Before my time, before I sold real estate and before I had a Saab 900, before I caught my first fish and before I was alive, there was a time when November, or perhaps October, signaled the end of the season for large numbers of vacation home owners. This was a time, before my time, when summer cottages were just that- cottages enjoyed and lived in and celebrated in summer, and summer only. They existed in winter, but they existed as cold shells, with water drained and blankets stacked. Porches were wrapped in plastic, blue anti-freeze clung to the inside of a toilet bowl, and silence replaced the joyful sounds of a summer weekend. These were cottages built for one singular purpose, and that purpose was abandoned each fall and rediscovered each spring.
To walk through a closed cottage is both something delightful and slightly melancholy. If it is January, and the temperature outside is 31, the temperature inside that closed cottage will be colder. It will either be colder or it will feel colder, but the difference is debatable though not discernible. Dated magazines will litter coffee tables, furniture will be still, cold, but in its usual place. Cupboards will be full of utensils and plates, and more than likely, a washed plate and a cup will rest in the sink. Fall intentions dictate that such cups and plates be arranged neatly, but even the best of intentions can be overlooked on a cold November Saturday. The cottage will groan under your step more than usual, and this will leave you inclined to walk softer still. This is what winter does to a cottage.
That cottage has no choice but to sit through December and into January. It will be February and though thoughts of the vacation home owner will turn towards the lake, the cottage will sit. The plastic will work free from one corner of the porch and it will flap in the wind and a small pile of snow will build on the wicker chair that rests in that corner, and no one will notice. March will come and March will go, and spring will show on a Tuesday and rush away on a Wednesday. There will be one weekend in March, and I cannot say when that weekend will come but come it will, when nearly every cottage owner will think about making a trip up to see their old cold friend. They will visit, like you would a puppy in a kennel, and walk around it, sizing it up, remembering which repair was overlooked last season and contemplating which one should be overlooked this season. They’ll unlock the door and walk around, stepping softly, remembering the summer now long past and thinking of the one to come. Then they will think about opening up the cottage but they won’t. Instead, they’ll snug the door shut and turn the lock, press the screen door closed, and walk to the car and drive home. March is for contemplation, April is for opening.
Though the time when most cottages were closed right about now and opened again only after the cold months that follow have past is now long gone, there are still cottages around the lake that will be closed in much the manner I described above. There is something sorrowful about closing a cottage, but in raking the leaves one last time and stapling up of plastic over a screened porch there is also joy. There is the continuing of tradition, of closing and opening and repeating, and that tradition builds as generations pass along the procedure and provide hints that were only learned through mistakes. That time the attic window was left ajar and blew open in storm? The storm that left that bunk room covered in snow? The snow that melted and stained the living room ceiling? Well, that prompted someone to leave this note on a faded index card and staple it to the window frame: Do not forget to lock this window!!
Nothing makes me feel more mature than cleaning up and readying my house and property for the winter. I make sure the grass is cut short, the leaves cleaned, the roof free of sticks. I stack toys that tend to litter the drive neatly in their winter place, and I force two cars into a garage that would prefer to hold just one. I’ll try to finish the last project, apply the last bead of caulk, paint the last bit of fascia, and hang some Christmas lights and two wreaths. When these things are done, I’ll feel as though I’ve protected my property and my family from the season ahead, and in that knowledge there is a sense of a job well done. A husband and a father, sure, but also the guy who hangs the bikes on their winter hooks.
Days like today, dark, cold, wet November days like the one I’m looking at now, make me think of these things. The cottages around the lake today are mostly used all year long. They’ll be cold and lonely Monday through Friday, but warm and alive with fires and lamps and heavy throws hanging over couch arms on Saturdays and Sundays. They’ll be used and appreciated and they’ll be readied for the next summer to come. But others will methodically be closed, stored away like old wooden antiques, waiting for the next season. If I had a cottage at the lake, I’d prefer to be able to use it in all seasons. I’d burn wood in the fireplace by winter and read by lamp light in the screened porch by summer. But if I had a seasonal cottage, something tells me I’d appreciate the tradition of closing and opening that old cottage just as much.