I’ve been going up to the cottage for as long as I can remember. We share it between my family and two of my cousin’s families on my mom’s side – something you really never recommend families to do, but it worked for us. We alternate weeks throughout the summer and always shared Thanksgiving, May Long, and Labour Day. When I was younger I came up a lot more – my cousin and I are best friend’s and we spent a lot of time joining one another’s family on their week away. Then somehow, in a regretfully painful way, we get to the age where we have to get summer jobs, where our time at the cottage begins to dwindle and is replaced my responsibilities we’re not entirely ready for. Part-time morphs into full-time, and 4 of us left our parents homes for other cities and it was no longer as easy as just going to the cottage for a week. But whenever we did have the chance, when our schedules cleared momentarily and sometimes forcefully, we always knew we had the cottage to go running back to.
When my parents decided to sell the house I grew up in, I didn’t care all that much. I knew we wouldn’t have that place forever. But the cottage was different. When they decided to put it up for sale 4 years ago it felt like a crime. I did about as much growing up here as I did anywhere else but when places like the house I grew up in became suffocating the cottage was always a refuge. Never quite tarnished no matter what happened up here, the cottage was safety and security, and even when it wasn’t, it was peaceful. Home was never like that. When you’re young and full of angst and you’re angry at your parents, or your friends you crave escape and just to be somewhere else. The cottage was always the escape, and never the place you wanted to escape from.
I came here around Christmas time with several of my closest friends, but it’s different being here in the summer. I haven’t been up in the summertime since before I moved to BC and walking down the gravel paths it hit me that it sure feels like an awfully long time away. Our cottage is on Chesley Lake, about 20 minutes from Ontario’s famous Sauble Beach. We’re nestled in a forested area of the lake called Birchcrest and we’re the last cottage at the end of the top-row lane. Right now the For Sale sign is still up on the front lawn, even though it technically just sold, and when I walk past it I fight the urge not to kick it down.
I get why we’re selling. A lot of us kids have gotten older and we’re too busy to come up as often as we wish. Owning a cottage involves a lot of upkeep – a lot of repairs that cost money and time, and over the years families and children have moved around and made it more difficult to make it up than it used to be. But in the words of my cousin and I, it still sucks.
My cousin and I as little girls would wake up insanely early, head down to the dock and take the kayak out on the water while it still looked like glass. We’d paddle and swim and dangle our feet in the water in the softness of early morning light. We started taking the paddle boat out for a while, before we realized it didn’t belong to us and most importantly, the owners didn’t want us using it. Sometimes then, we’d go for runs down the gravel road, we’d consider this our workout, before coming back to the cottage.
When my family did groceries, I’d go with my dad into Southhampton. When we finished shopping we would get donuts and carry them down to the pier before heading home. Sometimes he would go into Allenford to get a newspaper and if I woke up early enough I would go with him. One day I got up just as he was driving away, I ran down the lane after him but I wasn’t fast enough to catch up, I was so upset that I couldn’t go get a newspaper with dad.
When I was younger I imagined getting married up here one day. We would use the cottage for appetizers and drinks and a good barbecue, and we’d pitch a tent in the big field down the lane for the ceremony. In my mind, this place never had an expiration date. One day one of my cousin’s or I would grow up and we’d buy it ourselves. We’d keep the cottage going in the family for years to come as it has been for so, so long.
I got baptized here, what feels like many years ago, down at the public dock. My friends and church family crowded around the dock and my parents dunked me under the water. My aunt told me that after she got baptized she felt different, I worried that I was the only one who didn’t. The cottage saw me in many different phases of faith, as I moved back and forth but never fully away from it, just sort of swaying closer, and farther, and then closer again like being on a swing in the breeze but I never got off.
At the cottage BBQ’d food is our main food group. Everything goes on it. And over the years our picnic tables and our “5 dollar” dining room table have been gathered around by many, many people. After dinner we would take off on our bikes to the other side of the lake. The camp is over there, equipped with a baseball diamond where some of us would play many, many nights with people from all over the camp. We would get candy from the tuck shop, or freezies, or ice cream, and some of us would watch. Two weeks ago the entire main building of the camp burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Not a thing left to salvage, our childhood building is a hole in the ground. My mom and I went to see it today, a collection of trailers set up surrounding the roped off area, trying to recover from the damage.
Across the gravel road is a park surround by trees, cottages, and the lake. Today it’s covered in new blue and yellow and red slides and swings and jungle gym things. But I remember when the park was made out of wood, when it had a seemingly super tall fire pole at the top, and a big orange slide. My dad would take us to the park when my brother and I were kids and we would play “monster tag” which largely consisted of him chasing us around the playground.
Here I had nachos with ground beef for the very first time and it became my favourite food. I was tucked into bed, at an age when I still had a bedtime. My parents and aunt and uncle were watching an old movie. I could smell the food that my aunt had heated up in the microwave from the loft and I crawled out of bed to ask for a bite. Then I made my own. My parents let me stay up for a little while longer and I eat nachos with ground beef ever since.
My brother and I would fight up here. Every time we came up, relentlessly. We didn’t like each other much when we were kids, we certainly rarely got along. We would fight and yell and be sent to corners of the cottage to sit on time outs. No wonder my parents didn’t want to bring us anywhere else. When we were all younger and coming to the cottage we may have escaped our home physically, but the baggage we brought with us surpassed what we could have packed in the van. The cottage saw panic attacks and fights, depression, and many, many tears. We spent many of the years and times here trying to navigate the difficulties within our family, as most families probably have to do at some point. But at least we were here.
One of the major joys of the cottage was having a boat, hooking up tubes to the back of it, and ripping around the lake. When I was much, much younger, before I fully understood fear or anxiety, I would go on the tube without too much hesitation. At the time my cousin and I were small enough to both fit in the centre of one of those inner tubes. We upgraded over the years, for pancake tubes that could submarine under the water and force you to swallow half the lake as you tried desperately to hold on.
Every summer I would bring different friends to the cottage, some times it was the same people over and over again. We would make the bunk house our home and the weeks were never ever long enough. Most of my friends in Ontario have been up here at some point in their life. We’ve had s’mores at the fire pit and biked through the forest, we’ve fallen off the tubes and jumped off the dock. We’ve watched countless old movies that we get for $1.99 at the large outdoor Keady market. We knew quite a few people in surrounding cottages as well. They became playmates for most childhood years, including a close friendship with some girls in the cottage next door.
In my teenage years the cottage became less and less innocent. The Christian camp on the other side of the lake revealed its rebellious teenage drinkers and we found out which trailers we could drink beer in. My friends and I skinny dipped at sunset, we stole each other’s swim suits and felt a little more than just alive. We stole golf carts and cracked Corona’s and we did it all with the utmost secrecy. We weren’t crazy – we weren’t awful teenagers. We were every bit of normal learning about life and ourselves and how to break our parents rules and go unnoticed. We were more than fine. We learned about life in a way that maybe our parents hadn’t wanted for us, but we learned, we learned, we learned.
Just around the corner from the cottage and into the forest is the remnants of a tree fort that was built by the family when we were much younger. I remember it being higher up, than it seems now. At one point my cousin and I had painted the bunkhouse bright orange and purple and plastered pictures of ourselves on most of its walls. We had an old orange and brown couch that you would sink into, and a stereo that was probably much older than us. But we paid for the renovations with our own money, from garage sales and savings, the bunkhouse makeover was funded by us. It’s been torn down now, replaced by a newer and nicer one, one that doesn’t have mould growing on the inside, or shelves with leftover rat poison.
Nearby are beaches and piers, small downtown strips that belong to small towns, waterfalls and caves and cliff edges that look over crystal clear blue water. There are lakes everywhere, and people with boats that you can hear through the night. There is nothing but county highways and back roads and gravel roads. Horse farms and old homes and rivers and trails. There is a Tim Horton’s nearby and if you head to Tobermory it will be the last one you see for a very long time. In Sauble the sandbars are great, and you can swim so far out into the water and still touch the ground, unless the waves get too big. Nowadays we have terms like the Sauble Wobble, which begins sometime after a few drinks and ends after the sun goes down. There’s a grocery store there with a Pizza Pizza and if you go there before it closes you can get an extra cheesy pizza and eat it down on the beach while the sun goes down.
There are three full journals up here. They’ve been here over the years and as each family leaves the cottage to go home they fill out a section on their time here. Our three families and many others that we’ve shared this place with, have filled the pages. Now, we’re starting to read through them. Reminding ourselves of memories we have started to forget all too soon. I’m going to beg that one day they’ll let me keep them. That perhaps I’ll be able to write about the stories within them for many, many years to come. My younger cousin was here just several days ago, she’s sixteen, and for her final entry she wrote something like, “PS. I scratched the names of all my crushes into the ceiling about the bed upstairs over all these years”. My mom and I raced up the stairs and sure enough found the faint outlines of things like “M+N” scrawled into the ceiling. I love her for that, and for being a beautiful young talented woman, but I love her for the way she scrawled memories into the cottage wood, the way that they will be there for a long time even when we are not.
I won’t have this place when I get married one day. It won’t be my small reception hall. But whoever I do marry will come here. We’ll park the van in the field down the lane and we’ll sleep there like my cousin and I did when we were younger. We’ll sleep there because this place will no longer be in the family, we’ll shower in the lake and maybe by then there will be a new restaurant to replace the one that burned down on the other side of the lake and we can have breakfast there. I will bring whoever he is here, because I grew up here, because this was home when every other place in my life was not – and when everything was chaos and hardship and tears and fights, this place still had sunshine through the trees and water that could be as warm as a bathtub.
In a few weeks three young boys will come here with their parents. They’ll fall in love with the bunkhouse as if it’s their own mini cottage. When it’s cold their parents will make sure they keep their fingers away from the old wood stove in the living room. They’ll hate that the TV has crappy channels and there’s very little reception up here, but one day they’ll love it. They’re going to skin their knees falling on the gravel roads or tripping on the slippery docks. They’re going to wash it off in the water. They’re going to meet other little kids all over the lake, and one day they might disobey their parents and that will be okay too. They’re going to fight at some point, if they’re like any normal family, because the cottage is still part of regular, and sometimes unfair life. But it will be the cottage. It will be paradise and peacefulness and rest despite everything else in life. It will be the good and the bad but more than anything it will always be the place you want to run to and never run from. It will be Eden, as my mom says.
I’m going to miss it here.