The Things We Leave Behind: Sean Two Months On

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping towards you, you hold onto what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.” Stephen King, Joyland

 

The Last Good Time

What you see above are the last two photographs ever taken of me and my brother Sean who passed away two months ago. Throughout our lives, we were probably photographed a thousand times at various stages by many different people. Birthday parties, family celebrations, Christmas, family reunions and everyday occurrences. These were taken on September 12th, at a 40th birthday celebration in Farmersville, Illinois. The other people you see are our good friends Mike and Cindy Murphy. I can’t remember now what Sean was talking about, but whatever it was obviously made me laugh and drew in others to listen to the tale.

I found these pictures while sorting through some of his personals in the weeks after he passed, and they took my breath away since I had honestly forgotten they were taken. After looking at them for some time, I was reminded of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, “The memory of the moment and the possibilities inherent in that moment are everlasting.” What was possible in that moment is that Sean and I would find a way to reestablish a deeper connection after having lost each other for some time in the prior years, caused by our mutual stubbornness, political debates gone awry and various disagreements. As kids, we were the closest of friends, spending countless hours, days and years together and creating thousands of moments of inherent possibilities, as childhood provides. As the years passed, things changed for each of us with getting married, having children, careers, and other responsibilities and hobbies.

The last weekend I saw him started Saturday night at the birthday party of one of our father’s good friends Courtney Murphy. Sean and I sat together and ate and talked for a while before he saw someone he had not seen in a few years and who was from a different social circle than everyone else there and they talked for a long while, reconnecting. Before we left, we went to talk to Mike about his upcoming adventure where he would be participating in his first Iron Man competition, including swimming which he is not proficient in. We joked that David Hasselhoff would be waiting on shore to rescue him.

The next day, we met at Rolling Hills golf course for a quick round of 9 holes on a beautiful, sunny, and mild day. It was me, Sean, Kevin, dad, our uncle Rick and Mike Bolling. Except for Kevin who can actually golf, we all played poorly but enjoyed the time and day together telling stories, cracking jokes at each other’s expense and listened to dad pontificate on all matters of history, current events and family. Afterwards, we stopped at McDonald’s for a cool drink and argued over who had won the round. Tempers flared, especially between Sean and Mike over who took more penalty strokes, who lost the most balls and which putts counted. Later that night, me, Sean and our parents shared a meal together before I left for home. As we walked out and before getting into our cars, Sean and I said to each other that we would see each other later. The moment was an example of both of us trying to be better people, to forget all the ill feelings over the last few years and to make a new beginning. One of the many things I’ve learned since his passing is that it is easy to be hurt by people’s actions and words which in turn makes you want to avoid those people and the ensuing opportunity for more disagreements. But in the end, it’s not worth the lost time and lost moments and we need to find a way to be more kind and understanding and loving to each other. I’ve learned to try to forgive and forget and remember what is truly important in life. Regret can sometimes be the only thing we hold onto as we go through life and that is a heavy thing to carry.

 

Hilligoss 3 at Buddy Guy's Legends 2015

The Hilligoss 3, along with Bill Murray, at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago, Il 2015

 

 

The Dash

Back in 1998, we lost our fraternal uncle Ronald Edwin Hilligoss who died of a heart attack while walking through Lambert International Airport in St.Louis en route to returning to Phoenix, Az after he had attended his class reunion in Arcola, Il. At his funeral, one of the speakers read the poem, The Dash, and it struck a chord with Sean and he spoke of it often. I think he learned a thing or two from it and tried to live his dash the best he could. I think we can all learn a thing or two if we remember during trying times that the special dash between our birth and death only lasts a little while.

 

The Dash
by Linda Ellis copyright 1996

​I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
​the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before. 

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

​So, when your eulogy is being read,
with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent YOUR dash?
12-08h4

Sean and Rory, Godfrey IL 2009

 

All You Got Is Lifetime: Go

Since Sean passed, I’ve learned and often times just been reminded of obvious truths that I’ve lost sight of while getting caught up in the everyday tasks of living my life. Here are a few of them:The world is a beautiful place, even in the darkest of times, if only we have the time and patience and vision to stop and look around. Just like Babe Ruth said, swing big with everything you have. Hit big or miss big. Live as big as you can. We’re only here once so you might as well give it your best shot. Take care of yourselves while also taking care of each other. What else are we here for? If you love someone, let them know. You never know when or if you will see them again. If you see wrongs around you, take action and try to right them. Be careful with your words, they might be the last you speak or hear. In the immortal words of musician Warren Zevon who was given a terminal cancer diagnosis and was asked how the news had changed his perspective, enjoy every sandwich.

Another large lesson I’ve learned and hope to pass on to anyone reading this and willing to listen and take it to heart concerns our personal affairs. I know it’s a difficult topic since death is not something many of us want to think about or talk about, but whether you are 25, 45, 75 or 90, it’s there waiting for all of us and you never know when something might happen. Get your personal wishes in order including funeral arrangements, financials, wills, etc. The process can be fairly simple if you chose to handle on your own and can still be fairly simple if you see an attorney. It may cost some money, it may make you uncomfortable at the time and may force you to make some tough decisions, but your family and friends left behind to carry on will thank you. Trust me, I know from personal experience.

 

IMG_0884

We will find strength in what remains behind

To friends and family near and wide. The Robert Hilligoss family thanks everyone for all the support and kindness that has been given to us during our time of tragedy. For all of the phone calls, messages, food, time spent, condolences and distances travelled. We lost our son and brother and friend, and we mourn him and grieve but we will move forward with Sean in our hearts. After all the physical, worldly possessions are gone, all that is left are our friends and family, our souls and memories. We are only on this earth for a brief time so please, be kind to one another,be loving, be grateful for the time we have and take care of yourselves while also taking care of each other. Grace, mercy and forgiveness can help a man walk tall. So walk tall, walk on.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

For Mary, My Old Friend

Ryan Hilligoss, January 4, 2015

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

My old friend, you invited me in, and you treated me like kin

And you gave me a reason to go on

My old friend, thanks for inviting me in

My old friend, may this goodbye never mean the end

If we never meet again this side of life

In a little while, over yonder, where it’s peace and quiet

My old friend, I’ll think about you every now and then

Carl Perkins, My Old Friend

Christmas is over and a new year is dawning, with a calling for new beginnings and a fresh start. I received many gifts this year from my family, much more than I need but for which I am grateful, especially spending time with loved ones near and far. One gift I received this year was hearing a voice from the past, calling across the decades. My cousin Judy Bennett asked me to transfer a tape recording of her wedding ceremony from analog to digital. The event occurred May 27, 1961 in Humboldt, Illinois and the marriage was between Judy Hilligoss and David Bennett, and was recorded by family with a reel to reel recorder. While listening to the tape, I heard family members being interviewed including Judy’s mother, Mary Hilligoss, who was also my aunt. Her voice was much younger obviously, but her words and phrasing and humor and laughter were unmistakable. Hearing it was invaluable to me for many reasons including family history and historical interest, but mostly because Mary was a friend of mine who I haven’t heard since she passed away in 2007.
The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

Coincidentally, her birth date recently passed on what would have been her 92nd birthday. Mary Francis Cook was born December 28, 1922 in Humboldt, Il, daughter to Edward and Ruth Mitchell Cook. Her older sister Letha Cook Hilligoss was my grandmother and Mary and Letha married brother, Les and Robert Hilligoss respectively. So, Mary was my double aunt, either way you look at it. Humboldt, Illinois, for those not from the area reading this, is a small town along US Route 45 and the Illinois Central Railroad line in east central Illinois, south of Champaign, home of the University of Illinois. Mary and family spent many years living in Mattoon before Les moved his family to Edgewood, Il, south of Effingham, as part of his employment on the railroad.
Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with our extended Hilligoss family during birthdays, celebrations, family reunions and especially trips made to either Phoneix, Az where my grandparents moved in 1970 or around the state when they visited us here twice a year. They had a RV they used for many of their trips and when they came to town, Sean and I would climb aboard and head on down the road for unknown destinations. Opening the door to the RV with grandma Letha Hilligoss aboard, you were drawn into a world filled with smoke from her long, brown cigarettes she chain smoked, the aroma of fresh coffee brewing in the percolator, and never-ending chatter, whether anyone was present and listening or not. Often times, she would launch into a crazed rant filled with wild hand motions and unnamed characters, and Sean and I would look at each other not knowing if she were really talking to us and whether we should respond or not. More often than not, after travelling to some other towns, we would wind up in Edgewood to see Mary where they would park the RV and we would stay for 2 or 3 days before returning home. Grandma and Mary would spend hours at a time in the kitchen drinking coffee, doing the daily crossword puzzles and clipping coupons and sending in rebates, while we kids were left to our own walking the property, mowing the grass or watching TV. Due to their love of coupons, rebates and scoring a great deal, a simple trip to the IGA grocery store in Effingham which would have taken most people 15-30 minutes, turned into a three-hour journey as Letha and Mary walked down the aisles, closely inspecting each package they eyed, ensuring they had a coupon or could send in a rebate.

It was during these trips as a boy that I developed an appreciation and connection to the idea of extended family and a connection to the past and where I come from. During these trips, I developed a bond with my aunt Mary that lasted from childhood, through my college years and into adulthood when I had my own family. Mary and my grandmother Letha were like two peas in a pod in many respects including their love of coffee, smoking, cross words and family. However, their personalities were a contrast. Grandma was comfortable in her own skin, said what was on her mind with no filters, talked a blue streak, and walked through her life with her chin out letting the world know she wasn’t scared of much and would not back away from a situation. As a child growing up on her family farm, Letha would often times be ordered to handle chores in a certain fashion by her father Ed Cook, and if they weren’t handled the way he wanted, there would be consequences. And instead of taking her punishment and walking away, she would get back up again, stick her chin out as if to say, here I am, go ahead and knock me down again and I’ll just get back up. Mary on the other hand always had a grin on her face, was a little more quiet, had a nice, easy laugh. I always had the impression she looked up to her sister and often times followed her lead with caution.

 

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

While attending  Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, from 1993-1998(yes I graduated in 4 years for anyone doing the math but stayed for a 5th year to pursue journalism), I made many a 60 mile trip down I-57 to see my aunt on weekends. Some trips were with my grandparents, before grandma died in 1996, but many were on my own. Being a fairly quiet and introverted person, going to Edgewood for a few days allowed me some peace and quiet in a warm, cozy home and some good companionship with my aunt who, after my grandma died, I thought of as a surrogate grandmother. I would usually call her mid-week and tell her I was thinking about coming down if she wasn’t busy, and usually she didn’t have any plans. When I arrived, she always had a weekend supply of baloney and cheese and Coke and coffee waiting for me. If I came down on Friday night, she worked in the kitchen at the Edgewood Opry from 6-10pm. The Opry was a local version of the Grand Ol’ Opry with local musicians filling the stage and local singers coming up from the audience and singing their favorite song whether gospel, folk or country. Despite my introverted nature and stage fright, I even got up and sang on two different occasions, Waylon Jenning’s Luchenbach, Texas and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Luchenbach got a nice round of applause while This land only got polite gold claps which confused me at the time but I now understand that the crowd was made up of local farmers who owned and farmed hundreds of acres and might not have been keen on Woody’s lyrics about signs saying no trespassing and private property being a violation of what he saw as the country standing for. The musicians were happy to have a place to play live and the talent level of the singers ranged from excellent, trained vocalists to….hmmm…how to put this politely….not stage ready. On one occasion, I went along with my grandparents and I sat next to my grandfather Robert Samuel Hilligoss and when I rather screechy singer came on, he turned to me and said, “God is that awful….but since I can’t sing, I guess I better keep quiet.”

I would spend time studying and reading while she watched tv and then we’d work the crossword puzzles after the newspapers were delivered. Then we might head into Effingham for dinner at Neimerg’s Steakhouse and a trip to the grocery store. Or we might have lunch with her girlfriends at Pat’s Restaurant in Farina. Occasionally on Saturday nights, we would pick up two of her friends, Virginia and Mary, and drive to Vandalia for the Saturday night dance in the local roller rink, complete with sawdust on the floor and a local band supplying songs from Hank Williams, Patsy Kline, Ray Price and Kitty Wells. It was there I learned to dance the waltz to Waltz Across Texas With You, the Texas Two Step to Lovesick Blues and the polka to The Orange Blossom Special. The only time I ever danced with my grandmother Letha was at the roller rink. I can’t remember the song the band played, but I can still see the smile on her face as we twirled around the floor. On Sunday mornings, Mary would fix me breakfast consisting of coffee, toast and Malt O Meal, still my favorite, and only, hot cereal. After watching some television, her favorite shows were Walker, Texas Ranger, Dr.Quinn Medicine Woman and Reba, and helping with some chores around the house and in the yard, I would pack my bag, say goodbye with a hug, head back to school and then return for another visit every few months. Looking back on it, I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed going there so much was she gave me the space and understanding to be who I was at the time, as a young adult.

"I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. "Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

“I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. “Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

After graduating and moving back to Godfrey, I still visited but not as often and not as long. Then when I moved to Wheaton to be with my then girlfriend, and now wife of 14 years, Kim and I would make the 4 hour drive down to spend a day or two visiting. After our kids were born, Graham in 2004 and Aurora Eva Rose in 2006, we still made visits, usually for the Hilligoss reunion in June and the annual fish fry held at Mary’s house for her family every October. While I had developed my own family and home, the connection to family remained and I made the time and took the energy to spend moments with who was important to me and my life, just Mary and both sets of my grandparents and uncles and aunts did throughout my life. The last time I saw Mary was in a hospital after me, my dad, uncle Rick and brother Kevin had visited her at her assisted living facility and she had a mini stroke. Before the ambulance took her away, she looked at me and had no knowledge of who I was at that moment, but knew who my dad was due to her mind and memory playing tricks on her. After she was taken to the hospital and had recovered, I went in to see her and she looked at me with eyes of recognition and smiled and told me she was glad I was there. After asking about where Kim and the kids were and telling her they were back home in Cortland, she told me in her quiet, forceful but loving, and grandmotherly manner, “Go home and take care of those kids.” She always knew what was important and how to say it.

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary passed away in 2007, but I think of her often, especially when I make myself Malt O Meal, when Kim makes Mary’s jello/yogurt whipped pie, when I hear an  old country song on the radio or when I sit in her Lazy Boy recliner that sits in my living room. Mary was many different things to many different people throughout the stages of her life: daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, grandmother and aunt. And while she was indeed my aunt on two accounts and served as my grandmother in spirit after Letha passed, what she meant most to me was a friend, and that is what I miss most. I miss calling my friend on the phone on a random Wednesday afternoon and hearing her answer with a hearty, “Yeaahhhh,” when she recognized my voice. I miss going to the Edewood Opry and working with her in the kitchen on Friday nights while we listened to the music of local musicians and talked to friends and neighbors. I miss having lunch with her at Neimerg’s in Effingham. I miss dancing with her at the roller rink in Vandalia. I miss seeing her fill her hummingbird feeders that hung outside her windows. And I miss working on crossword puzzles with her at the kitchen table and watching her gaze out the window as her mind searched for the right words to write down and became lost in her thoughts and memories. And now as I type this, I gaze out of a window lost in my thoughts of Mary, my old friend.

Postscript
Below is a poem that my grandmother Hilligoss kept on her refrigerator at home in Phoenix and I think was a message left by her to her family. I read this at both her and Mary’s funeral services. Often times when outdoors and I feel a good, strong wind blowing in my face or when I see bids and geese flying through the air, I think of them both and other family members we have lost, and I know they are still with us.

Do not stand at my grave and weep 

I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning’s hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die.
Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary's lazy boy

Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary’s lazy boy

For Pete Seeger: Hobo’s Lullabye

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 1, 2014

“I look upon myself as a planter of seeds. It’s like the Bible says, some land in the stones and don’t sprout, some land in the path and get stomped on, but some land on good ground and grow and multiply a 1,000 fold. My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help save the planet” Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger's banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger’s banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger died this past week at the age of 94 and I think the picture above is a perfect microcosm of Pete’s life: two strong hands, a banjo, his voice leading others TOGETHER in song. Pete often said, ” The best music I’ve ever made in my life has been when I can get the folks, all of them, young and old, the conservative, liberal and radical, get ’em all singing on the chorus.” And he did just that for over 75 years. Pete Seeger lived a good, long and meaningful life and used the tools he had at hand to get out and do his work of singing, playing and passing the songs along that he picked up from Woody, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, from cultures around the world and from countless others while trying to influence the people and to make this a better, more fair and decent place for all of us to live.

 

It is fitting that I write this while in Springfield, Il, The Land of Lincoln, for  Pete and Abe were very similar despite the fact they were born 100+ years apart. Both were tall men with beards, both chopped wood on a regular basis :), both believed in the power and goodness inherent in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights, and they both believed in the beauty of this country and world and were willing to use their voice and influence to fight for them. Pete Seeger chopped wood everyday of his life as a form of exercise and to help clear his mind and spirit and to keep the rhythm of his songs and life. On days where his  schedule did not allow for his chopping, he complained bitterly to friends and family. And according to Arlo Guthrie, Pete was still chopping wood until about a week before he passed. If only we all can be so lucky to live to a similar age while doing the things we love.
A few  weeks ago, my dad and I went to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Il to see a new exhibit there of stage props, settings and clothes worn in the Spielberg directed Lincoln. Wasn’t much to see and was fairly disappointing on that end, but we also walked through the main museum for the 100th time as you can always find something new if you look hard enough. (By the way, as a standing offer, if any of you ever make your way out to Illinois at anytime and wish to go, I would be happy to take you down to Springfield and see some Lincoln sights. I’ll be your personal chaufer, tour guide and overall general raconteur 🙂 It’s well worth the time)
One of the exhibits is on the Gettysburg Address which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, 2013. The library collected several letters from notables around the country and world on the importance of the speech including WJ Clinton, Colin Powell, poet Billy Collins and one Mr.Pete Seeger. His letter was simple, to the point and showed his wit, charm and intelligence all in one brief letter and the additional page he attached with his own design of Lincoln’s speech which he changed to allow for an easier memorization for his listeners. Classic Pete and a prime example of what Pete did his whole life: passing what he thought was important in life, in sustaining a democracy and continuing to build a connection between the people.
Pete Seeger's letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

Pete Seeger’s letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

The picture I took isn’t the greatest quality so here is the text: “Dear friends at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Since November 19, it will be 150 years since Old Abe gave the address. I try to get people to memorize it. Written out as 10 sentences and 4 clauses, it’s much easier to memorize than the way it’s normally provided in 2 or 3 paragraphs. I’m curious to know what you think of it. I am sorry I can’t visit you in person but at the age of 94, my travelling days are over. Sincerely, Pete Seeger.”
(With his famous drawing of his banjo underneath)
Rock music critic and historian Dave Marsh wrote a great tribute to Pete this week, A Golden Thread, A Needle which can be read  by clicking this sentence. In his essay, Marsh writes of a night in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Woody Guthrie Tribute concert. As  a finalee, Pete led a song along with many musicians joining him on stage and getting the entire audience to sing with them. Marsh writes, “I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.
That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.
We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.”
Marsh is right, it’s up to you, me and all of us to make the world a better place for all of us. And it’s time to pick up an axe and start chopping wood.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

“Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist and an activist. He had a very full idea about those things, how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music has to influence, to inspire. And that’s the power of folk music. That’s the power of Pete Seeger.”  Bruce Springsteen

Coda: This Land Is Your Land
 In 2012, my dad and I took a road trip to see sights in Kansas and Oklahoma like DDE Presidential Museum, Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home in Spavinaw and Commerce, OK and we went to Okemah, Oklahoma where Woody Guthrie was born. After searching for a while and with a little help from friendly people, we found what remains of Woody’s boyhood home which now is simply some of the original stone foundation. In the yard stands one of the last remaining trees and a local artist carved a message from Woody into the side. And in one of life’s great ironies, there was a small white sign in the yard that says “It is a crime to steal stones from this property.” On the other side, it doesn’t say nothing, that side was made for you and me. This Land was written by Woody in 1940 and would have been a dust speck of history if not for Pete Seeger picking up the song and singing it time after time for crowds, school children, unions, and presidents alike.
Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie's first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie’s first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Original foundation of Guthrie's boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma

Original foundation of Guthrie’s boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma. One side is a warning to trespassers. On the other side it says nothing and that side was made for you and me

Top 10 Pete Seeger Songs, written, sung or inspired by
10) Goodnight Irene- Written  by Leadbelly and taught to the Weavers who performed this version on early television

 9) Forever Young– Written by Bob Dylan and sung by Pete along with child’s choir. From Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan honroing 50 years of Amnesty International.

8) If I Had a Hammer

7) Waist Deep In The Big Muddy

6) Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger’ Rainbow Show

5) Bring Em Home- From Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Tour

From The New Yorker profile on Seeger from April 17, 2006 by Alec Wilkinson.

“Springsteen began listening to Seeger in 1997, when he was asked to provide a song for a Seeger tribute record. To choose one, he told me, he “went to the record store and bought every Pete record they had. I really immersed myself in them, and it was very transformative. I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music. I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness. At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself. It was cross-generational. He played for anyone who would listen. He played a lot for kids. When I set the musicians up in my house to make this record, and we started playing Pete’s songs, my daughter said, ‘That sounds like fun—what is that?'”

Seeger typically performed with the simplest instrumentation—by himself, with banjo and guitar, and, in the Weavers, with another guitar player. Springsteen is accompanied by drums, bass, piano, guitar, accordion, banjo, double fiddles, horns, and backup singers. His versions include more references than Seeger’s did—Dixieland, Gospel, stringband music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll among them. It is as if folk music, temporarily dormant, had been revived in a more populist and modern form. “The Seeger Sessions” does not include any songs that Seeger wrote, such as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was a No. 1 record for the Byrds in 1965. Springsteen recorded “If I Had a Hammer,” but felt that it asserted itself too forcefully among the other songs, possibly because it was so well known. The songs he chose, he said, are “ones that I heard my own voice in. When you’re going through material that way, you’re always trying to find your place in the story. With the songs I picked, I knew who those characters were, and I knew what I wanted to say through them to transform what we were doing. That’s your part in the passing down of that music. You have to know what you’re adding. Every time a folk song gets sung, something gets added to that song. Why did I pick Pete Seeger songs instead of songs by the Carter Family or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers? Because Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there. I didn’t feel I had to go to someone else’s records. It was very broad. He listened to everything and collected everything and transformed everything. Everything I wanted, I found there.”

4) Hobo’s Lullabye- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. For my grandfather Hubert Barr who rode a train from central Illinois to work in the CCC during the Great Depression.

3) The American Land- Bruce Springsteen, inspired by Seeger’s He Lies Here In The American Land

2) Turn Turn Turn- Written by Seeger, performed by Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band and Roger McGuinn

1) Co tie- We Shall Overcome- History told by Pete Seeger

1) This Land Is Your Land- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, 2009, Washington DC

Rememberance from Tom Morello, guitarist/musician/songwriter and political activist Tom Morello. Much like Lincoln, Pete was willing to actually excercise his Constitutional freedoms and not just claim them. In a recent post in Rolling Stone by , Morello writes, “He was a hardcore bad ass when he stood up to House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “How dare you question my Americanism because I play music for people whose politics are different than yours?”

Letha’s Boy Turns 72

By Ryan Hilligoss, January 3, 2014

Robert Samuel Hilligoss holds Robert Lee Hilligoss in his palm, 1942, Humboldt, Il

Robert Samuel Hilligoss holds Robert Lee Hilligoss in his palm, 1942, Humboldt, Il

Many great people share a birthday on January 3rd including actor Ray Milland, First Lady Grace Coolidge, hockey great Bobby Hull and legendary Beatles producer George Martin. A great American born on this date was none other than the man, the myth, the legend: Robert Lee Hilligoss, who turns 72 today. According to the records, Robert was born at 11:45pm at Jarman Hospital in Tuscola, Il, 15 miles from the family home in Humboldt, Coles County. Robert was delivered by Doctor Gross to parents Letha Cook Hilligoss and Robert Samuel Hilligoss. Robert’s maternal grandparents were Edward  and Ruth Mitchell Cook. His fraternal grandparents were Kenneth and Eva Wright Hilligoss. According to his baby book, Robert’s first journey took place on January 7th, 1941 when the family was transported from the hospital in Tuscola to Kenneth Hilligoss’ farm in the Schrader Funeral Home ambulance and the temperature that day was 12 degrees below zero.

Baby Arrive page from baby book

Baby Arrive page from baby book, written by Letha Hilligoss

Robert Samuel Hilligoss, Letha Cook Hilligoss and Robert Lee Hilligoss, 1942

Robert Samuel Hilligoss, Letha Cook Hilligoss and Robert Lee Hilligoss, 1942

Upon their arrival home, the baby’s first visitors included: Mr. and Mrs. George Wilson, Ms.Mildred Mitchell, Mr. and Mrs. Mildred Barnhardt, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Cook, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Hilligoss, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Hilligoss, Grace Louise Orndoff and Joe Evans. We do not remember days, we remember moments For the purposes of this piece, I asked dad to give me some early childhood memories in his own words so we can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, or mule’s depending  on who you ask.

Robert Lee Hilligoss, 1945

Robert Lee Hilligoss, 1945

1) On the morning he was born, father Robert asked Dr.Gross how much the delivery would cost, to which the doctor replied, “Do you think that boy is worth $25 dollars?”

Robert Lee being held by Kenneth and Eva Hilligoss

Robert Lee being held by Kenneth and Eva Hilligoss

2) “The day mom and I caught a train at the Humboldt Depot in Oct. or early Nov. 1945, early, early morning.  The milk train, for Chicago.  Sat in the ICRR station all day awaiting for dad to return from the USMC.  He failed to show for some reason.  We returned to Humboldt dad showed up a week or so later right at Thanksgiving time, 1945.  There are photos of that day.” Yes there are and below is one of them. The baby book states, “Came back (sic Robert) to the states September 20, 1946 and his 30 day furlough began October 13, 1946. He was discharged November 27 at Great Lakes Naval Training center.”

Robert Samuel Hilligoss returns from WWII. On the Hilligoss farm, Humboldt, Il with Kenneth, Eva, Gladys, Paul and Herman

Robert Samuel Hilligoss returns from WWII. On the Hilligoss farm, Humboldt, Il with Kenneth, Eva, Gladys, Paul and Herman

Robert Lee Hilligoss plays on Kenneth's farm, 1943

Robert Lee Hilligoss plays on Kenneth’s farm, 1943

3) “1st grade. Seems as if we had a lot of snow, and being the only 1st grader I was an easy target for older students. I’d come in from the playground wet from being rolled in the snow.  One day Miss Emily took my to the cloakroom had me strip down to my underwear, put me in a smock.  I sat in the first desk, front row of this one room schoolhouse, grades 1-8, in a dress.  The are two points I’d like to make about this simple story.  1.  In a day of frivolous law suits, the teacher would probably face trouble, she would be accused of damaging my self-esteem, she was concerned with saving my life from pneumonia.  She faced charges that bullying was allowed, I think in reality it was a lesson of life that needed to be learned.”

Letha Hilligoss with Robert Lee, Cook family farm

Letha Hilligoss with Robert Lee, Cook family farm

4) “One day I was standing in Granddad Cook’s front yard probably 6 years old, I think I was watching Ed Cook and dad dehorn cows.  Mom pulled up in a hurry and shouted that Ronnie had just swallowed Kerosene. Dad dropped his tools, ran and hurdled the picket fence that sat out front of Ed’s house.  I was astounded, my dad could jump that high.  Dad, for a person who never played organized sport, was a natural athlete.  He could do it all.  In his forties he, Ronnie, and Rick would go to the Arcola football field where he enjoyed kicking field goals.”

Robert Lee Hilligoss on Ed Cook's farm, 1946

Robert Lee Hilligoss on Ed Cook’s farm, 1946

5) ” In the second grade in 1949,  many people in the USA were being struck with polio.  One day one of my classmates was absent.  He may have been absent for several days, but on this given day, I raised my hand and asked, “Miss Emily , Where is Kenny?”  Miss Emily replied, “Kenny died.” That was a jolt in the seat end of your pants!  We got through it without any scars that I am aware of and without anyone holding our hands.”

Humboldt Elementary School with Ms. Emily

Humboldt Elementary School with Ms. Emily

6) “In 1953, right before harvest time and before school started, my parents decided to visit my mother’s half-brother living in Pueblo, Co.  When we travelled there were no motels to speak of, plus we travelled on a shoestring budget. We’d sleep in the car, and on roadside picnic tables. One day dad wanted to rest a bit, and pulled into a city park in the middle of Kansas, Dorothy wasn’t there.  Ronnie and I jumped out of the car to play and went running for a swing set.  Out of nowhere this man who was waving a pistol came up to us and told us to get out of his park.  Mom stuck out her famous chin, charged into the playground.  The next thing I knew dad had her by the arm and threw her into the car.  Ronnie and I were close behind. Dad drove out of the park in a flash.  He was yelling something about never challenge a crazy man, who is waving a pistol in your face. ”

Family Vacation 1957. Robert Samuel, Letha, Robert Lee, Ronald Edwin, Richard Eugene and Ruth Marie Hilligoss

Family Vacation 1957. Robert Samuel, Letha, Robert Lee, Ronald Edwin, Richard Eugene and Ruth Marie Hilligoss

In his email to me with his thoughts, he closes with this, “Favorite memories are tough to separate from all memories.  Today sitting here at McDonald’s watching snowbound traffic, snow clouds my memory. “Over the river, and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.” I can understand as my thoughts are often clouded with my own memories and of those of others who came before and after. We all share the same memories and hand them down from generation to generation. Happy 72nd birthday pop. Rick_0002 Dad 7_0001

Robert Lee Hilligoss with Graham Ronald Hilligoss. Old barbershop in Humboldt, Il

Robert Lee Hilligoss with Graham Ronald Hilligoss. Old barbershop in Humboldt, Il

Pine trees in front of Humboldt Elementary school. Dad first points to where the trees stood in height when he was a student and then recreates how he used to jump over them everyday at recess.

Pine trees in front of Humboldt Elementary school. Dad first points to where the trees stood in height when he was a student and then recreates how he used to jump over them everyday at recess.

Letha’s Boy, by Sharon Hardin Behind blue drapes with cabbage roses Hat watches the paper boy, the grin on his freckled face, when he sees cookies she placed with the Journal payment, in the Mason Jar kept for that purpose on the porch “Letha’s boy’s a cute little fixen, Not like the boys that chant From the bushes— ‘Three old, grey witches, A biddy, a crazy, a stringy old maid, Living in an old grey house.” When the bike rattle fades She steps out on the porch For the paper, then back inside Thinks, “If me and Paul had married, Had a house full of freckled-faced boys, A grandson the age of Letha’s boy, I wouldn’t be a sour old maid, Hiding with ‘Crazy Glade’ Here in Mamma’s house.” Baby Book cover

Baby Arrive page from baby book

Baby Arrive page from baby book

Baby Book page 3 baby Book page 4 Baby Books page 2

Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees: Top 20 Christmas Songs and Stories

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee with Christmas lights

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee with Christmas lights

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 22, 2013

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we… we… we smile a little easier, we… w-w-we… we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!” Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged

Ryan Barr Hilligoss with his brothers Kevin Lee and Robert Sean, Christmas morning, 1980, Godfrey, Il

Ryan Barr Hilligoss with his brothers Kevin Lee and Robert Sean, Christmas morning, 1980, Godfrey, Il

It’s that special time of the year once again. The time is rapidly approaching of my favorite holiday, and my favorite time of the year where we all try a little harder to be the people we always hoped we would be like Bill says. I’ve watched my usual favorite movies like Elf about 5 times with the kids, Love Actually, The Family Stone and The Family Man. I’ve pulled my normal Clark Griswold and hung as many lights as possible on the house without killing myself by falling off the roof or a ladder. We’ve drug out boxes of favorite decorations from the basement and turned our living room into a veritable North Pole of Cortland, Illinois. These are all steps on the way to remembering what is most important in life, friends and family close and far, living and gone who have all been a part of my life and who I am.

Also to get me along the way are countless hours spent listening to holiday music starting on Thanksgiving and not a day before. Unless I am in a store that is piping in canned Christmas music on what seems an ever earlier time as corporate America keeps expanding the “shopping season”. Thanksgiving used to be the normal time to see decorations and displays, but this year as I was walking through one of an unnamed, large multinational drugstore, I saw snowmen figurines lining the shelves before Halloween was over. Son of a nutcracker!!!! Can’t we leave some things the way they used to be. Below are my top 20 favorite Christmas songs and stories from my favorite artists. It started as a top 10 list but grew into 15 and more since I have so many favorites. Read and listen and once you are done, tell me some of your personal favorites that are missing from my list or may have not heard yet. Santa’s got a brand new bag!!

20) Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes- Say what you may about Phil Spector as a person, but his recordings and productions from the 1960s were cornerstones of rock and roll/pop music and influenced all other artists recording from then on. Sung by Ronnie Spector and featured on Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, released in 1963, and includes turns by R&R Hall of Famer Darlene Love who was lead singer of The Crystals, and layers and layers of backing instruments and music.

Shitter's Full!!! Cousin Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the sewer

Shitter’s Full!!! Cousin Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the sewer

19) Mele Kalikimaka by Jimmy Buffet. Originally recorded by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters in 1950 and featured in National Lampoon’s Christmas with Randy Quaid as Eddie with taking a dive into a magical swimming pool while wearing a white tank top and tiger print speedos. Here is Jimmy Buffet’s version which puts me in a very Hawaiian state of mind on this cold winter’s night.

18) Jingle Bells by Dean Martin. Nothing says Christmas time more than Martin’s Making Spirits Bright album….silky smooth and classy.

17) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald. One of the finest American voices and artists. Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swinging Christmas gets played heavily every year.

16) Winter Wonderland by Ray Charles. Master craftsman and musical arranger at work on this classic which he gives fresh life with the sleigh bells ringing out as an intro and then a sharp break as the music kicks in. Released in 1985 on his The Spirit of Christmas album. Featured in one of my holiday movie favorites, When Harry Met Sally.  

15) The Night Before Christmas read by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Recorded in 1971 by one of America’s greatest gifts to music and culture around the world. The Armstrong growl is on full display here and he gives the story by Clement Moore vivid, clear life.

14) The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne. Thanks to my good friend Shawn Poole for pointing this one out I had somehow missed since I love Jackson Browne’s music. Played solo on piano and included on his Acoustic Solo Volume 1 release. “The families gather and give thanks for God’s graces and the birth of the rebel Jesus/They’ve turned the spirit I worship from a temple to a robber’s den, in the words of the Rebel Jesus”

13) 2,000 Miles, The Pretenders. One of rock’s great bands fronted by Chrissie Hynde.

12) Daddy Looked A Lot Like Santa, Buck Owens. Owens was the founding force of the Bakersfield sound in country music and his Buckaroos backing band could play country or rock as hard as any other pop band of the time. The song was released on November 8, 1965, with “All I Want for Christmas, Dear, Is You” on the B-side.] It placed at number 2 on the yearly Christmas singles chart issued by Billboard at the time.

11) The Christmas Waltz by She and Him. Released in 2011 by the group featuring actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and guitarist M.Ward on their a Very She and Him Christmas. Deschanel has a terrific voice, yes that is her singing Baby It’s Cold Outside in the shower during Elf when she yells at Will Ferrell to get out, and they have released other good music.

10) Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan. Christmas in the Heart is the thirty-fourth studio album and first Christmas album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released in October 2009 by Columbia Records. The album comprises a collection of hymns, carols, and popular Christmas songs. All Dylan’s royalties from the sale of this album benefited the charities Feeding America in the USA, Crisis in the UK, and the World Food Programme.[1]Dylan said that, although Jewish, he never felt left out of Christmas during his childhood in Minnesota. Regarding the popularity of Christmas music, he said, “… it’s so worldwide and everybody can relate to it in their own way.”

Chuck Berry, The Father of Rock and Roll and Father Christmas

Chuck Berry, The Father of Rock and Roll and Father Christmas

10) Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry. Recorded by Berry at Chess Records and released in 1958 with backing by Johnnie Johnson, Willie Dixon and Fred Below. Contains the usual Chuck Berry beat and guitar rhythm  and Santa riding the freeway down in a Cadillac sleigh, what else would you expect.

9) James Lundeen’s Christmas by Garrison Keillor. One of the master storyteller’s News From Lake Wobegon segments from his Prairie Home Companion shows, released in 1983. Here, Keillor brings a fictional story to life and paints a picture of small moments in life as they relate to the true meaning of Christmas. The true gifts in life are the moments we share with friends and family.

Ryan and Robert Lee Hilligoss with Garrison Keillor

Ryan and Robert Lee Hilligoss with Garrison Keillor

8) We Wish You a Merry Christmas by Booker T and The MGs. Released in 1966 on their In The Spirit of Christmas album. The band consisting of Booker T Jones on organ, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar and Al Jackson on drums was the house studio band at Stax studios in Memphis, Tennessee and was one of the finest bands in history as it laid down the music on so many classic songs for artists including Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Arthur Conley and many others. This song is a great representation of their sound: soulful organ, funky bass, tight beat and crystal clear, biting guitar.

7) Christmas As I Knew It by Johnny Cash. Written by June Carter Cash and first recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in 1970 during recording for The Johnny Cash Show. It basically tells the story of John’s childhood memories of growing up in very humble beginnings in Dyess, Arkansas where his father tried to grow cotton to support the family. Reminds me of both sets of my grandparents and father who grew up in similar circumstances. This version has a short introduction by John’s mother, Carrie Cash on how they were just happy to be together around the holidays.

6) Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan. She has one of the purest, best voices in modern recording and her Wintersong album is a yearly highlight. She wrote the song and the haunting, mellow lyrics and arrangement could be about a friend who has moved on or a child who has grown up and is no longer the one who snuggled in bed with the narrator. I hear it as a remembrance of a child which makes me imagine how it will be when my two kids are grown. I’ll always hold the memories of all the Christmas mornings and of sledding in the snow.

DSCN1032

Robert Lee, Ryan Barr, Graham Ronald, and Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss. Christmas 2012, Godfrey, Il

5) Six to Eight Black Men, read by David Sedaris. One of the funniest writers working today as well as being heard on public radio and in person at live readings where he packs the theaters. Sedaris has a distinctive voice and biting, dark wit. In this piece, he reflects on social and cultural chauvinism while he talks about small differences in cultures around the world including when people open presents and their Santa Claus story. Apparently in Holland, Santa used to be the bishop of Turkey, lives in Spain, and instead of having elves, has 6-8 black men who are his assistants. Like a great episode of Seinfeld, Sedaris talks of many various topics throughout the piece but connects them all in the end when he circles back from the beginning.

4) Santa Clause is Coming To Town by Bruce Springsteen. Most of the time, Bruce would be number one, but there are three other holiday selections I like better. While he has played this version often over the years, this version was recorded December 12, 1975 at CW Post College in Greenvale, NY. Opening with Bruce talking about the wind whipping down the boardwalk of Asbury Park and asking Clarence if he’s been practicing so Santa bring him a new saxophone, it soon explodes into a full E Street sound closely following the Crystals version on Spector’s Christmas album. I love the portion where Clarence takes on the Santa role and offers several hearty ho ho hos which crack Bruce up as he attempts to keep a straight face and voice.

3) It Won’t Seem Like Christmas Without You by Elvis Presley. This is my favorite Elvis recording taken from his great Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas album, released in 1971, which includes Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees, If I Get Home on Christmas Day and If Everyday Was Like Christmas. Elvis was in great voice during these recording sessions and puts a lot of emotion into this one. “I’ll see you tonight in my dreams.”

2) A Christmas Memory read by Truman Capote. I first heard this on a Christmas episode of This American Life. This is an abridged version of a short story Capote wrote on his boyhood memories of a special friend he had as child.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

1) White Christmas by Otis Redding. It doesn’t get any better than this with Redding, The King of ‘Em All Y’all, singing his heart out with Booker T and The MGs laying down the backing music. “May your days, may your days, be merry, so merry and bright.”

If you’ve made it this far, I appreciate your time and attention. Let me know some of your favorites I may have missed. I wish you all the best for you and your family and as the Hawaiians say on a bright Christmas day, Mele Kalikimaka!!!

iphone pics 157

Human Kindness; Here Comes That Rainbow Again

By Ryan Hilligoss, September 2013

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping towards you, you hold on to what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.” Stephen King, Joyland

Graham Hilligoss and his new fishing lure

Graham Hilligoss and his new fishing lure

For the last twenty years, I have made a trip to visit family in the beautiful north woods of upper Wisconsin. Unlike the mostly flat, monotonous plains of Illinois with it’s never ending fields of corn and soybeans, Wisconsin offers lots of beautiful scenery including the meandering, winding Wisconsin River that criss-crosses US-51/I-39 up through the center of the state, countless lakes, wildlife and infinite stands of pine trees. Over the years, I have gone in various stages of life: alone, together with friends, with my girlfriend from college who became  my wife, with a young Graham who was 11 months old when he first began crawling across the carpets of my Aunt Glenda and Uncle Forest’s Wisconsin living room, and finally as a family once Aurora Rose joined us.

The yearly trek allows us to unwind from our normal hectic lives as we take walks in the quiet woods, enjoy boat rides and sight-seeing, lake homes and bald eagles, courtesy of the local tour guide extraordinaire, horseback riding and window shopping in Three Lakes and Eagle River. Just like other traditions, it allows us to visit family, rest and reflect on the passage of time and think of those we have loved who are no longer here. During our latest trip this summer, we stumbled upon an experience in life that unfortunately doesn’t come more often. While walking the mean streets 😉 of downtown Eagle River, we did our normal window shopping, stopped into local stores like Grandma’s Toy Box, The Arrowhead, and The Fountain Bleu and had some world-famous Eagle River fudge from Tremblay’s Sweet  Shop. We also went into Lyn’s Antiques, located at 108 Wall Street, to peruse yesterday’s toys and household items. After looking for a short time, Graham spied a case of fishing lures. He has caught a fever, a fishing fever, and the only prescription is more fishing lures.

Now, as a back story, you need to understand that I never really fished as a kid unless my brother Sean and I  tagged along with friends or family. We were awful, inept fishermen as our guests would be forced to bait the hooks and show us how to cast and reel the line back in. God forbid we actually caught something because due to our nature, we were physically and mentally incapable of taking a live fish off a hook. This has always puzzled me since as kids who worked in our family’s restaurant for 20 years, we had to touch some disgusting stuff in preparing food including raw chicken, chicken hearts, livers and gizzards and a plethora of other items. (Yes I said plethora). Given our laughable fishing skills, we might as well have stayed in the truck and let them fish by themselves. It would have been more peaceful and relaxing for them and they wouldn’t have to work so hard bailing our sorry asses out of worms and tackle.

Fast forward 30 years, and my fishing skills have not gotten any better much to the detriment of my son who, slowly over time, has gotten an interest in fishing much to my embarrassment. As a parent, I have been more than capable and competent and succeeded in teaching him the basics and finer points of baseball. I helped him learn to read and develop a passion for reading and learning. And I have taught him some basics of gardening and lawn care. But when it comes to fishing, Stevie Wonder would probably be more help than the floundering schlub I am. I am man enough to admit that the reason for this: I am what I eat……chicken. When it comes to many things in life involving living creatures, touching the family hamster, picking up dead rabbits in the backyard or a dead mouse in the living room, I would rather stick a screwdriver in an electric socket and hang on for dear life. Due to my cowardly ways and inability to be any degree of a rational, sane human, I often times freak out and run when confronted with a spider or live fish on a hook. And because of this, Graham has not gotten the exposure to fishing he should have been given. He caught his first fish courtesy of his grand father Dennis Renner at a campsite near Belvidere, Il. But  he didn’t really learn to fish and catch one on his own until our last trip to Wisconsin. There at the end of the boat dock upon Little Fork Lake, one of the three lakes that makes up the town of the same name, Graham and Rory caught their real first fish using a rod and reel, tackle and minnows purchased at Jokin’ Joe’s Baitshop. Rory of course had to have a pink fishing rod. With the help of their Uncle Forest and their mother, Graham and Rory caught several small Rainbow trout and some blue gills much to their amusement and delight. Their screams of “I did it!!!I did it!!!” reminded me a lot of a crazed Sally Fields accepting her best actress award at the Oscars and exclaiming, “They like me!!!They really like me!!!”

Graham Ronald Hilligoss, August 2013

Graham Ronald Hilligoss, August 2013

Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss, August 2013

Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss, August 2013

Back to the action at the antique store. Graham’s eyes lit up when he saw the fishing lures at the antique shop as these were far more complex and sophisticated than anything he had in his small blue tackle box. As usual when he has his eye on something in a store, Graham looked them over thoroughly trying to select the one he liked most and weighing the cost of the item, how much money he had in his pocket and calculating how much he would have left and what else he wanted to buy at the other shops. He has amazing self-control at times like these, a skill his father never learned. After selecting a lure that cost $2.50 he headed towards the counter, pulling his money from his pocket as he walked across the ancient wooden floor. The man behind the counter, who must have been a co-owner, smiled as Graham approached and came around the corner to talk to him. The man kneeled down to get at Graham’s eye level and began a slow, friendly conversation in a grandfatherly fashion.

Q: What’s your name son?

A: Graham

Q: Well Graham, that’s a nice lure you got there. Are you going to use it this weekend?

A: Yes

Q: Is that your money or did someone give it to you?

A: It’s mine

Q: Have you been a good boy so far this year?

A: Yes

Q: Did you do a good job in school last time?

A: Yes

Q: Well, I tell you what. If you’ll go home and catch a nice, big fish with that lure, will you come back next year and tell me all about it?

A: Yes

Q: Well, then you keep your money and come see me next year and tell me your fishing story.

A: Thank you. We’ll be back.

In that extraordinary brief time and encounter, human kindness, was on full display. The $2.50 was a small amount to pay for the lure, but that one person taught my son a valuable lesson on the difference between cost and value. The lure cost $2.50, but the value of that little exchange cannot be measured. So often in life, throughout so many days of work, play and living, we encounter rude, inconsiderate, selfish people who think only for themselves with not one regard for those around them. It’s about nothing other than their own needs and desires and the rest be damned. But every once in a while, you stumble upon special people and special moments in time that you’ll never forget. The way to make the world a better place is to take those moments of kindness and move it forward by being kind and considerate and giving to others.

Long from now, many fishing trips gone by, maybe Graham will have some vague memories of our trips to Wisconsin when he was a kid and all the good times we shared, but a lot of them naturally will be long gone. Such is life. But maybe one distant day, he’ll see a small boy buying his first fishing pole in a store somewhere, maybe he’ll stop and watch him for a minute and maybe he’ll remember a small moment of human kindness long ago in a small store in northern Wisconsin and, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, ‘It will take him back to something that he lost somehow, somewhere along the way.’

Graham will go fishing this year and next and hopefully will catch a big fish or two, and we’ll return once more to the northern woods next summer. And we’ll go back to the antique shop on Wall Street in Eagle River and share some stories of the big ones he caught and others that got away. But, just like a rainbow after the rain, we’ll be back. We made a promise to return, and it’s the least we can do to repay the kindness. ‘Ain’t it just like a human, here comes that rainbow again.’

Graham Ronald, Aurora Eva Rose and Ryan Barr Hilligoss. September 2013, Eagle River Wisconsin

Graham Ronald, Aurora Eva Rose and Ryan Barr Hilligoss. September 2013, Eagle River Wisconsin

Defining Moments: Dennis One Year On

I depart as air

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love

If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Dennis Renner, Leroy Woods park, 40th wedding anniversary

Dennis Renner, Leroy Woods park, 40th wedding anniversary

By Ryan Hilligoss, June 16, 2013

“The only things you hold onto in life are the ones you let slip through your fingers.”

Kinky Friedman

The picture above may be a little out of focus, but it captures the subject in perfect form, as he was before he passed away a little more than a year ago. That is Dennis Renner, my father-in-law, my friend, as I picture him so often in my mind and in my memory: hands tucked under his arm pits(ala Mary Katherine Gallegher from SNL skits), white undershirt, checkered, short sleeve button down, grizzled beard, glasses, hair a little askew, and his head titled to the side as he listens to someone talk and with a slight, impish grin on his face like he doesn’t quite believe what the person is saying and he is about 5 seconds away from telling them they are full of it and to be quiet. The fact the photo is slightly out of focus perfectly fits the fact that as time passes and friends and family leave us, our memories of them become a little hazy and a little muddy in our memory, but the fact remains that we do remember them and hold onto what we have left. But there are a few moments in time that remain crystal clear and precise down to the exact details on the time of day, the weather, the location and who was present because they are indelible, defining moments in our lives.

(*Editors note: Yes Dennis used to stuff his hands under his armpits while listening to someone talk or watching TV, but unlike Mary Katherine, he didn’t smell his hands afterwards. At least not that I ever saw anyways. But I wouldn’t put it past him if he did. That was the kind of guy he was 😉

Part I: An opportunity at the door

Dennis’ health problems started about 5 years ago when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after he discovered a sizeable lump on the side of his neck. I think he knew about it well before he went to the doctor but was probably afraid of what it meant for him and his family and hesitated a little too long. He had surgery performed at Rush Hospital in Chicago by one of the leading throat doctors in the nation and the surgery went well even though the cancer had spread a lot further than previously believed. But the recovery period was very difficult for him, his wife Pat and his four kids, namely his youngest daughter, my wife Kimberly, since we lived close by, and Kim was frequently on hand to help clean the dreaded, uncomfortable tracheotomy tube placed in his esophagus to allow for breathing and ventilation. When things needed to be done including picking up prescriptions, taking him to the doctor’s office for appointments, and all the dirty work, it was Kim who got the call and made her self available when needed, regardless of the time of day, how busy she was with her work and family or if she was not feeling well herself.

As time passed and he finished his radiation treatments, he grew fairly healthy again and regained his strength and appetite. The relief was short-lived as Kim’s mother, Patricia, soon began to experience issues of her own, and Kim and Dennis were forced to make the tough, but necessary decision to place her in an assisted living facility due to her size and limited mobility. Given the fact his wife of 40 years was now not available to him on a daily basis, Dennis began to rely on Kim more and more for daily household tasks which placed an extreme burden on her and our family. Being the protective husband, I began to grow frustrated with his insistence to call on a whim if some mundane task needed to be done at the house and he called Kim for help when it could have waited for a short time, or him stopping by on a moment’s notice if he received a piece of mail he didn’t understand or didn’t know how to handle.

Tensions between the three of us began to grow last year when one day in May he stopped by our house to talk with Kim about his own health as he said he was not feeling well, despite the fact Kim and I were both busily working at home that day. As he came in the door, I was on a business call and after quietly nodding my head, I returned to my laptop screen to finish my call. He and Kim sat at our kitchen table and talked for a period of time before he rose from his chair and headed towards the door. As I sat close by at my work desk on another call, I heard his footsteps and could sense him standing in the doorway waiting to wave to me, but being the stubborn ass that I was and remain, I stayed put in my chair as he slowly opened the screen door and quietly closed it to avoid disturbing me. That was the last time he was ever at our house as he went to the hospital the next day to be admitted for breathing issues, from which he never recovered. As he stood by the doorway hesitating for a few moments that day, I had every opportunity to simply turn and wave at him to say goodbye, the simplest of human gestures, but I failed in every way possible in that brief snapshot of time.

Part II: What day is it?

Dennis was admitted into Kishwaukee hospital in Deklab, Illinois for what we thought we be a mere few days for breathing problems and was diagnosed with pneumonia and dehydration. As one day passed to the next, his breathing continued to deteriorate over the next week and a half until he was diagnosed with a bacterial infection in his lungs and was quickly placed in the ICU and was closely monitored by nurses and doctors. When his condition continued to worsen, it was determined that there were only two courses of action, both involving very powerful, high level antibiotics given intravenously. The first course was attempted, but doctors determined within a few days that his body was not responding as hoped, and there was only one other possibility, which was shocking given the state of modern medicine. In order to allow the opportunity for the second course to work and to allow him to breathe easier, he was incubated on a Saturday morning and put into an induced coma so his body could rest. He was left to slumber for a few days and then the doctors decided to bring him up from his sleep each morning to check on his natural breathing. Kim was by his side each day, every day knowing that despite the fact he was sleeping, he knew she was there.

On the first morning they woke him up, early with morning light, he opened his eyes in a fog of medicine and uncertainty. His eyes quickly locked onto Kim’s and his hand groped for hers and he asked what day it was, and as she replied that it was Tuesday, his eyes grew wide with shock with the knowledge that  as he lay sleeping those few days he truly had no sense of time passing. But to my mind it was more than that: yes he subtly knew that time had slipped away from him for those few days, but more importantly, his mind quickly understood that time had slipped away from him over his whole life, from being a boy, to a young man in the navy, to a young father, to middle age with four children and a wife under one roof, to a retired postal worker just now enjoying the benefits of free time and his hobbies, and now here he was in dire consequences. In that moment, I think he realized the enormity of his life and what his current condition meant for him and his loved ones. The doctors quickly determined he was not doing well on his own body’s volition and quickly returned him to an induced sleep.

Part III: Am I dying?

A few more days passed while his condition slowly grew worse as the clock turned. On the last day the doctors woke him up, it was not pleasant as he struggled with the tubes and other equipment that surrounded him and his chest heaved violently as his lungs tried to keep up. Without being able to see clearly, he still knew Kim was there and as he clasped her hand, he whispered his last words when he asked her if he was dying. Taken aback at the immensity of the situation and the question, and not fully truly knowing what was happening with his condition at the moment since the doctors didn’t really know either, Kim replied that she didn’t know for sure but the doctors were trying the best they could to help him and were going to keep trying. He nodded his head and squeezed her hands a few more times before he was taken back down into his sleep.

Kim sometimes has confessed she feels guilty from time to time in not quite being 100% honest with him in that split second of time and that she maybe robbed him of a chance to say something in the way of a goodbye, but how does anyone answer a question like that in that moment? Aren’t we all slowly dying, little by little, piece by piece, day by day? That question asked of her was truly a defining moment, and my beloved wife and the devoted daughter did the best she could under the circumstances and that’s all that anyone could ask. The next day, the doctors performed some more tests and determined his internal organs were beginning to shut down. The doctor reviewed his condition and the slim possibility of a recovery with Kim and Pat in the hospital room with Dennis sleeping a few feet away in his bed with the bright sunshine doing it’s best to peek through the drawn curtains. Knowing it was not going to get better, the family decided to stop life support that day after the rest of the family had been given the opportunity to come say goodbye. Life begins and ends in a moments notice and you never know what your last words or actions might be to those around you, so be careful with the moments you have.

Dear Father:

Native American author Sherman Alexie recently wrote, “We need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.” I don’t need to make Dennis appear to be better than he was in life because he wouldn’t stand for it if he were here, nor would he do the same for anyone else since he was a straightforward, no muss, no fuss type of guy. Dennis certainly had his faults, but no more than most and fewer than many. He was a good and decent man who lived an honest, simple life. He loved and supported his family in every way he knew while enjoying the smaller moments in life: planting and grooming his vegetable garden, shooting the bull with the clerks at the local post office, bringing his grandkids an ice cream treat from Dairy Queen on Wednesday nights, or sitting in his hunting blind in the Wisconsin woods. As we ‘stumble through time, and in our wandering minds,’ we might often replay scenes from our lives over and over trying to think of how we could have handled them in a better fashion, but the truth is you can’t fix the past, the past will fix itself in due time. Our memories ebb and flow from clarity to haziness from day-to-day, but we still have the memories and hold those people close to us and share the stories with those left behind. So in a certain way, those people never truly leave us, since as Bruce Springsteen likes to say, “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.”

Kimberly Rae Renner Hilligoss with her dad Dennis Renner, 1974

Kimberly Rae Renner Hilligoss with her dad Dennis Renner, 1974

Postscript

Below are some of my favorite  songs to help remember those who have come and gone and the impact they leave on us. Listen, enjoy and remember those from your own life.

10) Conway Twitty, That’s My Job

9) Ben Harper cover’s Springsteen’s My Father’s House

8) The Highwaymen, Live Forever. Lifelong friends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson cover Billy Jo Shaver’s great, great song…..”I’m gonna cross that river, I’m gonna live forever now.”

7) Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls- Ghost In My Home

To hear an excellent song that speaks to the heart of the matter, click on this link to hear Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls perform A Ghost In My Home.

6) John Prine covers his friend Steve Goodman’s My Old Man

5) Bruce Springsteen, You’re Missing. Written after the 9/11 tragedy and written for all the spouses and children left after their loved ones went missing in the towers. Taken from Saturday Night Live rehearsal performance 2002.

4) The Counting Crows, We Will Come Around

Have you seen the little pieces of the people we have been?

Little pieces blowing gently on the wind/Little pieces slowly settling on the waves

I’m one of a million pieces fallen on the ground

It’s one of the reasons when we say goodbye

We’ll still come around/We will come around

3) Randy Newman, I Miss You. From his Bad Love album, 1998. One of the few times he is not being ironic.

2) John Mellencamp, Life Is Short(Even In It’s Longest Day)

1)Steve Earle, Remember Me, from The Low Highway album. Written for his autistic son as a way of communication long after the song writer is gone.