Mama Bird Flies from the Empty Nest
New York to Central Ohio
Getting your youngest kid off to college, along with your oldest, is kind of like having a newborn and a toddler with a stomach virus and head lice. Except teenagers are not as cuddly. It is an unimaginable chaos of planning, Sisyphean tasks, arguing, separation issues, and rage. Did I mention rage? And during it all, your heart is about to go over a cliff, thinking about the day you will return from said drop-off to ... what?
“Do you have enough boxers?”
“Do your belts fit?”
“Where are your glasses?”
“Please look for your glasses!”
“Will you clean up this room before you leave?”
“Maybe your glasses are down in the Mesozoic layers of the crap on your desk!”
“Oh, Mom? I’m going to go meet Adam and a bunch of friends.”
“But your rooooooom! Your glasses! Your de-e-e-esk!”
Rolled eyes. The old I-can’t-believe-we’re-even-going-there expression. “It’s our last day, Mom.”
Arrrghh. My baby Joseph! He’s ready. Am I? I am too out of breath from these last days to think about it. Does he have everything he needs? How will it all fit in the car? I stagger around, tripping over big brother Nick’s stuff, also strewn about the living room. Nick’s going back to Kenyon College for his last year, Joe for his first — yes, same school. Nick loves it. We trust Kenyon. But will Joe be as happy there as his brother? Will he like it as much? Will they take as good care of him?
Saturday, August 23 — We take, oh, ten hours to load the car (despite three strapping male six-footers, including husband Peter). We drive another ten. Gas is $4 a gallon, and I’m thinking City College, a nice bracing walk from home, would have been just fine. But when we arrive in Gambier — stone-spired buildings, energetic huggings from old friends, white-shingled coffee houses, Amish horse-drawn buggies, the sound of a lazy late-summer Midwestern breeze — it all seems worth it. Joe’s roommate is of a Greek family (Peter approves). We stay with our dear friends, Bob and Buffy Hallinan, who have not yet gotten sick and tired of putting us up.
Sunday, August 24 — A day full of parental fussing over the younger one, collegial squealing and hugging for the older one. (Will Joe make friends like these?) I make my little one’s extra-long college bed for the first and last time. We hug them both goodbye. They are looking ahead, with excitement — away from us. And they are happy, happy, happy.
Peter and me? Don’t ask.
As we head back to NYC, we are full of shoulds. We should be … Relieved. Elated. Devastated. Bawling. Feeling like we’re twenty-two again. Or eighty-three. We are a little of all these things. Mostly we are in shock.
Our smooth-suspensioned Toyota Sienna feels like the Coney Island Cyclone.
Peter is making funny gasping noises. His cheeks are moist. Me? I’m thinking: I’ll be free! But I’ll listen for the key in the door at day’s end. I’ll have time! But it will be way too quiet. I’ll get more writing done! But what will I write about? Will I ever write again? I’ll finally have the energy to strike out and tour with my music!
In fact, I have set up a four-concert tour.
First stop? Kenyon College.
Okay, okay, it’s not only Kenyon; in fact, it’s pan-Central-Western-Ohio:
1. A jazz concert/lecture at Kenyon called “What Makes a Standard a Standard?,” in which I tackle a dozen of the iconic hits in the American Popular songbook. I weave in musical/lyrical analysis and historical anecdotes along with performances of the songs. My trio includes bassist Jerome Harris and drummer Ben Gramm.
2. A children’s concert at a local library in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
3. “Songs From the Mother Road,” an evening of my own original songs as a benefit for New Directions Domestic Abuse Shelter of Knox County.
4. A concert at the Abbey Theater of Dublin, Ohio. I am especially proud of this one. I “four-walled” the space: rented it myself. For months I have been planning this, and I have spent a bundle on PR and advertising.
Of course the days go by without a hitch, right? Wrong. Hurricane Ike blacks out Ohio. The media throw my publicity aside for photo ops with bending trees and horizontal hair. Then it turns out my self-produced baby, the Dublin concert, is the Same Night as the Presidential Debate — you know, that little confab that will decide the fate of the world? How could Barack do this to me?
For the Kenyon concert, the newspapers print the wrong date, then reprint it wrong. Then reprint it wrong again. And I receive a call from Music Professor Ted Buehrer, who has agreed to join us in the performance with a trumpet solo: “Tina, just wanted to warn you, here at Kenyon, the students get up and leave.”
“They, um, what?”
“See, they have so much to do — homework, classes, activities — that usually they leave after twenty minutes. It’s the culture here.”
The culture? Is this normal? Will anybody come? Will anybody stay? If a musician falls in the forest, does anybody give a s**t?
I’m already a mess. In these weeks after drop-off and pre-concert, I gaze at the lovingly preserved chaos in the boys’ bedroom. Ohhhhh, does that ticket stub say “Wall-E” beneath the grime — wasn’t that fun? There’s that missing fleece sock! From 2005! And I thought I told him to take these Legos to the thrift store! Enough. I turn away to un-knot the chords of “God Bless the Child.” I cook dinner, for four. I notice Peter is putting on weight. I print programs for the concert and haggle with Kinko’s about why they should reprint just because one page is upside-down. I hope Obama and McCain will both suffer migraines that delay the debate for twenty-four hours. I vaguely remember what it is like to sleep.
Sunday, September 21 — Peter and I load two guitars, one keyboard, one PA, dozens of boxes of CDs, and speaker stands into the minivan. Ben and Jerome will fly out on Monday night, but to help them avoid airport hassles I am taking some of their stuff too: a guitar, one snare drum in a flight case, and a big bag of Ziljian cymbals. Peter is a novelist and has a manuscript due in ten days, so he packs his laptop, intending to write thirty pages (“Six a day — it’s doable!” saith he.)
Ever drive over potholes with cymbals in the back of your car? I felt like John Philip Sousa had joined us on the ramp to the George Washington Bridge.
Peter wants to listen to Brahms or Bruce. But I want to listen to my rehearsal tapes. Just until the end of Pennsylvania. I win. Pennsylvania, by the way, is a long state.
Pete drives and I listen. And listen. And listen. Ooh — I sound just right there! Ooops — I’m singing ahead of my band (and my hands) there! Five hundred and twenty-seven miles doesn’t ever whiz by (I always say the drive is eight hours and Pete insists it’s ten — he wins; we leave at 4 p.m. and arrive at 2 a.m.), but today it feels shorter. We’re sore but thrilled to be seeing the kids tomorrow. And to be staying with Bob and Buffy once again in their lovely vaulted rooftop guest apartment, which is right out of Architectural Digest.
At the moment I am no longer worrying about the hole Joe left behind. I am obsessed with the first concert: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin ... will I do these great songs justice? How much analysis is too much? Will people’s eyes glaze? And when I get to the songs — will my hands remember the jazzy voicings, and my voice sail up where I want it to?
God bless Lunesta.
Monday, September 22 — I wake up at 6 a.m., as always. As always, I intend to turn on the AC fan for white noise to blot out the hard-working New York City Sanitation workers, who revel with extra-special brio each morning on West Ninety-seventh Street. But lo! Out the window I see burnished autumn leaves and blue sky stretching over cornfields. Oh yeah, Buffy and Bob’s. No garbage trucks. Just tweeting, rustlings, and the distant plash of a small stone fountain. Ahhhhh. I go back to bed.
BAM! Oh my god. A gunshot?
“Pete …?” I squeak.
“It’s a hickory nut falling on the roof.”
“A wha— ?”
I’m starting to miss the Sanitation guys.
That night we take Nick to dinner for his 21st Birthday. He wants only a cheeseburger at Middle Ground coffee shop. Nick is operating under the wise assumption that you don’t soak your parents for dinner if you need to buy lighting, wardrobe, and transportation at Wal-Mart later on. With their charge card. Joe joins us with his own shopping list. He is bursting with good news about his first four weeks of college.
Later that evening, we continue Nick’s birthday celebration, this time with his buddies who are already 21 and eager to help him over the threshold — at the bar of the Village Inn. These days, birthdays are a multi-alcohol event — I watch them buy him a beer, a Cointreau, a single-malt scotch (provided by his dad!), a shot of tequila, a hard cider ...
“Water! Every other drink should be water!”
“Mo-o-o-om, you’ve never been six foot four and 205 pounds!” (Duh is implicit.)
“True. Still — water!”
Tuesday, September 23: Concert Day! — I have been asked to speak to Dane Heuchemer’s Jazz History Class, and am happy to have the opportunity: I get to see that Nick is actually none the worse for wear from the night before. He leaves his backpack hanging open on the back of his chair, so I zip it up, on my way to the front of the class — somehow this gets a laugh. I describe the way Fats Waller taught himself James P. Johnson’s stride piano style by studying piano rolls, literally putting his fingers in the keys of the piano, feeling the song. I find this fascinating. A student, clearly not infatuated with Fats, pointedly asks: “Well, what does make a standard a standard?”
Time to shift gears. “OK, let’s tease apart the song that Johnny Mercer called ‘the greatest American popular song.’” I go to the piano, play and sing the first phrase of “It Had to Be You,” and I pose this question: “What does ‘Had’ actually mean here? Is it ironic, as in ‘Oy vey, it had to be you walking into this party ... ’ Or is it ‘It was inevitable that it would be you?’”
Mostly blank stares. But I love this stuff, analyzing American Standards the way you would a Beethoven sonata, and I will not be daunted. “What about the melody, which slowly but unconvincingly climbs the scale … and those very ordinary rhymes, ‘you, true, blue, who’?” I see two young women stifle yawns, eyes tearing up. But I sail along, describing the song’s climax and complicated subtext, to the point at which the song bursts open, both lyrically and melodically: “Cause nobody else gave me a thrill…” By now they should be hooked. But … dead eyes. Are the students just processing the information or bored to death? Oh good God, what am I doing wrong? What will happen tonight?
In spite of the wrong date being given three times in the local press, Rosse Hall is filling up. Ted Buehrer comes into the green room, where Jerome and Ben and I are stretching, and reprises his little pep talk:
“Just remember, people will leave. They’ll stay for the first twenty minutes or so, and then they’ll leave.”
Silence. My heart leaps for Jerome and Ben. I haven’t broken the cultural news to them.
“So, I just don’t want you to take it personally,” Ted emphasizes.
My stout-hearted sidemen nod amiably. “Of course not,” they say.
Places! I rush to put on my mascara and take the stage. Rosse Hall is a large, friendly concert hall, with a deep stage, high wood ceilings, true acoustics, and good sight lines from everywhere. As I walk out to warm applause, my heart rises: Rosse is at least two-thirds full, with several hundred people, young and old — professors, students, locals — and my sons are in the front row! I feel a mixture of joy and anticipation and dread. And then, my gut sinks to my knees. On the music stand of the gorgeous new Steinway nine-foot concert grand sit my music and script. On my face, no glasses. They are back in the green room!
I feel my self squinting. I pray that I will not resemble Mr. Magoo. Off we go, on a wing and a prayer (and disturbingly fuzzy-looking notes). As we sail through our intro song, “All the Things You Are,” without a hitch, the audience seems hooked. But then I start to take apart “My Funny Valentine,” phrase by phrase. I feel the audience energy start to sag. I am beginning to regret that we billed this as a “concert,” not a “concert/lecture.” The older people in the audience, who just want to hear the old songs and hum along, look as if they have inadvertently walked in on a Senate filibuster. Part of me wants to just scrap the talk. Nahhhhh, I love this stuff.
And pretty soon they do too. The anecdotes and analyses, the glimpses into the art of creation in the context of a magical past, are hooking them: “My Funny Valentine,” with its tiny but bombshell melodic structure and emotionally manipulative lyric, was actually written to be sung to a (not-too-savory) character named Valentine. The decaying diminished chords of “Night and Day” show us Porter’s obsession with the love object as the melody goes lower and lower. Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” caused a wave of near-hysteria in classical music salons of Europe in 1912, and is a tribute to black music. “All the Things You Are” goes on a musical joyride through all the keys of the tonal palette. (Did these guys know what brilliant moves they were making? Did Beethoven, for that matter? Or Holland Dozier Holland?)
Jerome and Ben are in the pocket on every single song. They’ve played the great rock and jazz venues of the world, and to them, Kenyon is no different. We swing! Swing is the holy grail.
Professor Buehrer plays a full-throated trumpet solo that throws even more sunshine on the “Sunny Side of the Street,” to show-stopping applause from adoring students and colleagues. “God Bless the Child” cooks with a tight, funky, rock feel. And nothing quite matches the wailing “St. Louis Blues” on a Steinway Concert grand, with college kids looking up in awe, those impassive faces of the afternoon now wide-eyed as if to say, “Jeez, someone’s mom can play like that?”
We end with a beautiful sing-along of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The audience doesn’t let us leave — they want an encore! We rollick through an unrehearsed “I Thought About You,” which, I explain to my audience, was my one and only “duet” with Frank Sinatra. (He stopped by for a drink at the Waldorf while I was playing that song and briefly chimed in with me, but hey.)
Nobody leaves. For the whole ninety-plus minutes. Fourteen songs. I am having my Sally Field moment. They like me, they really like me!
After the show, Jerome, Ben, and I meet and greet. Jerome holds forth about how, as a young player in Boston, he got a call from Sonny Rollins to sub for one night, which led to his 13-year tenure as Rollins’s bassist. Ben shares stories of playing for Gilda Radner’s Broadway show, and working with “the SNL cats.” The kids are soaking it up. Nick and Joe, my beautiful sons who have given me so much to be proud of, are returning the feeling to me. I am giving them street cred among their friends, and what kind of awesome gift is that?
Wednesday, September 24: A day I will never forget. — As I open my guitar case to rehearse for tomorrow’s gigs, my Seagull guitar looks funny. My right hand brushes the strings. They don’t ping. They splong. My mind slowly translates what my eyes are seeing: The tuning block is bent forward, splinters of wood poke out at the top of the neck. The neck is broken. The neck of the guitar I have used to bring my songs to thousands of people. The guitar that has changed my life.
Numbness shifts to panic. I have three shows on this instrument, starting in about 20 hours.
I race to the music building to find Nick. When he sees the guitar, he turns green. “Put it away, Mom. I feel sick.”
“Can I borrow your guitar for my next three shows?”
“Yeah, okay, of course.”
Problem solved for now, but pain is growing under the numbness, and I haven’t got time for the pain. I have 22 of my own original songs to practice, on piano as well as guitar. I find a good piano in a practice room and hunker down on a Dr. John-inspired groove for my hot-middle-aged-love song, “It Ain’t Goin’ Away.” I practice that same groove for about an hour. It’s blues. And blues is Ibuprofen for the blues.
Thursday, September 25 —
We rise to Gambier’s hickory nut alarm (oy, why do they only drop in the morning?), and head out to the Knox County Library in Mount Vernon for the kids’ concert. It’s a spacious, gracious building with a tidy basement performing area, and the staff has promoted the event nicely. The crowd of moms and little ones are eager and friendly.
At one point, I put Nick’s guitar in the stand to sing a movement song with the kids. As we gesture with our hands waaaay up over our head, one adorable four-year-old boy decides to reach forward instead, making his way over to my guitar.
“Nooooooooo!” I sing, on a note that swoops unexpectedly into Mariah Carey territory.
I catch the falling instrument before it hits the floor, visions of broken guitar necks dancing in my head. The boy toddles back, happily oblivious to the crisis averted.
By 11:00 a.m. we finish. I wave to the little boys and girls who are walking out singing “A, B, C, D…” and it is all worth it. We take off for a nap.
During the concert Pete has gone up to the library to do some power-writing on his book. How did it go? Well, he had a little trouble connecting to the library’s Wi-Fi. So his six-page-a-day plan now looks like this:
Sept 21, two paragraphs
Sept 22, three sentences
Sept 23, threw out the two paragraphs
Sept 24, rewrote the three sentences
The concert tonight is a benefit for the New Directions Domestic Abuse Shelter of Knox County, and will be held in the B&O Depot in Mount Vernon. A special concert for three reasons:
New Directions is an extraordinary organization that has helped, saved, and taught countless women, children, and yes, men too, over the years.
It is taking place in a restored 19th-century train depot, lovingly refurbished with gambrel wood ceilings arching over the main room, vaulted windows on all sides, an art gallery, and an old equipment room with the original signals flashing a red “STOP NOW”! Best of all for the touring musician, it has gorgeous, huge, solid-oak-door bathrooms.
The third reason: this is a concert of all my originals songs — topics that are closest to my heart, including marriage: “Put a Lock on the Bedroom Door”; this-kid-is-driving-me-nuts: “Girl You Might’ve Been”; body droopage: “Gravity”; and an anthemic tribute to motherhood, “Water Over Stones.”
Curtain is 7 p.m. As I take the stage, the sun is setting through those vaulted windows. Behind me. My audience shades their eyes, which is an odd thing to see as a performer. I sing “There Goes the Sun,” parodying the Beatles, which breaks the ice. By 7:06, as I’m in my second song, the backdrop has become a curtain of purple sky.
The crowd of mostly women seem polite, Midwestern. Unlike a New York crowd, who will scream and cackle if you’re good, or do today’s crossword in the front row if you’re not, they don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves. For a minute I am scared: will I be too off-color for them? Too edgy? Then I hit the reggae-tinged chorus of “Everybody Puts Their Pants on One Leg at a Time,” and the whole place erupts in laughter. “Put a Lock on the Bedroom Door,” a song about sex while the children are sleeping, elicits steamy chuckles, smiles, nodding heads. I relax.
Some women have their heads back, eyes closed. They are smiling. I notice a dad brush away tears. Our friends Buffy and Bob are in the crowd, beaming. They have never seen me perform before. I notice them leaning together, shoulders touching. What I’d seen as Midwestern politeness is a welcoming, warm acceptance.
After the show I meet my audience in the art gallery next to the main room. A local bakery, through the auspices of The Salvation Army, has donated delicious pastries. And New Directions has set up displays about their work at the shelter and in schools and communities all over Knox County, with programs aimed at preventing abuse before it starts.
As I’m chatting, one stylish brunette in her mid-sixties approaches me with a warm smile. She is wearing a turquoise silk Chico’s jacket and would be at home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She takes my hand and looks deep into my eyes. I have no idea what she’s going to say, but clearly it is of monumental importance.
“Just wait,” she says with gravitas, “till you’re a grandmother.”
Friday, September 26 — I am up to give a radio interview with honey-voiced Dan Ramey, DJ on WBEX A.M. Radio at 7:55 a.m. Dan definitely sounds more warmed up than I. I sound like I smoked a few too many Marlboros.
“Okay then, Tina, we’ll begin with — ”
“What’s that noise?”
“Nothing. Hickory nuts.”
Pause. “So, tell us what you do, and why we should come hear you!”
BAM! That was my heart.
It helps that I am still high from last night’s concert, so I go with it. I say my shows make people laugh and cry. I answer more questions. I pray my subjects and verbs agree. Dan gives me and tonight’s show an enthusiastic plug. It’s over by 8:00 — time for the news! — and I am done before the next nut falls.
Our time in bucolic Gambier is over. Tonight is my Mom’s Night Out concert in Dublin. We say goodbye to Bob and Buffy, and head over to campus for last hugs for Nick and Joe.
“Remember! Drink lots of water!”
“Practice safe sex!”
We head down to Columbus, to the home of our friend Wendy, a college classmate of Peter’s who heads up the de facto street team that helped me pump this concert (“You can’t TiVo Tina!” has been their war cry.). While driving on Interstate 71, we hear a report that Barack and John are going ahead with the debate despite my concert. The jerks.
Wendy is a wonderful host and it’s a joy to be with her and her family. But still I am worried. Will anyone show up? I take deep cleansing breaths as we head over to the theater for load-in. We carefully follow our MapQuest directions, but about a half-mile from the theater, the road — the road on which the theater is located — is under construction. Blocked by barricades. No DETOUR sign, just DO NOT ENTER. We have no idea where we are, or where we’re going. No signs tell us how to get back to Post Road!
Peter guesses to the right. Which is why I married him. Otherwise we’d be on our way to Dayton and perhaps still making our way back. Rattled, we find the place. Our hearts leap at the huge 24’’ by 36’’ posters in the windows — but on closer inspection, none of them are mine. They’re all shows the theater is producing. Where is my poster? Where are my flyers? Oh, there. My flyer, 8½ by 11, is tacked onto a vast tundra of a corkboard, dwarfed by the paper kudzu that has grown around it. My picture barely registers, my name is tiny.
We are heartened by the appearance of the theater manager, a smiling, upbeat fellow named Michael. Peter notices a copy of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle on Michael’s desk, completed perfectly with only two crossouts, which Peter takes to be an excellent sign of his organizational skills. Michael immediately tells us, “Ticket sales are great! We’ve got about eighty, and we usually only sell about twenty tickets for adult shows.”
I immediately start wondering if the prospect of an “adult show” may have been responsible for the bump in sales, thus conjuring up a certain image of the crowd that I fight to suppress.
Oh, one other thing. The sound engineer called in sick. There is a sub, but she can’t stay for the whole show. And as curtain time approaches, Wendy is getting worried. Her husband has not arrived, and he is always early …
The crowd is indeed large. And none of them are dressed in grimy raincoats. They are my kind of people, eager and open. When the lights go down and Michael announces me, the theater rings with healthy applause. OK. Good.
Halfway through my third song, “Put a Lock on the Bedroom Door,” a couple of latecomers straggle in tentatively. Feeling loosened and cheeky, I call out: “Come right in! We’re singing about sex!”
It’s Wendy’s husband Steve, with their fourteen-year-old daughter. Oops.
Steve’s face is barely discernible through the steam that is coming from his ears. Not because of the lyric. Remember that roadblock? He had gone left.
They join Wendy. It doesn’t take long for the steam to clear, as they’re absorbed by the music and the audience’s friendly vibe. After the last song, the entire house stands. They don’t want me to leave. Whoopee, an encore!
The houselights rise, and Peter mans the sales desk. I join him, signing CDs and getting to know the crowd, most of whom stay to chat and buy. I can’t help blurting out, “This is such a friendly place, we should move here!”
“It’s a great place to raise kids,” someone says. My heart tugs a bit — our kids are raised already. But they are here, not far from this theater, raising themselves in this welcoming environment with the help of a terrific college.
It all makes sense.
Saturday, Sept 27: Homeward bound — Wendy plies us with enough crepes, fruit, and bacon to get us all the way across Pennsylvania. Nevertheless on Route 71 we stop at a place whose billboard we have eyed curiously for years: Grandpa’s Cheese Barn — and we plunge into a Midwestern epicurean Disneyland. We discover Grandpa, an energetic octogenarian dwarfed by a sprawling pavilion of stacked cheese, gourmet spreads, and pickled everything — each with free samples. Peter has lost his composure. “How does the Ohio cheddar compare with the Vermont?” he says, toothpick at the ready — and I join him on a tour through concoctions involving horseradish, onions, garlic, and blueberries. We leave with two bags of goodies, supplemented by a chocolate “pizza” and assorted caramels and fudge. This kind of side-trip has been a ritual for our family — as much for the absurdity as the food, with Nick sneaking more than a human can possibly eat and Joe quietly finding the most ridiculous item in the house.
Only we’re doing it together now, just the two of us. We laugh as we get into the car, fortified with our bounty — plus an ice cream cone for the road. It feels so familiar. But it’s different.
On Route 71, we fall silent, each in our own worlds. I can tell Peter is still a little wistful, but I have a feeling I haven’t experienced in a long time.
It isn’t one thing but a combination. Peace. Calm. Accomplishment. Focus.
As a mom (and a musician), you feel each of these from time to time, peeking up out of the chaos of life. How often do you feel them all at once? Do you ever?
When I was a little girl, my elementary school in Massachusetts had a year between kindergarten and first grade. It was called Transition. You moved from Miss Parker’s class in the green-shingled cottage to Mrs. Baum’s in the big brick building across the yard. You practiced not being in the way when the boys jumped off the tables. You listened as Mrs. Baum read stories. For years, I thought that was what “Transition” meant: a year with the beaming Mrs. Baum, whose perfectly wrapped golden braid reminded me of Heidi. A year before joining the big kids.
I realize I have had a new Transition.
During last spring and summer, when people asked me, “How will you feel about empty-nesting?” I would shoot back, “I’m a songwriter! I have hundreds of babies to care for: the songs I write, pitch, play.”
I was saying it to be funny. But after this tour, I see how serious I really was. I wasn’t just making conversation. The nest is full. Full of music. And still, in the music, full of Nick and Joe. My biggest inspirations.
Sunday, September 28 — No hickory nuts. The Sanitation guys will return tomorrow.
I sleep very late.