The cottage

Me, sitting on the steps of the cottage

“If I died and found myself at Madison, I’d know that I’d made it to heaven.”

That’s what I said in my early 20s, speaking of the spot on the Connecticut shore where I had spent my childhood summers.   My mother sent me there to stay with two great-aunts and my grandmother for a few weeks every summer from the time I was about five .  She had spent her summers there, too, so she must have wanted me to have that special experience.  The cottage had been built by my greatuncle and greataunt in 1910.  It was a true cottage, with no insulation, and no heat.  The framing was exposed on the inside, and it had a rustic stone fireplace and Arts and Crafts-style windows.  It was a regal, cedar-shingled 4 bedroom home, sitting back from the beach road, atop a slight incline, where the beach breezes swooped on up and kept the place much cooler than the waterfront cottages across the street.

It was a safe haven.  My own mother had her hands full with four young kids and my alcoholic father.  Life at home was pretty chaotic, and I never knew what each day would bring.  Would I be able to have friends over, or would Dad be drunk?  Would Dad show me how to oil paint the way he did so well, or would he slur insults from the dark corner of the living room?

But at Madison, nothing ever changed.  The “bowl-o-beauty” rose paperweight sat on the same corner of the living room table year after year.  It didn’t move.  The kitchen beams were lined with linaments and oils that had probably been ordered from the Sears catalog in the 1920s.   My aunt could be relied upon to tell the same stories every year–stories about her marriage to her beloved Edwin that always ended with a chuckle.  All her stories had happy endings.  The only story that didn’t have a happy ending was the one she never told–about her son, John, who died of pneumonia when he was three, after it had taken her nine painful years to conceive.  I only knew about John from the sepia photograph of the small boy with the bowl cut and crisp white shirt on her dressing table.


Aunt Florence, knitting.  She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

Aunt Florence, knitting. She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

The daily routine was… well, routine.  And at that time, I hated it.  I’ve grown to appreciate the luxury of rising at the same time every day, spending the better part of the morning preparing breakfast, served on a six-piece place setting of Victorian rose china.  Then performing the clean-up.   Then taking the trip “up town” to buy groceries and produce.  Then going right into lunch–a large midday meal.  Then again the clean-up.  Then, and ONLY then, did I get to meet my friends at the beach.  That routine probably saved me from skin cancer, because I never got to the beach before 2 p.m., and of the few things that frustrated me about Madison, that was #1.  


Oh, I could say so much more about Madison, but it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone who hadn’t lived it.   It sounds mundane to hear about my evening walks down to the stone pier with a book or a camera or drawing pad with which to watch the sun go down.   It’s not too thrilling to hear about the afternoons which, when they were not spent at the beach, were spent learning how to sew on Aunt Florence’s old black Singer, or stretched across my bed, reading, while raindrops pitter-patted in a magnified way because of the lack of insulation in the ceiling.  Or who would care about the delight of blueberries and cream with sugar sprinkled on top, or slices of summer-ripe cantaloupe.  Or the aroma of salt-laced timber, or enamel pans filled with Ivory Snow and Aunt Florence’s soft, silky slips.

It all seems other-wordly, but at Madison, I was not completely isolated from the world.  When I was young, I was given the privilege of watching As the World Turns with the great-aunts, although they didn’t 100% approve because of the “risque” story lines.  At 17, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–the same moon that was reflecting in the waters off the Connecticut coast right outside our door.  In 1973, the “Summer of Judgement,” Aunt Florence and I sat glued to the Watergate hearings. 

Sometimes I become obsessed with Madison.  I wish I could go back.  I suspect my memories are hopelessly romantic, and thus, perhaps skewed.   I tend to dream about it when my own life becomes chaos-infested and unsure, and I remember that safe haven and want to go back.  

Yet, I’m not sure I’d want to go back, because the Bowl-o-Beauty would no longer be there, nor the pink Victorian china.   And Aunt Florence’s presence would only be there in ghost-like form.  I’m not the same anymore, either, nor should I be.  But perhaps I can bring a little bit of Madison to my life today–a little of the routine, the simple joys, the beauty.   I can find the Aunt Florence within–calm, and orderly, and cheerful.  If I can do that, then I can create that little bit of heaven, right here, right now.