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A wise man once said, “If it has a dishwasher, it’s not a real cottage.” I’m inclined to agree, but I have a litmus test of my own: If it doesn’t have a nest of earwigs somewhere on the property, it’s not a real cottage either.
Most of my fondest cottage memories come from a yellow-sided ramshackle two-storey affair on the fringe of Goderich, Ont. It was just up the hill from Lake Huron and the whole place was blighted with an abundance of earwigs. Oh, how we loved it. The earwigs, not so much. But in the same way those accustomed to big-city living make peace with cockroaches, our family had an understanding with those copper pincers that begrudged our arrival every July.
We didn’t own the place; we were committed renters. After one “sight unseen” newspaper ad cottage disaster years earlier, my mom made a point of visiting any potential vacation rental in person. In the days before the Internet, there weren’t a whole lot of options for a renter’s peace of mind. When she went to check out our future favourite hideaway, the previous renter was just leaving. “Don’t bother,” the woman said. “It’s awful.” She cited something about a non-functioning shower and an ill-equipped kitchen.
But this didn’t deter Mom. Nor did the unkempt garden and peeling paint. She peeked into the windows to see sparse furniture and a threadbare rug, but nothing dirty or stomach-turning. She had seen “awful” and this wasn’t it. She also noted a sizable property with lots of shade and woodsy charm and a rocky path to a rockier private beach. No immediate neighbours and parking for at least two vehicles. We booked it for the following summer and many summers afterward.
To us, it was a dream. The best feature by far was the sun room on the second floor: wall-to-wall windows that opened to wall-to-wall screens, two double beds, an adjoining bunkie just off the side, plus a dappled view of the lake if you squinted over the tree line. Our first night there, none of us considered that perhaps sleeping in the equivalent of an old screened-in porch might involve some surprise six-legged guests. Each of us has our own memory of waking up to a pinch somewhere on our sunburned (or, heaven forbid, swimsuit-protected) skin and bolting out of bed. We did the shakey dance and sure enough, an earwig tumbled out to meet its fate under a flip flop.
We learned to shake everything before use – towels, lawn chairs, running shoes, clothes on the line, clothes off the line, even rolls of toilet paper. And yet, it didn’t once occur to us to look for someplace better to park our lives for two weeks every summer.
Even Earwigeddon of 97 didn’t sour us. That was the time my youngest sister looked above her bunk to see what appeared to be a knot in the wood panelling about the size of her hand – moving. Only it wasn’t a knot in the wood. It was a mass of earwigs ambling over one another, the odd one dropping onto her pillow, like something out of a horror flick. To be sure, nobody slept on the top bunk for a while after that, which was probably a good thing anyway because there were also a few loose nails coming out of the walls and ceiling. But nobody said, “Let’s find somewhere else next year” either.
There was too much to lose. A fancier, better maintained property in our price range would not have included a fire pit, a beach all to ourselves, space for our friends to pitch a tent and definitely not a second floor sun room.
Now, my sisters and I are grown up and we’ve long outgrown our favourite cottage, in number and in practicality. We need space – inside and out – more than one bathroom, an easier jaunt to the beach, a more gradual entry into the water for the kids. At least, we’ve come to believe that’s what we need.
For years, the eight of us – my parents, my grandparents, my three sisters and I – packed our bags and drove the three hours from Georgetown to Goderich to reclaim our little yellow-sided treasure, earwigs and all.
For years, we would take the steep winding path to the beach, wear old running shoes into the water to get past the rocks and huff and puff our way back up the hill for supper.
For years I would watch my father and my Opa, neither of them much for beach life, sit contentedly in the shade under the tree just outside the tiny kitchen, reading the paper to the sound of nothing but the wind in the leaves overhead.
And for years, each of us in turn would wake in the dark to do the shakey dance, a ritual we came to expect and accept as coming with the territory. For such territory, it was a measly price. Because somehow, each time we performed the ritual, we would willingly sink right back into our lumpy cottage beds, gaze out at the moon, drink in the night breeze and marvel at our blessings before falling back to sleep, eager for another day in paradise.
Robyn Weening lives in Georgetown, Ont.