Evolution Series: The Cottage

The Cottage

All alcoholism has underlying issues. Drinking often starts as joyful and social, but eventually, when we cross that invisible line into addiction, we are medicating something. Often, the thing we are medicating is adverse childhood experiences.

 

But childhood experiences can serve another purpose. They can ground us and give us strength. Memories of safety and family in childhood can remind us of the power of pure and unadulterated love. They can help explain how we became the adults we are today.

 

And when embroiled in the chaos of alcoholism – whether our own drinking or the addiction of someone we love – those innocent memories help us focus on the safety and connection we all deserve.

 

I’m proud to introduce these beautiful childhood memories from Kelly – a talented writer and dear, sweet friend. This recollection is not about alcoholism. It is an anchor to the simplicity of life that we humans unwittingly complicate. Can you remember the safety of your cottage?

 

***

 

For as long as I can remember, the cottage has been a part of my life.

 

For two weeks every August, my grandmother and aunt took my three siblings and me up to the cottage located halfway down the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost section of Michigan’s U.P. Excitement made sleep a struggle the nights before leaving for the cottage.

 

As the name suggests, the cottage was modest. It was a sweet little three-bedroom house with handmade curtains, creaky and splitting wood floors, and countless pieces of furniture and trinkets collected over two generations. To say the space was eclectic seems almost glib as the home was filled with history: antique plates on the wall, birch Adirondack chairs, a writing desk with a pot for ink and a turntable hutch filled with yellowed album covers of bands from as early as the 1930s. 

 

I vividly remember how the cold, damp interior would flood my senses as we opened the door when we first arrived at the cottage each summer. That first night always included the ritual of my grandmother making bolognese while we all unpacked and explored the house before running out the back to go to the lake. I can still hear the slamming of that screen door. By the end of that first night, the cottage seemed to suck in a breath of life – the smell of garlic, the warm glow of the lamps and the bright energy of the six of us melting into innocent joy.

 

Make no mistake – the cottage came with its quirks. Though it had a bathroom, there was no shower or bathtub. If we wanted to clean off, we went into the lake. We all took those cleansing plunges, even though the temperature was so cold we were covered in goosebumps well before we even got in the water. There was no heat –  just the old oven my grandmother would turn on during the cold U.P. summer mornings to warm the cottage. There were also no televisions. We read Jughead comic books and played countless games of solitaire and croquette.

 

Upstairs, the ceilings were covered, but some of the tight corners were sealed with painted duct tape. Holes were stuffed and cracks caulked to keep mice out. One summer, we learned to consider mice a tame inconvenience after an epic battle with a bat. I’ll never forget my grandmother wearing a metal strainer on her head with her dish-gloved hands grasping a broom while the rest of us armed ourselves with badminton rackets.

 

The stories of those years are endless, and within those memories, are moments that have built who I am.

 

Smells, colors, tastes and experiences that changed every year and built on each other like puzzle pieces of my DNA. Like the 9pm sunsets we would count down while standing on an inner tube on the lake – our silhouettes were all my grandmother and aunt could see from their spot on the back deck stairs. And the year I made myself complete a triathlon. I finished the half-mile swim at Lake Fanny Hooe in last place. I’ll never forget the gun going off, and my anxious brain threatening to drown me with each poorly executed stroke. Every swimmer passed me, including all the men who started five minutes after the women. My sister, who stayed by my side the entire swim, just kept reminding me, “Go on your back. You’re getting there.” She continued to encourage me, “These people can swim, but not all of them can run. We’ll make it up there.” Motivation to keep going. Those words will never stop having an impact.

 

My sister was right. Running was my jam. I started running at the cottage in sixth grade, and I learned on those flat and hot gravel roads how that simple act would ease what I now recognize as anxiety. For those two weeks every summer, I would build my endurance and confidence, returning to school with a tan on the outside and a resilience on the inside. The cottage was my energy drink fueling me for middle school, and later for high school, when self-confidence was every awkward teenager’s holy grail. 

 

In 1996, my grandmother passed away. To say we were close is an understatement. We were pen pals, and when I think of her long mauve nails and sweet voice, I feel safe. Protected.

 

My dad and aunt decided to tear down the cottage. It wasn’t livable year-round, and they wanted to create a home for us and their grandchildren someday. 

 

In 1998, I visited the new cottage for the first time with my then boyfriend, now husband. The home features a great room with a big fireplace and three bedrooms, one of them filled with bunk beds. There are two showers, hot water and heat. Conspicuously missing are the mice and bats.

 

The cottage has become my children’s favorite place. Over the years, we have continued to build memories.

 

When I am there I feel safe, invigorated and whole.

 

My kids know the plan for when I pass away. I want to be cremated, and my ashes thrown off the bow of a boat parked on Superior at sunset, with everyone (hopefully grandchildren and at least one dog) counting down as the sun melts into the horizon.

 

It’s simple really, I want my death to be marked by the place I’ve always felt most alive.

 

If you are the loved one of an alcoholic, and you are ready to write about the things that made you the strong, resilient and deserving person you are, please consider joining is in Echoes of Recovery.

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4 Comments
  • Reply
    Fran Williams
    March 20, 2024 at 7:20 am

    So loved the story of the cottage. My family’s story as well, but the 1928 house is now loved or was loved by 5 generations so far. She captures tons of truth.

  • Reply
    Mark W Bailey
    March 20, 2024 at 8:11 am

    Beautiful, heartwarming story! Thanks for sharing such a special part of your life with us, Kelly!

  • Reply
    Anne K Scott
    March 20, 2024 at 8:23 am

    Heart warming

  • Reply
    Colleen
    April 2, 2024 at 1:12 am

    You took us there physically in our senses. I’m sure I am not alone when I say I could almost smell the cabin, hear things, and feel them as if it were a story I already knew! Of course, many of us have summer cabin or lake stories, gramma or grampa stories, childhood courage stories, and I grew up around northwestern Lake Superior, north of Duluth MN, so your story tugs at me for that reason too, but, your writing brings us all to something we want to remember always ~ that childhood innocence & sense of safety. Thank you~

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