I decided we needed to get away. Mid-September is an odd time to travel and I’m not normally one to pull the kids out of school for couple of days, but sometimes building memories is more important than consistency. The days left with Ian at home are numbered. If we used them all up locked in our normal routine we would forget them. Our normal life is wonderful, but the days blur together. For the kids in particular to remember anything from this time we needed to go.
Luckily, we had the perfect place available. My grandparents built a cottage in Michigan back when I was in 5th grade. It’s been a Mecca for our family ever since, with different uncles and cousins and friends developing their own traditions there, and on rare and special occasions we’ve overlapped our visits. We had a family reunion at the cottage for my grandmother’s 80th birthday over a decade ago. We had our Y2K New Year’s Eve bash there. It’s where Ian and I spent our honeymoon.
(Aden at the cottage, ready to hit the woods last spring with binoculars and tutu.)
The nicest thing about the cottage is that it feels like home without being home. It’s comfortable and full of possibilities, but there is nothing pressing beyond figuring out what to have for lunch or dinner. When I’m in my own house there is always something to organize or clean or finish. At the cottage you can gather what you need to go out in the canoe, or not, and either option is fine. There is not much to get stressed about. At home when the kids don’t put their shoes away it becomes an issue, but at the cottage it doesn’t matter. You can read a book all day and it’s fine. There’s more space to just breathe and enjoy being together without the distractions of having a purpose. Being together is purpose enough at the cottage. There is a shelf filled with boardgames from the 70’s and 80’s, and playing cards or Monopoly is raised to a whole new level when there is technically nothing else to do.
The house has one of the best designs I’ve ever seen. It’s not really very big, but it contains everything you need very cleverly, and it feels spacious. There is a big main room with a ceiling that slants up both stories, and it’s the room where everything happens. It has the dining area on one end with a fireplace in the middle and a couch and TV at the other end. There is a kitchen that isn’t closed off from anything, a bathroom, a bedroom. and a utility closet. Up the spiral staircase is another bathroom and two small bedrooms. If you’re not in your bedroom, you’re out with the family, and there is enough space in the big room that more than one activity can be going on without getting in each other’s way. You can cram a ton of people in that cottage if you bring sleeping bags. For several years we’ve met my friend Alit and her family up there each summer, and the ten of us fit quite happily.
For this trip we splurged and took the ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon. Driving around the lake and dealing with Chicago traffic is frustrating, so for a last little family trip avoiding that problem seemed worth the expense. The ferry is literally only a couple of miles from our house on the Milwaukee side, and the cottage is just over an hour’s drive away from the lake on the other. It was a wonderful vacation. We lounged around, took walks and spotted deer, played in the water, made smores on the grill…. We even invited some friends and their kids up from Grand Rapids and had great evening playing Trivial Pursuit while the kids played games of their own. An excellent trip all around. I don’t recall any trips to the cottage that weren’t fun, unless you count the time my brother Arno had to have his appendix out. My other brother and I still managed to have a good time playing outside all day while mom and grandpa took turns sleeping after alternate trips to the hospital. So maybe Arno and mom can’t claim an unbroken streak of fun at the cottage, but for the rest of the family it’s been a consistently special place.
The sad thing is this particular trip may have been our last. I hope not, but there has been talk since last year of the cottage being sold to help pay for grandma’s care in the nursing home. I know it would make grandma sad to have the cottage leave our family, but there is something poetic about one last investment of grandpa’s helping her out yet again. I understand it, but it pains me to let one more thing go. It was hard losing my grandpa back when I was in high school. It’s hard to slowly be losing my grandma. I still can’t believe my grandpa never got to meet my husband or my kids. He would have loved them. But by sharing the cottage with my kids and seeing them retrace some of my own steps up the staricase or into the woods it’s like having their lives overlap somehow with other people and times I’ve loved. I look around the cottage and I get to have my grandparents back a little. They did all the staining of all the woodwork themselves. My grandpa built the bookcase that holds the record player Aden was so delighted with this weekend. I got to feed my kids breakfast on my grandma’s dishes. My grandma used to spend every June up at the cottage, and her things are still there. Everyone who visits the cottage now is still just borrowing it, so even though she will likely never go there again, it’s still set up as her second house. Her nightgown is hanging in the closet. Her picture of grandpa still smiles at us from atop the dresser.
I’m bad at giving up things I care about. When I was in Ohio in August I drove by my grandma’s old house when I was out by myself because I wanted to see it again. I shouldn’t have done that, because it hurt not to be able to go inside. It hurt just knowing that the inside wasn’t the same anymore. I can’t imagine how painful it will likely be one day to look at my parents’ house that way. The remarkable thing about the cottage is that it’s like having a spare childhood home. I don’t want to let it go, but I’m one generation removed from having any meaningful say in the matter.
There is an almost ritual-like way of closing up the cottage when we go. It starts with stripping the beds the minute everyone is up on the last day, and getting the sheets in the wash first thing. As the laundry proceeds to the load of towels, I make the beds upstairs, folding hospital corners the way my grandma likes. I close windows and draw curtains, and shut the door to each room as I finish it. By the time we get to cleaning up the first floor it’s time to kick all the kids out of the house so I can vacuum. The last thing I did this time was scrub the dining table. I noticed as I was wrapping up the vacuum cleaner cord that there were a few syrup spots left that I’d missed the first time. I leaned down low so the light would be right for seeing the dark spots on the dark pine table top, and I realized there were writing imprints all over the table. Decades of Scrabble scores and Boggle words, childish scrawls and daunting looking math equations…. At the corner nearest the kitchen was one clear sentence that read, “I miss you Arno!” I wondered if it was left over from a card maybe Barrett or I made that spring vacation when he had appendicitis, or if someone else was visiting the cottage on a different occasion and just wished Arno were there to share it. It struck me at that moment that I missed Arno too. I miss lots of things.