I remember the exact moment when I decided that I would never go back to my family’s cottage ever, ever again.
It was August 2000. I was 16 and sick of visiting the dusty, drafty old place in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. Its incessant mothball smell was getting to me, especially because it never seemed to keep out the moths.
My grandfather was also getting to me. In my mind, he ran the place as though it were some kind of WASP boot camp, setting out the strict daily regimen that my brother, myself, and our cousins followed on our summer visits. Between six and seven a.m., we had to be out of bed and in the freezing lake for our pre-breakfast swims. Then, after choking back flavourless bowls of porridge, we played tennis (which I was and still am terrible at), swam some more, and did chores, the most onerous of which was raking the long stone driveway until its rutted surface was smooth and free of weeds—an impossible goal because we were kids not tractors.
In the afternoons, as our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had tea or cocktails, we younger ones were expected to sit silently and listen to their tedious chit-chat about politics, business, and all the other things we didn’t care about. The same was true at dinnertime. We didn’t have cable TV. We had to be in bed by 10 p.m.
That might not sound rough, but to my 16-year-old self it felt like torture. Especially because right before going up that year I had seen an A&E TV documentary about ritzy Palm Beach, Fla. It confirmed my suspicions that there were better places to spend a vacation. I was captivated by the glamorous parties and polo matches, the glistening ocean and hot weather. Even in July and August, the Laurentians can drop down to a frigid 10 degrees at night. I wanted to lay on a sunny beach under a canopy, not bundle myself in wool sweaters in the middle of summer.
I was so dazzled by the A&E show that one morning, post polar bear dip, I cheekily announced to my grandfather that someday soon I would visit Palm Beach (with what money, I can’t say). I wanted to know how it felt to swim in warm water, I said. I didn’t mean it as a direct, outright rejection of the cottage, but he took it as such. He scolded me for being rude, and said that my Floridian fantasies were at best shallow and at worst betrayed a deep and offensive ingratitude for the beauty all around me.
My dad was with us, but he didn’t step in to defend what I thought was a pretty harmless comment on my part. It was one of those moments growing up when you realize that your parents aren’t just your parents, but they are someone else’s children. And though my dad loomed large as the decider of discipline in our own home back in Mississauga, at the cottage my grandfather owned that role, point-blank period.
I always hated being rebuked by my grandfather. He had the damning, superior tone of a school headmaster. But this time, I took his words more like a challenge than a chastisement. Instead of coming back to the cottage again, I promised myself I would go anywhere else I could, explore the world, be my own person. The next summer, when I was 17, was the first time in my life that I didn’t make the trek.
I have nine first cousins and a brother, not to mention eight aunts and uncles and my parents, who all made the yearly trip to the Laurentians. As far as I know, I am the only one who ever specifically boycotted the experience. But I was an irreverent child in a family that I often joked was the last surviving from the Victorian era. My great-grandmother and her sister bought the original place in 1947 as a country escape from Westmount, Montreal, where they lived. My great-grandfather had recently returned home from the war minus a hand, and they wanted a place to relax and recover after a very stressful period. The cottage was a white, turn-of-the-century house with a wraparound verandah, sash windows, and a giant stone hearth. There was a claw-footed tub, but the water scarcely ever got hot enough for baths.
My grandfather was a teenager when he started going up there. He was naturally self-disciplined, and I imagine him loving, not loathing, the early morning ice swims, a habit started by his father, a lieutenant colonel who fought in both the First and Second World Wars. I can also imagine him as the kind of teen who sincerely enjoyed eating porridge and raking the driveway. I don’t think he ever missed a single summer until he became too frail to travel, in his mid-eighties, nearly 70 years after his family bought the property.
From what I understand, over all that time, very little changed at the cottage. As recently as the early 1990s, I can remember drawing our drinking water from an old wooden well in the forest behind the house. I had to attach a plastic pail onto a metal chain and hand-crank it into the ground. I was always afraid that spiders down the shaft would drop into the water or worse, jump out at me. Meanwhile, in the city, my friends were playing Game Boys until their eyes turned square and were drinking SunnyD out of twist-top plastic bottles.
For a long time, the most up-to-date thing about the property was the small cedar bunkhouse that my grandfather built in the 1960s. He and my grandmother had five kids, so they needed the extra room. Like the main house, it wasn’t heated. But unlike the main house, it had post-war furniture and mod, if mini, Brady Bunch-esque appliances (the stove was so small it would have understandably been confused for an Easy-Bake Oven). It was somewhat tucked into the trees, but had a big window, framing a stunning view of the lake.
While my grandfather was always authoritarian, my grandmother radiated warmth. And the little cedar cabin was where she made a point of spoiling her grandkids in defiance of all the long-standing Hague family rules. When my grandfather wasn’t around, she served Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops—oatmeal be damned. Instead of asking us to rake the driveway, she’d do crafts with us or read us books (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Charlotte’s Web). As a signal that it was a good time to come over, she would hang a red towel over the cabin’s railing. My grandfather knew, of course, and didn’t approve. But my grandmother did it anyway. She was subversive in the name of sweetness, and I loved her for that.
As a youth, I may have been the most disaffected cottage-goer in my family, but now, in my 30s, I own that little Cap’n Crunch cabin. I started going back almost by accident. For a long time, I stayed true to my plan to travel just about anywhere else. I spent time in South Africa, Europe, the Caribbean (where my mom’s family is from), and did many road trips in the U.S. I even made it to Palm Beach, which was less exciting in person than it looked in the A&E doc. Turns out, it’s hard to get invited to one of those glamorous parties unless you’re a billionaire. (The nail in the coffin was when I realized it was home to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.)
Then, when I was 25, I cycled from Toronto to Montreal as a fundraiser for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. When I arrived, in early August, the city was roasting hot, and I was staying, unhappily, in an un-air-conditioned hostel. My boyfriend had driven to meet me there and was equally stultified. I suggested that we escape the humidity by spending a few days at my family cottage. He barely knew what cottage I was talking about—even though we had been together for five years.
Not that the cottage I took him to was the same one I left. Driving up, I realized how many things in that seemingly immutable place had changed. The big old house had been given to an uncle, who had torn it down and built something new. Although the little cabin was still there and was where my grandparents were staying, they were much older and slower going, so my grandfather’s once-strict routine had relaxed considerably. As had his intergenerational boundaries. He even invited my opinion about politics and business over tea and cocktails, which was lovely for me because it made me feel like I was finally an adult. My grandmother simply smiled and said how nice it was for me to come. We reminisced about our red towel adventures.
Importantly, despite my joke that my grandparents were Victorian anachronisms, they weren’t in the least bit homophobic. They welcomed my partner as openly as they did any of my cousins’. From that year on, we started making the trek every summer.
The moment I decided I would buy the little cabin—and keep going back forever and ever—was in 2017. My grandmother had passed away by then, and my grandfather was in a retirement home, unable to come up anymore. But his words about me not appreciating the beauty all around me were bouncing around my brain. My partner and I were out canoeing. It occurred to me that I had travelled to many places, yet had scarcely seen anywhere as pretty as the Laurentians in peak summer, with its birch- and cedar-covered mountainsides gently rolling up and down between the crystal clear waters of its many, many lakes (even if you had to wear a sweater to appreciate it). I could see what my grandfather was saying—it was a shame I hadn’t appreciated sooner how special it all was. Later that year, when my uncle, who had taken over the property, said he wanted to sell the four acres with the bunkhouse on it, I made an offer immediately.
Now that I own it, I know first-hand how much work running a cottage takes, and my grandfather has my full respect for all the energy he used to put into it. My list of chores goes well beyond raking the driveway, which, I now realize, is critical to do, otherwise the ruts get so big my car can’t drive up. It also occurs to me that my grandfather’s routine, far from silly and rigid, was probably very smart. It helped things go smoothly, and got things done, and was a good way to organize a large group of people (which is never easy to do at the best of times).
I can’t say that I plan to maintain all the old traditions in the years to come. I do try to make time in the afternoons for tea. I serve it in a teapot I inherited from my grandmother, and we sip it by the large picture window overlooking the lake. But 6:30 a.m. swims are definitely out, though I do happily get up early-ish every morning when I’m there, because mornings, when the lake is perfectly calm and shrouded in a pretty mist, without any motorboat wakes to disturb it, are the best time to go into the water. And I myself now eat porridge every day for breakfast, having long outgrown Froot Loops. Though I sometimes put maple syrup on my oats, just to keep things real.
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