I didn’t realize how much I needed a real vacation until I was on it. I have a nice life, but it’s packed. The kids need to be shuttled to this lesson or that play date, there is always a lot to do at the violin store and rehearsals to attend, I’ve been trying to buckle down and do the work of finding an agent while not losing hope after more than two dozen rejections…. Just because a life may be currently free of crisis doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting. And I was tired.
When we arrived at my grandma’s cottage a few weeks ago it was like
getting permission to breathe. The cottage is a house in the woods in
Michigan, but it’s not like camping. It’s a real house with two full
bathrooms and a washer and dryer in the basement. It’s secluded, but
not isolated. There are big stores and a college about half an hour
away, so being at the cottage does not mean roughing it. But at the
same time, you open the door and you are in the woods. You rarely hear
cars, you never hear airplanes. You hear loons. And crickets. And
deer crunching through the leaves outside the back window. It’s a life
that doesn’t resemble what we’re used to in Milwaukee, and it’s magical
But at home there is too much to do. We are accessible, we are busy,
there is always another project, another job, something we should be
getting done. At the cottage there is nothing that has to get done. We
only had one clock and the only reason we put batteries in it was
because it makes a different bird sound on the hour and my kids were
delighted by that. We worried about what to cook for dinner, if we had
enough sunscreen to last through the day, and if we should play Monopoly
or Battleship. That was about it.
Reality does set in at some point, because the sump pump broke when
we needed to do laundry. But somehow my husband knows how to replace
one (I wasn’t even clear about what it did, to tell you the truth), and
it wasn’t a disaster (thanks to Ian), just something that had to get
done. That was about as demanding as it got.
There is no urgency most of the time at the cottage. On the first
day there we were all set to go down to the water and suddenly Aden
decided she wanted to play Battleship right then. That’s the
kind of arbitrary thing that feels frustrating for some reason when
we’re at home. I like to stick to the plan because there is usually so
much to do, and at home I would have probably said, “No, we’re all set
to leave, let’s play when we get back.” At the cottage? I thought
about it a moment and then said, “Sure. Go get it.” Because what
difference does it make? We’re there to spend time together. That’s
the only plan. It doesn’t matter what form it takes.
The other thing about the cottage is that I like who my kids are when
they are there. I like them anywhere, but at home there are different
constraints on them. The cottage sits on a bluff, and there is a path
down the hill to the lake, and if you follow the path around to the
other side of the water there is a little sandy swimming area my
brothers and I always called ‘the point.’ Once I was sure my kids knew
the way I didn’t have a problem with their running down there ahead of
us. I can’t think of anywhere in the city where I would feel
comfortable with my kids being that far out of reach. In Milwaukee that
same distance would cover blocks and blocks and the variables are so
different. At age nine we’re just starting to let Aden make quick trips
to Target on her own, and eventually to the park with a friend or two,
but Mona and Quinn are still too small and unobservant to be trusted
like that. However, at the cottage, to some extent they can run free.
And they love it.
I also like the ways in which they adapt. When we first stepped into
the cottage my kids freaked out because they said they saw a spider. I
came over to see and spotted a tiny speck on the wall and asked, “That
one?” and Mona shrieked, “Oh no! There are TWO!” But in the woods
there are spiders. And moths and mosquitoes and millions of other
things. You get used to it. By the next night when Mona needed a bath
and noticed a spider in a corner near the tub, I told her it looked
happy there, she gave it a name, and proceeded to take her bath near the
spider. That would not happen at home.
The first day at the cottage all the kids wore shoes to walk to the
point. Walking in the country is a different skill from walking on a
sidewalk, and they moved gingerly among the ferns and rocks and twigs.
By the end of the week they were running the whole way barefoot and it
made me proud.
Activities inside the cottage are different as well. It took my kids
a few days to realize the TV worked, and even then they only watched it
when I was too busy preparing food to read to them and they were
exhausted from swimming. There is no internet connection, so they had a
break from Club Penguin and whatever else they play online at home.
Time at the cottage is best spent outside, but when it rained we played
board games. Quinn was thrilled with Battleship (which he kept calling,
“Ship Battle”) and even set it up to play with an imaginary friend when
everyone else needed a break.
But that’s not how it went. With five of us playing no one had a
Monopoly. On anything. Nobody even owned more than one railroad, so it
was the only game of Monopoly I’ve ever experienced where everyone made
a profit. It was rent-controlled Monopoly. We’d pay at most about $25
to someone, and then collect $200 when we passed Go. Even Mona with
only three properties was coming out ahead. Ian tried to make it more
interesting by attempting to strike a deal with the kids to sell him
something, but they only care about colors. Quinn liked his purple
property, even though it only brought in $2 rent anytime someone landed
on it, and he didn’t care about building houses or hotels. There is a
lesson about the real economy in there somewhere, I suppose. (Don’t be
greedy and we all get ahead?)
But the main thing we do at the cottage is spend time at the point.
The kids (including Quinn when he’s in his floaty jacket) are finally
good enough swimmers I don’t have to be in the water with them unless I
want to be. I even packed a lunch one day so the girls could stay down
there as long as they liked and Ian and I took shifts watching them. As
long as they liked turned out to be seven hours. Aden caught her first
(dozen) fish by baiting a hook with pepperoni. Quinn built sandcastles
decorated with rocks and feathers. Mona was simply thrilled with
everything, from watching fish underwater through her goggles to
spotting dragonflies. I entertained myself by carving violin scrolls in
I’m still not convinced that in the long run owning the cottage will
be an affordable thing to do, but right now it makes me so happy to be
able to keep it in the family and be able to offer its use to people I
love the same way my grandparents did. I love it there.
But more importantly my kids love it there. To have a place that
peaceful to call our own is wonderful. When we first got up there I was
still doubting myself just a little about taking that kind of financial
leap of owning a second house. But the moment I knew it was right was
when Mona came in after her long day of swimming. She was out of
breath, having beaten her dad and siblings up the hill to be the first
at the table where I had dinner waiting. She plunked down in the chair
next to mine and dug in, more content than I’d ever seen her. As Mona
gazed out the window at the trees she said quietly, “I love living in
I love that for a few weeks every year I can give that to
her. I’m already looking forward to our next real vacation.