The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.