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first person

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Illustration by Erick M Ramos

We are heading to a cottage. A rental. Two plus years into a pandemic, my husband and I are thankful for the four plus walls of our home, but are weary of looking at them. Possibly weary of looking at each other, too. Reading, hiking, local beers, patio tables. Just the ticket for our summer escape.

Taking along a second dog for the first time reduces the storage capacity of the car. To be fair, the car has the same amount of space. It just fills up. Quickly.

I limit myself to four books. Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Katharine Hayhoe’s Saving Us. Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians. This confirms the observation of a friend, “You don’t do fluff.” Or male authors, apparently. Even Grace Paley’s collection, the fourth book, is being read with purpose; to better understand the structure of a good short story. In the hopes of writing one.

During the day I read about immigration, climate change and residential schools; important, well-written books. But in the minutes between brushing my teeth and taking the dogs out one last time, I flip through the magazines left in a basket on the porch. Greig’s Caves, Flowerpot Island, the Cabot Head Lighthouse. Then, Cottage Life, At the Cottage, Cottage Tips.

There are modest differences in the names of the cottage magazines, but the content is similar: ads for chainsaws, articles about foundation repairs, advice for catching smallmouth bass. None of these provides a campfire I can dance around until I see a fancy recipe for s’mores and a list of suggestions vis-à-vis guests. I check the cupboard for the necessary ingredients while doing the math to figure out how long it’s been since I visited someone’s cottage. Twenty years.

Sure, there’s an upside to accepting an invitation. Coffee on a dock, kayaking among lily pads. But the downside? I spend the entire time trying to figure out the rules. Does the day begin at 6, 8 or 10 with everyone helping themselves to granola? Or, is breakfast a sit-down affair at 6, 8 or 10 with fresh blueberries folded into pancakes? Who picks the fruit? And washes the spatula? “We all pitch in.” Yeah, that works for the ones who lounge in rowboats and Muskoka chairs with fishing rods and crime novels; it serves the ones who search for that elusive spot where, if you stand on your left foot and reach your right arm high enough a phone connects to a nearby tower. The rest of us are left to work. And serve.

The cottage magazines recognize this dilemma, though the advice is inconsistent. One article recommends being clear at the outset. The arrival time, the departure time, the house rules. Another article takes a casual approach. Hosts are encouraged to refuse offers of groceries and supplies; this prevents amassing a surplus of everyday items as well as jars of unpopular, regifted jam. But this laissez-faire attitude takes a detour in the final paragraph with the derision of anyone who appears with homemade wine or fresh flowers; of anyone who did not realize they should purchase a generous gift card for gas.

Rising time, chores, gifts. As if those weren’t enough, there are projects: roofs to reshingle, decks to stain, weeds to yank out of the lake. Every cottage host spends part of their holiday “in Tjart mode”; a family catchphrase that uses my mother-in-law’s surname to describe anyone working flat-out on household tasks. Like she did. It’s not always clear how much to help and reading the non-verbal clues is exhausting; I suspect there’s a direct correlation between the frequency of “You’re here to relax!” and the expectation of assistance. Had I wanted to accomplish a lot, I have a long list of my own. At home.

But during my last cottage sleepover it was bridge that became the breaking point. The host was keen and needed a fourth. I knew how to play rummy and crazy eights. How hard could it be? Trump! Bid! Raise! Very hard and, in spite of reassurances to the contrary, bridge is taken very seriously. Always. It was after 2 a.m. when the game ended. The youngest children woke up four hours later. I stumbled to the kitchen, set the Kellogg’s fun pack of cereal on the counter before realizing the previous night’s hot chocolate had depleted the supply of milk. These kids did not care. Mine might, but they were still asleep.

Subsequent invitations to cottages have been declined. When I need a vacation, I pack up my coffee-wordle-dog-walk-write routine and reserve an Airbnb. People say I’m set in my ways, as if it’s a bad thing. But everyone has a rhythm; every cottage owner, too. By the time I crack the code, it’s time to leave. Sorry, not sorry.

A close friend takes no offence; after several summers of listening while I fumble with excuses, she simply says, “Give me a shout if you change your mind.” She smiles when I reply, “Okay,” because we both know I won’t.

Marg Heidebrecht lives in Dundas, Ont.

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