Monday 26 Sep 2016

The Cottage
AJ Robinson

Summer, 1889, that's when it was built. Enoch Paige, my great, great, great grandfather built it by himself that summer. So, that gives you some idea of the, ah,"quality" of workmanship that went into it. I'm not saying it was a dilapidated shack, but I must be honest, it was a very simple, little place. Walls and floors one board thick, no central heat or A/C, one tiny bathroom and a propane stove. Originally, it didn't even have a bathroom, just an outhouse! Enoch planned to put a tower on it; he even left a hole in the roof and covered it with a tarp. But, he didn't get around to it that first year. That winter, he died of pneumonia. After that, whenever the attic creaked or groaned, my grandfather would say: "Ah, there's Uncle Enoch shuffling about up in the attic, he wants his tower."

Yet, the place had charm and character. My great-great grandfather put new windows in the front of the living room. In 1913, my great grandfather planted two little saplings out front. How do I know? We have a picture of him hold his infant grandson - my dad - next to them. Grandfather put in the bathroom and built the fireplace, and my dad fixed that fireplace when it started to settle. Grandfather also put in the "passive" hot water heater: a big tank in the attic, heated by the sun. It didn't give much, but it was better than nothing.

My dad always said: "Every time we'd get back from the beach, Pop would dash upstairs and get the first shower! He was the only one who ever got any hot water."

A blackberry bush sat outside the back door. Every summer, we'd have blackberry pancakes. Yeah, I know, blueberry is best, but they were still good. When I think of grandmother and grandfather, that's the place I see them, enjoying their summers on Martha's Vineyard Island. My earliest memories of them are of visiting them in that cottage; Grandfather taking me for walks in the woods out back, visiting the neighbor's chicken coop and grandmother feeding me graham crackers and milk. I never really cared for graham crackers; I always thought they tasted a lot like dry cardboard. But, to make her happy, I ate them.

Oh, and then there was the lamp! It was a rather ugly thing actually, but I loved to hear the story about it. It looked like a big, old white clay vase that someone had converted to a lamp. Every time we visited, I'd ask grandfather to tell me the story.

"Long ago," he said in his gravelly voice, "an Arab Sheik fell from his camel and was trampled to death by a stampede of camels. In his tomb were placed all his possessions, sort of like an Egyptian Pharaoh. Among them, that vase. Centuries later, tomb robbers broke in and made off with everything. The vase passed from hand to hand, sometimes sold for gold, but more often bought with blood!"

Yeah, he had quite the flare for the dramatic. By the time he got to that part, I always had goosebumps racing up and down my arms; no matter how hot it was.

"Finally, it found its way to America, where it was made into a lamp and I bought it for the cottage."

God, I loved that story! I sat in rapt attention, images of rampaging camels and bloodthirsty thieves dancing before me.

Then, one day, after dad and I moved into the cottage, I happened to pick up the lamp and look at the bottom: wood. It was a block of wood carved into the shape of a vase and covered with plaster of Paris! It was such a disappointment. Still, it was a great prop for a story to enthrall a small boy.

Now, I said that we moved into the cottage. It was not yet dad's. Grandmother and grandfather were in their nineties. So, their Island days were pretty much over with. They moved into a rest home and dad and I took over tending the place. Along the porch ran grandmother's rose bushes. I'd always hated them when I was a kid. The thorns made it impossible for me to climb all over the porch! What eight-year-old is going to tolerate that? I made myself a promise: someday, out they would go. Yet, standing there, axe, snipers, chainsaw, garbage bags, shovel, gasoline and matches in hand, I couldn't do it. These were grandmother's rose bushes. So, I would honor her by tending them as she had.

For the next three summers, I did just that. When they were dry, I gave them water; when a branch withered, I clipped it; and when they needed food; I gave them fertilizer.

Grandfather always said, "A good dose of ashes from the fireplace is the best thing for them. You just scoop them into the old cast-iron pot, haul them out there and sprinkle them on the plants."

And yet, they would not bloom. Never so much as a single bud opened. Was I doing something wrong, or were they pining for their true keepers?

Grandmother had told me, "Rose bushes are like cats, they don't have owners, they have a staff."

As a young kid, I hadn't understood the term. To me, a staff was something Robin Hood and Little John used in their fight.

One time she asked me, "Do you know why roses have thorns?"

I thought about it for a minute. "To keep little boys away?"

She laughed. "No, they're to remind you who's boss!"

I cringed. Roses sounded real mean! What exactly was the plus side to having them around?

Grandmother also said, "Plants are also very emotional; it's important you talk to them every day."

Now that totally confused me! What on earth do you talk to a plant about?

"Soooo, Rosie, ahhh... sun's nice and bright today. How's the old photosynthesis going? Your chlorophyll is looking nice and green, how do you do it?"

Nothing, I guess my: "conversational rose bush" was lacking. So, I took to sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the porch and reading my comics to them. That didn't work either. I guess the plants didn't care for the "Fantastic Four."

Over that winter, grandmother passed away, and grandfather a few months later - of a broken heart. It was decided we would sprinkle their ashes in the Vineyard Sound. And so, that June, dad and I arrived at his cottage, with two small boxes and lovingly placed them in the front bedroom.

Their bedroom.

Once more we opened up the cottage. For some reason, it always smelled of graham crackers, but I never minded that. We turned on the water and power, set out the porch furniture, and I again tended those temperamental roses. To be honest, I was about at the end of my rope. I was beginning to think they weren't blooming just to spite me! That chainsaw and gasoline were looking mighty inviting, let me tell you. I couldn't help but think of that show "Little Shop of Horrors" and its song "Grow For Me."

So, when I was sure no one was around, I sang to the roses. As I recall, it was a number from "My Fair Lady", my dad's favorite show. And then I threatened them. "I don't see some blooms soon and you'll be compost. You'll be pushing up the daisies, in more ways than one!"

A few weeks later, it was time. The family was assembled and a boat chartered. Grandfather had said, "Junie, (he called my dad that, slang for 'Junior') I want you to go out on the steamship and have the Captain blow the horn twice, toot-toot. Then sprinkle our ashes into the Sound. Mother and I want to rest there, off the Island we love best."

We didn't see that as doable, so we went with a small boat.

That morning, we rose, dressed and had breakfast. Yeah, blackberry pancakes. As I was gathering the berries, my eyes drifted down the porch to the rose bushes. Beautiful blossoms everywhere, a veritable carpet of pink and white cascaded down the porch railing! Their scent was positively overpowering. And me, with my poor hay fever; my eyes were watery all morning.

I clipped a basket full of those blossoms and took them with us, spreading a flotilla of them out upon the water as their ashes were scattered.

Thereafter, every summer, I tended those bushes and they bloomed for me, and I didn't even have to sing to them. Maybe I just needed a few years to get it right. Or maybe, the roses had to say good-bye before accepting a new keeper, a new staff. Yeah, I know it's probably the former. But, you got to admit, like that old lamp, the latter makes a much better story.

Click here for more by AJ Robinson.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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