Between Pittsburgh and Erie, off I-79, (or as my dad calls it, the Festival of Barrels given its constantly-under-construction status), through sleepy college towns and rural one-stop villages, around a million blind corners and just at a sweating hot dip of pavement, there’s a gravel drive that runs up a small hill. The grass really is greener here, but that might be thanks to runoff from the cow pasture at the top of the hill, and the faulty septic system that passes under the front yard. Still. It’s pretty.
The Cottage has been in my family for over a hundred years, and it looks like it. A sturdy if slightly slanting first floor is wrapped by a porch, half of it screened against the sun and bugs. The other half of the porch holds the swing. The swing is prime real estate over which not a few arguments have begun. Perfect for watching the sun rise over Sugar Lake, or for a satisfying apres-lunch snooze, the swing hangs in the shade, but not so much that we can’t feel the warmth of the sun while counting sheep.
Dinners around the ever expanding table on the covered porch were simple and glorious, the yellow gingham waxed tablecloth (are you seeing a pattern here) loaded with the riotous colors of the farmer’s market: yellow corn, red tomatoes, strawberries in a shameless, vixen hue. We smacked our lips while Grandpa told, again and again, about throwing firecrackers in the outhouse while Uncle Percival Bergen was, um, in situ.
After dinner, when the fireflies blipped in the darkness, we searched the ground for nightcrawlers, perfect for early morning trawling with Dad. Sticky, muddy, sweaty, happy and tired, we tumbled into the house, for the first time all day, to a fire perfect for marshmallow toasting. Grandma sat in an fat upholstered rocker, just under the pitched stairs, sewing clothes for our Barbies or reading Agatha Christie.
Up the stairs, through a hatch in the ceiling, a smaller second story, one big gable, really, is separated by an intricately rigged system of planks and canvas, so that there are two smaller bedding areas, and just a hint of privacy. But the house is not big, nor is it insulated, nor is the ceiling up the stairs finished. So when it rains, the sound of the drops on the shingled roof splash louder, and the trees whisper in theatrical tones, and the knots of the wooden beams become faces that we recognize over time.
The Cottage is our family museum. My father’s old sketches align the walls along with his sister’s equestrian ribbons.On the mantle around the fireplace, warnings about not being rude to the barmaid hung with fishing gear and photographs. A series of wierdly large fungi ran along one portion of the mantle, marked in my grandmother’s precise handwriting. She’d have found one on the side of the house, and with a nail she would carve our names and the date into the spongy thing. Magically, our names, her script, darkened in the flesh, like a tattoo, a permanent record:
Jenny, Chuckie, and Shanny were here with Grandma on July 4, 1981.
We escaped here. For a long time, there was no phone, and so when someone got sick or if someone died, my dad could not be called home at a moment’s notice. That changed when the phone line went in. Then the mailbox. Finally, my mother insisted on a shower. A proper shower, not some cooler full of hot water bleating on to her head from the back porch, with a sheet at the mercy of the wind her only protection from the prying eyes of the cows up the hill.
I know how I sound. I know I paint a picture of summer idylls and family harmony. And that is the way with memories, especially those gauzy recollections from a mostly happy childhood. The memories drape on me like the Oklahoma heat, where my home of nearly two decades is. I won’t get back to the cottage this summer; I won’t be able to get “home.”
I am homesick.
I am homesick for the green mountains that surround the lake and for the sound of boys dragging out of bed in the dark morning hours to fish. I am homesick for lazy summer laughter and books in the shade. I am homesick for this place, and knowing I won’t be there, knowing that siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews will fight over the swing drops on me; a stone of knowledge too heavy.
They say home is where the heart is. They say home is where mama is. They have a lot to say about home. What I know is that home seems very far away.