The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Vanity Pandemic April 22, 2020

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got it that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

 

Another Goodbye October 6, 2013

Frank D’Rone wasn’t someone I knew well, but he was something of an icon in the world of Chicago’s jazz musicians, and by virtue of that he felt familiar to me. I do have nice memory of having sung a couple of duets with him at The House Cafe a few years back. While I did ask someone to take some pictures of us on stage, the results were poor and virtually unusable. Doesn’t matter anyhow, as I have no idea where those old, blurred photos even exist now. Tonight, upon hearing of his death, I begin to think back on that night, and kinda wish I had those pics – even more so a recording – as it feels more like a dream than a real memory… Frank and his gorgeous wife Joan had come over to our house for supper that evening before the show (I remember that Joan was diabetic, and that I had no diet drinks to offer her. Frank suggested that I might want to keep some on hand for future guests. Never once since that dinner have I ever had a pantry lacking in at least one sugar-free beverage ‘just in case’. A tiny lesson from that day I will never forget!), and I remember just loving the music that night. It was a pure thrill to have a guy like that – in this day and age especially – in our own club. At first I was a tad apprehensive about singing with him – I don’t sing harmony parts often, and had never done a duet before, but Frank made it easy. He made it swing, and he just made it feel good. Glad to have that memory tonight. Thanks for the swinging music, Frank, and I’m grateful I got to sing it with you once. We’ll see you on the other side…

Frank 3

Frank in the early years…

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And Frank in the later ones…

Frank D’Rone      April 26th, 1932 – October 3rd, 2013

 

Away… and Home July 7, 2013

This is one very, very big world. And there are so very, very many ways in which to live. Naturally, there is nothing like a trip away to highlight the differences (or similarities, as it may be) between the way you like to live your life, and the way others do. And there’s nothing like going away and then returning to your own house to help you to see it as others may. That certain way your house smells, for example. Living in it, you don’t notice it. But when you first open the door to your house and step inside, that first – and only that first – inhalation tells you things about your place you can never know in day-to-day life. When I lived in my giant, mid-century home, visitors would always tell me the place smelled ‘old’. And I could only know this for myself in that first, fleeting moment back. It smelled of wood, dust and dry, aging formica. Yeah, it did smell kind of old. Kind of like grandma’s. But within minutes it would be back to life as usual again, and once again I’d need an objective outside party to tell me how the joint smelled, because the scent became unnoticeable almost immediately. As it was here too. When I opened the door last night, the first thing that I smelled was the damp. (Here in upstate New York I always sense the relentless humidity first.) As I ventured into the living room, I noticed a particular scent that brought me back… it was the smell of the places where my father had taught, it was the smell of our older friend’s homes….I knew it, but what was it? I pondered as I stood there, noticing it for the first time, when it came to me as plain as day. Wet piano. And wet harpsichord. Yes, that’s it. The smell of slightly moist wood – but not just any wood. Not furniture, not floorboards, but instrument wood. Yeah, and the other stuff too… the felt of the hammers and plectra dampers, the varnish, the oxidation on the strings… Ok, maybe I’m being a teeny bit dramatic, but the funk of instruments left to themselves was unmistakable. Was it always like this? Did I just not notice? Interesting what appears in the wake of a short absence. (Mental note to myself: running a dehumidifier would not be an extravagance.)

Whether you fly, drive or take the train, you’re gonna pass a lot of homes. For me, most of my window-gazing thought on the train is spent considering all those tiny scenes as we slip by through people’s backyards, pass within feet of their back porches or speed over their neighborhood parks… From the country to the innermost city, we pass it all. A cross-section of the American population, unawares, just doing their thing as they do every day, and me, their most appreciative and grateful (and perhaps a bit apologetic) audience. It is simply too much to comprehend. I wish I could know what it was like to enter each of those homes, from rotting farm house to luxurious high rise condo – and furthermore, to live as the residents do. What is it that motivates them each day? What’s important to them? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? What’s on their minds? Some are content to live as hoarders, others cannot see life without granite counter tops. And so much in between. It blows my mind, so I try not to wonder at it too much. I just take it all in, reminding myself that just my tiny witness is enough. I’m lucky to be seeing so much of my world. I’ve also been lucky to have visited much poorer and more remote places on the other side of the planet in my lifetime, so wondering at the variety of this world is not a new thing to me. But nonetheless, it is always, always fascinating to me.

Elihu and I visited the beach this past week, and while we didn’t swim in the beautiful water of my beloved Lake Michigan (it hadn’t warmed up enough yet by my perhaps too-uptight standards) we did pass a lovely couple of hours just taking it in. The horizon, the clouds, the sky and water. And, of course, the seagulls. ! We brought several bags of bread and had fun feeding them. But even my own super-deft bird catcher of a son realized he wasn’t grabbing a gull and gave up his pursuit in favor of playing in the sand. I joined him. What a perfect moment in time we had. It’s a joy to have such a thoughtful son as mine; soon we were making metaphors between our play and life itself… It seems to me that any thinking human might have a hard time resisting the sort of contemplation that millions upon millions of grains of sand evoke. It can’t be just us. We note that even though there seems an infinitesimal amount of them – crazy as it seems, there is a finite number of sand grains on the planet. ! The many grains of sand remind us of all the people we’ve seen here. In the city, it seems not a single square foot is uninhabited. Everyone is out and about, each on their own chase, each with their head swimming with their own world of thoughts. There are millions of stories, sub-plots and interactions going on each single moment. As I’ve said before, this is a big world. And the beach seems to highlight it for us both. Yet at the beach, immensity and peace exist together, almost as the very same thing. We notice the juxtaposition, and we both marvel at it, continuing all the while our fruitless scooping out of the ever-wetting sand…

Contrasts slap you in the face when you partake of modern travel. One morning you can be feeding your chickens, and that night you can be on a city street in a valley of office buildings. This is not new to any of us in the Western world. This morning, as I awoke, I hardly felt I’d been away. While the images in my mind were somehow refreshed, they were still, just memories. (You got it – it all kinda felt like a dream.) I heard the clucking sounds of my flock from inside the coop and realized the timer hadn’t opened the door for them this morning. Automatically, I rose from my bed, donned my muck boots, and in my nightgown went to let the girls out. In the middle of my path, I thought back on a moment not more than a few days earlier and paused to let it sink in. Just a couple nights ago I’d been on stage at the Green Mill in front of a packed house doing my thing. Fan in hand, arms outstretched, belting out an old-timey jazz tune. Doing one of those things I feel I was just meant to do. Man, it was natural. And man, did it feel good. Came back like I’d never been away. But so did tending the chickens. Funny the latitude of experience in any one person’s life. So many folks have different careers, different homes, spouses… It’s nothing new to experience such vastly different things, but the rapid succession from jazz singer to chicken farmer still amuses me. I imagine myself on stage in my nightgown and boots, basket of eggs on my arm and it makes me smile to myself.

So here I am. Back. With a month or more of child-free living before me. Many might ask me what I plan to do with ‘all this time’, as if I might sunbathe or catch up on old episodes of a favorite show, but since I get all the sun I need working in the garden, and since I don’t watch much tv, those things don’t enter into it. Some of the things that are on my list are to get my piano teaching method book formatted and done, to learn some new computer skills so as to enhance my blog just a wee bit, to begin to prepare parts of my blog for a release as an eBook, as well as a myriad of ’round the farm type stuff. Enlarge the chicken run (involves digging fence post holes, yeeks), clean up the perennial garden outside the door, power wash the house on the side students and guests see first when they pull up, mow the lawn, paint the outside stairs. Lots and lots to do. Never mind the mess in the basement left in the wake of a busy school year – projects, supplies and out-of-season paraphernalia that haven’t yet been put away. If it weren’t for the photos on my data cards I might not fully believe that I’d ever even been away. But there is some tiny evidence of my trip; a deeper appreciation for space, clean air and nature all around. I am one lucky gal, I am. Lucky to have been given the gift of being able to go away for a while, and luckier still to know the even greater gift of coming home.

 

Packin It In June 25, 2013

There might be a little pause between posts this week, as I’m getting ready to make a trip to my old hometown. These days, traveling kinda makes me nervous. I wonder what I’ll forget (I always forget something – and in fact harbor a suspicion that a trip isn’t off to a proper start unless I’ve forgotten something), I fret about over packing, under packing… I fret about not only my stuff, but my son’s. I cannot begin to imagine traveling with more than one kid – nor can I begin to remember the reality of packing for a super-young one, with toys and books and cheerios and tiny distractions in the bottom of the bag in case of delays… This time I have a gig awaiting me in Chicago, and it’s the cornerstone for this trip. Without a ‘good reason’ I can’t justify all the expense and hassle. And because I have a gig, I need to bring my book. My music book, that is. Even though I’m pretty good at remembering the hundreds of songs I’ve sung throughout my life, my current life has been more about chickens than ‘Cheek to Cheek’, and I want to make sure that I at least have a few sheets ‘just in case’. Silly, actually, cuz the fellow I’m playing with knows more than enough tunes to call all afternoon, and if I stop and remember my old life for a minute, I probably do too. Got up early (as in 5:30) in order to go through my old book and sort things out. It’s been a three hour job thus far. Been full of stops and starts and lovely re-discoveries. Memories, too. Coffee stains and scribbles for last-minute arrangements, phone numbers and titles of songs to learn one day… It makes me wistful, and even though I enjoy my new life quite well, I wonder if I don’t miss my old life more than I’d thought.

But what a wonderful opportunity I have before me… a place to stay, a car to borrow, fifteen fewer pounds on my frame and a couple of nice dresses. Did some calling and reconnecting and I might end up sitting in at a few places. Makes me a mixture of nerves and anticipation. I miss singing so very much that it’s hard to approach this trip with much nonchalance. After all, as the old song goes, I ‘don’t get around much anymore.’ Hmm, do I remember all the lyrics to that? And is there a verse? Oh dear. Can’t do it all. Gotta remind myself. Can’t sing all the beautiful gems I’d like. Can’t eat at all the old favorite restaurants I’d like, and I certainly won’t be able to visit all the old friends I miss. No matter, this is going to be one hell of a great trip.

Before I pack my bags I need to get a few more things done in the garden, need to check on the timer in the coop, attend to fixing some holes in the fence, and I need to give away the last remaining extra eggs to neighbors. Soon enough it’ll be time to pack my bags for the city and pack it in on the farm for now.