THINGS


AT THE COTTAGE

by Miv Schaaf



HERE WE ARE AT THE COTTAGE I'VE BEEN meaning to bring you here all summer. It's August, the beginning of the end of summer. See the milkweed pods have long since opened and the brown-seeded silk flown away. By the path to the lake there are only a few snapdragons left to pop with your fingers and the goldenrod is already beginning to bloom. But no matter, we're here.

At first sight the steps are disappointing one expects wood steps, not concrete, for a cottage. But the very first evening at the lake, while our woolen bathing suits hang to dry on the railing axed from a jack pine log, we sit on the steps and look down toward the pond, twilighting into mystery, and then we know the concrete steps are best after all.

All around us it is getting cold; we cover our bare knees with our arms, but the steps, the good old concrete steps ah, they have been soaking in the sun all day and now, at night, they radiate back the warmth like a toaster.

Cicadas rise and shrill the tree tops, their wing-singing deafening until, with the last touch of blue in the sky, the whippoorwills swoop down in sudden pendulum arcs, grazing the grass with calls of piercing clearness like water notes on glass flutes.

Then it's really dark. The bullfrogs, after a slow start, boom out, and little white moths come out as surely as the stars. The collie gets up, leaving our feet suddenly bare to the cold air, and goes inside. So it is time to go in.

The wicker table centers the small living room. It is really a library table with magazines on the shelf underneath but it is our dining table and kitchen table and writing table and crossword puzzle table and game playing table. In the evenings, still covered with the red checked cloth, it is the reading table with the kerosene lamp in the middle.

The table is in front of the fireplace; my twin brother Marc and I are on the hearth. I read an old Saturday Evening Post sitting on the square camp stool Mr. Aubrey made of cedar tree limbs with the bark still on. It is the best in spite of its slidy green oilcloth seat because, even though its stumpy corner posts dig into your legs whenever you move, it never tips. Not so the stool Marc sits on. If you sit perfectly still it is more comfortable and much more artistic looking, being silk patchwork mounted on upside down deer antlers, but when you lean to toast your marshmallow oops, the antlers rock and you bump to the floor.

Setty, our youngest aunt, is stretched out on the camp cot against the north window reading a 4-year-old Ladies Home Journal. Minno, our oldest aunt, sits on the concrete steps just outside the screen door shelling peas, batting off moths and humming a song. Whatever Minno does is somewhat unexpected and is exactly what Minno wants to do.

The cottage screen door has fancy wooden corners and two bars in the middle hold little wooden spools like an abacus; they will not turn around though. When you are inside the screen casts a silver shimmer over the whole summer outdoors.

Now it is clear to me that the stove was put next to the door simply because there was no other place to put it. I thought it was placed there on purpose, so that whenever it caught on fire, reliably, dramatically, at least twice every summer, it was handy for picking up and flinging out the door onto the Michigan sand to burn itself out. So seasonally regular was this flaming excitement that it seemed as normal a part of summer as the sinking of the old rowboat.

The best bed is the worst bed. It is the old Army cot here in the living room, sagging terribly in the middle. When you wake in the middle of the night you hear a slow cow bell, mournful up there next to the corn field under the steel-tipped stars.

The ice chest (in the bedroom) is no such thing, only a big green wooden crate holding a cake of ice imbedded in sawdust. In this sawdust moat are balanced milk, bacon, cheese, butter, lettuce, ginger ale all the cool things of summer.

This was our Higgins Lake cottage. But it never was our cottage. It was summer headquarters for whoever was the state forester of Michigan. Luckily, father was, for more than 30 years, all the years we were growing up.

At retirement time he was given a gold watch and packed all his books from the cottage while mother emptied the goldenrod from the Mason jar on the table, packed our dishes and took down the old red tin tray from the mantel. We left the toasting forks.

Now I am here in Humboldt where the trees are taller, the rivers deeper, everything higher and lower, more dramatic; even the lake has turned into the ocean. I have moved to a cabin (cabins they call them out here, not cottages). A wicker table just like the cottage one holds magazines underneath. I still say cottage; I still say ice chest. And when I poke my wood fire with a big old toasting fork I am not quite sure whether the little blue flames are here and now or from Higgins Lake.


Miv Schaaf, now at Big Lagoon, had a twice weekly column in the Los Angeles Times for 15 years.


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