The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Tenure November 10, 2018


Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.

I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)

Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)

Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.

There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.

There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).

There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).

Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.

Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.

Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking…  Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.

This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…

This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.

I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.

The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.

I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…

My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! We stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.

Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.

In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.

This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.

 

 

Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Book’s End December 31, 2017

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

 

Dear readers, are you still there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But remember, with every ending comes a new beginning…

                                                                             Our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin.

 

Future Field July 22, 2016

The days are long, but the years are short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.