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Cottage People MAG
Neat, orderly, and clean. Row upon row of plastic storage containers seem to exude an air of calm, a sense that everything is right in the world – everything has its place. If only I could transfer this to my house, my life. Perhaps these thoughts are why I find myself drawn to this aisle whenever I set foot in Target – I scan the various shapes of bins and make a mental list of what I could fit in them. Maybe this behavior isn't healthy, but on the few occasions that my need for order doesn't drive my mother crazy, she actually likes it.
• • •
All I want is the boat pump, the little contraption used to rid the paddleboat of rainwater. I know it would be faster just to use a bucket to bail the water out, but I'm in no hurry and it has to be in the boathouse somewhere. Our cottage is one of those places where things don't change. The old pair of scissors are in their holder stuck to the side of the fridge, where they have been since before I was born. The blue toolbox is in the side bedroom, its corners nosing out just enough to catch my toe over and over. So the boat pump should be where it always is, hanging over a rafter in the cramped boathouse.
It's not there. Instead there's a pile of life jackets, foam noodles, and odds and ends all piled in a blue and white dinghy that hasn't seen the water in years. For a moment my mind snaps back to the aisles of organizational bins and storage containers, and I imagine the boathouse and those aisles melting into one. It takes about ten seconds to decide; my original plans for the day are shot.
I don't like wasting time. Diving into massively unplanned undertakings is a trademark of mine. I begin yanking out life jackets and floaty toys and tossing them on the lawn. The stream of neon-colored noodles and brightly patterned life jackets prompts my mother to ask a question I've heard countless times.
“What are you getting yourself into, Maryanne?” she says from her sunny spot on a lawn chair. “I hope it's not something I'm going to have to get involved in.” My mother knows that most of my projects either require money or her help. As I continue further into the boathouse, eyeing the cobwebs cautiously, I start to realize the extent of this project.
“Just cleaning,” I reply in a strained voice. “It's a mess.” I pull on the dinghy. Chewed acorns roll in the bottom.
“Just make sure you put everything back,” she says, settling in her chair.
My grandma calls from the porch, “What's going on? What's she doing?” and we go through it all again.
• • •
I've already jumped in the lake twice. Once to squelch the fear of spiders in my hair, and another to rinse the dirt and grime from my sweaty skin. The bank is now strewn with 50 years of stuff, and the boathouse is empty except for bare shelves and piles of leaves and stones on the dirt floor. With each piece of clutter I hauled out, I felt like I was peeling back a layer of cottage history, to when my father was a small blond boy sinking boats off the end of the dock. I imagine my grandpa diving into the lake, and Grandma sunbathing in the boat.
My grandparents bought the cottage in 1958, a few years before my father was born, making him the first child in our family to spend every summer at the lake. The cottage 50 years ago seems like a different world, a world where everything is done the same as now but the boats are replaced with older models and the people are replaced with newer ones – younger ones – in some cases, maybe even non-existent ones. Cottage People, that's what we call ourselves. A name that can only be acquired after spending every summer bathing in the water of Milsite Lake, gazing at the diamonds dancing on the water's surface, and patting slimy frogs.
Some vacationers may be Beach People, but I've been wired to crave the crisp feel of the lake as I wade in slowly, letting my skin get used to the cold. I've been spoiled by the ability to swallow huge mouthfuls of fresh lake water instead of the briny tang of the ocean. My love for this place was cultivated in the same way as love for a person. The same love that developed naturally in my father was placed in me over the years, little bits at a time. Sometimes I think how scary that must have been for him. The thought that perhaps my mother, sisters and I might want to be Beach People. If it weren't for the cottage, we could be just another family packing up the car for a week at an overpopulated beach, renting a beach house full of other people's memories.
These thoughts swirl in my mind as I stand among the relics of past summers, feeling nostalgic as I always do when I'm there. Things are changing. If this summer foreshadows my summers to come, then the words “carefree” and “summer” have lost the association honed by days when the only time I peeled off my bathing suit was to go to bed at night.
I decide I need a break, and leave the debris scattered for my father to pick through. I walk along the water's edge, subconsciously watching for the telltale rustle of a frog. After years of catching the slippery creatures, looking for them has become habit. I see a small one scoot under a rock, his back the color of the shiny pebbles of the lake bottom. I tortured these poor critters as a kid. Not intentionally, but in that overeager way kids have with living things smaller than they are. At one point I even believed that I could make them fall asleep by rubbing their white bellies; in reality they were probably just scared. The frogs were my friends. I loved them, I named them, and in seventh grade, when I was forced to dissect one, I cried.
My bare feet magically find the smooth rocks leading back to the dock, avoiding the ones responsible for numerous scars on my knees. I stop to pick a raspberry. After years of searching, we finally have a plant growing by our cottage. I start to feel that familiar pang of fear, and wonder if some day my kids will hunt frogs and pick raspberries and proudly announce to their friends that they are headed to the lake for the summer.
I reach the top of the stairs and notice the pile on the lawn has shrunk. The junk has been weeded out and carried to the top of the hill, ready to catch the next ride to the dump. I begin to thoughtfully arrange the remaining items back on the shelves, leaving a bare shelf for the souvenirs of summers to come.
• • •
I've been staring at the computer screen for the past twenty minutes, trying to add as many words as I can to my paper on women's suffrage. I'm almost at the five-page mark when Rebecca, my roommate, comes bounding in.
“Please come to the picnic with me! Don't make me go alone,” she whines as she grabs a blanket and a sweater from the cramped closet. It's Labor Day weekend and most of our friends have gone away for one last taste of summer. I study the photo on my shelf from earlier this summer – my dad and I sit smiling in his new sailboat at the lake. A wave of guilt washes over me; I should be there helping close up the cottage. Recently, as the youngest child, I've been the most available, earning a spot as Dad's helper. I wonder who is on call this weekend, ready to fetch him a tool.
I turn in my chair and notice Rebecca is gone. “Rebecca?” I call. She pops her head around the bathroom door. “Let me finish this paragraph and I'll be ready.”
I would rather not sit wallowing in my dorm; it's too dreary on a holiday weekend. My parents left for the lake yesterday, but with a paper due Tuesday and an exam on Friday, joining them wasn't an option. I said my good-byes when we left the cottage in August. As we drove off, I watched the sparkling lake disappear behind the trees, calculating the months until next time I will be there. I have to convince myself that it's better this way; Labor Day weekend has always been a depressing time at the lake. By Sunday evening, the boats are tucked away in the garage, pieces of aluminum dock will litter the bank, and the deck will be empty. Signs of fall will be everywhere, the cycle of summer at the cottage completed once again.
It all begins on Memorial Day. Each May we drive seven hours to open the cottage and brave the still-frigid temperatures of the lake. An inch of pollen is mopped off the screened-in porch, the dock is put in the water, and the boats are prepped and dropped off at the launch. It's a weekend full of preparations and expectations; the summer seems to stretch out before us. Everything between Memorial Day and Labor Day is bittersweet in comparison.
I reach over and press my thumb into the soil of the plant on my desk – a hen and chicks flower just like the ones at the lake. I keep it as a reminder that summer will come again, no matter how long this in-between period feels. To me, the lake will always be the most beautiful place in the world. I look forward to the people, the laughter, the sunny days, and the rainy ones too. Our neighbors have become a second family, the mutual love of this place bringing us together. When I go to the lake, I'm not just going on vacation, I'm going home.