artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
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.”
The night that my mom died, I had a dream that I was in my music room, playing my dulcimer when Mom walked in. She stood and listened then said, “That’s a beautiful tune. I love you, Deb.” I woke up crying then went downstairs and played the tune from my dream. I originally titled it “Margaret’s Waltz” after my mother, but there is already a well-known tune by that name, so I shortened it to “Maggie’s Waltz.” It was a healing dream. My parents had never shown me support for my music, never asking about it and never coming to any shows. After they both passed, I found out that they bragged about me all the time to others. I wish I had known that while they were alive.
The next day, I was scheduled to do a Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gig at a local library. I’ve always believed that the show must go on, and I was still numb from the long ordeal and in shock from her eventual passing. I insisted that we do the show but was reluctant to go to the party we’d been invited to that evening. The show went well, and playing music felt healing. Afterwards I agreed to go to the party where we would do more jamming. However, I hadn’t counted on going with a moody partner who seemed to be going out of his way to try to fight with me. I wasn’t interested in fighting with anyone and tried to go along with his whims until the end of the night when he aggressively insisted on leaving in the middle of my playing a song. At the end of the song, disappointed at leaving because the music felt so good but determined not to engage in drama, I went to say goodbye to our hosts. When I looked around, I saw that Dick was in the middle of the jam. At the end of that tune, I told him I was ready to leave. He loudly and rudely said that he had gotten tired of waiting for me and was now staying. I was furious and embarrassed, so I walked to my daughter’s house and spent the night there. I refused to answer his calls and finally returned a few days later in time to prepare for Mom’s funeral.
That was a turning point in our relationship. I wasn’t sure if I could forgive his insensitivities during the past year while I was dealing with such a traumatic event. I’m a very loyal person and don’t give up on relationships easily, but once again I’d had enough. Although I felt as though I no longer loved him, I also recognized that he was dealing with a probably fatal cancer and didn’t want to abandon him. I’d already lost Paul to cancer, though his diagnosis was well after we had split up, and I knew Dick would need support, but things were never the same. We became roommates that shared the same bedroom and continued to play music together. I tried to help him with his health issues, but he soon stopped all of the recommended protocols, including regular testing. Nothing I said could change his mind. It seemed as though he’d given up. Still, I was determined to be there for him.
Things did improve slightly over time. My dad passed a year later, and Dick was supportive and kind. I started feeling hopeful that we would get back on track, but the time when my mom was dying still haunted me. Then one day, I came home from a demonstration in Albany, hot and tired. He was in my office using my computer, and I asked him when he thought he would be done since I had work to do. He snapped at me, saying that he would get off when he felt like it. Then he accused me of being selfish and possessive of my computer. I also got angry and, when I did, he jumped up and shoved me into the doorframe, yelling and calling me names. He had often been angry and violent, but it had never before been directed at me. I felt like I was reliving the scene with Paul so many years earlier and snapped. I screamed back and ran out of the house. When I returned, I calmly asked him if he wanted to continue to be with me. He replied, “no.”
We started talking about how the break-up would work. He insisted that Tabitha give up her bedroom to him. He already had a room and most often slept in the recliner in the living room, so I suggested that he take that as his room, as well as the smaller room adjacent to it. My office was on the other side of the house, and his section could be closed off to everyone else, but he refused. I was devastated. I had painted Tabitha’s room for her when we moved in with clouds on the ceiling and trees and flowers on the walls. She loved that room and slept and played in there. But there was no changing his mind. I moved as much of her things into my room as I could and shared my double bed with her. I was finished fighting. I’d been fighting my whole life and didn’t have any more energy for it. I knew I had to make a complete break, but he refused to move out of the house.
When I first found the farmhouse, I went to him and asked if he wanted to move there. One of my Music Together moms had offered the house for a reasonable rent. We had always talked about moving to the country, so it seemed ideal. Dick refused to make a decision. He told me that if I wanted to move there, I should decide to do it, and he would then decide if he was going to move with me. I replied that I would need someone to share the rent, but he stood his ground. It was going to be my house. I decided to do it, and he decided to move in with me. I was confused but happy that it worked out. Now, suddenly he was saying that it was his home, and he wasn’t going to leave. Once again, I was confused. I thought it was my house, and he was renting rooms. Finally, I gave in again. I knew that in order to have any peace, I was going to have to find another place to live. Meanwhile, we lived there as roommates. Then in November of that year, his son committed suicide. He was devastated, and I took him back into my bed, moving Tabitha back into her old room.
That same year, I had been approached by one of the dads in my music classes and offered a trade. I often do trades with families who couldn’t otherwise afford classes. I believe strongly in making the program available to everyone who wants to do it regardless of their financial ability. He offered to record a CD for me with his remote equipment. This was incredible. I was still writing songs that Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh didn’t perform and was eager for this opportunity to get my original music out in the world. I was feeling done with Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh. I had little input anymore as to what songs we played, and my original songs were usually rejected. I wanted to do more solo gigs again, and this would help. It became my second full-length CD. I called it “Highway In Your Eyes.” Dick and I were getting along again, so I asked him to play guitar on a few songs. I recorded most of my and Dick’s tracks on a day in January the following year at the Cary Institute in Rensselaerville, NY.
Meanwhile, my younger son was struggling. I knew he was drinking more than I liked and had been experimenting with some of the newer designer drugs which I knew to be dangerous. He had moved back into our house to go to school for music at the local community college and had finished his first year. He was quite talented but also a bit lazy and had never focused on schooling. He started out his first semester strongly and ended up doing well. Then, his grades faltered. He couldn’t seem to concentrate and didn’t understand some of the courses. He passed, but just barely and got discouraged. He asked for my help which I gave, but he soon became surly and angry with me most of the time. I was worried and suggested that he seek help which only made him even more angry. He had gone on a cross-country trip with his best friend the summer following his first semester, and it was a disaster. He came back worse than ever. He barely got through school that fall and had to repeat a class. I was worried and didn’t know how to help him. He was already an adult, so there wasn’t much I could do.
Life was incredibly stressful again. I was having trouble sleeping and couldn’t concentrate on anything. I knew I had to find a place to live but had no energy to even think about it. Neither Dick nor Austin was helping out around the house regardless of the agreements that had been made, and I was burning out fast. We heated the house partially with wood. We’d all agreed that Dick would cut the wood, Austin would split it, and I would stack it, bring it in and keep the stove going. That winter, we were constantly running out of wood. Sometimes Dick would go buy a bag of wood from the convenience store, and I was hauling dead branches out of the woods. We had an electric splitter, so that wasn’t as hard a job as it could have been, but I was left on my own to heat the house.
One day, I went up to Austin’s room to ask him to please go out and do wood. He refused, and I got angry. Before long, we were yelling at each other and suddenly I found myself on the floor with his hands around my throat, screaming that was going to kill me. I managed to scream at which point he stopped, looking shocked and stricken. I ran out of the house with my phone and called the State Police. They took my son away as I cried and shook. Then one of them stayed with me while I called Dick to see if he would come home. They said they didn’t want to leave me alone in the house after such a devastating experience. I told Dick what had happened, and he assured me that he would come right home. He was twenty minutes away, so I told the trooper that he could leave. I would be alright for the short time it took for Dick to come home.
After three hours, Dick walked in the door. I asked what had taken so long, and once again, I got yelled at for being controlling, as he reminded me that I wasn’t his keeper. I left and walked in the woods for hours, shaking, crying and berating myself for staying with someone who continued to be so insensitive to me in my times of need. The next day, I went to court with a friend and tried to get the judge to mandate counseling. I was told that they only intervene after a second incident, which made no sense at all to me. They wouldn’t even recommend drug counseling. I was urged to get an order of protection for six months, which I did. I went home, shaken and sad. Dick wanted to know why I hadn’t included him in the order and didn’t understand or accept that it had nothing to do with him. I was the one that had been targeted. Our neighbor was there at the time and was able to calm him down. I had to leave the house while Austin came with the same family friend to get his things and move out. He left me a note, and I cried some more. I couldn’t believe that my life was falling apart so traumatically and all at once. I immediately regretted having called the police but also knew it was the right thing to do. Like so many other times, there were friends who were understanding and supportive and others who were judgmental and didn’t seem to understand the strong bond between a mother and her children.
The next day, I told Dick that I would be moving out May 1st. That would give me two and a half months to find a place to go. He sneered and asked where I was going. I told him that I didn’t know yet, but I would figure it out. He laughed, sarcastically wished me luck and walked away. I started walking around the house looking at the twenty years of accumulated things from our life together, books, CDs, sheet music and lyric sheets, household items, furniture and more. When I had left Paul, I packed a suitcase and left, coming back over time to take a few things. This time, I knew I had to sort through things and wasn’t looking forward to having to do that together. As it turned out, we didn’t do it together. He refused to do any of the work. He told me to take everything. He wanted nothing. Luckily, my friends came and helped me, taking loads to donate, helping me pack and bag things up for the trash. There is much more to tell about that difficult time, but I will leave you with the image of Dick sitting in his recliner reading or napping while my friends and I sorted through our communal belongings for weeks and weeks, setting aside things that I knew were his or would mean something to him and splitting up our household goods in an effort to be fair and equitable. I have always been thankful for my friends, but never more than during that time while I was forced to deal with a nasty breakup at the same time as what felt like the loss of my son. I never underestimate my friends. They have been my saving grace time and time again.
In early 2010, it looked as though life was beginning to settle down a bit, and things were going along fairly smoothly. My older son was expecting his second child and was partnered with a wonderful woman. It looked like they would soon take Tabitha, who I had been raising for him, into their family as well. My daughter and my other son were both working and seemed as though they were on a good track. Because I had lived through so many disasters, I used to say that I thought I’d experienced just about every bad thing there was to deal with, but I no longer say that. It seems as though I jinx it every time. Dick and I were still struggling some, but I attributed that to his having to deal with his cancer and the fact that he was often grumpy even without having to face that. He had wanted to break up with me when he first got his diagnosis. He said he wanted to live alone and not burden anyone with his health issues, but I assured him that I would stay by his side. I guess I didn’t realize how difficult he would make it for me to remain, but I was committed to seeing him through it. Then a new disaster struck.
On the day before Easter that year, my parents came to visit us in an old farmhouse we were renting. This was momentous. My parents never approved of my lifestyle. They never approved of most of the choices I’d made throughout my life and rarely, if ever, came to visit. They never came to my shows, whether they were rock, jazz or folk. They also never asked about my music or my career. But that day, they were full of praise for my home. My mom walked around the yard with me, admiring the gardens and making plans to come help me tend them. My dad kept talking about the house he grew up in remarking at how much this place reminded him of it. It was the best visit I’d ever had with them. As they were leaving, Mom told me she was looking forward to coming back and said she loved me. I cried as they left because this was such a turning point in my life. Mom never expressed her love for me and always criticized everything. I felt hopeful.
Two days later, I was packing up my music supplies after teaching a class when Dick walked in. I wondered why he was in town. I wasn’t expecting him. He’d come to tell me that my mom had suffered a severe stroke, was not discovered quickly and was now in the Emergency room in critical condition. We rushed over there where she was still unconscious. My dad and siblings were already there and waiting for me. The doctor explained that a large portion of her brain was affected. There was a treatment that could potentially bring her around, but they wouldn’t know how much permanent damage was done for a while. He explained that the treatment was a little dangerous and would cause her to be agitated, but if we could keep her still, she would have a good chance of surviving it. We told him to go ahead, and I spent the next hour or so singing lullabies to her to try to keep her calm as the medicine worked its magic. The music also worked its magic. As long as I sang, she lay still. When I stopped, she started twitching and moaning. After a little while, I couldn’t sing another note. I needed to get something to eat and take a break. I had worked until 6:30 pm without having had any dinner. It was now quite late, and I was getting lightheaded. I instructed my brother to continue singing while I was gone. He is not a singer and was uncomfortable doing it, but he did it anyway because we could all see how it helped.
After days in a coma, Mom finally woke up. The damage was horrific. She couldn’t walk or use her right side at all and had no speech. She also couldn’t recognize letters. This meant that she couldn’t point to letters to spell out what she wanted to say. She had been vivacious and outgoing, the life of any party with friends of all ages. It was devastating for her to go from being a grand communicator to having no ability to communicate. Dad was also devastated. She was his whole life. I always marveled at their love for each other. But she was also his caretaker. She did everything including caring for him after his much milder stroke. Close friends often referred to her as the “General.” She ruled the roost. Now, no one seemed to know what to do.
She was moved to a nursing home as soon as she was released from the hospital. She needed full-time care and physical therapy. One of the nurses in the hospital had mentioned a music therapy for treating aphasia to me, so I started looking into it immediately. Aphasia is the loss of speech after a brain injury. The idea behind this therapy was that you can rewire the brain to access language from the music areas. In order to do that, you sing every conversation to the patient. So, I did. I even got some of the aides and nurses to join in. The doctors wouldn’t even try, nor would the other members of the family. But the speech therapist also did it. She thought it was a great idea. Eventually, Mom was able to say a few words and even sang happy birthday.
I went to visit every day and mostly read aloud to her. Believe it or not, we communicated through ESP which had always been strong between us despite of our differences. When I lived far away, I would often lift up the phone to call her only to find her already on the other end. Now, she would be trying to say something to one of the staff and would be almost in tears when they didn’t understand, and I would instinctively know what she wanted. When I expressed it, she would nod and squeeze my hand. Both Mom and the staff came to rely on my being around. It was ironic that I was her main caregiver during that time after having been the black sheep of the family and left out of many family functions. Because I didn’t worry about being criticized, I started opening up to Mom and saying things that I never would have said before. I started telling her about my life and revealing things I’d never revealed before. At one point, I realized that and mentioned the fact that it was due to the fact that she couldn’t say anything. As soon as I said it, I regretted it, but Mom just laughed, nodded and squeezed my hand. It was such a difficult, draining but healing time. I felt as though it was a gift to both of us. We were able to heal our relationship before it was too late.
On her birthday, I brought Justin’s family, with their four-day old son, to visit her. She held Ethan for fifteen or twenty minutes. She was thrilled. I love looking at that photo of them. Tabitha was still living with me, though she would spend a few days a week with her dad. It was exhausting working in the mornings, spending all afternoon with Mom then getting Tabby from school and caring for her until bedtime. I also drove out of my way to pick up Dad, who couldn’t drive, bring him in his wheelchair to visit Mom and drive him back home, an extra hour of driving. I was burning out fast. Meanwhile, Dick was being more and more unreasonable every day. He refused to help out with meals or any extras. I often picked Tabby up from school and went back to the nursing home with her, so she could visit with my mom, getting home late and having to fix meals, catch up on chores and put Tabby to bed at a reasonable time. Then, one of Mom’s physical therapists came to me with distressing news. The insurance company was refusing to pay for any more sessions because Mom was not going to make any more progress. The therapy sessions were maintaining rather than improving. If they stopped them, she would revert with increased pain and discomfort. They had been watching me interacting with her during her sessions and wanted to train me to take over for them. The last thing I needed was another task, but how could I refuse? Mom didn’t like it either. The therapy was extremely painful. She would rather have quit, but then the pain would only have been even worse, so she agreed.
My birthday is at the end of the summer. When my birthday came, I decided I needed to get away. I need to visit the coast at least once a year to get rejuvenated. Having grown up on the Long Island Sound and spending much time along the coast of Connecticut then living on the west coast many years, I need to breathe the ocean air on a regular basis. So, we went to Maine for a few days. When I returned, I found that Mom had suffered another serious stroke and wasn’t expected to come out of it this time. We were all devastated – again. After consulting with the doctors, we decided to withhold food. By law, she would still receive fluids but would gradually waste away. They predicted that she wouldn’t last longer than a week at most. Ten days later, she was still hanging on. I continued to go everyday and read to her. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I wanted her to know I was there. Then one day she was very restless.
I don’t know how I knew this was her last day, but somehow, I did. As long as I was there, holding her hand and talking or reading, she was calm. If I left to use the bathroom or just walk around for a bit, she would start thrashing about moaning. It got to be time to pick Tabby up from school, but I didn’t want to leave and knew I didn’t want to bring her back with me, so I started making phone calls. I couldn’t find anyone able to help out so, in desperation, I called Dick. He rudely refused to help out telling me that he had plans to go to the YMCA to take a sauna. I explained the situation and told him that his daughter had agreed to take her in the evening when she got out of work. I only needed a couple of hours, but he refused. I reluctantly left Mom, picked Tabby up and drove home. There was Dick. Relieved, I asked if he had come home to watch Tabby. But no, apparently, I had ruined his day by asking for his help and he was too upset to relax in the sauna. And yes, he was still refusing to stay with Tabitha until seven pm. I started to cry, and he eventually agreed.
As I drove down the driveway, a cloud of dragonflies flew in front of my car. I’d never seen so many of them in one place before, so I stopped and got out. They flew all around me, then one of them landed on my shoulder then flew over to my garden. I followed it and was standing in the garden when my phone rang. It was my brother calling to say that Mom had just passed. In Japan, it’s believed that when a dragonfly lands on you, it’s a soul visiting. I’d like to think that it was Mom coming to say goodbye. I’ve also heard that loved ones sometimes have a hard time letting go unless they are alone. Maybe that was true for her, too.
Later that evening, as we were saying our goodbyes before the coroner came to take her away, a hospice worker took me aside. He told me that his wife had passed the year before, and he was doing hospice work since then. He always asked his teenage daughter if she wanted to accompany him, and she always refused until that day. As they walked past Mom’s room, she heard Mom moaning and asked if she could go in. Hospice workers are not allowed to sit with patients who are unconscious unless there are family members there, but she was not a hospice worker, so he agreed to let her go. She held sat with Mom and held her hand as she passed. I thanked him, but he insisted on thanking me because it was such a healing experience for his daughter who had been struggling since her mom’s death. It was a reminder to me that things seem to happen for a reason, and good things usually come out of the bad. As ugly and heartbreaking as the experience was for me, it was also quite beautiful and healing.
Paul’s loss was a huge blow to all of us, but as with everything else, we had to move on. My children were devastated, especially my youngest who was sixteen years old. He was closer to his dad than to anyone else. I wasn’t able to fill those shoes and didn’t know how to help him through it, though I tried. I offered grief counseling, which he refused, and tried to get other male friends and family to step in for support. In spite of my efforts, he sank deeper and deeper into drugs and depression. He rarely came out of his room, and when he did, he was surly and curt. We no longer hung out the way we once did. Although I knew that some of that was his age, I worried, nonetheless. Then, he found his first love, and I started to be relieved. Maybe this was just what he needed to help him through this hard time.
I continued on with my music, getting gigs where I could and stretching out into new instruments and new opportunities. I’m not sure I would ever have played other instruments if not for Dick Kavanaugh. He was the one who first handed me a mandolin and asked me to play it and was always bringing new instruments into the house. We had fiddles, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, recorders, tin whistles and flutes of all kinds, lots of guitars and more. He told me it was his retirement plan. He would fix them up and resell them when he didn’t want to work any longer. Then one day, he brought home an instrument I’d never seen before. It was a mountain dulcimer. I was amazed to discover that it was a traditional American instrument. How could I not know about this instrument? That’s when I realized that we were not taught American culture in school. I already knew that we were kept ignorant of Native American culture and of much historical truth, being given a very sanitized version of history, but this was Southern Appalachian. Why wasn’t this taught in school?
I resolved to learn to play it and equally resolved to teach children about our traditional American musical culture. I started bringing a limberjack to all of my children’s shows and to schools and libraries. I already knew about the limberjack from my childhood. They are also popular among French Canadians, which was my dad’s heritage, and he carved his own which he called a “Dancing Dan.” They’re a wooden puppet with hinged limbs, often at the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. They’re attached to a stick coming horizontally out of their back. There is a thin pine board that you sit on and rest the limberjack’s feet on the end. As you sing your song, you hit the board with your hand or fist in time to the music, and the limberjack keeps the beat with his feet as his arms and legs flail about in rhythm to the music. It’s always a big hit with folks of all ages.
Once I learned to play the dulcimer well enough, I brought that as well, always explaining that it is a traditional instrument. It makes me feel sad that we live in this country, growing up not knowing about our rich traditions. I worked hard at learning the dulcimer. I went to Old Time jams, determined to know more about that music. It’s very hypnotic and just carries you away. I found I could play the same tune for hours and not get bored because it took me to another time and place. However, I’ve never been consistent about practicing and as with everything else, I got lazy and mostly stuck to playing chords. I’ve always looked at my string instruments as backup for my voice. Voice has always been my main instrument and takes precedence over everything else. Unfortunately, that attitude caused me to neglect the other instruments.
However, I soon fell in love with the dulcimer. I took a couple of group lessons through the Old Songs organization and a couple of private lessons as well. I bought dulcimer books and went to a dulcimer festival where I heard Sam Edelston play rock and roll on the dulcimer. I was hooked. I never stopped loving rock music. I had just put it on a back burner for a while as I dove into this other world of folk and traditional music. That music is what drove me to learn how to play better and introduced me to a variety of instruments and genres. It was by backing up Old Time and Irish fiddle tunes when I first picked up the guitar that made me learn to play it so quickly. The chord changes were fast, and I learned to recognize the patterns more easily. But now, I was looking at my latest instrument in a different light.
The dulcimer is a diatonic instrument, which means that it is tuned to a scale without all the extra notes in between. It’s just do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do. It also only has three strings with two of them usually tuned the same. That makes it a great instrument for beginners. It’s hard to play a wrong note. Many dulcimers have one extra fret, giving its players one note on each of the strings that is not in the scale. I soon learned that I could have other extra frets put in, so I had a 1 ½ fret installed That one more extra fret opened up a whole new world of songs for me. My dulcimer is tuned to D-A-D. Now I had easy access to C natural and F natural both of which are not in the D scale. It seems like a trivial thing to most people, but those two extra notes made a huge difference in what I could play. Soon I was learning how to play chords without the missing notes. If I was playing with someone else, as long as I played some of the notes in the chord, they could provide the notes I didn’t have.
As I said earlier, I am a lazy musician, often taking the easy way. One day, after a gig, someone told me that something I had played reminded them of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. I went home and tried to play it by ear. With that one extra fret I’d had added, I found it. I also realized that I wasn’t just playing chords. I was playing the melody. It made me see that there was a lot more to my playing than I had previously allowed myself, and I was newly inspired. I soon learned “Can’t Find My Way Home” then “Wish You Were Here.” For the first time, I understood this instrument in a way I hadn’t with my others. I could play it instinctively. It soon became my favorite, but I still felt limited in what I could play.
A few years ago, I went to the used instrument sale at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York. I’ve been going to that festival for many years, have been a volunteer and crew chief, and have bought a few instruments, including a 1935 Martin mandolin at that sale. That year, I saw a dulcimer whose sound holes were in the shape of mountains. It had a larger body than the ones I already had and a beautiful deep tone. As I sat there trying it out, a woman came up and told me that she was the builder of this beautiful instrument. I explained that I loved everything about it and, as usual at this sale, the price was right, but I was used to having the extra 1 ½ fret. She offered to put in the extra fret for me, set up the instrument, restring it and send it to me for the price of shipping. How could I refuse? She told me to show her exactly where I wanted the fret so there would be no confusion. Well, I am often confused and ended up showing her the wrong place. I showed her the 0 ½ placement. Imagine my surprise when I got it back and realized my mistake.
I started experimenting with that extra fret, determined to figure it out but missing the 1 ½. I took the instrument to a luthier friend who put the right one in. Then I brought it to another dulcimer festival and asked my friend Sam to show me how to use it effectively. He showed me how to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” using that 0 ½ fret but cautioning me that it was quite difficult with some big stretches that he thought might be too far for me. I assured him that, luckily, I have very large hands and was determined to learn it. Then, the pandemic hit and shut everything down, including all of my work. I began doing virtual classes but had lost all of my other work and had lots of time on my hands. Within a month I had learned the song and had honed my skills on the dulcimer. My current partner suggested doing a video with all of the cellophane flowers, newspaper taxis, etc.
After the video was done, I continued to work hard on the dulcimer. It was the first time since I was a child that I had so much time to practice anything. I relished the opportunity. It is still my favorite instrument and, instead of looking for the next new instrument to take up, I’m content to focus on the ones I have, especially the dulcimer. Interestingly, as much as I love the mountain dulcimer, I still do most of my songwriting on the guitar and piano. I’m not sure why, but I’m not sure it matters.
In writing these memoirs, I’ve had trouble with the timeline. Now, I have to backtrack a few years to 2007. I met Paul Cavanaugh when I was twenty and he was eighteen. We hitchhiked across the country only a year later, had a baby then another and a third quite a few years later. We grew up together and separately as we struggled to survive and raise our family, and we made beautiful music together. After a tumultuous twenty years, we went our separate ways into new lives while remaining the best of friends. I often wondered if it would have been better to have been friends rather than partners, but then we would never have had our children who we both loved and cherished. Paul was the historian in our relationship. He always remembered every detail, names of people and places, dates and more. After we split up, he ended up with a woman he had had a crush on while we were still together, and I met Dick Kavanaugh. We never stopped loving each other but had to move on to our next phase.
On December 15th, 2006, Paul was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had been suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), an incurable disease that makes breathing difficult. He had been a smoker since he was eleven and had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a time when pollution was uncontrolled. Both of his parents had cancer as well, and his dad had died from lung cancer. Although Paul finally gave up smoking cigarettes, he never stopped smoking pot. I remember him arriving at one of my parties, gasping for breath but walking to the back of the large yard, stopping frequently to rest, until he finally made it to the smoking section where he spent most of his time. I guess we all knew that it was inevitable that he would get cancer someday, but in the five years that he suffered from COPD, his doctor never ordered another x-ray. By the time he got his diagnosis, it was a stage four cancer.
He was still living in the trailer we had purchased when his mother died, though it was in shambles now. There was mold growing inside, the floor was rotting, there was a pile of garbage in the front yard that never made it to the dump, and the front porch that I had built with my dad was falling off. He asked me to take him to his appointment with the oncologist. He could barely get around anymore, so I asked our older son to go with me to help me get him out of the trailer and into the car. That day, the oncologist predicted that he had maybe three to six months to live without any therapy and possibly a year with radiation and chemotherapy. He decided to forgo any therapy and enjoy a better quality of life while he still could. We brought him back home and got a call later that night that he was in the hospital in the ICU unit hooked up to a ventilator.
We rushed to the hospital, where I noticed how agitated he was, trying to pull out the ventilator until they had to strap him down. While we were there, although he was unconscious, he was calm and fairly relaxed. I started reaching out to my community immediately and set up friends to sit watch over him, hoping that he would recover. I was so touched by the number of people who came. Paul had people there twenty-four hours a day. After a few days, he regained consciousness and was soon released. Meanwhile, his partner told me that she was not able to care for him anymore in the condition he was in. It all broke my heart, and I wasn’t sure what to do now. I still loved him more than anyone else. He was one of my oldest friends. I spoke to my children and to Dick, and we decided that I would not take him back home but would let him stay at my apartment until our daughter could set up a space for him there. I felt so lucky to have a partner who was willing to house my dying ex-husband for those few days. Paul was not happy when I picked him up from the hospital and refused to take him home. He didn’t know that his partner had handed his care over to us, and I didn’t tell him. I decided to let him think I was being bossy and bullying him into this new arrangement.
Whenever we asked him if he wanted to travel anywhere during this final time, he always replied that he was satisfied. “I’ve had a good run,” he would say. I wanted our children to have the opportunity to ask him questions, hear his stories and just enjoy their dad. But Paul was ready to go and mostly wanted to be left alone. He was still angry from his early trauma and as the end came near, her started to take it out on the people close to him. It was a very difficult and stressful time for everyone. Paul’s partner came once a day for a short visit which usually soothed him a bit. Our older son, Justin, was out of work and stayed at Jes’ house to care for Paul. He was the one child who had struggled the most in their relationship, and he was the one who stepped up when needed. I did the same thing later on with my mother who I never felt liked me. Jes was working from home, trying to maintain her work schedule while her dad was dying in her son’s bedroom. My grandson mostly stayed with his dad during that time. Our youngest son, who had the closest relationship with his dad, was sixteen at the time.
I visited every day and brought our son and granddaughter who were both living with me. Many friends came by to visit with Paul, and his siblings traveled to see him. We all thought we would have a few months, but Paul died exactly a month after his initial diagnosis on January 15th, 2007. I remember that day so clearly. It was icy that morning, and I almost didn’t go because of the road conditions. As I was driving along, I suddenly started crying and said aloud, “It’s good day to die, Paul.” When I arrived, he had just passed. His closest sister had also just arrived for the second time. We had called and told her that we thought it was going to be any day, but she just missed him as did I. None of us thought to look at the clock to mark the time of his passing but it was not long after eleven am. Paul loved numbers and would even recite them in his sleep. He marked special times with parties such as his 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 party which was on June 7th, 1989, where we all had to whoop and holler at 01:23:45 am and pm, and his 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-0 party which was on July 8th, 1990, where we whooped and hollered at 12:34:56 am and pm. He was born on November 11th, 1955, at 11:11 am, so we decided that he must have died at 11:11 am. It was close enough for us.
Only a few days before hospice had finally come and brought a hospital bed and supplies to make his parting easier. I was angry for a long time that it had taken them so long to come. We had been asking for two weeks, knowing that the end was near. I was also angry at his doctor for not staying on top of his condition, for not finding the cancer before it had gotten so bad. I felt robbed of more time with him for my children and for myself. We never really had closure. All of his stories were lost, except for the ones I could remember and retell. My best friend, the father of my children and our historian was gone too soon, and everyone looked to me to take charge.
I had never had to deal with a death as an adult, but I figured it out. We called hospice who sent someone over immediately and helped us arrange for his body to be taken away. Then I helped our children find a funeral parlor and arrange his cremation. I navigated Social Security and other bureaucracies and managed to have “road scholar” included on his death certificate. With the help of many friends, we threw a wonderful celebration of his life. He always said that he wanted to have a big party with music and food when he passed on. We showed videos and had recorded music of our band as well as live music by many friends. Lots of people brought food for a potluck, and thankfully, one of our friends told a couple of bad jokes. Lots of people showed up, even my parents and siblings, none of whom ever liked Paul, came to pay their respects. I think he would have been pleased at how it all turned out.
The music community was supportive as well. Greg Haymes wrote a wonderful piece in the Metroland about his passing and promoted a fundraising concert that would be held at the Lark Tavern. One of the many reasons I had eventually obtained a legal divorce was to remove each of us from financial responsibility for the other. Paul had not paid his property taxes for a few years and was facing repossession of his home. We didn’t know this until after he passed. He left our children nothing but debt, and the community wanted to help out. Two amazing people who we have since lost arranged and promoted this amazing event, Greg and Caroline Mother Judge.
There is still not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Paul and miss him. I miss our shared music, our incredible adventures and most of all our love and friendship. Although, I have loved since then and am now living happily and very much in love with my third life partner, Paul was my first true love, and I will always cherish our time together in spite of the hardships. We truly did make beautiful music together in more ways than one.
This was his masterpiece that took years for him to compose.
Suite: Visions of an Airplane
I have always known that every chapter in my life, even every little incident, whether good or bad, just leads to the next chapter which may be completely different and unexpected. That was how I felt about the gig in Europe. Because of the choices I made when I was younger and just starting out in my adult life, I lived below the poverty level for most of that time and never imagined that I would travel overseas. I was resigned to my lot and even embraced it. I’ve never been religious. Even as a child, being raised kind of Catholic lite, I was thrown out of Catechism class in twice. My parents were able to enroll me again for the two big sacraments, First Communion and Confirmation. I guess I “asked too many questions.” It was disruptive to the rest of the class. But although I’m not religious, I am spiritual. It’s probably more along the lines of Native Americans and Druids. I pay attention to any signs that come my way. Sometimes they’re dreams, other times premonitions. I also tend to go whichever way the wind blows. My partner teases me about being spontaneous. It’s true. I can be running a short errand and end up on some adventure or exploration for much of the day, and I usually say yes immediately to most things.
That’s how I ended up in Europe. As draining as the actual gigs were, the rest of the trip was amazing. After the other musicians left to go home or on to their own travels, we rented a car. We toured around Berlin for a day, finding Dick’s old haunts and listening to his outrageous stories about his adventures there as a young man. He even spoke a little German, just enough to get us by. I found that I understood more of what was being said than I thought I would. I didn’t know if it was because German is a similar language to English or if it came from my musical background. Musicians often have an easier time with language. In addition, when I studied classical voice, I often sang in other languages such as German, Italian and French. Either way, we were relieved to have had no trouble navigating the country. We soon headed south to Bavaria where we saw a few old castles and stayed in a motel at Schwangau. Schwan is the German word for swan. This is where the Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein Castles are located. It is also the location of Swan Lake or Schwansee. Both castles have an interesting history.
Hohenschwangau Castle was built sometime around 1397 and sits on top of a hill overlooking Schwangau and went through many owners until finally being bought in 1832 by King Maximillion II. It was Maximillion who built the park which has Schwansee in it. His son, King Ludwig II, grew up there and later built Neuschwanstein Castle on the top of the neighboring hill which also overlooks the lake and village. Neuschwanstein Castle became the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. King Ludwig has an interesting and tragic story. He was called “The Mad King.” In reality, he was shy and quite eccentric. He spent his money wantonly. He insisted on only eating outdoors and wore a heavy coat on the hottest days in the summer. He often behaved in a childish way and avoided politics and state business. He was expected to produce an heir but never married and was known to be attracted to men. In the 19th-century, Bavaria was intensely Catholic and socially conservative. Homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death. The scandal of a homosexual monarch would have been intolerable, so he was deposed and later murdered.
He was a patron of the arts and was drawn to classical composer Richard Wagner. He decided to build the castle as a private residence but also as a retreat Wagner. He used his own private money rather than using public funds and borrowed an extravagant amount only to leave the castle unfinished. It is extravagant and quirky. It almost reminded me of the creepy Winchester House in San Jose, California with its staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up into walls and useless rooms, except that no expense was spared for the construction of the castle. He was so involved with the design; he often gets credit for being the architect. On the tour, which consisted mostly of climbing up and down stairs to look at many unfinished rooms, my favorite room by far was the Singer’s Hall. The walls and ceiling were built of hollow cedar boxes to mimic an acoustic instrument, like a guitar body. It was one of the last stops on the tour and I stayed behind the group long enough to sing inside the room. It was awesome. The richness of the sound was unlike anything I’d heard before. That one room made the whole tour worthwhile. After the one night in Schwangau, we started traveling east on our way to Switzerland to stay with friends at their home.
As we traveled through Bavaria, we noticed that the area was still very conservative and Catholic. There were many crucifixes along the road, in people’s yards and churches everywhere. In one small town, we noticed an outdoor art fair, so we stopped. Some of the vendors spoke English. One of them had lived in upstate New York for a few years. He did watercolors. We had our instruments with us and thought maybe we could play here. There were no other musicians around, so we asked this new friend. He explained that we would have to get permission from the local priest who would only permit it if we did sacred music. We were stunned. We asked if he thought the priest would accept instrumental tunes. He advised us to forget about it, so we did.
The autobahn was incredible. It was a solid road with no potholes or cracks in the concrete. We saw some workers building a new road and were amazed at the outstanding construction. Everything in Germany seemed to be well-built. No floorboards creaked and no doors or windows were warped, no matter how old the buildings were. When we had first arrived at the Berlin airport, we had seen windmills everywhere. Now there were hundreds of them and yellow fields of rapeseed everywhere that would be harvested to make Biodiesel fuel. We saw these sights all along our journey through Germany. It was also clean everywhere. There was no litter, and every restroom was immaculate and staffed with attendants. I was also impressed by the hospitality in every region, and food was wonderful.
We got stuck in a traffic jam on the autobahn for a couple of hours. When there’s an accident, traffic is at a standstill until everything is cleared away. It usually involves many cars and takes a while, so people get out of their cars and socialize. We pulled out our instruments and practiced, having a great time for a while, then finally got to an exit and, looking on a map, found a way around the mess. When we were about an hour from our destination, we got lost in Eastern France for a while, driving along narrow, hilly winding roads in tiny villages. Every time we hit a dead-end, we crossed our fingers that we could manage to turn around. The borders were all open, so I had to get a photo with one foot in each country. We finally made it to Fahy, Switzerland around dinnertime. We were starved and exhausted, but we were so excited to see our friends for the first time in many years, we ignored it.
I had asked if I could do a short program at the local school. I had brought along a limberjack in addition to the mandolin. I wanted to demonstrate traditional American culture to the young students. Ursula suggested that we walk over to their neighbor’s home and talk to the kindergarten teacher there. As we approached the house, I realized that I hadn’t grabbed anything to eat and was starting to feel a little light-headed. I figured we wouldn’t stay long. The guys were back at the house preparing dinner. We knocked on the door and were told, in French, that Mama and Papa were in the cellar. I was confused but Ursula led the way to a separate underground wine cellar. Inside were benches and tables and about 8 or ten people drinking wine. When they heard that I was one of the musicians who would be playing at the house concert the next evening, they greeted me enthusiastically and handed me a glass of wine. I started to refuse when Ursula instructed me to take it so I wouldn’t appear rude. I started sipping it cautiously, but they kept toasting and cheering me on. Before I knew what was happening, I had another one in my hand. They wanted me to try their special vintages. I tried to insist on small tastes, but they weren’t having it. They were hosting the American musician and wanted to make a good impression. Then they took me into the smaller room and showed me a wooden cask of cognac from the 19th century and gave me a glass of that.
I don’t remember walking back to Ursula and Ed’s but somehow, we made it. Back at the house, Ed and Dick had wondered where we were. They had cheese and crackers and, of course, wine waiting for us. Then we had another glass of wine with dinner and fruit soaked in alcohol for dessert. I can’t believe I never got sick, but I survived without even a hangover the next day.
Ed was going to play some fiddle with us at the concert, so we spent that day jamming. After dinner, we did our concert for a very appreciative crowd who all brought snacks, and we had a nice visit with everyone after the show. Between my little bit of French, Dick’s little bit of German, a couple of interpreters who spoke English well and some of the residents who had varying degrees of English, we got to know people and thoroughly enjoyed the night. The next couple of days were spent sightseeing and catching up with our friends. Finally, on our way back to Berlin, we visited an old Roman ruin. I have always been fascinated by history and loved the entire trip. I treasured it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Dick and I continued to play many gigs as Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, and everywhere we played, people asked if we had any music to sell. I’d never been able to do any major recording project and never imagined I would, but we decided to explore our options. Dick and I had been members of the local food co-op and were connected with a man who had his own studio. He offered us a reasonable price. I was getting more and more work, and with both of us splitting the cost and my extra work, I figured it was doable. So, we started planning. We were both composers and had plenty of material. Dick mostly wrote tunes while I wrote songs, but he had taken my songwriting workshop and wrote a wonderful lullaby that was included on the CD. Between us, we played guitars, mandolins, fiddle and mountain dulcimer, and we both sang. We got a couple of friends to collaborate on some of the pieces, playing guitar, fiddle and stand-up bass, and got started. It was all recorded live rather than tracked, making it easier for us and less studio time.
Once the recording was done, it was time to think about the art. I said I wanted to find an artist to do the cover and thought about contacting the art schools when we got invited to a friend’s party in Cherry Plain, NY. When we walked in, I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to be in a different class than we were. The men wore leisure suits, and the women were dressed to the nines. We wore our usual casual hippie garb and felt out of place. Then, I glanced across the living room and saw a large man in another room wearing a kilt and an outrageous necklace. I thought to myself, “I need to meet that guy.” I walked up and asked if he was an artist. He was. He showed me some of his work, and I was impressed. We made a date to meet and talk about the CD cover. A few nights before we got together, I had a dream about a large oak tree that had all the different seasons represented in the colors of the leaves. The title song was “Returning” and was about the seasons. When I relayed the dream to Donhall, he gasped and ran off to grab a photo he had taken of a large oak. It was the same tree as in my dream and became an integral part of the cover. Some of the other images referred to other songs. I've always loved hearing people's interpretations of the cover. Everyone sees it differently. But I find that's true with my songs as well. I may have an idea when I write it, but everyone has their own interpretation, and who am I to say whether they're right or wrong. It's all subjective after all.
Writing and recording the music was the easy part for me. Coming up with the order of the songs was much more difficult than I expected. It was a learning curve for both of us. We also had to decide what to include for the text. Then there was the layout and design. I didn't have a clue how to do that, so I hired another friend to help out with it. I hadn't realized, until working on that project, how much went into putting out an album. Because it was the first one, I also had no idea what to do with it once it was released or how to promote and launch a successful release. Now, each time I do it, I do a little better than the last and certainly better than this first one.
The whole process was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. The CD turned out great. It was mostly original material and was well received. I still sell copies today. I love the artwork and have the original drawing framed with the CD cover and CD. It was a dream come true, something I never thought would happen. I also thought it would be the only CD I would ever make, so I cherished everything about it. It just goes to show that you never know what’s up ahead. Life has had a lot of surprises for me and continues to surprise me every day.
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.
Just when things looked as though they were starting to settle down a bit, my partner, the other Kavanaugh, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was fairly far along by the time they discovered it, and his father had died from it. We were in shock but quickly investigated all of the options. He decided not to have traditional intervention but to treat it with naturopathic medicines. He consulted with an herbalist who prescribed a tea that he brewed every morning, as well as other herbs, dietary considerations and certain exercise. He seemed healthier than ever when a past discretion reared its ugly head. He had divorced many years earlier and had four children. Unfortunately, it was a nasty divorce with many issues regarding his visitations with his children. Although he was granted unlimited visits, his children were often not there when he went to pick them up. After getting nowhere in the courts, he foolishly stopped paying his child support. It’s so sad when couples can’t look beyond their personal issues with each other and keep their children’s best interest in mind. In this case, his children suffered needlessly.
He had battled this issue for many years. At one point, the court made a ruling that each payment missed would be doubled. It turned out that this was an illegal ruling, but he didn’t find this out until after the statute of limitations had run out. He kept every piece of paper and showed me where each payment doubled. The bookkeeping was unbelievable. A few times, the entire balance owed doubled rather than just the missed payment. Two other times, a zero was accidentally added then that total was doubled. He had a series of inept lawyers who did nothing. He also kept all of the returned letters and birthday cards he had tried to send to his kids. Meanwhile, they believed that he had abandoned them. Luckily, as they became adults, they reunited with him. His one saving grace was that he always managed to track them down somewhere in their neighborhood with a cake at each birthday.
Now, just as he received his diagnosis, his ex-wife sued once more for back support. This time his lawyer understood the extent of the corruption and was shocked that the mistakes had been allowed for so long. However, he had waited too long to pursue it, and the judge disallowed the evidence. He was sentenced to six months in the county jail. His lawyer explained the cancer diagnosis and argued all of the missteps and the fact that the kids were all adults by now. Even his ex-wife insisted that she didn’t want him to go to jail, she just wanted money, but it made no difference. It broke my heart to see him enter the courtroom time after time in shackles. Each time we expected a reprieve, and each time I left in tears.
He spent that six months reading the books that we regularly sent him. He said later that, except for the food, he didn’t mind his time there. Because of his medical condition, they didn’t require him to work, and he got along well with the other inmates. For him, it was a mandatory vacation. For me however, it was a different story. I had to keep the home fires burning, caring for my young son, worrying about my other son, trying to stay connected to Dick’s kids, running the communal household and paying all of the bills. Because I was an activist, I also organized rallies to free him and did TV interviews. I worked hard to get him a vegetarian diet and provided him with the vitamins that were crucial for his naturopathic treatment for the cancer. It was a never-ending sage. The prison decided that a vegetarian diet consisted of veal, which is young calf and definitely not vegetarian. But he soon figured out that he could trade his meat to the other inmates for the vegetables he craved.
He was allowed two visits twice a week on specified days. I visited him twice a week for those six months unless I needed to give up a day for someone else. I think everyone should have to visit someone in jail at least once to see how degrading and inhuman it is. You have to get there early and wait in line usually for an hour or more. There are specific days and times for visitation for each prisoner. If you don’t have the right day and time, forgot to bring in your ID or forgot that you had something in your pocket that wasn’t allowed, you have to leave and start again at the back of the line which usually means that the time will run out and you will miss your visit. Sometimes, I would get to the desk after waiting so long only to find out that he wasn’t available. Maybe he was seeing his lawyer or out for a doctor’s appointment. Once, as I was going back home, I passed the van on the road, waving at him as he drove by.
It was a horrible experience all around, but I especially I felt for the women with children. The kids were understandably uncomfortable waiting for so long in that line with no food or drink allowed. And, the moms were impatient and often angry. Many of them had to depend on public transportation to get there and were there religiously every week. Standing in that line week after week was the hardest part of the ordeal for me. Then, when I got inside, Dick would tell me how much he was enjoying this time off but complained about the food and wanted me to deposit more money into his account for toiletries and other items that he was allowed to buy. It was making me crazy.
When we moved into the Mariner’s House, Dick took the back rooms on the first floor that had once been a doctor’s office. He used one of them for a work room to do his instrument repair and also had his own bedroom. At the time, we had a man living in the house who decided to take over those back rooms when Dick was away. He was a bit of a bully and refused to vacate them when asked. Then he started talking to me about how lonely I must be, trying to give me unwanted hugs. Before long, I noticed that he was going into the upstairs bathroom when I went into my bedroom. There were windows facing into each room and, although I made sure to close my curtains, it made me uncomfortable. When I tried to talk to Dick about it, he insisted that I was overreacting. Eventually, I had to ask him to move out, knowing that it would affect my finances with the loss of his rent, but it was worth my peace of mind. I’ve often found that men don’t always understand what it feels like to be constantly on guard because you are feeling stalked. And I know the difference between being appreciated and flirted with and going overboard. Because of past experiences, my instincts are finely honed.
During that in between time, before Dick returned home, I started having auditory hallucinations fairly frequently. This was not uncommon for me. I often have visual and auditory hallucinations, probably because of my early overuse of psychedelics. They are usually based on some form of reality. My kids used to tease me about stopping to pick up a hitchhiker that was actually some bushes on the side of the road, or the shadows from a street sign. Once, when Dick and I were going down a dark country road in Massachusetts, I suddenly said, “Whoa!” and ducked down. He chuckled and asked what I thought I had seen. I was reluctant to tell him that it was a huge flying Pegasus that narrowly missed our car. However, I was relieved when he assured me that it was a large cloud of moths and other insects. At least my mind hadn’t made it up out of nowhere.
The Mariner’s House seemed to be haunted. We had many odd occurrences there, and I had lived in haunted houses before. This haunt was not ominous, just quirky. Our cat would often back herself into a corner hissing at nothing that we could see. Things would sometimes fly out of the kitchen cabinets, and I often heard voices calling me. One night, after midnight, I heard a voice calling, “Mom!” I ignored it. It called again … and again. Finally, out of desperation, I spoke to it saying, “Look, I’m home alone and not in the mood. Please leave me alone.” It didn’t stop. I started to go into my son’s room to wake him and leave the house when I happened to look out the window and saw my daughter outside calling out to me. Whew! I can’t describe the relief I felt at that moment.
After a long six months, Dick was released and quickly acclimated to the real world. We found new roommates and things went back to normal. He renewed his vegetarian diet and vitamin and herbal regimen, and things looked like they were back on track. I was so relieved to have him home. He had renewed vigor for life and for his music which he had missed terribly. But he soon dove back down into his usual depression and inactivity. He spent hours sitting in his recliner, reading and “meditating,” which was actually napping. He hated working more than ever and avoided it like the plague. He started harassing me about bills, insisting that I wasn’t pulling my own weight. We had decided early on in our relationship to keep our money totally separate and had an elaborate formula for figuring out our communal expenses. I would spend hours doing the bookkeeping only to have him question every line item. Then I would spend hours more going over it with him, usually finding that he owed me money rather than the other way around. Luckily for him, he only had to work a couple of days to make plenty of money to cover rent and utilities, unlike me who worked full time and still lived just below the poverty level. I was getting tired of the accusations, out downs and turmoil, so I started to look at my options. Then, my older son fell in love.
As time went on, I became better on guitar and began taking my songwriting more seriously. I took a few songwriting classes and workshops, deciding to treat it as a job rather than a hobby. I can’t say that it’s brought me much financial stability, but I’m definitely more fulfilled. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to share those songs, so I started going to the Eighth Step Open Mic regularly and eventually shared the hosting job with a few other musicians. We each had our own style. It was an interesting mix. Some of us, me included, set up the PA to give folks the experience of performing with amplification and learning how to sing into a mic effectively. Others preferred to set up chairs in a circle and facilitate a round robin session, similar to the way I ran my house jams. When I hosted, I made sure to talk to everyone before they went on, finding out a little about them so I could give them a proper introduction. I also set up and ran the sound. All of this went even further toward getting me out of my shell. I met a lot of talented musicians and songwriters including many who took their music even further.
I also started meeting other songwriters in the classes and workshops I took and learned about the craft of songwriting. Until this point, I always waited for inspiration to strike, writing randomly and erratically. Then, I took a workshop taught by Janis Ian. She kept repeating the importance of writing consistently. She recommended that we give ourselves assignments rather than waiting for that inspirational bolt of lightning. She explained that most of those songs would get tossed out, but we would get better and better. In addition to assigning topics to write about, she suggested that we also purposefully write in different styles. I have really taken that to heart as a songwriter and as a performer. I was doing that anyway with the covers I chose, so it was an easy jump to start doing it as a writer. I have to admit that I get bored listening to the same types of songs. I love variety. But I do also realize that because I don’t stick to one style, it’s held me back in some ways. It’s a whole lot easier to get gigs if you fit into one or even two categories.
The other thing I learned from the songwriting classes was how to edit my work. I learned about the preciseness of rhyming, unless it’s purposely more freeform, prosity which is the lyrics matching the vibe of the music, and I learned to count my syllables. It may sound rigid, and it is, but it hones my songs and makes them more accessible. I also began to value input from other songwriters that I trusted. We all look at our works of art from our own skewed perspective, often not at all the way others see them. Having an outside perspective is so valuable. You do have to set aside your ego, though which is not always easy to do. And, there are always some songwriters with whom I don’t connect. I don’t particularly like their style and they don’t like mine, but they still often have things of value to offer me from their unique view. Then, there are others who I have come to depend on. I learned the art of critiquing from a summer camp I attended for a few years. There were strict rules about how to go about giving your opinion about someone’s work. For example, always start with what you loved about it. Even if you really don’t like a song, there is at least one thing you can love about it. Maybe it’s the tone, or the use of certain chords. The other important thing I learned was to not say, “I don’t like …” Instead, I learned to say, “If it were my song, I would …” All of this made perfect sense to me and resonated with my independence and my alternative school teaching methods. I began giving myself regular assignments and found like-minded people to share songs with.
But once again, I found myself in a musical partnership where I had to fight for my songs. They were “too complex,” or “too poetic.” I soon realized that I needed to pursue my songwriting and my musical journey on my own. I was happy to continue to do gigs as Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, but it wasn’t going to be my only thing. I even stopped asking for input on my songs from my musical partner because they never made the grade. He hadn’t taken any of the classes, never loved anything and was brutal with his criticism. Meanwhile, I was determined to continue on this path. I had put my own music on a back burner for too long. I took a course in Schenectady about working as an artist/educator and created a songwriting workshop for children. I taught that in a few schools and libraries, starting to work the library circuit during the summers. I also kept reaching out to more and more venues. One of my favorite Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gigs was in an old railway station in Connecticut. It had been turned into an art gallery and performance space. The space was beautiful, the turnout was amazing, the crowd attentive and appreciative, and we made more money at that one gig than ever before or since.
But, while my music career was going well, my personal life was in turmoil again. That same partner was starting to have a wandering eye. Every other woman seemed to be more attractive, smarter about everything and more capable than me in his eyes. He also started worrying more and more about money. He didn’t like to work and was miserable when he did. He often told me that all he really wanted to do was lay around on a beach all day. I wished him luck with that. Then one day, he got offered a job in the Bahamas. It was his dream come true. The job was only a few hours a day with room and board paid for in addition to his salary. I was shocked when he turned it down. He only wanted to go if I went along. I wasn’t willing to give up what I had worked so hard for to live in the Bahamas for six months. I would have to start over again. Also, I had a child in school. I encouraged him to go without me. I didn’t know if he would come back or if he would even want to be with me when he did return, but I hated seeing him so miserable. He didn’t end up taking that job and spent that winter so depressed, he struggled to get out of bed.
Now my eldest son was getting himself in trouble again. I worried about the company he was keeping. He was stealing from us and started stealing from our roommate. Finally, he got arrested for stealing money out of a car. My heart broke when I went to visit him in jail. We had to talk on telephones through plexiglass the first few visits. Each time I visited him, he told me that jail wasn’t so bad. He was even making friends. I quickly started calling up my friends connected in the legal system to help me figure out what to do. The last thing I wanted was for him to be learning new skills and making new friends in jail. We arranged a restorative justice meeting in which the victims and the criminal face each other and work out an arrangement. Unfortunately, not all of the victims were willing to participate but it was powerful anyway. In the end, he did time in a drug rehab facility, even though he wasn’t an addict. He was supposed to spend a year there with no visitation from family or friends for the first six months. This was also heartbreaking but at least he wasn’t learning from the criminal element. He realized later that he could have spent six months in the county jail instead of more than a year in this other place. He felt duped, but I was relieved to have him out of trouble during that time. Though he did get into plenty of trouble there while they tried unsuccessfully to break his spirit.
Then one day, he got a message to me that he was going to be volunteering, with a group of other residents, at the Holiday Lights in the Park. He was going to be dressed up as Elmo at the boathouse, greeting the younger kids. I packed my youngest in the car and off we went. He enjoyed the lights and was looking forward to getting cocoa at the boathouse. When got out of the car, I told him to go over and say hello to Elmo. He refused. I hadn’t told him that it was his brother, because I didn’t want to disappoint him if plans had changed. It had been months since we’d last seen his brother. He did finally reluctantly go over. He was shocked when Elmo gave him a big hug. When he realized who it was, he was elated. I had to caution him not to give it away because we were being watched by the house managers. We wandered off then came back again for another brief visit. It was a bizarre experience running this covert operation to connect with my son, but it warmed my heart. We were then allowed a brief visit just before Christmas to bring him gifts. Gradually, he was allowed more visits and time out, but we had to fight to get him released. After the year was over, they kept finding reasons to keep him longer. He just wasn’t compliant enough. I knew that no one was going to tame this son of mine who was as rebellious as his parents. Eventually, with the help of our lawyer and other connected friends, he was released. I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped for a respite, but there was more turmoil to come. Thankfully, throughout my entire life, it’s always been music that has seen me through the toughest times. My music was thriving.
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