Act One: Before the Fall-->
|The road to this blook / ©Becky Alexander|
A foundation…with a bulge
In the year that followed my mother’s death, I spent a lot of time looking at iguanas. There was no reason to do so. My mother had not been fond of iguanas, though she had seen them, and thought them interesting. But that was hardly surprising—a lover of animals all her life, she had had dogs in serial monogamy and, at the end, several cats. (My father had not liked cats—he worried that they would drag their dirty bottoms over the cutting board....) The dogs would roam through the twenty acres or so of Wisconsin forest that surrounded my mother’s home. Eventually, as she became looser toward the end, the cats would too. And Franny—my mother—ever alert to everything about her, would be roaming as well, exploring her forest, examining leaves and caterpillars, birds and woodchucks. “Who are you,” she'd say, frowning at some little green shoot pushing up from the moist April soil. “Who was that,” she'd say, in response to a bird call.
|Franny and Cloud (2009) / Photo by ©Ruth Crane|
Roaming she did, in the early days. When she was in her forties or fifties—my age now—she went about the woods easily, and built the first structure there, with Jack, my dad. Fashioned after a corn crib, it was no more than a small room with bunk beds against one wall and a pot-bellied stove on the opposite. There were windows punched in on all four sides, each window being opened and secured in a different fashion—with pulleys, with supporting rods, with all manner of gadgets. The woods came right up to the shack, and the outhouse was a respectable 300 feet away, through a field of ferns.
|The rods holding the windows were completely uncharacteristic of Jack, a cautious Norwegian-American / Photo by ©John Newhouse, Sr.|
(“Interrupted ferns,” Franny would point out. “So called because the spores are placed in the middle of the frond, thus ‘interrupting’ them.” It was the sort of thing she knew, and would tell you....) And thus began her long affair with the forest, called the Acres, which would hold her marriage together, shelter her man and provide his passing, watch her wail and grow, and finally see her death. Was it as interested in her as she was with it?
|Well, the spores DO sort of interrupt the fern, don’t they…. / Photo by ©Marc Newhouse|
In those early years, she tried to rearrange it, her woods—moving a choice clump of lady slippers (“a terrestrial orchid, did you know?”) very close to the house (“where the dog's peed on it, of course”) or a group of bloodroot up on the ravine that swept past the house (“I was so peeved when that woodchuck ate that bloodroot”).
|Dogtooth violets, before the woodchucks got to them / Photo by ©Rafael Fernández Toledo|
But her re-arrangement was a subtle affair—suggestions, really, to the woods. Trowel in one hand, bucket in the other, she walked lightly on the earth. You never saw where she had gone, and barely what she had done. Perhaps the shadbush that bloomed so lovingly at her in the week of her death had not always been there, just off center in the little garden wrapped by the porch. It had been assisted in its way through the forest to where it wanted to be. But how happy it was when it arrived! Or so it had felt, to us at least...
|“There are more shades of green than any other color,” someone once told Franny. And in the Acres, at least, it certainly seemed true.... / ©Becky Alexander|
After all that roaming, and subtle re-arranging, of the land, it was time to build the house, then, after Jack retired. Which meant that I was pressed into service, to dig the foundation for the structure. Do not imagine, dear Reader, that this was done with anything but a shovel and a pick. Or that the geology (soil science?) of southwestern Wisconsin is anything but very hard, obstinate rock, marbled with little veins of very rich dirt. Jack and I tackled it together, which meant that Jack observed me working doggishly, sweat flying sideways. After half an hour, I would have dusted the wheelbarrow, and then Jack would take a minute or two to fill it up. Then, together we would push the wheelbarrow to the ravine, whose banks needed a bit of shoring up. At last the foundation was dug, and then poured. Fortunately, Jack relented and resorted to an actual cement truck—I had feared we might have to open endless bags of cement, and mix sand and pebbles and water into our own concrete, all the better to strengthen my moral character. The truck wobbled nervously up the narrow, twisted driveway, slashing at tree branches. It arrived at last, and the pouring started. To the sorry few who have never laid a foundation—and Jack was of good Norwegian-American stock, and sniffed at anyone who had not—the process is simple. You dig as much as you can, and hope that you have gone beneath the frost line (the point above which the ground will freeze in the harshest Wisconsin winter). This was estimated, as I remember, at four feet. But you don’t dig wide enough just to pour the concrete, but to slither on each side of the trench—your back crashing against the rock and dirt—and construct sides of plywood into which you will pour the concrete. As a point of pride, Jack felt that the foundation should be “trued up”—no wobbly lines, no angles at less than (or more than) ninety degrees. This calculation was performed with a string—Jack at one end, Franny at the other, each pulling tightly. Me, in the trench, receiving contradictory instructions from each—“a bit up the hill,” cried Jack, “no, no, down!,” called Franny. I was perhaps fifteen, a scrawny, gangling adolescent—sweating, hot, filthy, holding plywood as the mosquitoes buzzed in my ears and attacked my flesh. I thought it was pure nonsense. Who would see? Who would care? Thus, the foundation was poured like batter into a sunken bundt pan. We stood looking on, as our effort of weeks came to fruition. And then part of one side of the foundation began to bulge. And then, to buckle. Concrete began to ooze from the joint. “It's going to break,” I cried, and had the notion to get in and push the sides in. Jack wisely vetoed this move, fearing to see his youngest son in three to four feet of rapidly setting concrete. And so we watched, for some twenty minutes, as thousands of pounds of concrete were laid. Eventually, it held. ...though with a bulge.... Into the concrete we put a series of long, steel screws, sticking upwards. These, said Jack, would attach to the boards across which would run the floorboards. And so it was important to level the setting concrete, so that as little subzero air as possible would pass between the foundation and the boards passing over it. So there Franny was, with a board, smoothing out the concrete, exactly as if she were icing a cake. Jack and I were holding the accursed string. It was done. The foundation was poured....
|Frances Newhouse, c. 1965. She thought about things, as a friend once said, as well as roamed…. / Photo by ©John Newhouse, Sr.|