Perfection in Imperfection: Cottage Life in Northern Michigan


I try not to trespass, I really do. But the nostalgia plays its game, and from atop the frozen waves of Torch Lake, I can’t help but approach the rocky shoreline.
The differences are too difficult to stare at from afar; the firepit is no longer a glorified hole in the ground, but is corralled by an elaborate fire ring that matches the renovated cottage perfectly. The cottage itself is barely recognizable — the humble wooden structure of my memory has been transformed into a home you would see on the cover of a cottage decor catalog, all nautical color schemes and cedar shingles.
I want to find the tree that we’d climb before our parents came out of the cottage after breakfast. I want to peak inside to see if the new owners had torn out the screened porch where I would sleep on windy nights just to hear the raw sounds of a mid-summer thunderstorm — to feel the rain strain through the screen onto my cheeks.
I meander through the property, knowing subconsciously that the tree had been cut and peering through the window of a cottage is grounds for having the police called. I keep my distance. Yet a big white fence has gone up where there had once been a table on the back porch, and I wondered from afar what the new owners were so adamant about keeping private.
On one side of the white fence, the neighboring stone house stands just as memory had kept it, and I remember the boy that vacationed in that big house. He was, arguably, my first summer “crush”, but we only saw each other on the off chance that our families chose to visit our cottages on the same weekends. On those fortuitous weekends, we’d spend three magical days together harassing small marine life, worrying our parents with paddleboat excursions to the “deep end” and playing with sparklers and branches we set on fire. We’d army crawl through the tall grass in the unkept lot on the opposite side of where the white fence now stands, getting poison ivy and picking wildflowers.
Yet from my vantage point on the frozen shore, I can see that despite their rigorous renovations and fence building, the old deck hasn’t yet been repainted. It’s original baby blue paint chips off into the melting snow, exposing weathered wood underneath. The storms that caused the paint to chip are still vivid in my mind — the rain and wind would sound muffled under the sound of my grandfather’s late-night Westerns, and I would lay awake in the next room over waiting futiley for one of them to succumb to the other.
The old outdoor shower — the one we never used in lieu of “showering” in the lake instead — has been taken out. I can’t see the grass yet, but I imagine that in only a few weeks, it will be perfectly manicured and landscaped to more closely resemble someone’s vision of what a cottage should be.
Yet the vision that the new owners have so viciously tried to achieve isn’t the image that I associate with cottage life. For me, a perfect cottage is more closely linked to its lack of sufficient indoor plumbing and my family’s subsequently religious use of the phrase ”if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Perfection is in the stone fire pit, far from manicured, far from catalog-worthy. Perfection is in the perpetual scent of moth balls and moldy carpet, in finding a cockroach in the upstairs bedroom, in having only three cable channels on the TV. Perfection was the last step on the dock, which was notoriously scummy and would send unsuspecting guests to their butts with one careless step. It was the shoddy fiberglass canoe we bought from the side of the road, in which we would embark on excursions to a faraway land (the undeveloped lot down the shore), my dad wearing a pirate hat, me in my bathing suit feeling like a true explorer. Perfection is found in the raw, authentic experiences of living the cottage life, of falling asleep to John Wayne and wind-whipped screen doors, and waking up to coffee and fried eggs before spending a day trying to catch minnows.
Perfection is subjective, of course, and to some, perfection means achieving an image that resembles what you might see in a lake lifestyle magazine. But, for me anyways, perfection isn’t about manicured lawns and a color scheme that is just right, fresh off a Home Depot color swatch. It’s about shortcomings, stories, the experience of dealing with your circumstances, the inherent faults of reality. It’s about imperfection.