The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Curve Ahead July 31, 2014

Where to start? The cast of characters is growing, from Log Cabin Joe to Hillbilly Al and a handful in between, and the sub-plots are multiplying. A house is being built to the great heartbreak of all who live nearby, another beloved house which we all had hoped might stand is going to be torn down, people will be moving in, and people will be moving away. A ghostly visage was spotted, serendipity threw in a few hard turns, neighbors popped by unannounced and set to framing out a new step in front of my house (because I’d asked to borrow some scrap lumber to do so for myself), and a potential blind date turned into a new and interesting friendship. Neighbor Chad, a former professional speed skater and dad to those cutie boys Ryan and Brandon, faces surgery to repair a torn ligament he got from falling out of a tree while deer hunting last year, my new met-on-an-almost-blind-date-but-not-quite friend must wear a heart monitor for another week and remain in the company of people at all times, lest he pass out while alone, with no one to call for help (hence his staying on as my house guest.) A couple more art classes to go at the Studio, some concrete being poured and set, a wall going up in the basement, the lawn to be cut and a coop door yet to be hung, the various comings-and-goings that all of this activity entails, including the requisite gear; earth movers, spinning concrete trucks, tractors, trimmers, boxes of tile, great, heavy balls of clay, five gallon buckets and rags to clean up… All of this is chugging along, plus a small group of family and friends is planning for an intervention with my brother at the beginning of next week. A few days later, Elihu comes home. Whew!

The past three days have seemed almost like a week with all the chaos and activity. My guest, Ken, erupted in laughter at it all (as I casually pulled a dead mouse out of a drawer, dumped it into the trash and continued to start the morning coffee without missing a beat), just imagining the highly entertaining cable series he absolutely insists my life should be. “I’m just wondering where we should put the camera” he’d said, smiling, shaking his head… I’ts not often that friends get a view from the inside here at the Hillhouse. Yeah, I’ve had guests before, but somehow life here has never been quite as animated and unpredictable as it has of late.

Night before last, as Ken and I sat on the couch enjoying a rather deep, existential discussion, I saw behind him, approaching from the kitchen and through the short hallway, a rather healthy-sized bat. Living in the country as I do, you might think this has happened before. And indeed it has happened in every other place I’ve lived – but not here. Until the other night, that is. I was watching with great concern that the poor beast not knock over some precious breakable as she continued to encircle the room, but soon realized that this creature was deftly missing – with room to spare – every obstacle in her path. I was impressed! My friend, himself a pilot, must surely have been sharing my amazement… maybe…. I glanced over at the couch. Ken was clearly not bearing respectful witness to the miracle of flight taking place right before our eyes… Humor me if you will; picture a black Mr. Clean; tall, built; a take-no-prisoners kind of physique that lends itself well to the military and police work (he’s retired from some twenty years of exactly that) – and now picture that same gentleman covering his face with my over-sized pink velvet throw pillow, ducking down and shrieking like a girl every time the bat made another pass around the room. One had to laugh. Thankfully, he had to laugh too. We both did. I admit, that lil creature was movin fast, and to us it felt like a random, unpredictable flight that might easily have ended up in someone’s face. I was finally able to catch her by trapping her in between two frog nets, but then she hooked her way out, and flew off to the mudroom. The door to the mudroom remained closed, while the backdoor to the outside stayed wide open. My second house guest eventually left and did not return. So far as we know.

And there was the apparition. And the change in my route. Why had I chosen to double-back and take Locust Grove instead of 9N as I’d intended? Having just given Ken a brief history of my folks and the Baroque festival, I figured I’d use my mistake as an opportunity to point out soprano Ruth Lakeway’s empty house. When we crested the hill and I indicated the house, Ken told me he saw a woman in the porch. I gave him a look. “White hair, lavender colored, long sleeved top” he said. “Wait, you’re not shitting me?” I asked, in almost a panic. He insisted that as an officer of the law – not to mention an artist who painted and drew landscapes, people and animals, he was trained in observation. He knew what he’d seen. That was enough for me; I turned around and made my way back to the house.

There were in fact people at the house. They emerged from the garage – on the other side of the house – when we pulled in. Still, none fit the description. It didn’t matter at this point, and it was soon forgotten as I re-acquainted myself with the new owners, who were in the middle of a project. They were removing items from the house, preparing it. I kinda knew what was coming next. It was known that the house had done nothing but take on water since Ruthie’s death eight years ago, and that the mildew and moisture had finally won. Although the woman who now owned it had known and loved Ruth as I had, and had herself dreamed of one day living in the sweet house, it would never come to be. The house now had to be torn down. I looked at Karen to see if this was the truth, and her eyes teared up. She insisted they’d had every manner of professional opinion on the matter. It was coming down. I made no attempt to be stoic… I began to cry. It was clear that she was just as heartbroken as I was. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my grief.

In her day Ruthie had created a wide sphere of influence through her loving presence in the community and her unique, gentle demeanor. With no husband or children of her own, she had given her time and energy to her church, her voice students and so many more. This house was for me a sacred place, as it was to many others as well. I marveled over our being there, in that moment. Over the circumstances. Had I not made the ‘mistake’ of driving down her road, had Ken not spotted that visage in the porch – I wouldn’t have known this was happening. I wouldn’t have been able to take the lamp from her back porch so that I might use it in mine, I wouldn’t have been able to remove Ruth’s windchimes and then hang them on my own porch in remembrance of her. Did Ken see Ruth? Yes, I believe so. I believe she was helping as best she could to gather me into this event of closure. As we all stood on the front lawn, talking and comparing stories, Ken told them what he’d seen earlier. The consensus seemed to be that this was all meant to be, we had all found our ways there in order for this to happen. There were tears, hugs, prayers and goodbyes. And for me, there was gratitude.

From the insane to the mundane, the silly to the serious, it’s been a crazy mix of life here lately, and yet the next week may hold still more… Mom has finally come around to understanding that Andrew will never, ever get better on his own (yes, we’ve been here before, but I feel this time it’s different) and she can begin to see that he has only good things to gain by taking part in a detox and rehab program, and he has only potential danger and harm if he doesn’t. Plus this heaven-sent former cop of a friend has brought to our attention how devastating it could be should a civil case ever be made against Andrew in the event of an alcohol-related death. This is some serious shit, and although I’ve been making my case for several years now, it’s taken this financial threat to bring it home. That, and a little magical aligning of the stars. We’ve got a great family drama scene on deck, and I’m eager to finally see it through to its conclusion. Which will in of itself be but a beginning to a whole new chapter…

I checked in with Waldorf today, and it seems I’m just about off the hook. They’ve covered nearly every class except for a day or two of the high school. There’s a slight chance they might need me to cover for a bit, but it doesn’t appear that it’ll pose a conflict with my new work at the Studio. This is beyond my wildest dreams, and the feeling of freedom and possibility has me a little giddy. It’s almost like I have too much oxegyn, too much space, too many options, too much opportunity. My unexpected house guest and the little surprise detours of late have stalled my progress for the time being, but it doesn’t worry me. We’re approaching a Great Change. Middle School for Elihu, and with it all the changes of pre-teen life. A new situation for my mom and brother, a new career for me, a new house in the neighborhood, two new families moving in, one moving out. A parking lot going in the woods for the Studio along with a network of roads into the forest, a new heating system and myriad other upgrades. Networking, meeting people and growing programs, seeing plans become real…. I’m at the cusp of a whole new chapter in my life. I’ve been riding it out on a long, slow straightaway for the past few years, and finally now I see a big curve up ahead.

Breathe in, hands at ten and two… I’ll give it just a little more gas, and we’ll be taking that turn before we know it.

 

 

Stuffed July 6, 2014

We are a culture of stuff. Crap just seems to find most of us, regardless of whether we are filthy rich or dirt poor. Our contemporary American culture grooms us to become professional consumers and collectors from the earliest age. Even our organic, untouched human nature, regardless of cultural affiliation – always in search of wholeness, satisfaction and existential peace – places great importance on objects to help us fill those voids and still that pesky uncertainty. We all know that a flag is really just a piece of fabric, but plenty of us are still a little squeamish about seeing it hit the ground. Trinkets and mementos tug hard at our heart-strings by offering us tangible evidence of long-gone memories.  Finery represents to the world our good taste and our economic success. And then of course, there’s that ‘new-from-the-box’ rush against which few of us are immune. Stuff is comforting, it’s exciting. It’s what we crave. To many of us, our stuff really, really matters.

To some of us, our very identities are completely identified by and wrapped up in the stuff that we own. Most of us live with a low-level of this affliction, but as the current run of tv programs on hoarding will bear out there’s also a growing population of people who act like absolute magnets for matter; people who feel somehow safer, more emotionally protected and at peace when completely surrounded by stuff. All contingencies of life are potentially prepared for, all heartbreak warded off, memories continue to live, and past hopes and dreams, whether realized or not, linger comfortingly in the physical realm. Most of our stuff is merely a collection of inert, valueless objects, but to the super-invested owner, the very experiences or memories those objects represent – whether either in the past or possibly yet to come in the future – are one in the same with the object.  Owning an object also seems to mean owning control over the thing that it represents. And control gives one a feeling of comfort. Of predictability, stability and ultimately, of safety. To have control is to have the illusion of peace. And the illusion of peace can sure feel better than no peace at all.

Stuff helps cover your shit up. It weighs you down and buffers you from any possible hurtful, frightening or unpleasant experiences. Stuff insulates you from pain of living – but only temporarily. It can help mask the fear, yeah, maybe, but in the end, stuff kills. In the end, it’s the stuff that has the control over you, not the other way around. If you’re a person that doesn’t feel the nagging tug of stuff, count yourself lucky. I know you’re out there; I’ve met a few folks for whom it’s never been an issue. “But what about all of your schoolwork, your artwork, your… you know, all your stuff?” I would press them, but the response from these folks would often come easily, matter-of-factly. They didn’t remember really, they guessed that they just didn’t ever think about it much. Their stuff just kind of disappeared over the course of their lives. Who knew? That kind of answer always blew my mind, because I myself have been in a constant battle with stuff since I was a young girl. A hand mirror given to my by Louis and Patty, a stuffed suede dog from Switzerland that Hannelore brought me, an empty spool of thread my grandmother left behind or an ever-growing box of my drawings and writings. I kept tight watch over my stuff and it broke my heart to think of it lost or gone forever. I try to imagine what it’s like not to live as I do, and I just can’t.

My basement is currently under siege; stuff from toys to clothes to aquariums to old paper mache costumes take up valuable space in a humid and dank, ever-shrinking space. Gifts of hand-me-downs sit in bins, waiting for their seasons, or perhaps even to be given away, broken candles await the winter project of making shiny new ones from the remnants, lps line up on sagging bookshelves, volumes of photo books too take up more shelves. Stuff just blooms from the corners and the mass seems to have grown bigger than the last time I took a casual inventory. For someone whose main goal in life is to live simply, I am years away – or at least many hours away – from that goal. And whenever I make some headway, it seems something throws me back again; a kindly drop off of clothes or toys by a friend or classmate, a couple of ‘bird things’ from grandma here and there, oversized drawings of Elihu’s, or hundreds of his unique paper airplane designs that now require storage in an enormous plastic bucket. When assessed one object at a time, most of them seem reasonable enough on their own. But there comes that certain threshold in the accumulation at which it all of it seems equally deserving of a rented roll off container.

A short time after college, and long before it was hip, I worked as a personal organizer. It was a short-lived endeavor, as I felt that most clients needed both a psychologist and organizer in one, and after a certain point, I didn’t have the skills to wrest unhealthy people from their hoards. ‘Assess a Mess’ ended before it might have realized a good measure of success; the job took a huge amount of energy and stamina to do right, and my own personal energies were going in a different direction. So it makes me wonder; if I didn’t have the stamina to deal with people’s messes back then (when I was young and had more oomph) how on earth will I deal with this mess, now? Plus there’s also another phenomenon to purging and cleaning out – it’s easier to do it for other people than it is for yourself. It’s simply not as easy to make the hard decisions when you’re so emotionally invested in things. But I also know this about cleaning house: when the time is right, you find it in yourself to get the job done. I’ve also known major cleanouts to happen around big life changes. Obviously there are the stories of death and divorce, cross-country moves or major career changes, but there are physical and emotional chapters too which play a part. When I was twelve, shortly after I’d first gotten my period, I did a heroic job of cleaning and organizing my hugely sloppy and congested bedroom. Martha, family friend and matriarchal figure, asked if I’d ‘just begun menstruating’. She seemed to have skills of divination; how on earth did she know? She laughed and told me that often ‘when girls become women’ they do something of that sort. I guess it’s kind of like the nesting that soon-to-be mothers are famous for.

There’s definitely change afoot in my life; I’m pretty sure it’s part of what’s been contributing to my panic attacks and bouts of deep depression lately. And if change is what I need to get this massive clean-out underway, I have a hunch that I’ll find it in me to get this thing nailed. Gotta unload a little of life’s ballast to set sail for new seas…

kitchen hoardThis is my brother’s kitchen, it’s a mixture of garbage and non-garbage items. Hard to tackle even if you’re feeling strong and of good spirit; how on earth can someone so compromised by depression even begin?

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And here’s my mess, after coming home from a friend’s house and receiving the contents of her pantry and other assorted things after her recent out-of-state move. It was daunting, so much so that I hired a neighbor girl to help me get it packed away.

IMG_7558I’ve spent hours upon hours excavating my cellar and garage. It’s not quite organized yet, but at least it’s out in the open where I can see it all… I’ve posted ads in Freecycle and Craiglist hoping to give it all away. Maybe the key words ‘free stuff’ will move it out faster.

IMG_7721Sure enough, folks were coming by long before the thing was even supposed to start. Drat, I forgot to post ‘no early birds’. That’s ok. Everyone’s lighthearted. One woman even went to get me coffee when I mumbled something about not being ready so early (and also kindly invited me to visit her church one day)… I met a bunch of very sweet people that afternoon.

IMG_7710It’s sad for me to see things go… this little blue trike my kid dubbed “Mongey” when he was four. Never a cuter sight than that tiny boy pedaling along furiously, his baby curls blowing in the breeze…

IMG_7716The wizard, acquired at a truck stop and now missing an arm (which always inspired us to cry ‘it’s just a flesh wound’) has found a new, enthusiastic owner. (Btw – if you, new owner, should read this post, I have the power supply – find me and I’ll get it to you.)

IMG_7718There goes a model of the Tally Ho. I once jumped off the cap rail of that boat and kept this for years as a memento of that day.

IMG_7729Told this gal she’d have to wipe it clean; it was too hard for me to do.

IMG_7731My grandma Lydia’s raccoon coat is simply too musty for me… hope this woman will give it another go.

IMG_7775This cherub poster hung over my marital bed for years – in the early, posters-as-art days… My ex felt it should be on our walls here to help give Elihu a sense of continuity. ! I’d felt there were other, more important symbols of ‘continuity’ than this, and it’s been languishing in the basement ever since.

IMG_7767I’m even willing to part with my Noel candle, purchased at the Jewel in Wilmette (the one on Greenbay that had the escalators) as I, at the age of six, repeatedly begged to have it. (It lasted, untouched til the last of the giveaway, so I ended up sneaking it back into the garage. Shh..)

IMG_7769I was giving it all away…. I wanted stuff to move, after all. Ended up making $25 in tips. Good karma sales.

IMG_7821Unearthed from the vaults. Those on the top are from the bicentennial! And the Eli business was a nod to both Yale (founded by Elihu Yale, and my father’s alma mater) and a mentor figure of dad’s at Yale, who’s name was actually Elias. When my son’s name finally came into my head (he was nameless for a good week) I first saw in my mind’s eye this license plate. Crazy, huh.

IMG_7755I remember many nights going to bed with this fan in the window. It used to scare the pants off of me. As kids, Andrew and I would fake dare each other to stick our fingers into the unprotected metal blades. They don’t make em like they used to – and it’s a good thing, too!

IMG_7754Look – made by Montgomery Ward. A drop of oil and you’re ready to go.

IMG_7749It’s this young girl – also named Elizabeth – who’ll be enjoying the fan next.

IMG_7766More sentiment. This is the main activity that kept my son busy on our drive here when we left Illinois.

IMG_7806This is what’s left of an impressive Quetzacoatl/Archaeoptyrix (yikes, I don’t remember which!) costume I made year before last (complete with 12 foot wingspan on a working pulley system), and in the upper right, a goofy but earnest portrait of a young Navy man that I would love to pack up and send to Evanston’s Lucky Platter. Evanston peeps, ya think?

IMG_7804What’s a girl to do with an enormous monarch caterpillar costume?

IMG_7799I’m running out of steam…

IMG_7738Keep it going… I see some shabby chic makeovers in the future..

IMG_7740Make yourselves a big ol load of stuff…

IMG_7820The next morning, I’m left with just a few things..

IMG_7818A bunch of trash…

IMG_7819Some wonderful clothing which will go to a local community center…

IMG_7810And soon we’ll have our own Burning Man here – only it’ll be Burning Gingerbread Man…

IMG_7816Bald Mountain approves of the tidy garage.

IMG_7823Ya know what happened at the end? A really nice man named Dan showed up, and while my offerings disappointed, he did end up with an Oliver Sachs book, a couple of nice planter pots, plus he was a saint and helped me schlep all of the remaining items to the roadside for passersby to pick up and whisk away.

IMG_7826Good Free Stuff. Well, kinda. At least it’s free. And so now am I.

Aaaahh.

 

Clean Slate February 22, 2014

For me this has been a day of very mixed feelings. From elation at the prospects of the future to intense pangs of sorrow at having lost something precious, now irretrievably gone from my life…

Today some friends and I cleared the Studio out of its contents. There was so much more stuff than I’d realized there’d be. And I do understand pretty well how stuff adds up – I’m rather a stickler for organization and pairing down to the most important stuff – but the piles and the boxes just continued to appear. It’s amazing how we humans manage to stash away objects. And when you finally do get around to excavating every last corner of the place and have set all the piles out before you, what then?  How do you let go of things when they’re so loaded with nostalgia, longing, subtle shades of regret? Where do you draw the line?

I regarded the boxes and when pressed as to whether or not they should go out onto the big trash pile I found myself sounding a lot like those poor souls on the show Buried Alive… “Mmm, uh, I might use those again, uh, maybe just put them here for now. Hm, um, wait, wait… I’m not sure, I don’t know…” Wait, me? I can’t let go? I myself used to help others let go of their stuff and organize their possessions long before it was trendy, long before places like The Container Store were even dreamt of. Under the informal moniker of “Assess a Mess” I’d go to people’s homes and help them throw away all of their crap or send it back out into the world. A combination of psychologist, personal assistant and trashman, I’d help them make all the hard choices. I employed what I called my “rule of two”: if you hadn’t used it in the past two years and didn’t plan on using it in the next two months, then out it went. I wasn’t cold-hearted about sending stuff away; I always tried to find objects a second life – and this was before the era of Freecycle, Craigslist or Ebay, yet somehow I’d make it through mountains of stuff, leaving a perfectly clean and organized joint behind. But now that it’s come to me – now that we’re talking about my recently deceased father here and all the tangible results of his life’s work – it just isn’t the same deal at all. And my mother’s hand is here too; it was she who kept the place running, made the videos of all the concerts, fed and watered the audiences at intermission, the musicians before and after concerts and rehearsals – her things are here too, and it’s troublesome to vote her things out when I know all the love and attention they represent…

Thankfully I had my partner Ceres and her kids here to help. It was far more work than it appeared to be at first, and I – physically or emotionally – couldn’t have done it alone. After getting a bit further into the job I discovered that the more I excavated, the more that I liberated the walls and corners of long-forgotten stuff, the more hopeful I became. I began to envision little future scenes of what one day happen here in this room. I’d been listening to the boombox I’d bought dad for Christmas last year (so he could listen to his favorite Bob and Ray CDs) to keep me going, and I heard violinist Andrew Bird on the local college station and wondered… might I host him here one day? I realize he’s become kinda big now, but I knew him in Chicago back in the day. Never know. And what of my other friends from my old life? I started imaging concerts, combinations of folks whose music I love… I didn’t want to spoil my fantasy with all the ‘yes, but‘ conditions, so I held back the sober voice of reality and limitation and allowed myself to continue to dream while I cleaned… Later on I heard jazz vocalist Janice Borla – also another fellow Chicagoan – and man, I though her recent recording sounded great. A totally different kind of music and crowd, but maybe, I thought, might I have something like that here too?

All manner of possibilities started to come to me, and I let myself fantasize for a bit as I worked. I loved music of all kinds – I just couldn’t see limiting the room to one thing or another. House concerts? Maybe that’s the route to go… Baroque Ensembles that are starting out and need a smaller venue? Hm. The jazz kids from Skidmore hosting small ensembles and including some of the high schoolers in town?? Stuff just kept coming. But then I’d feel a sudden wave of panic, when I’d look up from my task for a moment and see in my mind’s eye the room as it had been for decades… In an instant it was a late summer afternoon and the house was full of people, there was the scent of freshly cut hay in the air, and of course the music. The harpshichord, the gambas, violins, flutes, voices… The familiar sound of the chairs being scooched back on the wood floor as people got up to stretch and mill about… The dreamlike vision came upon me and with it all those subtle feelings I associate with my entire childhood. In my head I could still see so clearly the golden sunlight streaming through the western doors; I remember the flowers, freshly cut from the local roadsides, that my mother would arrange for a vase on the stage; I remember the murmur of the audiences’ voices as they chatted during intermission….

Baroque music and the scent of newly cut hay, the warm sunlight, low in the sky… The memories all swirl around my head, tugging at me to remain there with them, never to leave them lest they die forever… My heart wants things to continue to hear and see these very same things for years without end.  But of course, this is impossible now. Their leader is gone, that era has closed. I know I sure don’t feel like much of a leader myself, and I haven’t a clue what I’m in for. But I guess there’s no question about it. It’s my party for now, ready or not. Into the future we go, much to learn, much to do, and lots of great music and memories yet ahead. Thanks, mom and dad, for the great start. The Studio won’t be the same, but it will continue to have a lot of heart and soul.

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The Studio as it appears from the South from just outside mom and dad’s house.

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This is the side of the Studio people see first, the main door and box office are here. Note the stuff already piling up out front.

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I really wanted to convey the size of this hump in the middle of the room. Seriously, right now we could rent the place out as a skate park! Look at this stool – all four legs are on the floor!

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A selfie with the ever-present tapestry on the back of the stage wall.  Dad and I once had a picture taken of us on this very same spot. I’m feeling a bit sad about things right now.

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See the tilt of the floor now? Crazy!

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I was hoping this might illustrate the drama of the mid-room bump. Kinda…

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Ceres’ son, Christoper, is being creative in trying to illustrate the big bump. In real life it looks much more impressive.

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This is the green room. None of us (mom and me, that is) ever liked dad’s ridiculous choice of green. Ich. Thank goodness I can finally get rid of it. This room served as a backstage area, holding pen for several harpsichords and apartment for musicians and their families while they played here at the Festival. Now my Rhodes lives here – but after sitting in three inches of water for over a week, it’s in need of some serious cleaning and looking-over. So back to my basement it’ll go. That’s grandma’s rocking chair on the left – in good shape. Anyone want it? It’s yours!

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More stuff.

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The box office jam-packed.

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Hmm. You can always tell a lot about a person by looking at their trash….

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The spiral staircase to the balcony. As kids we had loads of fun on this. Note the high-tech, ten pound cam-corder mounted to the balcony railing – mom recorded every last concert on it. (We’ve since had them converted to DVD.)

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The Studio’s sign came off the frame shortly before dad died, and it’s been sitting in a bank of snow. Lest it become warped and useless as the wood floor of the place, Ceres and son Brian moved it up from the road and into shelter. (The Conant’s summer cottage is in the background – it’s where my brother lives now.)

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Ahh, such a great space.

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Always loved this beam detail.

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Even with the damaged floor, she still looks beautiful.

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Had to take this pic from a distance so it’s fuzzy – but it’s from mom and dad’s very first festival in 1959. !

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Here the Zabel family is going home after an afternoon of hard work. Thanks guys! We’re on our way now!!