artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Happy New Year! Every new year, I try to write something. This past year has been equally wonderful and difficult for me. There have been issues within my family, financial and emotional struggles. There have also been new beginnings, lots of productivity and great musical endeavors. Although, I can’t say that I’m sorry to end 2021, things are still uncertain and fluid. Who knows what 2022 will bring? Some of us are floundering, trying to hold on while the storm rages around us. Others have found a sense of calm and acceptance. I keep going back and forth between both. So far anyway, I haven't felt angry as many others do.
Yesterday, I heard an “At Home” interview with Allison Russell on WEXT radio at noon. When speaking about facing and writing about adversity, she referred to us all as “descendants of survivors.” That one phrase stuck with me. It feels so hopeful. It means that the reason all of us are here on earth at this moment is because our ancestors who came before us survived whatever turmoil assaulted them. Eventually we all lose the ultimate battle but until we die, we continue to survive not matter what comes our way. I have done a lot of surviving in the course of my life and certainly plan to keep it up. How about you? Life can be hard, but there’s always something new just around the corner.
As I begin a new year, especially after ending such a tumultuous one, I like to reflect on, not only the past, but also the future. My partner always chooses a project to do on New Year’s Day that reflects the coming year. Sometimes it’s a construction project or a major clean-up project outdoors. Today, on this rainy, damp day, it’s video editing. I like that approach of using New Year’s Day as a paradigm for the rest of the year. It’s much more forgiving than making resolutions which, when broken, can set us up to feel badly about ourselves. I always prefer to take one day at a time. In 1975, I bought a copy of Baba Ram Dass’ book “Be Here Now” at a new and used bookstore in Santa Cruz, California. It’s quite old and worn out now with its pages a little tattered and falling out and both covers gone. The paper itself feels old and seems to disintegrate in my hands, so I rarely read it, but the concept has guided me along the way. I wondered about the paper that was used when it was brand new. It felt old and fragile even then. Maybe it wasn’t meant to last long. Using New Year’s Day as a model for the rest of the year seems like a good way for me to be here now.
So today I am writing. I have already practiced music and will soon go for a walk. The writing is easy for me to do. I have always loved to write. My dad was a newspaperman and instilled a love of reading and writing in me. He was strict about spelling and grammar. But he also encouraged creativity. When I was in high school, he started teaching me how to write headlines. Back then, it wasn’t done by computer. You had only a certain amount of space in which to get your point across. The letters were different sizes, so it became like a puzzle. You had to figure out what words to use that would fit into that space while still trying to be clever. I think that exercise in writing could be why I tend to write succinctly now.
Dad also gave me the invaluable gift of music. There was always music around when I was a child. If there wasn’t a record playing, then we were singing. We sang after dinner around the dining room table, and we sang in the car. There were always lullabies before bed and random songs throughout the day. We had songs for bath time, every holiday, songs about historical events and for every situation. Then there was dancing. Mom and Dad sometimes danced together. I learned to dance the Jitterbug, Charleston, Lindy Hop, Cha Cha, Waltz and more by standing on Dad’s feet until I knew the steps. Once I could do them on my own, we would dance together swaying, twirling and dipping. Dad’s whole family was musical. One of my great-uncles played tenor banjo in vaudeville. Another great-uncle played organ for silent movie houses, and my grandmother played beautiful classical piano on her baby grand. I have always lived and breathed music. I figure it’s got to be part of my DNA. That said, I often have to push myself to practice every day. Hopefully, doing it first thing today has set the tone for the rest of the year.
Getting enough exercise is by far the toughest one for me to do regularly. At 68, it’s important for me to exercise every day. In the nicer weather, I’m gardening, swimming and being more involved in social activities like music festivals, parties and the like. I’m always moving when it's nice out. I‘ve also been teaching my classes outdoors in the warmer weather, and they are fairly physical. Unfortunately, in the winter, I have very few classes because it's just too cold to teach outside, and folks are still leery of being indoors with their children. I don’t blame them. When it’s cold, unless there’s snow for snowshoeing, the things I love to do, music and writing, are indoors and have me sitting for the most part. I’ve always looked at winter as my hibernation time. That’s when I get more organized and do more physical art like various crafts. So, I need that little extra push to go out and walk right now. I hope today is the start of a regular routine, but I am still going to try taking it one day at a time. Starting right now, on this day, I'm heading outside to hike in our woods.
I've been neglecting this blog lately because I'm working on completing my book that consists of the memoirs I previously posted here. It's coming along and is way more than halfway done. I hope to send it to an editor and have it published in 2022 or early 2023. Today, I was rewriting some of my trip across the country when moving from the coast of Oregon to Upstate New York in 1982. We traveled in our VW bus with myself, my husband, two young children, our cat and as many of our belongings that we could cram in there, breaking down in every state along the way and taking three times longer to make the journey than originally planned. As I rewrote about our unplanned stop in Ohio and the significance of the song "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain", it got me thinking about the soundtracks of my life.
We all have them, right? For me the soundtrack of my earliest years was Big Band, Jazz, Blues and Classical music. As a preteen and teen, it was mostly The Beatles and Motown. When my partner and I were out to dinner last night, I heard "God Bless the Child" sung by Billie Holiday and remarked that I owned a "Lady Sings the Blues" songbook as a teen. I was taking piano and voice lessons at the time and trying to survive horrendous high school years filled with bullying and a severe physical disability. That songbook was part of my survival. After a particularly hard day at school, I would come home and work my way through that book, playing and singing my heart out until I felt as though I could function again. After I graduated from high school, one of the songs that stands out to me is "The Taxi" by Harry Chapin. I remember vividly driving around in 1972, getting high in my car and loudly singing along, especially the line "I go flying so high, when I'm stoned." Another one was “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and the whole Tapestry album by Carole King.
Later on, I discovered The Grateful Dead. When my marriage was dissolving, or more like exploding or erupting, “Brokedown Palace” by The Dead always made me cry. Then, when I finally left my husband, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” let me cry my heart out and eventually find healing. I later found out that he was crying to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, which I would never have guessed. Music has always been my best medicine. Writing my own music helps me articulate feelings that might otherwise be buried. Most of those songs never go out to the public. Occasionally they surface, but they’re really meant for me. We all have our own coping mechanisms, and we all have our own relationships with music. I wonder what your soundtracks have been. Mine are ever-evolving.
Halloween has always been a favorite holiday of mine, and I’ve had a wide variety of experiences on that day. We always made our own costumes. Mom was very creative and loved doing crafts. One year I was a television. I wore a cardboard box that was painted and had the front “screen” open to show my face. There were dials on the front and a curtain hung below so you couldn’t see my feet. I was the start of the show. Another year, I was the headless horseman. This time, it was a cardboard box that I wore around my waist with the horseman’s legs made of construction paper hanging down and a hobby horse head attached to the front. I wore a shirt with the collar on top of my head and the shoulders held out with a stick. I carried a carved pumpkin for my head, and my feet were the horse’s feet. Other years I wore my father’s sailor uniform from WWII and my grandfather’s infantry uniform from WWI.
My mom and dad were also fond of dressing up. One year my parents were invited to a Halloween party for adults. Mom went dressed as a beatnik with a long platinum wig, a beret, wearing tight black pants with long false eyelashes and long cigarette holder. Apparently, she flirted with all of the men there. Because she wasn’t wearing her glasses, a lot of them didn’t recognize her, and Dad was embarrassed and furious when they got home. Another time she dressed as a Native American, though at that time she referred to it as an Indian. She sat cross legged on the front lawn with a plaid blanket around her shoulders, a feather headband with an arrow going through her head. I was mortified, but she thought it was a hoot. We lived on a hill with two sets of stairs going up to the front porch. It was a long climb, and many kids didn’t bother. When they did though, they commented on the “Indian” we had on our front lawn. As they got a little closer, mom stuck her hand up and said “Ugh, how!” They ran off screaming and must have spread the word since there were fewer kids than usual that year.
My freshman year of high school, some of the kids made a little effort to befriend me. I later found out it was out of sympathy for my disability and not out of any true friendship. But at the time, I enjoyed being invited to a couple of parties. I was having fun at the Halloween party that fall until Mom and Dad came to pick me up dressed as that beatnik and Superman. Dad was the City Editor at the local paper at the time and a columnist. He had gotten the superman suit when he was roasted that year. You know the whole Clark Kent comparison. The kids at the party lost it when they entered the house, but I was embarrassed. It became a source of relentless teasing from those same kids in the weeks to come, and I wasn’t invited to any more parties.
When I met Paul Cavanaugh, I discovered that he also loved Halloween and was fond of dressing up. Our first Halloween together, we dropped a bunch of acid and threw a party. One of our friends had just bought a new guitar and invited Paul to play it. Before long we noticed that, because he was playing without a pick, and playing hard, his fingers were bleeding … all over the finish of that new guitar. We decided to go for a walk to get away from the scene for a while and sometime during that walk, we decided to go back to the house, find the half empty paint cans that were left in one of the closets and paint LSD on the main street going through town. When we opened up the first can, there was a hard film on top. Paul decided, while holding it upside down, to bang on the bottom. The paint came out in a big puddle in the middle of the road. We heard a car coming, so we ran to the sidewalk and tried to act nonchalant as we slowly walked along. The car was going fast, hit that puddle with a huge “Sploosh” and fishtailed back and forth before turning around in the gas station a block away and slowly cruising by us. We were laughing so hard; we could hardly stand up. As we leaned against each other for support, we realized that it was a police car. We tried to stop laughing, but that realization and the acid we were peaking on, made us laugh even harder. We were certain that we were going to be arrested, but the cops just kept driving. We decided that we must have been invisible, so we went back for more paint and successfully wrote LSD on the road.
When our kids arrived, we got creative with their costumes and always helped them make them. Our oldest son at around eight months old was a “rug rat” on his first Halloween. Of course, there were the usual witches, ghosts, gypsies and superheroes, and it was always fun. Then Paul and I moved to Albany, NY in 1982 and started going to wild costume parties. Paul got a kick of wanting to wear a business suit every year. One year he was the “nun of your business” while I was the night sky. Another year, he was “E.T. – extra testicle, the businessman with more balls.” I even sewed a tennis ball inside of layers of nylon stockings onto the outside of his pants.
He carried a briefcase with the biggest screw he could find inside so he could take it out and “screw” people. That year I was a nuclear family wearing a grotesque hat with multiple heads coming out of it, an extra arm sewn to my back and other deformities. Another year I was a “Japanese Beatle” wearing a kimono, my hair in a bun with chopsticks sticking out and an old hamster cage with the top and bottom removed and photos of each of the Beatles on each of the four sides resting on my shoulders. That year, Paul was “The Stoned Ranger.” He wore a badge and a cowboy hat and had a bandolier across his chest holding joints instead of bullets. Like I said, we loved Halloween.
After we had separated and Paul had passed on, I came up with the idea of hosting a Masquerade Open Mic. It started out in my home. I often threw big music parties and liked doing it on Halloween. That first year, I was looking for something a little different. It was quite a success. I dressed as Bob Dylan. We always had a great variety of musicians with very few doubles, though we did have two Dolly Partons at the same party and Cyndi Lauper made an appearance at two different parties. When I moved to Petersburgh, I hosted one of these but soon realized that the house was too small for indoor parties, so I went in search of a venue who might be interested in this unusual Halloween event. The first couple were at the Low Beat, then I moved it to The Rustic Barn where I dressed as Amy Winehouse. The first couple of these events that were held in the bars, my current partner carved dead musican pumpkins. The first was Elvis, and the second was Jim Morrison. Over the years, I’ve also been John Lennon, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Donovan. I already have my character chosen for next year although I often change my mind at the last minute. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see.
A FINE COAT (10/20/2021)
I’ve been struggling over what to write next now that my memoir is essentially finished. For years I was not really sure who I was. I’ve become reborn every 20 years to start a brand-new life. Maybe that should be the topic but, for the record, I’d like not to start again when I’m 80. My latest rebirth was wonderful and rewarding but also extremely hard. It was also the most radical of them all so far, and I am still reeling after 7 years.
I’ve worn my independence like a warm coat, keeping me safe and protecting me from the elements, but it was not easy to come by. For the first 20 years of my life, I was completely under the thumb of my parents. I was only allowed my own thoughts because I mostly kept them to myself. I never shopped for my own clothes or even chose what outfit to wear until I moved out. This may seem unbelievable to you, but my mother had an iron fist, and my dad had a leather belt. When I was a younger teen, I finally ran from him, when he whipped out his belt. I called from the neighbor’s house threatening to tell everyone in town about the beatings if he ever hit me again. An influential figure in town, he stopped, but my mother’s techniques were harder to deal with. When I had my own apartment, she found out that my lock was broken and started driving to my home early in the morning and walking into my bedroom, where I was asleep with my boyfriend, to be sure I got to work on time. That was one of the biggest reasons I left Connecticut and never looked back – My first rebirth.
For the next 20 years, I was with my husband, traveling around the country via thumb then, once we had children, in a variety of vehicles. Those were wild and crazy days and very hard. He was the first person who saw me for who I was and truly loved me. As much as he loved me though, he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his own violent and nightmarish childhood. He was often angry and mostly focused that anger at me. When he did aim it at our children, I got in the way, deflecting away from them and onto me instead. I fought with him constantly, trying to maintain a sense of myself, trying to hold on to that coat of independence, trying to survive. He threw things and raged, frightening us all. Like so many abused women, I felt trapped and ashamed. But, I had also grown up in a similar environment, so it felt normal. I thought this was what relationships were about, passion and brutality. I remember going to a counselor who referred to me as a battered wife. “No,” I said, “He’s never hit me.” She sighed and explained that there were so many forms of abuse, and, at that moment, I realized that I’d been battered my entire life.
When I finally left that situation, it was in large part due to the help of a couple of friends who had been watching me slowly fade and whither. I left with my 3-year-old son and a couple of suitcases, leaving my older son with his dad, hoping they would bond and aware that he was starting to treat me the same way that his dad had modeled for him. By the time I finally left, I wanted nothing to remind me of my time spent with Paul. I just wanted out and, it felt like if I didn’t get out immediately, I might never be able to leave. Over the next few years, I did go back and take some household things and items we had accumulated together. One of the hardest things about that leaving was the reaction of others. Everyone loved Paul and only saw his public side, the happy-go-lucky joker who would give you the shirt off his back. And, he really was a great guy. Once we weren’t living together, we became very close friends. He even lived in my house for a few days while he was dying.
Hoping to start this new life single, I kept to myself, declining invitations to go out dancing with friends. However, a friend brought my next lover over to jam one night, and that was another beginning. I thought this man was the love of my life. He was angry but never aimed it at me. I overlooked his bullying and stubbornness because it was less than I had been living with, and I still believed that all relationships were stormy. This was a calmer storm and definitely full of passion – for about a year. Then, things started cooling off. Eventually, the anger started being directed at me, then 20 years later, after making too many excuses, I finally left.
Now, here I am again. This time I didn’t leave things behind. This was partly because I was left to pack up and clean alone, even though we were both moving out. The landlady was a friend, and I didn’t want to leave her with our mess. I also didn’t want to leave with nothing again. So I packed and purged, crying my way through it all. I had accumulated too much stuff. I raised three children and a grandchild, had housed all three of my children during their childhoods and for varying amounts of time as adults and even housed their partners and children. Everyone left things behind for me to deal with. I even had some of Paul’s things, including his ashes.
Once again, another 20 years later, I embarked on another new adventure. I was without children in my home for the first time in 40 years. Two of my three children and two of my three grandchildren had moved away soon, and I was partially estranged from my third child. Once again, after resolving to stay single, which I can’t seem to pull off, I fell in love and moved in with that new love. He took me in with all of my past possessions and emotional baggage. He is patient, encouraging and supportive. He doesn’t insist on trying to change me or have me think his thoughts. He is interested in what I think. He isn’t an angry man. He is entertained by my quirkiness instead of being disgusted or aggravated by it. He wants to help me and care for me. He is the first person to insist on carrying my heavy bags instead of watching me struggle under the weight of them or yell at me because I’m not keeping up. He is even reluctant to make suggestions lest he seem critical or pushy. And, after all this time, I am still on guard. The past is hard to put behind me.
At sixty-eight years of age, I finally know who I am and what I want. I was given time and a wonderful space in which to heal. I feel as though I went on a retreat for the first couple of years living here, retreating into myself to try to find solace and understanding for all I have been through in my lifetime. Then the pandemic came, allowing me to spend copious amounts of time at home. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t rushing around going to event after event and working too many hours. Although, I no longer feel actively afraid, I often try to explain to people that I am akin to a rabbit, always on guard and ready to flee at the slightest hint of danger.
Over the last decade, I’ve been trying to let go of physical things, kitchen things that can be replaced if I move out again, clothes I don’t wear, books I’ll never read, linens, all the things I had for running a household, even some of my furniture. But I can’t seem to let go of my old wool coat. It occasionally grows mold and hangs in my closet endlessly too frayed and worn with the sleeves a little short for me. It doesn’t have any real significance that I can think of, but I can’t seem to let it go. When I consider giving it up, my heart feels like it is ripping in two. It’s just a coat, but it’s a fine old coat that still has many years of warmth in it. Maybe it’s a symbol of that independence I have struggled to maintain and have so often left behind. Maybe this time I can hold on to it. And maybe someday I’ll happily pass my coat on to another who needs it.
As the days are getting shorter and the weather cooler, I’m increasingly aware of the changes I’ve had to make living in my current home. My partner built a very cool house that reminds me, and many others, of a treehouse. It looks like a big barn with a wooden silo attached. With the windows wide open, even now in the cooler weather, and our living space being up on the second and third floors, it feels like I’m living in the trees. I love it! The house is off-the-grid and powered by solar energy with a woodstove and a couple of small propane heaters. The large windows face south, and the outside walls were built with six-inch thick pre-insulated panels. We often don’t even need to start a fire until the afternoon during the winter. We actually use very little electricity. The house is set up for a 12-volt system with a converter for appliances, computers, etcetera, including the music studio equipment. Our refrigerator and pump are 12-volts as is all of the built-in lighting. That said, we do sometimes have to run a generator on cloudy days or in the winter, when we get less sunlight even on sunny days.
I’ve had to learn to shop for food differently because our refrigerator is smaller than I was used to and sometimes shuts off, if the power is too low. We don’t have a washer or dryer, so we make trips to the laudromat. In the winter, I often can’t use my desktop and have learned to use my phone and iPad more often. I wear layers when it’s cold and only use my blender or waffle iron on sunny days. We only light the rooms we are in at the time, and I often use battery powered lights. Is it difficult sometimes? Yes, it is. But it’s worth it. I love living like this. And, I adjusted to it quicker than I expected. In all fairness, I didn't expect that it would be much different, but it is.
Recently, a neighbor gave us seven solar panels because he had just upgraded his system and no longer needed them. This is going to make a huge difference to us. In redoing the deck up on the roof, J. built a rack for these new panels. We’re just waiting for the new charge controller to arrive, and he will wire them to the system in time for the darker days. I’ll have to wait and see how much of a difference it will make, but any difference is an improvement. It probably means that I can use my computer more often in the winter and on cloudy or rainy days. It probably means that the refrigerator will run consistently, and we’ll use the generator much less. I already feel as though I live in paradise, living the life I never even imagined was possible. This will feel almost decadent.
In the past seven years, I’ve gone from struggling financially just to stay afloat to being able to invest in myself in ways I thought were impossible. I run a successful business and am moving forward with my music. I have access to a recording studio, video production and an outdoor stage for events. I have a supportive partner who is not in competition with me and who wants to help out in whatever ways he can. My children are all independent and doing well. It’s the first time in my life that I don’t feel responsible for anyone else or worry about their well-being. I certainly care deeply for my children and grandchildren and will continue to be there for them when needed, but I no longer feel immersed in their various dramas. I don’t feel as though I have to fix anything, and it is such a relief.
I have lived here almost seven years now and look forward to each year ahead. I couldn’t ask for a better, more peaceful and serene environment. It has stimulated my creativity and nourished my soul. Last night we spent time on the finished deck, looking out over the tops of the trees as the sun was setting. The solar lights in the yard started blinking on, the evening start appeared, and all we could hear was the sounds of nature all around us. Then we walked down to the outdoor stage with its solar lights all ablaze, and I counted my blessings as I watched the stars peeking out of the darkened sky above us. Life is good.
When I was nine years old, I was offered music lessons at school. I chose the violin. My parents borrowed one from a friend. It was a nice instrument but was a full-sized violin and a little too big for me. I didn’t care. I knew I loved music more than anything and was anxious to learn to play it. Unfortunately, the violin is a difficult instrument to play well at first, and it squeaked and squealed all the time. I tried playing it softer, but that only made it worse. My parents had no patience for it, so they sent me into the dark, dank, dirty, dingy basement to practice. In spite of that, I still practiced every day. Then the teasing started. My dad bordered on cruel with his teasing. He had learned the art from his family and practiced it regularly on me and my brother. My brother learned it from my dad and joined in. Finally, it became too much for me, so I quit the lessons and returned the violin.
A few months later, I overheard my parents talking about a piano they had been offered. It would cost them fifty dollars if they moved it themselves. I ran in the room and literally got down on my knees, begging them to buy it. Of course, they reminded me that I had tried one instrument already and quit. I tried to explain that the teasing had caused me to quit, but that only made Dad angry. I reminded them tearfully that I had practiced every day in that horrible basement until the day I quit and promised that I would also practice the piano every day. Dad agreed to go get the piano if I agreed to practice at least an hour a day, which I did. Those practices were sometimes torturous, but I stuck with it. Dad brought out his photography timer that made a loud ticking sound and clanged obnoxiously when the hour was up. It rarely ticked in the right tempo and competed with the metronome, but I learned to tune it out and keep my own rhythm. Most days, I practiced the required hour then kept at it, sometimes continuing my practice and sometimes playing my own music. I quickly noticed that when I was at the piano everyone left me alone, so it became my second sanctuary. I rarely play the piano for fun anymore because it has too much baggage, but I often use it as a tool. I managed to keep that original piano, in spite of my parents trying to get rid of it multiple times, though I recently gave it to my son.
Dad wanted to be involved in my lessons, so he often sat with me during the practice hour criticizing and correcting me. Then, I would go to my lesson where the teacher explained that I had been doing it wrong. Dad didn’t believe me, so I insisted that he go with me to a couple of the lessons. Once again, this made him angry and made my life harder, so I practiced for an hour on my own, while he was at work, playing the way the teacher had instructed me then practiced another hour with Dad. As frustrating and confusing as it all was, I think it made me a better musician in the long run. I have a great sense of rhythm that I attribute to practicing with competing clicking sounds. I also can hear multiple parts in my head at the same time. For example, when I’m creating harmonies for a song, I hear all of the parts together. I can even sing rounds in my head hearing all of the parts simultaneously. I used to think that everyone could do that, but I’ve since learned that’s not necessarily true.
I spent my early life trying as hard as I could to follow the rules and not make waves. Mistakes were dangerous in our home. Dad was a firm believer in corporal punishment. He took his leather belt to me at least three or four times a week. He also tormented me and my brother, constantly teasing, criticizing and belittling us. Neither of us ever did anything right. He was fond of that game of hitting you and saying with a satisfied smirk, “That was for nothing, now go do something.” He also loved to pull me into his lap then, when I got comfortable and let my guard down, he would rub his thumb on the inside of his Planter’s Peanut can and smear the grease all over the front of my glasses. He never questioned Mom who I suspect was bi-polar or had some other mental health issue. She would often change moods like flipping a light switch, and she lived in a different reality than the rest of us. Most times, I was punished for something I didn’t even know I had done. Or maybe the rules had suddenly changed without any notice. When she decided I had done something wrong, I was sent to my room to wait for Dad. Sometimes I waited for hours, knowing that I would get the belt and having no idea what it was for. I grew up believing that I was crazy because my mom certainly couldn’t be. She was my mom. She had to be right. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had witnesses to her changing reality that I realized it hadn’t been me. Until then, I lived as though I was walking on eggshells, trying not to be noticed, while knowing that violence could erupt at any time.
My high school days were filled with bullying and abuse. I had been diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before my freshman year and entered a brand-new school wearing a steel and leather brace that stretched from my chin to just below my hips. It was large, uncomfortable and obtrusive. After having spent my first eight years of school in public school, this new Catholic school with all of its restrictions filled with snobby kids that I didn’t know was a nightmare for me. The bullying was cruel and relentless. One boy a year ahead of me climbed on the school roof with a gun and shot randomly before finally killing himself. Another boy committed suicide at home because of the bullying. I became anorexic and was carving designs into my forearms with straight pins. The only thing that got me through that time was music. I stuck with those lessons through high school and also took classical voice. Unfortunately, the high school that had no music or art classes until my senior year, but that didn’t stop me. Those two subjects, as well as writing, were the things I excelled at and truly loved. They were saving my life. When it was time to look at colleges, my guidance counselor told me that I had to choose only one of those subjects, so I chose my first love music and was accepted, in spite of my failing grades, into two music schools. One was Hart School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and the other was Seton Hill College in Western Pennsylvania. Hart had offered me a scholarship and wanted me in their music education department, but I had no interest in being a teacher. I wanted to be a performer. I had finished the music entrance exam before everyone else and had continued on to the education section just to pass the time and got a perfect score. My parents pushed for that school assuring me that I could come home every weekend. That was the last thing I wanted to do.
My family was dysfunctional and violent. My mother tried to control my every thought. Believe it or not, she chose the clothes I wore every day until I moved out. Dad’s teasing got worse, and during the years that I wore the back brace, he focused on that and my physical appearance. I wanted to get as far away from home as I could and decided, against everyone’s advice, to go to Seton Hill where I was also given a scholarship. I won’t go into all of the details of why, but I failed miserably the first semester, had a mental breakdown and was sent home. It had been the first time in my life that I made my own decisions, but it felt like I had been thrown to the lions. I hadn’t experienced any of the things that normal kids go through in high school. I’d had no relationships of any kind with the opposite sex. I’d never held hands with a boy or even really talked to them much, and I was afraid of my own shadow. Now I was in a whole new world and didn’t handle it well at all. When I came home, my parents were angry. They found me a job at a bank and set me up with a therapist who I couldn’t stand.
The good news was that once I had a job, I had my own money and was able to start living my own life. I started meeting people and started learning how to socialize. I became friends with a woman my age who helped me invent things to tell my therapist. We came up with dreams and fantasies, changing these over time to make it look like I was recovering. What really helped me recover was having a friend and being able to make my own decisions. I went clothes shopping with a friend for the first time, took the train into New York City to go to concerts and just cruise around the big city. I reconnected with a couple of old friends from Junior High School and eventually got my own apartment that I shared with a roommate. I still struggled and made some very bad decisions, but they were my decisions. I was not being ruled with an iron fist. Looking back on it, I think it’s a miracle that I survived. Between my family’s abuse and the abuse that I suffered in high school, it was no wonder that I turned to sex, drugs and alcohol. But I did survive, and everything from my past has led me to the present and a full and fulfilled life.
The first house I remember living in was on Elmer Street in Springdale, Connecticut. Springdale is a section of the larger city of Stamford which at the time was a small bedroom community. It’s about an hour from New York City, and the New Haven train line ran commuter trains regularly. Dad worked right in town, unlike so many other dads, so he was often around and involved. Mom worked part-time as a nurse, but my brother and I always had one or the other parent around. If Mom worked nights, Dad would make sure he came home in time to take over. When we got to be school age, Mom started getting jobs during our school hours. We grew up in a neighborhood with gangs of kids running around. When not in school, we left after breakfast to play, came back for lunch and again at dinnertime. In the summer, we could stay out for a while after dinner too. We were all free-range kids back then.
I was very shy and afraid even of my own shadow. It was always hard work for me to cultivate relationships. It’s a skill that I’ve had to learn over the years. Mom was great at it. She befriended everyone regardless of their age, gender, orientation, ethnicity or position in life. Whoever you were, she wanted to know you. She was friendly and fun and usually the life of the party. I was more like Dad, who preferred to stay in the background quietly observing everything and enjoying Mom’s antics. They played with us outdoors with Mom teaching us how to double-dutch jump rope. Dad hung swings and rope to climb and swing on. They often played hopscotch or a game they called “Frozen Ice.” It was a race where you had vinyl sheeting cut into random shapes that you’d lay down on the ground, one at a time, putting one foot down then tossing the next and putting your other foot down and so on to the finish line. It was a race so you were supposed to go as fast as you could. All the kids loved watching Mom and Dad race each other bumping the other one to slow them down. Mom even insisted on trying out a kid's new go-cart and got stuck in it. She couldn't reach the brake and couldn't take her foot off the accelerator, so she rode around until it ran out of gas with its owner running after her yelling at her to stop. The whole neighborhood was in an uproar so Dad finally took us inside and closed all of the drapes.
Dad was also always good at showing us how not to do things. He was such a good sport but clumsy. I guess I also inherited that from him. One time he wanted to show me and my brother how to swing safely on a rope swing he had just hung in a big old oak tree. The tree was on the edge of a rise in the yard that Mom had terraced to help prevent erosion, which was a big problem. Dad explained that we would swing out from the side of the tree, swinging out over the yard and giving a big enough push to make it all the way around without crashing into the tree. Then he demonstrated. After he picked himself up off the ground, he turned to us and said, “That’s how not to do it. Now you try.” And we did, both successfully. We often learned safety lessons that way.
The Elmer Street house was a wonderful neighborhood but a weird house to live in. We lived in half of the large house. The other half was uninhabited and furnished with covers over everything. There were double glass doors with heavy curtains that separated that side from us. Sometimes I would peer through the tiny gaps in the curtains and wonder about it all. It was mysterious, and I was curious. I asked Mom but she either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Every once in a while, Mrs. Fromm would come to visit the house. I have a vague feeling about her and can almost remember what she looks like, but not quite. She was as much of a mystery as the house, and I was too timid to even look up much. I used to make up stories about what must have happened. It had to be something tragic that she couldn’t face. That’s why everything was covered up and gathering years and years of dust. My bedroom was a dead-end in the upstairs. It was off my parents’ room. I liked it because my brother had no excuse to go in. There were other rooms upstairs. Our bedrooms were on one side of the stairs, and there was a hallway on the other side with rooms off of the hallway. There was one off of my bedroom that was behind a locked door. I peeked through the keyhole a few times, but it was creepy. At one point I stuffed something into the keyhole so that nothing could peek in at me. The window in my room was a dormer. Most of the time I loved being in my room, but on stormy nights when lightning flashed and the trees outside cast strange shadows on the walls, I would start to think about that closed off room.
Also in that house was a large screened-in side porch. The yard on that side wasn’t very exciting. From what I remember, it was mostly shaded and damp. We never played there. But the other side had a great yard. There was an ironwood tree. It was a perfect climbing tree. The branches were strong and spaced out just right. There was one closest to the ground that grew horizontally for a while then grew up and back out again. It was our “horse.” It was long enough that it would bounce but even a grownup could sit on it safely. I loved that tree. I often took a bunch of books up to the top branches and read for hours. I liked being away from everyone. As I said earlier, socializing was hard work for me. I was also scared a lot, so being up in the tree was ideal. I was safe and could see trouble coming before it reached me. The rest of the yard was large and sunny with a mulberry tree down in the far corner. We picked mulberries every summer and grapes every fall. Mom made jelly from the grapes and from red currants that she got from a friend.
The neighborhood was great. When we got old enough to go to school, it was an easy walk. There was a playground and a library next door to the elementary school. There was also a summer day camp at the playground that you could just drop in when you wanted. Halfway to the school was an old fenced in church lot. It was blacktopped so there was roller skating there and sometimes a church fair. A little past the school was Bill and Fred’s. It was kind of an early convenience store. It was a smoke shop, soda counter and candy store. We all went there, when we were old enough to go that far, to buy penny candy. We bought wax lips, wax soda bottles filled with some kind of sweet syrup, candy necklaces, candy dots on long sheets of paper and atomic fireballs. Those were my favorite. Bill and Fred were too older men who smoked cigars in the store. They were nice enough but not overly friendly which was fine with me. It always felt like I was doing something elicit when I went there. Maybe it wasn’t me doing it. Maybe I just sensed something off. Stamford was a very corrupt town. There was a thriving underworld that was quiet and kept to itself for the most part. But it was there, nonetheless.
School was a sudden disruption to my life. I liked being at home. I already knew how to read before entering kindergarten. Mom and Dad’s friends were all educated people. Dad was a newspaperman. He covered current events and the Republican side of politics. Later on, he wrote a weekly column. Mom was a Registered Nurse. I was surrounded by medical professionals, writers, lawyers and politicians. My parents did not believe that children should be seen and not heard. They included us in all of the adult conversations. We were encouraged to think and ask questions. We were also encouraged to voice our opinions but had to be ready for the aggressive counter arguments if we had different beliefs. Mom taught me science related things. We did experiments, gardened, identified birds, insects and plants. When I started school, I was on my own without a safety net. I had no tree to climb when I felt overwhelmed. There were all of these kids I didn’t know. No one from our little neighborhood gang was in my class. I was afraid, and I was bored to tears. I have a vague memory of having a nice teacher in kindergarten, but I made no friends. I don’t think I had a school friend until fourth grade. I spent most of my time working on my invisibility cloak and daydreaming. I hated school. For me, it was a wasted six hours a day. I could have spent that time reading and learning something of value. I don’t think it was the fault of my teachers. I think it was my own social anxiety and the fact that my own learning was way ahead of the curriculum. With my social issues, it would have been a disaster to move me ahead into a higher grade.
I was already musical when I was born. My parents loved to tell me that I sang before I spoke. They knew I would be a musician. I was singing sentences before I actually spoke words. I could sing a round by the time I was two and was soon singing descants and harmonies. Dad sang all the time. He had a song for everything. He was a frustrated musician. By that I mean that he loved music and wanted to play it but never seemed to pull it off. When he was a child, his parents, having paid for music lessons for their first three children, stopped providing them for Dad and his younger brother. But he didn’t give up. He was in musicals and chorales in high school and college, but then he didn’t pursue it. He bought himself a guitar for five dollars from the Red Cross when he was in the Navy and knew a few chords. He could also play a little on a saxophone that he owned and on the ukulele. He became a young father and main breadwinner with no time to take music seriously, but he still loved it and surrounded himself and us with it. When he wasn’t singing, he was playing records. He had mostly classical, jazz, blues and big band albums. Many of his friends played music, though. One of them, Sterns Woodman, could play any song on any instrument by ear. All you had to do was sing it to him. I was in awe of him, and there were others. I was so blessed to have grown up in that music-filled environment.
I just had my 68th birthday and have been looking back at my life and family history. The things we inherit are unpredictable. We often inherit health issues, as I have. But we also inherit behaviors and beliefs. Sometimes we can overcome those, but some of us get caught up in it all. I found the only way for me to avoid the disfunction and abuse in my own family was to leave home and physically distance myself from my already emotionally distanced family.
Now that my original online memoir project is finished, I'm working on putting the book together and realized that I needed to start looking at my early years. I'm glad I put it off for last. It was too difficult to start there, but I think I have a different perspective now and can write it fairly. At least I hope so.
My parents were madly in love with each other. They were always physically affectionate with each other. Sometimes Mom sat on Dad’s lap, they danced around the kitchen, and you could just feel their love. I used to see the look in my dad’s eyes as he gazed at Mom and knew I wanted that for myself. However, I soon learned to not look anyone in the eye lest they notice you. To this day, I have to make myself look into your eyes and even then, I’m sometimes looking through you. I have very few memories about my childhood. Most of them are memories of stories told to me. I do have a few, though. Some of them are very unpleasant, others are of places we visited or of times I did things without my family, but most of my early life is a blank. I think that may be a good thing.
Mom was born to an Irish immigrant mother and an American melting pot father. The story I was told was that Nannie came from Ireland to Ellis Island when she was eighteen where she could then meet up with family. I can’t imagine how a difficult journey that must have been. She left her immediate family behind to start fresh, not knowing when or even if she would see them again. It wasn’t like she could hop on a plane back then. There has been a rumor in the family that she may have been pregnant, but no one ever talked about the past. I know absolutely nothing about my grandmother’s life, but I’m pretty sure I inherited her courage and restless spirit. Although she died when I was around 3, I have vague memories of being around her and of loving her dearly. When I think of her, I feel loved and at peace. Even Mom didn’t know anything about her own mother. It seems that her life in Ireland must have been very unpleasant.
I know only a few things about my grandfather on my mother’s side. Mom referred to him as “Pops.” I know that he loved gardening and had what could almost have been a small farm right in a vacant lot in Hempstead, Long Island. I don’t know what he did for a living or if he had any hobbies. The only thing that my mother ever told me was that he became an alcoholic, or maybe he just stopped hiding it, when she was in high school. She said he would come home most nights in the middle of the night and wake her up crying about what a bum he was and telling her he was sorry. She was always worried that she would run into him when out with her friends and never had any friends over to the house. I have a photo of him at Mom and Dad’s wedding, but that’s the only one. I guess Dad insisted on having him in the wedding, but he did get drunk and cause a scene at the reception.
Mom had four brothers. Three of them were older, and there was one younger. They all drank and were wild each in their own way. Uncle George was like a bulldog, short and stocky, muscular and strong as a bull. He inherited his dad’s alcoholism and also became addicted to drugs but sobered up eventually and managed to save his family. I had very little contact with him, but he later became one of my fiercest allies. Uncle John was the youngest and married a German woman he met in the war. Uncle Harry was the oldest and was quite a character. He had a different father, and we never heard anything about his dad. Uncle Joe was my favorite. He was a gentle giant and loved me as much as I loved him. After he married Aunt Gloria, I didn’t see as much of him, but he was always in my heart. We didn’t visit Mom’s side of the family as much as Dad’s, and I never understood why. Joe and Gloria lived in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, within walking distance of my dad’s brother and my cousins. So, my cousins and I would often walk over to visit him when we were in town. This usually caused trouble between my parents though, because Mom was resentful of not seeing her brothers often enough and felt guilty about not reaching out when we were on Long Island.
I know quite a lot about Dad’s side of the family. They were all French-Canadians who had settled in Fall River, Massachusetts. My grandmother’s family were quite well to do. They all had good well-paying jobs or owned their own businesses. They were also the musical side of the family. Grandma played piano beautifully. One of her brothers played piano and organ for silent movies. Another brother was in vaudeville. She and her siblings were all expected to have music lessons, and they excelled at them. Grandpa’s family were mostly tradesmen. Some of the women worked in the Granite Mill, where there had previously been a fire similar to the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. One of their brothers lost so many fingers from working at a factory that he could no longer do that work and became a teamster back when they actually ran a team of horses.
We visited with those grandparents often. They lived in Niantic, Connecticut, near New London. Grandma had been repressed by her family and by the nuns who schooled her, and she was mostly unpleasant to be around. She rearranged Mom’s kitchen cabinets when she came to visit because her way was more efficient. She often suffered from severe headaches and needed to take it easy when visiting. We later found out that Grandpa, who was a pharmacist, supplied her with all kinds of remedies for her headaches. A cousin and I found a hidden compartment in the back of her medicine cabinet that had a wide variety of schedule 2 drugs. I guess Grandpa wanted to keep her mellowed out.
Grandpa was wonderful. He laughed a lot, wasn’t afraid of playing and getting dirty and was a bit of a joker. He smoked a pipe, and I can still smell that aroma. I found out later that he drank heavily. I guess that might have explained the devil may care attitude, but I adored him. Every morning for breakfast at their house, we would have soft boiled eggs in egg cups. The toast was cut into fingers so that we could dip them in the egg yolk before carefully scooping out the cooked white that was left at the end. My brother and I got very good at scooping it out without damaging the outer shell. Every morning, we would turn the empty shell upside down and offer them to Grandpa as second helpings. Every morning, he would fall for the joke, laughing uproariously when he cracked into that hollow egg.
I have so many memories about visits there. Dad’s two sisters also lived nearby, but we only regularly visited with one of them. Aunt Yvette was the outcast of the family. She had married a sailor who was a pretty sleazy guy. He cheated on her and beat her. Dad got into a fist fight with him over it once well before I was born. Aunt Yvette was now divorced, smoked cigarettes, swore and took lovers eventually having three children. I liked her. We even exchanged letters when I was in junior high and high school. I admired her free spirit. She didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. She was living her life on her own terms. Unfortunately, she was abandoned by the men in her life, left to fend for herself, so she was also poverty stricken. She and Dad had never gotten along as kids, so it was easy for him to ignore her. She lived for a while in the apartment that my grandparents rented out. I did see her then for brief visits. As soon as Mom and Dad realized where I was, they carted me away.
Aunt Nickie and Dad were very close. Aunt Nickie was a Registered Nurse. She was always playing her guitar and singing. She wrote parodies and other songs as well. She recited poetry and was fun-loving like her dad. But she and her husband Hap fought constantly. I never understood why they were together. They had separate bedrooms and were vicious with each other. In all fairness, most of Dad’s family had inherited a mean streak from my grandmother. They were always demeaning each other. Nobody and nothing were ever good enough. But Nickie also laughed a lot and made us laugh as well. Uncle Hap was a large, loud man. He was a volunteer firefighter and immersed in Little League. The thing I remember most about visiting them, other than the music and having cousins, was Aunt Nickie’s strawberry patch. I don’t know why that’s so vivid, but I can picture it in my mind as I write and can almost taste the sweet flavor of a fresh picked berry.
Dad’s younger brother Eddie lived in Missouri, so we rarely saw him. He would come visit Grandma and Grandpa once or twice a year. He was a high school counselor. He was kind of cocky and definitely a know-it-all. He always had some kind of criticism and was full of advice for ways to do things better. He was a bachelor but was an expert on relationships and raising children. He also knew all about housekeeping, cooking, and everything you could possibly think of. I always dreaded his visits and tried to avoid him as much as possible. The visits to that area of Connecticut were often filled with drama. Eddie didn’t get along with Nickie and Hap’s oldest son, who was not that much younger than him, and they often got into a fist fight at family gatherings. There was always at least one fight at family events, sometimes involving Eddie or my older cousins Harold or Raymond. Sometimes it would be with a friend of the family. Even my Uncle Hap would throw a punch or two at times. I quickly learned to see it coming and manage to stay out of the arena. My cousin Sandra always fainted, bringing the fight to a conclusion.
Dad was also close to his older brother Lou. He and his wife Marty lived in Hempstead on Long Island where Mom grew up. Lou worked as an engineer at Grumman Aircraft. Marty was an academic, teaching on a college level. They ended up having three children with ages that matched my brother’s and mine. We spent most of our family time with them. We were only an hour’s drive apart. Because it wasn’t a far drive, we’d often go visit on a Saturday and spend the whole day. Then we would convince our parents to let us stay the night if the other set of parents agreed to make the return trip. I was allowed to go by myself for a few weeks in the summer or part of other school vacations. My brother and I, along with our three cousins, formed a pack. As I grew older, I started noticing how much alcohol my parents’ siblings drank when they got together. Every one of them was either an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. Mom and Dad mostly drank socially, though they did like to have one cocktail before dinner.
Lou and Marty were responsible for my parents meeting. They met at an American Legion meeting. Mom had become a registered nurse and worked in the local hospital. Her friend encouraged her to come to a dance at the Legion Hall. Dad had gone to a two-year college before enlisting in the Navy during World War Two. Upon returning home, he joined the Reserves and went back to school to become a journalist. He got called up and sent to Korea just before he finished his final year. He often stayed with Lou and Marty and went to that same dance. They didn’t really get along very well at first, Mom saying that she hated the Navy, and dad insisting he hated nurses. But Mom gave him her phone number and when he called, due to a lot of encouragement from Lou and Marty, agreed to go with him to Jones Beach where they fell in love. They got married soon after and Dad got a job in Little Falls, New York, where I was conceived, and started his job as a cub reporter and part-time photographer. He eventually landed a better job as a full-time reporter at The Stamford Advocate in Stamford, Connecticut, and Mom got a job at Stamford Hospital. I was born nine months after they were married.
I’ve been told that I wouldn’t eat at first. They had to force feed me, and I most often vomited everything back up. But Dad came home religiously every day at lunch to give me my noontime bottle. He would be draped head to toe in sheets but apparently, I always managed to find a spot that wasn't covered, and he would go back to work smelling like a sick baby. I had a few intravenous feedings and eventually figured out how to survive. I think I’ve always been a fighter. Maybe that early time taught me not to give up.
Although Mom and Dad had pretty good jobs, the cost of living was more than they could handle, especially with a child. We lived in a tiny apartment at first. The kitchen was so small, they put the refrigerator in a closet. When I came along, my crib went into that closet, too. I was also told that I was found by a neighbor wandering down the busy city sidewalk stark naked when I could barely walk, scooped up and returned to my mom. I guess I was born to be an explorer. After a little while they rented one half of a house in a residential neighborhood.
It feels odd having finished the short memoir pieces, at least for now. I feel almost an emptiness, not entirely unpleasant. It just feels as though I’ve lost my direction somewhat. There’s plenty more to write about, and things I omitted from my story. I’ve only hinted at my childhood or occasionally included some flashbacks, but I didn’t start from the beginning. My early years were harder than the later ones and harder to write about. I have very few memories from the years I lived with my birth family, and the ones I do have are mostly unpleasant. Anyway, I’ve previously written short memoir pieces about some of those memories. The CD I released in 2014 had spoken word memoirs recorded, one for each song. Although, I won’t record them this time, maybe it’s time to tell you a little bit about the songs in the new CD.
Deep Ellum Blues:
I first heard this song played live by The Dead at an acoustic show in Connecticut. It must have been sometime in the late 70s. Paul was a more dedicated Deadhead than I was and insisted on going to every show he could. We didn’t have much money and could usually only afford one or two shows a year. I liked seeing a variety of bands, but I usually deferred to Paul because he was so enthralled with The Dead. That year, he had heard a rumor that they were coming to the East Coast, so he went to a ticket agent to find out. There were no dates announced yet, but the agent promised to let Paul know as soon as any information was released. We waited and waited until finally one day, we got the call. There four tickets available for a show in a small theater in New York City. The agent didn’t know exactly where the seats were, but he insisted they were good ones. He also had two tickets for show in New Haven, Connecticut and didn’t know anything about that show either. He apologized and explained that he wasn’t used to getting rock and roll concert tickets. The New York tickets were pretty expensive for that era, but we took them as well as the two for New Haven. We thought we could easily get rid of the two extras. Boy, were we wrong! No one wanted to buy pricey tickets for mystery seats. We thought we were going to be stuck with them until finally a friend of a friend scooped them up. He was so excited to get these sold-out tickets, he even offered to do all the driving and get us high all night in exchange.
Finally, came the day of the show. I had arranged for a sitter to watch our daughter, and Paul had miraculously managed to get the night off from work. Then, late in the afternoon, I got a call from Paul saying that he had to stay late at work and wasn’t going to make the show after all. He was devastated. Our sitter was also a Deadhead, so Paul suggested that I find someone else to watch Jessie and ask Debra if she wanted to come to the show with me. Of course, she jumped at the chance, so I got my mom to keep our daughter overnight. This was a rare occurrence. Mom was not usually interested in babysitting since she still had her own young child at home, but this time she agreed. Just as Debra and I were walking out the door to meet the other couple, Paul raced in. He had pleaded with his boss who finally relented. Poor Debra. We promised her a ticket to the show in New Haven instead. Paul had already agreed to work that night. She was disappointed but happy that she had any ticket, so all was good.
We were running late by the time Paul showered and changed. The other couple were getting anxious. We all were. Our driver raced into the city, miraculously avoiding any speeding tickets or other delays. There was no parking anywhere, so he finally flagged down a parking garage attendant, handed him a fifty-dollar bill and asked him to take charge of the car. Then we ran to the theater. We still didn’t know where we would be seated but figured the theater was so small it wouldn’t really matter. We handed our tickets to the usher as the band was just getting on stage tuning up and starting to warm up to the start. As the first notes floated in the air, the usher kept walking us further down the aisle until she stopped at the front row and waved us in. We were almost in the center. What a thrill! I could lean back and put my feet up on the stage. It was a great show that night.
A few days later I went to New Haven with Debra. These seats were up in the balcony in a larger venue, but they started out the show with an acoustic set. It’s the only time I’ve heard them do an acoustic set and was also the first time I heard their slow version of Friend of the Devil. I wasn’t a fan of the new version, but the rest of that set and the rest of the show were both great. It was too bad that Paul had missed out on that. He was disappointed that he never did get to see them play acoustically, but he was also thrilled that we’d had those front row, almost center, seats and stayed high on that until the next show. He always said it was worth twice the price.
It’s Gonna Be Cold Outside:
I’m turning sixty-eight in a few days. I feel young in spirit but, like so many of us who are aging, my body is starting to betray me. I’ve never been very good at exercising enough. The things I love to do are play music, write, create art and read. Those involve a lot of sitting. I also have a serious back condition that I’ve had for most of my life, ever since I was twelve. It’s almost invisible but causes me quite a bit of discomfort if I’m not careful. I’ve also inherited a few chronic ailments, and stress has taken its toll on me even though most of the stress is gone now. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, and I lost much of my work, I anticipated that stress would return because of my loss of income. But I was pleasantly surprised. Friends, family and fans were generous and helped out in many ways. I also accepted food from a church group and a food box from the government twice. But mostly, like so many others I was staying at home and wasn’t spending money on gas or on rent for the space I had been using for my classes. I also wasn’t eating out as much, especially those lunches in cafes when I had been between classes and needed to stay in town for hours at a time with nothing to do. I was amazed at how easy it was to be at home. It gave me the chance to reevaluate a lot of things.
I thought a lot about my music career and the direction I wanted to go in. I was no longer practicing with a band and was back to playing music by myself the way I wanted it to sound. I started writing more songs. I rearranged old songs and sorted through my piles and piles of song bits that were never completed. I organized my files and organized my life. I also consistently wrote my memoirs. I found that the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I realized that I had a lot to say and wanted to say it while I still could. My mother died when she was eighty, my dad at eighty-four. Eighty is only twelve years away for me. Mom was active and healthy until her massive stroke. She only started looking and feeling her age at around sixty. This song is my reflections on aging. It’s not meant to be morose and was not written with regrets in mind. It’s just an acknowledgement that I’m getting older and slowing down a bit, and that’s okay.
In 2014, I moved in with my current partner in his off-the-grid solar house, that is heated mostly with wood, in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains on the Rensselaer Plateau. I’ve had to learn a new way of daily living. Our refrigerator is a small RV/Marine refrigerator, so I shop more often, we only use lights when necessary and only in the room that’s occupied, and we only vacuum or use kitchen appliances on sunny days. We have no fans or air conditioning in the summer, and it is sometimes chilly in the house in the late fall, winter and early spring. I’ve learned to let my body acclimate to the weather. I’ve become quite fond of hooded sweaters that keep my head warm. All of these things contributed to my writing of this song in the fall of 2020.
The winter was coming with continued isolation and more reflection on my part. I was pulling out my warmer clothes and started wearing my hat indoors before we cranked up the wood stove. I was enjoying telling my stories and, in telling them, remembering more and more each day. I tuned my guitar to an alternate tuning of E-B-E-A-B-E, as I often do for inspiration, and played random chords until the pattern came. Then I put all of those thoughts and experiences into words. I love hearing what other people take away from my songs. As I was writing it, the cold was a metaphor for the uncertainty I was feeling about the future and about my aging. But it can also be a song about facing a harsh winter or maybe something else entirely. I wonder what it all means to you.
I have said before that my friends refer to me as a serial monogamist. That is because I am committed and loyal to my partners. However, eventually, when faced with daily emotional and verbal abuse, I come to a breaking point and decide to move on. I left home and moved in with Paul Cavanaugh when I was twenty. I left him and moved in with Dick Kavanaugh when I was forty. Now I was sixty and was leaving again. I managed twenty years in each abusive relationship and was now determined to live alone. I decided to move into a friend’s house. I would be renting a long narrow room, large enough for a single bed, some bookshelves, desk and dresser in a long line against one wall. One friend said it reminded her of a dorm room. I saw it as a landing place where I could regroup and figure out what to do next and where to go from there.
Two days after I went to court, and the day after I announced my moving date, Dick came home in a terrible mood. He started right in yelling at me and throwing things around. I decided that I needed to go out that night and started exploring my options. I have always tried to support other songwriters as much as possible and had a list of people to see. One of them was playing as hour away so I started reaching out to friends to find out if anyone would join me. No one that I spoke to was interested in going out that night, so I went alone. I walked in, took a seat at the bar, and ordered my usual bourbon neat with a slice of lemon. I turned my back to the bar to pay attention to the singer in front of me and noticed a clean-cut looking man also sitting at the bar wearing a jacket and tie with a video camera and recorder between us. I soon struck up a conversation, curious about the recording he was doing. Before too long, I had moved to the seat on the other side of him so as not to disturb the recording, and we spent the entire night talking and enjoying each other’s company. I have to admit, it was an unexpected and pleasurable turn of events.
At the end of the night, I introduced myself to the singer-songwriter and complimented him on his beautiful guitar. He handed it to me to try out. I played “Highway In Your Eyes” and tried to hand it back, but he insisted that I show him the runs I play on that song. Then he complimented me, and we chatted a bit longer. As I was leaving, I hugged him then turned to the videographer and stuck out my hand. He looked at it, laughed and said, “What? No hug?” so, I hugged him, too. Then he handed me his business card and asked if he could see me again. It read Joel Patterson, Mountaintop Studios. I hesitated, remembering that I wanted to be single. But I gave him my card as well and agreed to exchange emails. I explained that I was going through an ugly breakup and needed to focus on that and my other family obligations before I could see him. He agreed to wait for two and a half months if we could stay in touch via email. The next day, I told Dick that I had met someone that night and would probably see him again after I had moved. Things were messy enough already, and I didn’t want extra drama. I believed that honesty was the best policy.
The next weeks were traumatic and emotional. As I said before, my friends pitched in to help, but there was always the cloud of my former partner always nearby reading in his recliner while we sorted and packed. I reminded him that I had found the house, and he had not wanted to be a part of deciding to move there. He always insisted that it was my house and my decision alone. But he refused to leave the house, stating that it was now his home regardless of how he came to be there. Somehow, he managed to be home whenever I worked at the massive job of cleaning and clearing everything out. The more time went by, the angrier I felt. I knew that I would have a difficult time forgiving him for his treatment of me when my mom was dying and forgiving him this monumental task that was left to me to deal with by myself. I had always remained friends with Paul after our split but wasn’t sure I could that this time around. Although Paul was angry much of the time and was abusive in many ways, he was kind to me in times of turmoil. He cared for me when I was ill, supported me when I faltered and always showed his love for me. This time around, I felt as though I had been a burden. I was sure that Dick was relieved to be rid of me despite the years we’d spent together.
Meanwhile, Joel and I emailed each other almost daily. One day, he wrote to tell me that he was recording a show in Schenectady, not far from my house, and wondered if I would meet him for coffee. I was hosting a family birthday party that day and knew I wouldn’t be able to get away. Besides, I had already told him that I was committed to waiting until I moved out to see him. I explained all of this then didn’t hear back from him. I figured he was busy, but when day after day went by with no word, I started to wonder. I finally wrote to him asking what was up. He said that he thought I was writing him off. He was sure that was my subtle way of telling him that I wasn’t interested because he was so close by that day. He didn’t have any idea what my family gatherings were like with over a dozen people of all ages for a day-long celebration with me doing most of the work. As I smoothed things over, I found myself wondering why I felt such a loss when I was determined not to get serious about anyone. But I ignored the warning signs and went back to daily correspondence.
May first came fast. I moved into my little room and settled in a bit then let Joel know that I was ready to see him. We arranged to meet at a show by the same singer that had been instrumental in our meeting. Once again, Joel showed up in a jacket and tie. We enjoyed the first set then went out to my car to smoke a joint. One thing led to another, and I finally told him that I thought he should invite me to his house to spend the night. We had been out in the parking lot long past the show’s end. It was now around 3 am. He explained that he loved a distance away, but I didn’t care. I was enthralled with this quirky and wonderful man. I followed him home, making him wait for me as I waited at all of the red lights that he ran. As we drove, I started to wonder what I was doing. I barely knew him and was now following him to his isolated home. As we drove on and on, I felt slightly nervous until we drove past a sign for The Peace Pagoda. During my time teaching at The Free School, I had helped out while it was being built. I knew exactly where I was and how to get home. Very shortly, we went up a long steep dirt road then turned into a dark driveway. When the outside motion detector light came on, I saw what looked like a huge three-story barn. This was his home.
I spent a lovely night there and woke up the next morning feeling tired but happy. Joel made me breakfast. He told me that he had been going to see that same singer-songwriter for a few years, doing free videos for him, which he never did. He said it was like a compulsion that he didn’t understand. Now he realized that it was all done so that he would meet me there. That fit right in with my belief that things happen for a reason if we only follow the signs. Then I remembered that it was Mother’s Day, and I had plans to meet my daughter for brunch. I reluctantly left agreeing to see him again soon. We did see each other again the next weekend, and every weekend after that. I kept trying to explain my resolve to be single for the rest of my life and insisted that we had to keep things casual. He just laughed each time, and it did end up being a losing battle. We quickly went from seeing each other every weekend to almost every day. I still insisted on renting the room in Albany, and we alternated back and forth from Petersburg on weekends to Albany during the week when I had to work in town. Then Joel did something for me that changed the tide.
I had always wanted a porch swing. When we moved into the farmhouse in Princetown, I finally had a front porch. My kids all pitched in and bought, assembled and installed a porch swing on that porch. I was thrilled and often sat out there enjoying it. Then one day, Dick decided we needed a ceiling fan on the porch and took down not only my swing but also the rafters that supported it, so it never got put back up. When I moved out, I put it in my storage unit. I had to go there to get my sound equipment for a gig when Joel noticed it and asked about it. I tearfully told him the story. It was just one of many things that still stung. He offered to store it in his garage so that it wouldn’t take up so much room in the unit. I declined at first, but he soon talked me into it. The next time I visited his home, I saw my swing installed on a free-standing frame made out of saplings he had cut down in the woods. I stood there and cried. At that moment, I fell deeply in love with this amazing man and knew I was no longer able to keep things casual. After a few more months, I agreed to move in with him and have been happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
It is the first time that I have a life free of trauma, though it did take a while to settle down. My son recovered from his breakdown, after many more months of turmoil, and we have gradually and carefully repaired our relationship. Dick Kavanaugh and I did manage to have a tentative friendship, and his cancer eventually ended his life. I am still close to some of his children and grandchildren. There have continued to be many ups and downs within my family, but I navigate them with the backing of a loving and supportive partner. I soon planted flower gardens and brought over my yard decor, a picnic table, chiminea, chairs and benches and children's items for outdoor play. Together, we have planted gardens, marked trails in the woods, and hosted events on our outdoor stage. We've created a peaceful and musical environment for people of all ages.
We have had a few struggles in our relationship like any other, but we are able to sail through them without fighting with each other. We make compromises and accept each other for who we are. It’s the first time I have lived without being cautious, without being yelled at or blamed for things. I’m no longer afraid of what each day will bring. And most important of all, I have my life and he has his life. If I want to travel, I do it without him because he likes to stay at home. We have no expectations of each other beyond being kind and loving. In the eight years that we’ve been together, I have traveled to music festivals where I camped for three to four days, Oregon for ten days, South Caroline twice for a week at a time, Maine a few times and gone to China for two weeks without him. I’m always glad to come home, and he’s always glad to have me back.
In addition to all of this, he has enabled me to move forward with my music, recording me, making music videos and sometimes running sound for gigs. He is my harshest critic but in a kind and loving way, keeping me on my toes and encouraging me to be the best I can be. When the Highway In Your Eyes CD was nearing completion, he mixed it and recorded a few more songs in his studio. I hired an artist friend to do the cover, but he put it all together. When we were first together, he had me read my memoir pieces aloud to him in the evenings. It was a nice way to get to know each other. I would read a piece, then he would share something from his life. He encouraged me to put some of them together on a second companion CD, so I did, one for each song. In 2014, just after its release, WRPI did a show using both CDs and playing a story then the song that went with it. It was very cool to listen to them in that order, but it seemed to make the most sense to put the music and stories on separate CDs so that you could listen to just one or the other.
I spent the first year living with Joel recovering from all of my past trauma. I felt exhausted and unmotivated much of time. He and others encouraged me to just take the time to rest. I spent the second year trying to figure out what was next. By the third year. I was feeling alive again and starting to move forward. Now, I feel as though I am living the life I never even imagined was possible with the “Finest Man.”
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