The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Embedded February 10, 2019


Elizabeth singing with David Amram at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York

There’s no time to write, no time to think, no time to plan. Life at the Hillhouse these days is just running from one fire to the next, one challenge to another…

I refer to my spiral notebook of to-do lists so that my heart will remain hopeful at all of the items that are now crossed out. With so many items checked off the list, why is it that life still feels like a fruitless, Sisyphean maze without a happy destination? Centered folks with a handle on their shit will tell me it’s all about the journey, the process. Yeah, well there are times when I enjoy the ride, yes, but for the most part right now I’m feeling compressed, broke and apprehensive. And honestly, there are so many things I’d rather be writing about than how stressful things are. But I have a hunch that a whole lot of my friends are also feeling the squeeze of life right now too.

I know one day I’ll miss this time. I do, but still… Sometimes, when I realize that I’ve been standing at that same stupid kitchen sink washing the same goddam dishes over and over for a fucking decade, I am overcome with a profound sense of frustration. But then I’ll remember in an instant that Elihu will be in college in two short years… There will be plenty of time then to arrange programs for the Studio, cull the crap from the garage and fix the chicken run fences. Plenty of time for all that domestic shit that just takes time and muscle. (But then I worry all over again; will I have any energy or muscle left by then to deal with it all?)

A week ago I had the good fortune to sing with my old pal David Amram. Elihu and I went to hear him at Caffe Lena, and he invited me up. For that one moment I remembered how it used to feel… Man, there is nothing like it. It felt like I was flying, weightless through space, supported by a warm, loving cloud… It reminded me of the same way I felt when, at 17, I recorded in the studio for the very first time. That feeling of hearing myself through the headphones, lifted by reverb into a starry, endless universe… It was enough to remind me that there is more to life than the to-do list and the dishes. But it’s still not quite within reach. Not quite yet.

I hadn’t planned on writing a post this morning, but now that I’m here at my desk I may as well catch folks up on the current doings here at the Hillhouse…

Elihu is continuing to amaze me; he’s on the mock trial club for his school (they have real trials in a courtroom presided over by an actual judge), he’s learning French now (I’m guessing by June he’ll be considered trilingual), he’s building gorgeous planes and continuing to post his builds on YouTube, and he’s kicking some ass on the tuba. On Saturdays Elihu is a tour guide at the local military museum, a post he enjoys – something that I could never have seen coming a year ago. There is a lot on his plate these days; homework often keeps him up until past midnight, and as a mother, it worries me. It’s always been my goal to keep my child’s life under-planned so that he might never feel undue stress (that will come in time!), so recently I apologized to him for having let his life become so full of commitments, but he assured me that he liked it that way (in his own words he describes himself to be an “aspiring overachiever”!). I’m deferring to his judgement on that. His life is really on his own terms now.

Last week, while driving Elihu to the military museum for his afternoon shift as a docent, we were accosted by an inebriated and angry young man (there was an outdoor festival in town) who, while crossing the street in the middle of the block, screamed as us that I was driving too fast. I waved to let him know I was aware of him, that he needn’t worry. He yelled at me again, and in my endless quest to be understood by everyone, I opened the window and told him not to worry, when in a better version of the universe I would’ve kept my mouth shut, and moved along on my way. My protest enraged him even more, and so as we drove off he swung his hardshell guitar case at the car. There was a loud cracking sound, and the car rocked. Sensing there might truly be damage, I pulled over, assessed the door and then followed him as he tried to retreat, yelling at me that “the pedestrian was always right”. The impact of his swing did make a dent, and the paint was chipped too. A small mark, but enough to compromise the finish and create a crease in the line of the door. To say that my heart sank is an understatement. (Keeping things in check I reminded myself that this is a first-world problem.) I’m grateful that his mother was there too; her peaceful energy was like an eye in the storm. She offered to pay for the repairs and gave me her cell number too, and so after I dropped Elihu off at his job, I visited the police station to file a report. This past week I’ve had to add body shop appointments to my list, and the issue is still likely weeks away from resolution. Ah well. Just gotta keep going.

Not long ago Elihu and I learned that his father was having another baby. It kinda threw us for a loop; Elihu had settled on things as they were (he and I had enjoyed a surprisingly lovely visit in November with his half sister and her mother, and on that front things were very good indeed). Elihu said that it was hard news for him to hear, but suspected it would feel more normal as time went on. It was strange how hard the news hit me. I’d thought all that pain was gone, resolved and for the most part over. But there it was again, fresh; a reminder of how I’d never gotten the chance to have another child, how I was robbed of the possibility of a true family, how my partner had vanished without my consent. All at once the contrast was in my face; I myself was beyond menopause now, and somehow my ex’s wife was still in that youthful window of fertility. The wound opened up all over again. For a few weeks my stomach ached in an old and familiar way. But thankfully, in the month or so that’s passed, it’s subsided. My life won’t change much for this turn of events, and likely neither will Elihu’s. Crazy how stuff happens, and how one must shift one’s thinking to understand it all. Once again the landscape has changed in a way we never could have expected.

Our exchange student Leevi is coming from Germany at the end of March, and the house is topsy-turvy in preparations for our guest. A resident barred owl has picked off several of our hens; a plastic great horned owl sits atop a perch that we must move daily in order to appear a plausible threat to the henhouse predator. The weather continues to present challenges with flooding in our house and frozen pipes at the Studio. I can’t seem to get back on the diet train and feel fat and rather unhappy with it, but for the time being I simply can’t fret over it. There are too many other things to set right first.

So there it is friends, a rather hastily penned update.

Embedded below are links to websites which I recently created in order to hang ourselves a shingle out in the virtual world. Thought I’d try splainin to people what it was that we did in a more succinct fashion. Peruse Elihu’s site, won’t you please, dear friends? A lovely Valentine’s gift might be your subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel… (A mother’s thank-you in advance.)

ElizabethConant.com  (The main site to which all the others are linked.)

Copterdude’s site

Copterdude’s YouTube channel

Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher site

Singing70s (and more) site

Elizabeth’s Instagram (hillhousewoman)

Elihu’s Instagram (copterdude)

The Studio in Greenfield’s site

 

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.

 

Wrapped Up December 24, 2014

I’m alone in my house on Christmas Eve. That in of itself isn’t so bad, not really, but I’ve come down with quite a cold, a furious case of pink eye, and there’s nothing much of interest on hand to eat. There’s the nagging feeling that my mom’s alone in her house too, and so is my brother. And we’re approaching the year anniversary of dad’s death. It adds to the strange, unresolved ache of the day. And there’s just too much time to think about it. Elihu called from Illinois a little while ago. He too feels that something’s missing. “There’s no magic” he told me. “It just feels like another regular day”. I know the absence of snow there doesn’t help, but there’s more to it than just that. “Does Santa still bring you anything?” he asked in a quiet voice. I could tell he was continuing to test the waters. I told him no. “When did Santa stop bringing you presents?” I deliver my answer as tenderly as I possibly can…”High school, college… I suppose around the time I kinda became a grownup.” There was a long pause. As I sat on the couch, looking past the Christmas tree to the field of melting snow and misty woods beyond, I could feel something shifting in my son. He was resisting this coming of age thing. I knew it, he knew it, but neither of us dared to say it aloud. I’d thought this year would be it, and it might be, but his poor heart can’t let go of the last shreds of hope… Neither can mine.

Myself, I can’t remember a defining moment. When I knew for sure. Plenty of folks have had them – Elihu’s own father knew the jig was up when crawling through the attic he came upon his presents wrapped and ready to go – but I can’t recall one moment when it all became clear. I, like my son, resisted the bleak, harsh truth; the end of youth, magic and suspense. Who knows when I knew Santa didn’t exist? Was I nine? Nineteen? No one in my family ever discussed it, and so for me it kinda faded out gradually. I’m conflicted about this whole thing, do I just tell him? Write him a letter? Wait for him to ask me point-blank? He’s asked me about as directly as he was able, and I, not wanting to cave, had begun to laugh. Then he began to laugh. And once again, we had evaded the question… and the answer. There’s just so much loneliness and heartbreak in the world, and I’m feeling it now so keenly – that I can’t bear to bring more of the world’s reality down upon my little man. So I keep letting it go.

I had told Elihu earlier that I missed him, but that he didn’t have to feel like he missed me too. “Oh, I don’t. I’m too busy here to miss you. But I do sometimes miss the feeling of the Hillhouse. You know, the feeling. Because it’s always go, go go when I’m here. Sometimes I get tired.” We sat in silence for a moment, sharing the space between us, feeling each other’s presence. A moment later his little brother banged open the door to his room and announced it was lunchtime. The household of two small boys and a hyperactive, non-allergenic dog had come to reclaim my son. I heard voices in the room calling for him to join them. “Merry Christmas” he said, and then hung up.

Just about an hour ago I got a message from a friend that her father was not doing well. He’d just turned 88 yesterday, and now it seems his body was beginning to shut down. I’d seen him year before last and even then had noticed that he seemed slower, more mellowed. Older. I’d called his music shop only the day before to say hello, and he’d been very much on my mind of late. I hadn’t heard back and had planned on calling him again soon. My heart raced when I saw the message, and rather than plan a simple phone call, I began to plan for a trip to Chicago. But the reality is that I’m sick and broke, and I have chickens. It’s not very likely I’ll go. Even if I could afford train fare, rental car and someone to watch over my flock, I couldn’t go til I was well. I couldn’t visit him sick as I was. It hit me, and I sat with the weight of the truth in my gut. It wasn’t very likely that I’d ever see him again. Crap.

What keeps running through my mind is the last time I saw him and how I had left my camera at home. I wasn’t able to take any photos of us together. And it bothers me. And I think of all the times I’d wanted to call him just to thank him for mentoring me all those years ago – and all the times I just put it off til later – to find that there may not be a later. I remember my own father’s last days, likely a year ago today even that I had thanked him for giving me the gift of music. Through a cascade of tears I kissed him and held his hand and tried to make up for all the years I’d never expressed myself to him. This time, with this man, I likely won’t have the chance. It eats at me, and I try to find resolution. I’ll have his daughter tell him that I love him, that I thank him. It’ll have to do. One more sorrow I don’t know what to do with on this rainy Christmas Eve.

It was twenty-eight years ago tonight that I first met my future parents-in-law. My ex and I had had our first date the night before, and the next thing I knew I was having Christmas Eve dinner at his parent’s home. It was essentially the start of our relationship. And it was also this time of year that my ex had asked for a divorce. So this whole holiday time is kinda loaded for me. And being here all alone, I begin to wonder how it must be for so many out there in the world for whom things must be so much more dire. I don’t have things bad by any means, but the isolation is giving me too much time for reflection, and it’s getting to me. I think of all the other people out there across the land who themselves are locked in their own private despair, and my heart aches. It aches for the world.

Knowing I’d be facing a few days at home recuperating, yesterday I stocked up on books at the library. These days I have no need for fiction – I’m ravenous for memoirs. I cannot get enough of people’s stories. I want to know how they do it. How everyone manages… Just how stoic are people being? How fed up are they, really? How scared? I gravitate to the self-effacing, phobic types. I think to myself, yes, I get it, they get it, I’m not so bad off… But then I realize they were together enough to format their writing, to pitch it, to submit it, to actually get it published. And I feel bad again, I guess I am so bad off. The very thing I’d sought is what ends up deflating me. So I turn to Nora Ephron. She’s been through shit and come out on the other side, glorious. But of course, she’s gone now, and that gets to me. I can hardly read. Last night I discovered her movie Heartburn, and through the miracle (it’s still new to me) of Netflix, was able to watch the whole thing…

I watched, riveted. I couldn’t believe her story, I felt it so keenly. I knew how she felt; I have lived it myself. After the movie finished, I followed thread upon thread on Wikipedia, following the stories beyond the versions trimmed for print. So-and-so slept with so-and-so, children were born out-of-wedlock, families broken… I see people married several times in their lives, and I can’t wrap my brain around it, although no one else seems to have trouble with it. How can you make one family, leave them behind and go on to make another?  Clearly lots of folks start over. But I can’t see it. My childbearing years are over, I can’t have another family. So sadly for me, that’s not an option. I keep searching… I need something, but what? I know what’s missing: I’m looking for resolution. I want a happy ending that I can envision for myself. None is to be found. Something is nagging at me, beyond the dysfunction of my own family, beyond the emptiness of the moment and the lack of a complete family. It’s that ‘why are we here’ thing again. And with all this goddam spirit of Christmas talk, you’d think I’d get it. But I fucking don’t. Why isn’t this stupid, goddam life easier? Why can’t we all just find our mates, our families, and stay put? When a pregnant Rachel cries to her father about her cad of a husband in Heartburn, her dad responds “If monogamy is what you want, you should marry a swan.” Sigh.

It’s not just the split family thing that eats at me, although that sucks. I can’t watch television – a couple of commercials and I start to get angry – because it doesn’t represent the truth. We’re sold this false notion of happiness and belonging, of precious beginnings and tidy endings. Maybe I’m mad at myself for wanting to buy it. Like the Santa thing. So mixed on all of this. I want my son to enjoy a full and bustling home for Christmas – but goddam it, why can’t it be me with my family, my children, my husband, even my goddam dog? But then again, I wouldn’t know this life. It’s just not all a tidy affair, this life business.

I suppose the only way to wrap things up nice and tidy is with paper and ribbon.

_________________________________________________

Here’s a video of me singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (complete with the seldom-heard verse!) on Christmas Eve, six years ago tonight. I was completely doped up on antidepressants, as that was what made it possible for me to spend the night in my own house with Elihu, my husband, his girlfriend and their new baby down the hall… I can’t believe I was there… it still seems like a bizarre dream… I had gone back to Illinois to show my son some sort of brave front, to show that nothing was amiss… Some may wonder how in hell I could have subjected myself to such a thing, but the situation was still fresh, and I still didn’t quite believe it was happening. My friend Karen (at the piano) saved me that night as she did many times in those difficult, early years. We really had fun doing a couple of these impromptu songs with her and her brother and it helped keep my spirits up… It’s a cute video, give it a watch. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my grinchiness. !

 

Another Goodbye October 6, 2013

Frank D’Rone wasn’t someone I knew well, but he was something of an icon in the world of Chicago’s jazz musicians, and by virtue of that he felt familiar to me. I do have nice memory of having sung a couple of duets with him at The House Cafe a few years back. While I did ask someone to take some pictures of us on stage, the results were poor and virtually unusable. Doesn’t matter anyhow, as I have no idea where those old, blurred photos even exist now. Tonight, upon hearing of his death, I begin to think back on that night, and kinda wish I had those pics – even more so a recording – as it feels more like a dream than a real memory… Frank and his gorgeous wife Joan had come over to our house for supper that evening before the show (I remember that Joan was diabetic, and that I had no diet drinks to offer her. Frank suggested that I might want to keep some on hand for future guests. Never once since that dinner have I ever had a pantry lacking in at least one sugar-free beverage ‘just in case’. A tiny lesson from that day I will never forget!), and I remember just loving the music that night. It was a pure thrill to have a guy like that – in this day and age especially – in our own club. At first I was a tad apprehensive about singing with him – I don’t sing harmony parts often, and had never done a duet before, but Frank made it easy. He made it swing, and he just made it feel good. Glad to have that memory tonight. Thanks for the swinging music, Frank, and I’m grateful I got to sing it with you once. We’ll see you on the other side…

Frank 3

Frank in the early years…

CT ae-1230-COTY-jazz-D'Rone-001.JPG

And Frank in the later ones…

Frank D’Rone      April 26th, 1932 – October 3rd, 2013

 

The House Cafe September 21, 2013

It was a time in which I learned an awful lot, and it seemed everything was happening all at once. It was a time which, while an important chapter in the course of my life, would not be one I’d ever care to repeat. I had three things weighing heavy on my heart: first was my son. Each day I’d drop off my special-needs, vision-impaired son at daycare and would remain in a state of low-grade guilt and discomfort all day as a result. I would rather have been with him, but it just wasn’t possible as now I had a new full-time job, item number two on the list…. I was the owner and manager of The House Cafe. While more my husband’s dream than mine, he already had a full-time job, so this role became mine. Truly, it was no mere coffee shop, rather it was a restaurant and a nightclub. Live music six days a week, a liquor license, food to order, store, inventory and prepare – and college-aged employees to get most of it done. And then there was item number three: my marriage. A union of over twenty years that was fast dissolving into thin air right before my eyes. It was profoundly frightening, Each day I felt as if I were walking through a horrible, waking dream, yet I had absolutely no time to deal with it. I was so busy, in fact, that most times I told myself it was just the stress of the job; things were just temporarily off course. One day things would be back the way they’d been. That’s what I had to tell myself in order to get though. I had left my familiar and beloved life behind in Evanston and had hit the ground in Dekalb running at breakneck speed, but it was still my greatest hope that a peaceful family life lay somewhere ahead.

Having just set this up as a rather dark piece about a difficult time and a challenging job, let me now elaborate a bit upon what it was that made this experience so rich. As I once wrote – in my very first piece ever on this blog – I experienced a range of events in working at The House Cafe that I might have expected from a decade of management, not a mere two years. Some were terrible to live through, and some were very rewarding. Employees were for the most part intelligent kids with humor and good sense (not all of them, but most) and I loved to know that we ran a place that was comfortable and inviting. That it was a place in our small town where folks of all types could meet and hang. We had a toy box and couches, rotating installations of local art on the walls, we had a bright area up front, and cozy dark booths in back. Even four bathrooms. During the daytimes it was moms and tots and students studying, by afternoon it was the bands loading in. The place radically changed character at night – and frankly, as a mom to a little one, I wasn’t able to enjoy the shows too often. Sometimes I wouldn’t really want to; when the kids lined up around the block and down the hill I knew we’d be in for a heavy-hitting night. More than once I’d have to pack tiny Elihu in the minivan and stop by the club to tell the booking guy he had to close the doors. I know it was tempting for him (cuz he got paid by the head count) and it was tempting for me too to want that extra income – but we just couldn’t go over capacity. But as a business, you gotta admit that’s a pretty good problem to have!

I remember young Elihu – at the age of just four – helping me test mics before a show. They were clearly numbered, and he certainly knew his numbers, and he felt quite comfortable picking up a mic and speaking into it… so one by one we’d make our way across the board getting things ready. It was a large room, and in the evenings could be quite dark and cozy, so he was able to run around free from his usual super-dark sunglasses as I finished preparing for the night. Checking the sandwich line, the stock up front, the state of the green room downstairs. By no means did I run the place as well and thoroughly as I would have liked, but I feel I muddled through as best I could in my situation. Thankfully I’d had years of experience waitressing  and playing clubs, so that helped. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being stolen from by employees, by being yelled at by employees, by being told by the health department that I had to make improvements which I had no money to make, or learning I hadn’t enough money on hand to pay the musicians (this is the last thing I should ever want to do to a fellow musician!). Or finding that I needed to keep an inventory of every last thing in my storage closet lest my toilet paper mysteriously disappear. Or that pictures would be stolen off of walls, furniture would be broken, expensive microphones would routinely walk off and vomit would end up in the bathroom hallway at least once a week…

Of several memories, there is one I particularly like to recall. I’d been up front one late afternoon, working with the baristas, making coffees and sandwiches for a busy house, and had begun to make the rounds with a large plastic tub, bussing the tables. A local Dixieland band was playing, as they did one Sunday of each month. We’d just made it through the lunch rush and now things were settling down. I was in the zone of cleaning up – finding my groove and feeling good about a happy, successful day. I was lost in my thoughts, but was awakened from them when I’d heard my name spoken. I looked up, and saw that I was being called from the stage to join the band for a song. It was a Cinderella moment as I set down my load of dirty dishes, took off my apron to reveal a dress beneath, then pulled the pencil out of my udpdo and swung my hair loose. I walked up to the stage (a nice, raised stage complete with lights and a real grand piano – the one that now sits in my living room) and with only a couple of quarter notes to spare, started singing. Life at The House was seldom as picture-perfect as that moment, but it’s a nice one to have that one in the memory archives.

While I didn’t do the booking myself, I could – and did – suggest bands to have play. Sometimes I got em, and those too were happy events. It was enjoyable to now be the host rather than the guest, and to make performers feel at ease, taken care of. I myself made an effort not to engage with them too much, because for me as a performer I’d always wished for more space. And with my ex and other folks through the years I’d seen the relentless, in-your-face sort of presence that fans had. I know it goes with the territory, but I still thought it was important to make privacy available. When I was present, I think I did ok. But even though I was in that office from 9 to 5 each and every workday – weekends too – I didn’t have much of a presence in the place as a nightclub, as I was at home being mom. In hindsight, I think it all worked out. Wasn’t exactly as I would’ve liked, but it was ok. Like I said, I learned a lot.

After about two years though, I was reaching the end of my rope. I had wanted to turn my attention back to family matters, and I began to think about finding someone to replace me. But who? The universe must have felt my plea, for one day the phone rang. It was a woman who was just cold-calling us to see if we had work. She had lots of experience as manager of a coffee shop, and she lived in the area. And she was done with her last job, as in done. Like me, she’d had it and was seeking out something new. Strangely, I had time in my day, and she was only miles away, driving towards the place as we spoke. Within minutes she entered the office, within an hour I had a new manager. Within six months she owned the business. Finally, I was free. Jan was an angel to me at that time; she arrived just when I needed her, and she continued to not only run the Cafe in the same spirit as before, but she improved on it, making it into a Midwestern mecca for the college and patchouli crowds. Perfect. Even my twenty-something year old schefflera plant – now a good ten feet tall – stayed on to live and thrive in the Cafe. I made my exit feeling very good about The House Cafe’s future prospects.

Now, after some five years of Jan’s ownership, she too is wanting to move on. She, like me, is a single mom of a young boy (I think she even has chickens!) and I can’t blame her for wanting out. Running the place is a way of life. And for the most part, running a locally loved, well-established meeting place for the community can be very rewarding. Yeah, it feels really good to welcome regulars and get into a daily rhythm. When things are in place, it’s a good place to be. But no one can stay in one place forever, and so now The House Cafe of Dekalb is on the verge of yet another change. Jan’s leaving at the end of October, and the future of the place is very much in question. As I signed off on all aspects of ownership in the process of my divorce, I don’t know the particulars anymore. But I do know that this is a beloved landmark of that community, and I have my own personal hopes that another angel arrives just in time to save it.

The House Cafe Dekalb

The House Cafe of Dekalb, Illinois

 

Lost August 6, 2013

Kid’s been gone over two weeks. Maybe it’s three by now. You’d think I’d know, but I don’t. Been busy, busy, busy, trying to get all the things done that I simply can’t during the year. I suppose now that he’s ten it’ll become easier for me to do things. He can get himself something to eat or entertain himself easily enough. It’s just that I always feel badly about digging into solitary projects like filing, organizing teaching materials or other time-consuming stuff when he’s home. Which is why I’m hitting it so hard now. But today I feel stopped. The sun is shining and the day is bright, yet I can’t shake this feeling that the world is passing me by. I’m here in my windowless basement office, going through boxes and files and papers that just never seem to end. And I wonder, as I have so many times before, how on earth do working people deal with all this crap? There’s never an end to things that need tending to, never an end to the drawings and schoolwork that needs to find a home, there’s never an end to the personal correspondence, the filing, the bills, the paper…. And yet, at the end of the day, when someone asks me “what do you do all day?”, I’m hard-pressed to properly explain myself. Which leads me to this very moment. Right now, I’m feeling tetherless and lost.

In going through my music closet, and in finally opening great manila envelopes marked “to look at and file”, my past spills out onto my lap in old set lists, cocktail napkins scrawled over with chords, laminates and other small, useless items that only break my heart today. I remember the feeling of hope that went along with that time in my life. Our lives seemed all yet ahead of us then. Yes, I can say that I knew I was enjoying a good time in my life, and I did enjoy myself. I loved doing what I did, and I never took it for granted. But there was always another show coming up, another project, another seed of hope… I was always swimming with a fast-moving current. There was never anything static about that time in my life. But my life now is very different. Aside from my beloved son, I have to admit to myself, there’s very little of that sort of hope inside me today. There just doesn’t seem to be any forward pull. Yes, I have my writing, I suppose. Dear friends and readers who check in to bear witness to our tiny adventures, but is that in of itself a destination? What, I wonder, as I hold the evidence of a life once fully lived and enjoyed, just what the hell is my ‘thing’ now? Mom? Part-time accompanist at my kids’ school? Goddam recess monitor? Man. So much hope, so much forward-looking energy in these old scraps of paper. Yet where did they land me? I haven’t touched my Wurlitzer in ages. I haven’t played in a band since I left Evanston. It’s been two years since I’ve sung a proper show. And I miss it all like crazy. I fully admit to flat-out jealousy when I see the Facebook updates of my friends who are still making music. How lucky they are to be playing. To be doing what they love. I do know that I’m lucky to be here, and to have this new chapter from which to learn and grow, but still….

I can’t make much progress as I feel right now. I have no food left in the house, and I’m hungry. My hunger is no doubt helping to make my mood even darker, and I’m trying to muster the resolve to do something about it. It takes some gas and time to get into town, and I just can’t find it in me to go. I’m almost out of cash now too, cuz kids don’t take piano lessons in the summer (I sure never did), but that doesn’t stop bills from coming. August is always something of a financial challenge, and especially now in the wake of our July trip and some small home improvements. I know this has been a great summer, and I was so blessed to have visited Chicago (and to have eaten all that gorgeous food!), but it seems the spark has worn off. I know things aren’t bad by any means. I do. And I’m doing better than I was a year ago. I know it. Plus I’m home, surrounded by things I love, by nature, by a beautiful summer day. Even so, in this moment I’m still not quite sure where I am.

 

Good Night Vonski August 28, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 11:25 pm
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A thousand miles away tonight, but my heart is there on the south side of Chicago as Von’s friends and family gather to say goodbye. My son and his father were there too, which made me very glad. My heart’s a little heavy as I turn in tonight. It is truly the end of an era. Oh dearest Von, we’ll miss you so.