The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Gone One Year December 27, 2014

My dad died one year ago tonight. As I sit here, I try to remember the feeling of the day, the order in which things happened. I’ve lost track of some details – some things are fuzzy, and that bothers me. But I’m lucky to recall this distinctly: I remember most how normal the day had felt. For the first time in years, it was just we four Conants together in the house. All of us at our posts, a low level of activity and busyness going one which had created a feeling of normalcy and well, comfort. My mom was in the kitchen puttering about, my brother at the dining room table on his computer, my father was sleeping in his hospice bed in the side room, and I sat in between them, on the couch in the living room, taking it all in. Feeling how homey it was. I knew we were waiting for dad to die, we all did, but still, it felt good to be there. All of us together, one last time. I can’t know how mom and Andrew were truly feeling, but I remember that I was quietly petrified, but somehow doing ok. In spite of what we where there for, it was a good afternoon. One year ago today.

We were all touching dad when he went; mom and Andrew holding his hands, I was holding both his feet. After sleeping quietly for hours and hours, it was a little after eleven at night when dad uttered two loud vocalizations. I alerted my brother and mom, and then it began. The final half hour. And at the very end, he faked us out three times – we’d thought he’d taken his final breath when he’d take another breath in… By the third one we were actually laughing – and crying of course too – because here was dad, in his last moments on earth, taking a curtain call. When he finally passed, our cat Mina, who stays on dad’s desk in his office (and had gotten up on his bed earlier that day – a move very uncharacteristic of her) meowed twice, as if to confirm that dad had finally left us. Finally, we could cry. Mom, who I’ve seldom seen cry in my entire life, allowed herself tears. Andrew too. And after years of being at the receiving end of my brother’s hate and venom (it’s not his fault, he is not well), I hugged him, told him I loved him and that he was the best brother ever. So thanks, dad, for helping each of us find a little closure in your passing.

When you finally lose a parent, it feels like an initiation. Having two parents – especially two who are still under the same roof – feels a bit like a bonus these days. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures and videos of us all while we were together, and I’m tempted to indulge in regret. It just kinda felt as if it would always be thus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again more than a few times: this is a hard planet to live on. Even when you have it good, it’s still not easy.

My agnostic friends will think I’m making stuff up in order to feel better about the whole thing – but me, I know that we move on to another plane of existence after this. I know it aint over, and that I’ll see my dad again. I even know he’s aware of me here and now, and that when I think of him, I send him my love and energy through the ether, and he receives it where he is. I know this. For my friends who don’t believe there’s anything beyond our simple, earth-bound lives, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see the look on your face when we meet again…

Here are some photos I’ve been digging up all morning. I’m missing a chunk of time in between when Elihu was little and now – but for some reason, life must have taken over and I just neglected to take pictures for a while. I guess I just kinda forgot that it’s the everyday things that are more worth remembering than the exceptional. But I’m lucky to have these. And so lucky that I got to be the daughter of Robert Conant.

Some pics from dad’s professional life…

IMG_4697An early promo shot.

Early Promo Shot 001Dig this one. !

Fort Dix, 1951Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)

the first Baroque Fest with mom and dadThe Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

robert shaw choraleWorking with Robert Shaw.

dad and Paul DoktorThis may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.

IMG_4682Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

IMG_4685Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

IMG_4667The Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel, Switzerland was an important part of dad’s professional life for many years. (With August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller.)

IMG_4704Always loved this one.

IMG_4692Dad as conductor.

IMG_4668Taken from the balcony of the Studio.

IMG_4678Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.

IMG_4672Kenneth Slowik was a huge part of our lives growing up as well as a very important part of dad’s professional life, and we still count the Slowiks as family.

FBM's 50thThe Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.

_______________________________________________

Now some pics from dad’s personal life…

Dad as a young boy 001Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.

mom and dad wedding

Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.

dad and me at harpsichord in Hamden

1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?

me dad afc at orch hallAndrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.

Conants by the StudioWe four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.

dad and me in the StudioDad and me at the Studio, early nineties.

IMG_5756A snapshot of the many talented young men who helped dad to run the Festival of Baroque Music through the years; they’re all really like family to us, and the Slowiks, Ken (far left) and Peter (3rd from the left) have been part of our family for over three decades.

IMG_6547_0001Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.

IMG_6527Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.

IMG_0553This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.

Dad's 80th Birthday 103Since Elihu could talk, he and his grandpa enjoyed speaking to each other in this made-up, Eastern-European-sounding language, complete with hand gestures and lots of crazy nuances. It was incredibly funny, and amazing to behold. Dad himself was extremely gifted at doing impressions and speaking in accents, and was known for his ever-present sense of humor. There was a lot of profound hilarity through the years in this household!

Dad's 80th Birthday 112Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.

elihu, grandpa and duckA few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.

IMG_4660I like this one of these three.

IMG_6519_0001Grandpa, winding the Grandfather’s clock. ! (This clock is the same one behind dad and me in that first shot of me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord.)

the Studio new signThe ‘new’ sign. Can’t believe it was four years ago now. Deep down I think that I just couldn’t bear to do anything with the place until he was gone. It still feels like his place; just putting up the new sign (replacing his Baroque Foundation sign) was kind of a big step.

the studioThe Studio that dad built in 1974 – architect, Michael Curtis. The place has looked a bit cheerier in years past, but it will once again. All in time.

Dad's 80th Birthday 050Dad and ‘the two Jims’ at dad’s 80th birthday. These guys have been around the Festival for over twenty-five years. The stories they retold at dad’s ‘living wake’ last year had us all but peeing in our pants. It was a perfect send-off for dad. (That’s Martha, seated at left.)

Dad's 80th Birthday 016And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.

1231102110This is how dad spent much of his last few years, resting on the couch. The lamp in the background hung in his childhood home in Passaic, New Jersey.

Elihu with hand over heartAlmost as if a sign of things to come, young Elihu reverently puts his hand over his heart in the same room in which his grandfather would leave this world.

Dad's HeadshotThere is just never a good time for goodbye.

As Elihu said to you in his final parting: see you shortly…

Robert Scott Conant, January 6th, 1928 – December 27th, 2013.

Post Script: Here’s a recording of dad playing – granted, his is the 3rd of 4 harpsichord parts (I know, four harpsichords? Wow) and it’s impossible to know what exactly he’s playing, but nonetheless, he’s in there somewhere… 

 

Better Plans Ahead February 20, 2014

Folks warn ‘be careful what you ask for’ – because as we all know, sometimes you sure can get a whole lot more than you bargained for. And sometimes you don’t even get what you asked for – you get a whole new situation which might even seem quite beside the point; the answer to your prayers comes in the most unlikely forms, trying your patience, provoking self-pity and other loathsome mental states…. You wish rain would come to save your garden, but instead a powerful storm comes and leaves things looking much worse than before, but then that inspires an inventory and cleaning-out of the space resulting in a new, more beautiful garden. You hope for a promotion at your boring workplace, but instead you get fired – but now you finally have the time to go out look for that job you really want. You drop a lot of cash buying the wrong color paint for your house and then it turns out to look even better than what you’d originally chosen… I think you get the point. Right? You ask, then you receive. But not always in the way you had planned. But that’s the thing about plans – some of the very best ones change, and go on to become even better ones still.

Maybe you’re in an incredibly unfair and miserable situation – maybe there’s a high level of fear or uncertainty, discomfort, lack of basic things like food, shelter, heat…. Maybe things truly are shitty right now. (I know a little bit about it. Not the nitty-gritty, honest-to-goodness down-and-out stuff, but down enough, thank you.) There is one consolation to be taken even if this is your current state, and that is: if you don’t want things to be like this, don’t worry, they won’t be. Things change – so you always have something to look forward to.  If you have the patience to keep the faith, stay as hopeful as you’re able, and wait it out – soon you’ll see where this new situation takes you (the old ‘fake it til you make it’ idea) – you might just end up in a much improved place in your life – a place that didn’t even show up on your list. Might be a nice surprise.

Without meaning to appear coy or too passive-aggressive here, indulge me if you will in the follow story lines (yes, this is my story): Your husband leaves you. You hadn’t for one moment ever considered this might happen, and yet now you have no choice but to deal with the situation. The only option is to keep moving. You’re hurt and angry and scared, but nonetheless you begin to make progress down that new, unforseen path (of course you may well be sobbing and screaming much of the way). And a coupla years later down that unexpected path, you find that you’ve just learned a whole lot of wonderful things and met a whole bunch of interesting people that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And your kid goes to a school he loves, heck, you even work at that same school. Now that time has eased up on your heartache, you can look back from where you came, look at where you’ve arrived, and now, only now can you agree with the universe that it did indeed give you just about everything you’d wanted. Ok, so you’re doing it solo, and sometimes that has you a bit down, but maybe even that plays an important role in the perfection of your current life. (If nothing else, you can make your very own rules, do things your way. Keep a clean bathroom and a tidy house. !) So maybe things don’t always happen the way you’d originally planned, but that’s only because you can’t see the good stuff down that other road… You haven’t got the advantage of seeing the landscape from above – but apparently, it seems, someone or something else does have the greater perspective. And ‘it’ has graciously given you a nudge down the fruit-bearing path. (To me it seemed more like a rather rude shove, to be honest, but sometimes I guess it takes a little extra muscle to get someone moving in the right direction. Especially for the more stubborn sorts.)  So thank you, universe. Nice of you to help out, I appreciate that.

Continuing on with the story line… Sometimes you do want something really big to happen in your life. And instead of experiencing a dramatic, unanticipated, life-changing even, you experience what you perceive to be nothing at all. So you decide you’re ready. You plead a little with the universe, you make your case, you throw down the gauntlet. Your time has come, please, world, bring it on! You are sick and tired of things the way they are, you’re ready for something new, and you let the world know it. But your frustration is deep and you’re probably not seeing that the thing you’ve begged for is indeed making its way to you in mysterious, unpredictable ways. You haven’t noticed any of this yet, so you’re still pretty crabby… and you’re pretty close to convinced that it’s a done deal. Nothing’s coming your way. But hey – you kinda thought as much. Whatever. Slog though, keep making those to-do lists, keep on keepin’ on. At least you got a new mat for that little spot in front of the kitchen sink and a hyacinth plant for the table. Those are an upgrade of sorts. And maybe those’ll have to do. Cuz all this other shit – this big life shit, the real stuff – man, it’s way too much anyhow. I mean, can I see myself doin something so big? So ambitious? So, er, grown up? Naw – shit like that’s for those other people. Naw, I’m just gonna live my little life, do the best job I can at that, and be kind to people as I go along. That should do. That should take me on outta here. What else can I do? I’m not young anymore, aint got the tiny body, the full tank of non-stop energy, I’m not living in the epicenter of an uber cool music scene… Things are different.  I’m a farmer now. A mom who might also pass as a grandmother. Yeah, I’m the crazy chicken lady across the field who teaches piano lessons. Start a business? Take a huge leap into territory that I know nothing about? That shit just sounds crazy. Maybe crazy chicken lady aint so bad.

Lately, as in the past few months, I’ve been toying with some different thoughts about  who I am and what my role should be in this next chapter, and these ideas are growing, marinating, morphing and showing signs of something much, much larger waiting for me just a bit down the road from here…. It seems – fairytale-esque though it sounds – that in order to see a dream take shape, one must keep a vision, hold it dear, and then share that vision with the world… Like a snowball rolling down the hill, your idea collects more mass on its travels, and soon you have far more than you’d set out to create… And then, of course, you have just entered into yet another chapter in your personal and professional growth. Holy shit. But then it’s not a dream anymore, you can’t hide anywhere, and what if you’re not truly able to act on all these prophetic-like platitudes you’ve been broadcasting all over? What a disappointment you’ll be then – mostly to yourself, of course, but that’s still not going to be as bad as the embarrassment you’ll feel at your very public ‘jump and miss’. Oh oh. What have I started? Sheesh. Think I’m frightening myself here. I’m exhausted and I haven’t even begun. Gotta keep my focus…

You do know what I’m babbling about, don’t you? Life, death, the Studio and unforseen catastrophes…. Let me backtrack just a second… I’ve been formatting and printing out all my posts from the past three years, and I stopped to read some posts from the past couple months – the time before my father died, a time of great inner sadness and reflection. At some point I lamented that I felt I needed a greater purpose in my life – that I almost felt I had a calling, but I didn’t yet know what it was. And then of course there were dad’s enigmatic words shortly after that…”When beautiful January comes…” And then there was beautiful January – and with it, the great flood. The Studio was ruined. My vision for the future seemed dead before it had begun. And yet… Things have been happening with great serendipity; the right people appearing at the right time, kind offers being made, solutions appearing from nowhere, improvements suggesting themselves as we re-think our plans… All sorts of things are coming together like some sort of energetic groundswell coming to lift me up and push me into this next era.

In a way I’m glad my father is gone now, because I don’t feel I could have moved forward with a new vision for The Studio had he still been here, after all, this place was his baby. He created it with a very specific – and successfully met – vision of having a venue crafted with superb acoustics for his beloved eighteenth century music. That was his field of expertise, and it is simply not mine. (I feel I should add that while I do dearly love Baroque music, I don’t know enough about that world to make it my thing.) I not only feel freer to move into this next adventure, but I feel that somehow dad is energetically supporting me from wherever it is that he exists now. Oh this is tricky territory – I have some dear friends for whom this sort of talk verges on insane nonsense, some friends who may agree more than they’d ever let on, and some friends who wonder why I pussyfoot around here when clearly I’m talking about my dad being in Heaven, and that he’s still somehow connected to this world – and more than that – he’s able to assist me on some level. Hey, I don’t know the truth, all I do know is that a situation which had me wanting to hug my knees to my chest and rock back and forth in a dark closet has now got me excited to wake up in the morning, inspired to move, thrilled to follow where this all leads… Cuz I’m going somewhere. Not quite sure where, but that’s ok. I have a loose plan, and I’ll leave it that way, cuz things will be changing yet again, I’m sure of it. And I’m also pretty sure that whatever happens next will be paving the way for better things just over the horizon….

 

 

Sans Solo February 8, 2014

Not a single event, discovery or achievement has ever truly been a solitary endeavor. Whether someone’s climbed a treacherous mountain peak, invented something revolutionary or done something for the very first time – none of it happened in a vacuum, apart and unaffected by the world. No matter what Miss Rand claims, we people here on Earth are absolutely interdependent of each other. Our personal triumphs ride on the experiences of those who have come before. You can’t beat a record unless one has already been set. You can’t build something unless something similar has already been built (and likely failed, hence the innovative re-build). Coaches, teachers, guides, the opinions of friends, personal opinions, the disregard for opinions of any sort – all of it goes into the pot. (Kinda reminds me of that saying ‘if you decide not to decide, you’ve still made a choice’.) There aint no way an achievement of any sort stands on its own. In part, maybe, but certainly not entirely. Try to back-engineer, understand and then make for yourself the handful of items you use in the first five minutes of your day today. Nuff said.

And here is where I need to let go of the illusion that this burden is all my own. This is the thinking I need to assume this morning, at the beginning of the path immediately before me. Yeah, I have a lot on my plate, and yes, I will be ‘directing the troops’ as it were for the time being, and I understand it’s important to have a vision for the future, but I can also see that the project I intend to set in motion will be by no means exclusively my own baby. Even my father’s incredibly successful and long-running music festival was not his alone. It might have seemed it – he certainly did a hell of a lot of the grunt work on his own – but he could never have pulled it off had my mother not been there to feed the many musicians and their families, to keep track of who ate meat and who didn’t, who had allergies, how many beds needed to be made up, when folks were arriving, when they needed to be at the airport… Then there were the assistants – one every year – to help run the administrative side of things. And, of course, the musicians themselves who made great expenditures of time and energy to participate. One could say the whole thing was very definitely inspired by the vision of one man at its core – but in the end, the Festival of Baroque Music was a huge group effort. And from the get-go, I can see the same will be true of the Studio in its new incarnation.

In a few hours I will meet some younger-bodied folks who are going to help us begin the long and un-sexy process of cleaning up. Not meaning this to sound like a sour grapes excuse for the way I let things happen, but I don’t think we (again, not me alone, but me and my artist partner, Ceres) would have ever made such a thorough cleaning-out of the place had we not been forced to. Many times I’d walked the place, shaking my head in frustration at all the stuff that needed to be assigned new homes. Many times I’d pushed it to the back of my mind. I’d made a few feeble attempts to remove an item or two – even tried to sell some paintings at local shops – but in spite of them having been hot tickets once-upon-a-time, I couldn’t find any current interest for the art. So I brought it all back, to languish in the Studio as I waited for a plan to come to me. I still have no idea what we’ll do with the contents of the place or where it will even live as I find homes for it all. In my basement, most likely. I have the space, but I don’t relish the idea at all. It’s ok, eventually things will sort themselves out.

There’s sentiment floating around some of this stuff too, like for my dad’s harpsichord tools. What to do with them? Which items do I keep, which should I give away? Posters of past concerts, expensively framed (a Christmas gift from me and my husband one year), certificates signed by famous, long-dead musicians, awards given to my father from local institutions, and many various original paintings. Not to mention my Rhodes, which lived here as I hadn’t the room in my own place. Guess I’ll have to make room now. (I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, but I had secretly hoped to learn how to successfully sell on Ebay this year – now might be a good time to take that project on.) Yeah, there are things here that could very likely find appreciative homes somewhere in the world, and while it’s hugely daunting to me to know how to find those homes, at least the process has begun. Here again, it can’t be just me. I don’t have these skills (yet), so the theme of the day has now become ‘delegate’. It’s time to enroll others in the mass project. Get rid of stuff, demo, choose new materials, rebuild. And then, at long last, move forward…

I still don’t know much about the future of this place. But I do know enough to recognize those first chills of excitement, hope, inspiration…. It’s a challenge for me to move past seeing this place as my father’s, to move past all those exquisitely nostalgic memories. The other day, when Ceres, mom and I were discussing our next move, when we got to the part about the floor, mom had said something about making sure to duplicate the amazing acoustics of the first floor… but suddenly aware of what she’d said, she stopped herself short. Ceres pointed out that mom, like me, had a hard time thinking about the space in a new way. (Ironically, the place had been too live a room in which to do any other types of music besides acoustic chamber music. Yes, an audience sops up part of the sound, and yes, it’s better to start a room too live than too dead, but still…) Our objectives are going to be different now, and for me it’s still a challenge to see this old building in a new light. I understand that where dad is now, it doesn’t really matter. He saw his vision come to life, and he saw his creation come to a perfect close. He surrounded himself with all the right people to realize his dream, and now it’s my turn to do the same.

This will be an ensemble piece, with just the occasional solo.

 

Maestro’s Finale December 28, 2013

Robert S Conant

Robert Scott Conant of Greenfield Center, New York, passed away in his home on the evening of December 27th, 2013 at the age of 85. He died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his loving family and cherished cats. He is survived by Nancy J. Conant, his wife of 54 years, daughter Elizabeth Scott Conant, son Andrew Frederick Conant and also his beloved ten year old grandson, Elihu Scott Conant-Haque, all of whom live in Greenfield Center, New York, as well as nephew David Conant of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania; nephew Douglas Conant of Champaign, Illinois; grandnephews Matthew and Gregory Conant and sister-in-law, Jean Conant of Holiday, Florida. He is predeceased by his father, Frederick Banks Conant, mother Bessie (Scott) Conant, brother David and niece Susan.

Robert and Nancy Conant were married at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan on October 10th, 1959, Fr. David Gillespie presiding. Though seven years apart in age, Bob and Nancy shared the same birthday.

Robert Conant was born on January 6th, 1928 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a judge, his mother a talented pianist. He attended Choate, where on a school trip to Manhattan to hear a concert by the iconic harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, he was first inspired to dedicate himself to the study and performance of the harpsichord. Mr. Conant went on to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, class of ’48 and ’56 respectively, where he would later teach as well as become curator of the Yale Instrument Collection. Mr. Conant made his professional debut at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1951. He later taught at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University under Rudolph Ganz, from which he retired in 1986.

Mr. Conant performed and recorded with many groups and individuals here and abroad including the American Bach Society, The Collegium Musicum, Robert Shaw Chorale, the Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel with August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller, the Alfred Deller Trio, Henryk Szeryng, Fritz Rikko, Paul Doktor, Janos Scholz, Renato Bonacini, Josef Marx and Kenneth Slowik.

Mr. Conant was a pioneer of the early music revival of the post World War II years, promoting the use of historically accurate instruments and tunings. Mr. Conant created the Foundation for Baroque Music in 1959, and began to host an annual concert series, The Festival of Baroque Music, the first several of which took place at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, NY, and which later moved to its permanent home in The Studio in Greenfield Center, NY, an open-plan concert hall designed for its superb acoustics. The Festival of Baroque Music ran continuously for 52 years, concluding in July of 2011. In addition to his love for early music he was an avid supporter of twentieth century music and commissioned several new compositions for harpsichord. He received a Lifetime Award from Yale University as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saratoga Arts Council. When appearing before an audience, Robert spoke with masterful eloquence as few can.

There will be no formal visitation; online remembrances may be made at http://www.burkefuneralhome.com. The family would like to express their deepest appreciation for the exceptional level of care given by hospice workers. In lieu of flowers, friends may make donations to The Community Hospice of Saratoga in Robert’s name.

Bob entertained friends and family with his great talent for hilarious, spot-on impersonations and will be remembered by everyone who knew him for his ever-present sense of humor, cheerful demeanor and endearing smile. Robert loved all things beautiful, sonorous and poetic, and he lives on through our enjoyment of great music and art.

Please note that the link to www.burke@burkefuneralhome.com may not bring up Robert’s page just yet, as there is still a bit of paperwork to complete before he’ll be represented on their site. Visit back soon and you should be able to leave a remembrance. Thank you all for your love and support.