“Asleep in the Cottage”

Memoir in Southwest Review, Fall 2015.

“Notables List” in Best American Essays, 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Six people. No privacy. Board-thin walls, loose in their tongue-in-groove seams, reaching only ten feet toward the rafters, with empty, open space above. Mere dividers, more than actual walls, as though we slept in a hospital ward or an army barracks. A word, a sneeze or cough, a fart or a sigh, not to mention a sweet something between grandparents or parents . . . and then, too, the odd, disembodied sound of someone talking in his sleep or muddling through the sturm und drang of a bad dream. It all blended together, every night, all summer long at the Lake Erie cottage.

Moulton Bay, a wide five-mile unprotected arc, faced southwest, straight into the prevailing winds. This made for great sailing when the breeze was moderate, but it could be deadly in a gale. The house was surrounded by towering black walnut trees, rooted in sandy soil, but for some reason this species has a tendency to groan and crack ominously during a storm—and yet not to break or fall. We could almost measure the force of the gale by calibrating the walnut trees’ noisy muscular resistance. Our electric power, on the other hand, was forever going out, mainline wires easily ripped off their poles by near-tornadic blasts coming off the lake. When I was small, we had only twenty-five-cycle electricity, and the lights always flickered. Sixty cycle, sending juice back and forth (alternating current) so much faster through the wires, to make the lights constant, came to us only around 1960.

Stormy nights with rain pelting the roof or wind rattling the front porch hinged windows—four over four panes of glass, heavy to lift to the ceiling but a blessing on dry days that brought the outside in— were a difficult time for sleeping. The cottage’s exterior walls were just a thin membrane between us and the benign or terrifying weather outside, at best a permeable filter for the lake’s many voices. A major blow, a gale, could make the house thrum on its foundations. Thirty miles of open water, right at your front door, are not to be laughed at. The muscle memory of having slept in the cottage when it was still perched atop the dune the glaciers’ retreat deposited eleven thousand years ago never had left any of our deeper minds. Even when the house was repositioned at the back of the lot, two hundred feet from the shore, as it was after a disastrous storm in 1955 sucked the dune out from under us . . . in the dark of a howling night, the lake seemed to be gnawing at the doorstep again, ready to swallow us whole.

I would scheme to stay awake during the night time storms. It seemed the grown-up thing to do—to peer out the porch windows at the frothy sea, pounding against our seawall, the beach completely awash in foam. Moonlight made a major storm with its huge waves topped with horsetail whitecaps a high drama to watch. Under saturated cumulus clouds on dark as ink nights, lightning across the lake was even better theater, if only in nanosecond flashes. My grandmother would shepherd me back to bed, but she could not make me sleep. When the power went out, whispering adults would fiddle with kerosene lanterns, as though any child in the house could possibly be asleep with all hell breaking loose just outside the door. Against the nervous advice of a grandmother who had lost two children, the men would slip into their Wellies and wrap themselves in ponchos and mariners’ hats, chin straps snugged up tightly, then head outside on entirely unnecessary expeditions to see what was happening as the waves seethed farther and farther up the sloping beach toward the lawn where it was then an uninterrupted flat run to the house. As though they could do anything about it, armed at best with nothing but a flashlight.