We have closed the summer cabin for the season. It is not an easy job; we change all the curtains so that the sun fades the older, winter ones instead of the good summer ones. We carry up all the mattresses and linens from the basement to protect them from the dampness of the lake. We sort the food and cleaning products; can vanilla stay? Will the teabags be too old to use next June? We clean the crumbs from the kitchen drawers; we spend days washing aprons, potholders, the bathroom rugs.
The chairs have been carried up from the beach, the kayaks are stowed in the basement, the bicycles hung high from the rafters. The pipes will be drained this week.
The sand toys are back in their place, waiting for next year’s children.
All this used to mean returning home, to a long way from here, back to a life that was so different than life at a beach. As a child it meant school and piano lessons, girl scout meetings, church every Sunday. It meant weekly chores and the cycle of holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, snow and cold, and then spring, when we began thinking of the beach again and planning our arrival date back here, back to the cabin where water and sand and grandparents were waiting for us.
It was not much different as an adult; for eleven (or so) months of the year we carried on and found satisfaction in our pursuits. We built our lives: family, jobs, church, interests, friends. There were heartaches and triumphs, events that crushed us, successes that made us proud. But each year we came back to walk the beach, read books in the sun, eat fresh red raspberries, watch stars fall across the Milky Way. For those few weeks each year, the sound of waves reminded us of important things: slowing down is good, life goes on (back home) without us, that when you’re old, you’ll never regret the time you spent playing cards with grandpa.
At times I’ve seen a glimpse of what this divided life might have cost me. One junior high summer, I came back after a month away to find out I was “out” of a friend group. Someone else who could be more present had taken my place. Later in life, I could not commit to teaching summer Sunday school; I would skip book clubs in August. Perhaps this ability to detach myself from my community could be perceived as unhealthy, wrong; if so, I am sorry that I offended or disappointed people over the years. But it is hard to regret too much the time spent here.
As all of us who return year after year to a beloved place know, the things we gain outweigh the losses. For one, we acquired humility from being small in the face of winds and weather. When we floundered in big waves or watched huge trees blow down on the beach, we learned how little control we humans have over the “big” things in life. A month in the wildness and beauty of nature restores perspective.
There was also the coming back again to family: to grandparents and cousins and quirky aunts and uncles. There were difficult relatives that we complained about but accepted anyway because they belonged here, along with us. We did not pick them, but we learned to love them anyway. That was a good lesson for life.
We learned a lot. We read books, played scrabble, learned the names of the fossils we collected and the names of flowers that grew on the paths. We listened to adults discuss science, politics, stories of travel.
We also became creative. In those summers before good TV reception or the Internet, my sister and I practiced duets. We painted rocks, learned guitar, drew pictures, knit scarves. Such extravagant free time is what I wish for every child.
And another gift I have recently come to appreciate: it was here that I watched my parents age. Gradually they did less, and we, the children, did more. Once young and strong, over time they grew old and frail; now they are gone.
But how lovely it was to help them, in their last years, down the steps to the beach they loved; to drive them to see sunsets. For all those years they loved us well and loved our children well, and now we are carrying on their legacy of the cabin. Now it is our turn to grow old, to welcome children, to give them the gifts of this place.
This year, as we close the cabin door for the last time, I don’t have far to go home. We are here full time, for all twelve months. One of the best features of our new home in Door County is its location only three miles from the family cabin. So though the electricity is now turned off, and there’s no heat or running water, we will likely make the five minute drive occasionally to walk the beach, hear waves, or watch storm clouds on the water.
And just like all other years when our winter life looks different than our summer one, we’ll find contentment in this life we’re building here a few miles inland. Truthfully, there will be less work now that the cabin is closed, and we’re glad of that. And anytime we’re ready in the spring, we can drive just a few miles down the road to open the doors for another summer at the beach.