but for the mean time it was all on me. So I listened to him talk. I tried to get a sense of what he was describing, the scenes he was trying to convey to me, and who was there with him. I tried to learn the general feeling of his remembered encounters – knowing full well they were from his dreams (he sleeps nearly twenty hours a day) – but also knowing that in his dreams lay the keys to understanding what still resonated as important – and even urgent – in my father’s mind.

He told me that he had been attending a party at someone’s house – as he awoke from his sleep he patted the bed sheets and told me ‘this’ belonged to harpsichordist Louis Bagger and dad said he only hoped he could take good enough care of it… I wondered if by his linens he meant a harpsichord… perhaps a loaner from his old friend? A waste of time to try and make literal sense of it… just follow… He went on to describe this party… it was in the home of some arts patrons – Jewish people, he added – and everyone is very keen on being seen, on having being invited… it’s a very tony affair, yet the food has all been brought by guests. He tried several times to recall the names of people who were present for the party, yet he stumbled, pointed his finger into the air as if to prod the memory loose, but gave up. I re-directed dad to fill in more details for me about the gathering. What did the place look like? It was someone’s home. A fine one, a very large place too, and packed to the gills. Where there musicians present? Yes, as celebrated guests. Are you one of them? No, but I’ve been invited. Do you feel uncomfortable there? No, but I don’t usually know these people well. And so went our conversation, as I tried to glean insight into my dad, his fears, his joys, and the things that, after fifty years’ absence from his single life as a professional musician in New York City, still loomed large somewhere deep in his psyche.

Things morphed again when he began to descend into a more surreal landscape; dad’s own father (whom we as grandchildren had called Papaw) was there, and I found it interesting that he referred to my grandfather as ‘Papaw’ and not ‘father’ as he would have addressed him back then. Dad told me he was concerned that Papaw was not entirely happy with the party. Papaw was expressing some dissatisfaction, perhaps even slight contempt for the goings-on. (That sounded in- character for him; my grandfather was a successful, self-made man, one from a family of thirteen children… he was a sitting judge and a man of some means; a slightly egocentric sort of fellow who looked down on folks who didn’t demonstrate self-respect or carry themselves with dignity. He had made it known that he didn’t entirely approve of dad’s choice of careers.) Then dad took on a new facial expression, and looked up at me. “Is Nana anywhere about?” he asked me, slightly concerned. Again, interesting to me. Because while ‘Nana’ registers as my grandmother, my dad had always called his mom ‘mother’… his use of ‘Nana’ blended the lines between generations in a dreamlike, nebulous sort of way. No matter, I knew who he meant, and so I answered that I didn’t think she was here now, but that she was doing well. He seemed worried about her. “Is Nana coming later?” he asked. And I answered him that she was. It seemed to give him a small measure of relief, and when I saw that, I felt my somewhat misleading answer was in fact the best thing I could have said. This was a new world, and with it came new rules.

My ten year old son understands well. Several times tonight he’d wink both his eyes at me (like his dad he can’t close just one) as a signal to me that he knew, that he got it, that he was right there with me. Dad would say something bizarre, and we’d just look gently to each other as if to confirm that things were still ok. What was of prime importance here was not getting facts or timelines correct, but to understand the emotions at the bottom of all the remembrances. What was the gist of what dad was feeling? This was what was most important. What he was feeling physically – that was another ballgame, and soon we found ourselves a bit limited by those new rules as well.

Dad’s had a hernia for a while, but it only bothers him every so often. Maybe I got him up into a sitting position too abruptly, I don’t know, but for whatever reason his hernia is back today, and it hurt him so much that he wasn’t able to stand up and make it down the stairs for a proper supper. (Secretly I wonder if this might not be the first night of his life that he’s no longer able to join the family downstairs for dinner. Is that new era now upon us?) I’d brought some delicious home-made chicken soup (made with the chickens we’d butchered last week) for supper, and now, as it was apparent that we wouldn’t be dining downstairs, I heated up our bowls and brought them to the bedroom. I held dad’s bowl and watched him eat. Funny how I delighted in seeing such small, insignificant gestures again… the things I’ve seen him do all my life but never really noticed til right now. How with so much of his word recovery gone, so much of his life’s context gone, so much twisted around and re-arranged in his head, yet look how he can still wipe his beard in that way – how he can still take a napkin from me without a second’s pause and use it exactly as he should… how naturally he pockets it, and pulls it out to use again… the way he did it, it is still so him… Such silly nothings really, stuff that everybody does. But seeing him do these few, small and natural things brought me immense joy. My wrist was straining to hold the bowl of soup for him, and my cheek muscles were getting hot from smiling so hard. I was focusing all on my father. It was an unusual place for me to be. As he’s sunk into his dementia, I’ve been more easily ‘allowed’ into his mind, into his world. After a lifetime of tentative eye contact and the most fleeting emotional connections, this is precious stuff here.

We visited like this for about a half hour, during which I fed him some toast (home made sage bread from us) and some chocolate Boost (old folks’ nutritional drink) through a straw (mom had none, now she’s stocked. In future she’ll need straws all the time, I’m pretty sure) and I got him lying back down again and comfy. Gone now is the strong, invisible wall that’s been  between us our whole lives. Now, his condition makes it possible – and easy even – for me to express my love for him. For me even to hold his hand. I can remember over the past few years looking at dad’s hands and wishing I could hold them for no good reason. In my family we just don’t do such things. God no. The emotional separation and fear that exists in my parent’s home is almost a real enough thing to knock upon with your fists… Just this evening as we tried to rouse dad from his bed to have some supper, Elihu said to me that ‘you can just feel the sad in this house’. Yes, it’s the reason I haven’t pushed harder to visit them. While I’ve wished for family dinners, and have attended a few, I can say they’ve not become routine for us. It’s a heavy, dark and depressing house to be in. Between Andrew’s alcoholism, mom’s denial and dad’s dementia (not to mention years without a proper housecleaning!) the house is just friggin heavy. Not a pleasant place in which to linger. And with us being so busy, it just makes it easier to pretend the whole situation doesn’t exist. But today, when I get the extremely rare opportunity to look into my dad’s eyes – people, this is big – I realize that I need to be here now. Finally, the defenses are down (well, dad’s at any rate!) and I can begin to share the same space with my father in a real way.

I don’t know how things will turn out. Dad’s gone downhill very quickly the past two weeks even. Nonsensical speech (although I do think there’s something there to be learned if one listens) and an incredibly weakened body make for some big decisions in the immediate future. Mom’s new song is “the next stop will be the emergency room”, but she doesn’t seem to want to take it further. Ok, so ER. Then what, mom? I’ve been trying to get her to find a visiting nurse twice a week for, oh, what, like a year now?? Even two weeks ago she was saying “we’re not there yet”. The emergency room is NOT a haven for super-old folks with old-people problems. Sorry. It’s either nurse at home – or nursing home. And while Elihu himself suggests that the best idea would be to turn dad’s ground floor office into the new bedroom and get a nurse in to help bathe him twice a week – I have a feeling that mom would rather just get him out of the house completely. And ya know what happens then, right? Forgotten by family, far from home, shuttled around under relentless flourescent lights and shoved in front of crappy American TV, confused and finally detached from anything that reminds them of who they are and BAM! There you go. An aging parent who’d rather be dead if only that were a goddam option. !!!

I’d like to keep him at home with someone stopping by to help. But can my mother, at 78, reverse a lifetime habit of controlling her household down to the last cat hair and learn to accept a caregiver into her home?? This is the larger question. Fuck dad’s outcome. Keep the household on mom lockdown at all costs. Sheesh.

So Elihu and I watch and wait from the sidelines. The good thing here is that finally I can express my love for my father without censorship; there is a lot of hand holding now, and deep eye contact that never, ever existed before. And there are some increasingly less tentative loving touches being given on backs, legs and feet…. there are kisses and the gentle smoothing of hair, there are more expressions of love being shared than ever before in our lives. Once upon a time we had all the words we could use, and all the time in the world to use them. Now we have little of either, but it seems that true communication is finally possible. I wonder at the obstacles of the past fifty years that had made this sort of expression so impossible, so embarrassing, so unthinkable. There are just so many cultural rules, and the generations of yesteryear often didn’t cultivate open expressions of love. At least I’m glad to have this chance now, it’s better than never.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the shifts that are taking place. Funny how you just go through life thinking things will always be thus. (I thought I’d be twenty-seven for a hundred more years.) It seems your kids will always need help pouring their milk. It seems you’ll always be able to jump down those last five stairs from the landing. It seems like you’ll always have dark hair. Hell, it seems as if you’ll always have hair! But no, it won’t always be thus, and change, in every single moment, is always upon us. Though the shifts in our own bodies may be far too subtle and slow-moving for us to witness ourselves, from time to time our mortality can’t be avoided. A sudden reflection of one’s face in a window, the choice to take a safer footing, the need for an extra layer around the shoulders… tiny signs arise. The falling leaves and dropping temperatures remind me that we are all constantly on the move through infinitely changing times.

October 2013 A 730Grandpa and Elihu

October 2013 A 732

My arthritic, middle-aged hand next to his. So many concerts given with his hand, so much talent there.

October 2013 A 737

Dad’s more relaxed now, you can see it on his face. That, plus he loves his only grandchild so very much and can’t stop admiring him.

Post Script: I am very frustrated with my aging computer. In spite of having recently had someone in to clean it up, it is behaving in strange and new ways. In the above post I see many words appearing in red and underlined with crazy embedded hyperlinks. I wish I could remove them, but haven’t a clue as to how they got there. Today I’m wishing I had a computer that wasn’t as old as my fifth grader. !!