The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Lean to Green May 28, 2018

Apparently, I didn’t think this through. Many of the things that I’d wished for over the past several years are becoming a reality now, but it seems there’s a catch to it all. Really? Must there always be a catch? I suppose that’s the way this earth is designed. Two steps forward, one step back. But I remind myself yet again, it’s still progress..

A couple of years ago, when my son still needed me at every turn, when dinner had to be made and chickens had to be tended, I was desperate to leave the years of unending servitude and mundane chores. Although he was old enough then to take some things on, I didn’t ask much of him, but rather encouraged Elihu to live as idyllic a childhood as was possible. Sure he’s always helped when I’ve asked, and he’s always been upbeat and compliant, but still, I have never wished to ask too much of him because I knew his time would come soon enough. Before long the world would ask of him the same repetitive and thankless tasks, and I wished to protect him from the inevitable drudgery for as long as possible. Until now. Elihu has told me that he feels good when he can help out, and now with him being taller than me and having core strength that is fast superseding mine, he is more than capable of carrying 50 pound bags of chicken feed from the car to the coop, relieving me of one task that is becoming just a tiny bit more challenging as the years pass. So I now delegate this and other chores, something for which I am deeply grateful. No longer must I feed and water the chicks in the barn, stooping under the poultry netting, threatening a back injury. No longer must I interrupt my work to get my feet wet in the evening’s dewy grass closing in the flock and collecting eggs in the dark. Now I am freed up to spend more time at the piano, more time getting the kitchen tidy after supper, more time to go through the endless inbox, culling the cream from the crap.

Two years ago at this time, I had yet to play a piano single job here. It had been 13 years since I’d sat at a piano in a hotel lobby. And even back then, when I had piano singles, I hadn’t sung. I hadn’t combined the two. Plus I’d always used real pianos – the technology of a good-sounding, portable piano with ‘real’ action no less – that didn’t exist yet, nor did lightweight, good-sounding PAs. So in May of 2016 I had only just acquired a new keyboard and PA with which to get jobs. I gotta be honest – for as many years as I’d played, for all the experience I had under my belt, and for as eager as I was to get going – I was nervous. Back in the day I’m fairly sure that getting work was influenced by my youth and looks. And maybe even my famous then-husband. The latter idea always bugged me. I tried to silence the concern, but it always followed me; I hated the idea that I hadn’t gotten work on my own merits, but rather my association with someone whose ass many people strove to kiss. But now, all these years later, I was finding that my lack of anyone to vouch for me – starting over, absolutely on my own merits, and with completely new gear – all of it was much more daunting than I’d expected. But I was tenacious, and in the face of full on panic attacks, old fashioned nerves and the challenged sense of vanity of a fifty-something woman, I muscled on. I put in time at the piano, I got a couple hundred tunes in my book, I had new promo shots taken and business cards printed. Starting slow and easy, I got a couple gigs at the Greenfield Farmers Market. And then I was off…

The Studio too was something I’d pushed to the back of my mind over the past several years. There has always been forward movement, but the destination was fuzzy. I’d scolded myself in years past, thinking I needed to simply set aside ten minutes a day to envision the future, to help clarify the picture. But I seldom did. The whole prospect just scared me. I knew what I wanted the big picture to look like – that was easy – but the shit between here and there was beyond me. And in some ways, it still is. But it’s getting clearer now. Kinda crazy the way in which The Studio adventure has panned out. It’s been forward progress in fits and starts. Things look really good, then a pipe breaks. An event feels like a great new era, then a patron sues us (me) for falling on the ice. Deep down, I don’t sweat any of it too much, even when it looks bleak (as it still does from this moment!) because I have a hunch – I call hunches the “God voice” – that things will work out in a surprising fashion. That’s pure faith, I tell you, because at present there’s little evidence to support that reality. But if I were to listen to some of my friends (one more strongly than the others, and yes, G, that’s you!) who give the Universe/God/Creator all the power, and see us as merely passive vehicles to such a power, then I have no reason to fret. But I’m human, so fret I do. But thankfully events are coming to me that shine some light and offer some hope. Some tiny turns of fate are beginning to illuminate new possibility down the line. In a way this too scares me, cuz I’ve never thought this far ahead. It feels strange to see the future that I’ve talked about so much over the years slowly becoming the present.

All this is good, right? I’m working steady piano singles, the kid is able to make himself dinner and take care of the birds, and The Studio is still with us, in spite of lightning strikes and law suits. So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the catch… I’ve got jobs, but they’re all on the weekends. I’ve got events booked at The Studio, but they’re mostly on the weekends. I’m not making money from the place yet (mom’s still spending down her life savings on its monthly operating costs) so it’s not like I can hire someone to run or manage the place, so I find myself in a new, completely unforeseen quandary. So far folks have let themselves in and ‘self-hosted’, but that can’t last much longer with the events coming down the pike. Man. Who knew? I’m kinda surprised with myself that I didn’t see this coming. And I’m hoping that a solution emerges. I’m fairly confident that one will, but from here, in this moment, I don’t see it.

Funny that sometimes we get what we asked for, but when we do, it’s not exactly what we’d thought it would be. It’s a good problem to have in my case, but it’s still a problem. And although I’m making more money, I stand to lose my food stamps and heating oil assistance, and likely my health insurance too. So then I’ll need to make a good chunk more just to come out even again. I call it the ‘dreaded wedge’. That piece of the pie one needs to traverse from poverty to just above poverty. It’s kinda crazy that when one finally makes money, it becomes even harder to make a living. This too is a new situation I never anticipated. I’m earning more, but as a result it’ll be tougher to get by. Talk about irony! I just never thought things through I guess. I still have to fight the desire to cry into my hands sometimes. I’m tired, I’m getting older, my body is changing faster than I’d thought it would, my arthritis makes playing the piano painful, and there’s no reversing any of this. But I can’t stop. There is no option. No other choice but to continue along the path I prepared for myself.

On Saturday night, after a tip-less and quiet night at the restaurant, a complete stranger talked me into coming out and dancing to a local band. In spite of my inner grumblings and initial reservations, I had a fabulous night. A couple in their late 80s danced along side us, as did 20-something couples. All of us laughed and sang out loud together as we danced. We enjoyed an oasis of joy in this relentless, physical world. And when this new friend and I parted at the end of the night, he thanked me for taking a chance on a stranger and coming out. He left me with these words: “Behold the turtle; he makes no forward progress until he sticks his neck out”. Indeed.

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Post Script: My deepest and most heartfelt thanks to all who donated to the recent GoFundMe campaign to replace the broken power line at The Studio. It’s a trial not included in the above post, but a milestone I did not want to let go unmentioned. The success of the drive was due entirely to your love, support and belief in me and in this vision of a community gathering place. The Studio would be dark today and completely stopped if it weren’t for all the donations. So again, thank you, dear friends, thank you so very much. xoxo

 

Charley My Boy July 25, 2016

Although I got off to a late start last night, I did finally go out. There was a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet at which the bassist for the orchestra was leading a small band, and a local fellow was to be playing with him too – enough of a reason to find a dress that I could still fit into and put something other than work boots on my feet. My evening started off quite Cinderella-like, as I had to scoop the last errant members of the flock into the coop before I could be on my way, and by then the event itself was half over and the sun was already down. Half was better than none, I told myself as I waffled once more on whether or not to even go. My windshield was sticky with sap from the trees (the windshield spritzer motor long gone) and my skin was beginning to dampen in the warm, humid air (the AC was on its way out, too). My glasses were smudged, and I’d forgotten to don any jewelry of merit.  I hesitated another moment in the dark car, pondering. “Fuck it” I finally said out loud, turned on the ancient Marshall Crenshaw CD I had in the player, and started down the long, potholed driveway.

I had indeed missed the height of the evening, which was just as well. Before entering, I hung back and assessed the crowd from behind the glass doors. The fundraisers I see in the locally-published glossy magazines wouldn’t be affairs at which I’d be very comfortable. High fashion, low body fat with a smattering of trout pouts, those scenes were simply not me. But if that population had indeed attended tonight’s fundraiser, they had by this time satisfied their social duties, and had returned home on a Sunday night, retiring to bed at a healthy hour. No, this crowd did not look intimidating. I entered the party and filtered through the thinning – and aging – ranks of the guests, and shortly after I arrived found the leader of the band, whom I’d known pretty much only through Facebook. He was kind to introduce me to someone, and I was off.

My father’s 52-year long early music festival still lives in the memory of many here in town, and although that population is aging, there are still many of them about. I’m always grateful to hear my name received with such warmth and recognition; the Festival of Baroque Music was an important part of the arts scene in Saratoga for half a century, and its leader was not only one of the world’s foremost harpsichordists, but he was a gentleman of great heart and good humor – and it seems everyone who’d ever attended the Festival knew it well. Even shopkeepers to whom my father sold ads for the concert programs (yes he did the work himself!) remember dad with a great fondness. My father was an ambassador for goodness and integrity, and I’m always filled with gratitude when I see the impression he made on people has been so memorable and lasting. Last night his good reputation preceded me on several occasions. I met a handful of folks who’d known about the Studio through dad’s music, so I handed out cards and expressed my hopes that we’d stay in touch.

The charts were fun; the band was doing old-timey jazz, the likes of which I’d performed for years with my much-missed Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago (my God you never know what you got til it’s gone!) and in fact, I almost teared up when I heard Black and Tan Fantasy – and it’s not a tune to make one cry, but it immediately brought back vivid memories of a cherished time in my life that was now long over. My nostalgic jag didn’t last though, I was smiling by the time I heard that familiar final minor cadence. The sax player had a delightfully old-timey sound which was a relief to hear. So often when you bands play old-style charts, the players execute them with a modern sound, which to me, kinda spoils the whole thing. If you’re going for the historic tunes – and historically accurate arrangements – play em the way they did back in the day. Just sayin.

I walked the room, looking at programs, posters and articles from the NYCB of my youth. I recognized images of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland and Jacques D’Amboise – rockstars of my early teen years whom I’d sometimes followed through town when they made extremely rare appearances at the pedestrian joints on Broadway alongside the commoners. Peter Martins even put a cigarette out on my foot at the Adelphi Hotel once. Or almost.

We were standing in the lobby, enjoying a solo harpsichord performance when Peter took a final drag off his butt, then flicked it to the ground. It landed on my foot, which I retracted at the unexpected sensation of heat, and when I leaned in to assess the damage, I watched as the dancer’s foot slid towards mine in a motion meant to squash the ember on the floor. I withdrew my own foot and watched as Peter Martins finished the task, his eyes never once leaving the musician. He didn’t realize he’d hit my foot with a hot cigarette, and furthermore he had no idea he’d meant to step on my foot, too. Instantly I felt a mixture of horror, indignation – and awe. Because I was, after all, a thirteen year old girl standing two feet from one of the most exquisitely formed men on the planet. I wanted to be miffed, I’d wanted at the very least an apology. But knowing none was coming, the moment had passed and the point was moot, I decided instead to take the little event simply for what it was: a brush with ballet greatness, and an interesting little anecdote for the archives.

After the band finished, I greeted them and proceeded to pester them with a few questions, which I likely posed with too much enthusiasm. It was easy to get excited – this used to be my world after all, and I still miss it dearly, even a decade hence. The poor fellow who played clarinet, I caught him with cases under his arm and eyes on the door when I stopped to grill him a bit longer than I probably should have for some insight into the working music scene. We’ve met before, so thankfully he was patient with my inquiry. I appreciated what he had to tell me, which, as I might’ve guessed, wasn’t too terribly inspiring. There’s work to be had, but getting in seems the trick. And the money that these dates pay really isn’t much better than it was twenty years ago. Nothing terribly new or insightful, but I came away with some sense of possibility, and my mood was good enough to propel me to downtown Saratoga, where I thought I’d see for myself what a Sunday night looked like during racing season.

It was fairly quiet on the street, but to my surprise there was live music in three separate bars. I saw a fellow a little older than me sitting in the window at one place, playing guitar and singing. Good start. I found a place at the bar and began to jot down the tunes he was playing in my tiny notebook. I always do this when I hear musicians doing the cover thing, because I haven’t still quite gotten a handle on the repertoire. I’m convinced that the soft-rock hits of the 70s and 80s should do just fine in a town that caters mostly to a demographic my age or older – but I’ve come to see that there is a wide mix of ages partying side-by-side, and that a working musician pretty much needs a U2 tune or two in her bag of tricks, and much as it might make me want to weep, it seems that “Moondance” cannot be omitted from a night’s entertainment, no matter how many thousands of times it’s been played.

Soon after I sat down, I was joined by a large, well-toned man. He had a trim, slightly red beard, and wore a cap, which I suspected was used to cover a balding pate. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, and in fact, had he not been so many drinks in, I might’ve given him a bit more consideration. What I did like about this chap was that he possessed a sense of humor. A construction worker and hunter, he had practical life skills. But surpassing any of his merits on paper, he had a certain twinkle in his eye – that lively, animated sort of presence that I don’t come across all that often. I could tell he was clearly a decade younger than me, but owing to his mild inebriation and my low-cut decolletage, this wouldn’t have mattered at all to him, even if he’d known the truth. I stuck around for a few minutes because I found myself getting a kick out of him.

I’ve had a handful of men show interest in me since I’ve lived here, but I simply haven’t felt a similar interest in them. I wouldn’t say that this chap was all that different – only that his humor and that certain spunk he showed held my interest even after my beer was almost gone. In spite of the beers he’d himself already put away, I could still sense the goodness in him – regardless of his ultimate agenda. (With men – and especially the drunk ones – I assume that’s always where they’re hoping it goes…) Before I realized what was happening, he wrapped his enormous arm around my waist and said “Kiss me”. I suppose I coulda ended it right there with a slap or a shove, but he seemed like a big kitten, really, and there was no time to think before Charlie had pulled me in for a smooch. It wasn’t a lingering kiss, nor a romantic one. It was, in fact, more like the generic kiss I offer all those in my life for whom our parting warrants a quick peck. But the point remains, it was a kiss. By a man. And truth be told, dear readers, this is the first man from whom I’ve received a kiss since my husband kissed me goodbye nearly nine years ago. I paused for a moment to drink in the irony: Charlie was the baby that my husband conceived with his then-girlfriend which propelled us into our life here in New York. Charlie is the person responsible for our life in Greenfield. If my ex had asked for a divorce before Charlie’d come around, things might have gone very differently. Many times through the years I’ve whispered to myself “Thank you, Charlie” in a quiet acknowledgement of the critical role he’s played in our new life. And now look, here was a Charlie of my own to keep things moving along! “Charley, my boy” I said under my breath after the kiss, referencing a song I’d sung in that old timey jazz orchestra so long ago. My drunk friend, oblivious to the quote, just winked and smiled.

My relationship with Charlie did in fact end when the drink was over, because as that same time the guitar player was packing up, and I was on a mission. I gave Charlie another quick kiss of my own, before saying goodbye and leaving him no choice but to return to his drink alone. I introduced myself to the musician, and when I gave him my card, he stopped. “Is Robert your father?” he asked, with a tone of great surprise. I told him that he was, and before I could add anything, Jeff went on to tell me how much he’d thought of my father, how he’d sold him a couple of minivans (the Conants always needed extra long vehicles to schlep around harpsichords) and furthermore he went on to say that my dad was the only customer he ever hugged – and more than once! My father, my father. I know what a loving and kind man he was, I do, but I certainly never realized just how much he’d shone that love and kindness into the world. The night had been such a revelation to me, and a comfort, too. My beloved father was still preparing my path, even now.

My new friend and I enjoyed a chat as he wrapped cables and tucked things away, but the information I ultimately sought couldn’t be proffered in the minutes we had left; it was late, after all, and he wanted to get home. Thankfully he offered to get together sometime by the light of day, so we could compare set lists and talk gear (I’m an unintentional Luddite who, over these past 13 years of child-rearing, has become ultimately lost to the culture of Ipads and modern PA systems). My heart was happy and hopeful as I hugged Jeff goodbye. Finally it felt as if there might be a new chapter ahead. Getting up and running as a musician had proved to be a much bigger undertaking than I’d first thought it would be, but at least now I might have a little help.

I moved across the street to a joint that’s known for its live music all year ’round. I saw an act I’d seen before, but this time I stopped to check them out more carefully. They are a duo; the woman plays drums, standing up, and sings too, and the man in his shabby, indie-hip garb and road-worn guitar provides the harmonic component. I couldn’t see bass pedals, and it didn’t seem they were playing with a track, so the source of the bass was a mystery until afterward when I went up to say hi, I learned that the drummer was hitting a pad that triggered the notes. They had a sweet and tidy setup. The merch table was filled with stuff, and to my surprise (for they are primarily a cover band as are all the bands in this town) there was a small line of folks wanting to buy stuff after the show. I watched the woman as she graciously allowed pudgy, drunk tourists to take selfies with her, and I noted how ‘on’ she was; that professional thing that my ex turns on whenever in the presence of another person, that thing that I personally find a major pain in the ass to cultivate. I was never good at schmoozing. Me, I play – and I want to leave. Go have a burrito. Hang with friends, musicians. Not hang with drunk, idiotic bar patrons who wouldn’t turn down a Jimmy Buffet cover. But I watched as this woman did just that. And I thought to myself, ‘man, you are so good at what you do, sister’. It’s one thing to hold together – and front – a two hour show. But it’s entirely another thing to have the post-show hang down. Good for them. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that this really was not my world.

Drunk Charlie had also made his way across the street to hear the power duo, and I’d seen him in the audience singing along and offering his thumbs up of approval. Now he was by the door, and he had spotted me. He grabbed my hands and started to dance, and damn if this drunk behemoth wasn’t light of foot! He lead me around – the hand on the small of the back, the whole shebang – he turned me, dipped me, pulled me in, rolled me away – he had it. One of the things I’d so enjoyed about my ex husband was that he could dance. I’d made my seventh grade son take social and Latin dancing this past year because I insisted it was one of the reasons I had married his father. That got his attention. “Really?” he had asked me, with an open-jawed look on his face. “Really.” I’d answered. Yeah, I’ll go to weddings just to dance with a guy who knows how – or isn’t afraid to try to appear that he does. If the situation had been a little different, the drinks fewer and the night younger, dancing with Charlie might have held more appeal. I thanked him for the dance, made a slight bow, then dashed for the door before he could insist on anything more….

I grabbed two slices of pepperoni pizza and drove home to enjoy them with my last bottle of Fat Tire. Afterward, I tried a couple of songs on the piano, but it was beginning to sour in the midsummer humidity, and my results were less and less pleasant as a result. My night had come to an end, but what a sweet, enjoyable evening out it had been. And I laughed to myself to think that after all these years, I’d finally been kissed. Ha! Thanks, Charley, my boy.