My yearning to be on Prince Edward Island, the refuge my father's forebears found after fleeing the Highland Clearances, begins every spring when the buds start bursting into bloom. Going to the Island is a summer ritual that began when I was five years old, long before the Confederation Bridge linked PEI to the mainland.
In those days, we travelled by train and took the ferry across the Northumberland Strait. We were met by a clutch of aunts and cousins, who fed us homegrown food, showed us how to dig clams on the shore and loved us unconditionally because we were our father's children.
One of my aunts, a businesswoman who worked in Manhattan, built a cottage on the shore after she retired. "Perhaps a bungalow, dear," her concerned siblings had suggested when she first floated the idea.
She was not to be deterred and for many years she held open house at her cottage, welcoming generations of us. When I worried that my baby daughter would keep her awake at night, my aunt suggested that, "Perhaps the salt air, dear," would induce sleep.
Whenever there was tension from too many people crowded under the same roof, my aunt would turn to one of us and say: "Do you think it is time for a steadier, dear?" Even now, a tumbler of Scotch is known as a steadier.
Eventually, my aunt left her cottage to my sisters and me. After 15 amicable but complicated years, my husband and I bought out my siblings – about the time the septic system needed to be replaced – and then we expanded and modernized the place. It was not a smart financial decision, but cottages rarely are.
Now, I am obsessed with what will happen when my husband and I are too old to maintain the place or make the annual trek to PEI. Did I mention that the cottage is on an island that is essentially a sandbar and located some 1,700 kilometres from where we live?
Back in my aunt's day, she worried that erosion would wear away the bank and her cottage would tumble into the sea. "It will see you through, dear," her brother-in-law kept reassuring her, and it did. My sisters and I imported boulders from New Brunswick to bolster the shoreline and buffet surges during winter storms, so now we worry about rising sea levels swamping the shore.
That's the thing about cottages. There's always something to fret about, which is one of the reasons my long-suffering husband and I head to the Island on Victoria Day weekend to see if the place is still standing.
"Rent don't buy," is the standard advice when it comes to cottages, followed by "old not new," if you can't be dissuaded from purchasing a summer property and wading into the time-sharing, upkeep, rivalries, inheritance and capital-gains shoals on which many family relationships founder. Talk to your kids about the cottage and do it often, say the experts. Find out who wants it, who can afford to maintain it and settle it ahead of time so you can avoid leaving your kids an expensive and fractious mess.
At least once a year, usually about now, I bring up the cottage with my grown kids to suss out their interest in taking it on eventually. This year was particularly fraught. My daughter is working so hard she isn't sure she can manage more than a long weekend at the cottage this summer and my son and his wife are stretched as tautly as a tightrope because they have bought a bigger house for their growing family and have yet to sell their current one.
And yet, I persisted, pointing out, on the eve of our departure, that dealing with the cottage was as significant as discussing end-of-life issues – you need to do it early and often. My son looked up and said, "Mom, this year, I'd be happier having the death conversation."
We all laughed, but here's the lesson. I love everything about the island, even its distance from Toronto. I love the sea air, the red soil, the old family furniture, eating lobster rolls, walking the shore at low tide, connecting with relatives and friends, concerts in decommissioned churches, lupins growing in the ditches, my grandchildren's joy in splashing through the waves and collecting shells at low tide. I want them to love the cottage the way I do, but I can't force them. All I can do is invite them to come as often as they wish and try to ensure they have a good time – as my aunt did.
So, this past weekend, my husband and I made some decisions. We will keep the cottage for as long as we can. Our children know we want one or both to take it over and that we will establish a timeline for a decision. If neither wants it, we will give first refusal to our extended family before putting it on the market.
That plan established, I poured myself a steadier, raised a glass in memory of my aunt and said to my husband: "It will see us through, dear."