Classic Royko: Farewell to a summer cottage
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Editor’s note: Mike Royko’s first wife, Carol, died suddenly in September, 1979. Mike took time off from work to grieve. When he returned, he wrote this column, published on Nov. 22, 1979.
The two of them first started spending weekends at the small, quiet Wisconsin lake almost 25 years ago. Some of her relatives let them use a tiny cottage in a wooded hollow a mile or so from the water.
He worked odd hours, so sometimes they wouldn’t get there until after midnight on a Friday. But if the mosquitoes weren’t out, they’d go to the empty beach for a moonlight swim, then sit with their backs against a tree and drink wine and talk about their future.
They were young and had little money, and they came from working-class families. So to them the cottage was a luxury, although it wasn’t any bigger than the boat garages on Lake Geneva, where the rich people played.
The cottage had a screened porch where they sat at night, him playing a guitar and her singing folk songs in a sweet, clear voice. An old man who lived alone in a cottage beyond the next clump of woods would applaud and call out requests.
One summer the young man bought an old motorboat for a couple of hundred dollars. The motor didn’t start easily. Some weekends it didn’t start at all, and she’d sit and laugh and row while he pulled the rope and swore.
But sometimes it started, and they’d ride slowly along the shoreline, looking at the houses and wondering what it would be like to have a place that was actually on the water. He’d just shake his head because even on a lake without social status, houses on the water cost a lot more than he’d ever be able to afford.
The years passed, they had kids, and after a while they didn’t go to the little cottage in the hollow as often. Something was always coming up. He worked on weekends, or they had someplace else to go. Finally the relatives sold the cottage.
Then he got lucky in his work. He made more money than he had ever dreamed they’d have. They remembered how good those weekends had been and they went looking at lakes in Wisconsin to see if they could afford something on the water.
They looked at one lake, then another. Then another. Cottages they could afford, they didn’t like. Those they liked were overpriced. Or the lake had too many taverns and not enough solitude.
So they went back to the little lake. They hadn’t been there for years. They were surprised to find that it was still quiet. That it still had no taverns and one grocery store.
And they saw a For Sale sign in front of a cedar house on the water. They parked and walked around. It was surrounded by big old trees. The land sloped gently down to the shore. On the other side of the road was nothing but woods. Beyond the woods were farms.
On the lake side, the house was all glass sliding doors. It had a large balcony. From the outside it was perfect.
A real estate salesman let them in. The interior was stunning — like something out of a homes magazine.
They knew it had to be out of their reach. But when the salesman told them the price, it was close enough to what they could afford that they had the checkbook out before they saw the second fireplace upstairs.
They hadn’t known summers could be that good. In the mornings, he’d go fishing before it was light. She’d sleep until the birds woke her. Then he’d make breakfast and they’d eat omelets on the wooden deck in the shade of the trees.
They got to know the chipmunks, the squirrels, and a woodpecker who took over their biggest tree. They got to know the grocer, an old German butcher who smoked his own bacon, the little farmer who sold them vine-ripened tomatoes and sweet corn.
They were a little selfish about it. They seldom invited friends for weekends. But they didn’t feel guilty. It was their own, quiet place.
The best part of their day was dusk. They had a west view and she loved sunsets. Whatever they were doing, they’d always stop to sit on the pier or deck and silently watch the sun go down, changing the color of the lake from blue to purple to silver and black. One evening he made up a small poem:
The sun rolls down
like a golden tear
She told him it was sad, but that she liked it.
What she didn’t like was October, even with the beautiful colors and the evenings in front of the fireplace. She was a summer person. The cold wind wasn’t her friend.
And she saw November as her enemy. Sometime in November would be the day they would take up the pier, store the boat, bring in the deck chairs, take down the hammock, pour antifreeze in the plumbing, turn down the heat, lock everything tight, and drive back to the city.
She’d always sigh as they pulled onto the road. He’d try to cheer her up by stopping at a German restaurant that had good food and a corny band, and he’d tell her how quickly the winter would pass, and how soon they’d be there again.
And the snow would finally melt. Spring would come, and one day, when they knew the ice on the lake was gone, they would be back. She’d throw open all the doors and windows and let the fresh air in. Then she’d go out and greet the chipmunks and woodpeckers. And she’d plant more flowers. Every summer, there were more and more flowers. And every summer seemed better than the last. The sunsets seemed to become more spectacular. And more precious.
This past weekend, he closed the place down for the winter. He went alone.
He worked quickly, trying not to let himself think that this particular chair had been her favorite chair, that the hammock had been her Christmas gift to him, that the lovely house on the lake had been his gift to her.
He didn’t work quickly enough. He was still there at sunset. It was a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best.
He tried, but he couldn’t watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door, and drove away without looking back.
It was the last time he would ever see that lovely place. Next spring there will be a For Sale sign in front and an impersonal real estate man will show people through.
Maybe a couple who love to quietly watch sunsets together will like it. He hopes so.
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