Twilight at the Cottage
Summer weather always makes immersive travel writer Mariellen Ward think of the happy days at the cottage of her youth. Are your cottage memories similar?
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When the cold hand of winter and chilly days of spring give way to summer’s warmth, I start thinking about the cottage. Each type of summer weather brings back a distinct memory of what that particular type of day was like at the cottage.
I might be walking in the park or near the lake in Toronto on a clear, bright, sunny day, with fluffy, high clouds overhead, and a crisp breeze snapping sails and flags, and I’ll know exactly what that kind of weather would be like at the cottage. In my mind’s eye, I see the gentle whitecaps on the open lake beyond our protected bay; and I imagine myself in a light sweater (or, if the memory comes from the late 60s, in a poncho), playing on the dock.
On days like those, my mom would do laundry in a fat, ringer-washer that sat outside the cottage. As she put the rung-out clothes on the line, she would invariably exclaim, “Oh what a glorious drying day!”
At night, when the sky was clear, I would take the canoe out to the middle of the bay, and lie on the bottom watching the milky way churning above, so real and close, I felt I could reach out and stir it.
On overcast days everything was different. I can see the grey skies over the deep-green lake and the trees and grass dripping with moisture. Warm, rainy days would find me and the other kids swimming in the shallow bay. There was something special about playing and swimming in the rain; we felt as if we were getting away with something, as if we had entered a special, magical, kids-only zone.
If the rain was really heavy, we would tip the canoe—the red canoe my dad built and varnished every year—upside down on the beach and hide underneath, peeking out to watch the drops splash the surface of the lake and make ever-expanding circles, mesmerizing to watch.
When I got older, I liked curling up inside the damp cottage with a book. I kept my entire collection of Nancy Drews at the cottage—all 42 of them, at the time—for such days. I would find a quiet corner, sip a cup of tea and invite my cat Marmalade to join me. I can recall the comforting sound of the rain as it spattered on the wood roof above me and made me feel cozy and snug inside—especially if a thunderstorm was rolling in.
We felt as if we were getting away with something, as if we had entered a special, magical, kids-only zone.
On really hot and humid days in Toronto, when I feel imprisoned by the heat, that’s when I’m most likely to think of the cottage. I remember what it was like to walk up the long country road on a hot day to go to the corner store. The walk seemed interminable and I was always thirsty and bushed when I got to Tremblays Gas Bar. I bought a root beer or cream soda and Eatmore chocolate bar, and if there was money left over, an Archie’s comic book. Then, there was the long walk back and I’d head straight for the warm back bedroom that always smelled like wood to change into my bathing suit so I could jump in the lake.
No matter what the summer weather is like in Toronto, I can always imagine what it would be like at the cottage—how the lake would be, whether it would be calm and flat, or whipped into choppy waves. I know what the sky would be like, how the clouds would gather along the shoreline. I know exactly how the light changes from the vital burst of early July to the long shadows and melancholy twilights of late August. I know how the meadow plants in the field across the road—the weeds and wildflowers, grasses and bull rushes—would grow, reach their full height and then begin to dry out by the end of summer.
In the summer, I often think of the cottage, which is only a two-hour drive from where I live. But I can’t go there. After being in the family for about four generations, the cottage had to be sold 15 years ago; and since then both my parents have died. My siblings and I are all grown up, and two have children of their own.
Sometimes, it seems incredible to me, inconceivable, that I can’t just reach out and touch those days—the happiest days of my life; that I can’t go there, to that cottage, on that lake and find it as it once was, with the people who were once there.