The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Waypoint October 14, 2021

I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.

In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.

Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.

When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.

We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.

I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.

A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.

The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.

Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.

And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.

When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.

Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.

I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.

I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.

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elizabethconant.com

AeroCraft

Elihu’s Music on YouTube

 

Out and Back April 12, 2015

This week I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet some old-time residents of Saratoga Springs. My heart is lifted to have met Rocky Groce, a DJ from back in the day, an 87-year-old fellow who knew every single song I could possibly think of…. He told me how he’d play hookie from school to go and hear the bands play… They’d hop on the subway and get to the Strand in midtown Manhattan just in time for the 1:00 show…. When I talk to cats like this, I can’t help but feel I missed my era. All those songs. And real live musicians. Everywhere. That culture is gone, and now the old-timers themselves are almost all gone now, and I’m starting to feel it. I’m feeling the importance of keeping the songs alive. But how? I myself don’t even know them in my fingers; for decades I was spoiled to live in Chicago and sing with some of the very best musicians on the planet. I never had to play. Just had to sing. I’ve always been a rather rudimentary piano player, but hearing all those old songs again as I reminisced with Rocky has got me thinking…. And playing, too. Been picking my way thru as many tunes as I can, stumbling through clumsy, simplistic voicings, rejoicing at just getting the harmony right. Right now I’m wishing I’d paid a little more attention to the music when I had the chance. But I can’t fret now, I’ve been a lucky gal. Just got to figure out how to go from here.

I met Rocky because, as it turns out, his wife Mia and our family friend Martha were classmates in the 1947 class of Skidmore College, here in Saratoga. Mia and Margie, another friend, went to visit Martha in the nursing home yesterday, and I met them there, my goal being to meet Rocky in person. Rocky didn’t know Martha, and had no interest in visiting, so he’d be waiting in the lobby. A perfect chance. I’d heard he had dementia, and that he was ‘really out of it these days’, but man, that was so not my experience. Maybe he doesn’t know what time it is, or what month, but who cares? (See, right there, two songs: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Who Cares?”) Yesterday, when I sat down with Rocky, I can tell you he was all there. It’s been ages and ages since I’ve enjoyed hanging with anyone like that. I felt so lucky as I drove home, and I sang the whole way.

Mia has her own interesting story too; aside from the fact that she was the first ‘woman of color’ to graduate from Skidmore College, which is in and of itself a rather historically important fact to note, she also represents a very important family in the town of Saratoga. The house where she was born still stands, yet it is the only one that remains on that block, as aggressive urban renewal campaigns of the 70s and 80s wiped out all the historic homes in her neighborhood. When the original families left the homes (built in the late 1800s), many then became neglected, low-rent tenement housing, and there were no champions to fight off the wrecking ball, except for Mia’s mother, Ardelle Elois Mouzon. She stood her ground, an elderly woman living alone in a house which was desperately in need of repairs, she weathered the city’s cruel tactics of turning off the electricity, and then even the water… The house suffered broken pipes and flood damage, but still, Ardelle would not leave. It’s thanks to her tenacity – and some help from daughter Mia, too – that the house still stands today. Now it’s the home of a much-loved, high-end restaurant called Mouzan House. Another interesting note: Mia’s mother Ardelle was full blood Cherokee Indian, and her father of Creole descent. (I’ve heard that that’s why Mia doesn’t refer to herself a ‘black woman’, but rather a ‘woman of color.’ Indeed!)

You can imagine how invigorated I was to have met Mia and Rocky and to have heard them tell me their stories. It got me thinking again… It got me wondering, what is out there now, today… tonight? Just what is going on in the world – what stories might I be missing? And what kind of music could I find out there? With Elihu being gone, it was a perfect time to see for myself. It was Saturday. Couldn’t be a better night. So I set out.

Started at the local piano bar. The fellow playing actually took a few lessons from my father, and it made me happy to learn that dad had allowed Rob’s students to play their Bach recitals in the Studio, and on his double manual harpsichords. Warmed my heart to know that he’d known dad. I hadn’t sung in literally years, so I was a bit less together than I might have liked, but it didn’t matter. It was a slow night, and the gracious hostess and owner, Brenda Lee (also one of the old-timer set) was there at the bar, singing right along with me as I swung through Blackbird and The Nearness of You. When he finished for the night, he let me noodle around a bit, and I tried my hand at playing and singing – at the same time! – which I discovered, like anything in life, takes a bit of getting used to when you’re out of practice. Not accustomed to doing both at the same time these days – but it was fun. He showed me how he had all his sheet music on his Ipad – and how amazingly easy it was to turn pages, locate signs and endings. I can see that it would be the way to go if I had such a gig. One more thing on the never-ending list. I’ll consider it a huge personal victory if I can just acquire a new jobbing keyboard, much less find a place to actually do the playing and singing.!

I went home to close up the chickens (which required doubling back five miles and donning my muck boots for a minute) and then promptly turned around and headed downtown. I found the streets were pumping as if it were high racing season. Bands rung out from every bar, and clusters of sloshed twenty-somethings in sky-high heels tottered into taxis, phones all aglow… My goal was to meet musicians. To find out where they came from, how they got the jobs, and how I might do the same. Ideally I’d wanted to find a hotel where I could play – a place where I can do my thing while people do theirs. I had many such jobs ‘back home’ in Chicago, but I can’t compare that time or market to this. I found the jazz joint, and it was a joy to hear real music again. But still, I couldn’t ignore the inner snob… It wasn’t great music, they weren’t amazing players, and I realized, once again, that the caliber of music I heard in Chicago, and the experiences I had singing with those top-tier musicians cannot be compared to this. I was fucking lucky back then. And I had no idea. But somehow, even in my glory, rocking a perfect size 8 cocktail gown and calling tunes in front of a full house, I still felt as if the ‘real’ things were yet to come. That somehow, this was all a precursor to the real success, the ‘real’ career which was, somehow, to follow in the vague and distant future. Right.

When the guitar player declined to show much interest in trying a voice and guitar duo thing sometime, I lost interest in sticking around for any more of their original tunes. I’d had my fill. Time to move on. I had a few bands to choose from, and squeezed my way into a bar out of sheer curiosity – the band was all middle-aged guys my age or older, and they were just breaking. I said hello to the keyboard player, a stout, bearded fellow who drives a school bus by day.  I asked him about jobs – hotels, weddings, that sort of thing. He admitted he didn’t know – it didn’t much matter to him, as his band was booked two years out. That impressed me. Talk about working! I admired his stamina too – they played two-hour sets at one stretch, set up and broke down all their gear themselves (I can’t imagine dealing with 70 pound keyboards at this time in my life!). They didn’t get home til four in the morning, and yet by the same time on Monday morning he’d be rising to get to his day job as if it were business as usual.

They started to play, and I admit that I was ready to do my big-city snob thing; I was ready to split after the first song, but damned if I didn’t stay for the whole set. I guess I was a little embarrassed to stay at the start, but the whole thing was just so fascinating – the mix of tunes, of generations, how they pulled together the set list…. How they copped the tunes as well as any pro jobbing band. It was interesting. And…. fun. Drunken young professionals spun a beer bottle on the floor which kept stopping its spin to point at me, at which point I’d be dragged out to the middle of the circle to dance with the chosen partner… It was crazy, and in spite of not wanting to succumb to the barroom madness, I did. And I dug it. I laughed to myself later on when I thought of the rocker bus driver. He sang great, sounded great, kept the stuff moving… And never would I have guessed it if I’d seen this cat on the street. So what do his charges know of his other career? Do they know that they have the cool bus driver? I wondered. ‘Nother lesson learned. That book by a cover thing – it so does not work.

Intrigued with the crazy-high heels all around, I stopped to ask a crush of girls standing on the corner how they managed in their shoes – especially up and down hilly Caroline Street. “Oh, it isn’t easy” one girl replied, a bit slurred. I pressed for more – were they truly five-inch heels? Or was there a one inch platform to assist? One girl offered that hers were all heel, and then… they all just sort of turned away from me. And I felt it. The phenomenon of being too old to be relevant. If it hadn’t been for the level of intoxication, I’m not so sure the kids would’ve been so welcoming to me on the dance floor. I definitely felt old in this population. First time I’d really felt it – first time I realized that none of my peers were out on the streets. No, they were at home. Asleep. With their kids down the hall, and their Subarus in the garage. Yeah, I was ‘over fifty invisible’. Mighta bothered me once, but not now. I turned and left the clump of tottering girls and headed back to my car, and back to my country homestead.

I turned on the radio and heard something that made my whole body feel good. It was a jazz guitarist. Man, I’d like to sing with someone like that, I thought. The shit was burnin. The subsequent tunes were good too, but when I pulled into the driveway I sat in the car and waited for the dj to back announce the tunes so I could learn who the guitar player was. It was Pat Martino. Yeah, mighta known it. I laughed, and got out of the car. Thankfully, the new neighbors had finally turned off their garage lights and the place was dark. All except for a deep red half moon, which was rising just above the horizon as I reached the front door. I would never have seen it if I hadn’t been out all night. Even if the night hadn’t lived up to my hopes, I’d had fun. And if nothing else, I’d gotten to see this perfect moonrise. And that alone made the whole night worth the money spent and the sleep lost.

IMG_6901That’s my new friend, Rocky Groce on the right. Do a little googling of the man and you’ll see he’s had a long and varied career as a disc jockey. That’s  JG on the left – turns out he was a big band singer. The two gentlemen are exactly the same age and both shared memories of cutting school in the 40s to hear the bands play at the Strand in NYC. They both heard Frank when he was young and in his prime.

Rocky recalls his youth… Wish I’d let the video go longer, but still nice to have.

IMG_6916Here’s Martha on the left, enjoying a visit from fellow Skidmore graduate, class of ’47, Mia Mouzan Groce. She is the hottest-looking octogenarian I have ever met. !!! Way to rock that leather jacket!

MiaAnd here’s Mia in 1947, just after graduating from Skidmore College. !!!

IMG_6928One more look at her…. not a whole lot different, ya think?

IMG_7063Things sure have changed since those tuxedo’d days of the thirties and forties! No pics from the Wishing Well’s piano bar or the tiny jazz joint, both which might have more closely resembled the nightlife of years gone by – but here’s a little look at the middle-aged men rocking a house packed full of tipsy twenty-somethings in modern-day America.

And here’s a little soundbite from “the Master Cylinders”…

IMG_7066And here’s the gorgeous, red moon I saw at night’s end, peering out through the trees on the hill. A nice welcome home.