The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Springing Forth April 5, 2015

Never in my four years at the helm of this blog have I passed so much time in between posts. But there are many good reasons for such a break. Too many, most likely, to accurately recount here.

The digest begins like this: Two weeks ago the logging job stopped, and with it came not only the money from the harvest, but the work in earnest began on the Studio (thereby spending all of the windfall in short order.) The logging site was left with a lot more mess than we’d agree upon, and I met with the forester to discuss cleanup, a task I knew would be very hard to enforce once the big machines had left the premises. I’d seen the gear there on Sunday, but by the time I’d finished my early morning rehearsals at school on Monday morning, I returned not only to find every last piece of earth-moving equipment gone, but huge heaps of dirt, stumps and stone ringing the work site. So not what we agreed upon. But then again, they were there to get the timber, not to leave me with a squeaky clean parking lot. But still. One more thing on the list to make right.

Meanwhile, there were decisions to be made about materials and finishes and such, while daily life continued without slowing down. Lesson plans, rehearsals, paperwork for the Studio, meetings, meals and homework all kept going, much to my frustration. I’m not a great multi-tasker, and as such the past month has been a bit trying for me. Panic attacks have been kept at arm’s length (thanks to the miracle of Xanax I can avoid them almost altogether), and as if a perfect bipolar patient, I swing back and forth from one emotional extreme to the next several times in the course of a day. One moment I’m brimming over with hope and visions for a successful future, the next I wonder what in hell it is I think I’m doing here and I’m just about ready to take a job at McDonald’s and excuse myself from the whole affair. Exhausting stuff.

One week ago Elihu and I drove to Philadelphia to meet my cousin (my late father’s nephew), his wife, his sons and one wee one too. It was the first time I’d ever met any Conant relatives as an adult, so it was an important visit. My cousin also took us to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra – box seats, no less – where we heard not only Mahler’s 5th, but also a new concerto written for tuba (!!!). Serendipity came through for us after the concert and we found ourselves walking backstage, escorted by the composer of the piece himself. Elihu was beside himself with the thrill, and I’m afraid that I caused him no small amount of embarrassment as I lost my cool and fell into something of a star-struck stage mom in the presence of both composer and soloist. We chatted with the tubist, and offered to meet up with her again in the summer, when the orchestra (of which she is a member) makes its summer residency in our hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York.

For me the trip involved a lot of driving – more than twelve hours in the car for a brief, weekend stay (and with panic attacks threatening the whole way it was a bit more stressful than it might have been otherwise). But it was well worth it for the new relationship we now have with our family, not to mention the memories we made that will, to use the most trite but accurate expression, last a lifetime.

Since our return from Philly everything at the Studio seems to be happening without pause; decisions I might like to have labored over a bit longer need to be made ASAP; purchases, while modest, are still adding up to steeper totals than I’d imagined, and the reality of our lot in the wake of now-absent loggers still has me concerned. But it’s all good, as I must remind myself. Sometimes even hourly. I’m tempted to cry almost daily with all the money that’s going out… It feels surreal to live on food stamps and state assistance and then turn around and pen a check for several thousand dollars as if it were business as usual. I can’t wrap my brain around the discrepancy between the commerce of the new business, and the lack of commerce here at home.

In an effort to drum up some income (as well as play music again!) I’ve begun to make some plans. Since Elihu is now old enough to be left at home alone for more than a quick run to the convenient store, I’m starting to think about getting something together for the summer tourist season and actually finding some work. Breaking into the local ‘music scene’ (there really isn’t one – it’s just a summer extravaganza of wedding-esque cover bands) is proving to be much more difficult than I’d thought. In spite of knowing a handful of musicians, I can’t seem to find a single job. Not even a freebie – and Lord knows I’d be happy just to sing. My gear is as out-of-date and out-of-the-loop as I am, and my now-ancient (make that vintage) Yamaha S80 won’t cut it anymore, even if I should find work. (Yes, I do still have my Rhodes and Wurli, but those are in dire need of work and require an extra pair of hands to move.) The days of lugging a 70 pound board around – plus amp and gear – are just plain over. Some of my pro friends might pooh-pooh my desire for a lightweight keyboard with, gasp, builtin speakers, but that’s the way this gal is headed, I’m afraid. I found a candidate for a new board on Craigslist, and when this income-free week of Spring break is over and students resume, I hope to make it my new piece of gear. Let’s hope it ends up paying for itself in the coming months.

Sometimes it feels as if I’ve taken a giant hiatus from my life after having become a mother – and a single one to boot. When I stop and look at the stats, I realize that I haven’t worked as a musician since shortly after Elihu was born. That means I’ve been dormant for over a decade! Not that I have any regrets; being present for my child as he’s grown up has been a blessing that many are never given the option to experience. Yeah, being broke has been a drag, but even so, it’s been acceptable, because I’ve been able to be here for my son (plus, when in a true pinch, grandma has always had our back. The significance of that cannot be understated.) I have an amazing child in part because I’ve chosen to be with him and not farm him out to daycare while I grind out a minimum hourly wage. It’s all worked out ok thus far, but I pray things will be changing soon. I’m tired of just getting by. They say do what you love and the money will follow. God I hope. People ask me what my business plan is with the new place, and honestly, I can say that I still do not know. I know what I intend to achieve, but the hows are still the struggle. Lists are being made and ideas being created – and tossed out just as fast. Something will take shape, I know. Just not sure how. But whether I make music myself, or make music possible for others, as long as I can somehow glean an income in the process, I’d be the happiest gal around.

Today it’s Easter, and while this year my son may no longer truly believe in the Easter bunny (can’t help but think he maintains his belief to please his mum!), outwardly his show of enthusiasm doesn’t let on. Last night we watched the old 70s TV special “The Easter Bunny’s Coming to Town” (with Fred Astaire narrating) and today we quoted our favorite passages from the show as we dug into our colored eggs. To my chagrin, when his little half brothers called this morning, they had Elihu turning the house upside down for hidden eggs, which the Easter bunny had not bothered to hide at 3 in the morning when he was filling the basket. The Easter bunny can only do so much. ! And now, I think my kid gets that. But no matter whether he believes or not, it’s still been a special morning for us. We’re both happy to be at home, together. That makes it a good day, no matter what.

Soon we’ll gather the last eggs from the coop for the incubator, and after that we’ll take a long, leisurely walk around the property. We’ll visit the fox’s den in the side of the hill, we’ll check to see how little snow is left in the shady spots, and we’ll see how our mom-and-son cairns by the lightening-struck tree have weathered the years. We’ll shore up the piles of rocks, agree that it was a fine walk, and head home to await an evening meal with grandma and Uncle Andrew.

I’m not sure how things will pan out in the days to come, but today I’ll try not to worry too much about it. Instead, I’ll continue to do what I’ve done for the past ten years of my life – I’ll enjoy watching my son as he makes his way through his childhood and towards his future.

IMG_5592The family! Yay for the Conants of Philadelphia!

IMG_5573Big ones and wee ones…

IMG_5577…and funny ones, too! Just look at that chicken purse! Love it. We’re definitely related.

IMG_5696The Kimmel Center, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Elihu just kept expressing his amazement over the space. He’d never been to a concert hall like this before. A night he will never forget.

IMG_5683The hall, gorgeous; the Mahler, rich; but Carol – beyond anything he’d expected. Elihu was simply transported. He loved the piece, and he was given a new appreciation for the virtuosity needed to play such music. Suffice to say he aspires to much more than the common polka these days. Thanks, Michael and Carol.

IMG_5699Chatting backstage with tuba soloist Carol Jantsch and composer of “Reflections on the Mississippi”, Michael Daugherty.

IMG_5697My son and Mr. Daugherty, whom we later learned shares a birthday with Elihu!

IMG_5700Elihu is psyched. !!!

IMG_5616Philly by the light of day. I was interested to learn that the sculptor of this famous bronze figure of William Penn atop the city hall clock tower was by Alexander Milne Calder, the father of modern sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Calder.  There’s even a plaza which is home to works by both father and son.

IMG_5625City of brotherly love…

IMG_5627… and lots and lots of art. There is literally a large piece of art on every corner. Loved that.

IMG_5629So what does lil man want to do when in this historic, all-American city? Eat Vietnamese food, of course! (Wing Phat? How appropriate for my little aviator!)

IMG_5632Hello, cousin Matt!

IMG_5637Tasty quail! We had Pho, too….

IMG_5649Thanks to Matt and Stephanie for taking us to this sweet Asian grocery store (oh, and lunch, too)!

IMG_5648Helpful signage.

IMG_5655Fish heads?

IMG_5659We liked this one… We all agreed it mighta been worth $10 to watch the staff running around trying to catch a loose bullfrog…

IMG_5663Spring-loaded and ready to leap.

IMG_5606Headed back home we can see the famous Boathouse Row across the river.

IMG_5566The whole area is full of boulders and hills. Most of the local houses are themselves made of stone.

IMG_5556A jam-packed weekend had my lil man zonked out.

IMG_5721In the morning, it’s scrapple for breakfast! A Philadelphia delicacy!

IMG_5728Cousin Dave, waving goodbye in front of his stone house. Thank you for the hospitality!!

IMG_5745One last look at the Philly skyline…

IMG_5794… and then it’s on to the New Jersey Turnpike. The language of roadways is different all over; one travels by highway, expressway, turnpike, thruway, freeway, tollway and parkway. Phew!

IMG_5787Next time.

IMG_5914This tells us we’re getting close to the end of our trip…

IMG_5916And so our wonderful little adventure comes to a close as we return home. To snow. !

IMG_5969Sadly, I saw this hairy woodpecker being hit by a car. He lived long enough for me to bring him home. We admired his beauty, then buried him along with our other birds under the flowering quince bush.

IMG_5997Elihu had his buddies over the other day. They had a blast.

IMG_6021Elihu and Sawyer enjoy the hens.

IMG_6025I took the boys for a walk down the road to see how the Studio was coming along.

IMG_6028The sign will need to be moved to mark the new driveway and parking lot, a couple hundred feet to the east.

IMG_6056Mud season begins.

IMG_6032The boys have fun in the room that’s almost prepped for its new floor.

IMG_6030A kitchen will add greatly to the building’s functionality.

IMG_6043The view from the Studio’s balcony. The boys are enjoying the last of the snow.

IMG_6072Elihu got a little asthmatic after all that running around, but it was worth it.

IMG_6195Easter morn.

IMG_6197Digging for treats.

IMG_6120Elihu gives Thumbs Up a good smooching.

IMG_6149Elihu and his chickens.

IMG_6152The bigger picture.

IMG_6317A sight we seldom see; neighbors out for a walk on the hillside road. They wished us a happy Easter as they passed.

IMG_6322Mom and son cairns.

IMG_6291The lightening-struck tree. Still looks the same as past Easters.

IMG_6356I found a kite under the snow and we had fun watching it whip in the wind.

IMG_6393Our own Calder-esque bird sculpture by friend and Vietnam vet Ace, and our garage’s dove behind.

IMG_6377Almost home. A perfect Easter day.

Happy Spring to all our friends around the world, and may good things blossom anew for each and every one of you.

 

Cool and New September 1, 2014

It’s a lovely, late summer morning. A cool, humid breeze blows gently in from the east, causing the still-green trees to gently nod and twist. The temperatures inside and outside match, at a comfortable 70 degrees. For the first time in a long while, one can detect the season that’s coming in a few weeks. Though still green, the leaves are not the bright, lit-from-within green of spring, nor are they the rich, full green of a tree deep in the middle of its growing. Now, they are what I call a tired green… Just the faintest hints of olive and yellow begin to emerge when the light is just so. As I sit here this morning, the light itself is gray, the skies heavy with a coming rain, the green still looks like summer. But the rays from a setting sun would betray what’s really going on. This is that time of year in which we must all make our internal goodbyes, our quiet inventories of all that we’ve managed to do during the brief time when we didn’t have to wear anything extra to go outdoors… This is when we sigh, we surrender ourselves to the inevitable change. We shrug our shoulders, declare to friends that whether we’re ready or not, fall is just about here. School, after-school programs, the tasks of making lunches and cooking planned, sit-down suppers… Routine is coming. And soon after, colder weather.

Although I’d given notice at the Waldorf School back in June, and was assured mid-summer that I did not need to concern myself at all with the possibility of being needed again at school in the fall – that there was already an interested prospect for my replacement in the works – plans changed, as I had suspected they might. Apparently the ‘new’ gal who’d been enthusiastic about the post came to realize that the time it actually represented (yeah, I know, how hard could it be to be a musician? Ya show up and just play, right?) wasn’t worth the lousy money they were offering. Coulda told her that. For me, however, it had been worth it, as I had wanted to be with my son, I had wanted to get my reading chops up again, I had wanted to make driving him into town every morning worth the gas money. But it wasn’t enough for her, and I’m back on the hook. Which is a lousy thing at this particular time. I have a lot going on with the Studio – much of which I must do with my own hands – and this job will interrupt my workdays in awkward ways, blacking out entire mornings or afternoons, causing more delays in my progress. I wasn’t able to work this summer because I had things backing up here at home, I had a few house guests, many large-scale outdoor projects, and at the end of the summer I had a child about. This fall I’d planned to hit the ground running… But now I’m stopped. I can’t see an entire movement program at the school hanging in the balance should I refuse to play. I can’t do that to the kids, or the school. I had promised I’d help if they absolutely needed me, and disappointingly, now it turns out they do. They assure me it’s only for the first quarter. Yeah, the quarter in which I begin to teach my class at the high school, start up again with piano students, begin a new diet – plus it’s the quarter in which I must get both the Studio and my home ready for winter. Pretty lousy timing to be sure.

This afternoon we dropped our house guest Ken off at the train. He is setting out for an unknown adventure of his own, going to live somewhere new and turn to the business of tending to his health and even more importantly, his painting, his peace and his sanity. I feel like Elihu and I are also embarking on a new life; middle school, playing in a full orchestra and wearing contacts for my son, restoring and building the Studio while still working part-time, keeping a supportive home life and a full teaching schedule for me. I’m a little afraid, to be honest. It’s a lot on its own, and on top of it I’m planning on beginning another weight loss campaign at Weight Watchers in a week’s time (sponsored by my mother) and that will be an enormous challenge, I’m sure. The Atkins diet, while allowing me great and relatively fast success, assured I was seldom hungry (yet it also assures one gains it all back when eating as one did before). I know well enough – from having lost 55 pounds after Elihu’s birth – that WW is not as easy-going as Atkins. And me, I’ve been finding my solace over the past few months in chips and wine – exactly as Elihu had predicted I would over the summer – and this will not be an easy habit for me to break. Yeah, I have no friggin clue how I’ll pull through. Some folks have suggested the ‘humiliation’ diet: admitting – to the pound – on my blog how much I weigh each week, how I’m failing or succeeding – in real-time. Naw. I don’t have the stomach for that. So I’ll continue to share my experience, and at the risk of seeming catty, will casually fail to mention any hard and fast numbers. As you may see, I’m trying to give myself a bit of cover, a bit of safety to withdraw into should I – in the words of sixth grade boys these days – experience an ‘epic fail’. As of this moment, I really don’t have the confidence that I’ll make it. Still hoping against hope that I’ll find it in me to pull the motivation out of thin air.

As soon as the train had slid north out of the station and our friend was safely off on his journey, we turned to go and in our path found a young boy with caramel-colored skin standing beside an enormous, broken duffel bag, a faint smile on his face, in the middle of the pavement and looking lost. Happy, but lost. Like he could use some help. I asked him where he was going, and he told me Skidmore. “A student?” I asked, feeling almost silly – he was clearly too young to be anything else. Man, he looked like a lost doe in the woods… “Yes” he answered – with a gentle voice, and some vague, hard-to-pinpoint sort of accent. I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to figure out what kind of accent it might have been – or even if he had an accent at all and maybe I wasn’t just confusing it for a relaxed conversational style. I asked him where he was from and he told me New York. “Well, Brooklyn, actually” he added. Hm. “We can give you a ride to campus, would you like that?” “Oh yes”. He was still all smiles, despite having to move his broken and uncooperative bag to the car. In a short ride through town I got a few answers from him and his profile began to flesh out a bit. Raised by a single mom, one of three kids, the last to leave home, and in possession of a flip phone almost out of minutes and just a handful of change to his name, he was undaunted and ready for his new start. “So how were you going to get to school? What were your plans?” I asked, mystified. “You were my plans, I guess.” he smiled his response. What an interesting person, I thought to myself. What an interesting adventure is this life…

We found his new dorm and there was a cheerful crowd of students there to not only meet him, but to carry his bag for him and welcome him with handshakes and pats on the back. Byron (who liked poetry and computer programming and answered with surprising enthusiasm for an eighteen year old when I asked if his first name was Byron, “as in Byron Keats”) had made it to the end of a long day’s travel, which had started very early that morning on the subway, where he and his mother had parted ways. All I could think of was: what if this were my boy? Left to find his way on his own, not enough juice left in his phone to let me know he’d arrived and not enough money left to eat? I felt maternal towards him and wouldn’t leave until I was satisfied that he was safe and sound and at his destination. Just as he was about to be swept away by the welcoming committee to his new room – room 222, another seemingly serendipitous nod from the universe that things were all as they should be – I opened my arms to hug him goodbye. I kissed his cheek and held him as his mother would have if she’d been there. It was the least I could do for her, so far away from her baby. I insisted he get in touch when he was able, and then, not entirely sure that he ever would, made a mental note of the dorm name. Then off went Byron, on his new adventure, leaving us in the same, cool-headed manner in which we’d found him. Off to his new world. It started to rain, and we turned to head back the few miles left to our place, where soon we would be starting off on a new life of our own.

It did indeed rain today. It rained so hard that I could hardly see to drive, so hard that when I pulled in the driveway I found its entire surface one large, moving sheet of water. All my new landscaping was a few inches under fast-moving water, and our creek bed was finally living up to its name. I called Elihu away from his video world and had him join me outside. We followed the stream of water down the yard and into the woods onto the steepest part of the hill. Down it tumbled, making wonderful gurgling and rushing sounds which excited us both and drew us farther along its path. We passed almost an hour making dams, pulling up leaves and roots, freeing up the water here, stopping its progress there… We both fantasized, as we have done for the past six years, about what it might be like if we could one day afford to free up our stream bed again. How exciting it would be to have a real pond, a real creek… But then again, would we necessarily enjoy it so much more than we were now? Our lives were so simple, yet it didn’t diminish our enjoyment of what we had. As I listened to my son’s still-high child-voice, I realized that perhaps next year things might be different. He might not enjoy passing an hour in the rain with his mother as he did today. That our life, just as it was right now, was delightful and precious. And that one day, in the not-too-distant future, I might well look back on this time with a sigh of longing. No matter if our water ran in nothing but a grassy ditch across the yard, no matter if our schedules were scattered and a little too full for our comfort, no matter if money and heating oil would be scarce again this year, I knew that we still had it good.

The year coming up looks more unfamiliar than any of those that have come before in our six years here at the Hillhouse, but somehow I know it’ll be ok. I’m not saying I’m not scared, cuz really, I am. In all honesty, I think I feel more frightened than ever before. Yeah, definitely. I am. Yet somehow, I’m not sure quite how, I’m managing to keep my cool as I face down this new life of ours and watch the old one disappear behind us in the rear view mirror. And like our new friend Byron, I guess it couldn’t hurt to keep a smile on my face along the way.

IMG_2522I can’t believe my artist pal’s been living in this kitchy, Americana barn for the past two years.  Cute, but enough already. Time to move on, indeed.

IMG_2533Engine’s here…

IMG_2526One final selfie…

IMG_2535Elihu spreads his wings as Ken departs.

IMG_2541Next thing we know, it’s “Welcome, Thoroughbreds!” Here we are at the lovely, wooded campus of Skidmore College.

IMG_2542A cheerful coed with a clipboard is here to meet us…

IMG_2545A whole team is here to meet us! I unload one of Ken’s paintings – done when he was about the same age as these kids – so that we can unload Byron’s bag.

IMG_2547I feel better when I see such a great reception.

IMG_2550After a hug, he’s on his way. All the best to you, happy freshman year!

IMG_2557We spy a hawk on the way home. Always a thrill.

IMG_2559This, however, is not such a thrill. My heart still sinks. I know we’ll adjust in time. Just one more new thing to accept.

IMG_2567After a vigorous rain shower, our place looks tidy and clean.

IMG_2564Spreading our wings now, ready to fly off into the new school year.

 

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Two Weeks Gone August 26, 2014

Never before in my nearly three years at the helm of this blog have I passed so much time in between posts. Lately it seems that life has run away with me, and every manner of logistic hitch has thrown itself directly in my path. Among the many recent surprises has been my inability to successfully upload photos, so the pics from our trip will have to wait for a future post. Elihu and I are reaching the conclusion of a long and busy summer and we’re both looking forward to a new and structured routine for fall. But before we march ahead, here’s a recounting of our recent trip to visit mom’s family on Cape Cod.

Last week, as mom, Elihu and I left for a three-day trip to visit family on the coast, we had friend Ken in tow, and on our way to drop him off in town before hitting the highway, we passed our old friend Ruthie’s house and found all that remained of it was the chimney. Only ten in the morning and the backhoe was nearly finished with the demolition. By the time we were to return from our brief vacation, the construction at the end of our driveway would be recognizable as a house. Both events were stark and jarring evidence of how quickly and profoundly things can change. But thankfully, over the next couple of days we would visit many important landmarks of my mother’s own personal history, and we would be happily surprised not only to find these structures still standing and recognizable, but also to find ourselves invited inside to see the changes for ourselves. For me it was a great relief that these places still existed so that we might visit them again – but beyond that, it was a real gift to see firsthand how things had been modified over the past few decades. I feel we were beyond fortunate to have been given this opportunity – likely the last one for my mother – to see these places that had been such an important part of my mother’s growing up. Usually, you can’t go back. But we were given the rare chance to do just that. It was a good trip, and we covered a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally, in a short amount of time. Our trip was barely three days, but as jam-packed as it was of reunions, events and emotions, it almost felt we’d been away for a whole week.

The family that we went to visit (my maternal grandmother’s side) has become through the years something of a ragtag bunch that live not exactly on the Cape as one might say for the sake of simplicity when describing their location to a non-local person, but more accurately it could be said that they actually live in the armpit of the Cape. While the true beauty of that expression lies in the metaphoric possibilities it brings to mind, the more literal meaning – the one absent of judgement, irony or humor – simply helps one to place the location of Buzzard’s Bay by visualizing Cape Cod as an extended arm and flexed elbow joint. The thing is, the metaphor kinda rings true, and the culture of that particular area in question – being so close to the ‘real’ cape and yet not truly being the cape – being so close to the actual ocean but still not actually on it – that, plus the tiny houses all sitting ‘cheek-by-jowl’ (as my mother would say) all combine to give Wareham and its surrounds that unmistakable low-rent vibe. And this is where my family resides. Just a couple of generations ago there were doctors, lawyers and judges in the family, now many of us who remain eke out our meager existences on SSI grants and food stamps. My mother laughed to see how decidedly downwardly mobile our family has become in just three short generations. “I wonder what old Uncle Charlie would think of this” she chuckled, shrugging to indicate the neighborhoods of tiny, tumbledown summer shacks packed in one after another. If she hadn’t laughed, she might have cried. It does make one wonder how such a thing is possible.

When we arrived at my mom’s brother’s house, it wasn’t awkward as it might have been for the nearly two decades that had passed since mom had seen him and his family. We’d even made plans to pick his car up from the garage upon our arrival. (Turned out the garage ended up delivering it home.) What I thought anecdotally notable here was that both my Uncle Paul and I had had our cars in the shop this week to repair the very same thing: a faulty lift belt on the driver’s side window. (My car was in the shop back home, hence our getaway was made in mom’s trendy Prius.)  I’d seen Paul just summer before last, so I kinda had a head’s up, but I’m sure brother and sister each surprised the other with their older, hunched and slower forms. It’s situations like this for which God gave us a sense of humor, I’m sure. Mom leaned on her cane, Paul hung to the porch, Aunt Sandy laughed in between them. I saw my cousin Rusty come around the corner and paused for a second at the sight of him – all that time in the sun and a penchant for the occasional cigarette and his naturally pale complexion had become as creased and weathered as a seafaring old-timer. Just a year older than me? I thought to myself. Yeeks. The reunion on the porch went just as if no time had passed, and so did the meeting of Elihu and Rusty, who, without so much as a word between them – or to us – began to collect up nets and other tools and within moments were coolly strolling away towards the inlet on a quest for sea creatures.

We passed an hour or so visiting before we all went to dinner together. Mom and I enjoyed those true east coast delicacies of whole fried clams. (Strips are one thing, but they pale by comparison to the whole kit and caboodle, bellies included.) Before the food arrived Elihu and I went to the adjacent dock to watch the locals fish. We got our first whiff of salt air and I could hardly wait until our beach day began the next morning. For me, I almost feel that the years in between visits are just time spent in wait for the next opportunity to get into a large body of water. Nothing in the world comes close. The following day did not disappoint, and although it was an entirely different experience for my mother now than it had been just a couple of decades ago; she made it in and enjoyed floating on her back in the buoyant salt water. It occurred to me in a moment of nostalgic contemplation that of all the many photographs I took on our trip, the one I might have treasured the most – that image of my mother, totally in the moment, floating there in the water, enjoying herself as fully and as unself-consciously as a young child – that image remains in my mind’s eye only. I too was enjoying the water and didn’t think to take a picture. It was only later when we returned for a last swim only to find the tide far too far out to do so that I realized this might have been the last time my mother would find herself floating in the ocean she’d so loved for all of her life. That I missed the image. That I could have – but didn’t – document that personally significant moment. A pang of regret hit me, I breathed in and felt the sting of it, and then I did my best to let it go. I reminded myself that I’d been there with her, that I’d given her my arm and helped her out of the water on that last swim, that we three had all been enjoying the beautiful day and the warm sea water together, and that was what really counted.

Later, as we began our long trip back home, we planned for our route to pass both my mother’s Auntie Helen’s home in town as well as her beach home, one in which I myself also had some childhood memories. The home in which my grandmother’s sister had lived in was grand indeed. The woodwork and stained glass of the Victorian era giant was impressive as was the huge, central staircase and the moldings and details at every turn. Now an attorney’s office, (mom’s own uncle was a doctor and made his office there too) we were welcomed inside and mom recounted her memories there as a little girl to Elihu, me and the secretary (also named Nancy like my mom), occasionally using her cane to direct our attention to something; the maid’s staircase down which the children would run, the kitchen’s original boundaries, the office where her doctor uncle had once given her a shot against her will… I snapped pictures in every direction as I tried to imagine my trim and fashionable Auntie Helen in her glory years moving through the large house tending to her upper-middle class life. Here we were in sneakers and shorts, too casual it seemed to even be allowed inside by such past standards. What a different time it had been then, how much had changed. And yet the current owners had put a great deal of love and money into restoring the place to its original, historic grandeur, so this turned out to be a very happy ending for us. We left feeling uplifted and ready for more healing discoveries ahead.

While I’m not sure mom had any plans to actually seek out – and find – Auntie Helen’s coastal home, that’s just how serendipity wished it for us, and after a quick consultation with a neighbor passing by in a handsome Mercedes, we were able to confirm our suspicions as to which house it was. As with most places known to children and revisited by the same as adults, the whole neighborhood seemed so much smaller than it had once seemed to me as a child. Even the old photographs from the ’40s had shown much more open space, almost no trees and lots of windswept yard stretching out in all directions, yet now the area was full of growth and mature trees. Elihu and I approached the house the roundabout way, walking out onto the great pier (which had also been added somewhat recently) and then back up towards the house on a neighboring lawn. A yacht sat just off the coast and lent a Kennedyesque air to the seascape. I looked at it all with new eyes. While I could easily remember a vision of my mother in a white, yellow and black bathing suit walking ahead of me down the sandy path through the blueberry bushes, I was able to superimpose that image against what I saw now and felt as if I were in a film shifting its focus from past to present, creating a great tug of nostalgia that was impossible to ignore.

Shortly we three were knocking at the door of Auntie Helen’s old place, and once again we were kindly invited in. Ah, what money can do, I thought as I took in the completely modernized interior. The porch and the sea beyond were as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. Instead of dark walls, rope-framed photos and nautical-themed knick-knacks, it was now a bright, open space which showcased pieces of modern art, historical figurines, sculptures and gorgeous finishes everywhere. I’d grown up with moneyed folks, I knew what it was all about, I felt absolutely comfortable in it, and goddam it, if I ever came to know it for myself one day, I’d certainly enjoy the hell out of it. Like these folks were doing. I’d surround myself with beautiful things, with gorgeous views. I’d live by water. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to live like this. Every day. To know this sort of beauty as home. As I took a photo of mom and Elihu looking out the window at the bay beyond, I felt a certain sadness that I hadn’t known this place beyond my youngest years. It felt as if it were in some small way still mine – as if it might have been mine even now but for the slightest detour… But on the heels of that came the understanding that even if I’d had the luck to know this place as a child, I certainly did not have the means to enjoy it as an adult. It would have to be enough that we were all here to witness this together. I was so grateful for the kindness of the gentleman who lived there and allowed us a few moments inside. Now my son would understand better where his family had come from; what it felt like to look out and over that immense and stunning view. What it meant to live on the ocean.

We headed East and easily found the house mom had lived in as a teenager. It was her maternal grandparent’s home; the one she and her mother returned to when her father had left. It was here, in Fall River, where mom’s memories came freely and happily. The steps of that immense high school where as part of a sorority hazing for the incoming freshman she was made to scrub the steps with a toothbrush… the river views from Highland Avenue, the various landmarks of her youth strewn here and there, names came back with the sight of familiar houses, stories and anecdotes too many to recall… Seeing this town seemed to revive a mood in my mother, and it was nice to see her happy like this. Her life is so taken up with concern for me, for Andrew, for her grandson, for her own health, for her cats, her home… and finally it seemed all of that fell away and she was transported to a time in her life which she had clearly enjoyed.

On we went into the early years, to the home in which mom lived with her mother and father and brother Paul, the home which she left at eleven – Elihu’s current age – the only home in which she lived with her family as one unit. It seems strange to me that she seems to recall so little of it – of her father, in particular. I can’t know if she’s repressed it, or if she truly doesn’t remember. Whichever the reason, she recalled only names of childhood friends, lanes she’d walked down to go to school, the first place she learned to ride a two-wheeler… Even a place where she remembered her older brother defending her against the neighborhood bullies. All these things she recalled for us, but when I pressed her for domestic details about her life, she remembered next to nothing. Even the house itself didn’t stand out as familiar, and on our second passing I had to insist we pull over. She even began to get angry when I asked her for some details we might use to identify the house – finally, as it seemed the only option, I got out of the car and hailed the woman who had just pulled up into the driveway. Again, the angel of serendipity stepped in to assist, and before long we had met this woman’s husband and daughter too, and we were standing inside the house sharing stories and being shown an old photograph of the place when it had been the carriage house for the local farm. This was the way mom had known it – as the only house in a vast expanse of fields and orchards that swept down to the water. I can understand how strange and disorienting it must have been to see the place so transformed, but to finally have found her house – and to be inside it now – I think that must have given her some sense of closure and satisfaction. I know it did me. After a few more photos and exchanging of contact information, we said our goodbyes and headed out. After a last brief look at the sea, we began our drive back home to upstate New York.

It was raining heavily when we arrived home long after dark, my seventy-nine year old mother having just concluded some 600 miles behind the wheel. The late hour had finally brought to light our very different driving styles and our patience with one another was eroding fast. Elihu was suffering from some strange rash all over his body, my concern for his comfort was growing more urgent (much to the chagrin of my mother who felt I was coddling him with my sympathies) plus my mother was experiencing a good deal of discomfort on the tops of her badly sunburned feet, having been out in the sun for the first time in decades. We were all sore, short of patience and very weary. It had been a short trip, but we’d done and seen a lot, the car was covered in sand and smelled of some sea creature inadvertently taken along for the ride. We were more than ready for our own beds.

There was no internet working on our return, and my computer wasn’t well either. There was nothing to be done but crawl into bed and marvel over all the images swirling about in our heads. The weather was loud, the rain beat hard on the house, and I felt a mixture of satisfaction and strangely, loneliness. I was aware that my mother, at the end of the day, was going home alone. What must it feel like to have seen all those old, familiar places and the to return here, to a house empty of people? I was glad she had the cats, and I was grateful that she had the new memories now too. I hoped they’d be restorative to her in some way. It was an important trip for me to be sure, and now Elihu had a new appreciation and understanding of his grandmother and his own roots, too. As visits back home go, this was a good one I think. Yet here we were again, right back in the middle of our everyday life, in our humble country home, far from the road… it almost felt as if we’d never left. On we were to go from here, our lives yet to become new and strange, meandering adventures heading off into the unknown landscape of our future. And in the light of all that unknown yet ahead of us, it was comforting to know that sometimes, just sometimes, it is still possible to go home again.

 

 

 

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Tiny Trip June 22, 2014

I don’t get out much these days, but I did get out yesterday for what I’d thought would be a fairly straightforward overnight visit with an old friend from my elementary school days in Chicago, and who now lives in mid-state Vermont. It was a short trip, but densely packed with new and memorable experiences.

My childhood pal is moving across the country to the Seattle metro area. She’s lived here in the Northeast for three years and I haven’t yet been to see her (she and her family have, however, been to visit me). It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning that I was throwing a toothbrush and a favorite pillow into a bag and hitting the road. It feels like I’ve been gone a week. My head is full of images, my heart is heavy with a final, impromtu stop I made on the way back, and I’m saddened to learn that shortly before I returned home this evening we lost Amity, our last pure white hen from the old flock. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, siting here in my cozy chair in something of a daze; post gin and tonic, post review of new photos, post whirlwind tour of historic Vermont, post the loss of one more hen. And although I may feel uncertain about many things in life, there is one thing I do know for certain: I love being home. And after having just seen a thousand different ways to live, having a head swirling with images, places and possibilities – and even loss – I know one thing for certain, that I need none of it right now, thank you. I’m relieved at the peace of being still and doing nothing at all. I’m more than happy to be back.

Once again, some time away has given me the experience of seeing my own corner of the world through brand new eyes. And I remember again how much this place means to me. I’d rather look out at the distant mountains of Vermont than live in between them. I like to assess it all from afar, nestled as I am here in my small, hillside niche in the woods. I have just the right amount of sky and trees, and just the right amount of house, both which give me more joy than they had just the day before yesterday. A day trip is a lovely experience in of itself, and it’s also a healthy way to help remind one just how blessed a thing is home.

IMG_6785The road as I start out… Vermont has always seemed idyllic and just out of reach; now I mean to examine these once-distant hills more closely.

IMG_6835This shot is uncharacteristically ‘un-claustraphobic’ of the Vermont byways; the roads almost all run parallel to the many rivers that run in the valleys between impassable mountain ranges. Usually one is in the woods, under cover of endless pines, a stony river bed close to one side. This is what makes travel through the state either extremely tedious or a journey of great beauty and mystery, depending on how urgently you may want to get somewhere. I always start out intrigued, but after a couple of hours of meandering alongside a shallow river in the deep woods I can get a little short of patience.

IMG_6829There’s precious little flat land in between the hills, but farmers find and use what they can.

IMG_6853After driving two and a half hours on two lane roads, at last I’ve arrived at Dina’s house. The small town of Randolph is a mere stone’s throw down the road.

IMG_6892First things first; lunch at ‘Wright at Home’, an even closer stone’s throw from the center of town.

IMG_6891Chatting with the locals…

IMG_6890The kitchen is in full view of the dining room. Cute, sarcastic and vintage signage decorates the place.

IMG_6885Dina’s son Sam figures out how to use my fan (given to me by another classmate from our elementary school who spent the past year in Spain).

IMG_6873This cutie is Thomas, the younger of Dina’s two sons.

IMG_6869Small town action! The local hippie artist has a mild run-in with the town cops.

IMG_6894We walk back up the hill after lunch. Nice place, huh?

IMG_6851Sam stands in the doorway of the carriage house-turned apartment unit.

IMG_6854Earnest, the boy’s dad, made a catapult for them. When I left it was still on the front lawn for anyone to take. It could be yours…

IMG_6917Dina and her friends enjoy one last soccer game before she moves…

IMG_6906While the women play a game I go investigate a nearby river behind the athletic field. Spied several species of birds and enjoyed some time also doing nothing at all but enjoying the perfect breeze and the gentle sound of moving water.

IMG_6926I took a walk around the field and learned the name of the high school mascots.

IMG_6937The gals at game’s end.

IMG_6941The town’s high school class is graduating tonight under this tent in the same field, so we go to pay a visit. Dina and a friend wave to each other under a gloriously-clouded sky.

IMG_6947Ah, the good old U S of A.

IMG_6974The band gets ready. Love that sousaphone.

IMG_6980Dina knows a lot of people here in this small town. Turns out our visit is a perfect opportunity for her to say goodbye to many friends.

IMG_6994The graduating class and their teachers line up for the processional.

IMG_6997Families await the graduates.

IMG_7018Elihu will get a kick out of this kid’s cap.

A little window into the moment.

IMG_7039Dina says good-bye to Tom, a local cop.

IMG_7043Main Street, early evening.

IMG_7055Looking North, towards the ice cream shop, a favorite of locals. I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but highly recommend both the ‘maple creamee’ soft serve and ‘coconut crunch’ hard ice cream.

IMG_7064A taxidermied white panther in the window of the local barber shop. When I was small, I’d heard stories about black panthers still living in areas not far from my current home, but never of white ones. Today, panthers are extremely rare, but thankfully their smaller cousins the bobcats can still be found in the woods around the Northeastern US.

IMG_7062A wonderful and successful addition to Randolph’s downtown, restaurant One Main offers an enticing menu and a casual yet upscale vibe for locals to enjoy. Send an energetic gift of good thoughts to owner Shane, as he faces some health challenges at the moment. Seldom met anyone so radiant and positive, I’m sure he has a successful future ahead of him.

IMG_7063But like in so many small towns, keeping it alive and vital is an ongoing challenge.

IMG_7059Every building in this town is picture-perfect, like something from a set. This is the train depot. You can catch a train here and be in New York City in five hours.

IMG_7067Plus there’s a movie theater – with first run films. Love that awning!

IMG_7070We visit a neighbor’s house for dinner – Earnest, Dina and hostess Phyllis seen here in what I think is probably the most inviting, homey kitchen I’ve ever been in.

IMG_7074At the dinner table in this landmark Victorian house. Hosts Phyllis and Richard are on either end, and we’re joined by Earnest and Dina’s two sons, two neighbor kids and one of the hosts’ twin daughters. I have not sat at a table with so many people in probably twenty years. One of the most enjoyable dinners in just as long, too.

IMG_7100Captain lives in this beautiful house too; she may be the world’s only one-eyed Bernese Mountain dog.

IMG_7083This house is known as “Mari Castle”, and it was built by a speech writer for Abraham Lincoln and named for his wife. And if you might be interested in living in this gorgeous gem of a house, it’s for sale! A beautiful coach house and small chapel-made-office building are also on the property.

IMG_7125Here’s a photo postcard of the place from years ago…

IMG_7128…and here’s a picture that Dina took of the place in winter.

IMG_7103The coach house and neighboring mid-century chapel.

IMG_7069Some readers may know my love of things mid-century. This was the first building to catch my eye as I drove into town. My heart skips a beat when I see such a roof line. I’m not kidding.

IMG_7121The main doorway.

IMG_7110The stunning original wood arches inside. It was difficult for me to see the interior so altered from its original beauty.

IMG_7116The same arches as seen from the second floor. Even though it pained me to see the place so transformed (into a doctor’s office), I gotta say they did a tasteful job of it.

IMG_7085At three in the morning, Dina and family get loaded into the car to drive to Logan airport. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any photo of me and my friend of 45 years, hence my last-minute selfie (and disheveled appearance). I’m amazed I’m old enough to have known someone this long. Wow.

IMG_7142Like me, this fellow stops to gas up on Main Street before heading out (note the barber shop in the background).

IMG_7145Virtually all Vermont towns are situated alongside a river.

IMG_7155Kayakers wave hello as I shout a greeting to them.

IMG_7189Even in the fairly populated city of Rutland the mountains beckon from beyond the utility poles and roofs… What a sky, huh? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to travel.

IMG_7164This trip, I decide to visit the mountain settlement of Killington. When I was small it was a modest and barely developed ski area. Now it’s a ritzy destination. Kinda reminds me of an American version of Zermatt, Switzerland.

IMG_7181The view up…

IMG_7166…and the means by which one gets there.

IMG_7168It’s just not possible to convey the feeling of being atop such a mountain; this photo doesn’t come even close. Those who ski (a population of which I am regrettably not a member) will know exactly what that is. So will those who hike and climb mountains. It’s the most expansive, exhilarating feeling. Also, in my case, it can inspire sudden bouts of panic. This didn’t happen to me in my younger years; I hope to discover a way to mitigate such altitude-related episodes, as they really suck and I can see them eliminating future adventures.

IMG_7204I continue South, down historic route 7, past Manchester’s famous Equinox hotel.

IMG_7210Had to stop when I saw this place.

IMG_7212Chickens everywhere.

IMG_7213If only I could afford one of em. Played the ‘hey, I’m an artist too’ card, but no go. Wouldn’t even consider the slightest mark down. I was seriously interested, but he seriously didn’t care. Ah well.

IMG_7208Onward I go, still heading South. I pass another farmer, doing things old school. One just doesn’t see those huge machines the way one does in the Midwest, where fields go uninterrupted for miles. Life here in Vermont has a gentler, more organic feel.

IMG_7195I saw these two fellows dressed in such odd-looking garb that I just had to stop and ask them what they were about. Daniel, left, and spokesman Michele, right, tell me they are cave enthusiasts, here from Montreal for the wonderful underground cavities unique to this region. Lots of white marble comes from this area too. Here, Michele writes down some sites I can visit to learn more. Tonight they are celebrating the birthday of a fellow caver by descending 140 vertical feet into a cave and sharing a glass of champagne at the bottom. !!

IMG_7197Off they go…

IMG_7220My ultimate destination en route home has been in the back of my mind all afternoon. I’m headed for Bennington. It’s the burial-place of poet Robert Frost, and the town in which my father, harpsichordist Robert Conant, was cremated. I need to see the place in order to give myself some closure. This obelisk is a monument to Revolutionary War soldiers which sits at the far end of Main Street, up the hill. The funeral home where dad was cremated is off frame and to the left, at the other end of Main Street.

IMG_7221Within a short time I’m at the base of the monument.

IMG_7223Here’s the church behind which Mr. Frost is buried. He himself did not belong to a church, but said if he were to have, it would have been the Congregational Church. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery to face East instead of West.

IMG_7224Some ancient headstones just next to the Congregational Church.

IMG_7237The view of mountains to the East.

IMG_7227The signs that show the way are many and the effect is comical.

IMG_7229Here’s the Frost family plot. The center marks the poet, his wife and five children, the far one his grandchildren (one of whom is still living) and the marker in the foreground is completely empty. ! That’s thinking ahead, huh?

IMG_7231Here’s his famous epitaph; “I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World”.  I placed the small, white stone in between that line and ‘his wife’ on the line below.  Like hers too: “Together Wing to Wing And Oar To Oar”

IMG_7240Leaving the cemetery, the light is especially magical.

IMG_7246This next step is kind of surreal for me. Might be for you too. Get ready to see a side of life – or death, rather – that none of us ever really thinks much about until the choices are directly in front of us and ours alone to make. Even then we tend to think of it as some far-off, unreal sort of process that somehow doesn’t ever really happen, especially not to our beloveds. Cremation happens, and it has to happen somewhere. In this case, it’s on Main Street behind a cheerful looking house.

IMG_7247I walk around to the back. I’m ready, I guess…

IMG_7267It’s strange to see this for myself. The doors on the right are the last ones my father passed through looking as I knew him. My heart stops for a second when I recognize the facility for what it really is.

IMG_7250How bizarre it seems… That after such a marvelous, accomplished life, a body becomes merely something that must be gotten rid of somehow. And here it is. No pomp or circumstance to it, really. It’s just a super-powerful oven.

IMG_7256How mundane it looks, I think to myself – and in a way, it’s almost funny. The final end of my father in the un-glamorous back-end of a building with a wheel barrow and garden tools stashed behind. It makes me smile even. I wonder if dad too is seeing how hard it is to grasp for the earth-bound soul.

IMG_7251This is where my father’s physical matter met again with the world of its creation… And this is where I begin to cry. Please forgive me the next image; I realize for some it may be too much, but for me it’s the very reason I’ve driven so far today. I need to understand more completely what this process was. I remind myself the whole time that this happens thousands of time every day, in every single corner of the world. Most of us will never care to see it for ourselves, but some of us, whether we dare to express it aloud or not, may find ourselves unsettled until we see it with our own eyes…

IMG_7260The last place where hundreds of people’s loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – have entered in bodily form. I look in the window in something of a trance. How can this be? I wonder over and over to myself. What an illusion we create and sustain for ourselves all life long that we shall ever be as we are now. We aren’t even as we were last year, or even yesterday for that matter. We weren’t even around one hundred years ago, and we won’t be here one hundred years hence. We know all this. So why is this idea of burning the bodies of our loved ones – and seeing the very sentence itself in print and the photo of the place in which it happens – so unthinkable? Why? If my father were here, he’d put his arms around me and tell me not to be sad, not to concern myself with the loss of his body. I know it. And I also feel very strongly that he still exists very close by, like a person on the other side of a one-way mirror, and he smiles at me and lovingly wishes I wouldn’t trouble myself so. But then again, I can’t help myself. I’m still on this side of the mirror, and no matter how hard I try to expand my consciousness on the matter, I just can’t. This feels creepy. It feels sad. But somehow, it does help.

IMG_7277I return to my car and see a tattooed dad and his family pass by the funeral home on a summer night’s stroll. Life keeps on goin.

IMG_7278Ok, for some this will undoubtedly be too far… I wanted something local to bring home from my trip, and this mom and pop store was across the street. It was here that I picked up some cheese and smoked meat; it was impossible for me to overlook the Monty Python-esque humor in it. I can promise you dad would have laughed too.

IMG_7304I’m headed home now. I pass the marble-enfused rocks of Vermont on highway 7 as I head North.

IMG_7287I’m a bit emotionally spent by now. Got lost a few times (in a region divided by vertical, North-South mountain ranges it’s not a simple thing to get from East to West) and by now had had it with winding, two lane roads and picturesque New England villages.

IMG_7294One more Vermont vista…

IMG_7301… and then New York again, at last. I love a trip, but truly, there’s no place like home.

 

 

Home Again August 15, 2013

I held up my end of the bargain; when I first saw my son at the airport I didn’t squeal with joy, I didn’t jump up and down, didn’t rush in to get my arms all wrapped around him, didn’t smother him with kisses and ‘I love yous’. Nope. I was cooool as a cucumber. And thankfully, he noticed. Thankfully, he was pleased – and relieved – by it. He just stood there waiting, while I presented my ID and signed for him, absolutely consumed by a toothy smile, with an all-about-to-burst-with-a-secret sort of glow about him. It was clear that he was supremely happy. And it felt nice, actually, doing this his way. Cuz he was jonesin to get next to me just as much as I was jonesin to get next to him. But moms, I’ll have you know I remained cool. He leaned in and said sotto voce ‘you’re ok; it’s just the way you keep saying “I love you” over and over that embarrasses me. You’re ok, you’re good“. He even took the lead and held my hand. And in baggage claim he sat next to me on the bench and leaned his body into mine. “My Mommy” he kept saying over and over. A ha! That’s the trick. As it was with me and my ex – as it is with any human relationship – you can turn things around on a dime by simply stopping a behavior. Shift the power. Reverse the polarity. All because I’d backed off, now I was the recipient of the overt affection! And yes, of course, I loved it. What a lovely reunion it was. He took up my hand as we walked back to the car, and, still beaming from ear to ear, and he just kept saying over and over again to himself “I got my mommy. And I’m going home.”

We made a stop at the store on the way home, and once more the newness we felt with each other was apparent. Elihu, in his short-sleeved white oxford shirt, dark jeans and slip-on sneakers looked striking. Well-dressed. The sight of him impressed me and refreshed me. His hair was a little longer than usual after his long time away, but it suited him well. ‘What a handsome kid’ I though to myself. Turns out he’d been sizing me up with new eyes too; told me I looked thin. Wow. Maybe he’s a little biased, but I’ll take it. (Clearly, we were each seeing the other in the energized space of this homecoming. Through rose-colored glasses, you might say.) Then later at home, sitting at the table during a lull between catch-up stories, he rested his heads in his hands, leaned forward and smiled at me. “You really are pretty”. Oh my. Be still my mother’s heart! What more could a mother possibly ask? I lingered there for a bit, smiled back at him, and told him that he’d made my ego positively sing. I thanked him for being the best child a mother could ever know, then broke the moment by playfully shrugging off the flattery. I ‘tsk tsk-ed’ myself up off the chair and walked away, shaking my head and waving my hands in the air.

A lovely first evening. Corn chips with salsa made from the garden. New tricks on the trampoline, A nice visit with the new fish in the improved pond, a moment to get reacquinted with Maximus. A visit from Grandma, a re-telling of the running-out-of-oil-in-the-Mohave-Desert story, a synopsis of Sea World in San Diego, and a demonstration of how two large quartz crystals (from said desert) rubbed against each other in a dark room emit a soft, orange glow. As much as could be condensed in a short visit. Mom had to get back to dad, so then I fed the kid a very just-thrown-together, picnicy sort of supper; a salad made of our garden’s greens, and some cajan-spiced chicken from the grill. Followed by a dutch cocoa cookie and a jam session on the drum set downstairs. If that wasn’t just perfect enough, we then went out to check on the flock.

Elihu’s head count finds the whole, happy gang safe inside.. We coo, we smooch, and I gather up far too few eggs – which doubles our motivation to take the non-producing gals to the Amish butcher on the first week of school. That’s what we always plan to do in the early fall. We mighta bagged on it last year, but I think we two finally have the resolve to do it now. We are done wasting our precious money on dead ends. We renew our resolve to become ‘real farmers’ once again. We will gather up the non-layers and new roos and take em all in. We’ll make the trip to Arnold’s grains once a month rather than make peicemeal trips to the corporate, over-priced Tractor Supply. Yup, we know what to do, and this year we’re gonna do it.

Back inside, pajamas on, Elihu calls to me from his room. “Sleep with me tonight?” he asks. I’d wondered where we were with this now. He’d been completely on his own all summer, no one to read to him at night, there were no real bedtime rituals in the tour bus… plus he’d found the gentle rocking on the road to be the best thing ever to soothe him to sleep. Maybe getting to sleep here might take some getting used to again. I paused, considering the possibility of back-sliding into his needing a lot of my presence at bedtime. I loved him so dearly, I really had no other pressing work, but still…  I’d had hopes that this year he’d be a little more self-reliant when it came to getting to sleep. “Just for tonight. Ok?” he said in a small voice. How could I not? I went into his room and laid down beside him, and we began to recount the day. Such an amazing variety of experiences, from the ‘worst calamari of his life’ at Harry Caray’s at O’Hare to smooching his chickens. He said it all felt like a dream. As he looked around his room he remarked it was hard to believe he’d ever been away. “Yeah, life is like that. In the end, it really is all kinda like a dream. When ya think about it,” I said, “everything you’ve ever done til now is just a memory.” Then we laid there in silence, thinking. Thinking, breathing, and then finally… sleeping.

 

Family of Friends July 13, 2013

Here are some of our dear friends. We really just think of them as our extended family. It’s these folks who motivate us to visit Chicago when we can…

July 2013 trip B 439We met Marja first. Been years since I’ve seen her, but it’s like no time has passed.

July 2013 trip B 446And next, Judy joins us. She’s had a rough year, losing her husband to pancreatic cancer. The following day she and her two daughters are going to Costa Rica for a well-deserved break.

July 2013 trip B 448The three of us together again after many years. Marja toasted to all of us finding our bright, new lives as re-created women. We three are embarking on husband-less lives for the first time. We’re in different places regarding those losses and life changes, but things will definitely continue to get better for all of us.

July 2013 trip B 532The core of Evanston women we almost always see when we’re here. Doree next to me, Della across from her, and our host Priscilla, in back on right (in whose home we always stay. It’s just across the street from our old house.)

July 2013 trip B 494We love Mr. Lee! He’s been feeding us for years…

July 2013 trip B 553And I love these three men too. Great musicians, but more important, men of warm hearts, each with a wonderful sense of humor as well. Gus, on the left, leads the Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago from the banjo chair; I thoroughly enjoyed singing with them for many years. Marshall in the middle is a multi-instrumentalist who, knowing me to be a guitar widow, once rode his bike to my house, guitar on his back, on my birthday, and serenaded me and Eli with an acoustic version of the Kiss ballad “Beth”. Tommy, why he pre-dates my ex husband, as he asked me out just a few hours before Fareed did, some 27 years ago. Don’t let his straight face and cool demeanor fool you. He’s a sweetie – as well as a deft, surfer-style guitarist.

July 2013 trip B 604And here’s Ann… Originally from Montana, she’s a long-time resident of the Chicago area now. She was Elihu’s first babysitter. Once a week she came to take over for a couple of hours. Fareed wasn’t around much to spell me, so this gal stepped in. She’s known Eli since he was just a few months old. I am still grateful to her for the respite she provided me.

July 2013 trip B 593Yay! Three-fourths of the Sniderman family! Dan plays trombone in The Prohibition Orchestra. I’d bring tiny Elihu to our gigs while his wife Lisa was pregnant with their first. Lil Elijah came after. (Joella’s sitting next to Elihu on my side of the booth.)

July 2013 trip B 611Rob, the fellow on the left was, was first known to me decades ago as ‘the guy who worked at Second Hand Tunes’. He’s a highly knowledgeable man of music, as is Bill, on the right, expert on all things R&B as well as a – gasp – published author on the subject!

July 2013 trip B 630And Richard is a greatly talented professional artist, specializing in vehicles of transportation. Trains, cars, planes. Elihu was deeply thrilled to see him draw. It was Richard who gave Elihu his first set of gray-scale markers. (Elihu sees no color.)

July 2013 trip B 796But at the end of the day, THIS is why we came. It was our old friend Carl Wilson’s 100th birthday on June 30th, 2013. He expressed a desire to see me at his birthday party – but was told it was impossible. He had no idea I would not only be there – but that I’d be singing, too! He wanted to hear ‘Stardust’ but got one better; he and I danced while singing it together as the music played. Everyone’s heart was bursting. A moment for the ages.

July 2013 trip B 786Carl, holding his great grand niece, who is just six weeks old. Wow.

July 2013 trip B 768Here he is, dancing with the always lovely Blair…

July 2013 trip B 771And check this out! Would ya ever have thought? He’s a hundred years old!  Hope we’re all getting that! Inspirational indeed.

July 2013 trip B 814Folks danced…

July 2013 trip B 811…and danced

July 2013 trip B 762Folks also sat it out in the sun while a nice breeze kept things from getting too warm.

July 2013 trip B 797Christie, the gal in blue, grew up in our old house across the street. Her father, Eugene Stoyke, was the architect of that gorgeous mid-century gem, built in 1955. Charlie, her husband, now enjoys beekeeping and silently panicking his uptight, new-moneyed neighbors. That’s Priscilla behind me. It’s her house we’re in, and I’m wearing the requisite fighting badger red and white in honor of her late husband and UW alumnus, broadcaster Les Brownlee (who is known to have coined the phrase “eyewitness news”).

July 2013 trip B 779My old friend, Mike. One of the greatest jazz guitarists around. It was an absolute joy to sing with him that afternoon for Carl’s landmark birthday. Mike is also the parent of a ten year old child; daughter Gabriella is a talented singer.

July 2013 trip B 823The party continued long after we stopped playing.

July 2013 trip B 834These two each got to sing a couple of tunes on the mic.

July 2013 trip B 871Here’s Priscilla and Elihu in the living room of her home. Which also feels very much like our home when we’re there.

July 2013 trip B 890Now it’s on to friends Chloe and Brad. They’ve got the good stuff.

July 2013 trip B 896Now this is something lil man will never forget.

July 2013 trip B 912Man, Chloe. You and your house are too cute.

July 2013 trip B 924Wait – we’re kinda cute together too, aren’t we? She was in my wedding. Another lifetime.

3Chloe and Brad lead a favorite Chicago-based band, The Handcuffs. Bye guys, thanks for such a great visit!

July 2013 trip B 978A too-short, but very enjoyable visit with our friends Stacy and Jeff. Once a rock guitarist who currently owns a recording studio, Jeff has just completed his training as a registered nurse. His wife, a performer, comedian, singer and writer, is a woman full of great warmth and spirit. In spite of some personal health challenges thrown at her over the past few years, she continues to demonstrate that it’s possible to live in love and kindness in spite of a profoundly crappy situation. This is their new baby Lulu. She is the gentlest, sweetest and most loving dog you’ll ever meet. She’s convinced me that Pitbulls are a very misunderstood breed.

July 2013 trip B 968And it’s on to the Stacey’s house. I played in a band with Julian and Jordan’s mom and dad – and I ‘knew’ Julian (younger, at left) when his mom was still pregnant with him. She was playing bass with a rather loud band in hopes of bringing on labor. Then, when the two were toddlers, I’d pick them up and ‘put them away’ when I was done playing with em. I’d pretend to squeeze the small boys into a bookshelf or bin, the refrigerator, sometimes even the stove. ! Made for loads of laughter. Now just look at em. Jordan (right) got married this past week. Julian’s the drummer in the family, and in fact he first learned to play on my old set.

July 2013 trip B 975Here we are with the addition of little sister Alaina. She has got the most beautiful voice, and her songwriting talents far exceed her age. Seems she’s moving to Nashville soon. Alaina Stacey. Remember that name.

July 2013 trip B 981And here’s mom Cindy! She’s trying on her dress for Jordan’s wedding. Not her usual attire, I feel I must add. !

July 2013 trip B 990Papa Chris Stacey.

July 2013 trip B 1008The two pretend to fall asleep at the end of our visit. Cuties.

summer trip 2013 A 138We stopped by to visit neighbors Rafael and Dennis on the 4th… Miss living next door to them.

summer trip 2013 A 209And neighbor on the other side, Jan. She once gave me the best piece of advice ever regarding moving into a new home: don’t make any big changes – especially with the lawn and garden – until you’ve lived there for one full year. That advice helped me in my two subsequent homes to make the best choices possible.

summer trip 2013 A 230We have a short visit with Fareed’s parents.

summer trip 2013 A 245The whole gang (at Reza’s).

summer trip 2013 A 274My ex mother-in-law, Nelly, and me.

summer trip 2013 A 284Guess only Elihu can get her to soften up a bit. If he can’t, nobody can!

summer trip 2013 A 282We did have a fun time hanging with Elihu’s dad. But there’s so much behind my ex’s eyes that I’ll never know – and that I probably never did know to begin with. Still, he’s great at just having a party (as a jam band guitarist, much of his time spent playing music is about creating that kind of energy). In spite of all the past hurt, I’m able to enjoy the occasional visit with this rather eccentric family, dad and grandparents too. But it’s probably just as well I don’t live near them anymore. Even after nearly three decades of living as a family, his folks have never seemed entirely thrilled with me. (But as Fareed always said, no one was ever good enough for him in their eyes. So I don’t take it personally). But we’ve been through a lot together, and I do love my former parents-in-law in spite of the craziness we’ve experienced through the years, so I made sure to tell them that when they dropped me off at the train. Never know when – or even if –  there’ll be a next time. Life, after all – friends and family included – is full of surprises, both good and bad.

 

Culinary Tour July 11, 2013

One of the main objectives of our trip to Chicago was to taste all that food that both of us miss so. When Elihu stays with his dad they’re based out of DeKalb, which is a good hour west of the city. So when Elihu visits the Midwest, he doesn’t get to eat in the city much. This time, we had a local favorite every day of our trip. I was in heaven. Saratoga Springs may have some fancy shmancy restaurants – but there aint nothing like the places ‘back home’. Indulge me, if you will, as I share the highlights…

July 2013 trip B 027I’d prefer it from a small neighborhood joint, but Al’s Italian Beef was the first place we saw when we got off the train…

July 2013 trip B 022This was lil man’s first Italian beef sandwich. He dug it. Me too. (My first real carbs in months!)

July 2013 trip B 469Our first dinner was at the iconic Heartland Café in Rogers Park.

July 2013 trip B 456I had what I’ve been ordering for over a quarter of a century: the Dukes Tostada.

July 2013 trip B 457It always ends just like this.

July 2013 trip B 569Aha! Finally, after two long years, we’re at Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston!!

July 2013 trip B 751Such a great, warm vibe in this place.

July 2013 trip B 727Dave’s wife Ellen (at left) is such a magical and loving hostess. Always has little surprises for the kids. Never ceases to impress.

July 2013 trip B 697The ubiquitous signed wine bottles and cozy booth.

July 2013 trip B 621Elihu pays a visit to Dave himself in the kitchen. Ellen first carried Eli through this kitchen when he was not quite a week old.

July 2013 trip B 732Elihu visits Tuan, who’s worked there for decades now. He’s from Vietnam, and Elihu has wanted to learn Vietnamese for several years now (have no idea why or where that came from). Tuan’s telling him to learn Mandarin instead as it’s more useful.

July 2013 trip B 741There’s Paul (and Jimmy’s backside). Bye guys! Love ya!

July 2013 trip B 858Ok, time for some REAL Mexican food.

July 2013 trip B 847I woulda had the goat if I’d seen it first. Phooey.

July 2013 trip B 845Ah, Jarritos de tamarindo in a bottle. Yes.

July 2013 trip B 559The next day, a little something sweet from Belgian Chocolatier Piron on Main Street in Evanston.

July 2013 trip B 561And away he goes with a cool $10 bag of treats. !

July 2013 trip B 919Our friends Chloe and Brad took us out for sushi at Hot Woks, Cool Sushi in Chicago! So nice of you guys! (Tastiest, most delicate spring rolls I’ve had in years.)

summer trip 2013 A 038Next stop, Ethiopian Diamond in Rogers Park. Man, have I missed injera. This was SO good. Even better leftovers, too.

summer trip 2013 A 042You just use your hands to eat by picking up the food with the flat, spongy injera bread (which has a lemony sort of flavor).

summer trip 2013 A 057You know this place is the real deal cuz all the Ethiopian taxi drivers eat here. They were so kind and shared some of their fish with us. It was off-the-hook good.

summer trip 2013 A 031And with a cold Ethiopian beer – heaven.

July 2013 trip B 937Being in the business ourselves, we just had to stop in and see what this was all about.

July 2013 trip B 942These poor creatures are caged in the same room in which they are dispatched. Ich. But they had room to move and were fed and watered generously. I forgot to ask the guy if he said prayers before butchering or if he used any different techniques. Not convinced there was necessarily a more humane element to the preparation of halal meat.

July 2013 trip B 943He can’t resist.

July 2013 trip B 949These are the cones. The birds go in upside down, the necks are slit and they bleed out. Doesn’t sound like it, but it’s actually a rapid and fairly humane way in which to do it. No matter what you think, it’s way, way less stressful on the bird than the whole factory experience.

July 2013 trip B 500On to my MOST important culinary destination of this whole trip. Can Evanstonians guess where this might be??

July 2013 trip B 489You’re right! The Evanston Grill! Bless this place, unchanged in thirty-some years.

July 2013 trip B 513And this is what we’re here for. Mr. Lee’s Bi Bim Bop. Like none other in the world.

July 2013 trip B 522I just love the Lees. They are the hardest working people I know. No time off ever, except Sundays. And they go to church on that day, so I sure don’t know when they rest. !

July 2013 trip B 495How touching – Elihu’s drawing and our photo, sent at Christmastime, have been put up on the wall. (Those are the Lees’ son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren to the right of our pics.)

July 2013 trip B 1015This might be a new item on the menu. But then again, maybe I just never noticed it before as I was so focused on Bi Bim Bop. !

July 2013 trip B 1027The Lees have known Elihu since before he was born. I fueled up here often during my pregnancy with him. Later, as a mere baby, Elihu himself ate – and very much enjoyed – the Bi Bim Bop too. (That’s Oscar in the back, a tall Mexican fellow who has been the only cook at the Grill – besides Mr. Lee – for a decade. He DJs on the weekends.)

July 2013 trip B 1036One of my favorite views. Mr. Lee always has WFMT playing (the local classical station) and a stack of newspapers by the door. Never a more soothing and peaceful feeling was there in a diner.

July 2013 trip B 686And speaking of diners, this join hasn’t changed in forever either. Yay!

July 2013 trip B 685Love the homey, unpretentious feel. Such a wonderful neighborhood hang. Sometimes there’s hardly anyone there…

July 2013 trip B 664But on weekend mornings the place is packed.

July 2013 trip B 666I just LOVE that you get your cream in a pitcher. No fumbling about with those crazy-wasteful tiny half and half containers. !

July 2013 trip B 681One of the major reasons I come here (aside from the turquoise vinyl booths): their home made hot sauce. You can even buy a bottle. For $2.50. Why, oh why did I buy only one? I shoulda left with a case! My tiny bottle’s almost empty now!

July 2013 trip B 682

I cannot explain how exquisite this sauce is, and how it simply transforms an ordinary breakfast.

summer trip 2013 A 251

Well, diners may be just fine for the commoners, I guess, but the fancy folk go downtown. We’re finally at Reza’s for Middle Eastern food – and of course for Elihu’s number one favorite dish of ALL TIME: roasted quail.

summer trip 2013 A 253This place has high ceilings, a courteous waitstaff and doors that open to the street outside. It might be a classy place, but there really is no classy way in which to eat a quail. It really is a hands-on sort of thing.

summer trip 2013 A 258The enthusiasm just can’t be contained.

summer trip 2013 A 260It’s all over in short order.

And so ends our culinary tour of Chicago. Undid a bit of my previous weight loss success, but there is no question but that it was entirely worth it. I have no regrets, because nothing beats really good food.

A Post Script: Can’t find my pics of Cross Rhodes in Evanston. That was another important stopping point on our tour. I’m still trying to re-create their vinegar-y, oregano-y sauce on my own here. I’ve come close… but no cigar!

Two more post-post items, called to my attention by Facebook friends: first, Cross Rhodes owner and familiar face to all who ever entered the place, Jeffrey Russell, died last September. Thankfully, I knew way ahead of time so my heart wasn’t broken all throughout my meal. Second, there are two Ethiopian Diamond locations, each run by the same family – one’s on N. Broadway, one on N. Clark, both in Chicago, both fantastic.

If you haven’t tried any one of the places mentioned in this post, then DO. Each one has something extraordinary and unique to surprise and impress you.