05/16/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Cottaging

Cottage Country

As the May long weekend approaches, I've been thinking about my family's cottage. Mundane, practical thoughts (Are we going? Did the Off expire? Has anyone fixed the toilet?), but also broader thoughts. Mostly, thoughts about how conflicted I feel about the place.

Some of the best times of my life have happened at "the cottage." (There were actually two cottages -- one on Ada Lake that my parents bought when I was three years old, then another about 15 minutes away on the Moon River, which we moved to when I was 16 and which is currently having the toilet issues -- but in my mind, they pretty much meld together as "the cottage.")

As a kid, I spent whole summers up there, swimming by day and playing Ghost In the Graveyard with my friends by warm evening. In high school, I studied for my exams up at the cottage -- the rustling trees and cheerful bird calls alleviated some of the monotony of memorizing the date of the Wilmot Proviso. And I took full advantage of my new driver's license by cruising the windy Moon River Road over and over again. (I only ended up in the ditch twice.)

I got married at the cottage. Or at least very close to it. And my husband and I spent our honeymoon there during a heatwave, which we handled by making frequent trips into town to get sundaes. A couple years later, our baby son hung out on a blanket on the cottage deck, cooing happily at the canopy of leaves above him. Four years after that, our twin baby daughters did the same thing.

So, I have wonderful memories of the cottage. Absolutely. It's just that I also have other memories of the cottage. Like the time it got hit by a hurricane (trees crushed the roof and deck). Or the time someone robbed it and stole my worthless model car collection that I still happened to like a lot. Or the time I got into bed and found that an uninvited creature had left a neat pile of acorns under my pillow, which led to my spending the rest of the night half-awake, expecting him to return and mistake my head for a nest.

Uninvited creatures actually make up a good part of my problem with the cottage. On several different occasions, mosquito bites to the face have caused my eyes to swell completely, painfully shut. The first time it happened, my parents drove me to the emergency room an hour away, but I subsequently learned to just rely on Benadryl and time. Yet those dramatic puffed out eyes were nothing compared to the mundane agony of having a mosquito buzzing in my ear all night, which is a regular occurrence at the cottage (though only during the months that the weather is pleasant). I've gotten into the habit of thrusting my arm in the air, pointing to my flesh, and yelling, "Just take what you want and leave me alone!" Which is about as helpful as you'd expect.

Birds -- phoebes I think -- often made nests in or near the garage of our old cottage. That resulted in jumpy mama birds swooping down and attacking my head every time I ventured onto our lawn. The screams those blitzkriegs elicited from me were rivalled only by the ones I let out the time my next-door neighbour and I made the mistake of heading out on the water in our old runabout at dusk -- and got dive-bombed by what felt like dozens of bats. Creepiest feeling ever? I thought so. Until later that summer when my legs got head-butted and nibbled at by fish who apparently didn't appreciate my swimming near their eggs. Pretty sure I screeched then too. But I didn't scream the time I saw a bullfrog sitting casually and contentedly with a smaller frog's leg hanging out of its mouth. I was so grossed out, I lost my voice entirely.

Couple those encounters with the near heart attacks I've suffered every time a mouse has scrambled toward me while I was minding my own business on the cottage couch (Why always toward me? Why do I attract kamikaze mice?), or a stick I've been looking at in the water has started to slither and revealed itself to be a snake, and you should be getting some idea of my ambivalence about my family's second home. And those are just the live animals. I've lost track of how many dead ones I've come across: splattered frogs all over the road everytime it rains, tiny dead mice embedded in a comforter wrapped in plastic for the winter, pancaked snakes in the driveway, unblinking fish washed up on the beach, countless insect carcasses scattered inside and out. The cottage brings one closer to nature. And nature is, let's face it, pretty disgusting in a lot of ways.

And it's not like immersing ourselves in the disgustingness is free. It costs money: There's always a water tank that needs replacing, or a septic tank that needs pumping, or a deck that needs painting -- or, yes, a toilet that needs fixing. It also costs time: Driving to the Moon River takes nearly two and a half hours when the traffic and children are good. When either or -- God forbid-- both act up, we're talking hours of desperate attempts to drown out crying and yelling by cranking up Imagination Movers tunes on the iPad because we forgot to bring any music the kids like in a format that we can play on the minivan stereo.

What's the point of all this?, you might wonder.

I'm sharing my cottage experience to make you feel better about the long weekend no matter your plans. Because if you're going to a cottage, you'll be making enduring memories of special time spent with family and friends. But if you're not, you'll be saving yourself an untold amount of aggravation, revulsion, and cash. When you look at it that way, it's a win/win.

Canadian Cottage Country