Little house, big dreams of family time

What was it that made the lakeside cottage so appealing?

The air was still and the sky clear as my husband, teenage daughter, and I launched our canoe for an evening flat-water paddle. Our older son accompanied us in his kayak. As I dipped my paddle rhythmically, I took in the expansive quiet, the watery reflections, and the gentle sloshing sounds we made. And as always, I studied with interest the lakeside cottages we passed. Each one evidenced a family's enjoyment of this small, quiet lake.

One cottage in particular drew my gaze. Situated on a grassy point, set off by several stunning birch trees, it boasted a little privacy and a lot of charm. Painted yellow, the simple old structure with its screened porch and outbuildings whispered tales of timeless summers. Every time I had paddled by this place, I'd imagined the pleasure of owning it. But this evening was different.

As we glided closer, I made out a sign on the lawn. I pulled my paddle with more vigor, curiosity building to excitement. The property was for sale! We all commented enthusiastically, and our son, who cherished the idea of having a cottage on a lake someday, memorized the realtor's phone number.

We drove out to see the place the next day. The high price gave us pause, but did not dissuade us from following up on this enticing prospect.

As soon as we arrived, hardly stopping to exchange niceties with the real estate agent, we made for the point. A brisk afternoon breeze dimpled the surface of the sapphire water, rustled the leaves of the birches, and conjured up images of sailboats. I inhaled deeply, smiling to see the kids run down to the dock.

The interior was equally charming. New, natural wood paneling stretched horizontally from a sunny kitchen with open shelves into a cozy living room that overlooked the water. A large table in one corner held a stack of puzzles, and the two side-by-side chairs suggested pleasant hours of companionship on rainy days.

Stepping out onto the porch took me back to my childhood, and it was easy to picture our family gathered there for balmy summer suppers.

Eagerly I climbed the steep stairs to see the five rustic bedrooms, which smelled nostalgically of old, dry wood. Vintage quilts on the beds and a closet full of children's life jackets in various sizes stirred my imagination.

On our way home, the conversation buzzed. Each of us shared what we loved about the place and how we imagined using it. But when we put the question of buying it to our son and daughter, to my surprise both were guarded in their enthusiasm.

"I think it would be fun," Ian said, "but I'm happy either way."

"Don't you think it's a lot of money?" Bronwyn asked.

I wasn't quite ready to admit that it might not be worth it. I kept imagining sitting on that porch with my family around me.

"It's the perfect place for grandchildren," my husband pointed out wistfully.

We mulled it over. I kept asking for our kids' input, but I was mostly listening to my own desires. Finally, Bronwyn spoke up.

"Mom," she said as I puttered around the kitchen, "I want to tell you something."

I twitched one ear.

"I think you're making more of this house than it is," she said.

I put down the sponge, crossed the room, and sat down beside her.

"What do you mean?" I prompted.

"Well, remember how excited you were to buy our Truckee house?"

I could see what she was getting at. After a few years, that dream "cabin" in the Sierra had lost its charm for me, turning into a maintenance burden instead.

"And remember how excited you were when we bought this house?" she went on. "And now it's not that special to you anymore."

That wasn't exactly true. I loved our old farmhouse and the hilly acreage around it. But apparently it wasn't enough to keep me from dreaming of owning this cottage, too.

I squirmed.

"Wouldn't the cottage be fun for you, though?" I asked. "It seems like you don't enjoy this house. You never go down to the pond or take walks on our property."

"Well, I could have fun here," she said, "if someone would do stuff with me. But everyone's always so busy."

Her words sunk like a stone into the currents of my thought. She'd been home from boarding school all summer, and while I had spent a lot of time driving her to dance classes and talking with her while multi-tasking, I'd spent precious little time just hanging out with her.

It was sad but true – her dad and I were always busy with pressing agendas, and, to a lesser extent, so was her older brother.

Then I saw what it was that appealed to me so strongly about the cottage: the state of mind it represented.

That antique yellow building embodied the attitude and way of life wherein family members would spend leisurely hours enjoying one another's company and the beauty of nature around them.

On the wings of that realization came another: We could have our "cottage" at home. We could choose to spend time together right where we were.

While I made supper, my husband and son set up the badminton set we had used only once before – for guests.

After a lively family dinner, we all went out and whacked the birdie back and forth as the sun streaked the sky pink and orange. We laughed at Ian's comical antics and lingered at the game until we couldn't see the birdie anymore.

No waves lapped the shore around the badminton court, but waves of affection turned our own home into a vacation place that evening and eroded my desire for a lakeside cottage into fine, deep-settled silt.

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