(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.
Every summer of my first decade was spent with them; partly in town, but mostly at the lake. The cottage was built long before I was born. Poppy parked the car at the top of the stairs leading to the cottage. The outhouse is the first thing encountered as you walk down toward the cottage. My parents and I were living in a house in Washington D.C. Using an outhouse was a new experience. 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 kerosene stove. Water was obtained by pumping it into a large sink. If you needed hot water it was heated on the stove. The kitchen merged into a dining area where a large table sat with benches on either side. The large area beyond the table was the living area with the two bedrooms walled off on 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.
Windows made up the entire front of the room facing the lake. A wind-up phonograph built into a wooden cabinet sat between the windows and bedroom wall. I had permission to play ‘my’ records. I learned how to wind up the phonograph. Poppy pasted pictures on my records before I could read, making each easy to identify. I was very proud that I could accomplish this 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 3 babies. I would run after them as the parents encouraged them to fly. I loved watching them.
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 make it easier to enter 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 there and not be around where I was swimming. Fortunately they preferred the muck.
Between two trees on a flat area near the docks Poppy had attached a swing for me. Nearby he had installed a double-seated swing for grown-ups.
When I was 8, 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 as far as the next two cottages as long and Gommy and Poppy could see me. I liked to row there 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!
A YMCA camp was located at the far end of the lake. We often watched the boys out in long canoes practicing their unison rowing. When we visited Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene Burkholder we could hear the boys singing across the lake.
Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene (good friends of my grandparents, not related)) also had a cottage on the lake. Theirs was a BIG cottage 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 but the water was much deeper there. 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. It looked like the owl was screwing its head off watching me. I never could catch it turning its head back around. Poppy said our eyes can’t see that fast.
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 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. Then he came back, cleaned them and Gommy fixed them for breakfast. Yummy!
I have wonderful memories of the cottage for my early life until it all came to an abrupt end.