Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Real Vacation (Babble)

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 at times.
When I first started playing around with the idea of owning grandma’s cottage ourselves, I wondered if it was worth it.  We love our home, we don’t lack for things to do here, so why would we need to drive that far just to live in a different house to call it a vacation?
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.
The other game we taught the kids was Monopoly.  I don’t think I could stand to try playing Monopoly at home because it takes forever, but being at the cottage means having a big stretch of forever to use which seems almost made for playing Monopoly.  Here is the crazy thing about our two-day-on-and-off Monopoly game: If we had played it out to the end the only loser would have been the bank.  I explained to the kids ahead of time that Monopoly was not a nice game, and that in the end someone ruins everyone else, but that I still thought it was something we should try but not take it personally.

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 the shade.
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 the country.” 

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.

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