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.

 

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!!

 

Better Boy, Goofy Goose August 9, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Farm Life,Mommy Mind — wingmother @ 11:24 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Happy to have spoken to my son today, if only briefly. I also received a surprisingly upbeat email from his father, detailing their recent visit to a family doc. Seems the doc had some insights about issues that Elihu is dealing with – including panic attacks, which have returned recently (some counseling a year ago or so seemed to quiet them for a while). Dr. Mark also does not recommend circumcision. Good. There’s an end to that.

I feel a bit bad that I was hitting an afternoon lull in my energy when Elihu and I were talking, and I left off with the promise I’d call him back soon. But I fell asleep, and by the time I called Elihu back he was no doubt at his dad’s gig (in Cleveland, as I had just learned in our conversation. Never a dull moment with Fareed) and he didn’t have access to a phone. So I missed him, but I’m content that he seemed to be in good spirits.

I myself have been busy, busy, busy as usual, all the while wondering how the hell it is that I still have not been able to get my house in order in the four years I’ve been here. I’m almost there – but I still have boxes of ancient papers and media in my office that I haven’t yet organized, and my garage – well that’s a mystery to me. It’s simply an unending job. It’s amazing how my garage just fills up with shit. Literally and figuratively. Housing our goose in the garage while we made our summer road trips certainly didn’t help. Did you know that geese behave rather like dogs? Well they do. They like to chew on things. I have doggie toys for him which he likes, but apparently the contents of the garage were much more interesting. Max got into things, moved them around, chewed on em, pooped on em. I had no idea what a goose was capable of. Kinda cute, yeah, but made for lots more work.

I have finally managed to collect and clean off every last unused item in our life and consolidate them in the garage. I listed them all on Freecycle and hope to have them all picked up by their new owners by Sunday. What doesn’t get taken will get packed into the car and driven the 20+ miles to the nearest Salvation Army. I wonder if they’ll take a goose…

 

Overwhelm July 17, 2012

I don’t know when ‘overwhelm’ became a noun, but it’s probably a useful thing. I could just as easily say “I feel overwhelmed”, but I will defer to the cultural climate of the day and say instead “I feel overwhelm”. I’m not besieged with some clinical sort of ADD, but I may as well be today. I am faced with the post-vacation, post-big dump project of sorting all the detritus of our trip and putting it away.

The first day back it was nearly 90 degrees in our little house, the humidity was just as high, but I was too. High on our success, high on the fact that we’d pulled it off and returned home safely. Like a robot I waded through laundry – that from before our trip and that from after – sheets towels, clothes, the gamut. And I’d sorted paper from stuff, toiletries from mementos, books from books on tape. All table space has been occupied the past two days with endless piles. Now… to put it all away.

My birds needed food this morning. Six a.m. I lay in bed, still tired, but my mind swimming with things to be done. The chickens were hungry and depended on me. As if sleepwalking, I rose from my bed and went to the car. Gone are the days when I can carry a 40 pound bag of feed to the bins – now I must drive them. I discover both the feed bin and lid have been covered in fresh, goopy chicken poop. Really? I douse them as best I can in the water left from Max’s pond. I do my best to get things squared away. The shell collection from the Cape gets unceremoniously dumped on the floor of the car and I use that bin for the bird’s calcium. Mental note to transfer it later to the correct bin. Mental note to fill water bins, replace nesting box perch. Ich. It’s this little shit that zaps me of my forward movement. I am ready for bed and I haven’t been up ten minutes.

I can’t complain – I mean, how can I? You, my friends, have just made this amazing trip possible. There’s no way I could have gone without your help. I am a lucky, cared-for woman. And yet, in moments like this, I’m tending toward a smidgen of self pity. I mean how can one person deal with all this? My son needs something to do – and it’s just me. Not only am I pooped at the thought of all yet before me, but then I have to tend to him on top of it all. I wish he had a friend. In the end it really is just the two of us, and there’s so much grownup work to be done. Guess it’s another day for the great babysitter of YouTube.

See, I have other things besides just the crap to put away. (Btw – the laundry’s done, yes, and most of it folded – but put away? Hardly…) I was the unlucky recipient of some little surprises while I was away which I need to deal with as well: I’d bought us some ice cream cones the day before we left – before the donation money had cleared and was safely in my account – and that little charge of $4.50 caused an overdraft that cost me $25. Guess I should be glad it wasn’t $35 as it usually is with my credit union. Then a few more hit too after that – my chiropractor deposited the check I’d asked them to hold for a week – and boom. Another fee. Ok. Guess that’s ok. Keep your chin up, I tell myself. It’s just money.

Then there’s the ticket thing. So there I am, literally seven blocks from the Holland tunnel, following the car ahead of me through a green light when it stops in front of me. I try to inch forward as much as possible, for the cars on either side of me slid through with no problem. My lane’s not moving. Oh well. I inch forward as best I can and watch as the commuters snake through between our bumpers. Ugh. I notice the truck I’d asked for directions that was next to me seconds before is now halfway up the next block. That’s ok. We’ll be out of here in minutes. Then there’s a tapping on my window. It’s a young cop. I roll down the window. “Can’t block the box”, he says. ?? The only other use for the word ‘box’ I know of is an off-color reference to a certain part of a woman’s body, and instantly my mind races back to the 80s on the west side of Chicago. (Anyone remember the south side’s ‘Copherbox’ II Lounge??) I look at him quizzically. He repeats. “You can’t block the box.” I finally get his meaning. “I’m not trying to block the intersection” I offer. “I’m trying to get through. The lanes on either side of me did, I naturally thought I would too. This is not intentional.” I’m not sassy. I’m not even pleading. A passerby, carrying a large light fixture under his arm, stops to assist me. The cop asks if the man is ‘trying to tell him how to do his job’ and tells him to move on. I try to convey my thanks to the man as he leaves. The young cop has already written my ticket and points some beepie thing at the sticker on my windshield. My heart sinks. “How much?” I ask. “You can read the ticket,” he tells me, then adds how lucky I am that he didn’t put any points on my record. (This business of points in New York is still new to me.) Thanks for the big favor, I think. He leaves me with this floppy scrap of paper that will cost me $115. My heart sinks again. But I will not let it get to me; we’re almost out of the city.

Or not. It literally took us three and one quarter hours to get to and through the tunnel. Seriously. Now – now – I’ve seen everything. And I’m proud of us – we didn’t fight, we didn’t get cranky, and thankfully neither one of us had to pee. Rather than let it ruin us, we stayed merry, listening a second time to a book on tape, playing the alphabet game (Inside the car, that is. Elihu can’t see the signs outside. Clever, huh.) and doing our best to keep things light. Our family mantra is that everything happens as it is supposed to. Hours later a heron flew over our car. “See Mommy, this is why we had to get stuck in traffic! To see this heron!” Lemons into a sweet, summery beverage indeed. Good boy.

Ok. So we’re home. Then I check the mail. I’d forgotten about the speeding ticket I’d gotten last month on the way to pick Fareed up at the airport. (Don’t those just bother you? Everyone is going ten over – but you get pulled over. Sheesh.) There’s another $150 shot. Man, I’m working hard just to stay afloat, then this. Will there be a second leg to our trip? Will we get to Philadelphia at all? Doesn’t look it from here. I try to set it aside emotionally, and I wonder deep down what the hell it is that I’m supposed to learn from this. Seriously, I must have some deep-seated, karmically installed money issues. Keep goin, I think to myself. Although I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in years, the Aerosoles catalogue has a particular sting this time. Can’t even rationalize fantasizing about getting a pair. I don’t even bother to find the recycling bin. Into the trash it goes.

So I guess that brings me to this moment, as I sit in my chair, wondering if I might be able to lie down again for a few minutes before the kid wakes up. The piles are everywhere. I can’t help but wonder how everyone else does it. Families with more than one kid – how is it possible? I can understand how my childless friends deal with physical crap – I managed my own for years. Daunting before and after a gig (women have not only gear and charts to deal with – but makeup and clothes and jewelry – that adds a whole nother layer to the potential chaos) but I could still stay on top of it. But right now I think I’ve lost it. Unless I can find Elihu a playdate I don’t know where I’ll get the resolve.

Wait. I remembered something. When we stopped at the convenient store our first day back I got one of those little energy shot thingees. Yes. Yes? Was that what fueled my insane initial cleanup? I think so… Seems like it. Wow, and I’d never had one before. Can’t make it a crutch, but sounds good right now. I begin to see some possibility here. Ok. Kid’s still out. I think I know what I need to do… I need to overwhelm my overwhelm. Back in five minutes. I’ll let you know…