Sustaining a Family Cottage
Although I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I have always thought of myself as a child of the Depression. My Depression-era mother schooled me in saving anything that could be used again and making do with less. Throughout my childhood, I was admonished to turn out the lights when I left a room to conserve electricity. We kept the used wrapping paper at Christmas, smoothed it out and wrapped gifts in it the following year. There was no overbuying at the grocery store; we were duty bound to make sure food did not go to waste. My family practiced Yankee thrift, a forerunner perhaps to today’s sustainability, only partly on principle. We didn’t have enough money to do otherwise.
I am reminded of this when I go to open my mother’s summer cottage. Built in the early 1940s, it was purchased by my aunt in 1948, and today looks almost exactly as it did when I was a child. The 1940s cast-metal wall sconce, a shade of green that no longer seems to exist, still hangs by the bed. The tops of the antique dressers are covered in my grandmother’s monogrammed linens. A pair of huge, dried lobster claws from some long-ago dinner hang as they have since my childhood from a hook by the kitchen sink.
The cottage is not winterized, so we say goodbye in October and do not return until the spring. Truly a cottage, with two small bedrooms separated by a three-quarter wall and curtains for doors, the place is not quite a “tiny house,” but close to it. When we go to see how it has fared over the winter, my mother sleeps in the double bed, and I sleep in the bunk beds where my sister and I slept as children, on the lower bunk because I can no longer scramble into the top.
On a recent visit with my mother, I woke just after seven to a colossal boom. I knew, even before I looked out the window, that it was the sound of the house across the road coming down. The house had been sold over the winter, but we did not know it was scheduled for demolition. A small place similar to ours, one story hugging the marsh, it had been owned by the same family for more than sixty years.
The backhoe clawed at the house and took pieces away in huge chunks. When the interior was exposed, we could see a worn couch and the kitchen with its cabinets and appliances still intact. All of it was turned to dust and scraps of metal, and scooped into a dumpster. In a couple of hours, the place was gone.
Someday, our cottage will meet the same fate. When it becomes too complicated for the siblings and cousins in my generation to share ownership, and the taxes are more than we can raise, we will have to sell. We can’t fool ourselves; anyone who buys the house will likely tear it down, too, replacing it with a bigger house. I feel sick with dread about this, and at the same time resigned. I can’t stop the march of time and money.
Until that day comes, I plan to treasure every minute in this little place. Stepping through the door each spring, I step back into my childhood and find myself surrounded by family members we have lost. As we sweep the floors and hang the faded, hand-sewn curtains, I imagine my departed aunt there beside us. These curtains are good for another year, I can hear her saying, and they’ve still got some life left in them.