Summer magic

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No one truly grows up. Not entirely. My proof is a humble cottage on a lake in northern Door County, Wisconsin, where four generations of my family have spent every summer.

 

The cottage is tucked just beyond the edge of the lake, at the end of a long, shady gravel drive. Fragrant cedar trees surround the property. The air is alive and thick with the symphony of insect song. Just beyond the front porch, dense forest gives way to blindingly blue water, which glitters and shimmers in the sunlight.

 

I haven't been here in three years. A career in California and cruelly limited new hire vacation days have kept me from this Midwestern paradise, but this summer I finally find myself standing in the cottage’s driveway.

 

As I breathe in the fresh cedar air and feel the gravel driveway crunch beneath my feet, memories surge forth. Instantly I'm 7 years old and 17 and 27 all at once. My adult world fades as I am pulled under the spell of summer. I forget that just yesterday my life was filled with work presentations, traffic jams, utility bills. It is as if the past decade — attending and graduating from Notre Dame, and the thrilling yet terrifying move for a job thousands of miles from home — was just a dream.

 

Then my husband Dan steps out of the rental car behind me, luggage in tow, and the spell is broken. My old life collides with the new. Dan and I are newly married, and his introduction to my summer childhood home is unsettling. He is a familiar character who doesn't belong in this part of the narrative.  For everything we know about each other, this summer place is an integral piece of my story he knows nothing about.

 

Seeing him standing in the driveway, I am suddenly self-conscious about the cottage's humble quirks. Built in 1914, the quaint frame house has Norman Rockwell charm from a distance. But through a newcomer's eyes, I notice for the first time that the gray clapboard and white trim is peeling and faded. The ancient shingles are mossy. Through the precariously hinged screen door that rattles and slams behind us, we are greeted by the mildew smell of the orange and brown patterned carpet, a deeply unfortunate choice installed in the living room in the late 1970s by a color-blind uncle. I cringe as I remember the dust collecting in spider-filled closets in the guest room, along with a stack of unsavory magazines hidden decades ago by a distant relative. Outside, the concrete dock is in desperate need of repair. It sags like a limp gray hammock, cracked and crumbling from weathering winter storms. But this place is my childhood. A doubt crosses my mind that Dan won't love this part of me the way I love it.

 

I don't have time to dwell on this fear; my driveway reverie is broken by a boisterous tangle of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents running out of the cottage to greet us and officially welcome summer.

 

Time loses its grip on me as lazy hours pass into days that somehow fly by. On rainy days, we play euchre, Yahtzee, and rummy around the sticky Formica kitchen table. On sunny days, my dad pilots our little speedboat, jam-packed with cousins, streaking across the lake to explore mysterious green islands that grow thick with fragrant honeysuckle and delicate Queen Anne's lace. Dan learns to water ski, his athleticism shooting him upright in a spray of water before a glorious wipe-out, as the boatful of cousins holler and whoop their approval. We spend entire afternoons watching giant storm clouds usher in still, heavy air, hearing the slow crescendo of thunder rolling like timpani in the sky. We pick and pit pounds of tart cherries for pie as the juice runs down our arms and stings our bug bites. Each night, family members cram into bunk beds, sleeper sofas, and overflow tents outside on the dock, a reminder that we've outgrown this small space that used to fit us as children.

 

On our last night, we all lay on the crumbling dock, drinking beer under a blaze of stars so numerous that I forgot they existed beyond the murky orange glow of Los Angeles city sprawl. Looking up at the Milky Way, my uncle muses, "Summer holds a special magic here. Something happens when you step away from the distractions of life and spend time with family at this cottage. Cousins get to know each other. You get to know yourself.” He turns to me and Dan. "We got to watch your generation grow up here. Someday your children will grow up knowing the magic of this place too."

 

I sip my beer and think about that word. Magic. He's right. There is an intangible feeling that I can’t quite place my finger on. It only exists here at the cottage, where the distractions of the internet, work deadlines, and responsibilities can be left behind. I glance over at Dan, who is transfixed by the light show in the sky, and can see he feels it too. After two weeks of enduring breathtakingly icy lake showers, playing endless rounds of putt-putt golf while swatting mosquitoes, and watching every liquid gold sunset dip beneath the lake, he knows the magic. This place is now part of him the way it is part of me.

 

I fall asleep that night dreaming of cherry pie and thunderstorms.

 

The next day, we pack sweaty clothes back into suitcases. I have bug bites the size of saucers and a welt from a waterskiing tumble. Dan’s nose is badly sunburned and peeling, a true sign of his Celtic heritage. Our feet are calloused from running barefoot across the pebbled shore. It has been pure magic.

 

Relatives gather outside the cottage to wave goodbye as we navigate our rental car up the gravel drive back towards civilization. As kin and cottage fade into the forest, I am surprised and embarrassed to realize I am crying silently. I'm not ready to let this magic go.

 

I take one last look in the rearview mirror, but the cottage has surrendered back into the cedars. I close my eyes and lean back in the passenger seat, dreaming of next year. I will be different when I return. Life will change outside the summer cottage, and next year the family group that gathers here will be different too. Jobs and obligations will keep some away. Births and marriages will bring newcomers. Gradually, a new generation will take the lead as the old one becomes memory, taking their place among the generations that came before in sepia picture frames on the stone living room mantle.

 

As time pushes forward, the contrast between adulthood reality and childhood memory becomes sharper. Back at work, at my desk in a sealed glass office building in California, I drift further away from the realization that there is a place where I can still run barefoot, eat ice cream every day, and cannonball off a dock into a mossy Midwestern lake. But the magic of the summer cottage is silently and patiently waiting for me, like a delicate insect crystallized in amber. This humble place is a reminder that no one needs to grow up. Not entirely. The magic of a childhood summer at the cottage is always there, waiting to be rediscovered, waiting for me to return.

 


Victoria McQuarrie's essay received an honorable mention in this magazine's 2018 Young Alumni Essay Contest. McQuarrie is the director of business development for a retail sales and marketing agency and lives in Santa Clara, California.


 

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