Construction Karma


For the last 12 months, I have been practicing one of the most glorious sentences in the English language:

“I have a cabin on a lake.”

I’ve only said it out loud about a dozen times.  Mostly I say it to myself.

Two years ago, my mother died of cancer in my DC home on a sunny April morning. I drifted into shock and sadness.  My grief reached an irrational peak the day my siblings and I sold Mom’s beloved, rambling lakeside New England retreat.

Mom had been going to the lake for vacations since she was a young girl in braids growing up in post-Depression New York.  She took the four of us kids there every summer of our long childhoods, to escape the heat and humidity of Washington, DC in August.  She moved to the lake fulltime when she retired from teaching.

Selling the place last year was the logical move; we simply couldn’t afford it.  I had barely been there in years, although I loved the region and what it meant to Mom.  It was too far for my husband and kids to travel. Too stressful crowding into her space along with her curmudgeon boyfriend. Not what anyone in my family but me wanted to do with our summers.

Why did I plunge into precipitous rage after I signed the realtor’s papers?  I couldn’t say. But the solution was clear: buy another place on the lake my mother had loved for seven decades.

My husband claimed I was crazy.  He was correct.

Despite his cellphone counsel, I drove around the lake in my rental car, looking at every red “For Sale” sign. I found a tiny decrepid wood cabin that I instantly loved. It wasn’t on the market. I managed to buy it anyway.

I spent the next year designing a new shack, finding a contractor, and rebuilding my own 500 square foot postage stamp of heaven.

Last weekend I drove a 10-foot U-Haul filled with towels, dishes, bug spray and sleeping bags to the cabin on what my three kids have always called Gram’s Lake.  In two weeks when school gets out I will do what my mother did for over 20 years: I will drive my three kids north to the cool peace and quiet of this small New England watering hole.

As we raised our children, my husband and I lived in six different places.  We have undergone four construction projects during our 20 years together.  We employed a “divide and conquer” strategy:  I wrangled the kids and he wrangled the contractors.  He was chief construction manager, lead negotiator, and final “decider” on everything from light bulbs to Sub-Zero selections.  I have been the chief beneficiary of his patience with forklift operators, architects, plumbers and electricians.

But this time I felt compelled to do everything myself. I bought this cabin to honor Mom, to maintain a connection to a beautiful corner of America, and to pass on this rustic summer tradition to my own children.

The builder was surprised.  “Don’t you want your husband to weigh in on this?” he asked a few times.

No.  With my mom buried in our family plot, I felt an inchoate desire to build this tribute alone.  Maybe I finally needed to grow up.  Along the way, as the new cabin took form, I realized I did it mostly for myself.  To create a small space just for me despite my roles as mother, wife, employee, cook, housekeeper and chauffeur.

I dealt with the bank.  I approved the design and paid all the bills.  I picked the bathroom faucets and the paint colors. I made mistakes.  I got angry when the contractor blew deadlines. I missed work, musical recitals and basketball games to travel to New England for periodic inspections and meetings.

It felt like learning to fly a plane solo.

On the surface, the cabin represents a messy pile of grief turned into a beautiful, lasting paean to my mother.  A cairn to her love of clear water, loons, minnows and sunsets.  But what would make Mom happiest is that I did this for me.

I have a cabin on a lake.  The only words that would make me happier would be to hear Mom say, “My daughter has a cabin on the lake, near me.”



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