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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

A cottage (cabin or camp) has a long memory. Much longer than any house. You buy the latter, and you don’t think twice about repainting a room upon moving in. Taking down a wall. Digging out the backyard. Building an addition. It’s all in the spirit of improvement and having a clear sense that you’re working with a clean slate.

But a cottage? Not. So. Fast. You pull up to your new slice of paradise with a truckful of furniture and begin to make the place your own. But over the next weeks and months, somehow, the cottage pushes back.

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We bought a place on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula several years ago. We knew from the moment that we stepped out of the car and looked out onto northern Georgian Bay, that this was the place we had been looking for.

Something about it made us immediately feel that it was ours. It had sweeping views of big, open water. Privacy. Enough acreage to breathe. Even the birds seemed to welcome us as we took our first steps down to a modest but immaculately kept A-frame. But in the weeks and months after taking possession, we grew to subtly appreciate that, while it may be “ours,” it was also still “theirs;” the previous owners who had built the place and enjoyed it for generations. As we came to know every quirk of the building and bunkie, every inch of the shoreline and every whisper of wind from the eavesdropping poplars and firs, we also came to understand that these things belonged as much to them as they did to us. A new cottage isn’t about to forget the years that came before you, simply because you’ve moved in your couch, lamps and linens.

I never wanted to sell the cottage but it’s given me some emotional release

A dog-eared map of shipwrecks around Tobermory that was hanging in the basement had seen better days. It wasn’t even in a frame. It was simply nailed to the wall. It would be easy to rip it down. But something stopped us. It continues to hang today. Edges curling; faded illustrations charming all of our visitors.

There was an old “Yours to Discover” Ontario tourism sticker from the 1980s glued to the bathroom mirror. Back in the city, we wouldn’t think twice about getting the knife and Goop-Off out to get rid of the thing. Or, more likely, getting rid of the mirror entirely. But no, that little Ontario flag remains unscraped. Waving at us every morning.

In one of the gardens, there was an odd, reflective orb resting on a concrete pillar. Almost like a crystal ball. A little bit gypsy; a little bit hippie. It was certainly not to our taste. But neither of us could bring ourselves to remove it. It would have taken mere seconds to do so. But it wasn’t simply glass. It was made of more unbreakable stuff. It was a part of things. And then, when it did break a few years later in a winter storm, we quickly found another orb, as close to the original as we could find, and put it right back on its pedestal.

The top of the steps leading from the driveway held a decorative metal thing. I was going to call it a plaque, but it would be more accurate to call it just that – a thing. One tired nail was keeping it to its post. I could have removed it in moments. Painted over the darker imprint it would leave behind. But no. We held back.

There were happy plastic flowers lining the window box on the shed up top. A tiny ceramic frog sitting atop a pole off the road marking the property line. A clay sculpture of a bird welcoming you at the front door. These things never would have been our choice, and they all would be so easy to change. But we were learning that the previous owners had poured far too much sweat and love – too much life – into the place for us to arrogantly assume we could just call it our own. They weren’t haunting the place, but they were still here.

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Do we experience things more fully in a cottage than a home? Of course not. But do we put more of an indelible stamp on those walls and grounds? Possibly. Sitting around a campfire swapping stories is far different from sitting passively around a television in the family room back home. At a cottage, every room is the family room. Every room has exploits to share. Late nights and rumbling storms. Annual family gatherings. Scraped knees and belly flops. There is history. You step onto the waterfront and you can see the splashes of generations of the swimmers and sunbathers who came before you. You step out onto the deck overlooking the humbling expanse of Georgian Bay and you aren’t alone in enjoying the view.

So, week over week, you grow more comfortable in the company of the previous owners. When you do pull out a new can of paint, it isn’t the season’s newest colour. You are careful to match what was there, and your job is only to refresh the paint and fill in the scratches that the railings and walls have earned along the way.

Updating the plumbing or the wiring is easy. Those are just the guts of the place, not the soul. And we enjoyed adding our own touches. We put up a bat box to divert the critters away from our deck and placed owls, large and small, around the property, in memory of my wife’s father. We rebuilt pathways and moved the pumphouse. Got rid of the rotting timbers. Slowly reconfigured the layout of things inside and out. Of course, we put up the sports posters and family pictures and framed articles that our home had either outgrown or never had a spot for in the first place. A cottage, especially a cottage basement, is the perfect place to repatriate these random treasures and memories, and it was a pleasure hanging each one. But it was with a sense of the continuum of the cottage, our place in its history, and the pictures that had come before.

So, every time we pull into the driveway and leave the city behind us, even these years later, we look forward to saying hello to the folks who have never left the place.

Brian Howlett lives in Toronto.

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