Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Be Careful of What You Wish For...


My father built a house for us after the fire. It was surrounded by trees  on a bluff with a view of the river and the uninhabited hills that lay on the opposite side. The living room had big windowa that framed that same view and stairs led to the bedrooms above. When we went out to play, we were in the woods, with odd little paths that led nowhere and hillocks of bouncy green moss. Growths of fungus with  flat, smooth and slimy fronts protruded from the trunks of spruce trees, looking like something dinosaurs would have snacked on. We found we could easily tear them from their trees and began to collect them in different sizes, some smaller than my littlest sister’s hand, others the size of dinner plates. There was no use for them that we could discover. Although some women in our town dried them and painted little landscapes on their flat sides, my mother put those creative efforts in the same category as earrings made from dried moose droppings. “Basket weaving,” she sniffed.

My father had recently read Tom Sawyer aloud and my deepest ambition was to find a cave. There were burrows in the moss hills and I had hopes that someday there would be one large enough for me to enter. I never did, but that was enough to keep me exploring for weeks.

We ran barefoot from the minute the ground thawed until the first frost hit a few months later. Warm dirt under my feet meant summer; the priest who visited once a month to say Mass in our living room told us that his mother made them run barefoot in the first snow to keep them from having sore throats in the winter and we tried it once, It didn’t work in Alaska.

We were happy in that house. My mother wasn’t. One winter when my father still had the dog team, he took us to a neighbor for the day and put my mother in the sled. They rode for hours, down a road, across the frozen swampland that we called muskeg, and up a long hill. “Don’t look behind until I tell you,” my father ordered.

At the top of the hill, he called "Whoa." The dogs stopped and my mother was told to get out and turn around. It was a clear day and when she did as she was told, my mother saw below her the land they had just traveled through bordered by miles of coastline. Beyond the water was a long range of mountains; several were dormant volcanoes and one of them was smoking. She was in love immediately; it was the best present her husband ever gave her.

He had stopped the sled  in an open sweep of grassland with two giant spruce trees nearby, which my mother promptly named the Sentinels. It was all grassland, dotted with belts of trees. When my mother first saw it, it was a dazzling whiteness that stretched before her, all twinkling with tiny colored lights if she stared at it long enough. The wind had had blown the snow into dunes and hardened its surface so she could walk on top of  it without falling through. She stood in the middle of a cold and glittering desert. “I want my house here,” she said.

There was no road to this place, only a hunting trail that snaked through trees and bogs. In the winter, after freeze-up, vehicles could drive through the muskeg but once the ground thawed, it turned to mush where even horses could sink right up to their bellies. My father had to bring in building materials in the winter and then work through the summer to buy more. It was at least a year before my mother could move us to the spot she loved with a wild and truly unreasoning passion.

When the house was ready, it was exactly where she wanted it, in the middle of an unending stretch of meadow with that regal view. It was two storeys high, with a bank of windows running along the front of the house to capture the mountains, and it faced west so the sunsets were magnificent. In the summer the grass grew higher than my father’s head; except for groves of alders and an occasional well-placed birch tree, we were surrounded by an unbroken ripple of green. In the winter it was a windblown, pristine desert.

My mother named her place Windswept after a favorite novel about a house on the coast of Maine; she was romantic that way. It was actually wind-rocked. It was too far from any trees to be given protection from the gale-force winds that came in from the coast and pummeled the house. It rocked like a ship when there was a good storm, creaking and swaying upstairs where our bedrooms were.

The windows that my mother insisted upon were clear plastic when we moved in, not the glass that my father would earn on his next construction job the following summer. The plastic wasn’t drawn taut, it billowed, and inside the house, each plastic sheet that would eventually become a front window was buttressed by crosses of lath. Without that, which was extremely ugly, the plastic would have blown out in the first storm. Upstairs where the windows were smaller, but still quite large, they frequently did burst.

The wind would howl into a bedroom, we would shriek helpfully, and my parents would rush to the rescue with blankets, nails, and a hammer. Wind would whistle through the blankets that shielded the open window, the house would shake under its force, and we burrowed deeper into our sleeping bags, rocked to sleep in a home that was out of place but refused to be blown away.


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