A Thing of Beauty
by Nancy Jorgensen
The blackbirds, frogs, and mulberry leaves appear each spring, but I didn’t notice them the April I was too heavy to walk, eager not for berries but a sweet new baby girl. And I didn’t notice them the April I was too heavy to move at all, weighed by depression when my husband’s surgery went wrong.
Healthy this year, I mark the chorus of frogs, discordant as they whistle, croak, grunt, and peep. Hidden in watery rushes, the males sing, courting batrachian love to spawn-swollen females.
Just above them, red-winged blackbirds sway and sing, riding last year’s eight-foot cattail stalks. They perch all day there, sentinels defending nests across the road. Sometimes, when I breach the expanse between parent and egg, they dive-bomb me.
Deeper in this park near my home, where fields smell like swamp, the mulberry’s budded branches hint at future festivities. In July, beneath their green and brown carnival tent, clusters of sugar-packed drupelets will be free for the picking.
Each walk in the park reveals new achievements with the berries, birds, and batrachians. And wild rhubarb and hostas. And lilies of the valley who, like soldiers, maintain a ramrod stance. They have their orders and will not be deterred from sending out stems and leaves, and then a burst of flowers that release a scent of promise.
In the 1930s, my grandfather drove a streetcar. In a world of bread lines, soup lines, and unemployment lines, he navigated Milwaukee’s steel and electric lines. Drawing power from overhead wires, he followed a strict city schedule—a rare dependability in those years—as he maneuvered steel wheels that clacked over the city’s tracks.
On days off, my grandfather gardened. Around the perimeter of his urban double-lot, he planted evergreens, maple, oak, and elms. At the base of the trunks, he established hostas, and between his hostas, yellow daffodils; lavender crocus; coral, maroon, and white tulips. Every week he watered and weeded, pulling creeping Charlie and emerging dandelions from the tidy border that separated his land from the larger world.
Inside their home, my grandmother painted every room pink and collected marble tables set on carved walnut pedestals. She decorated their tiny Victorian home, with its French doors and galley kitchen, using caned-seat chairs, a grandfather clock, ruby-velvet settees, and ceramic spoon rests. Her fairy-tale cottage, from the pages of a jaunty book, smelled like warm sugar on a blueberry pie. She raised three boys—a surgeon, an entrepreneur, and an environmentalist—trusting in her husband’s example of hard work and her own belief that beauty is essential too.
Ten Chimneys is about twenty minutes from my home. Set in green rolling hills, the collection of houses, cottages, creamery, pool, greenhouse, chicken coop, stable, and barn was the estate of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
At the height of their careers in the 1920s, the New York couple negotiated an unusual contract with The Theater Guild. In return for lower salaries, they would never work summers—those would be spent at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin (current population 719).
Every June, July, and August, Alfred and Lynn abandoned costumes and props for swimsuits, garden tools, and sunhats and invited friends to do the same. Their sixty acres became a popular summer sanctuary, their guest book signed by George Burns, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Sir Lawrence Olivier.
During the Great Depression, they continued to vacation there and renovate the property. Their life may seem privileged and out of touch, but I picture them supporting those who suffered. Hiring carpenters, masons, and landscapers. Plumbers, electricians, designers, and craftsmen. They would have contracted artists to paint murals on their ceilings and sculptors to craft the copper mermaid atop their pool house. They would decorate rooms detail by detail, more theatrical and practical than opulent or extravagant. And to fill their summer-home library, they would buy scores of first edition books.
I imagine them in upholstered chairs, snug at one of the ten hearths, eating tomato sandwiches for lunch. Perhaps they are joined by actors from New York or London. The afternoon is spent workshopping a new script in the studio where Lynn brings a bowl of freshly picked mulberries. In the evening, they wander the grounds, admiring the kettles and moraines, the red-winged blackbirds, and the ponds of floating lily pads, frogs croaking at dusk.
Nancy Jorgensen is a Wisconsin writer and musician. Her 2019 memoir, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, is co-written with daughter Elizabeth Jorgensen and published by Meyer & Meyer Sport. Her choral education books are published by Hal Leonard Corporation and Lorenz Corporation. Other works appear in Prime Number Magazine, Cagibi, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, CHEAP POP, Brevity blog, and elsewhere.