The memories of this place are not mine alone. They are shared with many. Each summer we return, older, and hollow from the long winter. Each September we leave younger, sunkissed, and fulfilled. The magic of the cottage is something lost in time, how sunny days set by the lake with bright coloured towels resonate within our memories, replacing any negativity that may have been going on at the time.
It’s own world, we engulf ourselves in it, separating ourselves from the noise of our lives, replacing it with the sound of laughter, screen doors slamming shut, and the clink of the horse shoe pit in the distance.
It’s a photo of me, around age five or six. I’m wearing someone’s old tie-dye t-shirt that sags to my thighs, and I’m looking towards the lake with a vacant expression. The tall grass waves behind me, entangling itself with the midsummer sun, the dust from the dirt road settling around me. My feet bare, legs covered in a variety of band-aids, and dirt scraped across my chin, someone has found me at my most raw, and natural state of childhood, and as I stand amidst the lounge chairs, and potted geraniums, I can feel the sense of being home.
The next photo is of the cottage. The sun is shining on the little red and white house, several dogs sit in front of the creaky white door, stretching out in the honeysuckle. Leaning against the wooden wall, are two blonde children. The boy, who is about ten, and is wearing high waisted shorts with a grey t-shirt. In his hand is a Luke Skywalker action figure, which he is pointing gleefully at the camera. The girl, who is older, is smiling shyly, hands behind her back, hair still somewhat wet from a morning swim. In the background, the clothesline is full of rainbow beach towels, bathing suits, and dish rags. On the record player is the nearly worn out Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, and the waft of bacon is drifting through the open window. Moments later, the boy will race through the door to steal a piece. These are my siblings, and this is their time.
Another photo shows a dock full of people. Elderly ladies stand waist deep in the water, fanning themselves in the beating July heat. The lounge chairs are full of teenage girls tanning in the sun, and the edge of the dock over crowded with boys mid jump into the lake. In the distance, the ancient wooden boat can be see lugging a water skier behind it, the driver trying furiously to get them to fall into the drink. A dock full of cousins, my immediate family mixed among them. Visitors from outside the family have always remarked on how lucky we were that our extended family had a cottage right next door. How there were endless nights of laughter that echoed upon the water, causing everyone else on the lake to remark “Those Tilsons! Those Hartills and Harkness’s! What a bunch!” The dozens of people who have been in and out of ‘The Compound’ are perhaps why I can’t solely call this place my own.
The photo afterwards shows a group of young boys standing in the field behind the cottage, all wearing striped shirts and serious expressions. Several cows lazily graze behind them, and two of the boys have cowboy hats on. They’ve all claimed which cowboy they are, the youngest always being allowed the cheer “I’m Roy Rogers! I’m Roy Rogers!” As they burst out of the cottage doors immediately after breakfast, their mothers yelling at them to not go swimming for half an hour or else they’ll get a cramp. The boys wander free up here, where their imagination takes them is where they go, unless it’s for a dip in the lake (which happens at least twice a day). The boys are looking in different directions, two towards the lake, one at the cow, and the other into the woods, their eyes full of the supreme innocence that imagination gives us during our youth. These are the years of my Father.
The following photo shows a man and two women, sitting on a rock, pointing into the woods. All in their early twenties, and all siblings, which of course the large nose, brown hair, and deep crested brown eyes gave away. The man, who is tall and lean, steadfast and sturdy. The land he is looking at will be the place where he will build the little red and white cottage that I, my father, and my siblings will grow up in. His sisters, strong but fair, look at him with a beloved expression, a connection that will remain strong for generations to come. This is my Grandfather, the builder of Ernscrest, the cottage my father and siblings will grow up in.
The next photo is of an old couple, standing on the dock, the years have taken their toll on the two, but they still come back to this place each year as if they were still in their twenties. The woman, like all women in the family, is hardened with strength and independence, while the man has a dreamers look in his eye. The water is calm, the boathouse has begun its permanent lean to, and several bushels of wildflowers sprout behind them. My Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother, the builders of everything that came to be.
And the last photo is of me once again. Several years older, I am sitting on my Uncles speed boat, my cousins and I are midsong, our eyes wild, hair tangled, and life jackets that don’t fit us. But we are lost in the harmony of the moment, waiting to hit a wave and cling to the side of the boat, the spray of lake water hitting us each time. We smile at one another, stamping the permanence of our everlasting friendship.
“How lucky are you Riley?” Everyone says. “You get both sides of the family on one lake!”
I don’t know if these pictures exist. They very well could, but they don’t need to. Their material value is not what matters most. It’s the image. The memory that belongs to many. The bright sunny days beaming in the little white and red, and white and green cottages. The campfires on cool August nights. The stories that are told at crowded kitchen tables, with furious rampages of laughter. And not to mention, the pounds of bacon that are cooked on ancient stoves while Frank Sinatra croons on the CD player. The little cottage in the woods stands as a reminder of the sunnyside memories captured in my life, and is a physical retreat from the harms of the outside world. The fact that I can pick out any singular item from within the cottage, and its importance nowhere near the value of my memories. I don’t value the cottage with the materialistic notion of it being a property, but instead a haven for my most fond moments in my life.
The lake is silent as I stretch out on the dock, the water is still as glass and the setting sun hits off a thousand different beams of oranges, reds, pinks, and yellows into the sky, onto the lake, off the window panes… an echo of laughter at my side, the calling of a loon, and the tickling of warm water on my feet, I know I am home.