Rules of the Cottage 1


When I was a kid, and my dad managed to get a weekend off from the pulpit, when my mom wasn’t traveling for work, or on the 4th of July (which just so happens to be my mom’s birthday), we went to Sugar Lake.

We crammed ourselves and our luggage and our friends into Dad’s beige Pontiac Phoenix and Mom’s little white Nissan and headed north on I-79, through Coraopolis, across the Neville Island Bridge and well beyond Wexford, where Soergel’s Orchard sells the best apples in the universe. In Grove City, we exited and said goodbye to radio contact. This was the jingweeds, and we loved it.

The cottage sits on a grassy embankment on a rural road on which semis careen and fishermen tow their boats. It’s been in my family for over 100 years, and it definitely shows its grand old age. Every other summer, my dad replaced the roof, or some porch struts. Every summer, our grandfather told the same firecracker in the outhouse story from his childhood:

I heard two bangs. One when the firecracker ignited and one when Uncle Bergen’s head hit the roof. He chased me down the path, one hand clutching his suspenders and the other shaking in the air.

When we were at the cottage, my grandparents arrived at intervals with cousins and aunts and uncles and coolers of beer and soda. Kids ran everhwhere, as if we had not breathed, ever, this thing called fresh air. We slipped into our swimsuits and essentially remained partially clad for the duration of every day.

My kids have been to the cottage, but since it’s so far away, and only useable in the summer, they don’t get to visit as often as we’d like. We did manage to get our entire family up there for one day earlier this summer. Nostalgia being my middle name, I oohed and aahhed and repeated the threadbare stories just like Grandpa would have.

But nostalgia isn’t all bad. Here’s what I know from being at Sugar Lake.

Anticipation is agonizing, and so so sweet.
Getting ready to leave for the lake is nearly unbearable. Packing up the food, the clothes, getting the yard mowed, the kids rounded up. By the time we slammed the car doors closed, Dad would announce we had to stop for gas. Nothing was as anticlimactic as stopping for gas. Oh, but when we were finally on the way. So heady and satisfying.

Work before play
It’s the dumbest concept, but it turns out to be rather convenient and wise. When we arrived at the cottage, everyone unloads the cars, stows the groceries, made beds with fresh sheets, put out the big table on the wrap-around porch. The floors needed to be swept and firewood brought in. Nobody ran to the water until those things were done.

Everyone helps
If you cook a meal, someone else cleans up. If you aren’t swimming, you’re shucking corn, or lugging drinking water. If you’re not in the canoe, you’re setting up the sailboat, or sitting with Grandma, or putting away dishes.

Something’s always broken
This is the way of things, another difficult truth. Houses break. Boats leak. The pipes break. The septic tank backs up. Old, clapboard cottages tend to require some love, and that’s just the way it is. You got to roll with it.

You’ll eventually get your turn on the porch swing
The coveted spot at the cottage, prime real estate any time of day. Perfect for waking up with the whippoorwills and a cup of coffee. Or for resting after lunch, taking a nap before dinner, or pretending to read. After the running and working and cooking and cleaning, after the laughing and games and quiet moments on the hot rocks that line the shore, if you watch, and the swing is vacated, take your chance for a spell on the swing. Everyone gets a turn.