Now that I had made the decision to take on my granddaughter until her dad was able to care for her, I had to face the reality of the situation. My income was reduced because I could no longer take on the extra jobs I’d depended on. Childcare, although it was more than reasonable, was more than I could handle on my own. And, I still had a teenager at home who needed resources as well. I soon fell further and further into debt. Eventually I realized that here was no way out, so I filed for bankruptcy through legal aid. As long as I was dealing with them, I also filed for divorce from Paul Cavanaugh. I had never really wanted to get married in the first place, and divorce seemed like it would be expensive and unnecessary at the time. However, Paul was also incurring debt, and I didn’t want either of us to be responsible for the other’s debt. Both of these ended up being pretty easy and cost me nothing. Once I got the old debt erased, I was able to keep up with the current expenses, though the stress-free feeling about my finances was gone.
I was teaching music at two different preschools, doing birthday parties here and there and giving a few piano lessons, but it wasn’t enough. I also started making beaded jewelry and selling it at craft fairs. This was something I could do while Tabitha was around. I could usually count on Justin to stay with her on a weekend. Then, a friend recommended me to a man who was self-publishing music books and needed someone to transcribe the music on computer, edit and proof the work. I went to the interview and got the job. He bought me the software for writing music, and I learned it quickly. Then, I also got a job writing the index for a non-fiction set of books about the anti-nuclear protests. That one was not so easy and quite tedious. But I was glad to have the work and learned a lot from both of those jobs. The music writing job lasted for years, and I also used the software to start transcribing my own music.
I continued to find exciting new venues to play. Our local crowd had dwindled a bit, but I found that when we played out of town, we were well received with a large crowd coming to check us out. We played in Rochester, the Finger Lakes Region and a very cool art gallery in Connecticut that had once been a railway station. Everywhere we played, people asked if we had a music to sell. I’d never been able to do any major recording project, but we decided to start exploring our options. Then one day, I got a phone call from a woman in the Woodstock area. She was looking for a woman who played mandolin. I explained that I was just a beginner and really only played chords, but she insisted that I would be perfect for this gig. After a few more calls, I finally accepted the challenge. My policy has always been to say yes to any offer then figure it out later. This time, I felt that I was in way over my head and started immediately to try to figure out the notes on the strings. We didn’t get any music until just before the first rehearsal. I went to that first one with a friend who was also hired to play mandolin.
The program was put on by Ars Choralis, a vocal group based in Woodstock. I was to be part of a recreation of the women’s orchestra from Birkenau concentration camp. All but one of the women in the camp had survived the ordeal by playing music for the Germans and for the prisoners who were marched off to work or to their deaths. It was a combination of beautiful vocal arrangements, readings from the journals of some of the original orchestra members and the orchestra playing some of the pieces that were played at the camp. The director, Barbara Pickardt, had found the original instrumentation as well as the journals. In the camp, they used whatever instruments were available. We had accordion, recorder, guitar, violins, mandolins, piano, flute and more. I found myself playing pieces such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz on the mandolin. I had transcribed the written music into tablature since I didn’t read music for the mandolin. It took me more hours than I can count to figure out where each note was on the mandolin and tab it all out. Then, I had to learn how to play it up to tempo.
At the second rehearsal, I went to Barbara and explained that it was far beyond my ability. She insisted that I stay on. She needed two mandolins and didn’t know where to find someone else. I offered to help with the search, but she refused. I was almost in tears. There was no way that I was going to be able to pull this off. I was playing alongside members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and other professionals. I went home and practiced more than I ever had before. I even got my friend to help me. I did get better but still was out of my league. Once again, I tried to quit. Barbara explained that at the camp, there were women who didn’t play at all but had to learn if they wanted to survive the ordeal. The women in that orchestra all played at different levels and helped each other learn. Some of them did the transcribing because they didn’t really play at all. So, I ended up sticking with the orchestra and played four shows that year. It was a grueling experience for all of us because of the deep emotions we all felt. The women in the camp were made to wear lavender scarves because the sight of their shaved heads disturbed the Germans. Many of us didn’t get through the first rehearsal where we wore those scarves without breaking down. I kept wondering what I would have done in the same situation and realized that the music would keep me alive not only in physical ways such as a little better treatment, but in a spiritual way. When I play music, I’m able to escape into that and leave everything else behind for that short time.
All of the shows were incredibly well received, and we repeated them the next year. Then a couple more years went by, and in 2009, I was asked to do it again. This time, I was told that we would perform two shows in the Hudson Valley then one at St. John the Divine’s in New York City and two shows in Germany. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be going to Europe, my first trip off the continent. I arranged for a few mandolin lessons because I wanted to be better prepared. I was still a lesser player, but I was better than before. My travel was paid for, and I was able to get Dick a discount for him to travel with us. We decided to extend our trip so that we could visit friends in Switzerland, and they arranged a house concert for us there. I had my mandolin, and Dick brought a guitar. We each played both instruments and were able to switch back and forth. It was an amazing opportunity that we jumped at. I soon made arrangements for Tabitha with the village that had been helping to raise her. She spent a few days at a time with the various families that she was already comfortable with, and I would call her at least once at each place. I felt slightly guilty for leaving her but knew I had to follow my own path. It would be the first time in too many years that I had traveled without a child.
Dick and I were both excited about this trip. He had enlisted in the army during the Viet Nam conflict to avoid the draft and ensure a better position. He ended up being stationed in Berlin, Germany in a very cushy job with his own apartment and a car. He had special clearance and had been able to go across the border into East Germany as often as he wanted without being searched by the Russian soldiers. He had never been back, but now he was going to be able to see the changes that had taken place after the wall came down and trip down memory lane. The flight was long and uncomfortable. We traveled at night, but I was too excited to sleep. Once there we had a busy itinerary. We checked into the hotel and were taken on a tour immediately. At the end of the tour, Dick and I decided to walk back to the hotel from the last stop. I had no idea how far it was, and ended up walking many miles, stopping frequently along the way. By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was already time for dinner. Then a bunch of us went out to a bar. I slept well that night and was able to sleep in a little in the morning before another tour and our rehearsal.
We played one show at a Lutheran Church in Berlin then went northeast to Ravensbrück camp in Fürstenburg for their liberation anniversary ceremony. We stayed at the camp in the SS barracks and got a tour of the camp before playing in one of the workhouses. We saw the inmates’ barracks, the hospital, the torture devices, the crematorium and the lake where the ashes were dumped. We were told about the townspeople who mostly stood by and let it happen and about the few who tried to help. It was very moving when one of the original orchestra members came to the show in New York City, but playing at the camp was intense. We all felt like we were playing for ghosts. It was incredibly eerie. Many survivors from that all-women’s camp came and cried throughout. Afterwards, I needed time to decompress before joining the crowd for food, drink and mingling. The next day I wrote two poems.
Across the lake, the sentinel stands
Witness to the atrocities that have come before
He stands silent now as they were silent then,
and then silenced forever.
But who will cry out?
Who will tell their stories?
Layers of ashes at the bottom of the lake
Ripple and roil as if crying out,
“We are dead but never gone.
Tell our stories! Sing our song!
You must never forget!
We must never forget.
The sentinel stands, silent as ever,
Knowing that time passes.
The crucifix atop his long arm reaching up and up
out across the ages and seems to laugh,
Reminding us of all the horrors committed
in the name of God, in the name of Nations.
But that was then, and this is now,
Now I sit and wonder what’s really changed?
And do we still remember?
And will we remember tomorrow?
Who tells us to forgive and forget?
“To err is human; to forgive divine.”
I forgive and forgive and forgive again,
But I will never forget. Will you?
I hear the voices of the dead and of the living.
I see their faces when I close my eyes.
Sometimes I dream their dreams late at night.
And across the lake, the sentinel stands,
watching and waiting.
watching and waiting.
‘Til the End of My Days (8-14-09)
Music is my life.
Without it, I might die.
My body may stand an empty shell
With no spirit, only flesh and bones.
They say I sang before I spoke.
This is easy to believe
For I still sing my way
Right through my life.
You may sing in showers
I sing memories, dreams and conversations.
I’ve sung my children to sleep,
I’ve sung my grandchildren to sleep.
I’ve sung weddings and funerals.
I’ve sung politics and education.
I hope I will sing
‘til the end of my days.
I sit in my comfortable house
With my comfortable family
In my comfortable neighborhood
And think about the women’s orchestra of Birkenau
Forced to play for executions, roll calls,
For workers marching off to forced slave labor,
new arrivals sent off to be gassed
For the pleasure of their sadistic captors.
Hated by some
Facing the condemned daily
While knowing their preferential treatment
Increased their chances of survival.
Given the same choice
Would I sing for my tormentors?
I would live and I would sing.
I would sing ‘til the end of my days.
For the first time in my life, I wasn’t worrying about money. I wasn’t rich by any means, but I no longer wondered whether or not I could put food on the table. I started to relax into this newfound freedom. We went on vacations to South Carolina and Florida to visit one of Dick’s daughters and were going on regular yearly trips to Maine. I was able to do things for my youngest son that I hadn’t been able to do for my first two kids. It felt great. I even bought my own mandolin and started looking at options for recording a CD for the first time. I was so excited to buy a mandolin. I went to various music stores, trying out every single one they had until finally finding the perfect one for me. Dick tried to talk me out of it because it wasn’t the instrument he would have bought, but I stood my ground.
We got home, and I started dinner. I put potatoes on to boil and grabbed my new mandolin. The stove in our kitchen had a space heater on the side. It was a chilly day, so I leaned against the heater to stay warm as I played. Suddenly, I heard a crackling sound and wondered if the potatoes were burning. As I turned around, I caught sight of flames and realized that I was on fire. I remembered that you’re supposed to stop, drop and roll, but there was no way I was going to drop with my new mandolin strapped on. I quickly tried to pull the strap over my head while calling out to Dick for help. I could hear him in the other room sighing and saying to my son, “Go see what your mom wants.” Meanwhile, pieces of my burning scarf were dropping onto the floor starting small fires there, and I could smell my hair burning. My son, in his stocking feet, started trying to stamp out the flames on the floor and managed to set his socks on fire. Dick finally ran in and put out the fires. When it was over, the back of my sweater had a huge hole in it and my long hair was now burned to just above my shoulders. I don’t know how I escaped any burns on my skin or scalp, but I did. I cried when I looked in the mirror and immediately called a friend who cut hair. It was the first time in a very long time that I had short hair. Somehow, that incident was an eye opener for me and inspired a poem about feeling like a phoenix.
Like a phoenix rising,
I emerge from my own ashes
Reborn and wide awake,
Ready to take on my life
Like a fighter accepting a challenge.
My colors brighter than before,
My voice stronger and clear as a bell.
My wings unfurl and prepare for flight
As I stand on this precipice
Not knowing what lies ahead,
But knowing what I’m leaving behind
And what I choose to keep.
I realized that I was not happy in this unsupportive relationship where everything always seemed to be my fault and compassion seemed to be absent. I knew I needed to make a change, but I believe in commitments and loyalty. My friends have referred to me as a serial monogamist. Then there was the issue of Dick’s cancer. I didn’t want to abandon him in the midst of that, but I needed things to change. I was beginning to realize that I never learned to stand up for myself and started trying to figure out how to do that. Up to that point, I had been immersed in being a wife, then a parent and now a partner to another angry man. My two older children were out on their own and my youngest was thirteen. It was time to start looking ahead at how I wanted the rest of my life to be.
Then, I got a phone call on Christmas Eve that year from my older son. Their baby was coming. I raced over to their place and realized that the labor had just started and was very mild. I assured them there was still plenty of time, but Scout insisted on going to the hospital. When we got there, they sent her home. I could see that she was scared and not handling the discomfort well. I offered to stay, but she just wanted to be in the hospital, so back we went. I went home and slept a few hours until I got the next call that my granddaughter was born. I wanted to get there right away, but Scout wanted sushi. She was starving after working hard to birth her daughter and would settle for nothing less. I drove to the restaurant she had requested on Christmas Day morning, and it was closed, as I knew it would be. However, I could see that there were people inside, so I knocked on the door, explained the situation, and they made some sushi for me. When I arrived at the hospital, I was shocked to find out that Scout’s mother and aunt had been there for the birth, against her express wishes and had even filmed the birth. Then, I was told that I had gotten the wrong food and not enough of it. After having supported her throughout her pregnancy, driving her to the hospital twice then being told to leave immediately, I was extremely hurt by this treatment and almost walked out. Then suddenly, Scout insisted that her mother hand me the baby. As soon as I gazed into her eyes, I fell in love. She was so bright eyed and alert. In that moment I was only aware of the two of us, and everything else, all of the aggravation, hurt feelings and inconvenience was worth it all. They stayed in the hospital for a couple of days, then I picked up my son, and we drove them home. On the way home, Scout cried and kept saying, “All I’ve ever wanted was a family. Now I have one.”
Things went well for a few days, then Justin had to go back to work, leaving Scout home with Tabitha. I had agreed to be their support person and checked in every day. One day, when Tabby was about two weeks old, I got a hysterical call from Scout. There was a dirty diaper and no baby wipes. She didn’t know what to do. I urged her to use a washcloth, but she refused and insisted that I drop what I was doing and bring wipes. Another time, we needed to change a dirty diaper when we were out grocery shopping, and she couldn’t deal with the mess. She started gagging and walked off, leaving me with the baby. When I wasn’t available during these minor crises, she called Justin making him leave work. I was beginning to worry. Often, Scout's aunt or I would have Tabby for a weekend. Then, when she was only a couple of months old, I got a call at 6 am one Sunday morning from Scout screeching, “You have to come right away and get the baby out of this badness!” I threw on my clothes and raced over rescue her. Her mother, covered in blood from her own doing, was admitted to a psychaitric hospital, and Tabby lived with me for three weeks. Soon after that incident, Justin moved out, taking his baby with him. We went to court and got him physical custody. He lived with friends for a while then eventually moved into our communal house.
Scout came regularly for a while to see Tabby, but the visits got less frequent as she fell deeper into her distress. Although, she didn’t always call ahead, I always knew when she was coming. Tabby would be playing quietly when suddenly she would shout, “Mama!” Sure enough, a few minutes later, Scout would show up at the door. I was amazed at the strong psychic connection between the two of them. I tried to include her in as many things as I could. I knew she loved to swim, so I invited her to come with us to the beach for Tabby’s first experience in the water. I tried to keep her in the loop about developmental milestones and related funny anecdotes. In spite of my efforts, Scout never stopped believing that I wanted to steal her child from her. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I had already raised kids from the time I was just barely twenty-two years and wasn’t even finished yet. I was fifty with a thirteen-year-old still at home and certainly didn’t want another baby. But I was totally in love with this beautiful child and wanted her to have a good start, so I did what I could while continuing to try to reach out to her mom. I still held on to the hope that her mom would figure out how to escape from her demons.
Then one early May morning, Tabby woke up crying. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but there was no consoling her. It didn’t seem as though she was in pain, but she was incredibly upset about something. She cried for hours. Sometime in the mid-morning, just as I was considering calling a doctor, I got a call from Justin. Scout had died that morning. It seemed as though that psychic connection between mother and child had kicked into high gear. Once I understood, I just sat and rocked that seventeen-month-old, cooing and singing to her until she calmed down. Her dad sat with her for most of the day, both of them taking comfort in each other. It was a whirlwind of activity filled with drama from many sides.
It was May of 2005, my grandbaby’s mother died suddenly, and her dad gradually fell apart, leaving me to pick up the pieces. I’ve always been good at forging ahead, making plans, organizing and seeing things through. This was a whole new experience. Now, I had to figure out how to support my son while also ensuring the care of his daughter and caring for my young teen. When Tabby was born, everything had been put in Scout’s name. She was unable to work and was on disability with Tabitha included on her health insurance. She had been so distressed for much of that time, they had fallen behind in well visits and immunizations. I tried to help my son weed through the bureaucracy, but he was rapidly sinking into a severe depression. He wasn’t working, slept past noon and was neglecting his child. One day, Dick took me aside and suggested that I needed to take custody of Tabitha. “What!? No, I can’t take on another child right now,” was my reaction. He insisted. He made me see that I was the most reliable and familiar person. I asked if he would help and was told that he would not help in any practical way but would try to be a moral support to me. For days, I wrestled with all of the options. I wouldn’t let her go into foster care. A friend had offered to take her, but I couldn’t face giving her to someone else. Although, I was doing well at the time, I wasn’t sure if I could handle the extra financial strain and knew I couldn’t count on getting any child support. Scout had not worked, so Tabby was not eligible for Social Security survivor payments, and Justin had no reliable income. I would have to find daycare for her so that I could work and would have to find a way to pay for it. It all seemed impossible, but I knew I had no choice. I couldn’t abandon her. I also knew that I couldn’t do this immense job with her dad living in the house draining my energy and resources.
I went to him with a proposal. He would have to leave and try to get his life back together, but I wanted him to leave Tabby with me. I would go to court and get shared custody with physical custody going to me. He sadly and reluctantly agreed. As soon as I had the custody papers in hand, I arranged for health insurance and made her first doctor’s appointment in almost a year. I found a friend who ran a home daycare and happened to have a spot available and offered me a discount. I did not go back to the songwriting camp that summer. I didn’t do any extra things for myself and had no vacation. I found I couldn’t take on the extra work I was so often offered, so each month, I slowly fell further into debt with all of the extra expenses of a young child. I was also facing the anger and demands of Scout's family and friends who were convinced that I had done something wrong, and no one offered their help. I was fifty when she was born with my life finally starting to go in the direction I had always wanted. Now I struggled to keep up with her energy, exhausted at the end of each day and wondering how I would go on. But I was also fulfilled knowing that I was doing the right thing. I loved her deeply and could see that she loved me. That gave me the strength to reach out to my village to help raise this child and I gathered up resources and support.
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