In years past, we've spent our entire vacation skirting bad weather, trapped either inside the car heading for town or inside a beach house with the homeliness and warmth of an American Furniture Warehouse. Last year's house was cheap and sterile. The dishes were either plastic or that slick, lightweight ceramic that came into vogue in the '60s, the kind your food slips across like skates on a frozen pond. The floors were covered with linoleum or scratchy indoor/outdoor carpet, designed for easy cleaning and utterly averse to walking barefoot.
This year we hit the jackpot. If ours was a family with a cottage by the sea, this is the one we would choose. The Rusty Pelican, a simple square house mounted on stilts, is separated from the lazy Gulf Coast surf by a long, narrow lawn, a little strip of asphalt, a small dune dotted with coarse weeds, and a patch of flattened sand. The rough wood siding, unpainted, is stained dark gray by relentless wind and moisture. Downstairs, a hammock and swing border the grass. On the upstairs deck, four reclining lounge chairs are lined up side by side, facing the sea.
Inside, the walls are covered with nautical paraphernalia and antique signage, the furniture is plump, soft and well used, and the beds are covered with soft patchwork quilts. The floor, where it is not protected by a durable area rug, is made of pine planks smoothed with age, stained dark with deep grooves between each board, the perfect resting place for stray grains of sand. One solid sweeping a day puts the place in order.
It's easy to underestimate the impact of a house on a family. Away from home, we seek the comforts of home and some luxuries we may not enjoy on a daily basis. Thrown together for extended time with a complicated extended family, we seek solace and the possibility of privacy as well as a comfortable place to congregate. We want easy escape, a place to walk, a kitchen big enough to cook and serve a meal for 12, a deep couch with soft pillows, a table for the jigsaw puzzle, plenty of places to put our feet up, and quiet corners for sneaking away with a book.
This year, instead of piling into the car and heading to town for time with our family, we stayed at the beach and beckoned them to join us there. The weather was mild and unremarkable. By mid-morning, the deck was warm enough for lounging with a light blanket. By afternoon, it was toasty.
The kitchen, equipped with enough sturdy dinnerware and stainless steel to feed a small army, was in constant use. Oatmeal with brown sugar and dried cranberries burbled each morning for breakfast as the coffee brewed. Hundreds of slices of white bread passed through the toaster at lunchtime, making crunchy platforms for egg salad, tuna salad and pimento cheese sandwiches. Dinners were comfort foods assembled over long afternoon hours to the tune of the kitchen radio -- stuffed cabbage rolls in vinegary tomato sauce, creamy seafood chowder loaded with local shrimp and red snapper, a mountain of linguine carbonara, sticky with melted shreds of Parmesan cheese. On one fine day, we followed the progress and savored the scent of fresh-baked whole-wheat bread.
While some of us labored for hours over the jigsaw puzzle, others watched movies, walked on the beach, napped or sipped wine at the kitchen table. Our days had no structure except the longing toward meals and eventual sleep. We forgot our troubles. We celebrated our safe journey.
We overlooked our irritation at a whiny tone of voice, an annoying repetitive phrase or gesture, a gross insensitivity -- all as familiar as the daily ritual of brushing teeth though hardly as significant in the long-term scheme of things. In our home away from home, we were secure and comfortable enough to understand that the reasons we love our family and lug ourselves thousands of miles to see them each year far overshadow those minor irritants. Our warm house made us warmer and easier with one another.
The dark floorboards squeaked as we walked barefoot across them, and the rusty pelican perched on the kitchen table smiled as we came and went, together and alone in our cottage by the sea, borrowed but blessed.