“Days at the Cottage” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(Not too long ago, my mother, age 88, signed up to take a memoir class at her retirement community. I think she liked the idea of getting some of her memories written down so family members could enjoy them. That said, she’s been hesitant to share them so I’ve been working on her. After she shared this first one with me, I suggested it would be great for it to be more readily available and asked if I could post it here. I think it’s a great piece of writing and really comes to additional life with the photos added. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section. –Andy)

Days at the Cottage

by Carib Smallman

My paternal grandparents, Gommy and Poppy, owned a cottage on Barlow Lake in Michigan. Their home was about 25 miles away in Grand Rapids, where my father finished high school before attending the University of Michigan.

Fishing from the dock.

Every summer of my first decade, I lived with Gommy and Poppy, partly in town, but mostly at the lake. The cottage had been built long before I was born. Poppy parked the car at the top of the stairs leading down to the cottage. On the right, as we walked down toward the cottage, the outhouse was the first structure encountered. My parents and I were living in a modern house in Washington D.C.; using an outhouse was a new experience. Inside, Poppy had built a very low seat just my size.

Farther down the hill sat the cottage. The door opened into a small kitchen, including a wood burning stove. Water was obtained by pumping it into a large sink. When hot water was needed, Gommy heated it on the stove. The kitchen merged into a dining area where a large table sat, benches on either side. Beyond the table was the large living area, with the two bedrooms walled off along one side. The walls of the bedrooms were very thin; not at all like our house. A chamber pot hid under the bed in each room. There were no lights in the outhouse.

That’s the outhouse in the upper left of this photo.

A row of windows, facing the lake, made up the entire front of the cottage. A wind-up phonograph built into a wooden cabinet sat between the windows and bedroom wall. Poppy taught me how to wind up the phonograph, put a record on the turntable, and then carefully place the needle on the outer edge of the record. Before I could read, Poppy pasted pictures on each side of my records so I could easily identify them. Then he gave me permission to play ‘my’ records. I was very proud that I could accomplish this by myself.

A tall tree towered over the corner of the cottage. Since the cottage was built into the hillside, looking out the front window we were seeing half way up the tree trunk. Poppy had fastened a small birdhouse facing the windows. Each year a wren family settled into it. I usually arrived about the time the eggs hatched, so Gommy and I watched carefully as the mama and papa birds came and went with food for their babies. One of the most exciting days each summer was when the babies were pushed out of the nest. Most often there were three babies. I would run after them as the parents encouraged them to fly. I loved watching them.

On the dock with the cottage in the background.
A half basement with a storage area had been built under the front half of the cottage. Poppy had rigged up a way to bring water from the lake so we could shower. It was cold, but it was better than trying to bathe in the lake!

In front of the cottage, Poppy had built two docks reaching into the lake. Under the longer dock, he spread gravel, several feet to the side and all the way to the end. That made it easy to walk into the lake to swim. There was a short ladder at the end of the dock where the water was deeper, to provide another way to access the water.

The second dock was for the fishing boat. There was a ‘wire box’ beside the dock where fish that had been caught were held alive until they could be cleaned. It was very mucky below that dock. We often saw what we called ‘mudpuppies’ wiggling around down there. I hoped they would stay over there and not lurk around where I was swimming. Fortunately they preferred the muck.

Between two large trees, on a flat area near the docks, Poppy attached a swing for me. Nearby, he had installed a double-seated swing for grown-ups. I spent a lot of time on my swing. I learned I could stand up and swing by pumping my arms instead of my legs.

For my eighth birthday, Poppy bought me a boat. It was a duck-hunting boat with kapok all around the outside so it could not tip over. The oars were just my size. The boat must have been 6 to 8 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide. The main seat, with the oarlocks, was in the middle. There was a short seat in the front where one small person could sit. I was allowed to row by myself as far as the next two cottages, as long as Gommy and Poppy could see me. I liked to row where there was a batch of water lilies that I could pick. When my Mommy and Daddy were at the cottage, Daddy had a motor he put on my boat. He would take me for a ride. What fun – a really fast ride and with my Daddy!

Putting the oar in the oar lock in preparation for a water lily expedition.

At the other end of the lake, a YMCA camp was located. We often watched the boys out in long canoes practicing their unison rowing. When we visited Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene Burkholder (good friends of my grandparents, not related) we could hear the boys singing across the lake from their cottage.

Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene’s cottage was BIG, with a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was located over the garage, a separate building from the cottage. Three bunk beds sat around the edge of the room, one on each wall. A regular bathroom was on the other wall. In the middle of this large room was a ping pong table. Occasionally I stayed overnight and that is where I slept, usually with one of the Burkholder daughters and her kids. The adults slept in the cottage.

Aunt Irene had a wonderful garden with many gladioli, my favorite flower! She often picked some for us to take back to our cottage. The adults were always busy, talking and cooking, but they made time to play with me, often card games, especially ‘Touring’, a travel game. (I still have it.) Occasionally, I would swim off of their dock; the water was much deeper than off of our dock. It scared me a bit.

Poppy would take me walking through the woodsy places where there were no cottages. He taught me about the trees and we saw many ‘critters’. The owls fascinated me. If we spied one, I would walk around and around the tree as it watched me. It seemed like the owl was screwing its head off. I never could catch it turning its head back around. Poppy said our eyes can’t see that fast.

With two pet turtles.
I found many frogs, toads and turtles in our wanderings. Gommy and Poppy allowed me to keep a few toads and a turtle by the front door of the cottage. I built an area surrounded by stones, to keep the ‘critters’ in. I would have water and crumbs available for them. If we were leaving for a length of time, I would free them.

Often Poppy would get up really early and go fishing. He caught lots of bluegills and a few bigger fish – a bass occasionally and a rare trout. When he returned, he would clean the fish; then Gommy fried them for breakfast. Yummy!

As you can tell Gommy and Poppy spoiled me rotten. They left me with wonderful memories of the cottage during my early life, until it all came to an abrupt end.

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