A friend did a Facebook post on his river cabin, complete with a photo of his wood-burning kitchen stove. It catapulted me into an intense memory journey to a Michigan cottage I knew from early childhood, and I want to share it. It hasn’t existed for a long time, having been renovated into a modern behemoth by my dad for their retirement, so this is a reincarnation of its jewel-like place in my memory.
My mother had been a professional vaudeville comedienne, and the cabin in Cadillac is something she’d acquired before her marriage. It had, deep in its walls, the lovely emotional aroma of something that had been totally hers in her outlaw days when she had her own rowdy theatre friends who could come hang out with her in the woods and drink themselves silly in safety. These are my memories of its childhood, and mine.
Small, two-story, wood-shingled, not insulated, and delightfully drafty. Interior walls that could be painted were jade green and chinese red, and it had a tightly-coiled teeny corner staircase that felt as if it made at least three revolutions in getting upstairs. The cottage was always closed up for much of the year, and the aroma of must and mold became the fragrance of summer vacation for me.
The kitchen was small and magical. It was dominated by a huge cast-iron wood-fired cookstove that had more chambers than a New York apartment. Round iron circles could be pried up with a tool that looked like a mangled screwdriver, and you could stir the coals inside or add wood to rev it up. It had two ovens, a big one below and a smaller gentle one above the cooktop for keeping things warm. There was even a water tank that kept water hot to make stew or coffee happen more quickly.
Over by the door was the icebox, which worked with real ice—a huge solid block that had to be chipped with an icepick to get it to fit. I loved it when the ice-man came with his big blocks nestled in sawdust. Water came from an iron pump outside and got brought in in buckets. No running water, no faucets, and I don’t have a clear memory of how dishes got washed. I think there was a sink, but wash-water went down into a galvanized tub and got slopped on the ground outside.
I was not charmed by the outdoor two-hole privy, especially if I had to go after dark. I don’t know if there were spiders, but I was sure they were the size of dogs. I always wanted to run like hell back into the house when I was done, but I’d catch hell if I didn’t remember to dump a big scoop of lime down the hole. I do think we actually had a Sears catalog out there for paper.
Downstairs in the living room there was a big elegant Victrola, taller than I was with sleek curved sides. At first I was too small to be able to turn the crank, but I was really really proud when I finally could make it go by myself. The only record I remember vividly was an orchestra playing a Russian dance, one of those tantalizing things that starts with a majestic slow drag and keeps speeding up until everybody falls flat from exhaustion.
I slept upstairs, the room at the top of the stairs, and there was a mysterious square hole in the wall that opened into the next room to the right. Nobody could ever explain to me what it was for. It was normally closed with a board cover. Down the little hall to the other side of the cottage there was a little closet in the corner with a toilet seat in it and a chute down to the ground floor. I was told not to ask about it, and my room had a china pee-pot for emergencies.
The main bedroom was on the lake side, with a long narrow screened-porch adjoining, echoed by a twin porch on the ground floor. In the early years of my memory, there wasn’t electricity either, and I was fascinated by the process of cleaning, filling and lighting the kerosene lamps.
Eventually my father got “that look” in his eye, knocked out the wall between the living room and the screened porch, and closed it all in as a bigger room. That was the beginning of the end for that graceful little cottage, and eventually my vacation fragrance was raw lumber and drywall.
But I treasure the cottage’s childhood, and the adjacent empty wooded lots where I could forage huckleberries and wintergreen. I still get moist eyes when I see jade green and chinese red together, and it makes me hear the echo of a Russian dance that needed a crank to keep it at top speed.