The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Book Two Begins March 1, 2018

The new year, thus far, has been an unrelenting game of good news/bad news. Somehow, in spite of some personal sorrows we weathered in the first weeks of January, it seemed that things in general were looking up. The Studio appeared to be crossing a line into new territory; I was starting to book events that had been on my mind for months. The time was finally here, and things were happening. I was making connections, meeting people. We were getting press – we were in the paper and on the news. Poised for some exciting things ahead. And yet, here we are today, so close and yet so far…

At this writing I am so very close to wanting to pack it all in. Forget the whole thing. Park my kid with a host family in town, move to Florida, get a gig house sitting or dog walking and just never come back. That idea is really appealing right now. No more snow, no more meals to make, no more food stamps to run out of, no more furnaces grinding to a halt in freezing temps, no more piano students cancelling in the 11th hour, no more venue emergencies, no more having to go to my mother for the money to fix it all. (At the age of 54 you’d think that shit would be behind me. Apparently not. It’s incredibly demoralizing and has me wondering if a job at Walmart might not be a more dignified situation.)

Not too long after we lost our ancient rooster Bald Mountain, an unidentified neighbor dog came through our property, killing five hens (two of whom were elders and quite dear to us) and injuring one of our laying ducks. She was hurt, but not so badly as to warrant butchering her – so we took her to the vet. Having acquired my very first credit card in the nine years I’ve lived here (when your ex leaves you holding the bag on family credit cards but you live on welfare, it makes starting over a very lengthy process) I was in a position to actually take an animal to a vet and pay the almost $200 in care and meds. A small financial setback, but our duck healed well and now stands to hatch out her own ducklings this spring. So it was a happy ending. Sort of.

As nature abhors a vacuum, apparently so too does an unused credit card balance; I found myself making an unplanned, last-minute trip (the timing and short duration of which made it unusually costly) to Chicago in order to visit an old friend who was diagnosed with a rapidly advancing, early onset form of dementia. (It’s called FTD for short, there are two links below to videos which describe the disease in more detail.) I’d told her I’d visit in the fall, then again made the promise at Christmas, and most recently I suggested a summer trip. In reality there would never be a good time to go, and it appeared that my friend as I’d known her was fast-disappearing. So I chose the winter school break, when I could leave Elihu alone for a few days without concern, and I’d be back by the time we held our Friday night dance performance at The Studio. The day before I was to leave, I came down with a fever, and during my two-day trip (the most expensive two days of my life since I moved to New York nine years ago) I completely lost my voice. So there I was, in the company of my oldest and dearest friends, nearly unable to speak, and physically wrecked. It didn’t diminish my happiness at seeing everyone, but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. I was lucky to have the use of a friend’s car, and luckier still to experience some unplanned visits and serendipitous meetings, so at its core, it was a successful trip. Just not a very comfortable one.

And I got to spend two days with my friend, a woman who I will most likely never see again. And even if I do see her again in this lifetime, she won’t be herself anymore. Whenever my mother complains about the expense of an outing, the thinking I always share with her is that she’ll always remember the event, but years down the line she won’t remember the bill. I also had to remind myself of this over and over. Visiting a friend is more important than money. The time was now, and I did what was right, I know it. But still. It’s gonna take a few years to knock this balance down again. Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself. I’ll get over it. Just not today…

While I was visiting with my friend, on that rainy day in Evanston, Illinois, I got a call from the woman who teaches yoga at The Studio. The power in the building was off. That was strange; I’d gone to great lengths to make sure the electric bill was paid in full, that everything would run without incident during my three-day leave. But no, the main breaker had been flipped, and nothing was changing. I was whispering with great difficulty over the phone, my throat already on fire, my stress level rising as I realized I needed next to call the electric company and navigate the automated system on 10% battery, and without a voice. Shit. I bounced back and forth down the long hallway of my friend’s new downtown condo, visiting with her while on hold, then retreating to the bedroom to explain my situation to the customer service folks. After some time and several different calls, I was able to arrange for a lineman to assess the problem the following day.

The next day I also juggled personal visits with more follow-up calls; apparently no one had been to the property yet as they’d promised. And my mother, she had thrown herself and a last-minute solution into the mix in the form of a rented a generator to power the place (we still needed to find an electrician who could tie the damn thing into the main circuit board) for the rehearsal and subsequent performance. My mother was trying to fix a situation which needed much more than a band-aid approach. Missing the forest for the trees, she was trying to revive a non-revenue earning event at no small expense. She was so persistent, and I was in such physical discomfort and so unable to even speak, that countering her on the phone was infuriating. There I was, at the iconic Blind Faith Cafe for the first time in over a decade, with a waitress asking for my order, an overly enthusiastic friend trying to interpret for me, and my mother telling me I needed to confirm the generator rental NOW. I don’t relish hanging up on anyone, but there was no other out. I told my mother to CANCEL the damn generator, and pushed the red button. Done, done, done. I was in no place to keep this event together. Even if I hadn’t been sick, I was 900 miles away. Not a good idea. I don’t like giving up, but sometimes ya just gotta wave that white flag.

Before I’d gone to Chicago, I made sure to have my hair done. Karen, the woman whom I was going to visit, had been a very talented hairdresser, and if she would resonate with anything at all, it would be my hair. So I had my regular hair gal Wendy pimp my ride. The highlights were over the top, the curls beyond natural and the lift almost 80s music video ready. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it wasn’t for me anyway. I was thrilled that Karen loved my hair. I was thrilled that she was still recognizable as herself. And I was thrilled, that after an eight year hiatus, she and I and some dear friends were going to meet at a restaurant we’d been going to together for over twenty years. Old home week was on. It was why I had traveled so far…

I was the first to arrive at the place, and somehow it seemed different. Ah, but that’s what nearly a decade can do, I thought to myself. Shortly before we convened at the weary-looking table we learned the reason: only four days earlier our pals Tony and Vatsana had sold the thirty-year old business. If only I’d come out a week before. If only, if only…. All we could do was laugh. Poor Karen, who partly due to her condition, partly due to the anticipation, had been repeating “Crispy Basket” all afternoon, continued her refrain, only now it took on the tone of a small, sad child. “No more Crispy Basket” she said, laughing, but still sounding rather pitiful. In the end we all had to laugh. The whole situation was ridiculous. No more Panang Beef the way only Vatsana ever made it. And the cucumber salad? There was no redeeming it. The magic was gone. I couldn’t help but think how this was one of those defining moments in all of our lives. One of us was on a fast-track to death, none of us was looking any younger, and never again would we gather together around a table, all of us together.

Karen was still able to have a laugh over her situation, and by the end of the night we had created a new ‘in’ joke which would surely last… She and her sister Debbie had recently gone to the hit show Hamilton and during intermission they’d gone to use the bathroom. This was before either woman was aware of the extent to which Karen was prone to wander, and by the end of intermission, when her sister was nowhere to be found, Debbie sent her a text. “Where are you?” she asked. “I went to use the bathroom” Karen texted back. “Where?” her sister asked, to which Karen very matter-of-factly responded “Target”. Apparently, finding the lines too long, she had meandered outside and down the street, ending up at nearby Target store where she used the bathroom and then dutifully waited outside for her sister. And so for the rest of the visit, a trip to the bathroom was referred to as “going to Target”. Good to be able to laugh about it. It’s a frightening enough situation to warrant tears, but what good would it do to cry?

“I just want to know if you’re worried, if you’re stressed. How are you feeling? Are you scared?” Although I’d intended to get a little deeper into my inquiry of her experience, that was as far as I got. “Liz, do I look stressed? No, I’m not stressed. I’m not scared. It’s just weird is all.” We talked a bit more about the strangeness of it. I was secretly relieved that the very disease itself had robbed her of the ability to fully comprehend the severity of things. She had taken on a certain childlike quality which seemed to take the edge off of her reality. Karen was in a bizarre place to say the least; she would warn me of her inability to filter her language and impulses and ask me to intervene. She knew when she was about to approach a stranger with an inappropriate question, she knew when the impulse to chew something grew too strong and so her teething toy needed to be within reach lest she gnaw her debit card beyond use (which she did while I was there). Again and again I asked if she was scared. I didn’t want to lead the witness, I just wanted her to know I would be there for her as best I could.

“You’re such a country girl” Karen would say many times that afternoon at her apartment. She’d laugh at my wide-eyed assessment of all the change that had taken place over the past few years. Lyfts and Ubers swarmed all around us on the streets and appeared like tiny bugs on our phones, ready to drive us across town without so much as a bill passing hands. People were everywhere, lobbies were huge and involved falling water. There were crazy themed restaurants everywhere, and there were as many brown people as white. It was probably a good idea that I’d taken this trip. My little cocoon in upstate New York did not present an accurate glimpse into modern urban life. “Yeah, I may be a country girl, but you’ve still never ridden the el!” I joked back. Indeed, my friend had been a real Jewish American Princess, complete with a two seater sports car and folks who wintered in Boca. “Yeah, but you’re still such a country girl”. Karen always had to have the final word. I remember thinking at that point that she was probably right. This was not a world to which I would choose to return.

We spent a rainy Wednesday afternoon inside her beautiful new condo with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls watching TV, playing her keyboard, singing and looking at photos. She was adamant that we go across the street to World Market and pick out the perfect frame for a photo I’d sent her of my father and her at the piano in our old Evanston home. Karen loved my dad. And he had loved her. They flirted in French and cracked each other up. “I kiss everyone goodnight, like this” she said, kissing her index finger and placing it on the photos of friends and family members that sat atop her bureau. “We need to have Bob up there.” By the end of our day together, a beautifully framed picture of Karen and my father rested among all the others, and we were both very satisfied. I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending to our visit.

The afternoon finally turned into evening, and although the previous incarnation of my friend would never have admitted to such a thing, this woman told me several times that she was getting sad as my departure grew closer. I was too. Never a good time for goodbye, especially the kind that truly might be the last. But thanks to my true and spazzy form, the poignancy of our goodbye was somewhat diluted; once by my returning to leave her my CD, and secondly by a crazed digging through my bag to find my hat – which was loud enough to have Karen open the door and check on me. Finally, when the elevator arrived, she turned and closed the door without waving. It wasn’t really goodbye, just see ya. Better that way.

The el squeaked its way through old, familiar neighborhoods. Nighttime was always a good time to ride the train. Lights sparkle everywhere and interiors become tiny tableaus. I’d noticed on this trip that apartments were all becoming so über hip. Growing up I remember shabby apartments, one after another. Now it seemed that the entire city was made of upwardly mobile thirty-somethings. On the train another adult also unable to censor his speech appropriately made a loud observation which made me laugh: “I’ll bet the train will lose a whole bunch of millennials at Belmont”. There sure did seem to be a lot of em.

I’ve always loved to fly, so this rare opportunity to experience commercial flights again had become another great disappointment; on the way there the entire flight had been above the clouds, and my seat was on the aisle. Upon returning, I found myself in a middle seat, which might have been fine, only there was no window at the end of the row. In all my years of travel I have never before been in a windowless row. My head cold made the ascent the most miserable I have ever experienced, so it really didn’t matter anyhow. This trip had been about seeing my friends, and that had been accomplished. The quality of my flights wasn’t really the issue, expensive though they may have been.

The two-day whirlwind of $12 airport beers, visiting old friends and eating out at favorite restaurants was done. I relished the final moments of the flight, the landing, the awesome power of the engines braking the craft. I savored every moment I was not yet back. A horrible feeling of dread filled my gut when we turned the corner and I saw the lights of the tarmac. The detour was over. A muddy driveway piled high with a winter’s uncollected garbage, a fourteen year old boy who needed to be fed, and a venue without power awaited me at the end of my eight-hour commute.

It’s been one week tonight since I got back home, and shit hasn’t stopped. Still need to cancel a few more events, have yet to ascertain how and why the power cut out, and my poor kid has been really sick for the past two days. I just got the dishwasher repaired with the last remaining available credit on my ‘new’ card, and all but three piano students have stopped taking lessons. But there’s been good news too. Not without a hitch, though…

A very nicely produced piece on The Studio appeared on the local news only a few days after we lost power, and here the irony continues. Just the day before it aired I had discontinued my cable service in order to save some money, so I wasn’t able to actually watch it live on TV from my house. Oh, the timing. And the piece itself is lovely; it pays a very sweet tribute to my dad and to my mom, it shines a bit of hope on the future of the venue, but sadly when they’d come out to interview me I was at my annual heaviest, and on camera I read like Ann Wilson in the early 80s. Deeply embarrassed, I’ve had a very hard time seeing the generous shares and comments in the Facebook world. I can’t bear to watch it ever again. I need a serious do-over. I’m down eleven pounds since the interview, and my personal goal, if nothing else, is to establish some online video presence with some short music vids to help redeem myself. I’m very nearly on the bottom of my personal barrel right now. So not where I imagined myself to be in this new and until now, promising new year.

Entropy. My kid likes to remind me that’s the direction we’re all headed anyway, so don’t sweat it too much. It is kinda like the great playing field-leveler. Yeah, we have our glory years (if you’re anywhere from 20 to 40 as you read this, consider yourself in the undeniable sweet spot) but then the physical shit eventually hits the fan. I’m almost at peace with that idea. Certainly closer than a year ago. I’m slowly acquiescing to my mortality. It feels as if I still have a small chunk of work yet to do here on this planet; the kid’s not fully launched yet, and I do have a vision for The Studio which at the very least I’d like to see set sail before I’m done, and yes, my ego would like to see the blog turned into a book. (However I’m wise enough to know that nobody truly cares. And please, don’t protest, I get it. I sat next to an author on the plane who provided me another reality check on that count: I gave her what I thought to be a pretty compelling elevator pitch, and she just smiled and said “Everybody has drama, and lots of people write well.” Nuff said.)

“Your fingers are freaking me out” Karen said as she stared at my knobby distal joints. “Yeah, I really don’t like having arthritis this bad” I had responded. A moment passed. Karen looked at me, and she seemed tired. “I’d rather have what you have.” Another space landed between us. “Yeah,” I answered. “I know.”

Guess it’s time to quit griping about all the stuff I don’t have, and instead, concentrate on all the things that I do have. I guess it’s time to start writing that new book…

 

Link to WNYT Channel 13 piece on The Studio

Link #1 to shorter video on Frontotemporal Dementia

Link #2 to longer video on Frontotemporal Dementia

 

 

 

 

Book’s End December 31, 2017

Bald Mountain, the old rooster whom we shall always love and remember.

 

Dear readers, are you still there?

I have never let so much time pass between posts in the past seven and a half years of this blog until now. It seems that finally, life has taken me over. I have experienced so many intense and challenging events this past year that I can hardly believe that it all actually happened. From the predictable (my young son finally growing taller than me in only a few weeks’ time) to the unimaginable (the Studio being struck by lightning) and so very many more things that I cannot hope to recall at this writing.

In January of this year, I, like many of my friends, watched with heartbreak and profound disbelief as our nation’s finest first couple surrendered the office to a narcissistic madman. Facebook blew up, friendships blew apart, and I learned early on that I had too much on my personal plate to lose myself in the fray. What was once a valuable tether to my previous life in Chicago became a drain on my heart every time I visited. When early on – even during the election season – I’d asked my Republican friends to please explain to me how Trump would benefit – and not hurt – the common man, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. There was no insight to be found, no ground to be shared. I still maintain that the vast majority of people on this goddam globe all seek the same things: safety, health, and the love of family and friends. I can never understand how these simple things have become so micromanaged, and in the process, become so utterly unmanageable.

The single digit temps of last March highlighted for me just how unprepared The Studio was to maintain indoor temps of 65 degrees – let alone a cozy 70 or higher. A huge group had booked the place for a long chunk of time, and they moved in. It was challenging to continue to run our own regular yoga classes alongside this program, but everyone cooperated, and in spite of my utterly freaking out in flat-out fear when I saw that our baseboard heaters and new mini splits were all “going to 11” but the room was hardly improving, the host was kind and forgiving. Again, everyone did what they could, we added space heaters til we blew circuits, tried new configurations until finally the room was livable. But stress, man, talk about stress. Add a good snowfall (as also happened concurrent with the heating issue) and then there’s the plowing situation. That’s its own ball of wax, believe me. It takes finesse to carve out room for 50 cars on the yard – without going over the septic tank! – and in spite of all that space lost to the piles at the property’s perimeter. We got our new guy now. Building the posse, one crisis at a time. !

Then more shit started happening. Quite literally. During a long-term rental of the venue the toilets suddenly stopped flushing. Although the building had only been used seasonally since its construction in 1974, the septic tank had finally reached its limit. Nothing was going down. The timing wasn’t great, and it was a stressful situation, but I knew that the job itself was fairly straightforward and simple. Either locate and clear a blockage (hoped for) or learn that the tank needed pumping (oh no, please, no). With no time to lose and a full house expected the following day I had no options but to call the local plumbing company for whatever help they could rustle up at 5:30 in the afternoon. Before long, two ambitious twenty-something plumber’s apprentices arrived and began poking and digging their way across the yard for several hours (at outrageous after-hours rates!) with not a single find. As a last resort tactic, they pulled out these flushable doo-dads which would emit a signal by which they could then be located with a receiver, thus showing us the exact point of the blockage (at that point we were still hoping it was a simple routing job and not a pump out.) Great idea! How clever! How practical! So the guys flushed all their doohickies down the toilets and began to wave their gieger counter thingees over the likely pathways. Not a signal was found. Not a blip, not a squeal, not a nothin. By this time it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were taking over, and there was nothing to do but shelve the mystery for the day.

The mystery continued for a while. To help fill in some missing clues, I pulled out a square, white-framed snapshot of me as a young, bucktoothed girl, standing by my mother’s rock garden which I knew to be above the site of the septic tank. I knew this well because mom would never let anyone forget that this area was NEVER TO BE DRIVEN OVER. The plumbers and I walked off what looked the right amount of paces… and no luck. Finally I got my local pal Al to come out with his bucket excavator, and his plan was to start digging on the spot where I had stood in that photo. Al is a good old local boy. Been in Greenfield his whole life. And he is a lot of other things too: clever, inventive, a pilot, a dog lover, an active, healthy guy – and he’s just plain got a good heart. He remembers coming to our house in the 70s when his grandfather did the stonework for the fireplaces here. I like that Al has those memories. I like that he flies, that Elihu loves flight. I like that he always charges me less than anyone else, and I trust his results without question. So I needn’t have panicked the morning I pulled up early and found Al and his assistant just about finished revealing the mystery tank: it had been buried six feet below grade when it should have rested a mere few inches from the surface. Wow, no one saw that coming. No matter. Live and learn. Forward we go. Tank located, then tank pumped. Job done? Kinda, but not.

Second phase: Open hole in front yard remains so all summer long as local excavators (Al included) are all tied up on jobs that actually pay real money. And it’s not as simple as back filling the hole. Nope. I need to construct a custom sleeve through which the top of the tank can be accessed for future pump outs. I spent hours on the phone with dozens of folks in all sorts of stone yards and metal shops, I learned deep shop talk and came to learn a lot about infrastructure and materials. But all I really wanted at the end of it all was a cheap, durable 4 foot sleeve. Al proposed a solution that sounded too simple. And our dear neighbor Zac took the time to actually make a mold and then pour the perfect concrete sleeve – but Al insisted it would be too heavy. I hated to refuse the custom, artfully made piece, but in the end, after a handful of cancelled showers, weddings and graduation parties (why, oh why did this happen at the height of our rental season??) it was Al’s plastic, 55 gallon drum with the ends cut off that saved the whole operation and allowed us to finally back fill our gaping hole and regain the venue’s dignity. (Toilets all still flushed, but for many it was the hole in the ground that was the deal-breaker. Not for everyone, but some folks were quite unhappy.) Hey. I’m just one person, and I’m always doing my best, but there’s only so much one woman can do. I can’t say my ego isn’t a bit wounded when people get angry that I can’t fix things in time, or that things aren’t as they should ideally be, but after this year I’ve grown thicker skin for sure. I can shake it off. From this chapter I learned that it doesn’t matter if you can’t please em all, so long as you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

Now the lightning strike – that happened somewhere in the middle of the gaping hole chapter. The two projects overlapped, and for a minute there sometime at the height of the summer, I was feeling mightily tried by these incredibly tedious and expensive setbacks. I might have lost all hope but for the fact that I had, during the cold months, lost three dress sizes and was now spending some child-free afternoons at the gorgeous Victoria Pool – sporting the very bathing suit I wore the summer before I got pregnant. Hoo-haw! Who cares if there’s a cesspool in your venue’s yard and the AC units are fried? I was lookin good! Gotta say, the summer – aside from the Studio crap – was magical. An old friend and guitarist invited me to the jazz fest at SPAC – and man it felt so good to hear good music again. Then by some miracle (the miracle is called “one seat only”) I got a front row seat for Earth, Wind and Fire. Mm-hmm. And that particular evening, I had it goin on. Even got backstage and had the privilege of meeting bassist Verdine White. I floated home that night.

While all this was going on, Elihu was becoming, to my heart’s lament, a young man. He is now in high school. The character and quality of his face transformed in a few months’ time, his height and voice, too. He didn’t always like it when during breakfast I’d go to the piano and try to find his new lowest pitch, but now we both run to the piano when we think he’s sounding lower, different. We marvel at this change together, and I am deeply grateful that he still values my input on these changes, physical and social. And it goes without question that he still enjoys my company. But ah, these are the teen years, and I have readied my heart for a while now; when the door clicks shut without a greeting, when silences stretch on and on, when he is off and gone to his workshop as soon as he is home – I let it be. After all, in less than a year Elihu will be studying in Germany for a semester. My work now is to learn how to let go. Elihu will do just fine. The low vision thing worries me, but he’s got technology. And smarts. His profile info on his Instagram account (Copterdude) says simply “aspiring overachiever”.

The Studio has hosted an ongoing high school open mic which has really helped the place to grow in the community. We’ve also hosted dinner concerts, middle school music jams, rock concerts, dances, yoga retreats, yoga classes, art exhibits, and finally we held a holiday brass concert in which Elihu played tuba with a quartet. I was beyond impressed with how they sounded. I’d told Elihu that after this he’d be off the hook – he’d satisfied the deal. He’d learned to play bass and tuba with proficiency, and now he was free to pursue aviation with all of his energy. But man, he just sounded so good. I told him how blown away I was (please, no pun) and it reached him. “Really?” he asked, as if it was hard to believe. I told him that a deal was a deal, but it made we want to weep. “If it makes you feel like that, I won’t quit. I won’t.” My kid is not one to go back on his word, so I’m fairly sure he’ll stay on the low brass path a while longer. I had told him that when you’re talented, you can’t take that shit lightly. Not everyone gets that gift. Another lesson for both of us. Do what you do, and do it with integrity. Yeah, and definitely have some fun while you’re at it.

I suppose I could’ve just summed up this past year by saying 1) infrastructure challenges at the Studio 2) first calendar year of continuous operation 3) kid’s taller than me and 4) kid speaks German and builds aircraft that blow my mind. Yes, it was an amazing year for us both. It’s always tempting at the end of a year to say that a chapter has been definitively closed, when in fact, an arbitrary date certainly, in reality, means no such thing. But it is possible to find demarcations along the way unrelated to any calendar – usually they’re easier to spot with a few years of hindsight – which do seem to signal the end of an era. Many folks have suggested I compile some of the Hillhouse writings into a book (oh so much easier said than done) and I’d always struggled with a time at which this book might close. When would this ‘journey of a mother and son’ actually end? Well, of course, it never truly will. However, the journey of a mother and her young son has ended.

Now I can identify with clarity what the ‘early’ years felt like. When there were no houses in the field, when Elihu and I would go to the coop at night and just sit there, sometimes for an hour, listening to the gentle cooing and gurgling sounds of our flock. The days on our tummies in the violet patch, the Easter Sunday walk to the stone wall in the woods, the out-of-time quality of it all. The this-is-how-it-always-will-be of it all. But even then, even in the midst of that idyllic childhood we were sharing, I began to get my heart ready. Just a year ago my imagination struggled to conjure an image of my son, taller than me. And now here we are. A piano student once asked me why I still had bath toys in the bathroom. I gasped a little, and paused… Some part of me, I suppose, really didn’t quite believe that the bath days weren’t coming back. I was shocked at myself. Shocked at how difficult this change might actually be.

Regular readers may remember our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin. He invited the neighborhood children to chase him in circles around the house, flying up to the roof for breaks, shrieking that singularly piercing call that both annoyed and charmed us so. He engaged us, he truly interacted with us, and if you will just believe me here, we have always believed that Austin honestly enjoyed our company. Just three weeks ago, before the snow fell, he and Baldie evaded a Cooper’s hawk attack and were found huddled together in the underbrush. I only found them because Austin responded to my calls and followed me at my heels all the way to the house after I freed them from the thicket. Only a week later he was stricken with some virus or infection (this is what we can now know in hindsight) and his behavior became strange. He spent his nights in the nesting boxes, and Elihu noted that he was no longer the first bird to fly from his perch in the mornings. Then one day, he disappeared. Thinking he’d gone off to die, I made several trips around the property calling for him, crying, calling… It broke my heart to think of him dying in the bitter cold, alone. And then at our Christmas party our neighbor boy Brandon (knowing Austin was missing) ran in and announced that he was back! Yes, he was, but hardly. He was a huddled clump at the bottom stair of the coop, frozen and unable to move. I wrapped him in my arms, so grateful that I finally got to hold him to my heart as I’d longed to, and we got him a cozy setup in the mudroom. He was acting strange; nearly paralyzed. We nursed him through two days. He would accept sips of water and in a flash he appeared to be himself again, but in our hearts we knew. Last Sunday morning we found him dead. Bald Mountain, also in the house due to his inability to hold his own against the drake, he spent a few hours beside his dead pal. He seemed to be waiting. Usually animals sense death, regard it for a moment, then move on. Not Baldie. This was even hard for him.

Now it’s Bald Mountain’s turn. His arthritic legs can no longer support him. In so many ways, his aging process reminds me of my father’s. He has taken to merely moving his food around more than eating it. He needs help to stand or sit, walking is almost impossible. Even grooming himself is a chore. Now he must be propped up otherwise he tumbles on the ground, his feet helplessly sticking out into the air. But when he is nicely settled into his bed, he looks serene enough, doesn’t appear to be in pain (how would we really know? And so I give him a baby aspirin each day just cuz) but as with my own aged father, he can startle or become suddenly agitated for no apparent reason, and then can be calmed relatively quickly to a point where he begins to nod off. I’m trying to keep him alive until Elihu returns from his father’s on Wednesday morning. I try to convey this thought to Baldie. I hope his heart understands me. Yeah, I kinda think he knows. He really is a tough old bird, and he’ll do his best to wait for Elihu. I thought I’d offer him a little inspiration this morning, so I brought a hen inside. The two of them chortled and shimmied side by side and she ended up creating a nest of rags next to him – where she proceeded to hunker down and lay an egg! Ha – a fresh egg right there in the kitchen. This really seemed to please dear Baldie, and if a chicken can experience a good mood, I’m pretty sure he did.

All afternoon I’ve been weepy and deeply, deeply sad. I couldn’t bring myself to clean and tidy as must be done, for each task brought me closer… I stalled, looking at the setting sun through the trees… this time of day seems to make all things so much sadder still… Elihu and I agreed that if he didn’t die on his own, we’d make arrangements. And so on Friday, the 5th, a kind vet from a neighboring town is coming to help us set our dearest Bald Mountain free. I sure hope he finds his buddy Austin to show him around when he gets where he’s goin. I will always have the image in my mind of the two of them, only weeks ago, walking a few paces apart, each one waiting to make sure the other was keeping up. Pals forever. We’ve had both of those dear birds since I began this blog! Elihu has grown up with them both; to him they were as his dogs. Every kid in the area knows (and has feared!) Baldie, as well as all of my piano students – in fact there’s nothing quite like a robust crow to mark the end of your lesson! There’s no need to embellish the story – this rooster ruled the Hillhouse for almost eight years along with his sidekick guinea fowl, and with the loss of these two beloved characters, things here are forever changed.

Our adventure began without warning, we had no idea what we were doing, what we were in for, or how any of it would turn out. There has been so much to worry over, there have been so many obstacles to surmount, so much crap to wade through, and yet it’s all been so much more than worth it. What a wonderful childhood my son has had, what a blessed time it has been for me, alongside him the whole way, and how lucky we were to have known and loved some amazing birds. Dear readers, I think that our book “The Hillhouse; the journey of a mother and young son” (and two very special avian friends) has come to its end.

But remember, with every ending comes a new beginning…

                                                                             Our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin.

 

Charley My Boy July 25, 2016

Although I got off to a late start last night, I did finally go out. There was a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet at which the bassist for the orchestra was leading a small band, and a local fellow was to be playing with him too – enough of a reason to find a dress that I could still fit into and put something other than work boots on my feet. My evening started off quite Cinderella-like, as I had to scoop the last errant members of the flock into the coop before I could be on my way, and by then the event itself was half over and the sun was already down. Half was better than none, I told myself as I waffled once more on whether or not to even go. My windshield was sticky with sap from the trees (the windshield spritzer motor long gone) and my skin was beginning to dampen in the warm, humid air (the AC was on its way out, too). My glasses were smudged, and I’d forgotten to don any jewelry of merit.  I hesitated another moment in the dark car, pondering. “Fuck it” I finally said out loud, turned on the ancient Marshall Crenshaw CD I had in the player, and started down the long, potholed driveway.

I had indeed missed the height of the evening, which was just as well. Before entering, I hung back and assessed the crowd from behind the glass doors. The fundraisers I see in the locally-published glossy magazines wouldn’t be affairs at which I’d be very comfortable. High fashion, low body fat with a smattering of trout pouts, those scenes were simply not me. But if that population had indeed attended tonight’s fundraiser, they had by this time satisfied their social duties, and had returned home on a Sunday night, retiring to bed at a healthy hour. No, this crowd did not look intimidating. I entered the party and filtered through the thinning – and aging – ranks of the guests, and shortly after I arrived found the leader of the band, whom I’d known pretty much only through Facebook. He was kind to introduce me to someone, and I was off.

My father’s 52-year long early music festival still lives in the memory of many here in town, and although that population is aging, there are still many of them about. I’m always grateful to hear my name received with such warmth and recognition; the Festival of Baroque Music was an important part of the arts scene in Saratoga for half a century, and its leader was not only one of the world’s foremost harpsichordists, but he was a gentleman of great heart and good humor – and it seems everyone who’d ever attended the Festival knew it well. Even shopkeepers to whom my father sold ads for the concert programs (yes he did the work himself!) remember dad with a great fondness. My father was an ambassador for goodness and integrity, and I’m always filled with gratitude when I see the impression he made on people has been so memorable and lasting. Last night his good reputation preceded me on several occasions. I met a handful of folks who’d known about the Studio through dad’s music, so I handed out cards and expressed my hopes that we’d stay in touch.

The charts were fun; the band was doing old-timey jazz, the likes of which I’d performed for years with my much-missed Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago (my God you never know what you got til it’s gone!) and in fact, I almost teared up when I heard Black and Tan Fantasy – and it’s not a tune to make one cry, but it immediately brought back vivid memories of a cherished time in my life that was now long over. My nostalgic jag didn’t last though, I was smiling by the time I heard that familiar final minor cadence. The sax player had a delightfully old-timey sound which was a relief to hear. So often when you bands play old-style charts, the players execute them with a modern sound, which to me, kinda spoils the whole thing. If you’re going for the historic tunes – and historically accurate arrangements – play em the way they did back in the day. Just sayin.

I walked the room, looking at programs, posters and articles from the NYCB of my youth. I recognized images of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland and Jacques D’Amboise – rockstars of my early teen years whom I’d sometimes followed through town when they made extremely rare appearances at the pedestrian joints on Broadway alongside the commoners. Peter Martins even put a cigarette out on my foot at the Adelphi Hotel once. Or almost.

We were standing in the lobby, enjoying a solo harpsichord performance when Peter took a final drag off his butt, then flicked it to the ground. It landed on my foot, which I retracted at the unexpected sensation of heat, and when I leaned in to assess the damage, I watched as the dancer’s foot slid towards mine in a motion meant to squash the ember on the floor. I withdrew my own foot and watched as Peter Martins finished the task, his eyes never once leaving the musician. He didn’t realize he’d hit my foot with a hot cigarette, and furthermore he had no idea he’d meant to step on my foot, too. Instantly I felt a mixture of horror, indignation – and awe. Because I was, after all, a thirteen year old girl standing two feet from one of the most exquisitely formed men on the planet. I wanted to be miffed, I’d wanted at the very least an apology. But knowing none was coming, the moment had passed and the point was moot, I decided instead to take the little event simply for what it was: a brush with ballet greatness, and an interesting little anecdote for the archives.

After the band finished, I greeted them and proceeded to pester them with a few questions, which I likely posed with too much enthusiasm. It was easy to get excited – this used to be my world after all, and I still miss it dearly, even a decade hence. The poor fellow who played clarinet, I caught him with cases under his arm and eyes on the door when I stopped to grill him a bit longer than I probably should have for some insight into the working music scene. We’ve met before, so thankfully he was patient with my inquiry. I appreciated what he had to tell me, which, as I might’ve guessed, wasn’t too terribly inspiring. There’s work to be had, but getting in seems the trick. And the money that these dates pay really isn’t much better than it was twenty years ago. Nothing terribly new or insightful, but I came away with some sense of possibility, and my mood was good enough to propel me to downtown Saratoga, where I thought I’d see for myself what a Sunday night looked like during racing season.

It was fairly quiet on the street, but to my surprise there was live music in three separate bars. I saw a fellow a little older than me sitting in the window at one place, playing guitar and singing. Good start. I found a place at the bar and began to jot down the tunes he was playing in my tiny notebook. I always do this when I hear musicians doing the cover thing, because I haven’t still quite gotten a handle on the repertoire. I’m convinced that the soft-rock hits of the 70s and 80s should do just fine in a town that caters mostly to a demographic my age or older – but I’ve come to see that there is a wide mix of ages partying side-by-side, and that a working musician pretty much needs a U2 tune or two in her bag of tricks, and much as it might make me want to weep, it seems that “Moondance” cannot be omitted from a night’s entertainment, no matter how many thousands of times it’s been played.

Soon after I sat down, I was joined by a large, well-toned man. He had a trim, slightly red beard, and wore a cap, which I suspected was used to cover a balding pate. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, and in fact, had he not been so many drinks in, I might’ve given him a bit more consideration. What I did like about this chap was that he possessed a sense of humor. A construction worker and hunter, he had practical life skills. But surpassing any of his merits on paper, he had a certain twinkle in his eye – that lively, animated sort of presence that I don’t come across all that often. I could tell he was clearly a decade younger than me, but owing to his mild inebriation and my low-cut decolletage, this wouldn’t have mattered at all to him, even if he’d known the truth. I stuck around for a few minutes because I found myself getting a kick out of him.

I’ve had a handful of men show interest in me since I’ve lived here, but I simply haven’t felt a similar interest in them. I wouldn’t say that this chap was all that different – only that his humor and that certain spunk he showed held my interest even after my beer was almost gone. In spite of the beers he’d himself already put away, I could still sense the goodness in him – regardless of his ultimate agenda. (With men – and especially the drunk ones – I assume that’s always where they’re hoping it goes…) Before I realized what was happening, he wrapped his enormous arm around my waist and said “Kiss me”. I suppose I coulda ended it right there with a slap or a shove, but he seemed like a big kitten, really, and there was no time to think before Charlie had pulled me in for a smooch. It wasn’t a lingering kiss, nor a romantic one. It was, in fact, more like the generic kiss I offer all those in my life for whom our parting warrants a quick peck. But the point remains, it was a kiss. By a man. And truth be told, dear readers, this is the first man from whom I’ve received a kiss since my husband kissed me goodbye nearly nine years ago. I paused for a moment to drink in the irony: Charlie was the baby that my husband conceived with his then-girlfriend which propelled us into our life here in New York. Charlie is the person responsible for our life in Greenfield. If my ex had asked for a divorce before Charlie’d come around, things might have gone very differently. Many times through the years I’ve whispered to myself “Thank you, Charlie” in a quiet acknowledgement of the critical role he’s played in our new life. And now look, here was a Charlie of my own to keep things moving along! “Charley, my boy” I said under my breath after the kiss, referencing a song I’d sung in that old timey jazz orchestra so long ago. My drunk friend, oblivious to the quote, just winked and smiled.

My relationship with Charlie did in fact end when the drink was over, because as that same time the guitar player was packing up, and I was on a mission. I gave Charlie another quick kiss of my own, before saying goodbye and leaving him no choice but to return to his drink alone. I introduced myself to the musician, and when I gave him my card, he stopped. “Is Robert your father?” he asked, with a tone of great surprise. I told him that he was, and before I could add anything, Jeff went on to tell me how much he’d thought of my father, how he’d sold him a couple of minivans (the Conants always needed extra long vehicles to schlep around harpsichords) and furthermore he went on to say that my dad was the only customer he ever hugged – and more than once! My father, my father. I know what a loving and kind man he was, I do, but I certainly never realized just how much he’d shone that love and kindness into the world. The night had been such a revelation to me, and a comfort, too. My beloved father was still preparing my path, even now.

My new friend and I enjoyed a chat as he wrapped cables and tucked things away, but the information I ultimately sought couldn’t be proffered in the minutes we had left; it was late, after all, and he wanted to get home. Thankfully he offered to get together sometime by the light of day, so we could compare set lists and talk gear (I’m an unintentional Luddite who, over these past 13 years of child-rearing, has become ultimately lost to the culture of Ipads and modern PA systems). My heart was happy and hopeful as I hugged Jeff goodbye. Finally it felt as if there might be a new chapter ahead. Getting up and running as a musician had proved to be a much bigger undertaking than I’d first thought it would be, but at least now I might have a little help.

I moved across the street to a joint that’s known for its live music all year ’round. I saw an act I’d seen before, but this time I stopped to check them out more carefully. They are a duo; the woman plays drums, standing up, and sings too, and the man in his shabby, indie-hip garb and road-worn guitar provides the harmonic component. I couldn’t see bass pedals, and it didn’t seem they were playing with a track, so the source of the bass was a mystery until afterward when I went up to say hi, I learned that the drummer was hitting a pad that triggered the notes. They had a sweet and tidy setup. The merch table was filled with stuff, and to my surprise (for they are primarily a cover band as are all the bands in this town) there was a small line of folks wanting to buy stuff after the show. I watched the woman as she graciously allowed pudgy, drunk tourists to take selfies with her, and I noted how ‘on’ she was; that professional thing that my ex turns on whenever in the presence of another person, that thing that I personally find a major pain in the ass to cultivate. I was never good at schmoozing. Me, I play – and I want to leave. Go have a burrito. Hang with friends, musicians. Not hang with drunk, idiotic bar patrons who wouldn’t turn down a Jimmy Buffet cover. But I watched as this woman did just that. And I thought to myself, ‘man, you are so good at what you do, sister’. It’s one thing to hold together – and front – a two hour show. But it’s entirely another thing to have the post-show hang down. Good for them. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that this really was not my world.

Drunk Charlie had also made his way across the street to hear the power duo, and I’d seen him in the audience singing along and offering his thumbs up of approval. Now he was by the door, and he had spotted me. He grabbed my hands and started to dance, and damn if this drunk behemoth wasn’t light of foot! He lead me around – the hand on the small of the back, the whole shebang – he turned me, dipped me, pulled me in, rolled me away – he had it. One of the things I’d so enjoyed about my ex husband was that he could dance. I’d made my seventh grade son take social and Latin dancing this past year because I insisted it was one of the reasons I had married his father. That got his attention. “Really?” he had asked me, with an open-jawed look on his face. “Really.” I’d answered. Yeah, I’ll go to weddings just to dance with a guy who knows how – or isn’t afraid to try to appear that he does. If the situation had been a little different, the drinks fewer and the night younger, dancing with Charlie might have held more appeal. I thanked him for the dance, made a slight bow, then dashed for the door before he could insist on anything more….

I grabbed two slices of pepperoni pizza and drove home to enjoy them with my last bottle of Fat Tire. Afterward, I tried a couple of songs on the piano, but it was beginning to sour in the midsummer humidity, and my results were less and less pleasant as a result. My night had come to an end, but what a sweet, enjoyable evening out it had been. And I laughed to myself to think that after all these years, I’d finally been kissed. Ha! Thanks, Charley, my boy.

 

Future Field July 22, 2016

The days are long, but the years are short.

These aren’t my words, but I’ll be citing them for a long time to come. The mother of a piano student and I were marveling over the way in which time seems to speed up once your children hit a certain age, and without pause she offered this lovely, succinct sentiment. To hear it put so correctly, so simply, it gave my heart a bit of relief. It felt good to identify the phenomenon so easily. Because it is absolutely so true. You hear phrases like these in your younger years and think, ‘yeah, I suppose that makes sense’, but until you’re there, you just can’t fully get it. Now that I’m arriving here myself, man do I get it.

Those days and nights of sippy cups and car seats, naptimes and baths – the stuff that seems to go on and on without respite – all of that stuff comes to an end before you’re fully aware that it has… And then, in what seems like only a few more minutes, you wake up to the reality one day that your child simply doesn’t need you as they once did. But that’s just the beginning. Then the landscape continues to change in new and unfamiliar ways… Your child is almost directly at eye level with you now, and it won’t be long… That mysterious change takes place at some point in adolescence when the child takes on a different look; the very essence of the young child has somehow disappeared, magically morphing into a young adult.

What exactly tells us this change has happened? What tiny contours have appeared that weren’t there before? How can such subtle shifts represent such a big change? I see my students as they grow during that mysterious passage from ten to fourteen and I am continually amazed by the process. Elihu and I attended the local high school graduation ceremony in late June and my mind was blown as I watched nearly a dozen kids who I’d known for the past eight years cross the stage in cap and gown, now indisputably young adults. I know this is happening now with Elihu, and I find myself daily readying my heart for the next couple of years. In perusing this blog I see a nearly endless childhood, a mother and young son moving through the world as a unit, discovering things together. But I know that our future story will soon become very different in its nature. That’s good, that’s fine, it’s all as it should be. I know. But still…

For the past month, the world has been doing what it does so well…. Offering up daily distractions, projects, serendipitous events, the shifting of gears and moving on to the new. At this point my son’s been with his father in Chicago for over a week, and I am settling into my annual basement organizing effort. I pour through piles of paper memorabilia, and as always – perhaps even more so because of my distilling sentimentality for Elihu’s quickly passing youth – I am beset with more crap than I have room for. I find letters to me in a child’s hand, sketches of birds and airplanes, tiny shells and rocks once stuffed into pockets in order that we might remember…. I am bound by these worldly anchors, and I am bogged down. Making decisions is more than difficult. I wonder: This can’t be how everyone else lives, can it?

I see photos on my hard drive of the field next to our property, the one in which we’ve chased woodcocks and flown kites for the eight years in which we’ve lived here. There is a physical ache when I open them now, as I know that within months a house will stand in that space, and a family of seven will spill over onto the open acres that we once thought of as belonging to the birds and the two of us alone… We always told ourselves that this was coming one day, it’s just that we never really seemed to believe it. It’s not the worst thing that could happen – we know this – but still, it hurts our hearts with a slow, deep burn.

It’s not my intention to sound whiny, it’s not that I mean to complain, because I have it good. I know I do. It’s just that nostalgia tugs at me and keeps me from moving forward. It prevents me from throwing out hand-written letters and ancient concert programs. This summer, as with so many summers before, I find myself struggling to let go of my past in order to move into my future. It feels as if I am holding onto the line that tethers me to the shore because the vast expanse of water ahead is just too frightening to comprehend.

I’ve hired an organizer to come and help me make the hard decisions. She’s come before and has been a great help to me. For me, she is a lifeline. This has to stop, and I need outside help. I cannot keep saving, accruing, collecting – and looking back. My brother is a hoarder of the highest order, my mother likes to make passive-aggressive stabs at me for “throwing everything out” and my father’s office is still piled high with paper two years after his death. I cannot go down this path like the rest of my family. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he warned us not to put so much emotional such stock into the physical crap here on earth, which he reminded us will ultimately become moth food or rust…

Today I will try to be bold, I will remind myself that these artifacts are not the memories themselves. In casting off the keepsakes I remind myself that I am not losing the experiences, nor am I losing the love of those with whom I shared those memories. All of those experiences are still inside of me. And no matter what the future brings, no one can ever take away the memory of a small boy running joyfully across a bright, sunny field…

 

 

The Much of May May 23, 2016

Life is chugging away for us here, full of projects and deadlines and the usual related stress, but our life has also been filled with the many seasonal and traditional delights which we look forward to all year; those which help to lighten our load at a time when the world begins to press in on us. Finally it is Lily of the Valley time. Finally, the beautiful apple tree outside our door is at its fragrant and colorful peak. And finally, Elihu and I may walk the side of the road and harvest fiddleheads for our supper. With our birthdays both just past, this is the magical week of the year in which life seems to take a breath in, and everything hangs, suspended, in a rare, timeless window as we enjoy the forgotten corners of our property, noticing the tiny miracles around us with new eyes.

So many wonderful things have happened since the last post, and also, many challenges have popped up in their midst. I suppose we’re lucky to have had our precious, private moments alone here at the Hillhouse, and I’m very aware that any problems with which we are beset are most certainly first-world concerns, so at the end of the day, my complaints are not dire. And yet, being for the moment without water as we are, it is tempting to want to pout and wonder why us? Why now? Mech. A couple five gallon buckets will flush just fine, and for now we’ll just have to buy a bottle or two of Saratoga water at our local Stewart’s Shop so we can brush our teeth and make tea. Things are not so bad. I should like to say at this time that I have never taken our toilsome pump for granted. It’s done what it could, and now we have come to the point we just hoped would never arrive. But so we continue, just one more inconvenience added to the list of life that never ends…*

Where to start? Personally, I’m still feeling as if it’s just me toting the barge where the Studio is concerned, but that’s not entirely true. Artist and friend miChelle has stepped up, offering her art for our summer open house in June. Along with her modern sculpture and paintings we’ll be featuring a local jazz pianist – as well as the middle school jazz ensemble which he coaches, and in which Elihu plays string bass. It’s the promotion that’s hanging me up – that’s never been my strong suit, but there’s no avoiding it. Thankfully another board member has also made her design help available to me this week, and that lifts a huge weight off of me. This will be a week of posters and email campaigns. One hurdle at a time. One crisis, one jam session, one flock of chicks in the living room, one tuba lesson at a time, somehow, I’ve made it this far. I’m beginning to think that things might just be ok.

A few months ago, Elihu’s teacher put an envelope in my hand which contained an application to a residential summer science program at a prestigious local technical college. It had looked interesting, and I thought if Elihu didn’t get in, the process of getting transcripts together, soliciting letters of reference and writing essays might be a good learning experience on its own. At the very least, it would be good preparation for the college process which lay head. Why not give it a try? Although it had seemed pretty straightforward, the application did become a brief source of stress and teenage drama in the household, and when I personally delivered the completed package to the Dean’s office, it was a great relief to us both. But afterward, life quickly moved on, and the whole thing fell to the back of our minds. Until the other day, when I found a large envelope in the mailbox…

I was good, I waited til the kid came home. I poured myself a glass of wine – on the ready to take the edge off of our loss, or… Elihu opened the envelope, and the first word we both saw was “Congratulations!” I had no idea how this sort of thing felt. I had gone to a college which had  no entrance requirements save a high school diploma; the world of academic success was completely foreign to me. Furthermore, my son goes to a school which is itself structured in a way unlike all other schools; no tests or grades are given to mark and measure progress. That my son is doing well in math or science still seems rather subjective to me. But here was at the very least a measure of his potential… I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t simply his teacher’s glowing letter – or even Elihu’s own words, which ended with “I dearly hope you’ll choose me to participate…” No matter – success was his! Or maybe – dare I say ours? I do not wish to claim that which I did not earn – but surely, I will accept a nomination for Supermom, Spring of 2016. Tears came to my eyes immediately – but to my chagrin there was no moment of close bonding to follow… “I have to call Daddy!” he said with urgency, and without a second of hesitation – he didn’t even stay long enough for his eyes to even meet mine – he dashed off to his room. So instead, I enjoyed a glass of wine by myself at the kitchen table, basking in this new and wonderful feeling of accomplishment and success.

Sundays are a day of lugging and loading. Mornings start with a tuba lesson (on the second floor!) and end with a jazz ensemble rehearsal which requires a string bass. It goes without saying that both must first be unloaded and returned to their proper resting place before the other can be loaded up. That and the lugging of 5 gallon buckets of water, plus the lugging of a dead porcupine (whose roadside death we mourned, but whose body will hopefully entice the local turkey vultures to pay us a visit) have me feeling that I am earning my keep and more (not to mention the upkeep of an increasingly stinky flock of young chicks residing in our living room). None of it is lost on my dear child, who does what he’s able and works to make sure all that lugging is for good reason. I have this kid’s back, yes – but in all honesty, he has mine too. We hosted our first jam session at The Studio last week, and thanks to his great ear and true love of playing music, we were able to pull it off. I enjoyed my secret dream of playing drums (oh so rudimentary but rock solid are my beats) and got to see how it all might work. And it did. But without Elihu, it wouldn’t have. He knows how important he is. I thank him. (I also remind him that if he likes to eat – then he’s gotta play. !)

Last night we took ourselves out to dinner with the last of my tax return. It certainly wasn’t a justifiable expense – but each year we have a tradition of Elihu having frogs’ legs for his birthday dinner. Although mom had taken us out the weekend before for steak – a great treat to be sure – Elihu was still jonsein for his all-time favorite. I had told him that we probably wouldn’t go this year, and he’d accepted it ok, so when I suggested we go to the Wishing Well he yelped with delight. This kid had earned it. And truly, we both had such a great time. As usual, tables around us arrived, ate and left several times over by the time we’d finished our dinner. Elihu and I like to linger. We enjoy talking, we enjoy savoring and taking our time. We don’t like plates cleared until the very last moment. I don’t know how I got so lucky. Until this kid no longer cares for my company – or heads off to college – who needs a date? I know of no one whose company I enjoy more…

After supper we joined our friend Rob at the piano. He ran to his car to get a pair of brushes – which he told Elihu would sound really good on the resident bongos – and I played a couple of tunes while he was gone. When Elihu got the brushes in hand he and I did a couple of blues tunes. He sounded great – the brushes allowed him to swing in a new way, and I gave him a couple of breaks in which to stretch out. That was a memorable night for me; I can’t forget the way he looked at me – he was smiling ear-to-ear in the most delighted way I’d ever seen. It’s an experience that musicians sometimes have when they’re playing together and when things just sound and feel so good… And to share this kind of moment with my own kid? Man, that was a gift. I’m pretty sure he felt the same way too. We had even laughed out loud as we played. Later, when we finally said our goodbyes to our friends at the restaurant and headed out into the dark, spring night, we were both in such a happy mood. We walked to the car in the cool, softly scented air, coasting in the afterglow of a wonderful night out. Friends, music – and frogs’ legs too? Wow. Perfection had been achieved.

On the way home from the Wishing Well it began to rain, and I obliged Elihu’s plea to search out some frogs who would certainly be hopping across the roads by now. We popped in his very favorite polka CD and made a detour down winding Braim road. Our search turned up only one frog, who he deposited into our tiny garden pond when we got home. Our moods remained cheery and spirited by the fresh rainfall and the wonderful night out… Elihu retired to his room to read, and something prompted me to pick up my accordion – after years of having let it languish in the corner – and I soon found myself standing on the kitchen steps, under the awning, playing a polka out into the velvet-black night (by some small miracle our neighbors were all gone, and the lights were out in all directions – a very rare thing these days – an absolute gift from the Gods, I was convinced!). Somehow, I found those left hand buttons as I hadn’t since before my son was born. My accordion was the only other sound besides the rain; the melodies punched through the darkness and echoed out through the hilly woods. And oh, what a sound. What a feeling. What a night.

That was only a week ago at this writing, and yet it seems many months have gone by since then. So very much has filled our weeks – another week of students, school, tuba and bass, chickens, friends, errands, pets, excursions and all the mortar of life which fills in every available space in between. My friend Beth has more than solved my design quandary – she’s lifted The Studio to a whole new level with her graphic gifts… Her infusion of time, energy and enthusiasm has reinvigorated my own, and right now, I’m beginning to feel like I’m not all alone in this (save good old mom, who at the end of the day is always filling in the monetary gaps. I cannot wait til I can relieve her of this burden for good. Guilt is all I feel these days on that front. !)

Things will be changing here soon. I realize that the magical country life we’ve enjoyed til now will change a bit. Nothing’s changing overnight, and we will always be who we are, we will always live where we do – but our routines change, the landscape will change, the scope of our world will enlarge – most of this is good and welcomed. But I’m a sentimental gal, and I’ll always remember our simple, early days here with fondness. Maybe we’ll be able to preserve some of that as we move into our future. Yeah, I think we will. But inevitably, some things won’t be the same. That’s the nature of life. Things change. Things evolve. Kids grow up. And thirty-somethings become fifty-somethings. ! But thankfully with all the change come those surprises that make us forget the tiny heartbreaks. It’s exciting to think of what’s yet to come. And it’s that sense of anticipation that takes the edge off of the loss of what is no longer.

As I write this I think of Crow Field… I haven’t even mentioned the field yet… The huge field that lies just outside our window – the one in which we search out Woodcocks, fly planes and kites, and in general love and enjoy every day of our life here – it will become someone’s suburban backyard by summer’s end. A large house is going up in the field which we have come to think of as our very own. Of course the field is not ours, and we’ve known for years now that every year we have had the field there for us to enjoy was a very precious thing. Elihu broke out sobbing – and even began to shout and swear – when he learned that it had been sold. When I told him I’d found the ribbon marking off the house’s footprint, he told me he felt sick.

We’re acclimating slowly to this new idea of a big house in the big field. Slowly. It still seems as if it will never happen, but that’s how we felt about the ‘new’ house at the end of our driveway; and it did finally arrive. And as kind as the neighbors are, their windows are without curtains and their lights and sports bar-sized tv can easily be seen in our house. I so wish they’d consider window treatments. Hell, I wish they’d think of us – and realize that their light interferes with our space… But they don’t, and that has me worried the new neighbors won’t either… I suppose we’re damned lucky to have the space we do, so I try to keep it all in perspective and just keep going. After all, we live on a generous lot, we have room to run, room for a flock of chickens and a pretty nice view out the window. And we have a hell of a lot to look forward to with The Studio too; we are embarking on a new era, and things will only get more exciting in the coming years. Of this, finally, I have no doubt. Elihu and I will try our best to accept the loss of our field, as we welcome in the new friends we’re about to meet on our path. “Things”, as Martha Carver would say, “always work out”. Ok, Martha. Gonna to have to trust you on this one.

May has but one week left – and Lordy what a lot we’re planning on packing into it. This post itself is also rather jam-packed and I apologize if it’s too much. Skip stuff as you need (maybe I shoulda said that at the beginning!). Not having had the time to make weekly posts, this is something of a catch-up effort. Next time shouldn’t be such a novel. The photos that follow are also voluminous. Skip it all if you like. Those, like me, who enjoy voyeuristic windows into other people’s lives will enjoy; those who meant only to pass a few idle moments on their phones will either be long gone by now, mildly annoyed or checking out at this point. ! A tidier post to follow next time, I promise…

*(At the end of this writing we learned it was merely a broken switch – and not the whole water pump – which needed replacing. The greatest relief I’ve known in a long time, all thanks to our angel/neighbor – Zac? Nope. This time it was his father! We had help from absolute royalty, I tell ya. I do not know where we’d be without the timely help that family has given us through the years. !!!)

IMG_5904We started the month by launching Elihu into his teen years…

IMG_5945 Elihu’s Hess biplane takes off from the cake’s runway, aglow with candles for runway lights…

IMG_6235The entertainment at Elihu’s birthday parties has always been the hatching of chicks.

IMG_5971This year, one hatched in my hand.

IMG_6083Here they are at different rates of drying off… Fuzzier ones are about 3 hours old, wet ones a mere 3 minutes old, and sometimes still trailing their shells and egg sacs behind.

IMG_5959Chicks are cute, but the trampoline is always the #1 hit here at the Hillhouse. (Eternal thanks to Karen H!!)

IMG_6248A quick smooching of Athena before heading to school the next morning.

IMG_6106On May 2nd, this is what Spring looks like here.

IMG_6250Driving to school in the morning, we savor that vast, beautiful field while we still can. We’ve passed so many hours in that field together, with much hilarity involved. Elihu invented his Monty Python-inspired athletic events ‘Tussock Jumping’ and ‘Bramble Dodging’ in our crazy cavorts across the uneven terrain en route to visit neighbors on the other side of the field.

IMG_6333When I return home from driving Elihu to school, I am always welcomed by my beloved flock.

IMG_6393Each night, Elihu takes time to bond with the chicks, who will stay in our living room for a few weeks.

IMG_6593Weekends mean tuba lessons.

IMG_6609How lucky is this kid? He loves his teacher, and his teacher has chickens. ?!!? (Plus Mike lives only 10 minutes from us. That is more than amazing. !)

IMG_7535First, Mike plays along with Elihu on his warm ups.

IMG_7543And now, Elihu’s first-ever tuba duets with one of Mike’s six children. Afterward he remarked on how well she played. I added “yeah, and she’s really pretty, too.” Replied my low-vision (but not blind!) son, “Yeah, I noticed that.” !! She’s the same age too. Crazy. Two tuba-playing, chicken-owning kids just a couple of miles down the road from each other. Wow.

IMG_6674Later on that same day…

middle school jazz bandA bunch of middle school kids who are playing jazz. Ok, now this happens only 5 minutes from our house. Again, how lucky are we? The word “very” comes to mind over and over. And thank you John Nazarenko, for making this happen. Elihu is enjoying this beyond any musical experience he’s had thus far. (I know 13 year-olds don’t like to be called ‘cute’, but hearing these kids doing tunes like “Song for my Father” and “All Blues” is just that. Sorry. Next year they might be hip. But not yet. Today, they remain cute.)

IMG_7663These two kids really seem to play well together – and Elihu tells me W has a peculiar sense of humor too. This may be the start of a great friendship…

IMG_6670Post-rehearsal, Elihu’s in front of Zankel Hall, checking his phone for all those jobs that will surely be coming in by now….

IMG_6450Dad’s office, with the Steinway in the background. During his lifetime, this room was mainly taken up with harpsichords. Now that the piano is moving to the Studio, only my old suitcase Rhodes remains.

IMG_6518May 7th. Birthday of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and…. Elizabeth Conant! And what a birthday gift is this!

IMG_6434The Studio before…

IMG_6537…and The Studio after.

IMG_6584A Steinway at The Studio! Woo-hoo! This changes everything.

IMG_6547Ah, but the birthday girl herself has some schlepping to do… First jam session tonight… gotta get the room set up and ready… Aren’t I getting a bit too old for this?!?

IMG_6553Hillbilly load-in begins.

IMG_6561Sketchiest move I’ve ever made. Man, I guess I am getting tired. Or old. Or both.

IMG_6575Thanks to the assistance of kind and always-smiling Alex at the guitar store, the room is now set up! Now that was a most appreciated birthday present. Thanks for the help!!

IMG_6872In early May, the trees are still rather bare.

IMG_7020It arrived in a big envelope. I admit, that alone had my heart racing just a bit…

IMG_7022Wow! What a surprise was this!! Personally, I can’t remember ever receiving an acceptance letter. And so I live vicariously through my child. ! RPI will be a chapter unto itself, no doubt…

IMG_6720The chicks are still cute and fuzzy, and things are feeling very happy around the house.

IMG_8134On Mother’s Day, Elihu plays a little music for grandma…

IMG_8138…and then proceeds to ‘intentionally not smile’ in a posed picture – something which bugs mom to no end. (He says he merely wants to ‘be taken seriously’ when having his picture ‘formally’ taken.) Btw – can you believe my mom is 81? I don’t think she looks it. Do you?

IMG_6701Mother’s Day ended with an E and E selfie with chick. This, we hope, will be the rooster to take up Baldy’s post one day.

IMG_7029In early May, the chicks still live in a box in the living room. See how one is now perching on the edge? This tells us they’ll be moving to the garage soon. When they can fly – it’s all over. (That’s Elihu’s bass recorder on the left. People always ask us what it is.)

IMG_7228Friend and chord/melody style guitarist, Dan comes over for a bit of rehearsing. Hope we’ll be playing together this summer – if I can ever find the time to learn some new tunes. ! He’s been patient with my crazy schedule. More than grateful to finally have a guitar player to work with.

IMG_7091This is what happens when siblings take lessons together. One must always provoke the other. Little Coco is ready to strike with a subtle, but annoying tap on the shoulder of her big sister. !!

IMG_7255Oscarina, the large and lighter-colored fish at the bottom is a Koi, and is growing rapidly. Thankfully, she will now be residing in the prestigious local arts colony, Yaddo. The move went off without a hitch and we can visit her anytime we like. Yay!

IMG_7437We’re off to the Wishing Well for a fancy schmancy dinner. If we had our druthers, we’d eat like this once a week!

IMG_7487The heavenly scent of Frogs’ Legs. Unique to this establishment.

IMG_7471A dark selfie. So few pics of we two.

IMG_7439Rob plays piano here – a lot! I got to take up his post for a few minutes and enjoyed playing with my son on drums. A wonderful night all the way ’round.

IMG_7067Finally the weather’s right for painting The Studio!

IMG_7076Keith Sr. is doing some much-needed restoration too. It’s been decades since the exterior’s had any attention. Phew!

IMG_7414Keithie Jr. paints on the crew along with dad. Elihu and Keithie went to Kindergarten through 3rd grade together. No matter how different their life paths, that kind of bond made so early in life will always last.

IMG_7423Keith is maturing just a wee bit faster than my own child. Ya think? All in due time…

IMG_7278Another week’s passing and the green is really starting to show now…

IMG_7274Which means the apple tree is reaching its finest hour!

IMG_7272My cherished Lily of the Valley is finally here too!

IMG_7238As is the flowering quince (which appears more of a salmon or coral shade than in this pic).

IMG_7249In future Springs, this view will include a large house in the background. We are both still in a deep state of disbelief as our hearts ache with the loss.

IMG_7001Thankfully, other delights distract us. Elihu and I stood among the branches of the apple tree and enjoyed the constant hum of bees, flying hither and yon, as they visited every possible blossom. It was crazy the sound they made. Quite loud, and a resonant, almost single pitch.

IMG_7098Crazy cowbird, goofy guinea fowl.

IMG_6761Outside our kitchen window the red bellied woodpecker visits the platform feeder when the suet is gone.

IMG_6799Elihu takes a peek, but the woodpecker gets the feeling he’s being watched.

IMG_6819Outside, our two resident males hang out in the morning sunshine. Rooster, Bald Mountain is caught here mid-crow. Austin, to his left, is our crazy-ass Guinea Fowl. Never let it be said that birds do not have distinct personalities. !!

IMG_7343And chickens do have favorite foods too – pink apple blossoms are one of em.

IMG_7403Feeding frenzy.

IMG_7347Comic relief. And some serious attitude, too. !

IMG_7292We hope this will be the new resident roo one day…

IMG_6337…Cuz this old boy’s not gonna last forever. Poor Baldy, he limps when he walks, he sits whenever possible, and he only fertilized two of sixteen eggs this year. Yeah, he’s pretty much lost his mojo. But we love him still.

IMG_7557We saw this wonderful creature – the turkey vulture – just down the road. Having just passed a dead porcupine, we got an idea…

IMG_7571Out with the tuba, in with the poor dead creature.

IMG_7582Wow, sixteen pounds. Impressive!

IMG_7595We were sad to see she had been nursing a litter. We laid her to rest in our yard so that we might entice the turkey vulture and then watch it do its thing from our kitchen window.

IMG_7597Elihu picks up Christie, the stand-in for Thumbs Up, as she is the only truly friendly hen remaining.

IMG_7599A mutt of a hen (Araucana, Barred Rock and more), she lays olive green eggs.

IMG_7604Elihu carries Christie back to the house…

IMG_7610… and Pumpkin follows him back. (“Our” field is behind the row of trees.)

IMG_8636This is what the end of a weekend looks like. Sometimes I want desperately to run far, far away….

IMG_8411…until we settle back into our groove at home. Then everything is once again right with the world.

IMG_8154Lilacs uplift us too.

IMG_8160And look! It’s my long-lost accordion. I’ve left it out now to show my students (and to try to relearn all I’ve forgotten!) If an accordion doesn’t make things better, I don’t know what will!

IMG_7650It’s heavy, but it’s sparkly and loud, so who cares?

IMG_7753Usually a very trim, streamlined bird, this male brown-headed cowbird is showing signs of puffing…

IMG_7697…he’s mid-puff now… hoping to wow a mate he will rise to his full height and size while emitting an ultra-sonic high chirping which sounds like a video game….

IMG_7698bingo!

IMG_8160 (2)Inspired by the constant presence of birds in his life, Elihu, thankfully, occasionally finds time to draw birds. His love of drawing birds preceded all of his other, equally obsessive loves.

IMG_8172After supper we headed out to Caffe Lena for open mic. I knew Lena as a child, and so it makes me happy that Elihu continues to know this place as I did. (Bill Cole’s Woodwinds shop is just behind him – that’s where Bill kindly tweaked Elihu’s ‘beater B flat’ tuba and brought it up to speed. Great guy – kind, fair, and expert at what he does.)

IMG_8220“Good Folk Since 1960” is the slogan here. I can recognize a half-dozen artists at a glance whose shows I attended when I was Elihu’s age or younger.

IMG_8210Elihu has the ‘big kids’ laughing as he folds the performer’s entry cards into tiny origami cranes.

IMG_8192Before he plays, I want to make a pilgrimage to the men’s bathroom wall, upon which Elihu wrote at age 6 on the occasion of his first open mic. (It’s in red, and to the right and below the tree drawing.)

IMG_8193And here it is. Can ya read it? So sweet!

IMG_8216Tuning up.

IMG_8239These guys were fun. They gave the night the perfect bit of energy and humor.

But for me, this was the highlight of the evening…

I cut off the first line, as I was switching from camera to video… His first line was “I bought some instant water, I just don’t know what to add to it”. Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg are obvious favorites of this kid.

(Click here fore the link to his performance at Caffe Lena at age six.)

IMG_8271An old house in Saratoga that for some strange reason always stuck in my mind as a child. I liked the crazy roof over the stairs on the front porch. When I was little, it appeared cozy to me. Now, it strikes me as sketchy. Just as well – it’s history now!

IMG_8287Ah, the impermanence of it all. There goes the cozy roof.

IMG_8340This little guy is next, I was told by the developer. Thankfully, the new structures will be aesthetically similar, or at least in keeping with the vibe of the neighborhood.

IMG_8315Modern Saratoga looms in the background.

IMG_8349This is the sort of thing that will replace the old houses. Not too bad. Could be much worse.

IMG_8342I’m something of a demo groupie. I can’t take horror movies, but rather I am drawn to the violent and animated quality of a back hoe claw. It seems almost sentient…

IMG_8379On the way home I pass a picturesque cottage just down the hill from me, and I see it with new eyes. How charming it is at this time of year when all the white apple blossoms are in bloom.

IMG_8391Look how much things have grown in just a week’s time! This is the “lightning tree” which Elihu and I visit each Easter, and around which he has made a small stone structure with rocks from the stone wall at the field’s edge.

IMG_8551Saturday in the park. Congress Park, that is. In the foreground at the right is the baby willow tree that I had planted in memory of Jamaican-born banjo player Cecil Myrie, who died in October of 2014. He invited Elihu to busk with him when Elihu was just 6, and Cecil gave him his first two dollar tip. Our lives changed that day. (Can you imagine how truly grand this tree will look at the water’s edge in a few decades? I’m thrilled that I was able to contribute to the landscape of this handsome and historic park.)

IMG_8526Not exactly a brass plaque, but it works.

IMG_8542The willow tree with war memorial in the background. Wait – who’s that guy in the yellow shirt?

IMG_8535Shoulda known. It’s my kid – and he’s carrying a duck. !

IMG_8514Elihu loves to share ‘his’ birds.

IMG_8499We are such scofflaws!

IMG_8568Sometimes it really is hard to believe this kid is legally blind.

IMG_8479Since Elihu can no longer rely upon the ‘cute’ factor when busking, he’s trying out some new material. It seems to be working.

IMG_8608This is how we recycle our paper (and wood scraps) in Greenfield. Afterward, the ashes get tossed into the woods, where, as we say in this family, they “Go back to God”.

IMG_8624It’s been said that the fastest way to take off ten pounds and a couple of years is a selfie taken from above. !

IMG_7149Under the moonlight, we discover hundreds of tiny, white violets that we’d never seen before, growing all across our lawn. How is this possible??

IMG_7155A flash reveals them.

IMG_7179We lay on our backs in the moonlight and pick the tiny flowers until the hour gets so very late… Sunday night, back to school hours, we can’t stay out forever…

IMG_8421After Elihu went to bed, I took a long, mournful look at the silhouette of the field which will most certainly be transformed by this time next year.

IMG_8427At the end of the evening, I had the field and the full moon all to myself. I savored the moment, as I try to do with as many moments in time as I can be present for, because you almost never fully realize what you’ve got – until it’s no longer there anymore. For now, all is well. And hopefully, no matter what happens down the line, we’ll find a way to embrace the changes as they happen, and find a way to savor all those future moments too.

 

Chapter October 4, 2015

Sometimes they start and end with a defining moment, but mostly they overlap, fading in and out with such subtly that we don’t realize the times have changed until long after they have. Looking back one can see with clarity how and when the events and circumstances changed, we can note the point at which certain characters left or our joined our drama, we can remember ‘times’ as if they were distinct acts in a play, yet when we sit in the midst of our action, deeply embedded in our own scripts, it can be a challenge to see the bigger picture.

Recently I came upon a pile of fringe on the floor of my cellar clothing storage room, and recognized it to be from an antique dress that I loved well. Made in the 1920s, I’d worn it throughout my career with the Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago. A deep ache began to grow in my chest. The dress was likely ruined, but I didn’t dare confirm it. Nor did I pickup the mess. Instead, I sat and felt the grief fill me. I wondered why it broke my heart so? I thought back on all that had happened in that dress… I remembered the stories, the scenes, the cast – the soundtrack. I tried to console myself; the dress was in tatters, but hadn’t I used it well in its time? Hadn’t I myself enjoyed those days as deeply as I ever could have? Yes, I had. I’d always enjoyed myself to the core. What bothered me so deeply now was not so much that that time in my life was over, but rather that I never actually understood when it was that it closed. I was never warned that there would be no more gigs, no more crowds, hands in the air singing ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’ in full voice, smiles all around – the whole thing was over before I knew it was over. And that’s what got me. In order to give myself some kind of closure, I stood there and let myself remember…

I’d been young, pretty, and fairly on top of my game. On stage, in front of that band, dressed in those one-of-a-kind vintage dresses, bedecked with bracelets and hip-length necklaces, kohl-eyed and as animated as ‘the it girl’ herself, I glowed. I emanated fun. I was always chatty with the audience, slightly inappropriate, slightly bawdy; camp enough to give the show some punch, self-deprecating enough to endear myself to fans. The tunes were those I loved best, and although the charts were mostly written for a man’s voice and had me splitting lines and finishing them an octave above or below, I loved them all. The music was charming, the guys and the gals in the band were charming – and our audience was charming, too. It was a cast of characters united in their deep love for the dusty songs of a time long-gone. I must have known the door to this time had closed when I moved away from Chicago to the corn fields of Dekalb. But no, even then I had an occasional job with them. Enough to make me think this band might slow its pace, but would always be there in my life, chugging along… It was only when the building in which the band enjoyed a steady engagement (at Bill’s Blues) burned to the ground a couple of years ago – long after I’d moved to New York – that my heart finally understood it was over. There was no going back now. And this poor dress, after nearly one hundred years of service, is done with its career of dance parties and concerts. This is not to say that its life is completely over; the dress may yet provide years of service as a costume – perhaps in a high school play, or in a little girl’s dress up trunk. But its show days are over. That chapter has closed.

The thing about chapters and books is that you know exactly where you stand with respect to the ending. You can clearly see how many pages are left. From that, you can figure out how to emotionally pace yourself. You might love the book so well you put it down for a few days, so as to make it last. You might love it so well you cannot put it down, and so you consume it immediately. Either way, it’s your choice. You control things. You can choose to skip to the end of each chapter and ease your mind by learning that things finally do come out ok, or you can simply take solace in knowing that ultimately it’s just a book, and as such, it has a finite life. And no matter what the outcome, good or bad, it will come to an end. And you know exactly when that will be. At any given time in your reading of that book you can tell precisely where you are in relation to the ending. Me, I like that feeling. That definite knowing. If only we could know how many days were in a life as well as we know the number of pages in a book. A pity we don’t, I say. How much more carefully we would write if we knew how many pages we’d yet to go.

It’s been said of me by friends that I tend to look backward more often than forward. And I suppose I agree. I get nostalgic and misty over past decades quite easily. In my defense I offer that it’s because I have had some very good and memorable times on this planet. It’s also been said of me by friends that I’ve lived half a dozen lives already. And I would agree with that too. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have lived this life. I’ve piloted a 40 foot sailboat through a storm on the Atlantic, I’ve jumped out of planes and hosted a radio show (not at the same time!) I’ve sung in front of thousands of people, I’ve played a sparkly accordion, I’ve traveled to unusual parts of the world, I’ve butchered a chicken, I’ve raised a child. I grew up in a house full of harpsichords, my summers were filled with New England lakes, Baroque concerts and life on a farm. From a young age my father took me to hear jazz, and my grandma showed me how to dance to Jelly Roll Morton. My Pakistani father-in-law and Chilean mother-in-law opened my world to a still-wider cache of experiences. I learned to make new kinds of food. I cooked food on a private boat as it motored down the Mississippi, I avoided day jobs by taking hundreds of temp jobs and doing singing telegrams, two tanks of helium in my trunk on the ready to blow up balloons en route to my hits.

My memories are jammed to the rafters. And as I recall some of them, I can almost pinpoint the times at which ‘mini eras’ came to be, and the times at which they came to a close. Funny thing is, when I was actually living these memories, I wasn’t necessarily aware of them as chapters. All I knew is that I was following the events as one prepared the way for the next. And when an era came to an end, it certainly didn’t feel like it. I may have sensed things were changing, but in the back of my mind I guess I always thought that things would continue on as they were… Maybe that’s because I am not good at goodbye. Change is relentless, and I know it’s not healthy to fight it, but still, it’s not something that sits easily with me. I like things steady and for the most part, unchanging. But to be fair, if life didn’t lead me to new experiences, I’d probably cry of boredom. I guess the trick to living happily in the balance is to be aware of things as they are happening. Perhaps this is a gift of aging. Even if I knew it before, I know it so much more keenly now: savor, savor, savor. You may not think so now, but chances are good that one day hence you’ll look back and miss the way things were this very day.

My son is in seventh grade. If ever there was a time in which things change, this is it. I know it was for me. My first real crush, the first time I ever shaved under my arms, the first time I realized how complicated it all was. Elihu comes up to my ears now, he might even a bit taller. His skin is still smooth, but the hair is coming in differently on his legs, his toes and feet don’t look like a young child’s anymore, and soon, very soon, he will become taller than me. And I’m ok with this, poignant though it may be to my sentimental heart, because now I know to be on the lookout for it. I will not be taken by surprise by the forthcoming chapter, dammit. Each day I note how subtly he is changing. I soak up our time together now because I know that one year from today we will have entered another era, and things will likely be very different. Being aware helps me in my process. I just wish I’d thought this way all those years ago – as I left the Aluminum Group days, as I left the sailing crew days, as I left my days of city living…. I guess I always thought I could return, effortlessly, to those experiences. I didn’t quite realize that each chapter requires a certain, magical alignment of the stars, and that that magical composition morphs and moves on just as surely as do the eddies in a river…

One week ago today, when the Studio’s last guest was gone and I stood alone in the space, a clipboard full of new email addresses under my arm, I knew then that we’d experienced a beginning. The beginning of the preceding chapter was easy enough to define; six inches of standing water covering the Studio’s floor left me nowhere to turn. The moment my eyes first looked upon the flood I knew things had shifted. I just wasn’t sure how things would pan out…What followed was a chapter full of incremental changes, movement at a snail’s pace that could hardly be detected from up close. Yet things had changed. In a big way. And finally, we were here. I’d spent a lot of emotional energy coming to terms with the idea of my father’s era truly being done now, and it was a good thing the process has been slow – otherwise I might not have had the heart to go through with it. I needed the time to find emotional closure to the old days before I could step across the threshold into the new ones. Looking out on this empty hall, it occurred to me that one day this time will be looked upon with some nostalgia and interest, too. When my son takes over, or the board votes me out, or a theater company buys the whole shebang and puts a new wing on…. This will be the era that came before, upon which people wax nostalgic…

I may not know how many pages are left in my book, but at least I know to write more carefully as I go, being ever mindful of my surroundings as the chapters unfold. One day I hope to leave behind a fine book, with a fine ending too. But for now, it’s just one sentence at a time.

 

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.