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 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.
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 staircase 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.
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.