Several years ago, while visiting our childhood home outside of Bucyrus, Ohio, Becky and I took the extra forty minutes to hike back through the woods to see the Lakeside Cottage. If any other wanderer had happened upon that old wooden shack swaying precariously on the bank of a now-empty ice skating pond, she would have come to the conclusion that it was the long-forgotten hideout of an alcoholic vagabond. But as we pushed open the creaking front door with its “Lakeside Cottage” sign still hanging crookedly above, we saw beyond the thick dust and the naked walls lined with liquor bottles in various sizes and colors. Instead of silence, our ears were filled with the excited voices of four young girls as they swept and dusted, scrubbed and decorated.
We must have discovered the old ice-skating shack the year our dads decided to try their hands at making maple syrup back in the woods behind our house.
Since there were no boys in our family, and Chuckie Smith was responsible for the many chores of running their family’s dairy farm, our dads looked to their daughters for help in setting up the sugar camp. I don’t remember that any of us especially enjoyed stuffing our feet into plastic bags before zipping up our leaky snow boots, donning winter coats and mismatched gloves, and trudging after our dads through the damp, muddy woods, carrying the metal spigots, sap buckets and lids that they needed as they were tapping the maple trees.
Considering the fact that our mom, the disciplinarian in the McDonald family, was at home with the little girls and not close enough to swat us for having bad attitudes, I imagine that Becky and I complained quite a bit during these cold hikes, although I don’t remember that part now. What I do remember is the joy of finishing up our sugarbush chores and spending the rest of the afternoon in our own secret hideout. While the hour or so that we spent screwing sap spigots into the trees seemed to stretch out interminably, the hours spent at the Lakeside Cottage just flew!
The funny thing about the cottage is that I don’t remember actually playing there; it seems like we spent all of our time cleaning. Probably another of Bobbi’s influences! But how many hours of joy we had in gathering dried grasses into makeshift brooms, and sweeping out each dusty corner of that forgotten shack until it looked almost brand new.
A weathered gray board with “Lakeside Cottage” penciled deeply into the grain added to the look of a fancy vacation home as we hung it up above the creaky old door. But when the cabin was finally swept clean of cobwebs and dust, the four of us agreed that something was missing. We didn’t realize what exactly was missing, however, until several months later.
Spring arrived, and along with it Becky’s and my first “real job.” We proudly took over our neighbor boy’s paper route through Arrowhead Lane and down Kestetter Road hill. The paper route opened the window on a whole new world for us – from Mrs. Quisenberry, who crashed her fancy car right through her own garage door, to the old guy at the junkyard who came to the door one Saturday in his baggy gray underwear to pay his weekly newspaper bill. The junkyard was also the place where we saw our first nude calendar, quite a shock to girls of eight and ten.
But the junkyard boasted other delights, and before long, this last stop on our paper route began drawing us into its parking lot just like the big magnet that picked up the smashed cars and transported them to their final resting places. I was especially interested in this operation, and could spend the better part of a Saturday morning watching. This high-quality, free entertainment, as well as the fact that the junkyard office had a pop machine and the Cokes cost only 25 cents, made this place seem like a paradise to Becky and me.
Feeling especially rich after collecting our fees for the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum, we decided that we should invite the Smith girls to share in our bounty. It was a pretty big deal for the four of us to ride our bikes down the hill, where we splurged four quarters on a Coke for each one of us. After we finished our pops and tired of watching the big magnet transport cars to the far corners of the lot, we hopped on our bikes and began peddling back up the hill.
The slower uphill ride afforded us the opportunity to notice our surroundings, and suddenly the ditches seemed to be overflowing with beer bottles in several shades of green, brown, and blue. Such pretty little treasures for our Lakeside Cottage!
Looking back, I suppose that this doesn’t speak too well of the people in the neighborhood, but we didn’t worry about that then. Instead, we quickly filled our now-empty paper bag, and decided then and there to make this a regular Saturday activity. For the next several Saturday mornings, the girls would meet us at the end of the driveway on their bikes; we would split up into two groups, deliver the newspapers, collect the weekly fees, meet at the junkyard for a pop, and then fill our newspaper bag up with pretty bottles.
When school was out, we dragged our stash of bottles back through the woods, and once again spent hours cleaning and decorating the Lakeside Cottage. Soon, summer wildflower bouquets filled the bottles which now graced nearly every available ledge in the playhouse.
To anyone else’s eyes, our playhouse must have looked like a shack full of beer bottles and dying weeds. But through children’s eyes, the colored beer bottle vases made our cottage fit for a queen, or at least for four little princesses! And I don’t think that any one of us would trade the many happy hours we spent in the Lakeside Cottage for even one hour in a palace.
This memoir was written on 1-1-05. The Lakeside Cottage days took place sometime in the late 1970s. Rachel McDonald Yanac