The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Relic July 3, 2015

It’s not my home anymore, and today this sight is truly a relic of my long-gone past, but still the shores of Lake Michigan restore my soul as nothing else can.
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In the wake of Martha’s death, things have changed around here. For one, in the short time between the lovely farewell party we held for her at the farm and the day in which her relatives returned to organize her house, several of her belongings had been stolen. It had to have been an inside job, which leaves the few of us who know the place well to be suspects. I don’t truly think Martha’s niece thinks that we did it, but I can’t know this for sure, and that cloud of distrust has given this transitional chapter a very unsettled feeling. But it sure helps to wind things up there, and at the same time helps propel me back into my own life, something that’s been on hold for a while now.

It’s more than strange to see the farm no longer inhabited. Not a soul remains. Only stuff. Things upon things, more piles and objects than one can comprehend. It is a house that has been receiving its contents for half a century. And now, with their final caretaker gone, they sit, silent and enigmatic, most of their stories lost to those who are left to dispatch with it all. For me, I don’t find myself wondering so much at the items – if the stories are lost, at least their purposes speak for themselves – but more to the point are the unanswered questions – why was Martha saving all of this stuff? For what use was it all intended? Hoarding can just as easily be achieved with elegant, historical relics as it can with modern junk. In the end, things that aren’t of use are essentially just that. Junk. Stuff that sits inert, waiting for someone to give it a new life. So while this house may seem at first glance to be full of precious antiques, I see it a little differently. I see it as a repository for things that at present aren’t realizing their potential. (And in some ways, I also see the place as a mirror for my own life in this moment.)

When mom, Elihu and I visited Chicago a few weeks ago (for the memorial of another dear, old friend), we were given the rare opportunity to see the places where my parents raised my brother and me – and personally it was a way in which I could finally say a deep and meaningful goodbye to those chapters in my life. Our old home had been lovingly restored, the new owners more than happy to share with us every nook and corner of the place. We had the good fortune to eat familiar, much-missed food at places that were once regular destinations in our lives. We re-acquainted ourselves with the new city skyline, saw neighborhoods where some old places were razed and new ones erected, and we took it all in with enthusiasm and great interest. The lake, the unending stretch of beach that goes on for mile after mile, that boundless expanse of horizon which I still miss so very much… We saw it all, and we experienced it all together. And at the age of eighty, I’m not sure my mother will return in her lifetime. I know I will never return in the same way. (As for Elihu, he doesn’t remember his Chicago life, brief as it was, so for him it’s just an interesting anecdotal chapter that came before his time.) This trip was the perfect conclusion and farewell to our former lives. And this time it made coming home to Greenfield truly feel like coming home.

Shortly after we came home from our brief visit to Chicago, Martha died. And a week later, we had her memorial celebration. After that, the items went missing from her place. And now, the farm is no longer our space to enter freely. Ultimately that’s ok – there’s plenty I need to get to; the Studio, my teaching, my own home and property, my chickens, my health, my daily routines (which have been anything but routine over the past month or more) and, of course, my son. I’m resurrecting my quest to find piano solo jobs in this bustling tourist town, and last night made more than a dozen stops in my first attempt to sus out how things work these days. I learned plenty in just six hours of conversation and visits. I’m not up to speed in many ways. I’m out of practice, unfamiliar with my songs, my keys, even the silly lyrics. And technology? Forget about it. My lack of a smart phone and tablet all but cuts me off from the world around me. My songlist itself needs some serious updates (I’d thought I could hang my hat on the novel concept of being nostalgic and ironic, playing mostly a diet of guilty pleasure radio hits for the over 50 set, but the wisdom on the street is that I need a serious infusion of more current material, regardless of my cute little shtick.) I recall a time in my life when I had several hundred songs up and ready to go without a second thought; now I second guess it all. Did I really ever do this before? Was I really a musician in a former life? I certainly never jobbed with a vengeance, but I got work. More importantly – I almost always had work; and if I didn’t, it ended up finding me. Here, in Saratoga, a world in which I’ve never worked professionally, I don’t have the infrastructure of dozens of musician friends nor the good reputation I once took for granted to proceed me. And I certainly don’t have that ‘famous’ guitar-playing husband to help give me an added boost of credibility. All I have is me. (And a new rig, thank God. Wait, make that ‘thank mom’. !) Here, in this ‘new’ town, in this new life, it feels like I’m a relic.

Things can change, this I know. And thanks to a handful of magically timed recent meetups with some very wonderful women I know and a little outside perspective, I’ve been able to reinvigorate the vision. If it weren’t for my hairdresser – whom I merely visited yesterday for a quick hello – I wouldn’t even have set out to meet all the people I did. She urged me to go and close those deals which I’d proposed just a few months ago. And sitting in her chair, whom should I meet but an old friend of Martha’s. It seemed another push from the universe to let go of the past and move into my future.

My day started at six a.m. and didn’t end until lil man was back home and we two settled into bed around 2:30 (his flight from Chicago – where he’d been visiting with his father – got in after 1. A super late night.) My day started by learning, praise Allah, that I didn’t have colon cancer. Pre-cancerous polyps, but that was all (my grandparents died of colon cancer, and my cousin, two years my junior, is on her third round of chemo in her fight against the disease). My day filled quickly after the doctor’s appointment, and I only returned after dark to close the chickens in before I headed out to the airport to pickup Elihu. It was a day full of unplanned-for events, the enjoyable company of friends, and the gleaning of much important professional information. I felt a bit like an outsider though. Yes I’d left Chicago more than six years ago by now, but I’d been cloistered away ever since in the role of rural, impoverished, single mom. Yesterday it felt like I was starting all over again. But at least I was beginning on my own, not in the wake of a famous husband, not on the reputation of a varied career as keyboardist, not as a frontman for a well-loved band, not as any of those things. Just as me.

I still have a hard time letting go of my past life because sometimes I worry that nothing can match its glamour; that instead of a fruitful future, I can expect a long, bleak road ahead. That kind of thinking has been easy to succumb to in the past, but I need to get rid of it now. It’s ok to hold on to a keepsake – there’s nothing wrong with being in possession of a relic or two – but there’s still a lot of junk in my house that no longer serves me which I need to clear out, so that a new life can have the space and freedom to move on in.


IMG_0085The most beautiful, perfect sendoff for our dearest Martha. Michael made a fine toast (we all raised a glass of Martha’s regular evening drink – gasp – Apricot Brandy) after which we all sang Martha’s favorite song, “Simple Gifts”. That big, beautiful farmhouse came alive again, and I’m sure wherever Martha was, she was pleased.





A real-life tableau, undisturbed for decades.

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Ever a practical woman, Martha wrote her own obituary, as well as her final wishes and disbursements here in this plain, spiral notebook. She called her matters ‘mundane’; simple though they might have been, mundane they were not.

IMG_0152A last image of what has been our ‘normal’ for the past five decades. Mom and Andrew sit in the kitchen at the farm as they have since he and I were tiny.

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IMG_0048Is my own collection of stuff any less of a mystery? How in hell did this crap all find me? Another garage sale of epic proportions in on the calendar for this summer. My house will not end up like Martha’s. (Besides, there’s no space; it’s a mere four rooms to her ten.)

IMG_0052I am of the opinion that if you do not see it, you will not use it. I’ve labeled all this stuff and use it all pretty regularly. I’m doing my best to keep my crap confined to this storage room and nowhere else.

IMG_0058I’d thought my new rig was so modern and ready-to-rock, but alas, the bulky 3 ring binders of charts (and my reliance on them too) instead of a handy tablet is a handicap in this day and age. No matter, for now it’ll have to do. Until I can store it all in my brain, that is.

IMG_0103I try to keep my world as simple as possible. Hopefully, a tidy home will provide a solid platform for a full and invigorating life to come. If some things are about to change in my life, I’ll need some things in place that never do. That’s just the kind of gal I am. I’m fine with some change, and I feel it’s important to routinely clean one’s house out of unused items, but I utterly depend upon some things remaining just as they are.

IMG_0025Here’s a pic of our first-born hen this year, whom we named Martha. Sadly, for no reason I can understand, she died one morning this week. We’d never before had a hen who was half red and half white. She was as unique as her namesake.

IMG_0014I don’t cry anymore when our animals leave us, but my heart still breaks. I’d hoped to have a living remembrance of Martha here on our tiny farm, but I’ll have to let go of the sentiment and attachment. Sorrow and regret can zap a person of their hope, and I need to keep mine strong and healthy. Goodbye and thank you, tiny, feathered friend.

IMG_0002It’s not exactly in my backyard, but Saratoga Lake’s not terribly far.

IMG_0011Our house on the hill lives in the middle ridge of this photo – in the darker blue section just above the treeline, with the Adirondacks beyond. For me this is a new body of water, a new horizon. This beautiful view gives me a new perspective on things, and that’s something I could really use right about now.


       Post Script: Martha suffered a stroke in the mid 80s which left her left side paralyzed. While she was able to drive for a while, and did far more than one would expect for a person in such a situation, she was clearly stopped in her tracks by this life-changing event. It has been posited that her stuff remained in disuse because she was never again able to resume her activities and projects as she’d planned after her stroke. Heartbreaking to think how everything can change in a minute. A good reminder for us all to use our lives as fully as we’re able, and while we’re able, too.