The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

New Ground January 29, 2014

All day I’ve been feeling slightly detached from my surroundings. I’ve had to step into quiet hallways or bathrooms to let out a few tears before returning, fresh-faced to my professional duties. I’ve alternated between absolute heartbreak, nausea or just plain emptiness. I mean, at some point news is just so bad you can’t process it. You can’t do anything about it but accept it. And responsibility for it too. Which, of course, makes the horror so much more acute. Yes, something unspeakable has happened, and it’s very likely your fault.

Last night mom told me there was water leaking in the Studio, and that I’d better come check for myself. While it was my brother Andrew who’d thankfully first noticed it, he’d offered very few details regarding the damage. Last week sometime he’d noticed a slick spot on the driveway just down from the utility room by the Studio’s front door. When he got closer, he heard a pump going non-stop, and it was freely pumping water into the building. I’d thought I’d turned all the valves off – I knew I’d intentionally skipped on having a plumber come and winterize the place as I just couldn’t swing another $300 expense – especially with Christmas coming – so I thought I’d done my best to safeguard the pipes for winter. But clearly I missed something – at the very least I’d overlooked turning off the hot water heater (now I understand why the Studio’s monthly electric bills are at least $50 in spite of using nothing but a few exit sign lights). Crap. I’d been so wrapped up in my life – and my dad and the holidays and just my own shit that I’d neglected to understand the importance of properly shutting the place down. I guess I figured the past winter’d been fine, so if I just did what I did then we’d be ok. And since we didn’t have any programs til late Spring, we didn’t need the insurance either. After all, I have a hard time just paying my own bills, let alone those of an empty building that’s only used seasonally. What a big fucking mistake.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I don’t think you would have believed it either. I’ve known about wood for a while – after twenty-plus years living with a guitar player (and being the daughter of a harpsichordist) I’d seen and heard my share of wood. Seen it shaped, bent, seen how summer and winter wreak their havoc…. but this was insane. The center of the large room was lifted a good two feet in the middle, in a line from the stage to the balcony. A great, undulating ridge just rose from the ground as if it had been fashioned so. Once I took it all in – realizing that the outer six feet or so of the room lay under a good three inches of water and that the floor rose like an island in the middle – I got brave and walked out onto it. I stood there in utter disbelief. I jumped. And jumped. But the floor was as solid underneath me as if it had been intended as a hump and not a flat surface. There was no real give, no indication that the cement was yet a few feet away from the wood. It was the strangest, most dramatic morphing of wood I’d ever seen. Fascinating. Heartbreaking. Unreal. Too much. Way too much.

My beloved Fender Rhodes sat in the greenroom, the ancient cloth grill woven thru with silver strands wicking up the water into its innards. I thought about the cabinet, considered the electronics. I hadn’t the heart to look any closer, I just hoped that it hadn’t yet reached the critical height of the inputs on the far side. And wet though it might be, I could still reclaim the action and have it all cleaned, in the long run it would probably be ok. Been on my list to have gone over anyhow. I was thankful we hadn’t moved dad’s piano here yet. In terms of gear, the loss was minimal. Even my friend’s kiln was up on blocks and appeared safe. But ancient concert posters had sucked up water and puckered, losing ink and fading to nothing but soggy, meaningless pieces. But if that was the worst of the stuff – that was ok. What else? I wondered, slowly wading around the corner…

I made my way to the bathrooms and found water dripping from every piece of trim and weeping from the ceiling. Mold had started to grow on the walls, but thankfully the cold temperatures had prevented it from exploding all over. The main issue was the floor. Where it was poured cement, not such a big deal. But that gorgeous wood floor of the hall itself, the one that had seen so many concerts, so many memories…. To lose that wood, the very wood that had made the sound my father had so keenly sought – and so successfully achieved… it made me positively ache. First I had lost him, now I had lost his room. I didn’t cry, it was too much. And there was nothing I could do. Not a mop nor bucket would make a dent. This would take a pump. Or someone with a pump. Definitely someone with time. I sure didn’t have that. I turned to go down to the house and let mom know the awful reality.

Before long I was crying, and asking for mom’s forgiveness. I knew I’d been lax about preparing the place for winter. I’d gotten away with it the year before, so I’d thought we’d be ok. I’d ignored that tiny voice that told me over and over to make sure… make sure…. Mom was kind to me and told me not to blame myself, and for that I was grateful. Her words helped take a little of the sting away. But going to bed last night, and waking several times during the night were miserable moments. This morning it came back with a sickening thud, but thankfully I had a child to get going and a workday of my own to prepare for. Not a lot of time to sulk, to think ‘what if’, to linger over the sickening prospects – or lack thereof – before me. Plus a new tiny voice had begun to arise in my mind, and it was persistent. I’d ignored it before and the outcome was horrible. Maybe I had better pay attention. It seemed to impart a sense of calm. Calm? This is no time to be calm! I think, but then I stopped to listen more attentively…. What is it… what…? A feeling came upon me that I should not despair. That I should not weep as I might have wanted to (not that I didn’t weep – oh I did.) But even after I wept came a feeling of comfort right behind, a distinct and real sense that everything was going to be ok. Even last night as I’d gone to bed, it was there as the tiniest inkling. And by now I do know unquestionably that amazing things can come from the worst initial experiences. I felt, somehow, as if there simply had to be something to this. That there had to be an answer – that there was an answer, but I just hadn’t gotten there yet. I thought back on all the unlikely things that had happened as a result of other unlikely things – the divorce, the move to New York, my son ending up in the Waldorf school, me ending up getting a job at his school – all these things, each one dependent upon the other, the first event of which I never would have chosen for myself if given the choice. Yeah, there definitely¬†was something here. I just hadn’t found it yet.

While waiting to print out a map of the Mojave Desert on the downstairs pc for Elihu’s latest assignment, I pulled up the wonderful photo of my dad that I’d used in his obit. Through tears I asked him to please give me the answer. I apologized to him, begged his forgiveness for being so stupid, for letting him down. I told him that I knew there was a surprise here, an answer, somewhere. Please, I asked him, could he please, please help me from his side? I wiped the tears from my cheeks, minimized the picture on the desktop and sat there for a moment, my mind blank, waiting. Then the phone rang. It was the guy who was going to be doing the cleanup on the Studio. I’d called a bunch of people and had liked him on the phone the best. He’d come by earlier to assess the job, and had met mom. She really liked him too. I realize feelings go only so far, but that there was such quick consensus made me feel lucky. (Things don’t always work out so easily as this had so far.) As we talked about the cleanup and subsequent repairs, he himself suggested we could salvage the floor and repurpose it. Couldn’t use it again as a floor, but he’d clean it up and stash it somewhere safe. Being more involved with the creative, physical arts these days than the performing arts, I thought it perfect. Struck me as kinda strange that he even suggested such a thing. “Or I could just junk it. Whatever you prefer.” I considered for a moment seeing dad’s old flooring being revamped in a hundred new ways – pieces of art, sculpture, benches, stuff… Stuff that would live again. The floor would come to life in a new way, and in so doing would carry with it a new story…. As a friend reminded me tonight, it is as the old saying went regarding the wood from which a harpsichord was made; in its death it sings again…. This was beginning to feel better. And then came the final discovery. The answer.

For years we’ve struggled with the heating situation in The Studio. It was never designed for more than summer use, and outfitted with baseboard electric heat, it could cost an awful lot to heat. It didn’t seem like a viable option. We’d toyed with other ideas – using the one air duct we used for AC to move hot air – but that would mean installing an outside furnace and perhaps even constructing a shed-like home for it too. The option that I had yearned for – but was never a workable option – had all of a sudden become the solution. I’d lived with it in a Chicago co-op for years and had loved it. (Nothing like walking on a warm floor.) There was the answer. Was it possible? The guy from the restoration service said absolutely. Ok, so we didn’t have insurance. But we were harvesting the woods for timber this year. We’d planned on socking it away for the future, but it seemed the future was already here. A plan was making itself: take the floor out and start over. And I knew how we’d start over – of course, the answer! Radiant heat! Heated from the floor up, it will be easier on the instruments and much more pleasant for the yoga classes and the dancers. Oh heaven, heaven! Finally we can heat the place in an even, gentle way. Finally we can take out those baseboards and free the room up from wall to wall! I can hardly believe it, but here it is. The answer. This is the sweetest relief. A moment ago I was heavy, now I’m light with possibility. And I’m full of hope again. Happy, elated. Amazing.

Other things come to me too. The walls must be taken out at the bottom, and when we do that it gives us the opportunity to insulate the place properly too. Wow. We’d talked about it, but it had always seemed low on the list. Now the list was making itself. If I can speak from a purely intuitive place, it feels as if I’ve been putting this project off for a few years now (ok, single mom duty to young kid does kinda make such things a bit harder) and it just kinda feels like the Studio is crying out to me for the attention and love it deserves. I still have no fucking clue how to run an arts center or what happens next, but I won’t let that worry me for now. This place needs some tlc, some basic repairs and upgrades, and truthfully, had nature not forced my hand I do not believe any of this would be in the works. One project at a time. My partner Ceres is still on board, we’ve still got plans for the summer, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t keep moving towards them.

This chapter has become, quite literally and figuratively, a bump in the road. And thankfully, this unforseen bump will make way for wonderful new ground.


One Up, Two Back June 11, 2012

Today has been a classic ‘one step forward, two steps back’ sort of day.

First off, I did call the gal at the drilling company, and we had a good talk. Ended up getting a lower grade pump with the same warranty. As this pump isn’t for non-stop household use but rather for part-time hours (and at this point only seasonal as well) I figured I could go with the less expensive model. Plus she assured me that any other pumps I found on the internet by the same name weren’t the real thing; they were black market knockoffs. Really? Sounded kinda silly to me, but I didn’t know enough to counter. Plus these pumps were made in Denmark. That I liked. (Much more reassuring than had they been made in someplace like Texas.) I’m already a big fan of Danish design, so I’m going to trust that they make good pumps too.

I joined the crew at the site and watched as they dug the trench from the well to the building, moved some immense boulders and finessed a new line into the Studio. All went well. Satisfied, I left to go pickup Elihu at school.

Elihu’s classmates are each contributing a small drawing of a rainbow which will be used to fashion a larger, end-of-the-year thank you card for their teacher. I carry the pens and paper in my purse and plan to have him do a quick drawing before I pass it off to the mom who’s putting the card together. I linger at the school looking for her but can’t find her. I know she lives a bit further out in the country in our general direction, so I make a mental note to drop the art off at her place later on that afternoon.

By the time I got home and checked my messages, I found the workers had made several attempts to find me – there was a situation that needed some attention ASAP. Apparently a couple of pipes had burst over the winter, in spite of my having drained the system. Or at least I’d thought I had; some friends had come over in October and offered to help me drain the pipes for winter – only we may have been one freeze too late. I don’t know – it seems kinda crazy to me that there should be such damage done in so short a time – but it whenever, however, it doesn’t matter. It’s done. “We looked everywhere but couldn’t find a mop or anything” the kind fellow went on; he felt pretty bad, but there was nothing he could do. I called the shop right away and thanked them. They’d done their job, and they’d done what they could. Which was really just shutting off the main valve after realizing that the place was flooding fast. And we were so close to finishing this project and opening our doors for the summer. So close…

After hearing the messages, I pile a laundry basket full of old towels, drag the huge dehumidifier up the basement stairs, get it all in the car and head next door. When I first see the situation, it doesn’t look so bad – although the carpet in the bathroom hallway is dark with water, it still seems ok. But then I walk on it and feel the volume of water beneath my feet. Phooey. I sop up what I can, get the machine cranking and set up the tubing to drain into a sink. Now I too have done all I can, all there is to do now is wait. Ok. Time to turn my attention back to school business.

Back at home Elihu begins to work on the rainbow for his teacher’s card. He needs to finish his book report too – something he’s been dragging out for weeks now. His teacher has been more than kind granting him extra time for having joined them late in the year. As he adds lines to his arch I test out the markers on a sheet of paper first before handing them to him – as he of course cannot see the colors for himself. He finishes his rainbow then adds a soaring eagle. He signs “Love, Elihu” in the teensiest letters possible a the bottom. Perfect. Now back to the book report. Where is it? I can only find the paper on which I’ve tested the markers. Oh no. Oh no. No! I have been testing out the markers on his book report!!

It’s actually not so bad, because at Waldorf, kids do their assignments in a large lesson book. Elihu has been told that he can do his report on another piece of paper and then glue it into his lesson book. So this will be fine. We can easily cut it out. But this is not acceptable to Elihu, who has now become a raging, crying, frustrated little kid who is fully invested in using this as his ultimate reason not to continue. The next hour is spent with Elihu lamenting between sobs that he’s “been working on this for months“, and that “all his work has to count for something” and therefore he “shouldn’t have to do any more” and me countering that all the hard work in the world is for naught if the assignment is not completed. Crappy job or not, it must be finished. I even use his beloved Waldorf as a tool. I am ashamed of myself, but I am desperate that he finish this assignment. I stay committed to my act, I say that perhaps he should return to Greenfield Elementary if he can’t do the work at Waldorf. It is a veritable battle of wills, of egos. He nods his head yes, that maybe he should go back to Greenfield, because he will NOT do any more on this book report. Wow. He’s committed to his act, too.

I let him writhe on the couch for a bit, to let off some steam. After some time he comes to me as I sit in my chair writing, and he slides in next to me. He doesn’t need any more discussion, any more lecturing. He needs mommy now. So I say nothing, I just hold him. His tears are drying now, but he’s still a little sniffly. I give him the opportunity to ease up on his stance. “Want to just try one sentence at a time?” I ask in a much softer tone, to which he nods yes. I hug him again, and we sit for a moment. He gets up and walks into his room.

Just now Elihu returned with the entire book report finally completed. He threw it at me and said “don’t thank me. Don’t say anything at all or I will be really mad.” Then he left the room. A few seconds later I can hear the whirring of his helicopter moving about the living room. In a while we will have supper. By then things will have settled down. If he’s playing with a flying toy, I know he’s already feeling better.

I’m feeling better too. But I’m not looking forward to spending the money I’d saved on the cheaper pump by way of plumbing repairs (and then some. !). So much for the windfall of a bonus interior paint job! Sheesh.

One step forward, two steps back. Ever onward…

Digging the trench for the new water line

Getting closer…

Down to the nitty gritty…

Good news: we have water. Bad news? It’s in the wrong place. Sigh.

I can’t forget the goal… what a beautiful room, huh? This room has seen over forty years of music and theater and will continue to do so as soon as we’re over this little hump…

Post Script: The Studio used to get its water from a shallow, hand-dug well a hundred yards away (which belongs to the 200 year old farm house in which my brother now lives) but the line ruptured last year. We supplied the Studio with water using a hose from my parent’s house to get us through last season. This year we’re going to have our own water source, making the Studio a true stand-alone building. (We still need heat – but that’s another chapter for the future.)